All posts by Jim Gunther

About Jim Gunther

Husband, father, grandfather, humanist, republican, (very!) amateur anthropologist. Interests: politics, education, ethics, comedy, eclectic music taste. Former corporate manager. School governor, charity trustee, volunteer adviser

Five Years

Pushing through the Parliament Square
So many of us sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years more to cry in.

Young girl came and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much her face was wet,
Then I knew she was not lying.

I heard flaming trees near the Opera House, raging memories
I saw flash floods, dry river beds, electric storms and rising seas
My brain hurt like a warehouse, such a gloomy stark nightmare
I looked around for rays of hope, but they were just not there.
And all the fat, greedy people, and all the poor, needy people
And all the nobody people, mocked by somebody people
I never thought I’d fear for so many people.

A girl at school went off her head,
Hit some other children
No welfare staff are left to help
Austerity won’t fill them.

An old man with a broken arm,
Fixed his stare to the walls of the A&E
A nurse came and told him he’d just have to wait,
And he thought this is not how it used to be.

I think I saw you in an old folks’ home,
In a nightshirt cold and long
Crying and waving and looking so sad,
Don’t think you knew you were in this song.

And the PM took his briefing pack and I knew he’d never read it
And then he laughed at all the people on Universal Credit
A disgrace, you’re racist, the way that you talk
I hate you, you’re contemptible, I want you to walk.

We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, not a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, and look who we’ve got!

We’ve got five years, not a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, just look who we’ve got!

Five years
Five years
Five years
Five years

With acknowledgements to David Bowie

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Dog Days

No animals were harmed in the production of this blog post.

Following the disastrous result of last week’s election, here are a few preliminary thoughts on our current situation and on where we go from here.

Those of us with a progressive view of society have some very serious thinking to do. But first, it makes me think that our predicament for the next five years is very much like that of a dog dependent on its master for food, exercise and shelter. (Hence the title Dog Days.) Or, more accurately, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “a dog that’s been beat too much”. The harsh reality is that any crumbs of comfort, in terms of government actions of which we approve, will be like scraps on the floor for the dog off his master’s table. We hope or beg. Get used to it.

Dog with pleading eyes

So, Leave It Is

At risk of stating the blisteringly obvious, any hope of the UK remaining a member of the EU is gone. The same is true of the proposal for a People’s Vote: gone in one blow. So we formally leave at the end of next month and potentially crash out at the end of the transition period at the end of 2020. Johnson’s first pronouncement to make illegal any further extension to the transition period is childish, petulant and irresponsible: a harbinger of worse to come? And all this despite the fact the UK would now vote Remain: all recent opinion polls give a clear lead to Remain voters. And in the General Election, 53% of electors voted for parties with either a Remain or People’s Vote policy position. That’s called democracy – to some, anyway.

So the real battle on our hands becomes the nature of the partnership between the “sovereign” UK and the EU27. For “sovereign”, read “totally subservient to Trump and the USA and the weaker party in trade negotiations with the likes of China”. In the kindergarten language we have become inured to, soft Bullshit or hard Bullshit. So the fight is to argue for something least damaging to jobs and the economy: something like Labour was promising to put to a second vote if it gained power. It sounds a tough call, but we must try.

Reasons for Labour’s Worst Result

A letter writer in yesterday’s Guardian repeats a comment made by a coal mining colleague 60 years ago: “The Tories can tell lies much better than Labour can tell the truth”. Sadly, some things don’t change.

Many, many words have already been written and spoken about why Labour lost so heavily. The word “trust” has been repeated time and again. In no particular order of importance, factors include the distorting effect of the referendum aftermath, Labour losing touch with its traditional base in the North of England, the believability of the manifesto pledges, antisemitism and the Party’s handling of this and, of course, the character and background of Corbyn himself. If the party had stuck to its manifesto pledges (about which I got quite excited!) things would have been better. The extra policies that flowed were like throwing sweets from a moving van, in more and more desperation to be liked. It smacked of desperation and lost the Party credibility.

There is a case to answer for each factor: I will save any more detail for another time. One factor not listed above is the effect of the media. The “right-wing press” have been with us since the “Zinoviev letter” forgery and earlier. Grossly unfair that it is, nothing is going to change any time soon. More worrying is the dreadful performance of BBC News – other aspects of the BBC’s coverage have been better (Newsnight in particular: hail Emily Maitlis and Emma Barnett!) Laura Kuenssberg must go! Repeatedly retweeting Tory propaganda and lies without the most basic fact-checking is just one of several sackable offences. Sinisterly, all the BBC’s “errors” seemed to help the Tories. There has been a revolving door between the BBC news departments and Press Office / PR jobs in CCHQ. Deeply troublesome!

The jury is still out on the overall effect of social media, other than to say that the Tories’ posts, tweets and advertisements seemed to be mostly lies and their opponents’ mainly pointing out inconvenient truths. All this implies the need for a new Labour leader with the character to survive in this hostile landscape and build a believable position of trust. Another tough call!

Corbyn and Reflection

I don’t feel strongly about whether Corbyn stays on as leader of the Labour Party during the 3 months it takes to elect a new one. On balance, I would prefer him to go now and appoint a clearly neutral caretaker leader. Unlike Johnson, I believe Corbyn is an honourable, if stubborn, man. The necessary reflection must be carried out diligently, with active involvement of all wings of the party. Listening, including to ex-Labour voters, is a key part. Of more importance, if he were to stay in the interim, Corbyn must shed himself of the “comfort blanket” of his clique of immediate advisers and sycophants. Seamus Milne is an obvious example. Otherwise, any lessons learnt from a review will be tainted with the accusation that the conclusions will be biased by the current leadership.

Tories Old and New

There are many ways to classify the current batch of Tory MPs, new and old. Here are two of them.

Firstly, having got rid of the more sensible (i.e. reasonable) MPs in the last parliament, we can assume that we now either have Tory MPs who are “true believers” of Johnson’s far-right project – swivel-eyed lunatics like Gove, Rees-Mogg, Raab and Patel – and a rancid majority who throw away their principles for power. A dispiriting thought, but almost certainly true.

Secondly, Tory MPS can also be classified as those serving long-standing Tory-voting areas, mainly consisting of the better off and skewed to the home counties and those in former Labour seats in the Midlands and North where the anti-Labour swing was highest. It will be interesting to see how this latter group (a) will relate to their new constituents and (b) how, if at all, this affects Johnson’s policy stance.

The “Real” Johnson

After the 2016 Party conference, I wrote a post about Theresa May, Who May She Be? She was still something of an enigma, having revealed little about herself. Reading this post again, I find that it is about 80% correct but an important omission is any explicit reference to the “hostile environment”, a quintessentially May policy. In fact, it was not until my Hostile Means Nasty post nearly two years later when I first use the phrase. It’s easy to forget how quickly certain ideas pass into common usage.

And so to the man who will be Prime Minister for the next five years, barring unforeseen events: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He still remains something of an enigma, but not because of any low profile. Rather, it’s mainly because of his pathological levels of narcissism. With his habitual lying and his “concern horizon” beginning and ending with himself, we have few clues as to predict how he will act when clearly no longer in campaign mode.

It is said that Johnson’s childhood ambition was to be “World King”. More realistically, as an adult he has aspired to be Prime Minister and his every move in recent years has been to that effect. He has now got what he wanted – and so, it would seem, have 29% of the electorate. (29% is The Tories’ vote share of 43.6% multiplied by the turnout of 67.3%.) Sadly, a third of us don’t seem to care.

So, what can we expect in this week’s Queen’s Speech? (We will know soon enough, but how much of it we believe is another matter.) Even his economic policies are unclear, as the manifesto’s back-of-the-fag-packet calculations (where they exist) give no clue. It all looks unsustainable: apparently higher spending in focus-group friendly areas combined with lower taxes. It doesn’t add up without borrowing at the levels spelled out in detail in the Labour manifesto. (Tory borrowing would be higher than Labour’s manifesto plans if we leave the EU with no deal at the end of 2020.)

public borrowing graph
Public borrowing

“One Nation” or Divisive?

Johnson made some conciliatory noises on Friday about “One-Nation Conservatism”, suggesting a different approach from the pre-election version. But beware: Johnson’s past habitual lying and Tory right wingers’ past form should mean we take all this with a mighty pinch of salt. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”  (M Thatcher, Downing Street 1979, on taking office). She then went on to become the most divisive PM of my lifetime, so far.

If we do get a more conciliatory Johnson now that he doesn’t need to kowtow to the DUP and the ERG, I guess we are expected to be grateful and submissive. Which takes us right back to the dog begging for scraps from the table.

But I do have one question. If Johnson crashes the UK out of the EU next December against the wishes of the majority of us, denies the Scots their vote and drives a wedge between GB and Ireland (in the form of border checks in the Irish Sea), how sustainable is that?

Cunning As a Fox

Finally, back to the Dog Days. Except, of course, we the people of the UK are not dogs. The masthead to my blog clearly shows that I do not have big, brown, pleading, doleful eyes! (Compare photos at the top!) More importantly, I hope, is that we, as people, have some self-respect.

The BatLionFox

So – changing animals rapidly – what do we need from a new Labour leader? The Guardian yesterday lists seven contenders (six women, one man): Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper. My instant gut reactions are as follows: my head says Keir Starmer, my heart Jess Phillips. But first we need a proper period of reflection, as mentioned earlier. For me, this includes doing proper research on all of the contenders before casting my vote – I might change my mind!

The combined forces of the Opposition Parties fall far short of the Tories’ MP count. But much can be achieved – or resisted – by the political equivalent of guerrilla warfare. This means we need an Opposition leader who can think on their feet, stand up to the bullies and call out the liars. Perhaps someone with the hearing of a bat, the roar of a lion and the cunning of a fox – but not Liam, of course!!

Reflect, listen, learn, organise!!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

About Bloody Time

Two news items in the past week have given me a faint hope that we may finally begin to put this country on a better, by which I mean a fairer, way of running things. But both also provoked in me the reaction “about bloody time!”

The first news item broke about a week ago, when my wife and I were out of the country on a short break but the repercussions have rumbled on all week. It gives me hope that one key part of what I call “feudal detritus” may, at last, be beginning to crumble. The second item has already been misrepresented in the right-wing press as a “return to the 1970s” but may more accurately be described as a return to the spirit of the immediate post-war period in 1945.

The Banned Old Duke of York

Andrew headlines
Andrew headlines

It comes at something of a relief to see that many more people are waking up to the reality of the true character and skills of Andrew Windsor, second son of our current Head of State. People who know me can confirm that I have been banging on for years about two – previously inconvenient – truths about the man. One is that he is extremely stupid intellectually. The other is that he is morally reprehensible, arrogant and lacking in any self-awareness or concern for others. He reminds me very much of another pampered, spoiled son, over-indulged by his ever-loving mother: Mark Thatcher (of “lost in the desert” fame).

A decade or so ago, Andrew had a “job” ludicrously entitled Britain’s “Special Trade Envoy”. This entailed him jet-setting around the globe at taxpayers’ expense, staying in posh hotels and dining in expensive restaurants with some of the worst dictators and Human Rights abusers on the globe. And its purpose? To flog them British arms. In the end, his lack of intellect and self-awareness made him a diplomatic embarrassment and the role was quietly dropped. My favourite quotation from this period was from an obviously exasperated senior civil servant who was involved in these publicly-funded jaunts. Speaking of our envoy, he said “there is no evidence of any cerebral activity upstairs”. I just love that use of the word “upstairs”.

Anyway, a combination of a “car crash” TV interview (which Windsor thought had gone quite well!) and close association with a sex offender has finally woken people up to the man’s true character. He is now “suspended indefinitely” (sort of, it looks like) from his public “duties”. His big brother seems to have had the final word on this.

This “I told you so” moment is all very well. But the real significance is in the wider implications for the future of the monarchy as an institution. This is spelled out more fully in an interesting article on Friday by Gaby Hinsliff. As she says: “If the monarchy cannot put its house in order, it should not be surprised if the nation ultimately seeks to do it for them”. Republicans like me can only hope this is the beginning of the end.

The Labour Party Manifesto

Labour Manifesto 2019
Labour Manifesto 2019

A lot has already been said about the Labour Party Manifesto, launched this week. The usual hostile suspects in the press have used words like “unaffordable”, betraying their lack of understanding of economics and the damage done by 40 years of free market fundamentalism. Funding sources have been identified by Labour to explain how the policies in the manifesto will be paid for. It’s evident that Labour has learnt the lessons of the false basis of economic thought over the past four decades; the Tories plainly have not. The Overton Window is shifting back in Labour’s direction.

For the first time in decades, I feel genuinely excited to see a set of priorities which chime well with my own thoughts. Here are just a few of the details which provoked in me an “at last!” reaction:

  • The prospect of rescuing the struggling NHS with a stable, above inflation increase in funding for the next few years.
  • All schools brought back under democratic control. (I was at a briefing session for Governors earlier this week: there was much complaining about the confusion of responsibilities and lack of control introduced in the Gove / Cummings era.)
  • Closure of tax loopholes for private schools: educating only those who can afford to pay is self-evidently not per se a charitable objective.
  • Higher tax contributions to the common good from the wealthiest 5% (a figure fact-checked and confirmed by the BBC on Friday).
  • The proposed “green new deal” to create high-skill jobs and tackle the greatest threat of all: that to our planet and its environment.
  • Re-humanising the welfare system by removing its most vindictive policies (sanctions, benefits cap, bedroom tax) introduced in the Cameron years.
  • A public health approach to drugs policy – hopefully one which is finally evidence-based.
  • Renationalisation of the natural monopolies of energy, water, railways and the 21st century sine qua non, broadband supply.
  • Last but not least, building many more genuinely affordable homes, including a target of 100,000 new council houses a year. (From the 1950s to the 1970s, Labour and Conservative government oversaw up to 300,000 new homes a year, so it can be done, if Tory dogma doesn’t get in the way.)

There’s more to like, but that will do for now. One economics editor has described the manifesto as “radical, populist and worthy of Attlee”. High praise indeed!

Living in Hope

One lesson to be learned from the Andrew affair is that the Establishment always looks after its own. Labour’s manifesto paints a bold vision of how it doesn’t always have to be this way. Maybe, just maybe, there is finally some room for hope to replace frustration and despair for our future political landscape.

A century ago, in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell wrote these lines:
..All who live under the present system practice selfishness, more or less. We must be selfish: the System demands it. We must be selfish or we shall be hungry and ragged and finally die in the gutter. The more selfish we are, the better off we shall be.”

One hundred years ago, income and wealth inequality were at a peak. In the 20th century, it took two World Wars to reduce that inequality significantly and to remind ourselves of our common good. (Part 3 of Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book Capital in the 21st Century explains this in some detail.) In the past 40 years, the false economic policy choices introduced by Thatcher and Reagan resurrected the moral sanctity of selfishness. “Greed is good” was the takeout line from that approach. As a result, over those 40 years, inequality levels have returned to levels last seen just before the outbreak of the first World War. No wonder Tressell’s words seem so fresh and relevant to today. Labour’s manifesto offers an opportunity to move economic policy in the UK to a healthy position, in line with how humans actually think and behave. (See my 2015 posts Being Human II: the Four Cs and Why George Osborne is Only Half Human for an explanation.) We can but hope.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Antidisestablishmentarianism

When I was a child, the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” was a kind of word challenge. With its 28 letters and 12 syllables – count them or see Wikipedia if you don’t believe me – it’s claimed to be (one of) the longest words in English. For much of my life, it’s just remained as a kind of freakish part of our language and I never thought much about what it actually means. Actually, you can find a brief definition in Wikipedia, too.

Head of the Church??

So what brought the subject to my mind? It was the coincidence of two things. The first was a timeline in the preface to a book I’m reading, summarising key events in progressive politics with their dates, from the 1832 Reform Act to the early 21st century. The second was number 11 in a list of 11 items which the National Secular Society is lobbying to be included in political parties’ pledges for the forthcoming election. The 11th pledge is “separate church and state”, a constitutional reform woefully overdue in England.

The 19th and Early 20th Centuries

The term “antidisestablishmentarianism “ came to prominence in the mid 19th century as a resistance movement to the progressive reforms of, naturally enough, proponents of disestablishmentarianism. The latter idea had been floated early in the 19th century by Radical thinkers including Jeremy Bentham, “godfather” of utilitarianism. Following the aforementioned 1832 Reform Act and the emancipation of Catholics, the idea was further spurred on by nonconformist Christians.

The Liberation Society was founded by Edward Miall in 1844 to press for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Many MPs in the Liberal Party were supportive of the change but – you’ve guessed it – the Tories were opposed. Plus ςa change. And there, 175 years later, it remains stuck, in England, anyway.

The situation was rather different elsewhere in the British Isles. The Irish got there first, with disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1869. Agitation for disestablishment started earlier there, in the previous century. This was hardly surprising as the Irish established church was especially corrupt, being disproportionately rich in a country full of poor Catholics. Gladstone was the Liberal Prime Minister at the time of Irish reform, via the Irish Church Act 1869.

The Welsh had to wait until 1920 for disestablishment there, following the long tradition of non-conformism (principally Methodism) in Wales. As is often the case, things were a bit different in Scotland. First, there was the famous “schism” of 1843 when Evangelicals split to form the Free Church of Scotland. The 1921 Church of Scotland Act formalised the reconciliation of the factions and can be seen as a sort of de jure disestablishment, even if the modern Scottish Church sees itself “in terms of service not status”. More information can be found in the section The 1929 Settlement in the Church of Scotland website history page.

The Present Day

So here we are now. In England, we still have an “Established” Church with 21 bishops in the House of Lords and the Head of State also head of that church. Positively mediaeval, I call it.

About a decade ago, you may recall, constitutional reform was again being discussed, mainly in relation to the reform or replacement of the anti-democratic House of Lords. It’s now 108 years since the Parliament Act which restricted the Lords’ powers. Those alive then would be aghast that no progress has been made since 1911.

So, I suppose – if asked – I would call myself a disestablishmentarian. But I would also sign up to the other 10 items in the NSS list. Full details are on the NSS website. In summary, along with disestablishment of the CofE, the other 10 items are:

  1. No more faith schools
  2. End religious discrimination in school admissions
  3. Abolish the collective worship requirement – but note this brilliant new website, Assemblies For All, a great new resource for schools
  4. Promote free speech as a positive virtue
  5. End non-stun slaughter
  6. Review laws on assisted dying
  7. End all forms of non-consensual genital cutting
  8. Outlaw caste discrimination
  9. End “the advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose
  10. Guarantee secular public services.

Oh, and one more thing: back to the heady days of the Tory / Liberal Democrat coalition under David Cameron. In 2014, as Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg – remember Cleggmania? – advocated the separation of Church and state “in the long run”. Just as in the mid-19th century, this was still too much for the same-old enemy of reform. David Cameron said things were just fine as they are, responding to Clegg that disestablishmentarianism is “a long-term Liberal idea, but it is not a Conservative one”.

Oh, and coming even more up to date, I wonder what our current Prime Minister would make of the word. Probably, very much like I would have done as an eight year old. Some of us just never grow up. As I said earlier, plus ςa change, plus c’est la meme chose. Or, as we might say in English: same old Tories, defending the establishment few.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Human Values

I’ve been a school governor for over three decades. Here are some ideas which help to explain why I do it.

1970s: The Germ of an Idea

In the early 1970s, I was flat sharing in London. One of my co-tenants was an Australian woman who normally worked as a teacher. At the time I knew her, she was on an extended working holiday in the UK. In a conversation with her, she made a number of assertions.

The first was about the relative benefit to national economies of education and military spending. The second was on their relative moral worth.

silo and classroom
Silo and classroom

Economic and Moral Benefits

The economic arguments are worth repeating, in particular the multiplier effects of spending in these two areas. Every pound (or Australian dollar) spent on education is repaid many times over by the enhancements in the skills – and value to the economy – of each generation. In turn, these skills could be passed on to succeeding generations in a form of virtuous circle of benefit. Military expenditure, by contrast, is used for killing and destroying people and things (buildings, etc.) or, like nuclear weapons, are kept in concrete bunkers, do nothing for the whole period they exist and cost money to guard. Nearly fifty years later, these arguments seem a bit simplistic but still hold a basic truth.

But it’s the moral comparison which I still find most compelling. The moral worth to society of spending one’s career as a teacher seems the greatest of any as it is one person’s contribution to the skills and moral values of future generations. By skills I mean basic life skills such as patience, sharing, taking your turn (for the youngest pupils) through to more obvious basic “academic” skills such as reading, writing and numeracy through to a life-long passion for education: learning to learn. Moral worth comes from teaching respect, openness to others’ ideas and views, courage, perseverance, self-respect, tolerance and by school staff modelling these behaviours as they work.

Keeping the Peace 1

One way of “keeping the peace”, at least in the short term, comes through policing people’s behaviour and, in extremis, by military means. Such methods tend to rely on fear as a motivator: a poor one in my view. Fear, like some addictive drugs, is usually required to be applied in increasing “doses” to continue to effect. The law of diminishing returns applies here. Fear can also, of course, lead to resentment by the fearful.

I’m not denying – and I salute – those individual acts of courage which are unique to military service: putting oneself in the “line of fire”, so to speak. But I have very strong doubts about the moral and ethical basis of choosing a military career. My discomfort flows from the unquestioning obedience to orders from a “higher” authority. This is tantamount to signing a blank cheque for any military-related government policy decision, no matter how morally dubious. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not a pacifist: some degree of “defence” expenditure is necessary. But I would struggle to find a morally defensible casus belli since World War Two.

Keeping the Peace 2

I digress, so let’s get back to education. The school where I am Chair of Governors is situated in the most multinational, multi-ethnic part of a town which is itself quite multicultural. Broadly speaking, it’s a relatively peaceful place and people of many nationalities and cultures generally get along fine with each other. We have around 45 different nationalities represented in our school, a fact which we celebrate. Mutual respect is hard-wired into our values. A neighbouring school on the same “campus” site shares our values.

As I said recently to the Chief Education Officer in our Local Authority, I firmly believe that the values we encourage in our pupils contribute strongly to the community coherence of our town.

British Values?

Which is why, unsurprisingly, I get annoyed when politicians (or Ofsted aping the words) bang on about “British” values. For the record, to the best of my recollection, it was Gordon Brown who, as Prime Minister, started it. The Tories have continued to emphasise this concept as part of the English nationalism and exceptionalism which has, tragically, taken over the Party. To the idea of “British” values, I simply say this: there is no such thing. The values we emphasise in our school are to be found in any liberal democracy in, let’s say, Northern Europe at least. Similar values can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout “Western” liberal democracies.

I would like to say that they are “human” values, but, sadly, I don’t see that they extend that far.

Measuring the Wrong Things

The reality is that we live in a country where Ofsted has been given the job to assess and judge schools and similar institutions. My recent post Abolish Ofsted? goes into more detail on this. The inspection framework doesn’t measure those valuable cultural and societal issues mentioned above. There are some practical reasons for this. “Community coherence” is hard to measure: it is quite subjective and the effects of “good” education in this dimension may take decades to show. Today’s Guardian opinion piece on the importance of creativity in our education system is another example.

A good Ofsted inspector will understand this and (a) make an effort to understand the context of the school and (b) take a holistic approach which makes due allowance for the softer, harder-to-measure aspects of a school’s performance. It is a pity that many Ofsted inspectors are not up to the job in this respect.

Respect

So, my deepest respect goes out to teachers: it’s a hard but rewarding job educating our future citizens. And I salute their “critical friends”, my fellow School Governors, volunteers all (as far as I am aware). In these troubling times, our very future as a civilised nation depends on their dedication.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Own Two Feet

I’ve never been what you would call a hippie. In my late teens and early twenties I had shoulder-length hair – and a beard. Flower Power was at its height when I was about 18 or 19 years old. But the whole hippie lifestyle thing? Not really: my day to day life was fairly conventional: university then work, regular job and all that.

Barefoot in the Past

I can’t remember exactly when, but there were a couple of weeks in my late teens or early twenties when I took to going around with bare feet. Somehow I had this romantic notion that closer contact between the soles of my feet and – whatever I was walking on – would somehow connect me better with nature, or whatever. In practice, a good part of the time I was walking on hard, paved surfaces. Of itself, that was not a problem, nor particularly enjoyable! But the problem with pavements are the little bits of debris which find their way there: stones, bits of gravel and, worse still if not paying attention, broken glass or other sharp objects.

No serious injury occurred in these two weeks, but the odd pebble or stone was, frankly, painful. Cool grass was lovely and everyone has experienced the feeling of bare feet on a sandy beach. Painful in a hot climate, sensual at cooler temperatures!

So, did I really feel more in commune with nature? At the time, not really. I soon went back to wearing socks and shoes. More practical, less risk of injury.

Comfortably Numb

Fast forward to last year. One of the side-effects of my medical treatment was a loss of feeling (touch and temperature) in my feet. About a year ago, this effect reached a peak. Those who have experienced peripheral neuropathy often describe it as like walking around with a pair of sponges strapped to the bottom of the feet. Not unpleasant – just a bit weird! And it really screws up your balance! At worst, I was staggering a bit like a drunk person. Like riding a bicycle, the faster I walked, the steadier was my gait.

Many people experience pain as well as a strange, fizzy “hot and cold at the same time” tingling sensation. The tingling was strangely pleasant, the pain not. Fortunately, I was prescribed a drug which took away the pain completely, leaving me with a pair of feet that didn’t quite feel that they belonged to me.

Sweet Sensation

Over the past year, the numbness has mostly subsided and the feeling has returned, especially to the soles of my feet. But a strange thing has happened: the newly re-grown sense of touch is somehow enhanced, as if my brain hasn’t got used to the novelty of feeling again. So now, when my feet are bare, I seem to feel every little bit of the pile in a carpet. It’s as if the nerve cells that give us a sense of touch are trying to make up for the lost time. And, I have to say, it’s really rather pleasant.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that treatment with strong drugs with side-effects is something to be welcomed. But life does have its compensations. For example, experiencing the sight of a beautiful sunset (thank you Harlech in June!), a stunningly beautiful beach (Iona in September) or many others of nature’s bounties, the memories from my youth of cool grass on bare feet come to mind.

And all the madness and discord in the world about which, sadly, too many of these posts concentrate on, drift far, far away.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Tangled Up in EU

There’s an awful lot of bollocks being written and spoken about the UK leaving the EU with No Deal. The most misleading idea is that of a “clean break”.

Bullshit Party

No Deal exit appears to be the only declared policy of the Bullshit Party, my name for the private company set up by a certain N Farage which is masquerading as political party. (As regular readers may have noticed, I refuse to use the other B word.) This private company, to the best of my understanding, is set up as one-man, autocratic institution where whatever the leader says goes. There is no resemblance to any form of democratic processes found in normal political parties.

A Dental Digression

But first, a small digression. The relevance should become clear shortly. Let’s talk about dental implants, a significant advance in dentistry and which have become more popular in the last decade or so. I have three. Implants are usually made of titanium, and the reason is this. Titanium has the property that it allows osseointegration. At the molecular level, bone growth forms a close bond with the metal in such a way that the jawbone tissue and the metal implant fuse together, becoming as one.

I’m taking good care of my implants because, if poorly managed, they can develop gum disease rather like that which occurs around actual teeth. The thought of needing the surgical removal of any of my implants makes me shudder. This is because, in a sense, my implants have become a part of me.

Forty Six Years

The UK has been a member of the EEC/EU since 1973. For my children and grandchildren, that means their whole lives.

Over the course of nearly half a century, the lives of people in this country have become progressively integrated with those in other EU countries. The Tory government has banged on and on about getting a trade deal with the EU (and the world). But there’s much more to life than just trade.

Here are a few examples. People have fallen in love with someone from other EU countries, married, visit relatives, go on holiday. Elderly relatives are brought to the UK (and vice versa) when they reach the stage where they need care. Parents working in one EU country bring their partners and children here one they’re settled (and v.v.). Healthcare is available across national boundaries. Young adults cross EU borders freely to go to university, study and learn more about other cultures. Artists and performers travel freely, sharing experiences and enriching cultures to mutual benefit.

Most of the above benefits – and more – have been possible thanks to free movement. Businesses have developed integrated supply chains: modern technology has enabled “just in time” delivery for parts in areas such as motor manufacturing. Foodstuffs and medicines pass freely around the EU, tariff free and without the need for bureaucratic quality and customs checks, because standards have been harmonised. The EU is the only institution in the world to have the size and desire to curb monopolistic abuses by companies such as Microsoft. Roaming charges for mobile phones have been abolished. Peace in Northern Ireland is built upon the foundation that both the Irish Republic and the UK are EU members.

In short, millions and millions of decisions, some small, some large, have been made, by individuals and by companies, based upon the – often unconscious – assumption that the UK is part of the EU. Just like the bone tissue and titanium implants, our lives and livelihoods have become inextricably interwoven with our European neighbours.

No “Clean Break”

Anyone thinking there is such a thing as a “clean break” for the UK from the EU hasn’t thought it through properly. Leaving with No Deal would be like taking a pair of pliers and ripping out one of my implants without anaesthetic or antiseptic precautions. The resultant wound would be ghastly and would fester. No Deal is the same – or worse – but, this time affecting the whole country.

The division, bad feeling and tribalism we see now is a mere walk in the park, compared with what might follow a No Deal exit. People who should know better, including our Prime Minister, are already using the language of war – the vocabulary of the far-right thugs. Women (including MPs) are fearful for their safety and worse. People will die. Lots of people seem to favour No Deal – and soon – on the assumption that all the nastiness will stop. Think again: it would make everything worse, a lot worse. The UK’s negotiating position would weaken considerably, prey to the whims and fantasies of Trump’s USA.

There is no such thing as a clean break from the EU, only pain, death and division. There is no “taking back control”.

Bullshit Means Bullshit

Which brings me back finally to the Bullshit Party (which Johnson’s gang of thugs and delusionists are trying to ape). Their leader has stated that the only acceptable, “true” version of Leave is No Deal. That argument, as I have attempted to point out above, is based upon the lie of “clean break”. There is no logical reason for the Bullshit Party to exist.

Lives, jobs, family relationships, civility itself are all at stake. Get real. And, for all our sakes, think!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Abolish Ofsted?

Disclaimer: the views presented here are my personal ones only and in no way represent those of any schools with which I have been, or continue to be, associated.

I read a spine-chilling story in Saturday’s newspaper which stated that Chinese journalists will soon be required to pass a test, grading their understanding of the teachings of their leader, Xi Jinping. Here’s an account by a US news outlet on the same story. Journalists in China need a licence to practice their profession. In effect, this new edict reduces their role purely to that of propagandists for the Chinese government. Presumably, those journalists with poor marks will be barred from their jobs.

Strangely, you may think, this story brought to mind an organisation which strikes terror in the hearts of the professionals it seeks to regulate: Ofsted. Strangely? There is a strong resemblance, which I explain below.

Amanda Spielman Ofsted
Amanda Spielman, CEO Ofsted

Coincidentally, on the following day, the Labour Party at its conference has announced that it will include in its manifesto a commitment to abolish Ofsted and replace it with a new system mainly based around local authority inspection. The Times Educational Supplement gives a balanced account here and reports that teaching unions are strongly supportive. It’s worth noting that the comments posted below the TES report help to flesh out the main arguments.

Measuring Affluence

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said: “I believe Ofsted measures poverty. It measures deprivation. It doesn’t measure excellence. And I think Ofsted has to measure excellence.” From my 32 years’ experience as a school governor, I have long since come to broadly the same conclusion. But here I must first declare an interest: I am a Governor of a school in a deprived area with an exceptionally high level of students for whom English is not their first language. The head and the teachers work exceptionally hard to overcome these disadvantages and ensure that our kids progress well in their long and difficult journey of catch-up with children from more privileged backgrounds. But sadly, we concluded some years ago that it is virtually impossible, arithmetically, for our school to be recognised as “outstanding” because of the way Ofsted measures success.

The Number Fairies

The children’s author Michael Rosen writes an occasional series of articles for the Guardian under the title Letter from a Curious Parent. Rosen is clearly a man after my own heart and I always find him a good read. This article from April 2019 is a case in point.

Rosen’s main criticism of the current system is in its obsession with some highly suspect data and its systemic ignoring of other, more difficult to quantify, factors which influence the overall quality of the education given by a school. The present school “data” is a starting point for deeper probing and insights. It is not the end product from which facile conclusions can be drawn, for example in the notorious league tables so loved by government Ministers and ill-informed sections of the media.

A further major problem with the present Ofsted data system is this. It takes a single dataset (raw students’ results in tests) and cuts them every way conceivable, sub-dividing by gender, ethnicity, a somewhat arbitrary binary disadvantaged / non-disadvantaged categorisation and who knows what. Declaration of interest number two: I have a maths degree and several years’ experience working with statistical analysis in my early career. One of the effects of measuring differences between these various categories is that false positive results will occur by chance and by small sample sizes. Over-emphasis on the detail leads to a regime where false trails are pursued and invalid conclusions are drawn.

In short, the present approach to measuring school performance is statistically illiterate.

Project Fear

The really pernicious effect of this űber-accountability is on the consequences flowing from this rush to judgement. As a governor, I have spent much time discussing (anonymised) individual data, individual kids’ needs and circumstances and the pupil-orientated interventions used and known to bring about improvement. Much of this internal data is now, by Ofsted decree, ignored by their inspectors. Never mind the facts, just look at the huge amount of numbers we can produce for just one school. Reputations can be raised and destroyed by this flawed inspection process. The effects can last years and can destroy the careers of and create unnecessary stress for dedicated, hard-working teachers. The resultant increase in teacher “burn-out” and early retirement, together with the deterrent effect on would-be recruits to the teaching profession, does a huge disservice to teachers and pupils alike.

I am a strong believer in the need for accountability, especially for something as important to future citizens’ life chances as school education. I spent over 20 years as a fairly senior manager in a large corporation devising, redrafting, tweaking and adjusting various performance measures to try to ensure that the more senior managers had a clear and incisive insight into the performance of those we managed. Not an easy or straightforward task. Transferred to the world of education, the issues get ever more complex and important. But a world in which an Ofsted visit is viewed with fear and trepidation – and is seen, to a large extent, as a discredited lottery – is a world gone mad.

“Much Worse Than That”

A few months ago, I attended a Local Authority briefing session for governors. When the formal session had ended, I fell into conversation with a governor from another school, a woman I have never met before. I made some comment to the effect that I was unsure, on balance, whether Ofsted’s existence was a good or bad thing for the education of our children. I said I thought it was probably bad. “Oh no!” said my interlocutor. “They’re much worse than that!”

With Stupid Boy Pike as current Education Secretary, it looks like we will have to wait for a future Labour government before there’s any chance that things will improve.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Lost for Words

It’s been four weeks since I last posted to this blog. Events in the world of politics have moved so fast, and with such horror, you could say I have been lost for words.

My original aim was for the blog content to be reflective, rather than a running commentary on events as they occur. The past four years have been so extraordinary that many – perhaps too many – of the posts have been on the subject of politics.  I never for a moment expected matters to take such a dark turn as they have done in the six weeks. By this I mean since our current Prime minister was selected from a shortlist of two by some of the most reactionary people in our land. These are the Tory Party members, representing 0.2% of the electorate, 0.13% of the population, but highly unrepresentative of our views.

Constitution

It is tempting at this time to point out how the UK’s ramshackle, Heath-Robinson, cobbled-together “constitution” is not fit for purpose. I came to the view quite a while ago that some form of Public Enquiry to inform constitutional reform was needed. The damage to Britain’s international reputation is crumbling fast and is on the brink of being destroyed. A priority for later, but not too much later. We can’t keep kicking this can down the road.

For now, it suffices to quote from a leader article in today’s Financial Times, which says all that needs to be said in commendably few words:

The FT’s “until now” could not be clearer. The clear and present danger is our “unscrupulous leader”, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He needs to be removed from office as quickly as possible, ideally before he can do more harm. But it is important that all reasonable methods, in line with those ramshackle constitutional conventions, are followed, if at all possible.

From where I sit, the only body in a position to carry this out is our Parliament, imperfect creature that it is.

The Immediate Task

The immediate task is to stop a No Deal exit from the EU dead in its tracks. There is just about time for that to happen next week: we can only hold our breath and hope. Those opposed to Johnson’s tricks seem reasonably united around using legislative means to pass primary legislation to block No Deal, a catastrophic course of action opposed by around three-quarters of the UK population.

All those who care about the future of this country and who are in a position to effect a change of course must focus unrelentingly on this task.

Plan(s) B

And if this fails?

There are two routes to a possible General Election, one via Johnson and one via Jeremy Corbyn. Both are risky, as only a fool would predict the outcome in these frenzied times. Johnson may call an election himself, thinking a mixture of populist (and unbudgeted) spending plans, together with the lottery that is our first-past-the post voting system may win enough English seats to give him victory. The other route, via Corbyn, involves a successful vote of no confidence in the Commons, which, frankly, is looking far from assured.

We can be reassured that the Scots won’t put up with Johnson’s antics and, especially with Ruth Davidson gone, we could hope that the number of Tory MPs in Scotland will drop from 13 to a figure close to zero (ideally, equal to zero). This should enhance the chances of the Tories being unable to form a government after an election. But, with 80% of the press rabidly rooting for him, Johnson may fool enough English voters to get him over the line. I really hope not. As a bonus, perhaps the DUP archbigots may lose some seats to more rational, and less hate-filled, politicians in Northern Ireland.

Uncivil Service

Johnson’s No Deal plans are so risky and egregious that there has even been talk of divided loyalty in the Civil Service, raised by its former chief back in the less troubled times in March: “The civil service have a loyalty to the government of the day but they are also servants of the crown and the country. Normally there isn’t a conflict because you expect the government to act on behalf of the country but in the situation we are now in, where the interests of the Conservative Party are not necessarily the same as the interests of the country and the consequences are so grave, I do feel that their responsibility to crown and country needs to play in.” Yesterday, he had hardened his position: “We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day.” Alas, tactically, this would likely play into Johnson’s “people v. elites” gambit. We are indeed in unprecedented times.

Civil Unrest

If all else fails, there is a case to be made for civil unrest. Not of the “beat-’em-up” type advocated by the thuggish wing of the Leave supporters. I’m referring rather to a whole variety of creative ways of making the country ungovernable.

Leavers and Remainers

A striking feature of the various pro- and anti-Leave marches (apart from the violence of the former and its absence in the latter) was the wit and imagination that went in to some of the hand-made pro-EU posters. Compare this with the sterile flag-waving and twattish phrases for the Leavers. It’s surely not beyond the wit of us to devise clever ways to frustrate government policies and actions without unduly inconveniencing others. Perhaps it can be done in some cases without breaking the law: a last resort option with an honourable history (Chartists, Peterloo, Suffragettes, etc.)

So, anyway… Think up some ideas whilst those who have the power focus on the immediate task in hand. To stop No Deal. Dead. The rest can wait, for now.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss