Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Buses, Tories and Thatcher

Unfortunately, lots of them come along at the same time

All the right wing tweeters getting upset about the lack of respect for Thatcher reminded me of one change she helped to instigate that I noted with sadness in the 80's. Her "children" Cameron and Osborne have continued implementing such wonderful policies as destroying the public sector, privatising anything that moves and casting another generation onto the slag heap.

But it made me think of one very practical example I lived through of how Thatcher's "grand ideas" completely changed one small but important aspect of our society.

In the 80's I was commuting into Waterloo, then taking two buses to get to the school I taught in, on the Old Kent Road.

When I started doing those journeys every bus had a driver and a conductor. As the Tory cuts took effect I saw the progressively deteriorating effect on travel in London. It may be apocryphal, but the Thatcher quote about only failures needing to take a bus, seemed to be evident in their transport policies.

"A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure"

Slowly the friendly conductor, who helped on board the old, the infirm and the young parents with kids, was got rid of. It took longer at each stop because no-one was there to direct and the driver had to take the fares, creating long hold ups of cars behind the bus. Pretty soon the drivers alone in their cabs got frightened of the passengers and heavy duty plastic screen were put in between them and the people getting on. Queues and travel in London got slower.

Once that minimal contact between driver and passenger was eliminated with tickets bought before getting on, the driver became dramatically more distant. Old people who might have been helped by a conductor, now got thrown around as driving became more erratic and less connected to the people in the bus. I saw the service deteriorate around me.

In other words buses became much less of a service to the people who used them. Important people didn't need them anyway.

So much of what happened under Thatcher was the elimination of care and public service. It's all happening again.

"One man's overstaffing is another man's care and attention"

The public sector is again being dismantled. The teams that have grown to support the people they serve are being broken up, individuals made redundant. Things that matter to ordinary people are being scrapped because the "important" ones, the millionaires in cabinet have no need for them.

That's the way it is. Let's face it, when you next get on a bus how likely is it that George Osborne will be sitting next to you. His oyster card will only be used to buy the oysters to accompany his champagne.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Time for the Shadow Secretary of State for Education to leave the shadows

Those of us who believe that Michael Gove is effectively destroying the life chances of the majority of learners in this country, have a hard job ahead.

Most education professionals believe that almost all of his "reforms" on governance, on exams, on teaching, on the curriculum,  etc etc only serve to return state education to the inequities of the 50s and 60s.

Most of us believe that the underlying intention of them all is to privatise schooling and to remove any democratic and local involvement. 

Yet, when the BBC's Daily Politics show did a "half term report" on the Government, the contributors gave Gove full marks, "an unqualified success." None of these people were educators, few had ever experienced state education. Like the majority of media presenters and commentators they are products of the private schools and send their children to these elite institutions too.

When I heard Stephen Twigg, the almost supine Shadow Education Secretary, speak at an event, I was amazed by his approach. He is a good speaker, showing all the hallmarks of a career politician. But what he actually said was nothing more than anodyne and apple pie. He used good trigger words, "fairness" "justice" and "transparency". But what he really had to say was that most of Gove's "reforms" would be left untouched.

We could do with a bit of help from the Labour spokesman. Anyone who follows him on Twitter, @StephenTwigg, will see that he seems to go to a lot of picnics but rarely tweets about education. In fact, unlike most politicians, he rarely replies to tweets addressed to him.

Has anyone actually told him he is the Shadow Secretary of State for Education?
Do a picture search for Stephen Twigg on Google and you get as many of Michael Portillo as Stephen himself. Was unseating Thatcherite Mick the last thing he did?

When the BBC thinks Toby Young is an expert on education, when discussion in the media is led by those with no experience of state education and when the Labour Party Education spokesman is really just Mr Govelite, those of us in education have a long and steep road to rescue education in 2015. 

Friday, 11 January 2013

Frank discussion not playground brawl

I have written here many times about the lack of basic courtesy that is often Twitter's hallmark.

I have been guilty many times. I have so enjoyed making fun of Danny (Beaker) Alexander. So many times in fact that I feel perhaps I should be paying him royalties. I am afraid I have also let my spite go to extremes when the nonsense of Govian education policy bites us once again. So because I don't know these people personally, I have been rude but hopefully not offensive?

Trouble is, once you meet people here, or at least talk to them in thoughts bigger than 140 characters, it becomes harder to be merely rude at their expense. It's that basic courtesy thing. Also just because you disagree on politics doesn't mean you won't share a love for John Martyn, Western Cape Pinotage or Anne Tyler.

So I have talked at length with some politicians, bloggers and educationists whose views on the Tory road to the future I violently disagree with. Isn't it better to state your view, correct theirs where you can but continue the conversation?

I love finding the slightly acidic quote or picture that backs up my gut feelings and gets others looking and commenting too.

I also feel we all need to be aware of criticism and adapt our own comments and views when someone takes the trouble to point out mistakes, or misinterpretations. Sometimes we should just keep quiet.

Recently lots of people were tweeting about something Churchill is supposed to have said re. the Arts. You know the one - "What then are we fighting for?" Trouble is I used that a long time ago and many people came back and told me that this was one of those myths we all like to pass on. Didn't jump up and correct because the underlying thought resonated, Tory Arts cuts are counter-productive.

Bit like the myth that I still repeat even though people tell me it is apocryphal. The one about the Tory Cabinet minister forced to travel on London Underground for the very first time? The story goes that he asked his secretary to book him into the Dining Car. Works, because we all feel that the cabinet millionaires just aren't aware of what ordinary people experience. And no, it wasn't Boris Johnson.

So, I want to listen, be amused, be engaged and occasionally be corrected. And like almost everyone else on Twitter, I want to be loved too.

But the people who go out of their way to insult and criticise without explanation of their own views should simply be blocked.

Twitter is an amazing medium for ordinary people who do not have access to a newspaper column, radio programme or TV spot. When I comment on the work of an author, directly to that author via Twitter, I am privileged if they respond. Even more so when they are interested enough in what I say to follow me here.

When a politician responds I can be blunt but I don't agree with insults just to provoke that response. 

As an ex teacher, and someone who has worked within education all my life, I prefer the staffroom discussion to the playground brawl.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Power and wealth attracts the corruptible

Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it.
FRANK HERBERT, Chapterhouse: Dune

When I worked with education in South Africa on behalf of a UK charity I was able to bring resources that were not readily available to Heads and teachers there. Over a five year period I managed to secure computers, software and much more for schools that were still struggling to provide books in classrooms and feed their learners. £1million of resource that included science labs for township schools and connections with wealthier partner schools in England. 

As part of the deal I often escorted British Headteachers on tours to SA. I asked colleagues in Cape Town and Gauteng to host visits, put on a show at the school etc. Because what we were offering these schools was so valuable to them it was sometimes easy to forget that this power may have forced them to change their timetables and adapt to fit around us. 

On my return to the UK I often felt very guilty about the power we had because of the wealth we also had. I hope I used this primarily for the benefit of the learners in the SA schools. But the contrast between my situation and theirs was based on the finances available to me.

I feel the Coalition government has completely lost sight of the people their power affects. Their comfortable situation, their money, their personal resources have blinded them to the plight and the wishes of the people they were elected to serve.

While most politicians I believe really do want to serve their community, sadly for many, the exercise of power has become the only ambition they have. 

Power gradually extirpates for the mind every humane and gentle virtue.
EDMUND BURKE, A Vindication of Natural Society

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The well bred seem intent on spreading poverty wider and further.

I have only felt really hungry over an extended period of time once in my life.

At College, near the end of term and determined not to ask my parents for any more support, I spent three weeks surviving. My diet consisted of “bread and spread” and little else. I didn’t feel healthy, I didn’t feel able to participate in College life and I felt continually depressed. But it wasn’t cold outside, I had no dependents and I had mates who occasionally bought me a beer. I also had a point to make.

When I was teaching in an inner city school in the seventies, I often came across kids who came to school starving. Many bought a bag of crisps on the way in or came with nothing in their stomachs and waited for free lunch for their first meal of the day. Many of us had a packet of biscuit bars that we used to give these kids so they had something to eat at morning break. Not a large group of students but too big to institute a feeding programme of "bread and spread" but enough to worry about especially during the Winter months. This "teacher charity" is on the rise again.

The next time I encountered real and long term hunger was while I worked for a charity in South Africa. The country is a real land of contrasts. I worked with schools seeking to develop the use of technology in the 21st century. Some of the schools in our network were seemingly modelled on Eton with playing fields, bell towers and refectories. The majority I went into were hacked out of township wastelands.

One I had much to do with was a school where both educators and learners generally spoke isiXhosa at home, but had to teach for the most part, in English. Most of the staff could converse in Afrikaans too. Yet the majority of the kids were on province sponsored feeding programmes. “Bread and spread” (generally jam) was handed out at the end of the day and that was the meal they looked forward to. Kids who came well dressed in their school uniforms, you could see were hungry before they went back to their “shacks”.

This situation was hammered home to me many times. I took the school’s drum and dance group to the Commonwealth Education Ministers Conference where they performed for the well fed and self satisfied representatives. Afterwards the Venue provided each of the 30 kids with a packed lunch. To a UK kid nothing special but the individually wrapped sandwiches, chocolate biscuits etc etc was heaven for this group.

On another occasion (see earlier blog) I spoke at an Indaba at the school celebrating their new IT Lab. We cooked a meal for all the participants and the local community and school. This meal of chicken, pap and steamed bread was more than just an event for the kids it was vital sustenance. It took me a long time to realise that the staff too were often short of decent food.

You sometimes see in UK restaurants the option to take home a “doggie bag” of leftover food. Eat in SA and leftover food is often handed out to the street kids or parking watchmen.

So when the Tories sneer at the poor in the UK and say nobody is starving, I am simply horrified that we can actually see foodbanks in our cities and the hungry children back in our schools.

They have already downgraded the Labour government's commitment to eradicate child poverty in 2020 by announcing new non-income indicators of poverty. They are planning to stop monitoring child poverty.

I never thought we would be discussing the problems of hunger amongst our people

The well bred seem intent on spreading poverty wider and further.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Boy Bloggers, Tory Think Tanks & an Absence of Expertise

I have been blocked by only a few people in my four years on Twitter. One thought he spoke for the left in the Independent and although I only made one comment criticising his casual rudeness about isiXhosa, I was blocked.(see an earlier blog)

Another speaks for whatever right wing hurrah is the current obsession and really does write, speak and tweet like a privileged school kid emerging from his darkened room. 

I think both stopped the link because I disagreed with them and said so. Both enjoyed the thrill of being little heroes to their respective followers and while dispensing criticism was their game they hated it when an argument was made that didn't fit their perception.

Then there is Toby Young, @toadmeister. Not only is his opinion sought on everything on the basis that he thinks he knows everything, but our government gave permission for him start a school and inflict himself on children! It was almost a badge of honour to be blocked by him.

I think blocking has to be used for a definite reason. Usually because of offensiveness or persistent unpleasantness. Unfollowing seems to me to be the right course of action in most cases.

I follow many people who have views I radically disagree with, but that seems to me to be the point. Hear an argument, dispute it when you can but still engage. Clearly, there might be exceptions. I don't follow anyone who blatantly supports racist organisations for example.

There are however, people on Twitter, (and most are male) who seem intent on becoming their own version of mini-celebrities. Unfortunately this medium and the news media encourage them by giving them access to speak about subjects they have no expertise in, only prejudices about.

These boy bloggers often delight in a series of throwaway insults to get attention. Sadly this is sometimes as prevalent on the Left as the Right. As a teacher, it reminds me of the playground behaviour of the loudest kids who can't argue a point successfully so end up shouting insults. I sometimes wish Twitter could be more like a staffroom conversation rather than the one behind the bike sheds.

To be frank many of the supposedly political bloggers are far more interested in building a media presence than arguing a point constructively. Tweet enough rudeness, blog enough rubbish and say you belong to a ThinkTank or a "political blog"  and #SkyNews and #BBCNews seems happy to invite you on. You can then spout crap to millions of viewers who don't know your "claim to expertise" is based on nothing but writing awfulness on awful websites.

So. I offer you a new ThinkTank from the comfort of my Basingstoke Sofa. It is available for comment on any and all topics especially education.

But like @MrHarryCole and his pub bore friends I will talk at length about anything. I may not know anything about the subject, but I will be happy to splutter cliche, nod enthusiastically and claim my appearance fee.

Isn't that what think tanks are for? Contact me at....

Thursday, 2 August 2012

WRESTLING YETIS : 3 generations: 3 "jobs for life"

When my father retired at the age of 60 from a lifetime of work, he pretty soon got bored. He had worked for the AA before volunteering for the army at the outbreak of war in 1939. After time in North Africa and Italy he returned to the UK and passed the entrance exams for the Civil Service Commission. He spent the next 30+ years working on projects to do with Careers and Training in the Civil Service. My mother did a variety of jobs, but usually in retail, and part time. At the age of 60 he had his works pension but no state one yet. Living in a Council House they could afford to live reasonably but not lavishly. The problem was he was bored, so he walked into an admin work agency and walked out with a new job the same day. A temporary post led to a permanent one at the age of 61. He stayed there for 6 years using the same skills as he had learnt in the Civil Service. He never had a problem finding a job where he could demonstrate loyalty and hard work.

I worked in various jobs (office, school caretaking etc) before going to a Teacher Training College. With certificate in hand, I went straight into a Comprehensive on the Old Kent Road in London and stayed there for 17 years. Classroom teacher, head of department, senior manager progression. My loyalty was to the school and the community it served. A tough environment but a rewarding one. I didn't apply for another job outside until I had been there for 15 years. I moved on to another school's senior management team in a leafier part of the world and then worked for an Education Charity which received a major part of its funding from Labour Government programmes. After a few years there I got involved in work with African schools which became my personal "mission" and made me feel both valued and valuable. I raised in three years almost £1m from companies and trusts to be used to develop skills in African classrooms. Funding for my post ran out and I was threatened with redundancy but transferred into a new project that was totally dependent on government funding. With the emergence of the Coalition this project was scrapped and within 3 months I was made redundant.

After a lifetime of showing commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty, plus a bank of skills based on global experience of education, fundraising and media work, I had high expectations of finding a job quickly. 2 years later I have no full time job and although my days of consultancy continue I am now certain that I value being part of a team. Having to constantly "sell" myself for every job is frankly depressing. 

I grew up in an environment where demonstrating commitment and loyalty were seen as a crucial part of the job. In today's workplace the individual who is forced to re-imagine and sell themself repeatedly.

My son left University in 2010 with a First Class Honours Degree. When he started his course in Film Studies he knew that full time permanent jobs were not the norm in the creative industries but he expected to earn enough to develop and hone his skills and his career. Within a few weeks of gaining power the Coalition scrapped the UK Film Council which was the source of hope for many hoping to work in British Film and also a major contributor to the economic health of the nation.. Much of the work of the Arts Council has been reduced or scrapped too.

He has had many successes with film and theatre projects (see below) but paid work is very limited. Arts employers offer unpaid internships or expenses only jobs, so wthout comfortably off parents this field is closed to many youngsters. The Job Centres are arranged to find poorly paid and temporary jobs. He has only managed to claim Job Seekers Allowance for a few weeks in the last year because every time he does something to further his career, he is not "available for work" and has to come off.

A great example of this is he was shortlisted (and then won) a film competition on "Conservation of Water". The American company organising this paid for him to attend the event in Los Angeles and a few other industry related days. This was a great opportunity to make links with film makers and funders and develop his skills. Because he was not "available for work" for a week he lost several weeks JSA. Absurd.

But the biggest loss for him is the inability to join the "contributing society". He is not part of a team. Like me he is not able to demonstrate and learn loyalty and commitment. His only priority in work is himself and the desperation he feels about being able to start on the road. He left University with massive debt but nowhere near what the next generation of students are going to face.

They will have no sense of belonging to anything, no sense of being part of a team, no hope and no choices. Any job will do. And they are not able to start the long journey to a pension or buy a property.

My father worked and served all his life and had the opportunity to continue contributing until late in his sixties, using the skills and ideas he learnt and developed at work.

I worked in jobs where loyalty and commitment were important and my skill set was immense, but before I have reached sixty I am out on a limb, feeling I have lots more still to offer but nowhere to show that.

My son can't even start on that route, and he has yet to feel that commitment to anything other than himself is worthwhile. In his early twenties- but he can't get a worthwhile job and seems to have no hope of finding one. I think the film he wrote and directed "Wrestling Yetis" sums up how important it is to feel enthusiastic about the your job and your future.

Wrestling Yetis  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLMkL-sDgzI

Fun and Games IUOW Competion Winner 2011 

me (sort of...)

me (sort of...)