Monthly Archives: June 2012

Letter from Spain

If, as Mahatma Ghandi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” then I might move to Spain.

 True, Spain is going through unprecedented economic turmoil. The $36bn in spending cuts planned this year probably won’t be enough to get its budget deficit under control. Unemployment is at a record high 24.4% (twice that rate amongst the young), public sector salaries are being frozen and taxes are going up. It’s tough for everyone certainly. But there’s something about the language of austerity – and the values that reflects – that gives one hope. Neither unemployment benefits nor public pensions are being cut, value added tax is left unchanged while taxes on the wealthy have already been raised.  Plenty of critics of Spain’s bloated public sector and generous welfare state would quibble with the economics of that, but what about the values it reflects? Aiming for healthy public finances is all very well, the deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria explained at the time of the budget “but not at any price.” And (bear in mind it’s a centre-right government in Spain) she added that “we have to support those who are in most need and not slow down the necessary recovery.” Quite a contrast to George Osborne’s “tough but fair” welfare cutting, VAT raising budgets in the UK.

I was reminded of this on a warm June evening in Barcelona, as several hundred elderly people gathered around a band on the sea-front. Most sat watching and listening but in a large space at the front, many others danced. There was a waltz, a paso doble, a bolero, every conceivable style – all announced by one of the young women on the stage. The couples (a shortage of men meant some women danced together) launched into steps learned decades earlier but still remembered and executed perfectly. Young carers spun and slid the wheelchair users around. Volunteers stood ready to hand out sandwiches and drinks. All of it was organised by the City government. And why not said one volunteer: “There are so many things for young people, it’s only fair to provide something for the elderly too.”  


That fits with the Mayor of Barcelona’s plans for getting through the tough times. Xavier Trias, who’s from a liberal regional party, wants to make Barcelona a centre of economic innovation and growth for the whole of Catalonia. But he says his priority is “improving the well being and quality of life of the people.” It’s probably easier for him than most other mayors to increase spending on social services as he’s done. Tourist heaven Barcelona is doing better than many other cities. In Spain’s patchwork of autonomous regions, the economic pain is not evenly spread. 

I’m no expert on the Spanish economy and I know many of its people are struggling every day – and preparing for worse still to come.  As in many countries, the elderly are having to support children they’d seen off into the world years ago while at the same time, paying higher prices for electricity and food. But at least they’re not blamed for their predicament as the vulnerable so often are in austerity Britain. At least they’re not patronised with the “we’re all in this together” mantra while cuts and tax rises fall disproportionately on the poor. Instead, dignity intact, they’re invited to dance as the sun sets on the waterfront.



Phailed School Policy?

Why is Education Secretary Michael Gove setting children up to fail?

His highly prescriptive, not to say idiosyncratic approach to what’s learned in schools (to be formally announced later this week) amounts to a random list of musts and shoulds that have little relevance to real children’s lives – nor to how they learn. Of course every effort should be made to get children reading fluently and, just as importantly, to enjoy reading and understand what they’ve read. How learning poetry by heart for classroom recitals (i.e. learning by rote) at the age of five helps is not at all clear. I’m curious too about the government-dictated list of spellings. Which minister or mandarin gets to choose the words?

Then there’s the new emphasis on phonics – learning the sounds of letters and letter combinations (brilliantly debunked by children’s author Michael Rosen in the Guardian). The first national tests for Year 1 children start next week.  Nonsense words will be included just to make sure the children have learned the strict phonics formula rather than any other way of reading and understanding real words. All this, says the Department for Education, is because Mr Gove is determined to make English teaching at primary schools “more rigorous”.  Which means, for many already struggling children, much harder to achieve.

I am not arguing against benchmarks, targets or even testing.  All of those have helped to improve standards in primary schools over the last 15 years (so has the substantial amount of money poured in by the Labour government  but that’s another story). But what about the children who, however hard the best teachers work, cannot make the grade?  They may be struggling for many reasons, poverty or a chaotic family life being amongst the most common. (Children formally classified as having Special Educational Needs (SEN) are much more likely to be eligible for free school meals – an indicator of social deprivation – than the average school population).  In primary schools, most of the kids with SEN take the same tests as the more able ones so what happens to them when they fail?

photo by George Rex

Well, given the wrong circumstances, the prospects aren’t good. One of the most shocking findings to emerge from research into last summer’s riots was that two thirds of the children who ended up in court had Special Educational Needs and on average missed almost one day of school a week.  As a report by the government’s Riots Communities and Victims Panel says, nobody believes that’s an excuse for criminal behaviour. But it does provide some explanation for it. Interestingly, the vast majority of rioters were under 24, the most tested and target-set generation we’ve ever seen (the first SATs tests were introduced in 1991). Also the generation that’s experienced the closure of hundreds of special schools and an emphasis on inclusion in the mainstream. “Most disturbing to us” says the Riot Panel report, “was a widespread feeling that some rioters had no hope and nothing to lose.” And it quotes one of its many interviewees as saying, “Some people get to 14 or 15 years old without ever being told they’re good at anything. They feel a sense of worthlessness.”

Good schools know how easy it is for less able children to be put off learning, and how failure affects self-esteem. Yes, they teach spelling and grammar (they’ve been using phonics as a tool for years), and get their students to read poetry and study art (I’ve heard six and seven year olds at an inner London primary school wax lyrical about Georgia O’Keefe). But they also structure lessons so that children can learn at varying paces. And most importantly, they’re changing the culture of learning to focus on achievement rather than ability and on the active participation of the child. It means re-thinking the language used in assessment, and encouraging children to work out what they find difficult and how they might tackle a tricky subject differently next time. Pupils have to talk more about their work (including to each other, thereby exercising those verbal and team work skills that employers say more children need) and teachers adjust lessons to allow children to come up with their own questions.

This type of approach is not an easy way out for teachers. It requires much more work with each individual child than supervising a test or handing out a list of required spellings. Not all schools are doing it well enough yet, but it is rooted in academic research and expert practice. Which is more than you can say for most of the instructions issued by Michael Gove. The Secretary of State for Education says he’s passionately committed to helping disadvantaged children maximise their potential. It would help if he didn’t make those kids who struggle with school feel like failures from the start.


The not-so-Big Society

Who’s in charge of Britain these days? I don’t mean who’s in power, or who has the most MPs. I mean who is looking at the country’s complex economic and social problems and saying, “Here’s how we’re going to fix this.”

A few years ago, under Labour, the answer would have been, “The State, that’s who”.  And had a Labour government – once flush with cash – concentrated on the things the state does well, like providing good schools, health care and affordable homes, “government” might not have become a dirty word. But they couldn’t stop themselves. From ID cards to the DNA data base and an obsession with centrally mandated targets and red-tape, New Labour blew it, creating first the nanny, then the bully state and earning central control a bad name along the way.     

What then to replace it with?  The Tories agonised throughout their wilderness years, trying on new mantras like Ascot hats. Then in came Compassionate Conservatism . As defined by leading Tory thinker, now MP Jesse Norman, it’s a conservatism which “acknowledges the power of the state but insists on its limitations”. The Big Society was David Cameron’s riff on the same theme, a concept so vague it’s been relaunched at least 3 times.

In reality what we’re getting is an increasingly fragmented state. Not a Big Society so much as an atomised one. It’s not that power and responsibility have been de-centralised so much as they’ve been allowed to drift quietly away. Overall public spending cuts are decided in Whitehall but the dirty work, where to cut and how deep, is passed on to others. Take local authorities: bribed by the government to freeze council taxes, most have run out of cash. Now they’re abandoning some services completely, while scaling others back and handing them over to the charitable sector to do on the cheap.  

Camden for example has the full range of social and economic problems you’d expect in an inner London borough. But due to the budget crisis, it’s scrapping universal access to breakfast and after-school clubs, and to holiday play schemes. Some will close completely. Others will be run by “community providers” (charities) who’ll offer “a service for those children who most need help” (those already being helped by social services) and a few subsidised places for children of the working poor. It won’t be many,  for it can’t be – the charities are doing this for a measly one third of what the council used to spend on kids. What’s the result likely to be? According to a study Camden commissioned last year from the Daycare Trust, 95% of parents who use the play service are working or studying.  Paying more for childcare or not being able to access it, “is likely to push some lower income families out of the labour market and into poverty.” 

Of course, everyone has their axe-swinging budget tale of woe. But how does cutting any service for children sit with this government’s avowed aims of improving social mobility and educational achievement? Children from poor backgrounds do significantly worse in school than their peers from better off homes.   Children who do badly at school don’t get jobs – and so on. Surely it would be impossible to even contemplate cuts that reduce a child’s chances of future success if somebody were actually in charge?

And what about the charities the Tories want to hand responsibility to?  Which ones, and coordinated by who? There are literally thousands of them (a quick Google of those for disabled children alone brings up 235). To whom should they offer their services? To local authorities certainly, but their powers are diminishing – especially when it comes to schools. First academies, now free schools have spun off into isolated little worlds.  Michael Gove doesn’t really want local authorities to have any substantial role. All schools now have more control over their own budgets, but at the same time they have to buy in many more of the services once provided by the councils – and they have to do it on their own.  

And so it goes on. Take health, where thanks to recent reforms, different private companies will provide services in different counties. First up, NHS children’s services in Devon. Virgin and Serco are bidding for that contract. Look out for a hospital near you being handed over to companies that transport prisoners and run trains. As for who’s in charge –the architect of the reforms, Andrew Lansley, tried his best to make sure it wouldn’t be him. The original health reform bill removed the duty of the Secretary of State to provide health services at all, allowing the government to sidestep blame for any failings in the NHS. After an outcry (and pressure from the Lib Dems) that was scrapped, but the thinking behind it illustrates this new Tory laissez-faire gone wild. 

Thus the Big Society takes shape. Fragmented, chaotic, everyone scrabbling for their place while the state sits back, shunning responsibility and dodging the blame. This is not an argument in favour of Labour’s control freakery or against private and 3rd sector involvement in public services.  But someone needs to join the dots and come up with a plan that isn’t just about tackling the debt and which builds rather than destroys. That’s what government is for.

Come to think of it, that suggests an anti-Tory slogan for Labour at the next election: “Why vote for a government that doesn’t believe in government at all?”