Sunday, June 28, 2009

Layer 173 Transforming Education, Facing Facts, and New Labour's Disastrous Policies.

I'm struggling to keep up with what's been happening in the whacky world of education, what with announcements from the Tories about scrapping KS2 SATs so that Primary children can start enjoying school again, New Labour announcing they're scrapping the national literacy strategy, and everybody seeming to agree that education should be handed back to the professionals to ensure that children receive a relevant and appropriate education. Surely 2009 is becoming the glad new dawn we've been hoping for?

Last week Jenni Russell published an excellent article pointing out how and why more and more children are being forced into private tutoring and coaching for tests, which is creating ever greater inequality – at least in terms of test results. The only way to deal with this is through getting away from the idea that tests tell us anything other than how well children cope with tests. In my view, what's needed are proper systems for assessing and tracking pupil progress through appropriate sets of learning targets. Good schools already do this, whilst recognising that children are all different and progress at different rates.

See Jenni's column at .

Out of nursery, into the rat race.

“Private tuition distorts exam results, disadvantages poorer families and obscures the real problems in our schools.

It's the naked competitiveness and target obsession of our education system that has pushed people into tutoring in such large numbers.

Now that pupils are being graded from the age of five, children who might have been allowed to develop at their own pace in the past are being told they're falling behind, and because they're being made to panic by anxious teachers, parents feel they have to respond too.

Parents believe that teachers are trying their best, but fear that staff are worn out and over-burdened by the ceaseless flow of bureaucracy and government initiatives.

First, the prevalence of tutoring means that the government's league tables tell parents very little about the teaching at a school. High scores indicate only one thing with certainty; that this school has a parent body who will give their children whatever support they need to do well in their exams. It isn't an assurance that the school itself will deliver those results.

Secondly, it means that poorer or less knowledgeable parents will fall behind in the competition, because they are unable to afford to do the same thing, or are unaware that it is an option. A fifth of parents from professional backgrounds have had their children tutored, while 5% of working-class parents have done the same. And thirdly, it successfully prevents a national discussion about real failings in the education system, because they are not being publicly recognised.

The question of what's been bought, what's fair, and what deserves reward is at the heart of our anguished debate about our education system. On the one hand, skills and education are undoubtedly good for the individual and for the country. On the other, they are also chips in an increasingly intense competition. Many parents are in a constant and uneasy debate with themselves and one another about the advantages they are buying or forgoing. Parents who condemn private education as securing privilege may think nothing of moving house, tutoring in five subjects, and doing their children's coursework for them.

Tiny differences in exam results can determine lives. When others start raising the stakes by engaging tutors then everyone else feels intense pressure to follow suit.

Schools happily collude in it, because it gets them what they want; better grades without the effort of it.

Only a fundamental reform to the system - less cramming, smaller classes, an education based on less testing and more on learning to think - is going to make any difference to this trend. If I had to make another forecast, it would be this - in five years, the proportion of tutored children is going to be sharply up again.”


Please read the whole article, and then ask yourself how you feel about having it followed on the Guardian website by three advertisements for personal tutors. You certainly can't fault the Guardian for its business acumen, at least. The ads people obviously believed that Jenni's piece, by drawing attention to private tutors, might add a few more runners to the educational rat race, as do the advertisers themselves, of course.

I guess egalitarians are just voices in the wilderness. Very few Brits, at least, seem to give a damn about social justice or the long-term destructive effects on our children (and teachers) of so-called 'driving up standards'. Nobody wants to consider the fact that time spent on cramming for tests is time lost on developing creativity, imagination and a love of learning for its own sake. Our children are forcefully prevented from following their own learning agendas and discovering the things that matter to them as individuals. Imagine how we'd feel if someone did that to us? There's no stopping this juggernaut, though, is there?

I guess the thing we need to turn our attention to is what more we can do to provide good things and more opportunities for the children whose parents can't afford to, or choose not to, employ personal tutors. I'm now more certain than ever that every school ought to resource an extra hour or two at the end of the day for all the children who wish to to come together in rooms, libraries, etc, equipped with books and with wireless laptops on which they can enthusiastically follow up their own interests with the support of trained adults (possibly volunteer or paid teachers, and paid learning assistants).

'Catch-up' maths and literacy could also be individually and sensitively taught where there is agreement with the child (and his/her parents). During those sessions the children, even at Primary level, can have a lot of fun learning how to edit digital photos and video, how to create slide shows and Powerpoints, how to carry out more efficient web searches, how to copy and paste text from websites, etc, etc.

What parents can do, of course, is to encourage their children to read regularly – the best picture books and literature available. They need to read to their children very regularly from an early age. They need to encourage their children to write regularly, and for their own enjoyment. They also need to act as scribes for children who have things to say (which is all of them) but can't be bothered to struggle with composition. Use digital voice recorders whenever possible. This also implies that parents should talk and discuss everything under the sun with their children, letting them realise that they have individual voices, and thoughts and opinions worth listening to.


On Friday Jenni had another excellent column in the Guardian:

On education, Labour failed our children.

The government has finally acknowledged that its centralised control of schools doesn't work – but for many, it's too late.

There comes a point, it seems, when even the most obstinately blinkered of ministers and departments can no longer avoid the facts. One by one the totems of Labour's disastrous education policies are being dismantled.

Today's Guardian reports that the government is to abandon its national strategies for schools when it announces its white paper on education next week. That means that the much-loathed literacy and numeracy hours in primaries, with their rigid, minute-by-minute dictation of how every teacher must structure and deliver their lesson, will stop being compulsory from 2011. Instead schools will be able to make their own choices about what their children need and how they should teach.

This, coming from a department whose controlling and centralising instincts would have been applauded in a Soviet state, is truly revolutionary. It is a (very) belated recognition that treating children and classrooms as if they were car parts and assembly lines is a strategy that simply doesn't produce skilled, or educated, or motivated pupils.

The strategies don't work at any level other than the most superficial.

Teachers feel helpless when they are in front of classes that aren't grasping the points at the speed the national timetable lays down. There is no flexibility. The national plan compels a teacher to move on, no matter how many children are being left behind. Frantic booster classes at ages seven and 11 teach children the short-term tricks they must know to get them through Sats tests.

Even those who can keep up find the lessons stultifying. Some years ago English teachers in secondaries started reporting that 11-year-old children were arriving saying they hated the subject.

Should we be pleased that the government has finally recognised this truth?
I don't think so. I think the appropriate reaction is fury about the wasted years.


Oxzen posted this response:

Good article, Jenni, and I agree with your conclusion - “the appropriate reaction is fury about the wasted years”.

Throughout these years you've been a very consistent voice criticising the government for the policies which they've now belatedly abandoned - although, as Onthespot points out, the national literacy and numeracy strategies were never compulsory, even though most schools and most LAs acted as though they were.

I think it's also fair to point out that the national numeracy strategy was never considered, by most Primary teachers, as particularly bad or inappropriate. It's the English strategy that was a total disaster. Its methodology was never researched or trialled to any significant degree, and never proven superior to the successful approaches researched and promoted by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, amongst other places, as well as respected educationalists like Prof Harold Rosen.

Ofsted's own research (“Yes He Can - Schools Where Boys Write Well”) produced a set of conclusions and recommendations that are totally at odds with the NLS approach. You can read them on Page 9 of the downloadable PDF: . I would strongly recommend schools that now wish to reconsider their adherence to the literacy strategy (as all schools should) to start with this document as a focus for their discussions. And don't wait till 2011, for the sake of the pupils.

More than ever we need young people who read widely for pleasure and information, who write capably and enthusiastically for a variety of purposes, including their own self-expression, who love learning for its own sake, who have a thirst for knowledge, who have a well-developed imagination and an ability to work creatively, and who have a well-developed set of life skills and thinking skills whose development has been enhanced and promoted by the study and sharing of great literature.

All of these outcomes of real education have been retarded and often negated by the arrogance and stupidity of politicians of all parties, plus their Whitehall & LA flunkeys, who have willfully and uncritically been flogging the culture of didacticism, target-setting, endless testing, league tables and punitive inspections these many years. Schools must now band together to develop their own best practices, to offer real education, and resolve never to forget the fury they felt for this regime and all that it did to pupils, teachers and schools. Never, ever, let it happen again.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Layer 172 Young & McGuinn, Working for the Teachers, Working for the Government.

Neil Young is a monster. A great, lurching, raucous bear of a man. Headlining at Glastonbury this evening he ended his set with an amazing version of 'A Day In The Life'. Where the hell did that come from? He made this Beatles classic - this Sergeant Pepper climax - rock and roll in a way the four moptops would never have dreamed of. He blasted and crashed his way through it, ending in a cacophony of noise, with the strings of his black Gibson totally busted and broken. That's something I've never seen. I've seen guitars that were beaten up, smashed and dead, but this was something quite different. A guitar that was still intact, only with all its strings snapped and zapped.

Having watched Neil's power and emotion and originality it was almost impossible to deal with the rest of the TV coverage of today's acts at Glastonbury – a horrible bunch of derivative prats wailing and whining their way through their 'original' compositions – every single tune instantly forgettable, as were the performances.

Bruce Springsteen is the headline act tomorrow, and the press seems full of condescending articles proclaiming that Bruce is suddenly, somehow, COOL! In his 60th year the tossers who inhabit Planet Rock these days have seemingly latched on to the fact that The Boss really is the boss. How has that happened? Where was the crack that allowed reality to creep into the consciousness of these lickspittles, these cringe-making creeps? As if Bruce gives a toss what they think anyway.

Oh dear. Oh dear. A bunch of schoolkids called The White Lies just tried to perform 'Dancing In The Dark'. Not cool at all. Fine maybe for their local youth club, but surely not the nation's premier music festival, on national TV. Oh dearie me. They just did a song called Death.


Interestingly, Roger McGuinn had name-checked the Beatles several times during his set at the Cadogan Hall, just off Sloane Square, earlier in the evening. He did a retrospective of his musical life and times, playing and singing solo, using an acoustic 7-string Martin and a beautiful electric 12-string Rickenbacker. He acknowledged the influence of the Beatles in his arrangement of Dylan's Mr Tambourine Man for The Byrds – their first monster hit. He kept referring to the 'Beatles Beat' in all his early songs and arrangements of folk tunes. Dylan gave him the lyrics for 'Ballad of Easy Rider', knowing McGuinn would Beatle them for the film. He ended his set with a magnificent version of Eight Miles High. Excellent.


Prior to the concert I'd had to drag my old friend J out of the panini bar where he'd taken refuge from the Sloanes. Initially he refused to budge, claiming he was too tired to go back out into the heat of the evening and the weirdness of the streets. However, after I'd made it clear there was no way I was staying in a soulless bloody sandwich bar when I was desperate for a pint of decent ale he decided to tag along to the pub we managed to stumbled upon a few streets away where we had portions of chicken cassoulet - a two for a tenner deal. The beer was excellent.

Chelsea is bonkers. Straight out of the tube, which had transported me from the real world to the Emerald City via the circle line/whirlwind, I came across a huge black Jag limo driven by a gorgeous chauffeuse wearing black gloves and a miniskirt. Not too many of those in the East End . . .

J, meanwhile, on the other side of the square, outside the Peter Jones department store, had been practically knocked off the pavement by several flunkeys carrying rolls of fabric from the store out to parked limos in which rich old biddies were sitting, waiting to examine the wares.

By the way, according to J, who's of the faith, it's impossible for Jewish people to catch swine flu, since it's not Kosher. On the other hand, gefilte fish flu is apparently causing havoc, and as for the chicken noodle flu epidemic . . .


Martin Shaw was on Desert Island Discs this morning. His choice of music was complete pants, but this is what he said about his education:

“I loathed school. I had the impression I was working for the teachers – not for myself. There were only two enlightened teachers. The rest were idiots, and why would I work for them?”

As I said in Layer 171, we need to “agree on how children should get access to the best and most relevant curriculum, and how they should learn.”

  • Why are so many teachers 'idiots' – whatever that might mean?
  • Is it right that children should feel they're not doing things for their own benefit, only for the teacher, the school, the LA, the government, etc?
  • Why do so many children loathe school?
  • How much ability and talent is under-developed and wasted because children aren't allowed to travel their own pathways, on their own learning journeys?

It's a complete outrage that children have been badgered and bored by teachers in the name of 'driving up standards', and certainly have not been working and learning for themselves. In a word, they've been USED. And abused.


Martin Shaw also spoke about “Yearning for something outside the physical”.

It's also a matter of needing, not just yearning. Does anyone seriously doubt that humans need to connect with the metaphysical and the spiritual?

If we agree on this need to connect,

  • How can we go about it?
  • Does it need to involve “God”?
  • How do we equip people, through education to begin their quest for the metaphysical, and become better able to engage with it?
  • Do schools even attempt to do so, beyond tokenistic RE lessons and ritualistic assemblies?
  • How many children leave school without even knowing the terms 'metaphysical' and 'spiritual', let alone understand what they might mean?


Martin Shaw again -

“The great philosophers and teachers have said, Know Thyself.”

Our schools don't, by and large, give a damn about enabling children to know themselves. Where does it say in the national curriculum that children should know themselves? And so they don't get any opportunity or encouragement to look within, to meditate, to reflect, to perceive themselves through their own eyes, as well as the eyes of others. How can they be expected to understand themselves without time, opportunity or encouragement?


From today's Guardian:

Labour to junk Tony Blair's flagship school reform

Headteachers to get more powers as era of centralised control ends.

The government is to abandon the most significant education reform of the New Labour era in order to end the centralised control of schools and grant headteachers more powers, the Guardian has learned.

In a totemic break from the Blair years, next week's education white paper will signal the end of Labour's national strategies for schools, which includes oversight of the literacy and numeracy hours in primaries. The changes will strip away centralised prescription of teaching methods and dramatically cut the use of private consultants currently employed to improve schools.

They will give schools more freedom and establish new networks of school-to-school support to help drive up standards in what will be described as a "new era of localism".

Ed Balls, the schools secretary, has masterminded the plan, which could save the government up to £100m a year on its contract with the private company Capita, which delivers the national strategies. It forms part of an efficiency drive to slim down government bureaucracy.

So there we have it. This isn't for the benefit of the children. This is to save money. What a bunch of shits. They will never, ever, admit that the national literacy strategy has been a total waste of money, time and effort. Worse than that, it's fucked up decades of hard work trying to help teachers appreciate what subtle and sensitive practices are required in order to help all children become fully literate and absolutely passionate about reading and writing.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Layer 171 Education: A Whole Lot To Answer For.

Thinking about last week's publication of the Nuffield Review (Layer 169), and about the state of our schools, I came across a piece I wrote just over a year ago, and I'm putting it in here as an addendum to the thoughts on Nuffield.


"He had it in charge from high authority to bring about the great public office Millennium, when Commissioners should reign upon earth".
Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Chapter 2.

In the final analysis, education is incredibly important and has a lot to answer for. Because it’s not only the fact of having a decent education system that makes our country or our planet, or anyone else’s country, what it is, or can be, or whatever it aspires to be - it’s also the type of education we provide that matters, and how it impacts on children and therefore on future generations of adults, and therefore on our society. It’s not only a matter of investing adequately in education, it’s a matter of investing effectively and ensuring that there is a proper consensus about what you’re expecting to gain from the investment.

It’s not just about the quantity and quality of education. Because how do we define quality? Is your definition the same as mine? Quality is about what’s taught in schools, and how it’s taught. We can have lots of good schools teaching mainly the wrong things to a very high standard. We could have those same schools trying to teach the right things but doing it very badly indeed. In the past 50 years we’ve had both of these in Britain. In my view many schools continue to teach the wrong things, and few of the right things, and also do it very badly. A great many of these schools pride themselves on very good inspection reports and an elevated position in so-called league tables.

It seems obvious that what we need are lots of very good schools teaching the right things in the right way to a very high standard. The problem is we can’t seem to agree on what the right things are, or how to teach them. Or rather, putting it the other way round and seeing it from the pupils’ perspective, agree on how children should get access to the best and most relevant curriculum, and how they should learn.

Now surely we’re intelligent people and we can agree on these things, at least 90% of the time? Sadly, it seems not, and things are getting worse - may have to get worse - before they get better.


In the time of Dickens the world of state education seemed very simple. “Teach these boys and girls facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Nothing else will ever be of service to them”.[1] So said the headmaster, Thomas Gradgrind. On this there seemed to be consensus. The teacher, the government inspector, and the nation seemed to agree.

In due course this utilitarian view of education was challenged, not least by Charles Dickens, and exposed as vile and against the interests of all of those who aspire to the development of higher aspects of children and adults - the intellect, the spirit and the soul.

But in the late 20th Century and early 21st century England and Wales, almost uniquely in Europe, and unlike the rest of the much smarter nations who were making tracks elsewhere, our nation returned in its wisdom to the utilitarian view. “Give these children A stars, 5 GCSEs, Level 4 by the age of 11 - or they won’t be ready to enter the job market.” Over several frustrating years I have heard literally dozens of teachers and headteachers, and scores of ignorant politicians and bureaucrats, express this view, and show themselves unable to imagine what else might comprise a decent education, what other aims we might have, and what other skills and attitudes might be required in the 21st Century, in order for people to be able to cope with life’s challenges and live lives to the full. I heard those poor, timid, brainwashed voices parroting useless ideas about equipping children (even Primary children) for the jobs market.

To anyone who cares about children and how they experience their schools and their lives, this is an appalling state of affairs. Unicef has condemned our country for producing a generation of unhappy, deprived and exploited children, and books like Toxic Childhood[2] provide details of what’s going wrong in the way we nurture and educate our children. And still the utilitarians cling to their mantras that ‘standards’ (meaning test and exam scores) have to be ‘driven up’ (meaning more and more children have to be cajoled, threatened, or somehow motivated to subscribe to the notion that cramming and memorising for tests, usually to the exclusion of more worthwhile activities, is necessary and desirable and crucial for their success in life). It goes without saying that teachers, heads of schools and school governors must also be cajoled, threatened and motivated to accept this pathetic, harsh and impoverished view of what education is for and how it should be carried out.

These people cling to their certainties that a harsh regime of testing, inspecting and naming and shaming in league tables is making us a better country and better at giving our children what they need. The politicians are even shameless enough to claim that they say the toxic things they say in the name of deprived children living in our most challenging inner-city areas. Well how else are these poor little buggers going to get jobs? Surely they need a fistful of exam passes, even if they’ve been given nothing else? What else could they possibly need? What else could education be for? What else would enable them to ‘escape’ from the council estates and their childhood communities and their families and move into starter homes in the suburbs?

A Learning Revolution

A very important event took place in the middle of the 1960s that caused a great many teachers and parents to begin to question the utilitarian view of children and learning. A committee of enquiry under the chairmanship of Lady Plowden was set up to report to government on what was happening in the world of Primary education, and make recommendations to government on what the system needed to do to improve our Primary schools. Their recommendations had, in some places, far-reaching and radical effects on how the business of education was carried on in Primary schools, since individual children were put at the heart of our approach to learning, and learning was made to serve their individual needs, rather than the needs of a national or international system that demanded that workers had specific skills and knowledge in order for our nation (which was deemed to be homogenous) to be ‘competitive’ and prosperous.

Whilst it might sound like a proper and decent way of conducting education, putting children’s broad developmental needs at the heart of what we do in schools has come to be discarded in a politically-motivated rush to ‘drive up standards’ by forcing teachers and children to do more and more of the things that can be easily measured and less and less of the things that enable them to be confident, motivated and creative life-long learners with high levels of intelligence - intellectual, spiritual, social, emotional and physical/instinctual.

We now have a desperate need for a new learning revolution. In my view, and that of many of our serious thinkers about education, we need to follow the lead of high-achieving countries such as Finland and Canada, where they have never seen any need for a draconian system of inspections, annual summative tests and league tables. We need to follow the lead of China, which had retrained its teachers in line with the methodology which is very well summed up in a book called The New Learning Revolution[3]. For the sake of all our children we need to make education fit their real needs and prepare them properly, effectively, for all their futures[4].

[1] Charles Dickens. Hard Times. 1854 Page 1, Chapter 1.

[2] Toxic Childhood - How the Modern World is Damaging our Children and What We Can Do About It.

Sue Palmer 2006

[3] The New Learning Revolution. Gordon Dryden and Dr Jeannette Vos. 2005.

[4] See also All Our Futures. DfES 1999. National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education Web address:

Layer 170 Will Scott, Jan Bell, Fred McDowell, the Joy of Live Music, and the Horror of Mandy, the Dark Lord.

It's after midnight and there's a group of baseball caps and some girls in high heels on the pavement under the big willow tree next to the pond. They're not bothering anybody, and the green canopy shelters them from the light summer rain. The 'village' store is still busy: plenty of people with the midnight munchies and a need for alcohol.

The street seems even busier than it was in the humid heat of the afternoon: streams of cars in both directions; girls on bikes going who knows where; paramedics in screeching mini-ambulances; night buses roaring and rumbling to distant termini.

The Turkish supermarkets and kebab shops never close: 24 hour living somehow just happened along this strip. Since the local night club/murder club closed a couple of years ago – licence revoked – the street has been reclaimed by the local people. I stroll home after an evening of fine music at Biddle Bros.

“This song's about feeling guilty, and contrition . . . ” You feel right away that Will Scott is not a run-of-the-mill performer. Catch him performing Stain Lifter at . He tells me this is his first time out of North America. He's performed in Mexico and Canada, as well as his native USA, but has never been to Europe. Tonight's his very first gig this side of the pond.

Will's a really nice guy, and a very good blues singer - “ a voice as thick as blood”. Excellent guitar player too – he even plays bottleneck really well.

I tell him I think his website is very good, and ask him when he first got into the blues. “It just happened.” He's from a musical family – people who didn't do anything real well, except play music. Who was his biggest musical influence? Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Junior Kimbrough.

Fred plays bottleneck at :

Spotify have a load of stuff by Fred McD.

Will's girlfriend, Jan Bell, who's originally from Barnsley, tells me she left this country in disgust after the defeat of the miners in the '80's, and settled in Brooklyn. Quite right too. She says New York's OK, though far too expensive for most people to move there these days. Jan's organised this tour for Will. She also does booking in the States, and has used her contacts to set up dates in some pretty funky places over here – The 12 Bar in Denmark Street (tonight), Broadstairs, Saffron Walden, Cambridge, Gillingham, Brixton, Hastings, Glastonbury, etc. Jan's also a singer: performing at Glasto this year as well as touring with Will.

Will performs with a very good drummer, who lives just round the corner from Biddle Bros, whom he met for the first time yesterday, to do a 3-hour rehearsal. Drummer says he was pretty nervous about performing, and made some mistakes. I tell him to take it easy – 95% good is OK. Really. We all need to keep that in our heads.


I'm so damned happy about finding a neighbourhood bar where you can go to listen to live music, especially blues, most nights of the week, that stays open till midnight (last orders – nudge nudge, wink wink), and where there's no entry charge so you can just drop in and drop out if you don't appreciate the performers - words can't describe my joy.


Piers Morgan, on Desert Island Discs last week, chose "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life". I think I'd have to take that as well. Cheers, Piers.


Andrew Rawnsley had this piece in today's Observer.

The triumph and tragedy of the Overlord of New Labour.
Peter Mandelson has finally satisfied his ambition to be the undisputed, indispensable right-hand man to the prime minister.

Oxzen posted this comment:

@ fastrob
Thanks for your subtle satire in 'praise' of Mandy and his ilk. Very funny indeed. "A national treasure and a political and historical giant." Fabulous.

As for "Peter Mandelson . . . is the father of New Labour and masterminded the transformation of an utterly failed political party into an unbeatable election winning machine" - New Labour didn't win a thing, only cashed in on a landslide of votes from people who were desperate to get rid of the Tories, and to keep them out of power for as long as possible. Of course we've now reached a point where even the dopiest of voters recognise there's hardly a jot of difference between New Labour and the New Tories, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Cameron, if he gets a majority, were to invite Mandy into his cabinet. Neither would it shock us if Mandy accepted the invitation.

As for Mr Rawnsley's statement that "the more remote Labour's chances of winning the next election, the greater the internal pressure to lurch leftwards" - like most commentators he still doesn't get it. This is no longer a matter of left and right in politics. It's now clear that many Tories - dare I say progressive Conservatives - have also woken up to the fact that there needs to be proper regulation of the City, proper reform of the Lords, proper reform of our voting system, an end to the culture of target setting in the public services, an end to privatisations, an end to PFIs, and plenty of other policies that, prior to the financial and political meltdown we're still experiencing, were regarded as the province of the Left. Does anyone doubt that Brown/Mandleson will continue to resist radical reform of our broken politics?


STOP PRESS - Education

On the midday news there's just been an announcement by Michael Gove that the Tories will scrap KS2 Sats and encourage Primary schools to offer Year 6 pupils the same broad, balanced and stimulating curriculum they should be getting throughout the rest of their time at school. They will bring in tests at the start of Year 7 to give a summative assessment of what children can do independently, and of what they know. Those tests will be marked internally. So far so good.

The idiot then goes on to say these new tests will enable "us" to work out "which Primary schools are doing brilliantly and which are doing less well." Doh! As if! How will those results say anything about how well the primary schools are working at Foundation Stage and KS1? How will they even say anything about KS2, when cohorts of children are so different from year to year, and teacher turnover means schools can change from year to year?

We all know the difference it can make to a school to lose or to gain a brilliant experienced Year 6 teacher, or to gain any good teacher for that matter. Sorry Mr Gove. Must do better. Needs to try harder and research more thoroughly. Needs to stop jumping to unjustified and superficial conclusions. 5/10.

It's going to be very interesting now to see whether Gove and his chums support the NAHT/NUT boycott of KS2 Sats next year.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Layer 169 Drummers, Biddles, Blears, and the Nuffield Review

The text from my daughter was a call to action. “There's a blues band in the pub tonight. Just started.”

It took me back to the days of yore, the sixties and seventies, when bands played merrily in England, in many a neighbourhood hostelry. Could those happy days be returning?

They really rocked as well. The Louis Jordan number they performed managed to get the two Jamaicans out of their seats and jigging around. They'd asked for reggae, but they got the blues.

I was talking to the drummer during the interval and it turned out he was German and lives in East Germany for most of the year. He said there's a thriving rock and blues scene back there. I felt pretty sad for him, and the band, that their audience at the C_____ was only about 20, most of whom could hardly be called attentive, let alone hard core blues and rock fans. They were just the regulars, mainly, on a regular Thursday night.

The guitarist/vocalist was very good, very bluesy, as was the female Hammond keyboard player, and three different guys, including one of the locals, who took turns to play the bass.

The band finished just before midnight, and were starting to pack up when someone asked the drummer to do a solo. Now I'd noticed that he was a really good drummer, very cool, very jazzy and tight – but it seemed like an odd request. I soon realised, though, as he built up momentum, that he was something really special. He had everyone paying rapt attention as he produced an amazing performance - speeding up, slowing down, louder and softer – with so much rhythm and precision. It took me way back to the heyday of the great drummers like Ginger Baker, Keef Hartley, Jon Hiseman and Aynsley Dunbar – who missed out as Hendrix's drummer to Mitch Mitchell on the flip of a coin - jazz/rock/blues drummers of the highest calibre. Superb.


Strolling home I passed a bar I'd vaguely noticed some weeks ago, in what used to be some kind of corner shop called Biddle Bros. They still have the old sign up outside, and in fact they've called the new place Biddle Bros, which I reckon is really funky. I love the continuity thing. Check it here:

It was half past midnight, but the joint was still jumping. A really quirky band too, all American. A pinstripe-suited male singer/guitarist in a Homburg, three females playing electric upright bass, saxophone and clarinet, and a guy beating on a black guitar case, laid flat on a table, with drumsticks! At one point they had half the audience doing some weird thing that the band were doing – lying down flat on their backs and playing their instruments whilst doing bicycle kicks.

You can't say fairer than that for an unplanned night out.


As in Ashburton the previous week I love the way that live music gets people out of their homes and gathering together for collective enjoyment. When there's a good band playing you can mingle, chat if you want, or just sit or stand and enjoy the music. Dancing makes it even better. It's a real happening thing, in which people can actually take part and add to the occasion with their presence and their participation. I'm more convinced than ever that we'd create a much better world if we just made sure that every single child that's growing up in our society could play at least one musical instrument and perform with it at some level.

There's a bluesman called Will Scott playing at Biddle Bros on Saturday. You can check out his music here:


“A Stupid Thing To Do”

Very well said, Hazel dear, and on TV too! Indeed it was. Wearing your silly little brooch - “Rocking The Boat” - was completely idiotic. It didn't even make sense from your own point of view, let alone NuLabour's. So why do it? Because Hazel's a bear of little brain. Which we knew already. Stupid people tend to do stupid things.

It was stupid to take the piss out of her party leader for looking a twat on YouTube. He had enough abuse to put up with without enduring more from his 'loyal' colleague.

It was stupid in the extreme to resign on the eve of the election. So how did she excuse herself today? “Please Miss – Jacqui and Patricia did it first and nobody said nothin to them, did they? - so why shouldn't I do it as well, and why does everybody pick on me cos it's not FAIR!” 'Cos you're a horrible little twat person who goes around with a silly grin on her silly little face. And you're a silly right-wing camp follower who tried to get away with 'flipping' your various homes and avoiding capital gains tax on your amateur property development at the public's expense. Got it yet?

The people of Salford seem to have got it, since they're not stupid, and look set to boot her out as a candidate at the next election. She should look on the bright side and realise that she'll now have an opportunity to do things she's actually good at. I can't imagine what those things might be, because even working on a supermarket checkout might still annoy people. But I'm sure she'll find something.


The most important story in the news this week was:

How children became customers

This is how The Guardian reported on the Nuffield Review.

The biggest review of 14-19 education in 50 years says corporate values now rule schools. By Warwick Mansell.

Are corporate values now running education? Have schools been taken over by the language of management consultancy? And does this imply an undermining of a central purpose of teaching: to encourage a sense of inquiry and morality in young people?

These are some of the questions raised - and answered in the affirmative - by a new report published today, which is billed as the largest investigation into education and training for 14- to 19-year-olds in England and Wales for 50 years.

The Nuffield 14-19 review, based at Oxford University, has taken six years to compile. Its report, which runs to 230 pages, attacks the "relentless change" in education as often counterproductive.

The government, says the report, has therefore laid down a set of aims that are dominated by the need to develop skills for the economy. This comes across not just in the set of exam results-based performance indicators by which schools are judged, but in the language that is used to describe education policy and its implementation.

The report says that growing central control of education has helped to produce a drive to talk about schooling from a "performance management" perspective, which is borrowed from business.

It says: "The consumer or client replaces the learner. The curriculum is delivered. Aims are spelt out in terms of targets. Audits (based on performance indicators) measure success defined in terms of hitting the targets."

It adds: "As the language of performance and management has advanced, so we have proportionately lost a language of education which recognises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain sorts of question ... of seeking understanding [and] of exploring through literature and the arts what it means to be human."

The report cites the decision by ministers, when they were developing a system of performance management for teachers in the late 1990s, to bring in management consultants Hay-McBer to define what constituted good teaching. Another consultancy, McKinsey and Company, was seen as the authority on effective teaching after producing a report in 2007 looking at outstanding practice around the world.

The assumption behind much of education policy - that performance targets are set for teachers in the form of pupils' test and exam success, and the means by which they reach them are less important - is also borrowed from industry.

Describing the language of targets and delivery as "impoverished", the report ends with a further flourish. "The Orwellian language of 'performance management and control' has come to dominate educational deliberation and planning, namely the language of measurable 'inputs', 'outputs', of 'performance indicators' and 'audits', of 'customers' and 'deliverers', of 'efficiency gains' and 'bottom lines'. Perhaps George Orwell's 1984 should be made the essential reading for all trainee teachers."

The inquiry's starting point was to ask: "What counts as an educated 19-year-old in this day and age?" The answer it comes up with embraces intellectual development, practical capability, community participation and a sense of social justice, self-awareness, and even a perhaps unfashionable suggestion that young people should be imbued with a sense of "moral seriousness". Education, it says, has an essentially "moral purpose": to help young people to develop as human beings.

Richard Pring, professor of educational studies at Oxford and the inquiry's leader, says it is more difficult for these rounded qualities to be developed under the current system. He says: "Once performance management takes over, it does begin to narrow the educational experiences on offer, classically through teaching to the test in the pursuit of performance targets.

"I suppose many newly trained teachers may just take the language of performance management for granted these days. If you go back 20 years, it would be seen as foolish."
The inquiry is not alone in making these criticisms. In February, the Cambridge review of primary education attacked the marginalisation of creativity in schools in favour of literacy and numeracy lessons as "utilitarian and philistine".

Corporate language

And examples of corporate language in education are not difficult to come across. Minutes of meetings of the board of Ofsted, the schools and childcare inspectorate, speak extensively of performance goals and the need to build Ofsted's "brand".

Last week, a speech made by a leading figure in school assessment referred frequently and uncritically to pupils being teachers' "customers".

Ruth Lea, a former head of policy at the Institute of Directors and an adviser to the Arbuthnot Banking Group, says: “Education is not just a matter of turning sausages out of a sausage machine and hitting targets - and that's where it's gone wrong."

• The Nuffield report is available at £19.99 from


This is how the Mail reported it. I never thought I'd be quoting from the Mail.

'Orwellian language' in schools turns pupils into 'customers', finds damning report

Schools using the 'Orwellian language of performance management' are undermining teenagers' education by turning them into 'customers' rather than students, a landmark report says today.
Teachers who are forced to use phrases such as 'performance indicator' and 'curriculum delivery' lack enthusiam for the job, the six-year investigation found.

The Oxford-based Nuffield Review, the most comprehensive study of secondary education in 50 years, said that 'the words we use shape our thinking'.

It notes: 'As the language of performance and management has advanced, so we have proportionately lost a language of education which recognises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain sorts of question ... of seeking understanding [and] of exploring through literature and the arts what it means to be human.'

Teachers are inundated with the language of measurable 'inputs' and 'outputs', 'performance indicators' and 'audits', 'targets', 'customers', 'deliverers', 'efficiency gains' and 'bottom lines', the report continues.

In a damning indictment, the report said that a culture of hitting targets, where 'cuts in resources are euphemistically called 'efficiency gains', has led to 'the consumer or client' replacing 'the learner'.

The report's authors accused the 'micro management' of education by minsters for forcing schools 'to teach to the test' and called for 'a return to an educational language'.

The report also said that hundreds of thousands of youngsters better suited to practical work leave with poor qualifications because their skills go unrecognised.

Woodwork, metalwork and home economics have all but disappeared while geography field-work and science experiments are in decline.

Instead, a culture of testing has brought about a narrow focus on written exams at GCSE and A-level. This has consigned a generation of pupils to an 'impoverished' education.

The study said school attainment remained 'low' despite unprecedented investment in education.
A generation ago, hands-on lessons were 'very much part of the learning experience at school', he said. But the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 had hastened the 'demise' of practical learning.

'We now have a rather narrow view of success in learning,' he said.

'A great many young people achieve quite a lot in other areas which are equally valid and don't get recognised.'

The review believed that a tradition of learning based on practical engagement has been lost in schools, reflected in the near demise of woodwork, metalwork and home economics, in the decline of field-work in geography, in less experimental approaches to science (caused partly by assessment almost exclusively through written examination), and in the decline of work-based learning and employer-related apprenticeships.

Moral values

Schools should teach moral values to educate pupils for life as well as work.
They should encourage youngsters to take responsibility for themselves, treat others with respect and care for the environment.

Academics on the review team had seen youngsters 'transformed' in schools which promote justice and respect.

The review said teachers should also foster intellectual virtues, encouraging children to be open to evidence, argument and criticism.


This is so bloody wonderful I can't really believe what I've been reading. On the other hand it's fucking heartbreaking to consider not only what's been going on in the name of education, but how the so-called profession allowed it to happen.

There must come a point where the question is asked – and what did YOU do in the great education wars, when the stormtroopers of the Shock Doctrine were allowed to run rampant and sweep away good practice, good people, and proper aims and objectives, and put in place this industrial model of education, this so-called 'standards agenda'?

How many people working in education could honestly say they did or said a thing to combat this vile regime and the neo-conservative hegemony? How many within the system, especially heads, governors, teachers and bureaucrats, were too uncomprehending or too afraid to even raise a peep of protest as good people were hammered, beaten and persecuted into submission or extinction? How many cared enough about the children and what was good for them to even suggest that what happened was bad, mad and totally immoral? How come the unions were so fucking ineffectual and hopeless at fighting it?

There's nothing new here that people who are familiar with schools won't already know, but the report is very well written and well argued, and it's totally damning of what's been happening in this country in the name of education. It's appalling.

What's also appalling is the way in which most schools, most heads, most governors, most teachers and most LA bureaucrats have just gone along with this evil bullshit – out of fear, ignorance, cowardice and stupidity. One day they'll all have to answer the question – and what did you do in the great education wars? Just obey orders?

Here's the interim report from the group, published in 2006:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Layer 168 Michael Rosen, Jim Rose, Ed Balls, Jim Knight, Uncle Tom Cobley and All.

Michael Rosen has always been a man to appreciate and admire. As was his dad, Harold. His two-year stint as Children's Laureate has just come to an end, and to mark it he had an article in yesterday's EducationGuardian. As a poet and a writer he has a genius for spotting and summing up the essence of things, for showing us the little things that say such a lot about the state of the world, or humankind, or whatever.

For example, in this latest article he starts with this anecdote:

“Now here's one of the nice bits ... going round the classrooms and having a quick chat in each room ... open the door ... in ... this is a year 4 group ... and the teacher says that she's been working with one of my poems ... little heart-flip of pride ... yes, she says, the "quicks" have been making up poems of their own and the "slows" have been doing a wordsearch, using words from my poems. OMG! Quicks! Slows! I had no idea that poetry could be streamed! What do I say? I nod. I smile. I say nothing. I want to say something but I can't say anything because my mind is banging to the tune of 10 years' worth of government statements about "delivering the standards agenda" and "rolling out entitlement" . . . ”

Wonderful. Sums up the bloody sorry state of our Primary schools in one paragraph. He then describes meetings he's had with the likes of Jim Rose, Ed Balls and Jim Knight, and details their sheer incomprehension as to what schools should be doing and what the damn government's been doing that's wrong, bad and mad.

Jim Rose says to Michael, "We've got the alphabetical principle in place, now the next one to crack is how do we make books come alive?" For chrissake! “The alphabetical principle”! There's no such thing! What he means of course is that he believes Primary teachers have finally been battered into believing that “synthetic phonics” are the answer to overcoming slow progress in learning to read. Which is bollocks, of course, but Jim thinks he's fixed it, thanks to his rubbish report on the teaching of reading.

And “making books come alive”?

“I'm thinking, why is it a problem to work out "how to make books come alive". Teachers were doing this 20, 30, 40 years ago. There are shedloads of books on the subject. There are teams of advisers working out of local authorities or places like the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education who are training teachers to do this. There are hundreds of writers visiting schools doing this. He says he'll get back to me. He doesn't.”

He meets with Balls and Knight in the House of Commons:

To my left are several people who haven't been introduced, who are probably from "the department". We are talking about books. I say to the ministers that they've put in place a compulsory programme to teach children how to read, but there is no policy on reading books. They look at me blankly. Ed has half a mind elsewhere. The press pack outside want a bite of him. It's the Haringey child abuse scandal. I say that what's going on is discriminatory. Children who come from homes where books are being read get access to the kinds of abstract and complex ideas that you can only get hold of easily through exposure to extended prose. The rest are being fed worksheets.

Ed doesn't believe me.

"What do you want from us?" he says. "A directive asking every local authority and every school to devise its own policy on the reading of books. I've got a 20-point outline that you could send out as a guideline for people to adapt." "Send it to me," says Jim. "I have already," I say. "Send it to me again," he says . . ."

Moving on from stupid politicians who are too full of themselves to take any notice of what much cleverer and wiser people have to tell them, Michael writes with great affection and pride about his father, who worked as a teacher at Walworth Comprehensive and later became Professor of Education at the Institute of Education. This is from Wikipedia:

Harold Rosen (25 June 1919 - 31 July 2008) was an influential educationalist, particularly in regard to the teaching of English, a socialist thinker and a political activist, born in the USA but active mainly in the UK. He was a Communist activist in the 1930's; after World war II, he became an English teacher and later a teacher trainer; he became a major figure on the New Left after leaving the Communist Party in 1957; and he played an important part in debates and developments in the fields of language teaching and Primary education, particularly in the 1960's and 1970's.

Michael writes:

"My father dies. He was 89. There seem to be so many layers to his life. To me and my brother he was the bloke on camping holidays singing French folk songs, telling rude jokes, or back home getting in a state about our homework not being done. But as the letters and obituaries are written, we are reminded of him as schoolteacher, as teacher-trainer, as storyteller, as "animator" of study groups.

An issue of the English teachers' journal Changing English appears that is entirely devoted to him and his work. Simon, one of his colleagues at Walworth comprehensive school in south London, has unearthed the English syllabus that my father helped to devise in 1958. I read: "Whatever language the pupils possess, it is this which must be built on rather than driven underground. However narrow the experience of our pupils may be (and it is often wider than we think), it is this experience alone which has given their language meaning. The starting point for English work must be the ability to handle effectively their own experience. Oral work, written work and the discussion of literature must create an atmosphere in which the pupils become confident of the full acceptability of the material of their own experience. Only in this way can they advance to the next stage."

I am overcome with feelings of admiration, sadness, regret and anger. I start to scribble a letter to the editor of Changing English, Jane Miller. How did the Thatcher and Blair governments succeed so quickly to wipe out years of such thought, theory and practice? Did my father, my mother and everyone else struggling to figure out how to give every single child the right to speak, write and read not lay out these kinds of theories clearly enough?"

No doubt Michael's asking a rhetorical question and in reality he's familiar with the Shock Doctrine, and with the neo-conservative idea that in order to defeat progressives and socialists it's important that right-wing prime ministers and presidents act with great speed and are ruthless in overturning the ideas of their opponents, claiming that there's a national crisis of some sort, an emergency, a need to fix a massive problem or to remedy a set of failures attributed to their opponents. Of course Harold Rosen and his progressive peers laid out their theories and their methodology, which they'd developed from actual experience of working in tough inner-city areas, with enormous clarity and cogency. Reactionaries like Balls and Knight don't need to engage with those ideas – as head honchos they just feel the need to act on their own elitist instincts, their pathetically limited knowledge, and their ludicrous assumptions about methodology and the learning process.


Last year Michael wrote an article about SATs:

Sats: literally failing

The government is still wedded to Sats. Why, when the tests emphasise rote learning and cramp imaginations?

So, the government comes face-to-face with a failure. Someone better than me at basic numeracy might like to tot up the money spent on Sats, the various "strategies" and specific "hours", and Ofsted teams, along with the cost of schools closed and re-opened under new management. It's clear that Andrew Adonis is still wedded to the crumbling edifice of Sats, even though there is no evidence to suggest that the tests "lever up standards" as is claimed.

We know now that teachers teach to the tests. Every parent of a Sats-age child knows that the Sats year begins with your child's teacher announcing, "This is the year of the Sats", and sure enough, the lesson plans and homework soon come home. These are, in essence, mini-Sats full of the same kind of questions. In other words, the response to literature across the whole year (and indeed the whole school) is reduced to firing back answers on the facts in extracts in books, and reproducing the "sequence of events" as they put it. Literature is being shrunk into literacy.

The tragic fact is that [an] immensely potent way of giving children a reason to read and write has been turned into a series of dull, repeated exercises and tests, often conducted on books that are never read in their entirety – and all in the name of "delivering literacy". I suggest that whatever process of teaching children how to read is in place, this process on its own will never solve the problem of proving to children that reading is a worthwhile and interesting activity. In other words, any child might quite legitimately ask him- or herself, "why should I bother with this stuff?"

Ofsted inspects schools for literacy but not for whether children read often, freely and widely.

Only when all children are in a book-loving environment will they achieve literacy, yes, but a lot more: a confidence in handling abstract ideas, an understanding of a multiplicity of viewpoint and the complexity and diversity of human interaction that comes through reading widely and often. At the moment, the government is barking up the wrong tree. The regime of Sats, the literacy strategy and Ofsted will only carry on delivering failure.

I've just discovered, almost too late, an excellent comedy series on Radio 4 – The Secret World.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Layer 167 Brown's Preservation, Market Regulation, Making the Unconventional Conventional, Justice, and a Journey In Moral Reasoning.

So the PLP has decided that Brown should stay. David Miliband was on the radio this morning explaining why this is so. He's such a patronising little git. He admitted that millions of people had wanted to vote for Labour last week but had withheld their votes. He said these people seemed to think the party had “forgotten them”. So he and his pals now want to “remember them”? Really? This is me you're talking about, you posh little twerp! I don't want to be remembered! I want my party to be back in the hands of people who understand why it exists.

It's still beyond him to admit that New Labour, a cuckoo in the nest of the Labour Party, which he was involved in creating as a 'special advisor' to Blair, has completely fucked up and betrayed its main purpose, which has always been to govern in order to create a social democracy in which there's social justice, greater equality, the abolition of poverty, etc.

So he now wants the government to take decisions that are the “equivalent of owning two thirds of Lloyds Bank”, which he says was “unthinkable” even a year ago. Unthinkable by you and the rest of your pals, you twat. Progressives and radicals have been advocating such things for decades. What's he ever done to even suggest, let alone fight for, such ideas - to make them part of our political discourse?

It wasn't only that most of the brainwashed electorate deemed such nationalisation or part-nationalisation to be the crackpot ideas of the “looney left” - he himself would have said so, and probably did say so, till the financial system went belly up and they were forced to act – to bail out capitalism.

Little Dave now says that it's Labour's job to “make the unconventional conventional”. That was ALWAYS it's job, you pillock!

He said, “Don't tell me that markets don't need to be regulated”. Oh dear. We've been telling him and his mates that markets, especially financial markets, DO need to be regulated, and saying so for fucking years. That's what Keynesian economics is all about – intervention in the markets and curbing the excesses and failures of the market system. It was brainbox Milly and his chums who thought there was “no alternative” to the Chicago School, free market globalisation and voodoo economics.

No matter. Let's let bygones be bygones. Let's assume Little Dave and NuLabour have wised up and now want to make the unthinkable thinkable, the unconventional conventional, and are now determined to pursue proper socialist policies through to the end of this Parliament.


Polly Toynbee, for one, isn't holding her breath.

Dazed, gripped by delusion, the party tonight bottled it.

There is a bold, reviving leader's speech that might yet salvage Labour. It just can't be delivered by Gordon Brown.

Now things couldn't get worse, at 15% and below Ukip. How can Wales have gone Tory? Good grief, only 8% voted Labour in the entire south-east.

Gordon Brown is not Labour's only problem, but he is the greatest obstacle to recovery.

Crack up, collapse, catastrophe, the nightmare is real.

Merkel and Sarkozy won by taking more radical social democratic action than Brown did, by nationalising the banks, with higher social protection for the unemployed and more state intervention, squeezing parties on their left by turning leftwards. How Sarko railed against the "dictatorship of the market", while Brown missed the bloody mood and apologised to the CBI for the "regrettable" 50p tax rate. He failed to seize the anti-bonus, anti-banker spirit of the times that should have been Labour's moment.

What exactly is radical or leftwing about Gordon Brown?

His private finance initiative projects, his ill-advised public-private partnership for the tube, abolition of the 10p tax rate to give a tax break to higher earners, 42-day detention without trial, ID cards and springing a Trident replacement with no discussion on future foreign policy? Every time the rightwing press suggests he is betraying Blair's modernising agenda, he does something to prove it's not true, such as the third runway at Heathrow.

Why is the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre a frequent family visitor?Under Brown's chancellorship, Britain became yet more unequal, and the child poverty target was abandoned. All the "golden years" GDP growth went for the rich few, not for the many. Of course Brown did not intend that, but he never had the political courage to make the tough choices that would have sent money flowing away from the rich towards the rest.

To govern from the left requires a bravery he lacked to face down the power of money.

Imagine a new leader stepping out in July who says this: "Friends, there will be an election and a referendum on constitutional reform. I relinquish the injustice of the prime minister choosing the date: from now on elections will always be on the first Sunday in May, with fixed parliaments. Before then, we will clean up expenses and every sitting Labour MP will undergo reselection. A convention on the constitution and on liberty will bring in clean party funding: democracy will not be in hock to the whim of millionaires. We will have an elected Lords, sweep away obscurantist flummery in the Commons and devolve more powers. This parliament that made a mess of things must clean it up before it goes. A referendum on proportional representation deserves time for the arguments to be put fairly.”

“All we do from now on will be for cleaner, greener and fairer government. I will apologise for things we have done wrong, so you may better believe me when I boast of all we have done well. There is much to be proud of, and much that will be put at risk if we don't sing the praises of the considerable good Labour has done: Sure Start is just one emblem. Don't let anyone say the money was wasted or that the state should be shrunk. We stand for all the important things in life that we can only buy together – health, education, safe streets, beautiful parks and the long fight to stop climate change."

That's not so hard is it? But Brown can't and won't do it.

I still doubt the Labour party is so useless that it will let Brown lead them to destruction at the next election.

Under this article there were two superb CIF comments which deserve wider dissemination:

By boonery

I think I am finally reconciled to Ms Toynbee, all criticism forgotten, because her article is one of such despair, all the more potent for being resisted for so long. For month after month, she has returned to the fray, ever optimistic that the situation might turn around, that things would get better, desperate to believe that someone – Blair, Brown, Milband, Johnson – would allow her party will rediscover its soul.

Now she seems to have accepted the simple truth: it wont happen. Its too late. The Labour party – her Labour party – has gone, probably for ever, consumed by the egotism and lust for power of those people who took it over when John Smith died. There are no differences between Blairites and Brownites; they are merely power factions battling it out. There are no ideas for making Britain a better, fairer place; they are irrelevant. If talk about light regulation is needed, it will be spoken. If talk about equality is necessary, then that too will be uttered. But the words have no meaning, beyond their usefulness in gulling the foolish.

The old party – always confused, never really socialist, but on the side of the angels and invariably pointing in more or less the right direction – signed a pact with the devil and gave up its soul to win elections. From then on Blair and Brown gutted it of principles and purpose, and turned it into a machine whose sole purpose was to keep them in place. It has done its job, but we have little of substance to show for it, beyond a surveillance state, a wrecked economy, a political system held in contempt, and an immoral war which has dragged our good name in the mud.

Some in the Labour party – Ms Toynbee amongst them, perhaps, but also those in the Parliamentary party who remain decent, idealistic public servants -- now see how they have been tricked out of their dreams, had their best intentions exploited for cynical ends. They should have everyone's sympathy, even of their opponents, because they hoped, and had those hopes trampled in the mud by crueler, lesser people.

But it is over, and what Blair and Brown between them have done should never be forgiven. They have not only betrayed the ideals of good people who followed them, they have destabilised the entire political system. They have taken a magnificent political tradition which stretched back a century, which embodied the noblest sentiments of fairness and equality, and corrupted it for their own gain. What is left is a name, and a memory. Nothing else.

The magnitude of the tragedy cannot be easily summed up. Even the Conservatives will suffer. There will almost certainly now be a Conservative government with a large majority, and that will doom Cameron as well. For 30 years we have lurched from one huge majority to another, and every time such excessive power has corrupted those who held it, and weakened Parliament and the democratic system. The Conservative party needs a strong Labour party or it will make the same mistakes, every bit as much as Labour was ultimately tempted into arrogance by the implosion of the Conservatives.

Cameron will not be strong enough to resist the temptation to use the power Brown will allow him to take. For Browns final gift will be to ensure that Labour has no chance of providing any serious opposition to what comes next.


By guardianreeda

Most of the labour MPs, and pretty much every character hoping to be elevated to leader, has happily voted for the policies which buried the promises given by Labour in 1997.

I voted in 1997 for whiter than white government. What we got was corruption, cash for laws, dodgy donations, MP fraud and serial flipping.

I voted in 1997 for an ethical foreign policy.

I voted in 1997 for fiscal prudence.

I voted in 1997 for electoral reform and a restoration of local democracy. I didn't realise at the time that this meant filling the cabinet with unelected yes men.

I voted in 1997 for an integrated public transport network, not endless Heathrow expansion.

I voted in 1997 for a profound reduction in class sizes and free education for those who want it.

I didn't vote for corrupt sales of aircraft to extremist Muslim dictatorships. I didn't vote for super casinos. I didn't vote for idiotic illegal unwinnable wars. I didn't vote for an erosion of civil liberties. I didn't vote for spiraling obsession with identity politics, idiotic league tables for schools, endless NHS reforms and reforms of reforms, dodgy off-balance-sheet PFI deals, endless spiraling debt, the walking away from the responsibility of regulating the banks, and I didn't vote for cabinet ministers to defraud the taxpayer.

Get rid of Brown - a good first step.

The second step is to get rid of anyone who didn't understand what was so compelling about the promises made in 1997.


On Radio 4 this morning Professor Michael Sandel gave the first of his Reith Lectures:

New Citizenship
Michael Sandel
Reith Lecture

We need to think afresh.

We must foster spiritual values and ask ethical questions – construct a moral system as part of our citizenship.

A new USA president is taking new directions. (end of the neo-cons, market worship and the shock doctrine)

We need to consider ideas about morality and politics and justice.

We must return to fundamental values – economics doesn't question these.

We're in a time of financial crisis and economic crisis – the need is pressing.

A time for civic and moral renewal.

Public outrage at what's been happening in civic and public life.

We need a politics oriented towards the pursuit of the common good, not individual gain.

We need to ask what it really means to be a citizen.
We need a robust public discourse that engages with moral and spiritual values.

We need to reinvigorate public discourse about the common good.

We need to rethink the role of markets – and the moral limits of markets.
We're experiencing the economic fallout of a huge financial crisis.
We're at the end of an era of market fundamentalism and a mania for deregulation.

Markets cannot be the mechanism for achieving the public good.

More than regulation we need to rethink the role of markets.

We need to reconnect markets with values.

Greed and irresponsible risk-taking must be replaced with responsibility, trust & integrity.
We need to return to proper personal values – and think about the effect of markets running amok.
Markets always run on self-interest & greed.

Conservatives have always claimed there's some sort of moral alchemy of markets. Plainly this is bollocks. (I'm paraphrasing.)

We need the restoration of integrity.
We have to rethink the role of markets and keep them in their place.

Some things money can't buy.
Other things that money can buy and shouldn't.

We've seen the expansion of markets into spheres governed by non-market norms – education, health, policing, the military. (all of this in line with neo-con shock doctrine)

Some are now advocating paying kids to get good scores on standardised tests and paying kids to read books. Some are even saying we should sell citizenship to those who can best afford to pay.
All of this is bollocks.

Markets embody certain norms.
They leave their mark on social norms.
So where do markets belong and where should they be kept at a distance?

Monetary incentives undermine intrinsic incentives.
Market mechanisms become market norms.
There's a corruption of real incentives.

Consider the issue of fees v fines.
Should we allow countries to pay their way out of reducing greenhouse gasses? Would that be a fine or a fee?
Should we buy and sell the right to pollute?
This is ridiculous. What we need is a new set of attitudes.

Some things in life are corrupted and degraded if they are turned into commodities.
(eg SATs? Sell your soul, cram the kids, do to them “whatever works” to raise test scores, and pay the schools in Level 4s and 5s. Fine those who don't score high by labeling them failures and forcing them to change their educational philosophy, and even sacking their senior managers.)

We need to bring moral and spiritual norms into public discourse.

“Efficiency” cannot be the only thing we take into account.

(The need to consider these ideas as though they're something new tells us all we need to know about what a dumb society we've become. Political, social and philosophical thinkers understood all this centuries ago - Rousseau, Marx, Engels, Thomas More)

Cultivating a shared life and a shared citizenship.

Altruism and civic spirit.

Justice - A Journey in Moral Reasoning

This link might take a while to download because it's a video of Prof Sandel 'lecturing' to a vast hall of students at Harvard, and contains clips of students commenting on the impact of the session(s) and his style of 'delivery'. It's also a superb example of what great, interactive teaching should be all about:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Layer 166 Shitbags and Trolls, and a Working Class Hero.

So the results from the local government elections were just as horrendous as we thought they'd be, and New Labour is in very bad shape. Good. Someone on Radio 4 was just saying that if it hadn't been for 'Lord' Mandelson fighting hard for Gordon's survival then the Prime Minister would have been ditched by his Parliamentary 'colleagues'.

Well that's one way of seeing it. Another way would have been to assume that the likes of Straw, Darling and Miliband managed to reach the only sane conclusion for themselves – that given the state of our politics Brown's resignation would have made a general election inevitable and a Labour wipeout a certainty, and what kind of idiot turkeys actually vote for an early Christmas?

Then again, maybe Mandy did indeed have to talk sense into a bunch of idiot turkeys. And in any case it's not unlikely that some of those people, at least, might just fancy a quiet life on the backbenches right now, or possibly dropping out of the fucked up world of politics altogether - a world in which there are three circles of power: Parliament, the government, and Gordon Brown and his cabal of personal appointees to the House of Lords.

The thing that's truly appalling is that Mandelson, an unelected and unelectable bastard of the first order, is now not only deemed to have such massive power, but Brown has given him a huge promotion – to First Secretary of something or other – and he's now said to be effectively the deputy prime minister. I wonder what Harriet Harman, a far more decent individual, says about that. I seem to remember writing about this a few weeks ago when someone else suggested that Lord Pete is really the deputy PM.

I was appalled to hear today that 'Lord' Adonis, another complete shitbag, has been promoted to Transport Secretary. How can that happen? What's more, 'Sir' Alan Sugar has been given a peerage and will become some sort of business overlord. Brown must be out of his fucking mind, especially if he thinks the vast majority of people will be pleased with Sugar's elevation. What next? Simon Cowell as Minister for Culture? Piers Morgan as Minister for Adminstrative Affairs?

These are the kind of people running the country, very influential in our national life, and supposedly representing us – we, the people. Like fuck they do.

Or then again, maybe they do have a mindset that pretty much corresponds with that of the poor brainwashed citizens of this unenlightened country, where the likes of Thatch, Major, Blair and now Brown have ruled the roost for so long. Think of that little lot, think of Barack Obama, and weep.

Think also of Hazel Blears, lest we forget. As Sue Perkins said on The News Quiz, if a Titian troll walks out on the party, how come that's supposed to be a bad day for our country? Everybody else on the programme jumped in and gave her a good kicking as well. Wonderful.

It's really not so funny though. There were these two excellent letters in yesterday's Guardian:

Having let my Labour membership lapse, I thought I was over any residual tribal feelings, but that hasn't protected me from my shock at the minister for local government's treachery on the eve of council elections. If the Salford party don't deselect the money-grubbing troll, there really is no hope forLabour.
Rob Raeburn

So Hazel Blears wants to get back to grassroots politics. Some party members like myself never left the grassroots and are struggling to win or retain county council seats. In the last three weeks on the doorsteps I have had to face more questions about the antics of Hazel Blears than all other local issues combined.
Brian Moss

Why wait to deselect her? Why not just kick her out of the party immediately for treachery ('Rocking The Boat'!), bringing the party into disrepute, and attempted avoidance of capital gains tax? Simple – because Brown, the idiot, continued to support her and say what a terrific asset she was, right up to the day of her resignation.

That was the day I first saw her on TV wearing her leather motor bike outfit, looking for all the world like some new species of cave-dwelling leathery dwarf. She can't even walk with any style or grace. (Sorry about the personal abuse – but if you put yourself up for attention, public recognition and admiration . . .)


A Real Working Class Hero

Blears tries hard to trade on her Salford origins and constituency - to give herself some sort of woman-of-the-people credibility - but she's as bourgeois as they come. She's an embarrassment to the working classes, if that's really where she came from.

Bobby Moore, on the other hand, was the real deal. Waiting for the big match to come on this afternoon (Khasakstan 0 England 4) I watched a documentary (by Tony Palmer) on our Bobby - hero of 1966 and all that.

He went to school in Leyton, near where I worked after leaving college. He spoke with an Estuary accent, unlike his boss Alf Ramsey, who tried to distance himself from his humble roots by going to elecution classes and learning to speak "properly". Bobby was bright, dedicated, humble and decent. He worked hard at his trade, and was a natural leader. As the film said - he led by example, not by being authoritarian and egotistic.

There was an incredible number of ex-players and journalists, plus friends and family, who spoke about him, and about his shockingly early death from cancer, and not one of them had a single bad thing to say about him. People around the world loved the man, just as they loved that other giant of the game, Pele.

Pele also loved Bobby. It was really moving to hear people like Pele, Jack Charlton, George Best and Alan Ball talking about what a great player he was, and what a wonderful human being. They all said how much they missed him. Especially his son and his daughter. And his wife.

He was calm, quiet and thoughtful, and did everything properly and thoroughly, as a player and as a private individual. He obviously excelled in emotional, social and spiritual intelligence. He played the game for the love of it.

As a young player he earned £8 per week - which was less than his girlfriend earned from her job. Of course the bosses and the owners made a fortune from the sweat of players like Bobby. It just didn't occur to them that they should pay higher wages to the very people who brought in the spectators through the turnstiles.

That's how the class system worked - one set of expectations for the bosses and a different set for everyone else. To be working class meant that you did the work and someone else raked in the profits from your labour. It seems incredible now to think that in those days there was a fixed maximum wage that footballers could earn, and no fixed contracts. If a club signed you, then you belonged to them till they decided to get rid of you.


Apparently Blears has said, "I passed my 11+. My brother didn't. He drives a bus. I'm in the Cabinet!"

This is the kind of elitist, snobbish attitude that drives New Labour education policies. Manual work bad; non-manual good. No work at all even better, providing you have plenty of money. In their minds there are hierarchies of jobs and hierarchies of people. With the rulers, the government, at the top, of course. They just wish they were better paid. Which is why so many of them were eventually caught filching money from the public purse. All within the rules, of course.

Ẁikipedia has quite a lot of stuff on Blears, including her voting record:

* Voted for introducing government registers on everyone in Britain backed up by ID cards.
* Voted for introducing foundation hospitals.
* Voted for introducing student top-up fees.
* Voted for the Iraq War
* Voted against investigating the Iraq war.
* Voted for replacing Trident.

Nothing there that any self-respecting Tory wouldn't vote for.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Layer 165 Gender Politics, The Chinese Model, Bankrupted Practices, A New Idealism, Transition and an Obama Speech.

Charlie Brooker's article in G2 this week was very funny, as usual, and contained some thought-provoking ideas about the state of the world and the role of men in messing up the planet. It works well as a polemic, and hopefully challenges readers to think about the differences and similarities between men and women, particularly those who supposedly represent us in Parliament.

Presumably no sane person is going to take his suggestion at face value – that men should now step back from running the affairs of the country and hand everything over to women to see what they can do. One thing we have to thank Thatcher for is clearly establishing that the kind of women who manage to climb to the top of the greasy pole are as likely as men to be raving egomaniacs with no ability to direct the ship of state along a course aimed at social justice, sound economics and excellent public services.

Hazel Blears, who wore her usual stupid fixed grin and an idiotic badge saying “Rocking The Boat” on the day she finally resigned this week, brilliantly reinforced our understanding that both men and women in politics are incredibly lacking in anything resembling social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, lacking in decency and even lacking in plain old intellect.


Madeleine Bunting's article today has the strapline, “It's been a truly disastrous week for women at Westminster. How did things go so badly wrong?”


Three Models of Politics.

Timothy Garten Ash wrote an interesting article this week comparing three models of politics – Chinese communism, American conservatism and European social democracy. For Oxzen, at any rate, the Chinese model is now the interesting one – we're already very familiar with the other two. Leaving aside the issue of how the members of the government are elected under the Chinese system – which is the only issue for nearly 100% of western commentators – the really key issue is whether or not the national wealth is held and used in the name of the people, the majority of the population. This of course was the major concern of Marx and Engels.

In Europe and America the vast majority of the nation's wealth is held by a relatively small number of private individuals, either directly or in shares and other investments. As we know, over time the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, especially when the tax system is as regressive as ours. The rich can avoid paying taxes almost completely, and meanwhile a loaf of bread and indeed a TV set are very expensive for a poor person, whereas they cost quite trifling amounts as far as the rich are concerned. 15% or 17% VAT is a huge amount for a poor person, whereas the rich often manage to pay no VAT because they buy things on “expenses”.

Capitalism claimed that communism and socialism are not only undemocratic (which of course they don't have to be – Britain could elect a communist or socialist government if we had a mind to) but they also promote a very inefficient way of running an economy (i.e. through state intervention and state ownership) or of running an individual business enterprise. Prior to 2008/9 this claim was never queried. We've now woken up to reality.

China now has the fastest growing, or the slowest declining, industries, a vast amount of national wealth held in cash in places like the USA, a thriving mixed economy, and a population that's clearly becoming wealthier and better educated at a tremendous rate. America, meanwhile, is seeing its major corporations, its banking and finance sector and its biggest mortgage companies go completely kaput and therefore in need of state takeover. America is willy nilly starting to emulate the Chinese model.

America is a huge debtor nation. It owes the rest of the world incredible amounts of money. America is also seeing its people declining into poverty at a tremendous rate, and has an education system that's in continuing crisis and offering a poorer quality of education with each passing year. The same applies to Britain, of course, since we've been copying the American model, though not to Germany and France, which, though they have centre-right governments, maintain a commitment to social democracy, fairer taxes, state intervention in the economy, and high quality public services.

Prior to the election of Obama, America couldn't even claim that it has a proper democratic system for electing its political leaders, since we all know that Bush stole the first election and won the second one on the basis of people's ignorance and fear, thereby becoming the most shameful and hated president ever, not just in his own country but around the world.

Which of these political and economic models are the developing nations likely to look to as models for their own development? We can already see that in South America there's a real chance that social democratic and indeed socialist ideologies have taken firm root, since those countries have historically been the biggest victims of the USA's imperialistic Shock Doctrine and neo-conservative ideology, they've taken very careful note of the spectacular implosion of capitalism, and also the fact that capitalist countries are only managing to keep some sort of status quo on the back of vast injections of public wealth into their economic systems.

In other words, the only way the USA and Britain, and others with similar systems, have kept from falling into total chaos is by using ordinary people's wealth, and their future wealth, to prop up a corrupt and spectacularly unfair economic and social order. Meanwhile the fat cats keep their riches, increasingly move them to offshore tax havens, and don't pay a penny to atone for their greed and their catastrophic ruination of an already bad and incredibly under-regulated system. It seems we can't touch these criminals because they worked within “the rules”.

What I find really interesting is the fact that in the USA and Britain there's virtually no chance that our politics and economics will change to the point where we commit to emulating the socialist model, since the power of capital and the power of the current social and political establishment is so strong, and the population so brainwashed. Therefore these countries are locked into a system that can ultimately only lead to their continuing decline. The USA might at present be adopting the practices of the Chinese, but their fat cats will ensure that there will be a return to conservatism and full-on capitalism as soon as practicable. Ditto lapdog Britain. Unless we do something about it, of course.


The Transition Movement

Madeleine Bunting wrote an interesting column this week, in which she said,

Beyond Westminster's bankrupted practices, a new idealism is emerging.

Progressive politics will take root from the rubble of a Labour defeat. The Transition movement is giving us a glimpse now.

Something remarkable has happened. Politics has become entirely unpredictable. Suddenly all manner of political reform is back on the table, a new urgency has been infused into tired debates about political disengagement and apathy, and radical reforms are being proposed to reinvigorate the hollowing out of political institutions.

New Labour, which built its fortunes on "there being no alternative", is now being forced into the humiliating circumstances of having to find one.

Let's sketch out how that might develop, and offer . . . a first draft of what a 21st-century utopian politics might look like.

It will be hard to mourn the defeat in 2010 of a political party that lost its moral bearings in its bid to woo middle England, slavishly reflecting back what it believed this narrow constituency wanted to hear. It won ballots by flattering and indulging a mythology of the good life as individualistic aspiration and material enrichment, and never challenged the multiple erroneous assumptions on which this was based. On the two vital progressive issues of its age – inequality and the environment – it wasted a crucial decade and squandered parliamentary majorities on contradictory and inadequate gestures.

What it palpably failed to grasp was how crucial political reform was to regenerate progressive politics. A party that had been professionalised and managerialised in the 80s, not surprisingly, did not understand how to respond to people's appetite to participate, and author their own lives. It only knew how to manipulate and manage public engagement, and earned deep resentment for doing both. Only out of the rubble of defeat in 2010 will a new progressive politics begin painfully to emerge well beyond the bankrupted conventions of Westminster politics.

If you want to catch a glimpse of the kinds of places outside the political mainstream where that new politics might be incubated, take a look at the Transition movement. Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, was one of the first to spot its potential when he described this young and fast-growing movement as "absolutely essential". Other politicians have been similarly intrigued, and last year The Transition Handbook came fifth in MPs' list of summer reading. It isn't hard to see why politicians are so interested. The Transition movement is engaging people in a way that conventional politics is failing to do. It generates emotions that have not been seen in political life for a long time: enthusiasm, idealism and passionate commitment.

Within three years it has gone from an idea to having 170 towns, villages and cities signed up as transition communities, working in 30 countries, and thousands more all over the world using the transition model. It is viral, catching on faster than its founder, Rob Hopkins, can track. Its message is that peak oil and climate change demand dramatic changes in the way people live, and, given that no one has the answer, communities themselves must start working out how that change might come about. It offers no answers, no solutions, only some tips in a handbook for how to get started. Transition lays the challenge squarely at the door of everyone. This is too big and difficult for government alone to tackle, too overwhelming and depressing for individuals to face alone.

Transition is rooted in a new politics of place: geography matters again as people look to the community immediately around them to devise the solutions for sustainability and resilience. At one level it works as a way of regenerating social capital, building up relationships with neighbours, working out how to collaborate again on common interests – community gardens, recycling, waste and strengthening the local economy. At another level it is about educating people about the challenges of peak oil and climate change, but the mobilisation and consciousness-raising is directed towards optimism and hope, not despair: how can this community use its skills and imagination to build its future?

The result is a proliferation of experiments, all of which are charted on their wiki websites: the collaboration is both local and global. Communities in Somerset can swap ideas and get inspiration from Brazil, Australia or the US. It's a world away from the smooth presentation of party politics, and transitioners are quick to point to the disclaimer on their site – they have no idea if the movement will work. They're organising local food festivals now, but tomorrow it could be community renewable energy. The emphasis is always on conviviality and enjoyment; on learning skills that have been lost over the last few decades – how to cook, grow food, repair and make things. Scotland has funded several transition organisers to work across the country. This is an unusual thing: local grassroots environmentalism that is full of hope for the future.

Their meetings don't have agendas or presentations – Miliband came to their annual conference recently as a keynote listener. They use what's called open space technology, in which everyone brings their ideas and everyone participates. Humble, self-organising, the movement owes much to the idealistic thinking of the early 70s. This is a time for revisiting those alternatives, which have been so contemptuously dismissed for a quarter of a century.

Part of its growing success is how it meets several needs simultaneously. It tackles social recession – the sense of disconnection and fragmentation of community – at the same time as it collaborates on the huge behavioural change that will be required for a low-carbon society. The latter is far more likely to come about in the context of personal relationships than as a result of discredited politicians dictating change. It is fulfilling an unexpected appetite for political engagement at a time of widespread disillusionment with the conventional political processes.

Hopkins is emphatic that transition groups refuse all political affiliation; they must build alliances to work across all parts of their community. But it is intriguing to see how the movement is experimenting with the sorts of ideas those in conventional politics are talking about – localism, decentralisation of power to communities, an environmental politics that is utopian and hopeful rather than gloomy. Of course detractors can point out its wholemeal worthiness, but it is stubbornly swimming against the tide of pervasive political pessimism, and given the unpredictability of the times, who knows where it will end up?


The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, was on Thought for Today talking about the Middle East, Obama's speech and destructive emotions – instinctive reactions to fear - flight and fight. Nation States' powers of destruction grow ever greater. Everyone needs to raise their levels of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence.


Barack Obama made a great speech in Cairo yesterday: