Archive for September, 2010

Balls the Architect…

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The nominatons to the Shadow Cabinet are closed and the voting will soon begin, with the result being announced on the 11th October, Ed Balls is vyeing for the post of Shadow Chancellor against his wife, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Yvette Cooper.

Balls claims he is the architect of New Labour’s economic policy, an economic policy that abandoned Labour principles by embracing the free market and the deregulation of banks that led to the arrogant claim of ending boom and bust. It can also be argued that such a policy led to the economic predicament we, as a country, now find ourselves. A post-recession economy where growth is still fragile, record levels of private and public debt – a clamp down on credit – all due to the liberalisation and deregulation of the economy and running the economy on debt and credit when times where good.

Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband, has already distanced himself from the party of Blair and Brown – how will Ed Balls, the ‘architect’ of New Labour’s economic policy, fit in with Mr. Miliband’s vision?

On paper he won’t. In reality he will have a tough fight on his hands as Yvette Cooper is a competent economist and has transformed the DWP while she was there. Balls favours a slowing of the cuts to an impossible level instead relying on the proceeds of growth to reduce the deficit. As we have already discussed in a previous post, while he is technically correct in his approach, his approach is unrealistic. Cooper, as far as we are aware, is more in line with Mr. Miliband’s own approach to reducing the deficit – reduce the deficit by half over 4 years, but slow the rate of cuts by increasing taxes.

Balls, as is Ed Miliband, is tainted by the Blair-Brown era of Labour but, as Leader, Ed Miliband has the opportunity to redefine himself and the Party. Will Balls be able to do that? Yvette Cooper was not marked as a Brownite or a Blairite in the previous administration and already has the cleansheet to start in the New Generation.

Time will eventually tell who will be Shadow Chancellor, we hope it’ll be Yvette Cooper, we know that both will be in the Shadow Cabinet, but where we have no idea. Just don’t hold out for the outside contender grabbing the top spot.


Quangos: Cut the red tape, don’t jeopardise success.

September 27, 2010 2 comments

In a series of measures to slash the deficit, a leaked government document has revealed fresh plans to scrap dozens of quangos ( non- governmental agencies funded by the state) including many with responsibility for education and families. This was almost inevitable, and of course, the theory behind it is logical. Most people would surely accept that taking steps such as cutting the salaries of chief executives and doing away with huge advertising bills is a step in the right direction, an area within which we can save government funds, without having a direct effect on public services.

The problem with quangos is that they all seem to be tarred with the same brush. We hear the name and assume they’re all bureaucratic associations which in all likelihood promise much and deliver little. Of course there will be several such agencies in existence, but when you look a little closer at the potential quangos up for being scrapped, it is worrying to see so many agencies which are known to have made a contribution to thousands of children being made to prove their value, yet again in financial terms, rather than personal progress. Take Becta, or to give it its Sunday name, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. It was created in 1998 to promote the effective use of ICT in schools. From personal experience, the service provided by Becta has had a real and direct impact on schools. Since 2001, their influence has helped thousands of schools teach ICT as part of the curriculum, and helped ensure that it is used to aid develop literacy and numeracy skills. Their Home Access programme gave laptops and broadband capability to over 20,000 of the UK’s poorest homes, ensuring that no matter what resources parents have, all children have equal access to the Internet. This is a means by which to reduce inequalities in access to learning and I know several families who took full advantage of this scheme. The organisation employs 240 staff and 120 contractors, people who would, through no fault of their own, be at least temporarily dependent in state benefit should these quangos be closed down.  On its site, Becta admits to significant spending; £1.5bn has been spent through its procurement agreements since 2002, but they also claim that this has saved the education system £223m – which would be an average of about £28m per year. It also says it has made cost savings of £55m for educational institutions and providers including schools, local authorities and the skills sector in the past year alone. Becta has clearly proven itself to be successful, and it now has several business sponsors, meaning the government has to provide fewer funds itself. We need to look at the long-term view; is saving a few million pounds now really worth putting ICT competency for thousands of children at risk when technology is so crucial to our economy?

The leaked document (provided by ‘a Whitehall source’) revealed that the Schools Food Trust was another potential victim of the proposed cuts. According to its website, the SFT ‘is an independent body with the unique remit of transforming school food and food skills.’ It was initially created in response to chef Jamie Oliver’s TV documentary, ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’, which discovered that the food served to prison inmates had more nutritional value than many school dinners served across England’s local education authorities. The remit of the SFT was to ‘ensure all schools met the food based and nutrient based standards for lunch and non-lunch food and increase the take-up of school meals.’

So, just how effective has this agency been? In 2006, the Institute for Social and Economic Research (the ISER) commissioned a report into the effect of Oliver’s campaign. The research findings indicate an improvement in results for 11-year-olds leaving primary education between 2005 and 2007, during the initial stages of the SFT’s work. In English there was an increase of 3-6 percentage points in pupils reaching Level 4, the expected national average. In science there was an increase of 3-8 percentage points in pupils reaching Level 5. Considering the push for improvement in this area, this is surely a hugely positive result. There was also a 15% reduction in absences associated with sickness. The report found that “children seem to rely more on food provided at school now than they did three decades ago”, in which case there is no justification for bringing such a scheme to an end. It’s true that it has taken a long time to persuade some children to try the new menus on offer, but for those of less well-off parents who are given free school meals, the positive effect, both in terms of achievement and behaviour has been noticeable.

Beyond the statistics, it is clear to anyone who has spent time in schools over the last five years what a positive impact the new school meals have had. Alongside the improvement in lunches, all primary-age pupils are now given free fruit every day of the school week and bottled water, both of which help concentration. The majority of infant- age pupils are also provided with milk every morning. As a package, these measures have led to an improvement in behaviour, and ensure that for the children who may be nutritionally deficient or experience a lack of good food at home, there is at least one meal a day of which they can be guaranteed.

Cutting non-essential government spending is one of the cornerstones of reducing the deficit. The debate, however, needs to be focused on where these cuts will occur, and who can most easily afford to shoulder the burden. We have a duty as a society to ensure that children are not being made to suffer for the overspending of government departments. Yes, there are quangos we can and should do away with. What we can’t allow to happen is to let vulnerable members of our society be held to account for the mistakes of others.

How Red is Ed?

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

If his father, Ralph Miliband and famous Marxist historian, was alive he would probably laugh and call his son a Tory. As a Conservative Tweeter said: “he’s only red in comparison to his brother which everyone is doing.” By everyone it can only be assumed that he is referring to the right-wing press and the Lib Dems.

Ed won the Labour Leadership by 1.3% – an incredibly close competition by anyone’s standards. Some have pointed out that he only won due to a “Union bloc”. They have little understanding of how the college system works, how AV works and how the Labour Party works.

The college system is far from ideal as it gives an individual the potential for more than one vote, but one also has to recognise that the Labour Party was established by Trade Unions, Socialist Societies and individual left-wing Parliamentarians. By recognising the obscure construction of the Labour Party the college system becomes more self-proving. As many members of the affiliates and unions aren’t members of Labour, the college system limits their power to restrict outside influence on the party.

By saying that Ed won because of a Union Bloc disregards the turnout for the Union vote at 10%. And it is also individual union members that vote not the Union Leaders. However endorsement does help. Either this is because the Union Leaders have gauged the opinion of the majority of their members or it gives a banner for undecided members to aim for. Take, for example, ASLEF who gave their endorsement to Diane Abbott – the majority of ASLEF members voted for Diane and not Ed thus further disproving the ‘Union bloc’ theory.

Now moving onto AV. AV is a preferrential voting system whereby a candidate needs 50% of the vote plus 1 in order to win. Low and behold Ed received more than 50% of the vote because he was more preferrable than David. In order to obtain over 50% of the vote Ed had to appeal to the broad cross section of the party. He obtained an overwhelming majority in the Union and Affilates section. Was close behind David in the MP and MEP section as well as the Membership section. One can rely on ‘ifs’ but the reality is, is that the alternative didn’t happen.

Now that Ed has won he needs to start including the membership in decisions of the Party in order to win around members that didn’t vote for him in order to unite the party. The Top heavy structure that was developed so superbly under New Labour must be dismantled to usher in Ed’s “new generation”.

As a Labour Member and supporter of David I am disappointed that David lost, but I’m not disappointed that Ed won. I’m happy that Ed won, as I did vote for him, and Labour has a new Leader.

Categories: Analysis, Labour Tags: ,

Lewe through Sprachen

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

As it is multi-lingual blogging day, I thought I would try my hand at blogging in different languages. As English is my mother-tongue I shall attempt to switch between English and other languages which I am capable at speaking, but not writing, Afrikaans and Deutsche.

With English as my first language I am cursed with the ‘English Disease’ of being able to go most places in the world without having to try other languages. Foreign Languages are no longer cumplusory through the education system and it is a real shame.

Ek het besluit om verskillende tale, veral onbekende Duitse gebaseer tale te leer, omdat dit die brein ontwikkel en verhoog kulturele bewustheid.

Ich glaube, dass Sprachen obligatorisch sein sollte in das Bildungssystem, so dass die englischen Fluch aufgehoben ist und wir als ein Land, kann über unsere kulturellen Grenzen zu erweitern und reduzieren den Einfluss des kulturellen Imperialismus der Amerikaner.

People without English as their first language try very hard to learn a very complex and illogical language so that our world, as English speakers, are open to them. Our arrogance is becoming our downfall.

Terwyl China ‘n meer dominante krag op die internasionale toneel, sal Engels word minder belangrik. As die regionalisering van die wêreld lewend is, sal ons taal arrogansie sluit ons uit Europa en die ontwikkelende lande.

Deshalb haben wir, wie englische Muttersprachler, müssen unsere härtesten versuchen, andere Sprachen zu lernen, nicht nur im Sprechen sie aber auch im Lesen und Schreiben können. In einer wirklich globalisierten Welt müssen wir umarmen Divisionen und sie zu überwinden, nicht durch Überheblichkeit, sondern durch sprachliche und kulturelle Bewusstsein.

Categories: Language Tags: , ,

Unequal opportunities: How do we redress the balance?

September 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Last Monday, as part of its ‘Schools’ season, BBC2 screened a documentary by ‘Today’ presenter John Humphrys which aimed to answer one simple question with a complex approach. That question, quite bluntly, was just why do ‘rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children’? This isn’t merely another example of ‘dumbing down’ the language of politics, indeed these labels are those of the Conservative Minister for Education himself, Michael Gove, in a statement to the Commons Select Committee in July.

Despite decades of huge levels of spending on education, we have just as high a level of striking inequality between the poor and the rich than at any other time in the last fifty years. So, where are we going wrong?

The programme centred around Humphrys’ experiences meeting key figures in the Education system.  One of these inspirational interviewees was Amanda Phillips, head teacher of a Tower Hamlets primary school, one of the most socially-deprived areas in England. She revealed something that strikes a chord amongst many of us involved at the grass roots of early years education; her teachers go on preliminary home visits to three-year-olds who have never set foot on grass, been taken to the zoo or visited a museum. Part of her philosophy which is rapidly improving the effectiveness of her school is that she made the brave decision to spend a large chunk of her budget on introducing what she terms ‘middle-class experiences’ into the lives of her pupils. This is a relatively radical but hugely impressive idea, and one with which I and most teachers I know would concur. The children of poorer parents (who are more than likely to be growing up in one of the four in ten UK households without anyone bringing in a wage) are at a huge disadvantage before they even start their formal education, a disadvantage which is virtually impossible to overcome without early intervention. There are many parents who are drawn into financial hardship through no fault of their own, and for them there is not necessarily a link between income and ambition. Lots of them will wish nothing but success upon their children, and they will do their utmost to provide as many learning experiences as they can. For some poorer children, whose parents make the lifestyle choice to live on benefits, where is the incentive to work hard and achieve when they have no role model? Our responsibility is to these children, to show them that there is a far greater future ahead than the experience they have so far, that the life of the adults they know is not the one they need to live themselves. Many of these children don’t know what a nursery rhyme is, are never taken to play in the park, even to know what the sea looks like. The standard government response from whichever party is in power at the time is to insist that public spending on education is higher than before. The colossal point they’re missing is that all the money in the world won’t reverse the problem. Yes,  financial hardship is a huge problem we need to overcome, but the real cost to their children is not a lack of means, but the poverty of aspiration.

Very often, school populations will be comprised of children who live together in the same immediate area. If these schools happen to be in an area of high deprivation, a large proportion of these children will never know anything but a life of struggle and lack of opportunities. The disadvantage they have is that unless their parents fight for a place in a good state school they become stuck in the cycle of generations of families who don’t work, and have no desire to. This is when income and wealth really come into play. The luxury afforded to the children of the middle classes is choice, the choice to opt out of the state system and give their children an education which is paid for from their own pocket. No-one can deny the opportunity being offered to these pupils – small class sizes, a vast array of educationally-enriching trips and experiences, being taught alongside the children of equally highly aspirational parents. It sounds like a Utopia. Some of the children attending schools such as Mossbourne, the country’s most successful public school, just don’t have the incentive to take full advantage of attending these schools, whilst there are brighter, poorer children who would take full advantage of such an opportunity. Scholarships are rarely a solution. They generally comprise less than a handful of the places available and only  well-informed parents have a chance of getting their children one of the treasured few. How many families really have the luxury of spending up to 25,000 per year, per child for a public school education? Of course these establishments have an important place in our system and a valid contribution to make, but the benefits of an education within them should not be allowed to supersede the achievements of a poorer child who has had to struggle far more to achieve anything like the same results. It should never be the case that a CV listing one of these schools is a lifetime guarantee of advantage. We have to prize achievement based on personal merit above anything attained through the financial assurance of others. Surely what we really need to do is bring the experiences of the richer children attending public school (enlightening school trips, focused, responsive teaching and smaller pupil to teacher ratio) to the vast majority who will never be lucky enough to receive a place.

As teachers, we have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that poorer children are given the best possible start in life. Experience shows us that the children of the middle classes will always achieve in one way or another. Even if their talents are not academic, they are likely to  attend extra- curricular clubs and activities where they are given the chance to develop self-esteem and a sense of worth. The pupils who really need our teaching, care and support are those born to parents who either can’t, won’t or don’t share our ambition for their children. Of course, this is not to say in any way this is a problem attributed to all poorer parents. There are many who through no fault of their own can’t work or have been  made redundant, and still want things for their children that they have never had themselves. Still, experience in classrooms shows that it is very often pupils born to more financially-secure parents who are the ones who have those essential ‘middle-class experiences’ such as bedtime stories,  eating meals together around a table,  learn to count to 5 before they even step foot in nursery.

Another potential solution to help reduce the gap in achievement is the grammar school. This is a controversial subject, and has rather fallen under the radar in recent times as all three main parties have chosen to distance themselves from grammar schools. Whilst in power, Labour banned the building of new ones and in 2007 the Tories announced the withdrawal of their support for them. The official line of the DCSF was ‘we don’t support academic selection’. Rather worrying when we consider that a survey by the National Grammar School Association revealed that 76% of adults support the building of new grammar schools at a time when just 164 schools out of a total of 3, 361 in England are selective. The truth is, life is entirely based on selection. We are doing children no favours bringing them up in a world free of competition. In shielding them from any form of disappointment, we are merely storing up problems for the future. In my view, grammar schools should be at the very heart of the battle to redress the balance of educational inequality. They bring together children, regardless of the income of their parents, where the only thing that counts is their ability. By attending grammar schools, the children who may fall through the cracks of a standard secondary education are afforded the opportunity to break the glass ceiling and achieve success. It also ensures that money can’t buy achievement, as will, sadly, always be the case with fee-paying, independent schools. I would much rather live in a country where the children we educate have had to work hard for their success than had their parents pay for it. We shouldn’t prevent the top 20% from entering selective education because by default the other 80% can’t attend. For the children who don’t make it to grammar school, we have a different responsibility. Formal, academic education may not be the best route for them, so why aren’t we working on alternatives that really do allow these children to succeed. Instead of spending upwards of £25 million on each new academy, why not invest that money in training schemes, apprenticeships and practical skills from the age of 11? There doesn’t have to be a one size fits all approach to education. We have to understand that the needs of poorer and richer children are not the same.

So, in the midst of conference season, it seems the Coalition’s plan is to forge ahead with more academies, at least for this political term. The effectiveness of these institutions is another debate for another time, but we shouldn’t forget that at the heart of the academy plan is devolved power. There will be no unity of thinking or ethos between schools in the community as to how to reduce inequalities, yet surely the only way we can reduce the inequality is to work together on a collaborative basis, to ensure that we meet the needs of all our pupils, irrespective of the community into which they are (un)lucky enough to be born. 

It is an uncomfortable, unfortunate truth that very often financial means go hand in hand with ambition. We need to do everything in our power to show all children how important it is to have a goal and to work hard to achieve it. For those children who come to depend on school as a sanctuary and safety net, we have a duty to raise achievement, regardless of all other factors. What we have to ensure is that our guiding principle going forward is that no matter where children come from, it is where they are going that is by far the more important belief.  We’re unlikely to ever secure an even distribution of wealth in society, but with time and shared commitment, equality of aspiration is something we can achieve.

Drinking A Cup of Water Backwards Cures Hiccups Claims Ahmadinejad

September 25, 2010 Leave a comment

The revelation that Hiccups can potentially be cured by drinking a glass of water backwards is only one of the many shocking claims put forward by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In an interview given shortly after his notorious speech to the UN, the President was eager to expose this miracle cure that, he suggested, had been “suppressed for generations by the United States Government” in an attempt to reverse the failing American economy and save the Zionist Regime in Israel. Although this claim was incredible enough in itself Ahmadinejad did not stop there. From his own, careful research Ahmadinejad said that he was now able to prove that carrots can make you see in the dark, the Moon landings were a hoax, JFK was in fact shot by Big-Foot and Princess Diana is alive and well living on Mars with Elvis. Furthermore the Iranian President argued that this information had been kept from the public by the American secret service in order to preserve the position of the United States in the Middle East. Doubt was cast on the veracity of this information, however, when Ahmadinejad went on to explain that this knowledge was well known throughout the world and that his opinions were generally held to be fact and shared by almost everyone, ever. In a final statement the President warned attending journalists of the dangers of walking under ladders and to be wary of America’s de facto ruler, Chuck Norris. With a last wave to the cheering crowds Ahmadinejad departed in his flying saucer.

These new revelations come after Ahmadinejad’s eye-opening speech to the UN earlier this week. Speaking to a packed theatre he was able to finally expose the well-known secret that the September 11th bombings had in fact been orchestrated by the United States government. Although this carefully researched theory is not yet widely known it is supported by “The majority of the American people as well as most nations and politicians around the world”. While some, more narrow-minded, individuals may disagree with this view nobody can deny that the sudden and suspicious departure by the American delegation during the speech only served to betray the truth of Ahmadinejad’s words. With this knowledge now out in the open the world can only watch with baited breath to see how America will respond.

Raphael Nonverum

Categories: Satire Tags: ,

‘Biased and One Sided’ why Israel might not be wrong

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

The report published today by the UN Human Rights Council condemns Israel and Israeli troops for its actions during the raid on the 31st of May. The Council says that “There is clear evidence to support prosecutions of the following crimes within the terms of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: wilful killing; torture or inhuman treatment; wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health”.

Just a quick bit of background information on the raid in case anyone has forgotten the events of the 31st of May 2010. Operation Sky Winds took place on the 31st of May and was the seizure of the six ships of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla by Shayetet 13 commandos of the Israeli Navy. The Flotilla had been organised by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief. The aim of the flotilla was to breach the blockade of the Gaza Strip, in an aim to bring humanitarian aid, construction materials and medical supplies to the inhabitants. The blockade has been in place since 2007 with the purpose of preventing Hamas from acquiring weapons and materials needed to attack and defend itself from Israeli attacks. On the 30th of May Israel requested that the six ships enter the port of Ashdod to have their cargos inspected, with all cargo not considered contraband being transported overland to the Gaza Strip. The ships refused. After being shadowed by Israeli ships and aircraft, Shayetet 13 commandos boarded the ships and were met with passive resistance on five of the six ships. However it was the actions on board the Mavi Marmara that led to this report. Nine people from on board the ship were killed dozens injured and seven Israeli commandos were also wounded. After all six ships had been commandeered they were towed to the port of Ashdod. What followed was a large agitation of the international stage, with countries taking sides and with relations between Turkey and Israel, one of the few Arab countries Israel had cordial relations with, taking a nose dive.

Before I launch into my analysis of this, I feel the need to explain my own view on the Middle East ‘Crisis’. I think it was wrong after the Second World War to create the Jewish homeland where it is now. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time. There wasn’t any particular tension between Arabs and Jews. Especially compared to the history of the Jews in the previous thirty years. However this does not make me pro Arab. The decision to create Israel was a colossal mistake in my opinion, with sixty years of hindsight. However, this is not a factor in my current beliefs on this volatile region and how peace can be achieved.  The only viable solution is a two state system. I have sympathy with both sides, to be a repressed people unable to return to your home, forced to live in bad conditions because you were there first is deplorable. On the other hand I feel that the Israelis have a right to defend their sovereign state in what is a very volatile region, having had to fight wars on and off for the whole of the country’s short history. I do not even think religion is even a major factor in this crisis, just a way to identify which group an individual belongs to. So in short I think that aggression on both sides is deplorable whether it is settlement building or rocket attacks. I do not support one side over the other.

Now to turn to the matter of the report, the report condemned Israel completely for its actions. I agree that Israel’s actions were condemnable but not for the same reasons as the UN Human Rights Council. The UNHRC cites the Israeli forces for wilful killing; torture or inhuman treatment; wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health. All this happened on one boat. If the passengers on this boat had reacted in the same manner as the passengers on the five other boats, this would not even have been referred to the UNHRC. There is clear video evidence of aggression by the passengers and an Israeli commando being thrown from one deck to the next one down. These are not the actions of peaceful protesters trying to get food and aid to a population under blockade. These were the actions of people determined to fight against Israel.

As in all situations there are two sides to the story. In this case Israel is completely right to call the report biased and one sided even if there choice of language is superfluous. Over 100 witnesses were interviewed from or in Britain, Jordan, Switzerland and Turkey, but not Israel. This was a mistake and one which has cost the UNHRC my respect. It is unacceptable to conduct a report in this manner and not interview any Israelis.

The responsibility for the raid on the flotilla is split with seven tenths of the blame apportioned to Israel and the remaining two tenths apportioned to the organizers of the flotilla and one tenth to Turkey. The Turks are responsible for one tenth as they allowed this convoy to sail from Turkey and knew of its intentions to force the blockade and knew this would provoke a response from Israel. They did not act to prevent this. The organisers of the blockade were acting completely legally when the raid happened. They were in international waters attempting to breach a blockade that is morally grey at best and considered favourable by few outside of Israel. However they could have complied with Israeli demands and saved the lives of the nine activists. They chose to ignore the instructions and life was lost. Most importantly though the organisers knew this was a high profile event that was bound to illicit a response from Israel and used it to highlight their cause. They share a proportion of the blame for the loss of life for choosing a course of action that while legal was just not smart. I am not cynical enough to say they wanted this, but it was not bad PR for them. Israel should shoulder the majority of the blame. They broke international law by boarding six vessels with peaceful intentions and a very low probability of smuggling contraband into the Gaza Strip. However this crime pales into insignificance against the reason life was lost. The Israeli Military planners forgot or ignored basic rules for military strategy. Their intelligence on the flotilla was either not properly gathered or not properly analysed. This in turn led to an even bigger mistake and the crux of the matter. The reason why this is even remembered is because of the choice of the wrong type of personal to carry out the operation. Shayetet 13 commandos are excellent amphibious troops, who specialise in sea-to-land incursions, counter-terrorism, sabotage, maritime intelligence gathering, maritime hostage rescue, and boarding. That is what they specialise in, they do not specialise in pacification of large amounts of angry passengers who took an instant dislike to heavily armed commandos boarding their ship illegally. If Israel had used the correct troops this operation would have been carried out with no loss of life. The response of these highly trained troops was predictable and understandable.

I await the UN report and the internal Israeli reports. I do not expect a whitewash from Israel but I expect them to lay the blame anywhere but at the feet of their military. I do hope the UN report ordered by Ban Ki-Moon interviews Israelis and reaches a more balanced conclusion than this report has.