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Focus on abuse of women not welfare

Sometimes hell – or in this case, England – does freeze over and one finds oneself agreeing with Ann Widdecombe.

The former Conservative MP once spent a week with the Philpott family in Derbyshire, making a TV documentary about trying to get feckless father, Mick, off state benefits and into work.

The no-nonsense Ms Widdecombe quickly got the sum of the man. In interviews following his conviction for the manslaughter of six of his children, she’s described his “pent up aggression.”

She was shocked by his habit of addressing his wife and mistress as “bitch,” and his descriptions of “servicing” the two women on alternate nights. She concluded that Mick Philpott, father of 17 children by at least five women, was “a very controlling, very manipulative, entirely egocentric man.”

That fits exactly with what the judge said when sentencing him to life in jail. She detailed a history that included a conviction (and remarkably short prison sentence) for repeatedly stabbing a former girlfriend who had the temerity to leave him.  There had been violence in every relationship, the Judge said. He had groomed teenagers as sexual partners, taken money from his wife, even denied her and his mistress keys to the house where they all lived.

That’s the back-story but the debate over the case has been manipulated to fit the current political agenda. Mick Philpott didn’t work, he hadn’t had a job in years. He claimed all the state support he could and pocketed the child benefit attached to his kids.

“Vile Product of Welfare UK” screamed the Daily Mail. The Sun hoped that “this is the last time the state unwittingly subsidises the manslaughter of children”.

The predictable outrage and counter-outrage about welfare budgets is too appalling to even begin to address.

So let’s turn our gaze from money to people: The women whose lives Philpott made hell – his wife (also jailed today for her part in the manslaughter of her own children), former mistress, former wife, numerous former girlfriends. They were amongst the estimated 1.2 million women who suffer domestic abuse in the UK each year.

It may be a well-known statistic but it bears repeating: On average, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner in the UK. One in four women will be a victim of abuse at some point in their life. In any one year, 750,000 children will witness abuse in their homes.

Domestic violence was recently described by a senior police officer as “the single greatest cause of harm in society”.

And yet all over the country, services that help these women are being cut. Refuges, rape crisis centres, domestic violence outreach programmes have all suffered as councils have had their budgets slashed.

Late last year, the charity Women’s Aid, reported an estimated 27,900 women turned away from the first place they approached for help because of funding cuts.

One of the refuges faced with closure in the coming months is in Derby. That’s the city where Mick Philpott lived and where his children died in a fire he master-minded in a fury at having lost control over one of the women in his life.

And those are just the cuts to existing services. Where are the desperately needed funds for training the police and specialist prosecutors in domestic violence cases? The money to provide more support for victims when they get up enough courage to testify against an abuser?

These aren’t luxuries, they can break the chain of violence. Can it be right that despite a history that included stabbing a former girlfriend almost to death and head-butting a colleague, Mick Philpott was given only a police caution when, two years ago, he slapped his wife and dragged her outside by her hair?

Mick Philpott certainly milked the benefits system, that is clear. But what he did and what he was doesn’t tell us anything at all about the Welfare State. He is not “typical” of anything other than a controlling, abusing, violent man. There are more out there. There will therefore be more victims and our outrage should be directed at the lack of help available for them

 

 

Lessons from the Library

There are few things we British love more than to see one of our elite institutions with egg on its face.

So of course news that an Oxford college is at the centre of a “Harlem Shake Scandal” has made national headlines. (Full disclosure: it’s of more than passing interest to me as it concerns my old college).

But I made some inquiries, and the story’s not quite as it at first seems.

To recap: A group of students took over the library at St Hilda’s and recorded their version of the now rather passé meme doing the rounds on YouTube.

So far, so vaguely humourous. But then it emerged that not only had participating students been disciplined, the young library assistant on duty that night had lost her job.

“Dismissed”, “fired” – however it was reported, the punishment sounded harsh. Especially as the students insisted that the woman, Calypso Nash, had nothing to do with the stunt.

Cue furious demands for her immediate reinstatement. An online petition was followed by a motion passed by the undergraduate body, the JCR. There was even an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament.

I found it hard to believe. And sure enough, there were some key details missing from the coverage – which the College did nothing to clarify while the story was gathering steam. “Declined to comment” was the line most newspapers used.

Ms Nash was not a “librarian” and she was not on the staff. She’s a post-graduate student who was employed on a casual basis as a library invigilator.

After the Harlem Shake incident she was told she wouldn’t be offered any more shifts. A bit harsh perhaps but not quite the same as being “fired” from a job, and, though nothing’s been heard from her, I’m told she has not appealed.

If the college had said that at the beginning it might have defused the protest. I gather they’re about to make a statement to that effect.  Horses and stable doors come to mind…

It still leaves questions about the overall handling of the incident. No students were harmed in the making of that 30 second video and I doubt any degrees will be failed as a result.

It was recorded late in the evening, and in a spirit of fun.  It even had an admirable political message: a banner demanding freedom for the jailed Russian women from the band Pussy Riot.

The students could have been told to do a morning’s filing, or picking up litter or carrying books back to shelves. Something for their community as a way of the college authorities saying gently, “don’t do that again.”  As for Ms Nash, if the rest of her work in the library is okay then of course she should be offered more shifts.

The college should learn to be a little less po-faced and a little more communicative with the media, not to mention with its own student body.

And MPs lodging Early Day Motions should perhaps check their facts.

 

Labour isn’t working (hard enough)

Whittington hospital cuts rallyRising youth unemployment, impending triple-dip recession, falling standards of living, the severely disabled stripped of dignity by disproportionate cuts to their allowances.  I could go on, for the list of this Tory-led government’s crimes is long.

Meanwhile, Labour is doing its very best to make sure I don’t vote for them.

Take our local council by-election, an excellent example of how not to campaign. Starting with the Labour candidate coming round to deliver, in person, campaign literature addressed to my husband.

Having made clear that I too would be voting and was interested in local issues, I thought she might at least have taken a note of my name.

She didn’t, and a week later another knock on the door heralded another Labour canvasser – with campaign literature addressed to my husband.

The canvasser looked wounded when I questioned Labour’s obsessive interest in communicating only with the man of the house. Off he scuttled without explanation – or a shred of interest in my vote.  I’ve heard nothing since.

Okay, my husband might (depending his mood) have expressed sympathy for Labour when canvassed in the past.  But the local Labour machine is ignoring something the most junior intern on an Obama campaign could tell you: turning out the base is important, but it’s attracting independent or floating voters that wins elections.

In other words, why wasn’t I wooed?

Next problem:  the message. The main one, front and centre in the first of those Labour letters to my husband, was disingenuous – at best.

The big issue locally is proposed cuts to beds and services at the nearby Whittington Hospital.Whittington Hospital Campaign

Or, as Labour puts it, the “Tory-led government’s threat to our hospital.”

It’s a charge they repeat in all their literature and interviews, never missing an opportunity to link “Tory-led” with what’s happening at the hospital.  A leading Labour councilor has even asked the health secretary to come to the borough to explain “how these cuts can be justified.”

But they’re not his cuts to explain.

The plans, which include selling off buildings, closing wards, cutting jobs and capping the number of births at the hospital, were made by the Whittington Hospital’s own, independent board. It needs to save £17 million in order to qualify for Foundation Trust status in a year’s time.

It’s true, the Tories are forcing all hospitals to become Foundations – which have greater autonomy than ordinary hospitals – by April 2014.  But who invented the Foundation concept in the first place?  Labour under Tony Blair.

One can argue about whether Foundation Trusts are a good or bad thing – and the Labour Party did, bitterly, when they introduced them in 2002.  But there is no arguing about the appallingly cack-handed way the Whittington Hospital devised and announced the cuts.

They made no effort to explain changes in health care delivery they believe will see far more people treated outside hospitals.  They didn’t discuss the benefits of getting rid of dilapidated old buildings, some of which haven’t been used for years.  Nobody in the community was consulted about any of it.

No wonder there’s been uproar and near universal condemnation.  And the local Labour party has jumped on the uproar bandwagon.

But a bandwagon is not a vision, especially when it’s not accompanied by any obvious alternative plan.  It’s a cheap gimmick that allows the party to side-step more complex problems.

This is mirrored nationally where Labour is having a “policy review.”  There’s nothing wrong with a bit of a think.  But the next election is only two years away. Surely by now the opposition party’s review should have moved beyond what the man leading the review calls “the first phase”?  The details of what Labour would do in government aren’t expected until late 2014.

They need to get a move on.

Labour was never expected to win the Eastleigh by-election last month (they came fourth). But given the unpopularity of the government, surely Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition should have picked up a bit of the protest vote?  But no, Labour’s share of the vote increased by a paltry 0.2 percent over 2010.

As Dan Hodges wrote about Eastleigh, Labour leader Ed Miliband has been concentrating on “earning the support and trust of his party.” Sure, its important for the party to feel better about itself.  But Hodges is right when he says the new-found spring in the steps of the faithful “isn’t translating into enthusiasm amongst the voters.”

And it won’t until Labour’s leadership gives its troops the ammunition with which to engage.  The Tories, with Lib Dems in tow, are wreaking havoc.  Labour must come out and fight.

That includes on my doorstep.

No more phony wars against easy targets like local hospital cuts – probably the only reduction in services around here for which the Conservatives alone can’t be blamed.

I asked the Labour Council candidate why there was no mention of the bedroom tax and other welfare cuts that’ll certainly affect residents of this borough, in her campaign.

“Ah,” she said, “watch this space.”

Two weeks later, I’m still watching.

 

Delusions of Empire

Honouring the Queen in the Turks and CaicosAll Empires like to think their colonial subjects love them.

Which is why the undying devotion of the Falkland Islanders is so satisfying for the British.

But it’s also dangerous. It helps us maintain the myth of benevolent motherland and grateful locals. And that in turn means we’ve convinced ourselves that Empire – and what now remains of it – is no bad thing.

For the Falkland Islanders, that may be true. Thirty years ago, they suffered Argentina’s sudden invasion and the trauma of the war that forced the invaders out.

The renewed (and remarkably bellicose) claims of sovereignty coming from Buenos Aires must be unnerving – hence the referendum underway right now. Islanders are being asked if they want to remain as a British Overseas Territory.

There’s no doubt at all that the overwhelming answer will be yes.

There’s no doubt either that many in Britain will view the result of this essentially anti-Argie vote as an affirmation of the UK’s good relations with the last scraps of Empire.

That would be a big mistake. There are 14 Overseas Territories (essentially colonies but with varying degrees of local autonomy). The Falklands is one of the smallest. And thanks largely to that constant Argentine threat, its rapport with Britain is unique.

In most of the others, the relationship is far more complex and uncomfortable.

We send them funds, grudgingly for the most part. But until recently, nobody in London was very interested in how they conducted their affairs. The attitude was that they should be grateful for British Citizenship and should get on with learning to look after themselves.

Except they didn’t. Take for example, the revelations of child sex abuse in tiny Pitcairn that affected almost every family and had been going on in some cases for 40 years.

Then there was the spectacular collapse of the Turks and Caicos Islands (see previous post). For years, residents of these Caribbean islands begged London to step in and do something, as government ministers allegedly sold off crown land to developer friends, renting private jets and building luxury homes with the proceeds.

It happened right under the nose of the British governor. Yet London said it had no evidence of wrongdoing and turned a blind eye.

Eventually (under pressure from Parliament and the global economic crash) the Foreign Office had to step in, sack the local officials and run the place directly. Initially pleased, the Islanders were soon accusing the new governor of ruling with a very heavy hand.

Then last November, after three years of direct rule from London, the Turks and Caicos Islanders were allowed to elect their own representatives again. Local government was restored. But rows with the Governor (who has a veto over all important decisions) have continued.

It’s a sign of a new, more paternalistic approach from a Tory government far less embarrassed by Empire than its Labour predecessor.

But the newly elected premier warned recently of “chaos” in the Islands if the relationship  doesn’t improve.

Meanwhile there’s trouble in the wealthy tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

Late last year, the Premier was arrested on suspicion of corruption and forced to resign. He denies the allegations and says he’s the victim of a witch-hunt – led by the British governor. The two men had been at loggerheads over economic policy.

In all the Caribbean territories (except for poor Montserrat, devastated by a volcano and totally dependent on British aid) there are sporadic calls for independence.

They won’t get very far – yet. The islands are too small and the benefits of UK citizenship too great.

But the affection for Britain is nowhere near as strong as we like to think.

Nor are the cultural links. In the Turks and Caicos they drive on the left as we do – but in cars that are all imported from the US.  Everyone’s steering wheel is on the wrong side.

Residents go for medical treatment in Florida. Many have dual US citizenship. The accents are American-tinged. The TV the kids watch, the music they listen to and the food they eat is all from North America.

There’s a picture of the Queen in the airport arrivals hall, and plaques marking her various jubilees. But there’s also a growing Haitian migrant population (now far outnumbering the native islanders). In truth, there’s little about the islands or their people that feels British at all.

But you don’t hear much about that in the UK.

We like news of flag waving by people who look and sound like us. More English than the English with undying loyalty to the Crown – the Falklands, in other words. (How else to explain the dozens of journalists now in the Islands to cover a referendum whose result was known long before the first vote was cast?)

We don’t want to be reminded that many of our remaining territories are inhabited by black or brown people, who resent being told what to do by white men sent from London. Just as they have for hundreds of years.

 

 

Who’d be a School Governor?

Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw doesn’t so much tread on toes as stomp on feet and then slap their owner’s faces around a bit.

England’s Chief Inspector of Schools has in the past told teachers they make too many excuses for poor performance. They should work longer hours if they expect to get a pay rise. Head teachers should “stop moaning” and get on with the job.

Now he’s targeting school governors, the largest volunteer force in the country. There are 300,000 of us, a disparate group of (mostly) well meaning souls, some of whom according to Sir Michael are nowhere near up to the job.

The thing is, for all his crashing about like a bull in an educational china shop, the Ofsted chief is sometimes right.

The role of the school governor has changed beyond recognition in the past decade or so. But many of the people volunteering haven’t grasped how much is now expected of them. Nor are the systems in place to find the ones who do understand and to give them the right kind of support.

A decade or so ago, it was enough to show up once a term to offer a bit of friendly advice or vote on a school policy. Now (rightly) governors are expected to know their schools inside-out. They are also supposed to “challenge and support” teaching staff, a balancing act that requires considerable diplomatic skills.

What it means is that governors must understand not only how well the children in their school are achieving (including by ethnic and socio-economic group) but also, how well they’re being taught. By each of the teachers, in all the core subjects.

And where they’re not doing well enough or teaching isn’t up to scratch, governors must find out exactly what’s being done to put that right.

Then there’s the nitty-gritty of finances –increasingly devolved from local authority to individual school head. How to budget for a part time music teacher, new windows or translators for non-English speaking parents? All these things are ultimately the responsibility of the governing body.

(My meetings this term have ranged from detailed discussion of the kids’ progress in writing between Years 2 and 6, to how much we’ve paid for a new oven).

Then there are the tricky topics that leap out and ambush you. The parent unhappy with special needs provision for their child. The vulnerable youngster showing signs of possible abuse or neglect. The valuable teacher who has to take long-term sick leave. And yes, the parents complaining about the quality of school meals.

These are all things head teachers deal with in the course of a normal day. Governors are expected to know about them, to ask searching questions of staff and help them make the right decisions.

It’s a tall order for a bunch of volunteers made up of staff, parents and random members of the broader community. Church schools also have governors appointed by the diocese; academies have representatives of their sponsor.

Many are committed and hard working. Others, as Sir Michael Wilshaw suggests, are not. Some have never been told the truth about the effort they need to put in. A few possibly don’t really care, or in the worst cases, only care about the interests of their particular child.

And then there are the local authority appointees. A strange breed – I am one but I have no idea how or why. I was recruited through a general governors website and assigned to a school.

There was a Lib-Dem council at the time. When Labour took over a couple of years later, they tried to block my re-appointment on the grounds that I must be a Lib Dem member (wrong). They proposed replacing me with someone with no connection to the school. Struggling to get himself a parliamentary seat, this chap needed a local community boost to his CV, and his party bosses thought my governing body place would do just fine.

After my Chair of governors objected, Labour relented and then decided I must after all be one of them (wrong again). I was invited to their “Labour governors” meetings. Despite my repeated protestations – I work on behalf of the children at the school, not a political party – the invitations kept coming. Eventually I went and was surprised to find the meeting very useful. So why on earth were only “Labour” governors, a fraction of the total in the borough, invited? Where was the same information for everybody else?

That’s just one of the many aspects of school governance that make little sense and must stop. Recruitment is ad hoc and sometimes political, training can be appalling, support is patchy. I get the most useful information about how to do the job from my own searches online.

Paying some governors at struggling schools, as Sir Michael Wilshaw is suggesting, would make little if any difference to all that. It might even encourage involvement for the wrong reasons.

Would the paid ones have more authority – and thus more power – than the volunteers? And would everyone be eligible for payment – local councillors? Vicars? Parents? Or just the volunteers like me who believe we all have a stake in the education of this nation’s children and gain huge satisfaction from helping to improve their chances in life.

No. Let’s streamline governing bodies, make clear it’s a demanding role, recruit only those willing to put in the time and then train them and support them well.

That way there really will be “no excuses” for those few who don’t understand and challenge their schools as Sir Michael, with characteristic bluntness, suggests.

The world according to Gove

5448222857_143f7a8544It’s hard being a visionary. Just ask George W Bush.

You come up with a brilliant idea that you know will fix the world and what happens? Someone somewhere moans that it doesn’t fit the facts. Where’s the evidence, they demand, to support your plan?

That’s pretty much the position Michael Gove’s in these days. Barely a week goes by without a new reform springing from the Education Secretary’s planet-sized brain. The trouble is, outside his immediate circle, few can see the wisdom of his ingenious ways.

The latest wheeze is to turn A-levels into exams taken at the end of a two year course. There’ll be none of those wimpy modules along the way. And out go AS-levels as stepping-stones to the full qualification.

Mr Gove says the shake-up will drive up standards and better prepare kids for further study But few outside Goveworld agree. Nor was anyone calling for the change.

A knee-jerk “no” from the state school unions was perhaps to be expected. More of a surprise was the stinging criticism of the shake up from the independent (private) sector. A “classic case of fixing something that isn’t broken,” was how the head of one of their representative bodies put it. “Rushed and incoherent,” said another.

The UK’s top universities were equally unimpressed. A spokesman for Cambridge said AS-levels, taken after one year, had been a good indication of a student’s potential. So getting rid of them would “jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access” to the university.

It was a similar story when the education secretary decided to scrap GCSEs, the exams taken at 16. In their place there’s going to be an “English Baccalaureate” or EBacc. It’ll be built around core subjects which, to the horror of many of Britain’s leading cultural figures, don’t include music and the arts at all.

As with his “linear” A-levels intended to get rid of “bite-size learning,” Mr Gove’s EBacc vision is for a “rigorous” (almost certainly tedious) exam system of the type in which he once thrived. Nothing would make him happier than to see silent rows of furrowed-browed youngsters cheerlessly grinding out the facts.

But why? Universities don’t want it and it’s certainly not something businesses are demanding. They’ve been crying out for more vocational qualifications and a greater emphasis on “soft” skills like teamwork and good communications. Test-loving Mr Gove has no time for such touchy-feely nonsense.

Last month, the exams watchdog Ofqual wrote to the Education Secretary expressing its worries over the EBacc.  The new exam’s ambitions, its chief said, “may exceed what is realistically achievable.”

Mr Gove took no notice at all. He never does. On this occasion he told the Commons Education Select Committee that he would overrule Ofqual if necessary. “If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it.”

Which brings me back to the comparison with President Bush.

In his outstanding 2004 analysis of the Bush administration, Ron Suskind of the New York Times describes a conversation with a Bush aide who had taken exception to Suskind’s journalism:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

And that is exactly what Michael Gove is doing. From dishing out free schools to the imposition of academies (about which the jury is still most definitely out) to inventing new exams and extolling the virtues of an educational era in which only the fittest survived, the Education Secretary is indeed creating his own reality.

Unfortunately, as with the Bush administration, it rarely bares any resemblance to the demands and constraints of real life.

 

 

 

But what about the kids?

England’s teachers are unhappy? Miss, Sir, join the crowd.

From the young unemployed, half of whom say they regularly feel depressed, to nurses suffering low morale in the NHS upheaval, not to mention the growing numbers of working families struggling to make ends meet, these are not happy times.

At least the teachers questioned in a National Union of Teachers survey of the profession have jobs – better than minimum wage ones at that.  So why should we care if,  like millions of others in these economically gloomy times, they’re finding their working lives tough?

Well, quite simply, because of the kids. They’ve barely had a mention in the press coverage – for which the NUT shares the blame. The word “children” appears only once in the first three and a half pages of their report. The message is mostly about that plunging morale, down by more than two thirds since this government came to power. (And there are the predictable complaints about pay and conditions).

But read on and you’ll see that teachers are not as selfish a bunch as the government and media sometimes make out.  Acutely aware of the link between income and attainment, they are desperately worried about the impact of public sector cuts on the families they have contact with every day. More than three quarters said austerity measures were having a negative impact on some or most of the children they teach.

Then there is the question of the great “freedom” the Government says it has given teachers, heads in particular, by cutting them loose from local government red tape.

It’s one of the main justifications for the rapid expansion of the Academy programme and for the introduction of Free Schools. Both were trumpeted again today in response to the NUT’s survey. The BBC quoted a Department for Education spokesman saying the government’s policies would raise standards by giving more power to head teachers.

“Our academy and free schools programme gives schools greater freedom so that more schools are run by great heads and teachers,” he said.

Teachers don’t agree. When asked if they thought the government was taking education in the right direction, 75% of those who work in Academies said no. And only a measly nine per cent of them thought they had more autonomy than before.

That’s not surprising really when one tries to work out who actually runs the multiplying Academies. It’s a complex business whose details are probably best saved for a separate post.

But here’s one explanation for why the professionals are unhappy. Most Academies have sponsors – individuals and companies, that in exchange for a bit of cash up front, get to run a school. The company, or its board or most powerful individual, calls the shots.

Take the American business Mosaica, now running primary schools in East Sussex. It says “each Academy will be distinctive in its own right”. But at the same time, all will use the company’s trade-marked humanities and social studies curriculum. It doesn’t look as if the head teacher, freed from local government control by Education Secretary Michael Gove, will have any power over that.

Then there’s the Academies Enterprise Trust which has also trade-marked its “Improve Framework.” It’s designed by the AET “to prepare all young people to become successful and world class learners.” Laudable aims indeed but where is the head teacher’s freedom in that?

I could go on. Every Academy sponsor has a “vision” even if they haven’t yet invented an educational “programme” and registered it as their own.  No wonder the teachers are a lot more suspicious about the freedom and independence they’ve allegedly been granted than the gung-ho Mr Gove.

 

 

Looking for the “real” UK?

Photo: Andrew Billington

The phone rang about an hour after I’d completed my online order.

The woman on the other end – northern accent, friendly tone – sounded a little anxious. Had I just booked a ticket for a play at the New Vic Theatre?  Yes, I said, I certainly had.

“You do know we’re in Newcastle-Under-Lyme,” she said. I started to laugh. Yes, I knew. In fact I was just planning the train journey when she phoned.  

She sounded relieved. “Oh good, it’s just that we always check when someone with a London address books a ticket. You’d be surprised how many people don’t realise where we are. They think they’re booking one of those theatres in London with a similar name”.

 It was an exchange that in its own small way summed up what’s been bothering me for years: The gaping chasm not just in wealth and opportunity, but in understanding between London and the rest of the UK, particularly the north. 

“Londonitis” is what Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange called it in a recent piece for The Spectator. He argued that economically and socially “the capital now has little in common with the rest of Britain”.  That’s true for incomes, house prices, rents, higher education. You name it, we’re in a league of our own. Or at least, those of us with good jobs and a solid roof over our heads are. London produces a fifth of the UK’s total GDP, and you’ll find the nation’s richest households here. 

The capital’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country and London’s also home to the three areas with England’s highest levels of income deprivation. But it’s the high-end that drives the national conversation. Westminster and the City exert an irresistible gravitational pull on the media and on politicians (not to mention on Russian Oligarchs) because they dominate national politics and finance. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg once promised reform.  “We are now” he said, “the most centralised country in Europe bar Malta”.   That was 2 years ago and as any disillusioned Liberal Democrat will tell you, nothing’s changed. Nor will it if the government goes ahead with plans to let poorer regions hold down wages for public sector workers.  Roll on the north-south divide.

I say all this with both affection and dismay. I am a Londoner born and bred. But I have spent a large chunk of my career seeking nuance “beyond the Beltway” in the United States, searching for the “real” America as Republicans like to call the small towns scattered in the vast space between the Democratic-minded north-east, and the west coast. Now I am wondering, what and where is the “real”UK?  

Photo: Andrew Billington

Which is why I found myself in Newcastle-Under-Lyme on a wet Thursday evening watching a staggeringly good play. Where Have I Been All My life? was about talent show contestants  in Stoke-on-Trent. The characters were real people interviewed by playwright Alecky Blythe, who then edited the interviews and constructed a narrative. But the actors didn’t get a script: The interviews were played to them through earpieces during the performance and they spoke the words verbatim a second or so after hearing them. The result – hesitations, pauses, stumbles and all, was electrifying.

Almost as electrifying was the discussion after the show with cast members, the director, and the Chief Executive of Stoke-on-Trent Council. The play was essentially about aspiration in a post-industrial city. What struck me in the conversation that followed was the pride and optimism about the region despite years of economic decline. There was passionate talk about various local regeneration projects and about how to attract the kind of investment that would produce up to 40,000 desperately needed jobs. Nobody suggested the government in London might have the answers. Come to think of it, nobody mentioned the government at all.  

Is that the “real”UK? I don’t know, but whether it’s Hackney or Humberside, Brent or BirminghamI’d like to try to find out.

The perfect public library

I have seen a future for the public library – in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent.

I’ll admit, until now I’ve taken no interest in the campaigns to save Britain’s libraries from closure. Supporters say hundreds are threatened because of cuts in local council budgets. 115 disappeared in the last financial year alone. But the library-loving rhetoric is too often couched in romantic middle class memories of a long gone past. Even those who haven’t been in a library for years wax lyrical about the joys of children’s storytime or the day they first “discovered” a particular book.

When reminded that ebooks and internet learning are now popular alternatives, their response is (rightly) that not all homes have access to the web. But providing those additional services at a library simply isn’t enough. Especially as you still have to get people through the door. Long before the current round of cuts, a Parliamentary inquiry  said public libraries were a “service in distress” .  The cost of running the drafty Victorian buildings was going up, the number of books being issued was going down. 

Stoke-on-Trent’s Local Service Centre and Library says it’s reversed the trend.  Stoke was once the centre of a thriving pottery industry. With those jobs gone for good, it now comes high on national lists of deprivation and you can feel it on the streets. Charity shops compete for customers alongside endless discount stores and numerous fast food outlets – and we’re not talking about the big chains.  (My favourite, “Aladdyn’s” hedges its bets by serving American fried chicken, curries, baltis – and fish and chips).  

And in the middle of all that is the library, an eco-friendly conversion of the old market building  that opened in 2009.  Library membership has increased by 1,200 since then and it’s not hard to see why. The big, bright space has lots of seating tucked in amongst the books. Computers are arranged in circular hubs to one side, and there’s a separate area with computers for children and a “quick email” point. 

But more importantly, at the back of the library is a door into the offices of the Public Health Information Service and at the front is the one-stop-shop for all council and other official services. For housing benefit, council tax, local enterprise schemes and job training – you go to the library. So while you wrangle over some tedious local government form or talk to someone about a possible job, your kids can look at the books. Or perhaps having come in for a council service, you might be tempted yourself to have a nose around the shelves. Suddenly the often elite world of literature and learning is truly accessible to all.  And for those of us used to books but not benefits offices, we get to see as a matter of course a different side of our community – not just the claimants but the Council workers offering the services for which we pay. 

I have bad news for the romantics: there’s no reverential hush in this library, only the gentle hum of people going about their business in a clean, airy and truly communal space. Now that’s a library worth saving.

Ofsted and the teaching unions: The kids deserve a truce

Why can’t teachers and school inspectors play nicely together?

In theory they share the same goal: The best possible education for all children in England and Wales. In practice, they’ve been descending into the kind of name calling that should get them sent to the head teacher’s office for a stern telling off.  

The Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw frequently implies that our schools are full of bad teachers and malign heads intent on thwarting children’s progress.

The teaching unions accuse him of bullyboy tactics and say his rhetoric is creating a climate of fear in schools. And the press happily reports the ruckus. “Schools face talent drain as teachers’ morale dives” says the latest Observer front page headline.   

You can see why. Shortly after his appointment as head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw called for improvements saying “we have tolerated mediocrity for far too long – it has settled into the system”. Some schools judged Outstanding would have their status reviewed and all inspections would be unannounced.  Sir Michael also said about a quarter of head teachers were underperforming. That’s one way of interpreting Ofsted’s gradings but if he had wanted to make friends he could have said that more than 75% are judged Good or Outstanding.

But Sir Michael isn’t out to make friends. He’s kept up the onslaught telling a conference just last week that head teachers “too often make excuses for poor performance”. He added that they didn’t know the meaning of the word stress.  

It’s not surprising teachers and their representatives haven’t exactly warmed to Sir Michael, a former head himself. But more importantly, he’s fuelling an already destructive relationship between government and the teaching profession which does nothing at all to help improve schools.

That is after all the point: To improve the quality of teaching and learning for all children. It’s laudable – it’s vital – and if he dropped the insults for a moment and talked to head teachers as professionals, Sir Michael might be surprised to find the majority of them are just as keen on rigorous standards and good teaching as he is.

The question then is how to get there. Well, we could do worse than consider suggestions published late last month by the House of Commons Select Committee on Education. It concludes that good teaching is the key to good education and considers ways to attract and retain the very best. The bit that made the headlines was, unsurprisingly, the suggestion that good teachers should be rewarded with better pay than weak ones.

Reported (wrongly for the most part) as a proposal to pay teachers according to results (which would be unfair) the response was a cry of horror from the main teaching unions and much of the press. “Payment by results is total nonsense,” said Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, “Children are not tins of beans and schools are not factory production lines”.

Nobody said they were.

What the committee actually recommends is that the Department for Education “develop proposals (based on consultation and a close study of systems abroad) for a pay system which rewards those teachers who add the greatest value to pupil performance.”

The notion of added value is tricky because it’s hard to agree on how to measure it. But the idea is to look at school results in context. That way, pupils from deprived backgrounds or those with Special Educational Needs can be assessed as having achieved if they make good progress, even if they don’t attain the required SATS level or other formal test results.

And what’s wrong with rewarding the teachers who through skill and hard work bring about that achievement? As long as the assessment criteria are fair and the judgments transparent then why shouldn’t teachers get the kind of financial rewards and incentives that most of us expect when we perform well at work?

Surely that would enhance the professional status that most teachers rightly crave.  It’s what many heads want but are too frightened to say out loud. They’re the ones who know how well their staff perform, and they’d love a more effective system for offering incentives to hang on to the good ones while easing the really bad ones out.

 So maybe it’s time for a deal. Sir Michael, stop referring to teachers, particularly heads, with contempt. Talk to them, you’ll find many have the passion and ideas that drive success.  Teaching unions, get real and recognise that along with the respected professional status you want (and deserve) must come rigorous evaluation and acceptance that bad practice must be dealt with quickly.   

Now, no more fighting. Go and play nicely or some children could get hurt.