Sunday, 24 June 2012

Role models, greedy comics and the death of the GCSE, maybe

Get out the black bordered notepaper the GCSE is dead and standing over its still warm corpse holding a smoking gun is Education Secretary Michael Gove. When the news broke it was a scoop for the press and the most awful surprise for the Deputy PM and Lib Dem Schools Minister Sara Tether; neither of whom, it seems are on the ambitious Mr Gove’s mailing list.

The plan is to replace GCSE’s with something similar to the old O Levels with an equivalent to the CSE for ‘less able’ students. If you think this sounds like a toxic mixture of misplaced nostalgia and political opportunism, you’re probably right to do so.

It isn’t that the GCSE wasn’t ready to go and meet its maker, for years it is a qualification that has been tottering under the weight of ministerial tinkering. What isn’t at all clear is how the proposed ‘great leap backwards’ represents any kind of workable solution.

The claim is that by returning to a system where the ‘clever’ kids do exams and all the rest do woodwork or cookery will somehow usher in a return of academic rigour; it will do nothing of a sort. Exams test the retention of facts, which is a useful part of the learning process, it is not though the whole picture, understanding and organising information is also important and that’s where coursework comes into its own. What has driven rigour out of the system is the obsession with league tables that has gripped educationalists and politicians for the past quarter century.

For all its faults the GCSE did manage to combine both aspects and, if reformed sensibly, could still be the basis of a successful secondary education system. That won’t happen though because whether or not these latest reforms go ahead this isn’t about education for all; it’s about the ambition of one man.

If Michael Gove were really concerned about increasing opportunity and social mobility through education he wouldn’t be tinkering with GCSE’s or demanding that children learn to chant their times tables. He’d be working night and day to create a system of vocational education that was equal in quality and esteem to academic education and promoting the notion that education is a whole of life project not something that is over and done by the time you turn eighteen.

He isn’t interested in any of those things though; not one little bit. What he’s doing instead is making an extended pitch to the Tory grassroots that he is a potential future party leader and maybe even Prime Minister. His method of choice for doing so is to attack notions of ‘equality’ that make his audience foam at the mouth.

He and they are wrong, equality isn’t and never has been about treating everybody in the same way regardless of whether or not that it the right thing to do. It is about respecting the value and benefits brought by different abilities and experiences. When I need a drain unblocking I don’t call a philosopher; when I need my existential angst exploring I don’t send for the local carpenter, like all sensible people I want to see the right person doing the right job.

That’s probably why if you want to see real educational reform an ambitious politician like Michael Gove is very much the wrong person to call.

No laughing matter

The comedian Jimmy Carr was morally, if not legally, wrong to use a sneaky offshore fund to dodge paying his full tax bill and Prime Minister David Cameron was right to point that out.

To his credit Carr has held up his hands, admitted his mistake and shown a level of humility that is at odds with his stage persona. I do wonder though whether Citizen Dave might have made a rod for his own back by being so quick to pass comment.

Will he, you wonder, take a similarly censorious line over the tax affairs of his chums in the Chipping Norton set as he has over those of a comedian who would, probably, sooner saw off his own head than vote Conservative?

It is a question someone is bound to ask and he will probably be embarrassed by the answer.

A model but not a role model

It may be a sign of early onset fogeyism but until this week I had no idea who Kim Kardashian was.

Now thanks to an intervention by Dr Helen Wright, head teacher of an exclusive girl’s school in Wiltshire, I know that she is an icon of ‘meanness, scandal and boundary-less living’ and as such is the worst role model (ever) for young girls.

It would, of course, be so much better if young girls, and young boys too for that matter, chose more responsible role models. Perhaps a nice competent middle manager or even the head teacher of an exclusive girl’s school in Wiltshire, but that isn’t ever going to happen.

The reason young people look up to the likes of Kim Kardashian, Wayne Rooney et al is precisely because their parents and teachers get so hot under the collar over their doing so. If Dr Wright really wants to destroy La Kardashian’s power over her students by making her terminally uncool then she should embrace her and all her works.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sacrificing Coryton says everything you need to know about the Coalition’s real priorities.

The government has said that it will not apply to the EU for permission to use state funds to keep Coryton refinery open whilst administrators seek a buyer for the business. Closure could see 850 jobs lost on site with, according to an impact assessment carried out for Thurrock council the local economy taking a hit of up to £170 million.

Unions have called for ministers to go to the site and explain to workers why their jobs have been sacrificed on the altar of ‘austerity.’ Len Mc Luskey, general secretary of UNITE; the union representing workers at Coryton said the response from the government has been ‘simply not good enough.’

This week he told the BBC that Chancellor George Osborne had sanctioned an injection of £100 million into the banking system but that ‘a similar request from UNITE for state aid to tide Coryton over until a viable buyer is found to take over the oil refinery is dismissed by ministers out of hand.’ Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs also support using state funding to keep the site open whilst a buyer is sought; Bob Russell (Lib Dem) tabled a motion to that effect in the commons on Monday.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change cite overcapacity in the refining industry and declining demand for petrol as reasons for not taking action to keep the site open. A spokesman told the BBC that if the ‘government did step in to help Coryton, this would be a short term fix and it could lead to job losses at other refineries;’ he then added that this was a ‘very difficult decision and it is regrettable that people may lost their jobs.’

On Monday a hundred workers from Coryton protested against the closure in Curringham town centre, there was also a smaller demonstration outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday as David Cameron gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry. Neither event was covered more than cursorily by a media that managed to find space instead for Danny Boyle’s fatuous plans for the Olympic opening ceremony and tittle-tattle culled from the PM’s text messages to Rebekah Brooks.

The failure by this government to support the workers at Coryton refinery and their families is a shaming betrayal and a shocking reminder of their complacency and lack of vision.

Len Mc Luskey, an old school trades unionist in the best possible way, is quite correct to highlight the government’s willingness to sign off huge sums of taxpayers money to be pumped into the banks in return for promises to lend to small businesses that have been made with their fingers crosses just like all the other ones were. Meanwhile manufacturing and the industries that support it are left to wither on the vine; the ‘march of the makers’ George Osborne prattled about not so long ago has, once again, been overtaken by the stampede of the bankers to the bonus trough.

Not supporting Coryton until a buyer has been found for the site is economically short sighted, demand may be low now and there may be an excess capacity for refining; but all recessions come to an end, even this one. When it does demand will rise again, every bit of the currently excess refining capacity will be sorely needed, only thanks to a gang of cabinet ministers who have never had a job outside of politics it will no longer be there and businesses will have to have their oil pumped in from abroad. Creating a drain on the economy and a potential security hazard in one fell swoop, way to go team Oxbridge.

What really offends though is the tone used by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, things like impending unemployment are only ever described as ‘regrettable’ by people who themselves have little cause for regret. It is a word drawn straight from the lexicon of the privileged, the well connected; the people for whom a crisis is something to observe from afar with the detached interest of a scientist watching bacteria struggle for survival in a Petri dish.

For the workers at Coryton, their families and the surrounding community the closure of a major employer isn’t an abstraction; it’s a deadly threat to their livelihoods. Those who have transferable skills will leave the area in search of work, those who don’t will be trapped in lives that are smaller and less secure because politicians who have never made a really tough choice, like whether to buy food or clothes for their kids, in their whole sorry lives cling to the doctrine of ‘austerity’.

In the place of anything like a coherent vision of what sort of country Britain is going to be when the economic storm has passed we are treated to the ugly spectacle of Iain Duncan Smith seeking to change the way poverty levels are calculated to try and prove that it is all the fault of the poor for not trying hard enough. That or silly Michael Gove prattling about the need to teach children to recite poetry by heart even though we are fast approaching a time when their parents can’t afford to send them to school with shoes on their feet.

The whole governing class has lost touch with reality, not because its members are stupid, most are the product of expensive educations, but because they find it distasteful and would prefer to live in a Britain that resembles the silly pastoral fantasy dreamed up for the Olympics by the man who made Trainspotting. Anyone with an ounce of wit should feel angry at the injustice being inflicted on the workers at Coryton and elsewhere and more than a little frightened for the future.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

It’s not just England that needs to rediscover its identity Ed.

Labour leader Ed Milliband dipped his toe into the debate on Scottish independence this week, saying that voters north of the boarder shouldn’t have to choose between being British and being Scottish.

Speaking in a debate held at the Royal Festival Hall this week he said that Scottish separatism was based on a view that ‘insists that the identification with one of our nations is diminished by the identity of the country as a whole. After all they (the SNP) want to force people to choose to be Scottish or British. I say you can do both.’

He also said that the English should be more bold in asserting their identity and that for too long we have ‘been too nervous to talk about English pride, English character,’ because many people on the left saw it as being ‘connected to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease.’

There was, he said a different and more progressive form of Englishness that Labour should be celebrating, one that believes in ‘the dignity of the people, in the necessity of conserving the things we value and in the possibilities of progress.’ A progress he asserted that was only possible if the UK stays together.

I’m not sure that Alec Salmond and the SNP would agree, or that Mr Milliband is correct in thinking so for that matter. The cultural and economic ties that bind Scotland to the other three countries making up the UK will in all probability be loosened far less than some commentators would like us to believe were the Scots to choose political self determination.

As, I hope, a committed supporter of democracy all Ed Milliband really needs to do is support the right of the Scottish people to make the choice between independence and remaining in the union. Anything else leaves him open to the suspicion that he is endorsing the union solely because it means he gets to hang onto a lot of reliable (for now) Labour votes from Scots constituencies.

It is interesting though to hear the need for the English to rediscover a sense of their unique identity espoused by a man who leads an organisation with identity issues of its own.

Just who does the Labour Party represent? I mean now, in 2012, not in some sepia tones version of the past. It’s a harder question to answer than you might think.

The Tories can answer that question quite easily; they represent the people they have always represented, the people who are rich and plan to stay rich. If voters outside that charmed circle, the aspirational middle classes or ‘white van man’ choose to support the party that is seen as the icing on the political cake. The party feels no need to make more than token gestures towards recognising their concerns and often soaks both groups thanks to its economic policies.

The Labour Party on the other hand wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for the close relationship it has with its supporters. Unfortunately in recent years the party has managed that relationship with breathtaking incompetence. During the New Labour years they were happy to take money from the unions and ordinary members, but tended to treat them with thinly veiled contempt like embarrassing relatives who were best pushed to the edges of the family photograph or better still out of shot altogether.

Now they are in opposition Labour needs its grassroots members and the wider core vote of which they are representative more than it has for two decades. In order to reconnect with their concerns the party leadership will have to talk about a subject that brings them out in hives but is integral to the English character; class.

Former Labour minister Alan Milburn reported this week that social mobility hasn’t just stalled; it’s been thrown into reverse. Part of the task facing Ed Milliband if he is to regain the trust of the electorate is to find a way of making sure that bright kids from poor backgrounds can make the most of themselves without compromising educational rigour.

Equally importantly he must make sure that the kids who aren’t university bound don’t grow up with a cloud of inferiority hanging over their heads. Training for a trade has to be put on an equal footing with being educated to follow a profession, something a largely Oxbridge educated cabinet has signally failed to grasp.

Beyond that Labour has to start talking about how they will give individuals and communities a genuine say in how decisions that will have an impact on their lives are made. If he really wants to forge a new and inclusive English identity then it can only be built from the ground upwards and based on priorities decided by people living at the economic sharp end not well meaning but often remote members of the political establishment.

Traditionally Labour were the party of the workers who made the wheels of industry turn, most of those wheels may have been sold off for scrap, but the people who greased them with their labour are still there and they still need a voice. If it is serious about getting back into office and bringing about real change Labour must find a way of giving them one.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

No country for sceptics.

This week I intend to commit heresy; in fact I’m going to commit it twice. Here we go then, the Jubilee leaves me cold and I am already bored to distraction by the Olympics.

There, I fee so much better now I’ve got that off my chest. Before someone bustles up to plonk me on a handily placed Jubilee pyre and set it alight with one of those terminally kitsch Olympic torches I’d like to explain why.

Its not that I can’t see that the Olympics promise to be an impressive sporting spectacle and I want Team GB to win a chest full of medals as much as any other couch potato, I just can’t help but feel the whole event has been fatally compromised by rampant commercialism. That and the huge weight of cost and inconvenience it has heaped upon London as the host city and on British taxpayers in general.

What really sticks in my craw though is the insufferably pomposity surrounding the whole miserable farrago. There is no better example of this that the absurd circus of the torch relay, from the Carry On Up the Acropolis style antics of the lighting ceremony to the idea that having the torch visit your town is a sort of semi-mystical experience.

Whenever I see news footage of some local worthy trundling along holding their torch aloft and wearing a tacky white shell suit I can’t help looking past the cheering crowds to the boarded up shops and thinking that the torch is probably being kept alight by burning bundles of fifty pound notes. Where is the Olympic legacy for communities that are struggling to keep their heads above water whilst the politicians tip billions of pounds into the gaping maw of the games?

There will be more cheering crowds for the Jubilee this weekend, along, I suspect, with more flags and more cynical fakery. Sometimes I wonder just what people are cheering at such events, membership of a ‘theme park Britain’ that we all know doesn’t really exist perhaps?

To me it seems to be symptomatic of what you might call the ‘British delusion’, the idea that we are still a major power instead of a broke island bobbing about somewhere between Europe and the US that lost its sense of purpose along with its empire. Such feelings certainly have little to do with patriotism, at least not as I understand it anyway, which as always been as celebrating what ‘we’ can do through working together rather than telling ‘them’ how wonderful we think they are just for being there.

Both the Olympics and the Jubilee seem, to me, to have more than a hint of ‘bread and circuses’ about them. We can put together a thousand strong flotilla of boats to chug along the Thames for the Jubilee, but nobody either in business of politics has been able over the past thirty to prevent our manufacturing base from crumbling into dust. Which is the better sign of a country with a future, being able to put on a show for an afternoon of having a plan to create long term prosperity through making things the rest of the world wants to buy?

The saddest thing is that we the British public are willingly complicit in having a huge trick played on us by the political establishment. We seem to like the royals because, rather than despite, of the fact that they live in a fifties time-warp, this somehow appeals to our innate conservatism and sentimentality. Try as we might republicans, and I have been one since childhood, can’t get more than a cursory hearing, maybe because we tend to speak about the monarchy in terms of resentment at their privilege rather than talking about the opportunities offered by a more open and equal society.

The Olympics have provided a good smoke screen for politicians who have refused to face up to long standing problems. Turning the athlete’s village into affordable housing is to solving a national housing shortage what a single raindrop is to putting out a bush fire. The legacy of better health and more social cohesion supposedly created by increased participation in sports will by cancelled out by cash strapped councils across the country having to close sports centres and sack coaches to meet centrally imposed targets for spending cuts.

One day soon the bunting will have to some down, the bread will go stale and the circus will move on to somewhere else. The problems of our unequal and increasingly fractious society will still be there. All that will have changed is that we have less money with which to address them thanks to the hubris of our leaders. What will we do then, look for another expensive distraction, anyone for another bid to host the World Cup?