Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Layer 390 . . . Snow, Cricket, Defending The Ashes, Emotional Intelligence and Spiritual Intelligence

The first snowfall of the season fell on my neighbourhood last night, and it's still falling as I write this piece. It's not yet December.

We spent yesterday anticipating the snow, which had already covered much of Scotland, Wales and the north of England. I've had several conversations already with people who bemoan the snow and cold, since I maintain I'd rather have a PROPER winter, with snow instead of rain - since rain ought to fall mainly in autumn and spring, and never in summer - and with cold blue skies and bright sunshine between the snowfalls instead of our usual dull, cloudy, rainy, dampness and grimness. I love proper seasons.

You can't deny that snow makes ordinary landscapes and cityscapes look beautiful. So my suggestion is - get yourself some proper winter clothing and footwear, be prepared for journeys to take longer - possibly a lot longer - and if at all possible curl up in a warm room at home, or in front of a log fire in a pub; relax, unwind, enjoy conversations and home entertainments, and go for walks in the wondrous snow. Take photos, enjoy the sight of people making snowpeople and having snowball fights, and join in whenever possible. Tae out flasks of tea and coffee, and whisky. Have fun. Look out for those who are too old or too nervous or too infirm to get out and walk in the snow. Take care of those who don't have warm clothes and warm homes. Drive carefully, if you really have to drive.


Some of my happiest memories of childhood are the times we played and made slides and rode on toboggans in the snow. The snowball fights, the giant snowmen, the crunching of fresh snow underfoot; the running around on lawns in parks and back gardens where the pristine snow was unmarked by a single footprint.

But looking back, one of the strangest things about my childhood, which in most ways was pretty conventional, was the number of hours, and days, I spent in the company of my dad watching Test Match cricket on black and white TV. Not that it felt strange back then, when there  were only two TV stations, and one TV per household, and it was the God-given right of the BBC to screen every minute of every home Test Match on live television.

Dad and me didn't really do a lot of things together, for all sorts of reasons. In early childhood I had Matchbox and Dinky toys to organise and drive around, and toy soldiers and cowboys to train, deploy and fight battles with.

In middle childhood I needed to be out with friends, armed to the teeth with six-shooters, automatic pistols and submachine guns, and sometimes bows and arrows, making dens and tracking one another down prior to almighty shoot-outs.

In later childhood there were bikes to ride, a big wide world to explore, football and cricket matches to play in, and girls to hang out with. Dad couldn't, and didn't, ride bikes or play sports.

But every summer there was live Test Match cricket on TV, which dad and I used to watch, whenever he wasn't out at work. Hours and hours of quiet and often silent contemplation  and meditation, without the distraction of telephones, texts, emails, iPods, Playstations, Nintendos and the Internet. Just dad, me, and the lucid, enlightening and thoughtful commentators.

What's more, in the era of May, Barrington, Lawrie, Dexter and Boycott the tempo of the cricket could be extremely slow, and the games could be extremely dull - at least from the point of view of strike rates, which was a term unknown back then. Scoring one or two runs per over was often the norm. Fiendish fast bowlers and near-unplayable spinners seemed often to dominate low-scoring games on tricky pitches.

And yet there was a high level of interest that kept us watching, when for me the sunny streets and my mates might otherwise have been calling.

You probably need to have played cricket to really appreciate it. What a mad game it can be - when two teams of eleven players can be on the pitch for five days and still end up with neither of them winning.

It's when you try yourself to master the arts and skills of cricket that you really get to know it. Just throwing and catching a hard, heavy ball can be a problem, let alone bowling accurately at a distant set of stumps with a batter standing in the way . . .

How to keep your arm straight when you bowl . . . How to run in fast towards the pitch and how to let go of the ball at precisely the right moment, with your arm high above your head, your front foot just beyond the stumps,  and with your fingers aligned with the seam of the ball in precisely the right manner and with exactly the right amount of grip . . .

How to bowl bouncers and yorkers and good length balls that actually hit the stumps . . . How to make the ball swerve or loop, and how to make it change direction after hitting the pitch . . . Not that this was too much of a problem on the rough grass that we used in our locality - but it was another story trying to do it in a controlled way that actually knocked over a stump or two.

As for the arts and crafts of spin bowling . . . On this you could spend hours - experimenting with different grips, and different flicks of the wrist, and working out whether you could do off-spin or leg-spin. Experimenting with flight, and speed, and toying with batters who were expecting spin but weren't expecting balls that kept going straight and true . . .

On the TV you could see the best players in the world showing off their skills and talents, and you could appreciate how good they were at their jobs, especially when your own efforts were so comparitively poor.

As a parks and gardens batsman you could become quite good at slogging and driving and hooking poor bowling, but there on the screen you could see great batsmen hitting big scores against great bowlers.

I say you could see it on the TV, but that was nowhere near as well as you can see it now, in glorious full colour, in high definition, on big screens and with the benefit of ultra-slow motion and telescopic lens, and with multiple camera angles. Not to mention Hawkeye. It was cricket, Jim, but not as we now know it.


This current Ashes series in Australia could turn out to be one of the best ever - with evenly matched teams, interesting characters, and plenty of 'edge' to the proceedings. England are the holders of the trophy, and Australia are desperate to regain it.

During the final day of the (drawn) first Test we saw a magnificent Gabba stadium seemingly deserted apart from joyous Poms, who were celebrating England scoring over 500 runs in their second innings for the loss of only one wicket - thanks to some brilliant batting from Strauss, Cook and Trott, and some pretty indifferent bowling and fielding from the opposition. Even Ponting dropped a couple.

It's unknown in living memory for the top three England batsmen to all score centuries in the same innings. We're normally pretty ecstatic if they all score 50 or so, especially if they're playing Australia, home or away.

The commentators (on the single hour per day of highlights on ITV4 and ITV4+1) kept on talking about the 'wheels falling off' the Aussie effort to contain the magnificent batters, but all things considered they all seemed to me to play with sportsmanship and dignity, which is a big plus, I'd say.

In my own terms, the wheels fall off when people start losing their rag, become overly and unneccessarily and unproductively aggressive, become abusive and unpleasant, and start to show all the signs of failing to contain destructive emotions.

Machismo is often a preening display of the so-called manly virtues such as boldness, aggression and physical strength. Manliness, as such, is the ability to contain frustration, disappointment and anger when things go wrong and/or you find yourself dealing with opponents who are playing a blinder, often with all the available luck on their side. A better term for this is emotional intelligence.

The Australians showed proper appreciation and respect for some very able adversaries. This is what I'd call spiritual intelligence.

On the England side, their players showed a different sort of manliness and sportmanship in their hour of non-triumphant triumph.

David Hopps, in the Guardian, summed it up very well:

"The day when Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe are surpassed, for longevity at any rate, is not a day for egotism, it is a day for humility, and Strauss's sense of perspective on one of the finest days of his career provided further proof that English cricket is in good hands."

Hopps also wrote about the finest cricketers being unassuming, and showing geniality and resilience. These are also characteristics of spiritual intelligence. As is the ability to keep things in perspective, an ability to curb egotism, and an ability to demonstrate humility. As are clarity of thought, having the courage of one's convictions, and having the ability to inspire others - all of which which Mike Selvey wrote about in his match report. All of us do well to cultivate these virtues and values.

Let David Hopps, however, have the final say:

"It was accurate to observe this is not a great Australian attack and that the pitch at The Gabba was playing quietly. But it is more accurate simply to reflect that England began their second innings 221 behind, with more than two days remaining, that after only three days their reputation was on the line and by the end of the day they had responded so magnificently that they had summoned memories of giants from the past. History will tell you that this was one of England's great Ashes days."


These days I prefer to listen to live broadcasts of Test Matches on the BBC's Test Match Special on Radio 5 Live Sports Extra. The wonders of digital radio! However, since these current Test matches are taking place during the hours I prefer to sleep, I look for an extended and practically ball-by-ball commentary on the Internet - on the Guardian website's OBO - Over By Over. Here there's written commentary plus amusing and sometimes enlightening emails and texts from around the world. Reading the whole thing whilst having breakfast is a treat. Here's a selection of recent comments:


"I'm now sitting here with the single man's holy trinity of cricket on the TV, and OBO and Football Manager on the laptop. I have never seen Australians look so dejected either on the field or in the streets or in the stands - its fantastic. Australians under the age of 30 or so just have never seen their attack being so brutally demoralised in this manner - to the point where the Barmy Army were chanting "Are you England in disguise?" yesterday. I just can't wait to go back into work tomorrow, especially as all my colleagues were bombarding me with sledge e-mails and texts during Saturday."

Alastair Cook's 230 is the highest Test score at the Gabba, ahead of Don Bradman's 226 against some poor helpless suckers back in the day.

It's 512 for one. Someone should make an emoticon for this, although I don't know if one graphic can simultaneously portray confusion, joy, incredulity, delirum, delirium tremens, confusion, joy and multiple statgasms.

This has been an extraordinary innings, one that nobody on the planet could have imagined. Cook ends on 235, Trott on 135, their partnership an unbeaten 329 and England's lead 296.

TEA:  "I'm in a hotel room in Miami Beach with a dodgy internet connection and I'm reading that England are 517-1. If only! Real score please?"

Andrew Goulden feels a T-shirt coming on: "I'm not sure if it's already been mentioned but a T-shirt with '517-1, it doesn't get any better' would look pretty natty I feel. Maybe having a picture of a downcast Ponting underneath would really set it off. Or a shot of Johnson dropping that catch off Strauss. Either would do nicely." OBO Enterprises in on the case.

"Suggestion for Neil Gouldson (21st over): I've found an easy way to explain cricket-related happiness/despair with as little language as possible is to pretend the score works as in football. Point to the 517 and say "England" (ying guo), point to the 1 and say "Australia".
They will understand."

More statgasms here:



Also heard on the radio yesterday, some pillock on Thought For Today saying,

"Christianity doesn't exist to make the world a better place. It exists to get souls into heaven."

"Justice, peace and the common good are not as important as the state of an individual's soul."

This kind of either/or dumb-arse dualistic thinking, which is typical of Christian fundamentalists - especially the rich, evangelical TV broadcasting variety - is what causes so many of the world's problems and keeps so many people in a state of spiritual ignorance. And that's without even considering the irrationality of believing in concepts like God and heaven.

As a matter of fact, I think Jesus did care about making the world a better place. I think that's why he threw out the moneylenders, why he healed the sick, and why he fed the masses.

The bozo on the radio also spoke about "Justifying oneself in the eyes of God." So what happens if billions of Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and atheists don't even believe in one almighty God, let alone set about justifying themselves in His eyes? Do they all automatically go to everlasting hell, since they clearly haven't aimed to get into heaven? Even if they've led blameless, enlightened and spiritually intelligent lives?

How the hell can the BBC carry on letting nutters like this speak this kind of nonsense to the world at large?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Layer 389 . . . More Royal Wedding Thoughts, Civilisation, Closing Libraries, Conservatism, Blandness, Blairism, Thatcher's Children and the Class of 68

What kind of philistine country allows its libraries to close down - no matter how desperate its politics and economics?

Without libraries, we will lose a mark of our civilisation

250 libraries are earmarked to be closed, yet the government ignores this huge loss to the community
by Catherine Bennett

How happy does it make you when you hear your library will be closed to save money?
Soon, Mr Cameron's happiness project may help councils to establish whether libraries do, as philanthropists once believed, have something important to offer communities or whether, as many authorities have concluded, the contribution of this service to general well-being is so negligible as to make it a prime candidate for cuts.

Of course, for the almost 250 libraries already earmarked for closure, their role in the happiness supply chain is probably irrelevant. By the time experts have established that, where the alleviation of ignorance, illiteracy, isolation, helplessness, unemployment, infirmity, boredom, neglect and poverty are concerned, libraries do, after all, offer something culturally irreplaceable, they will be gone. It is becoming clear that Mr Cameron's government will do nothing to protect them.
In another model example of the big society at work, his proposal is furiously opposed by an existing community group, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries. This is not merely because they want librarians who have been trained to run libraries, a job that involves helping other citizens input highly personal information into computers as well as recommending and ordering books, supporting literacy, hosting community groups, storytelling, helping with homework, dealing with the lonely, needy or difficult individuals who rely on the places in ways that vast chunks of the supposedly squeezed middle, as well as prosperous county councillors, will never know.

Lauren Smith, a spokesperson for another volunteer group, Voices for the Library, points out that it is the very people who do not use libraries "whose voices are loudest".

Without libraries, another campaigner predicts, many of the uneducated, unemployed and otherwise forgotten former users will end up needing much costlier help, further down the line, inside job centres, doctors' surgeries, advice centres, housing offices. But a more pressing problem is that "community-run" can only, where it is divorced from the prevailing library service, be a euphemism for permanently trashed.

Supposing every devolved library were to be taken over by a group which was, by chance, composed of kindly, discreet book-lovers with no family commitments, willing to travel and with a gift for incessant fundraising and building maintenance, there would still be no way customers – or beneficiaries – could depend upon it. How do users complain when the library is shut during advertised opening hours?
Bastards. This is sickening and outrageous. We need more and better libraries, not fewer - if we're to become the civilised and enlightened country many of us hoped we might be. But then bringing civilisation, empowerment and enlightenment to the masses was never on the Tory agenda, was it? Far better for people to stay at home with their soap operas, tabloid TV and 'newspapers', celebrity magazines and satellite sports channels.

"Please mum, can we go to the library today?" "Shut up and get back to your cartoons, you bloody little bookworm."


Typical of the vile comments on Comment is Free at the foot of the article is this one by someone whose icon says Smash The State:
I have to say of all things, Libraries are not a priority.
If it has to be done close libraries in wealthy areas, especially those silly small ones what never have the book you want. They can afford their own book anyway.
Leaving aside the small matter of why this type of moron is crawling all over the Guardian website these days (because there's now a paywall around the Murdoch empire?) - this is precisely why children, as well as adults, need libraries. So that some of them at least don't grow up to be bigoted, ignorant fuckwits.


She might be a bit of a whacky Hackneyite, but it's good to see Suzanne Moore back in the Guardian this weekend:
Royal wedding? It's the bland leading the bland
Kate Middleton is the perfect people's princess for this dull, conservative land

Had I recently arrived from a land far away – and indeed it's a long time since I have been in this newspaper – I wouldn't have much trouble telling you which government is in power. I would simply glance around at people's homes, the clothes they wear, the programmes they watch on TV, and I would see as clear as day that conservative taste stalks the land. It was creeping up on us before the Tories were elected but now it is triumphant. In its understated way of course. Conservative taste does not present itself as anything but good taste. It is just "classic". It is nice, cosy, comfortable rather than sexy. It is simply the way things should be.

To see it in action just look at the swish of the Middleton hair. Of course this lovely young woman has lovely hair which has been blow-dried into glossy swishiness. This is the pinnacle of her achievement and every woman in the land should aspire to it.

This may, of course, be about my refusal to age gracefully, but why, watching this hard-edged girl and diffident young manboy, did I feel unable to place them generationally? They don't resemble any young people I know. It was her tights that did it – flesh-coloured. Opaques would bring down the monarchy.

But what do I know? Fashion editors liked the dress. Possibly "surrendered wife" is the look du jour. Of course it's all nice enough in a middle-aged "don't frighten the horses" Tory spouse way.

The prevalence of Conservative style is the norm to which we all aspire . . .

This is a style that explicitly represses sex and money. Bling is for those who don't have wealth. Sex is about Sam Cam style prettiness and should not be overt. It's about cleanliness and enormous amounts of grooming. No wonder that every subculture at some point makes women look properly dirty with smeared mascara and messed-up hair.
Conservative style is about everything being in the right place whereas real style depends on interesting juxtapositions. It is about more than buying a Heals kitchen or getting a nice blow-dry. These conventions are deadening and restrictive. During a recession nostalgia sells, but nostalgia for what exactly?

This is not fashion. Or actual taste. It is buying into a vision of classlessness that has been defined entirely by the upper middle class as just the way things are. It is heart-stoppingly dull. These signs and rituals of respectability are part of the dominant consensus. This blanding out is a narrowing down of what culture can do. Of what life can be.

The down-home, retro, neutered aesthetics of conservatism are as deadly as their politics. Resist on every front.

This article says all you need to know about the former PM and the Tory leadership - that they so admire the creature formerly known as T Blair.
Tony Blair's misleading lesson

They call Tony Blair the master and quote from his book.

by Stefan Stern


It's love. "I love A Journey," Michael Gove has confessed to this newspaper. Tony Blair's memoirs are like no other book he has ever read, he declared. And Gove's passion is shared by many in the cabinet. David Cameron has admitted how much he enjoyed the book; George Osborne is said to have an audio version, which allows him to hear the author telling his story in his own voice. At No 10 and No 11 Blair is known as "The Master".

Health secretary Andrew Lansley is another fan. "If you read Tony Blair's memoirs, he makes it clear that he regrets the fact that they did not pursue ... reform much more strongly in the early days of the Labour government," he told the PoliticsHome website (paywall). Gove has drawn a similar conclusion. "One of the ... lessons of A Journey – there are many lessons in it – is don't hang around," he said.
 "Reform", eh? This is classic Chicago-School neo-conservative Shock Doctrine tactics, of course. Declare a national emergency and then trash whatever social democratic welfare state still remains as fast as possible, before anyone really understands what's happening.
The truth is it is not yet clear how good a leader Blair actually was. The electoral track record looks impressive. But how hard was it to defeat the Conservatives in 1997 and 2001? His last victory in 2005 was by a margin of only 3%.
This is rubbish. It's perfectly clear. As I never tire of saying, this country was so desperate to get rid of the Tories in '97 that it didn't matter a toss who was the leader of the Labour party at that time. Labour was elected in spite of having the twattish Blair(s) as its leader(s) - as far as 'traditional' Labour supporters were concerned.

Blair, however, turned out to be a very able leader - in terms of fooling lots of people into believing he was some sort of progressive politician, in terms of forcing through the continuation of Thatcherism, in terms of taking forward the whole neo-conservative globalising agenda, in terms of championing bankers and big finance, in terms of shackling us to George W and his cronies, etc.

No wonder these Tories love him.


Thatcher's children can lead the class of 68 back into action

The students aren't just angry about education cuts. They see themselves as a vanguard for a much wider protest campaign

by Polly Toynbee

The scandalous abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA), which gives £30 a week to sixth-formers from the poorest families, is as central to their protest as their tripled fees. I read out a heartbreaking email I had just received from a Hackney sixth-former: she and her twin brother live with their disabled mother. Together they will lose £60 a week in allowance and wonder if they can stay on. She went on her first march on Wednesday, peacefully, far from any violence, and was horrified at being kettled by the police for five hours. Are police and government conspiring to turn peaceful young people into outraged militants?

What started as protests about tuition fees accelerated into a political movement against cuts of all kinds. Inequality, poverty, the shredding of public services, unemployment, bankers and boardroom bonuses had become part of the protest. One fight, one struggle, they said, as if 40 years had suddenly fallen away. Not exactly Paris 1968, but in their sit-in meetings they were beginning to see themselves as the vanguard for a wider campaign. Thatcher's children, selfish, materialist, apathetic? Not at all.

Another eye-opener: the coalition has U-turned to shelve its pledge to protect public sector workers who blow the whistle on dangerous, corrupt or incompetent practices. Why? Ministers just realised it would also protect anyone revealing damage done to services by their own cuts.

When the Metropolitan police commissioner talks of a new era of civil unrest, he may not know which way to look for the next wave. Will it be the cavalcade of wheelchairs that so alarmed politicians last time their users tipped themselves on to the pavement outside No10? More school pupils, losing not just EMA but by next year teaching assistants and teachers, along with libraries, swimming pools, school sports and youth clubs? Or mothers with prams, since women are the great losers in income, childcare, nurseries and other services? Or nurses from closed wards? The "squeezed middle" will be angry, the £12,000 to £30,000 earners about to lose £720 a year, as identified by the Resolution Foundation this week. The same middle saw the decade of GDP growth pass them by, with most new wealth sucked upwards to the top few percentiles.

No doubt the government secretly hopes violent protest by striking public sector unions will alienate popular support. The unions need to be cleverer than that, standing on the side of the public and never against them. Striking teachers sending children home so parents lose days of work will lose sympathy that would otherwise be guaranteed by more creative action.

The recklessness in coalition assaults on the NHS, benefits and council services, with the pain distributed so unjustly, suggests a high-risk government speeding without seatbelts. With so many candidates, it's hard to tell what will erupt as iconic "poll tax" issues. Students are always first – energy, time and lack of children make protest easy. But the class of 68 may not be far behind, an older generation dusting down its memories and equally free of family to make its voice heard, the generation who had it all supporting the recession generations, growing up debt-laden with shrunken services, too few jobs and years away from owning a home.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Layer 388 . . . Education, the White Paper, and the Alexander Review

Schools and the teaching profession in England stand accused of cowardice, complacency, confusion, disunity, lack of professionalism and lack of vision. Not by Michael Gove. By me.

Through failing to resist the assault on its professionalism by successive governments the teaching profession has forfeited its right to be seen as a profession, and appears to be a divided bunch of self-interested functionaries who simply do as they're told, even when the people doing the telling are plainly idiots and cretins who have NO clue as to the needs of learners and teachers.

Who are all these 'superheads', for instance, who have allegedly 'turned schools around'? To face in which direction? The 'Standards Agenda'? Teaching to the tests? 'Driving up standards? Uncritical adoption of governmental 'reforms'? Creating factory schools that constantly drill and coach pupils with league tables their sole concern? Yes you bastards - you know who you are.

Of course the best of the best have managed to achieve government targets without sacrificing concern for individual children and without letting go of a determination to provide schools that offer a broad and balanced and creative curriculum. All of which is much easier to achieve if you have a proper comprehensive intake of pupils and a stable staff.

But it's been a dog eat dog world, and it's likely to get even worse. Thanks to Gove and co.

Schools' sole concern from now on ought to be for the pupils and their families. That's to say, for the total wellbeing of their pupils, and not just their test scores.

Unless schools are enabling children to grow up loving school and learning to love learning for its own sake, and feeling that every day is enjoyable and creative, then they are failing in their duty. Schools are NOT businesses, and they have no business behaving as though test and exam scores are all that matter.

Take Primary schools. Why have they not joined together and said we're going to adopt wholesale the recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review? For the answer to this question, see paragraph 1 - above.

The headline on the front page of the Times Educational Supplement - no hotbed of revolution - on Friday October 16th 2009 said,

Alexander Review: Give us back our schools


by Helen Ward

Biggest investigation since Plowden demands end to era of centralised control

The biggest investigation into primary education in a generation has demanded that England’s schools are reclaimed from politicians who have imposed a “state theory of learning” on teachers.

The final report of the independent Cambridge Primary Review, published today, calls for the depoliticisation of the classroom, with central control slashed to a minimum and funding pumped into schools.

The study, which has taken three years and draws on the work of more than 3,000 researchers, begins: “Ours is a public system of education which belongs to the people and is not the personal fiefdom of ministers and their unelected advisors.”

Its recommendations include that formal primary education should not start until the age of six, and that the current system of league tables and national tests be scrapped and replaced with a new system of accountability in which teacher assessment plays a stronger role.

Professor Robin Alexander, who led the inquiry, said he was irritated that the debate over education had been presented as a simple battle between “the trendy” and “back to basics” factions.

“The whole discourse has been hijacked by the mythmakers,” he told The TES. “This is about reclaiming the debate, it is about resetting the agenda for professionals.”

The final report, Children, Their World, Their Education, is being sent to every school in the UK, including secondaries and special schools.

It is the largest inquiry of its kind since Lady Plowden’s in 1967, but is more independent than its predecessor. The Alexander Review was funded by the Esmee Fairbain charitable foundation while the Plowden report was commissioned by the government of the day.

Many of its findings have been revealed over the last year and half in a series of interim reports, including an assertion that childhood is not in crisis, and that primary schools provide a safe haven for young children in a changing world.

John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said teachers would applaud many of the review’s conclusions, including the change in official primary starting age. “Professor Alexander is spot on that education is too important for the factionalisation of party politics,” he said.

As the report notes, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as well as Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary have criticised the interim reports for containing “a collection of recycled, partial or out of date research”.

However, both the anti-centralisation and the subject specialist recommendations will appeal to the Conservatives, which have pledged to move funding from agencies to the frontline.

David Laws, Liberal democrat spokesman for education, said: “The strength of the report is that it’s not been commissioned by the Government and its terms of reference haven’t been unnecessarily restricted. It is able to recognize some of the achievements of primary education and progress made in the last decade while also being willing to be critical about those things that have gone wrong. We feel very strongly that the degree of micromanagement and interference is on a scale that would never have been tolerated and would have been seen as shockingly totalitarian 30 years ago.”


Ah yes, David Laws. I remember him well. One of the main movers and shakers in the coalition negotiations, I seem to recall. Foxy little guy. Gove's counterpart in the LibDems.

As Kundera said, politicians rely on our forgetfulness. 


Disadvantage lies at heart of primary review


Robin Alexander praises schools as ‘the centre that holds when things fall apart’, but while rejecting media ‘myths’ of a generation in crisis he argues that more must be done to narrow the gap between vulnerable children and the rest. Helen Ward reports

Forty years ago, the Plowden report declared that at the heart of the educational process lies the child.

Now, the most comprehensive inquiry into primary schooling in Britain since then has laid out its vision of education. And central to its vision is the disadvantaged child.

“For this is our bottom line,” the Cambridge Primary Review states. “The education of young children matters immeasurably - to them both now and in the future and to our society. It matters to all children but especially to those who, in our divided society, lack the massively compensating advantages of financial wealth, emotional harmony and a home life that is linguistically, intellectually, culturally and spiritually rich.”

The review, which set out to examine how primary education can best meet the needs of today’s children, is indignant about the politicisation of education.

In the final report, edited by Professor Robin Alexander, the review’s leader, rails against media myths of failure and politicians’ ill-founded claims of success.

The report’s prevailing mood is underlined by its headline conclusions: reform Sats and scrap league tables, extend the early-years foundation stage to Year 1, rebalance the curriculum, train teachers to become educators not deliverers of ready-made lessons and carry out a full review of special educational needs provision.

The report is more than another shot in one of the many battlegrounds of education. It is deeply serious, foreseeing that “sensationalising headlines will do nothing like justice” to the breadth, weight and authority of the evidence. But it is readable and not without humour (among the 88 historical milestones it lists are 1969’s “back to basics”, 1992’s “back to basics again” and 1998’s “back to basics yet again”).

It is an ambitious attempt to go beyond governments, override spats and appeal directly to “all those interested in primary education”. It concludes with 75 recommendations that the 14 authors believe would provide the education and the childhood that all children deserve.

It begins by exploring the state of childhood, noting one father’s complaints about his son’s alleged truancy and failure to do his homework - comments made in Mesopotamia 3,500 years ago. Is the modern “crisis in childhood” real? What is the evidence?

Start by listening to children, suggests the report; 72 per cent say their peers are “kind and helpful”.

Health, education and respect for children have improved vastly. There are genuine concerns about equity, but the distorted picture of “blighted” childhoods prevents change where it is needed.

The review praises primary schools as “the centre that holds when things fall apart”. It praises the Government’s efforts to narrow gaps in educational attainment.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the review was correct to draw attention to disadvantaged pupils and the inequality in the education system.

The report is independent, but it is responsive to the political landscape in which it finds itself. It advocates change in a system that seems to be constantly changing. This term, the Government is due to announce its final decision on the recommendations of Sir Jim Rose’s review, which was limited to the primary curriculum.

The Rose review recommendations, which have been widely welcomed in the profession, call for the national curriculum to be rearranged into six areas of learning and six essential skills, in an attempt to give teachers more flexibility. The new curriculum is due to be introduced by 2010.

But the Cambridge review calls for the process to be suspended. Sir Jim’s review has fundamentally missed the point, it argues. The problem is not curriculum overload, but a mismatch between what schools have to do and the skills of their staff. Primaries need more teachers and more specialist teachers in addition to generalist class teachers.

But how seriously will politicians treat its proposals?

As the review notes, some of its recommendations have already been taken up - including scrapping National Strategies - though ministers dismissed them when they were made in its earlier interim reports.

Professor Alexander knows only too well the risks that the final report’s calls may be ignored or even attacked as “off message”.

It concludes: “The Cambridge Primary Review is for the longer term, not the next election… its final report is not just for transient architects and agents of policy. It is for all who invest daily, deeply and for life in this vital phase of education, especially children, parents and teachers.”

In other words, it is for you.


Key recommendations

End the “state theory of learning”. The Government should not tell teachers how to teach.

- Extend the foundation stage to age six. Have a single primary key stage.

- Prioritise narrowing the gap between vulnerable children and the rest.

- Undertake a full review of special educational needs.

- Follow Professor Alexander’s curriculum recommendations, including the creation of 12 aims and eight domains.

- Reform assessment; stop current Sats; scrap league tables; assess all areas of the curriculum and use sampling to monitor national standards.

- Undertake a full review of primary school staffing.

- Reform initial teacher training.

- Protect rural and middle schools.

- Protect and expand school libraries.

- End primary/secondary funding differential.

Q. What is the Cambridge Primary Review?

A. A three-year inquiry into the state and future of English primary education.

Q. Who is Robin Alexander?

A. Director of the review and fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge University. He was one of the “three wise men” who led a government inquiry into primary education in 1991. He has long advocated a more central place for oracy in primary education.

Q. How is this review different from Sir Jim Rose’s?

A. Sir Jim was commissioned and paid by the Government to look at the primary curriculum. Professor Alexander’s review has been funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and looks at the whole of primary education.

Q. What does Professor Alexander think about primary schools?

A. Primary schools appear to be under intense pressure but in good heart. They are highly valued by children and parents and in general are doing a good job. They do not neglect and never have neglected the 3Rs… For many, schools are the centre that holds when things fall apart.


What the report says…

 . . . about teaching staff

England has 198,200 primary teachers and 172,600 primary school support staff - one adult for every 11 primary pupils. This is investment on a remarkable scale.

The class teacher system is taken for granted, but does it best serve primary pupils’ needs?

It arose because it combined cheapness and efficiency in the context of large classes, a basic curriculum and view of teaching as little more than drilling of facts and skills. But subject knowledge is the elephant in the room.

A national review of staffing and funding policy is required. And more specialist teachers are needed, especially in upper primary.

A two-year PGCE should be considered to help to achieve this. Initial teacher training should move away from compliance culture. The Training and Development Agency for Schools’ professional standards need changing as they encourage conformity rather than originality and do not recognise that experienced teachers need autonomy to be effective. Continuing professional development is often patronising.

Headteachers need to be supported so they can focus on leading learning. The current model in which the head is burdened with a proliferating range of responsibilities is no longer tenable for a single person.

Teaching assistants have liberated teachers from tasks that diminish time with children, but the use of TAs as teachers is not acceptable. They need training for working with small groups and children with SEN.

. . . about pupils
Legitimate concerns exist about children’s lives today, but the “crisis” of modern childhood has been grossly overstated.

For most children, perceived risk is much greater than actual risk. But for a significant minority the risks and deprivations are at least as severe as they are portrayed and it is here that attention needs to be focused. Social disadvantage blights the early lives of a larger proportion of children in Britain than in many other countries.

Britain is very diverse - and to an extent which at the time of Plowden would have been unimaginable. The transience and unpredictability of migration and the inadequacy of local information adds to pressure on schools. The review encountered evidence of discrimination against marginalised groups, within the education system as well as in society.

. . . about government
Assumptions and formulas for funding primary education should be reviewed. The staffing of primary schools should be led by the curriculum and the needs of pupils. A new funding formula is needed, preceded by a national staffing review. Excessive funding variation between local authorities and key stages should be eliminated.

The National Strategies have cost £2 billion. Savings arising from terminating them should be shifted from government and local authorities to schools.

Centralised reform has produced important and necessary changes in children’s services, but has gone too far in relation to curriculum and pedagogy. The role of government should revert to providing the administrative and financial framework, setting the goals and scope of the national curriculum and the broad standards primary schools should achieve.

Assessment should be reviewed and league tables stopped. Children’s learning should be assessed formatively throughout the primary phase and summatively before the transfer to secondary school. A separate system should be used to evaluate schools and monitor national standards externally, using sample testing.


What's happened since this report was published? Anyone taken any note of it?
Not really. People like Balls and Gove have done what people like them usually do. And the Primary sector, to its shame, has kept its head down and failed to demand full implementation of the above.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Layer 387 . . . Brazil, Rio, Lula, Education, White Paper, Gove and Ofsted

This week I've been thinking about Rio de Janeiro. Never having set foot in South America, it was interesting to talk with someone who's lived there for over 30 years. Rio sounds like a pretty wonderful place, not least on account of its climate, whose average temperatures never fall below 18C. Throughout the year the highest average monthly temperatures range from 28C to 34C. How perfect is that?

Rio de Janeiro is the most visited city in the southern hemisphere and is known for its natural settings, carnival celebrations, samba, Bossa Nova, balneario beaches such as Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. Some of the most famous landmarks in addition to the beaches include the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer ('Cristo Redentor') atop Corcovado mountain, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World; Sugarloaf mountain (Pão de Açúcar) with its cable car; the Sambódromo, a permanent grandstand-lined parade avenue which is used during Carnival; and Maracanã stadium, one of the world's largest football stadiums. Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Summer Olympics, the first South American city to host the event, and will host the final match for 2014 FIFA World Cup.   -  Wikipedia

There are significant disparities between the rich and the poor in Rio de Janeiro. Although the city clearly ranks among the world's major metropolises, one fifth of its inhabitants live in neighbourhoods known as favelas, where housing is not regulated. In the favelas, 15% of the population are poor, compared to 10% in the general population. There have been a number of government initiatives to counter this problem, from the removal of the population from favelas to housing projects such as Cidade de Deus to the more recent approach of improving conditions in the favelas, bringing them up to par with the rest of the city, as was the focus of the "Favela Bairro" program.   -   Wikipedia

Today I came across this in the Guardian:

Rio de Janeiro gun battles leave at least 14 people dead

Many killed in major police assaults on favela strongholds of drug traffickers and gangsters


Prolonged gun battles between police and drug traffickers left at least 14 people dead yesterday in Rio . . .

The deaths came during a series of major police assaults on the city's slums, including one favela that serves as the HQ of the city's largest drug gang.

Triggered by a spate of attacks on police and drivers, the incursions began on Tuesday and involved hundreds of heavily armed police operatives, bulletproof vehicles and helicopters.

About 150 people were arrested during the sweeps by 17,500 officers while at least 22 people have been killed since Sunday, according to Rio's military police. The wounded have included two policemen and an 81-year-old man while an estimated 17,000 children were left unable to attend lessons as a result of the clashes.

"We did not start this war," Colonel Lima Castro, a spokesman for Rio's military police said last night. "We were provoked and we will emerge victorious."

The massive operations in at least 20 Rio favelas followed a wave of apparently co-ordinated attacks by drug traffickers who torched buses and cars and planted homemade bombs in various locations.

The attacks were reportedly instigated by Rio's oldest and most powerful drug faction, the Red Command, as a reaction against official attempts to pacify the favelas which have so far seen several suspected gangsters expelled.

After Tuesday's operations, the confrontations erupted again yesterday when armed police poured into the Complexo da Penha, a sprawling labyrinth of slums which is home to leading members of the Red Command faction.

It is controlled by scores of fresh-faced gang members armed with assault rifles and machine guns.

Helicopter images shot by one TV channel showed dozens of gang members, brandishing handguns and assault rifles, gathered at an entrance to the community.

Last night gunfights continued, cars burned and police roadblocks were set up across the city. Internet rumours of impending attacks, in shopping malls and in the city's beachside south zone, spread rapidly.

Rio's governor, Sérgio Cabral, also took to the airwaves. "This is an act of despair," he said. "We will carry on with the same policy of retaking territory."

One civil police officer told the Guardian that authorities expected further attacks. "There's going to be trouble," he said.

Brazil's a fascinating country, and is about to become a hugely important economic force in the world. It's politics are also very interesting.

Brazil is the largest country in South America. It is the world's fifth largest country, both by geographical area and by population. - Wikipedia

President-elect: Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff is the first woman to be elected as Brazil's president. She is former chief of staff to, and favoured successor of, outgoing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Dilma Rousseff has pledged to continue the policies of her predecessor.

In the October 2010 elections to succeed President Lula, she narrowly failed to win an outright majority in the first round.

The result meant Ms Rousseff faced the second-placed candidate, Sao Paolo mayor Jose Serra of the main opposition Social Democracy party, in a run-off vote on 31 October.

Ms Rousseff, 62, was little known to her compatriots until Mr Lula selected her as his favoured successor after a number of high-profile candidates were forced out by corruption scandals during his time in office.

She joined the government in 2003 as energy minister. In 2005, Mr Lula made her his chief of staff, a post she held until March 2010, when she launched her campaign for the presidency as the Workers Party (PT) candidate.

During the election campaign, Ms Rousseff made it clear that she represented continuity with the Lula government, under which millions of Brazilians saw their standard of living rise.

She is known to favour a strong state role in strategic areas, including banking, the oil industry and energy.

Dilma Rousseff was born in 1947 and grew up in an upper middle class household in Belo Horizonte, in the coffee-growing state of Minas Gerais.

Her father, Pedro Rousseff, was a Bulgarian immigrant.

Her seemingly conventional background changed in the mid-1960s, when she was in her late teens. She became involved in left-wing politics and joined the underground resistance to the military dictatorship that seized power in 1964.

She has said that she was never actively involved in armed operations, but in 1970 she was jailed for three years and reportedly tortured.

After her release at the end of 1972 she studied economics and went on to become a career civil servant.

In 2009, she was treated for and recovered from lymphatic cancer.

Outgoing president: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, is set to step down on 1 January 2011 after two four-year terms in office, being barred by the constitution from standing for a third term.
President Lula da Silva

Lula promises to help Brazil's poorest while pursuing growth

Elected in 2002 on promises to boost growth and to narrow the gap between rich and poor, Lula, of the centre-left Workers' Party, secured a second term in a landslide election victory in October 2006.

In his first term, Lula implemented tough fiscal policies, overseeing economic stabilisation and falling levels of inflation and foreign debt.

He changed the pension system and pushed through a modest increase in the minimum wage.

Welfare programmes targeted millions of poor families. But he had to contend with a surge of land invasions by activists frustrated at what they saw as the slow pace of agrarian reform.

In 2005 his popularity was dented by claims of corruption in the ruling party, focusing on a cash-for-votes scheme in Congress. The president apologised and said he had known nothing about the alleged corruption.

In January 2007, Lula marked the start of his second term in office by announcing an ambitious investment programme.

Brazil is a major commodities exporter and Lula has argued strongly that countries should not put up protectionist barriers in response to the current global economic crisis.

Lula was born in 1945 in the impoverished north-east. His family moved to Sao Paulo when he was seven and he left school at 14 to become a metal worker.

In the 1970s, he honed his political skills as a fiery union leader in the industrial suburbs of Sao Paulo. He went on to help found the Workers' Party.

- BBC    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/country_profiles/1227110.stm


Oh dear - what to say about Gove and his White Paper? Some of the rhetoric sounds plausible,  and is probably inspired by his pal Anthony Seldon and various anarcho-conservatives. Gove's own reactionary prejudices, however, are pretty apparent. He really is a banana.

School reforms: bad teachers out, social mobility in as Gove outlines goals

White paper transforms teacher training, creates an English baccalaureate and encourages traditional uniform

It encourages schools to have "traditional blazer and tie uniforms" as well as prefects and house systems.

The teaching unions claimed Gove's plans would sharpen the divides between schools. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the white paper would "increase bureaucracy and government interference".

"If the education secretary genuinely wishes England to do as well as countries such as Finland, to which he frequently refers in the white paper, he should follow its example by replacing the inspection system with school self-evaluation, refrain from the publication of results by school league tables and the setting of narrow performance targets."

The white paper also narrows the role of Ofsted, to oversight of four areas: pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, school leadership, and pupil behaviour.

The government plans to change regulations on removing incompetent teachers, enabling headteachers to "deal more swiftly, effectively and fairly with underperforming members of staff".

Gove told the Commons: "The best schools systems recruit the best people to teach, train them intensively in the craft of teaching, continue to develop them as professionals throughout their career, groom natural leaders for headship positions and give great heads the chance to make a dramatic difference."

The white paper includes new assessments of "aptitude, personality and resilience" for candidates seeking to enter teaching. High-fliers wishing to switch careers will be tempted by being offered an "accelerated route to leadership" rather than facing the prospect of starting their careers at the bottom.

Armed forces veterans with a degree will have their tuition fees sponsored if they wish to train as teachers and the government will explore a "bespoke, compressed" undergraduate route for former soldiers without a degree.

Gove told reporters: "Not every school would welcome the RSM from Sandhurst joining their ranks, but I have to say there are a number of heads I've talked to who'd bite my arm off to have him doing PE on a Friday afternoon."

The government will create a national network of teaching schools, modelled on teaching hospitals, which will receive funding to provide professional development for teachers and heads.

The white paper proposes a new financial incentive for schools to collaborate, encouraging stronger ones to support weaker schools and improve their performance.

What the reforms mean

The curriculum should set out core knowledge and understanding. It has been too prescriptive and has specified teaching method, which teachers should be free to decide. The national curriculum will be "slim, clear and authoritative" so that all parents can see what their child is expected to know. Academies and free schools will retain the freedom to set aside aspects of the national curriculum, but will be required to teach a "broad and balanced" curriculum.

The long-term goal is to move to a national funding formula under which money would go directly from Whitehall to schools, bypassing local authority control.

The government will not fund graduates who do not have at least a 2:2 degree. The Teach First programme, which recruits highly able graduates, will be expanded. Career-switchers will be encouraged, as will former members of the armed forces who want to teach. The government is to investigate creating a fast-track training route for former servicemen and women who do not have degrees.



Regular readers of Oxzen will be aware that this blog loathes Christine Gilbert's rotten regime at Ofsted, and all that it's done, and not done, to schools.

Zoe Williams wrote this column in the Guardian this week:

Michael Gove's missed the obvious target for reform – Ofsted

The inspectorate's disdain for teachers is shaping policy. But those in the classroom believe those who can't teach, inspect


Some elements of the white paper on education just sound a bit thick. I don't mind that. It is when the coalition sounds cunning that I dread it the most. Still, it bears pointing out that education secretary Michael Gove talks about a "toxic target culture" and then announces a stricter target: raising the threshold at which schools are considered to be "failing" to having fewer than 35% of pupils achieving five GCSEs graded A* to C. The current level is 30% – the change would bestow a failure tag on 439 schools (on 2009 figures). David Cameron spent most of the election vowing to free teachers who have to "teach to the test" only to launch a new test, this time for six-year-olds, to see if they can recognise words.

Teaching unions can defend their members stoutly, and teachers of course can defend themselves: there's no shortage of people saying that if lessons look "dull and uninspiring" it's because the autonomy and creativity has been stripped out of the process by the latest set of targets, and the ones before that. But what unions don't do is criticise Ofsted back, so from a bystander's perspective the inspectorate retains its air of authority and impartiality.

Privately, though, teachers are scathing about Ofsted. Dennis Charman, secondary teacher and secretary of the NUT in Hammersmith and Fulham, is very rare in saying this openly: "I've taught for 36 years and my school is regarded as an outstanding school. I wouldn't allow an Ofsted inspector into my house. There is no respect for them in the profession. Why do people leave teaching to take on this work, on a daily contract basis? Generally it's because they can't hack it in the classroom. I would stand up in front of 1,000 teachers and say this, and they would all cheer."

Targets are set, standards are raised in sometimes eccentric directions, teachers are never consulted but are then made accountable to rules in which they've had no input.

So a government appoints people who aren't teachers to set targets; those same people then attack schools for being too target-driven; and a new regime sets new targets to break the spell of the old targets. It would be more interesting, productive – and cheaper – to reform Ofsted, so that it drew its inspectors from among the best of the active teaching population. The "target" problem would probably solve itself.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Layer 386 . . . Europe, Britain, Ireland, Germany, Schools, Ofsted, Teaching, Learning, Education, Gove and Miliband

Traffic News

More evidence of the insanity on Britain's roads. Yesterday, heading up the M1, I had to sit for nearly an hour almost completely stationary, as a result of 5 cars smashing into one another. The police, as usual managing the 'incident' with excessive ploddery, wouldn't let the traffic start to flow past until all 5 cars had been loaded on to transporters. Not even ONE lane open. 'Ealf ansafety.

Today there was a two mile queue of vehicles trying to leave the M6 to get on to the A14, which of course completely jammed up the M6. This is down to the roadworks at this junction taking forever to complete, and NO proper traffic management measures being taken to prevent this sort of congestion. Temporary relief road? You must be joking.

Meantime the radio was full of reports about the M1 northbound traffic again being at a standstill with a massive tailback - this time as a result of a lorry overturning at the Hemel Hempstead junction. How do you overturn a bloody lorry on a motorway?

I was intending to go round the M25, but then heard reports saying there was a jam from junction 24 to junction 28 as a result of a lorry smashing into the central reservation.

To cap it all there was a complete standstill as soon as we got to the 20 mile long 50mph limit average speed check area on the M1 opposite Bedford. What to do? Leave the motorway, use satnav to cross over to the A1(M) and then trudge through the ghastliness of outer North London to get home in about twice the time the journey WOULD take if there were no roadworks, no congestion, no fuckwit lorry drivers and no hundreds of traffic lights all on red.


Das Musik

Talked with a friend today about the crucial importance of music in people's lives, and singing, and dancing. But how many people seem never to need or enjoy music? ANY music.

We also talked about the uselessness (for me) of 5 years learning German, given that I've been to Germany and will never go there again. Probably. And if I do it'll be with someone who speaks German. Possibly to take a look at Berlin.

Also, I've no wish ever to go back to either Austria or Switzerland. Those massive mountains are not for me. Give me the Lake District or the Massif Central any day.

Coincidentally Mark Lawson on R4's Front Row today interviewed James Last. I've no idea why. Dear Hansi - he's as dull, boring, witless and humourless as his entire musical oevre. And yet he's made an unbelievable fortune from arranging and orchestrating the very worst pop music he could find. The very nastiest, pappiest, most awful songs ever written. Take a terrible tune, play it with an orchestra, and somehow make the original even worse. And his albums sell by the zillion. Over 100 million, apparently. Never overestimate the taste of the masses. Apparently he has 'fans' who travel to his concerts all over the world. Bonkers.


Weak teachers the biggest problem in schools – Ofsted

'Dull and uninspiring' lessons hold back pupils, report finds


The headline in the paper version of this article is, "Dull teaching is letting pupils down, says Ofsted chief inspector".

Either way, it's true that so much of what goes on in schools is dull, uninspiring and boring. And whose fault is that? we may well ask.

Of course Ms Gilbert blames the poor bloody teachers. We have a generation of teachers who have been trained to make learning dull - to unthinkingly and uncritically follow 'national strategies' and to teach by numbers.

Even the few older teachers that remain have been bludgeoned into subject-based teaching and teaching to the tests.

And it's Ms Gilbert's Ofsted 'contractors' (not HMIs) who have been sent out as enforcers of government policies.

Children are being subjected to "dull and uninspiring" lessons, the schools inspectorate warned yesterday. On the eve of an education white paper proposing a shift in teacher training from colleges to classrooms, Ofsted's chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, said low expectation of pupils and teachers' poor grasp of their subject have led to confused lessons.

And this is how Ms Gilbert's mind works. She thinks in Gradgrind's terms. You can see her as an Mchoakumchild figure. She needs to understand that children shouldn't be stuffed with 'imperial gallons of facts' in didactic 'lessons'. Lessons indeed.

Teaching unions pointed out that inadequate teaching remained "the exception rather than the rule". Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Our classroom teachers do an amazing job day in day out in often challenging circumstances.

"If there is anything that is 'dull and uninspiring' in our schools it is a curriculum that is narrowed by the series of hoops that schools have to jump through in order to satisfy arbitrary targets which can change with alarming regularity. This often results in a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, simply because schools are fearful of slipping down in the school league tables."

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: "Criticising hardworking teachers and failing to understand the challenges that teachers and pupils in schools in deprived areas face will do nothing to drive up standards."

More on schools, education and Gove's White Paper tomorrow.


Ed Miliband keeps his head while all around him lose theirs. But it's not enough.

No matter how admirable serenity may be, Miliband must get on with the job of opposition – starting with a critique of the cuts

by Jonathan Freedland


As a matter of temperament, I can't but admire Miliband's apparent serenity – able to incant a gentle "om" while those around him panic over the ticker on Sky News – but as a matter of politics, I lean towards those who reckon the new leader needs to define himself sooner rather than later. But how?

A thick sheaf of policy papers is not the answer . . . What is needed are a few signature moves that reveal the direction of travel, symbolic stands that tell the voters what kind of government you would lead.

I reckon Freedland hasn't been paying proper attention. Ed has already said what needed to be said about direction of travel. (See previous blogs)

Still Freedland's  not wrong when he goes on to say,

Above all, he needs to shift the emphasis of Labour's economic argument. Right now, the party begins with the concession that, yes, there have to be cuts – and then offers quibbles about the timing and degree. That doesn't work. The only way Labour can punch through is by saying that the coalition is taking a reckless gamble with the British economy – with Ireland as a warning from hell – and that any cuts in spending should wait until the return of growth. Otherwise it simply won't get heard.

So it's a necessary strength of Miliband's that he can keep his head. But it is not sufficient. He needs to lead a regular, devastating critique of the government.

And he's not wrong about Ireland being a warning from hell.


Regarding the previous blog's comments about Europe and Europeans - take a look at this piece by Jonathan Jones:


Europe has been building a secret community of culture

Political union is entering its darkest days, to the Eurosceptics' delight. But our shared history will keep us together

Some time soon Europeans who believe in a common identity need to stand up and proclaim the unique richness and openness of our culture.

It is not idealism to believe in Europe; still less is it a bureaucratic abstraction. If you see history in its living colours, you see how deeply European we are and how profound are the roots of that common identity.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Layer 385 . . . Ireland, Tax Piracy, IMF, Shock Doctrine, Terrible Neighbours, the PFI Racket, Nick Clegg, Social Mobility and New Fangled Progressives

Royal wedding date set for 29 April

Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding will take place on Friday 29 April at Westminster Abbey

Exciting. Not.


Things are hotting up again on the economics and financial front. Shit hitting the fan big time in Ireland. Polly Toynbee's column gives an excellent overview:

 Ireland shouldn't get a penny until it gives up its tax piracy

Cameron says he is being 'good neighbours' with the Irish. Why, when they have been such terrible neighbours to us?


Yet again the western world teeters on the edge of calamity caused by the bank-lending extravaganza that fuelled the great property bubble. Europe holds its breath. Will the market predators be halted at Ireland, or might the rating agencies knock down all the dominoes one by one, first the weak countries, then the strong? Meanwhile a Europe-wide fiscal tightening panic may yet bring about the very thing it seeks to prevent, as democracy once again falls under the wheels of finance.

What lesson has George Osborne learned since he penned a paean of praise in the Times in 2006, "Look and Learn Across the Irish Sea"? He wrote: "Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking ... Capital will go wherever investment is most attractive. Ireland's business tax rates are only 12.5%, while Britain's are becoming among the highest in the world." Low taxes are the answer, he said.

He claims he is being "good neighbours" with our cousins across the Irish sea. What he does not say – perhaps embarrassed by all that previous praise – is that the Irish have been exceptionally bad neighbours to everyone else.

Ireland's corporation tax is 12.5%, the UK's is 28%, dropping to 24% in 2013, and the US rate is 35%. Ireland has played the beggar my neighbour, race-to-the-bottom tax game for many years. Quite why the EU tolerated this is a mystery when a fortune was poured from Brussels to Dublin to pay for a spectacular modernising infrastructure over the years. A few other large companies recently decamped to Dublin from London, advertising giant WPP for one: these are mainly virtual moves for tax purposes only, since virtually no staff go over – and certainly not the board.

But, in the view of Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK, the corporation tax rate is only a fraction of the true story, a flag to signal to global companies that they will get a phenomenal deal with an Irish relocation. Ireland's real shame is not that, like the UK, it mistook its property boom for a never-ending cash machine. What is unforgivable is its shameless status as Europe's greatest tax haven, helping to cheat tax from the world's treasuries for decades.

Ireland allows Google, Facebook, Microsoft Corp and many others to shunt profits around subsidiaries so that they escape even Ireland's own low tax rate.

Ireland allows them, quite legally, to pass the profits on to other tax havens that levy no corporation tax at all, paying only tiny sums in passing: Google put 92% of its billions of worldwide non-US profits through Dublin, and it paid Ireland just £18m.

This is a pure tax haven, with the laxest tax regime in the EU, with no controlled foreign companies rules (to limit deferral of tax).

So why is Ireland not required to put its tax affairs in order and stop cheating all those neighbours now coming to its rescue? IMF doctrine demands countries squeeze the breath out of their people with punitive cuts – and they like low or, even better, no taxes.

The IMF's purgative is an ideological brew; it learns no lessons. When its patients get worse and near death, as Ireland has done after its first terrible dose of cuts, the fund calls for more leeches, mercury and arsenic. That is, of course, the same pre-Keynesian medicine Cameron and Osborne prescribe for us. There is a week before a final settlement: will the rest of Europe really hand over their money without demanding Ireland abandons tax piracy and joins the civilised world?


Yes - classic IMF 'Shock Doctrine' prescriptions and demands. For more on the IMF and the shock doctrine outrage, just type 'shock doctrine', IMF, Naomi Klein, disaster capitalism, etc into the Oxzen search box at the top of this page.


The bill for PFI contracts is an outrage. Let us refuse to pay this odious debt

The great racket that was private finance now robs the taxpayer of billions that should be spent on nurses and teachers

by George Monbiot


You've been told that nothing is sacred; that no state spending is safe from being cut or eroded through inflation. You've been misled. As the new public spending data released by the government shows, a £267bn bill has been both ringfenced and index-linked. This sum, spread over the next 50 years or so, guarantees the welfare not of state pensioners or children or the unemployed, but of a different class of customer. To make way, everything else must be cut, further and faster than it would otherwise have been.

This is the money the state owes to private corporations: the banks, construction and service companies that built infrastructure under the private finance initiative. In September 1997 the Labour government gave companies a legal guarantee that their payments would never be cut. Whenever there was a conflict between the needs of patients or pupils and private finance initiative (PFI) payments, it would thenceforth be resolved in favour of the consortia. The NHS owes private companies £50bn for infrastructure that cost only £11bn to build, plus £15bn for maintenance charges.

In 1997 the British Medical Association warned: "The NHS could find itself with a facility which is obsolete in 10 or 20 years' time, but for which it will still have to pay for 30 years or more." No one's celebrating being proved right.

If a hospital no longer requires the services it contracted to buy, tough.

The cost and inflexibility of PFI is an outrage, a racket, the legacy of 13 years of New Labour appeasement, triangulation and false accounting. At first sight, it looks as if nothing can be done: contracts are contracts. What I'm about to propose is a wild shot, but I hope it deserves, at least, to be discussed. I contend the money we owe to the PFI consortia should be considered odious debt.

Odious debt is a legal term usually applied to the endowments of dictators in the developing world. It means debt incurred without the consent of the people and against the national interest.

PFI was a Tory invention but became a Labour doctrine.

There was no democratic mandate for this policy, which appears to have arisen from secret talks with companies.

Secrecy surrounded the whole scheme. To this day, PFI contracts remain commercially confidential. You can't read them; MPs can't read them. We don't know what we are being stung for or whether the costs are justified. But there are some powerful clues.

In Coventry, for example, NHS bosses originally sought £30m of public money to refurbish the city's two hospitals. When the government told them it was "PFI or bust", the refurbishment plan was dropped in favour of a scheme to knock down both hospitals and build a new one – with fewer beds and doctors and nurses – at an eventual, corporate-friendly cost of £410m. A report commissioned by the local health authority found that the scheme had been "progressively tailored to fit the needs of private investors".

To get their new buildings or services, public bodies had to show that PFI was cheaper than public procurement. The system was rigged to make this easy.

Desperate public bodies were gulled and outmanoeuvred with the blessing of central government, which sought only to keep the corporations off its back and the liabilities off its balance sheets. Was this a legitimate means of loading our schools and hospitals with debt? I don't think so.

But where else do we go with this? I've been warning about inflexible PFI contracts since 1998. I've wasted months on this mission, trying to understand and explain the most complex issue in public life. For all the good it's done, I might as well have gone fishing.

Now I see corporations squatting like great cuckoos on our public services, while officials pour the money that should have been spent on nurses and teachers into their widening bills. Yes, I'm bitter. Yes, I'm clutching at straws. Have you got a better idea?


If anyone's interested in reading more evidence that Nick Clegg's just a Tony Blair clone, then just read this column he wrote for the Guardian yesterday:

For old-fashioned progressives, achieving income equality was the ultimate goal. For us, it is increasing social mobility


Nick thinks he's a new-fangled 'progressive', when in reality all this guff about social mobility and equality of opportunity is the same old New Labour bollocks.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Layer 384 . . . Finding A Voice, Teaching Writing, Education, Traditions, Enlightenment, Zen Socialism, Ed Miliband and the Labour Party

Personal Voice

So why are some of us keen to write, whilst others run a mile from the idea? The esteem we have for 'proper' writers is both a magnet and a deterrent. We grow up thinking and believing that novelists, playwrights, biographers, journalists, columnists and writers of learned tomes are all special people. Some people have large enough egos to see themselves  as potential and future members of the writers club. Others just think they have no voice worth listening to.

Teachers and educators like Harold Rosen pioneered the idea that every single one of us has stories to tell, thoughts worth sharing and a voice worth listening to. What's more, children should discover their personal voice as soon as they are able to talk, and write.

Such radical ideas were starting to gain some traction in schools in England in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, and then along came the New Labour national literacy strategy with its glib prescriptions, and which, in its stupidity, turned the clock back decades - thereby pretty much eliminating all ideas about young people finding a personal voice, writing for their own purposes, writing for audiences and writing for 'publication' - and enjoying writing as a thing that had personal meaning and utility.

We now have a generation of young people who have rarely completed an entire piece of writing which they chose to write as an expression of their own thoughts, memories, feelings and ideas. Or indeed any piece of writing. We have thousands of young people who know how to construct long sentences full of 'connectives', adverbial phrases and "wow words", but they can't actually write well, and on the whole they choose not to. Lacking motivation to write, they don't do it unless they have to.

Wow words? Don't even ask.

I probably feel more angry about the way the  teaching of writing has been perverted by the NLS (New Labour Shitheads) than about anything else in the crazy world of schools and education. The harm that's been caused is immeasurable.

And why did this happen? Because schools were pressurised into doing it - in order to improve test scores and achieve government targets. Because school managers were desperate to improve test results - tests that awarded marks to pupils  for . . . guess what? Scatterings of connectives. Fistfuls of adjectival and adverbial phrases. Shitloads of wow words.

Oops - non-standard English. Short sentences. Must try harder.

After all, this is what proper writers do - innit? Write in long sentences, fill them with subordinate clauses, and use lots of flowery language. Brilliant.

What a stupid culture. What a mean, ridiculous, hopeless society. What a pathetic, ignorant, uncaring system.

Pity the poor kids who now have to unlearn all that bullshit about what good writing consists of. Poor bloody kids who've been bored to tears by meaningless coaching for pointless tests. Poor kids who've never enjoyed writing a single word in their entire lives, let alone enjoyed sharing their thoughts, their ideas and their imagination, in written form.


How do we expect kids to articulate their thoughts competently when they rarely, if ever, have either opportunity or encouragement to do so? Let alone individual coaching and mentoring in how to express themselves in their personal voice.  All of which takes time, and empathy, with proper attention being paid to what the child is trying to say - not 'all eyes on the teacher and on the whiteboard' methodology, and exhortations to write in longer sentences and use more flowery language. Because that's what adults do, n'est-ce pas?

In order to say something, there ought to be something worth saying. Most of the writing assignments handed out in schools have no meaning whatsoever for the kids who are forced to carry them out. And the pupils aren't fools either - they know that the writing tasks are not genuine or useful, except in terms of preparation for tests. They're well aware they're just pawns in adults' political and professional games. And they're right to feel bloody resentful about that, even as they beaver away at their exercises and worksheets.


Keeping Up Traditions

"You need to conserve your traditions in this country", said David Ginola, a decent and thoughtful man, and a sometimes brilliant former footballer, speaking on TV this week.

Is that really so? I can think of quite a few traditions we could happily lose. Too many to mention, really.

But what David was talking about was 'foreign' ownership of football clubs, and 'foreign' managers.

Since football's now just a business, and a branch of the entertainment industry, I guess we could say the same about any other business. Maybe we should be hankering after the distinctively British type of management that brought our major industries to their knees, and for that matter collapsed the banking and finance system. What a triumph for Anglo-Saxon ownership, leadership and management that turned out to be.

If you're a European by birth, is someone from another part of Europe a 'foreigner'? When will people learn that it's not the nationality of people and businesses that matter - it's the degree of enlightenment, creativity and imagination that's important. Worldwide we can all learn from one another in order to make a better planet.

The amusing thing at the end of the Ginola discussion was seeing the people who were taking part in it realise that Ginola is, well, foreign. And the gimp who presents the programme is Irish.


Right now, the Labour party needs Ed Miliband's Zen socialism

Labour's leader should not listen to the goading of the coalition and media. He needs thinking time to plan the fightback


by Jackie Ashley

What is the Labour party for?

That's the question being flung at Ed Miliband by almost every newspaper and by many of his own MPs.

Look around at the political reporting of Labour just now. It's as if a spew of lava has buried the landscape – a molten river of anger, burning lakes of score-settling and an ash-cloud of bitterness under which everything else has vanished.

Miliband's first job is to make sure that the angry, self-destructive mood of the moment does not wreck his leadership too. He attempted to put a line under the past, to give New Labour a decent burial and proclaim a new generation.

Miliband, I can report, is almost surreally relaxed, displaying the sang-froid that has so struck people in the Commons. He simply won't engage. He won't take sides, align himself with old quarrels or even listen to passionate explanations of what when wrong before.

They need to return to the party in the country, and the many who deserted Labour – and really listen to them.

They need to get inside the banking system and try to understand it from within.

They need to discover how to get more good people into local government, and how to strike a better balance between targets and bureaucracy.

They need to go back, rather humbly, to Labour councillors and party workers who felt snubbed and ignored during the years of New Labour, and discover how hard it became to mobilise and enthuse people. And then they need to rebuild policies from the bottom up, not simply watch what the coalition does, and say the opposite.

I hope Miliband holds his nerve. I suspect he will – some kind of Zen socialism we haven't come across before.


Ed Miliband sets out 'profound' changes to Labour party

Exclusive: Labour leader reveals plans to review organisation and policies in first full interview since winning leadership contest


Ed Miliband today launches his party on "the hard road back to power", saying it has to move beyond New Labour and commit to changes in policy and organisation as profound as those introduced by Tony Blair in 1994.

He also appears to clash with the shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, by saying a 50p tax rate for those earning more than £150,000 should be permanent, as a way of creating greater equality in Britain. Making the country more equal, he says, is one of the issues that gets him out of bed in the morning.

He warns his party not to expect a quiet life, saying: "I am talking about change as profound as the change New Labour brought because the world itself has changed massively, and we did not really change fundamentally as a party, or come to terms with the changes, and have not done so since 1994."

Miliband dismisses suggestions he has been too low-profile since becoming party leader, saying: "It's about digging in, and it's not about short-term fixes, nor shortcuts to success. There is a long, hard road for us to travel." He does not accept that the deficit is the product of over-spending by Labour, but says British politics has not come to terms with the 2008 banking crisis and the economy's over- exposure to financial services.

He appears to disagree with Johnson, who has described the 50p top rate as only "right for now". Asked if the 50p rate was simply necessary to cut the deficit, Miliband says: "No, it's about statement about values and fairness and about the kind of society you believe in and it's important to me."

He sticks with Labour's plan to halve, as oppose to eradicate, the deficit by the end of the parliament, insisting he will not concede that the Labour government overspent before the 2010 election.

"I don't agree with what the Tories say about us overspending. They are on a mission and we know what their mission is and we have got to take them on. Their mission is to say 'This deficit is not the result of an international banking crisis, it is the result of a crisis in government'."

He also rejects suggestions he has been shifting to the centre since becoming leader in September, arguing: "I said during the election I was the person who would take us beyond New Labour. That's the way I ran as a candidate and that is the way I am going to run the party. We've got to recognise that in terms of who we stand up for – we as New Labour lost touch of people's hopes and aspirations."

The overarching task, he says, is to examine "how you can create greater social justice in the economy without having to rely only on redistribution and the welfare state.


The Labour party can count itself itself extremely fortunate to have elected a leader who has some of his father's socialism in his soul, and is prepared to speak out for the founding principles of the Labour party. This is in contrast to brother David who sold his soul to New Labour and its scheming, triangulating, mealy-mouthed creatures of the night, most of whom were 'intensely relaxed' about the filthy rich getting even richer. Talking of which, there's a documentary on Mandelson being screened on TV this week - The Real PM. I do hope it focuses on his desire to become as filthy rich as his already filthy rich friends.

All power to Brother Ed, therefore, and his principled efforts to create a credible progressive party whose main aim is to transform society into a proper social democracy - a party that cares about social justice and creating greater equality, and isn't merely hungry for power for power's sake. For Britain to become more like Denmark, for example, would be extremely beneficial.

I'm beginning to think that Ed decided to try for the leadership of the party when he realised that it would otherwise fall into the hands of his NuLab brother, and hated to think what keeping on the New Labour path would do to Britain and to British politics.

He can take a lot of comfort from the fact that under his leadership Labour is already ahead in the polls . . . and things can only get better.