Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Time to end the hereditary principle in education says Financial Times - good for them!


Here is a leading column in the FT which should be much welcomed. It describes the challenge for the two public schoolboys who now rule Britain. The question is, are they serious in their efforts to reform education so that it is no longer the case that the better-off can feather the beds of their children, giving them life chances that far exceed those whose parents have less money. I sincerely hope so, because until they do, Britain remains well short of the meritocracy it must become in order to fully realise the talents of its young people.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Coalition invents a new colour - Yelblue - for Coalition Agreement document

Ah, the wonders of the new political dawn.  'New Politics' as opposed to 'Old Politics'.  And so it seems from the long-awaited Coalition Document, published today, a new colour is born - Yelblue.  This new colour is used throughout the new document and even gets an entire page to fill (page 2 in case you're interested). I'm sure readers with children will appreciate that when a toddler mixes two paint colours together, the result is an unappealing looking mess.  I suspect we may be witnessing the modern political PR equivalent of such a mess.  For when two incompatible colours are forced together the result isn't harmony, it is mess.

But apart from the creation of a new colour, the coalition has been busy setting out how it will be the most reforming government since the 1832 Reform Act.  In this brave new world of privately-educated people running the country, Nick Clegg said in yesterday's over-hyped speech on political reform:  "...as we tear through the statute book, we’ll do something no government ever has: We will ask you which laws you think should go."  Ermm...how about the laws on the punishment for murder?  I'm sure the majority who want to bring back the gallows will greatly appreciated Nick's new openness.  Hang on a minute, Clegg also said that “CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people’s DNA."  Yet the majority of the population supports the use of CCTV in the fight against crime and supports the storing of DNA from people who have been arrested.

Yes, they may be innocent, but if they go on to commit a rape or murder, as a tiny number have, I certainly wouldn't want to be the politician who had to look the parents of a dead child in the eye and say "sorry, we could have caught your child's murderer years ago, before he struck again, but the 2010 new government destroyed his DNA record because he was innocent at the time of an earlier arrest."  Opposition is so much easier than government.  Self-righteousness is so much more satisfying than calm, sober application of principles to the reality of difficult and complex situations.

I honestly wish the new government well, but I have to say I can't get the image of my toddler's messy paint-mixing out of my mind.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Millenniumitis strikes the Tube

Do you ever get that feeling that you've become a sucker?  You've allowed a marketing craze, or a word-of-mouth craze to pull you in, extract your money and spit you out?  It can happen almost imperceptibly.  You start seeing images of a girl's naked back with a dragon tattoo while walking past what constitutes a book shop these days - a third of an aisle in Tesco.  Then you start seeing people reading said book with image of naked girl's back.  Then you hear the odd piece on the radio about a "literary phenomenon".  Perhaps you Google the author to see what all the fuss is about.  Next a friend mentions on Facebook that they're reading it...the word-of-mouth phase is under-way...the rest is predictable history...

I knew I'd become another willing victim of this particular literary whirlwind when I got on the Tube this morning and in the single section by the double doors I was one of three who were reading a book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy.

Fortunately, unlike the last time this kind of thing happened - the Harry Potter craze - we needn't hang our heads in shame or disguise our covers with the sleeve of an Alain de Botton book in order to retain credibility...

No, we share a strange sense of brotherhood.  We know we're reading a great, intelligent, rip-roaring story of relevance to our fragile times, by a tragic author who died before he realised just how commercially successful is writing would become.  We are willing victims of Millenniumitis and I thoroughly encourage you to get infected as soon as possible.

Oh, and I'm only 67 pages into the first novel...

Monday, 17 May 2010

The private classes of the class of 2010 - so much for change!

There's been a lot of talk about change recently (most of it hot air). In one key respect, British society hasn't changed at all and the recent election proves the point. 

That is the dominance of private school-educated people in the highest echelons of society - the judiciary, professions such as the law and medicine, the armed forces...and YES, PARLIAMENT TOO. See this superb research by The Sutton Trust -  showing that even though private schools teach only 7% of the population, 35% of MPs received a private education. 54% of Tory MPs and 40% of Lib Dems were privately educated (15% for Labour). 

The dominance of Oxford and Cambridge is also troubling, given that these universities themselves are disproportionately dominated by private schools. 38% of Conservative MPs were educated at Oxford or Cambridge compared with 20% of Labour MPs and 28% of Liberal Democrat MPs. You might think that the new 2010 Parliament would a smaller proportion of privately-educated MPs. It was after all much trumpeted that the class of 2010 would be new brooms to sweep away the 'old politics'. Yet the proportion of 2010's newly-elected MPs who went to private school is 35% - exactly the same as for MPs who were re-elected to their posts. 

So much for change! You won't hear the Clegg or Cameron saying that they'd seek to end the institutionalised predominance in society of the children of better off people, even in the Parliament which is supposed to represent the whole of society. 

If we're serious about those buzz words that tripped out of both their mouths so frequently during the election campaign: "change", "fairness", "poverty", "opportunity", "renewal" and so-on, then we as a society must think about what these statistics say about our society in 2010. Before people say "it's the fault of poor teaching state schools" this is untrue and unfair. It is largely the result of the continuance of the structures that create inequality of opportunity in the education system. Put simply, in the UK, if you have money, you can improve the chances of your children. This is not fair and and means that Britain fails to offer the best opportunities to countless thousands of our young people.  But then people in positions of power and influence often do not like change, particularly when it threatens their privileged position in society.

Letter to The Times (not published) about Arpad Busson and chums and their charity ball

Sir,

Although I'm not a believer, when reading of Arpad Busson's latest charity ball ('Richest and most glamorous bid for glittering prizes at Ark fundraiser') I was reminded of Jesus' parable that the poor man who gives his last penny is more valued by God than the rich man who makes a great fuss of giving a financially more 'valuable' gift.

It'll no doubt be viewed by many as churlish to say this but I wish newspapers would give equal coverage to the thousands of acts of real charity enacted each day by ordinary people who are not rich and who do not receive the benefit of a grotesquely luxurious night out for their efforts.
Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Why we must have a Lab-Lib Plus coalition by Polly Toynbee (and some minnow thoughts from yours truly)

Polly Toynbee's analysis sums up my take on the recent political developments far, far better than I could myself and can be read here.

All I would add is that we are at a critical juncture at which point it is plain to see how desperate is the largely right-wing media for Cameron to become Prime Minister and how outraged their chief lieutenants are that he may not (see right-wing Cameron-supporting Sky News chief political hack Adam Boulton showing his colours in this hilarious spat with the excellent Alastair Campbell here).  Or indeed the leading article in today's Times, a superb newspaper, whose editor James Harding is first class and fair-minded.   Their article states boldly that "It is quite possible that we will look back on yesterday as the moment the Liberal Democrats demonstrated they are totally unsuited to the serious business of government."  And why?  Because they had the audacity to consider negotiating with Labour about the possibility of forming a coalition rather than conform to the narrative already long ago written by the right-wing media (and the so-called "markets") that their man David Cameron should move into Number 10.  

The Times leader continues: "Mr Clegg has been taught a depressing lesson by his party. They are constitutionally unready to govern. Ideologically, they were caught out with policies — such as ditching Trident and an amnesty on immigration — that were not those of a government in waiting."  Why such a blatant and over-the-top attack on a party which was lauded only weeks ago?  In what way are they constitutionally unfit to govern?  They are merely doing what they have every right to do under our antiquated unwritten constitution - namely negotiate with the other parties in order to seek a solution which allows on party leader to command the support of the House of Commons.  

Neither Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg are doing anything which in any way goes against the grain of our political system.  David Cameron did not win the election in the British sense of the word.  He won the most seats and a slightly larger share of the popular vote.  But he was not elected as Prime Minister by the British people. Our system is simple - the incumbent PM has the right to remain in office unless and until he can no longer command the support of the House of Commons.  He has correctly given the party which won the most seats the opportunity to seek to form a coalition, but it seems that right wing party cannot offer to the Lib Dems what they require.  Therefore, they are playing their hand well in talking openly to Labour and Labour has played its hand very well in keeping out of it for the first few days and in removing the main stumbling block to negotiations (i.e. Brown's continuation as Labour leader).  

What happens from here on in is in the lap of the Gods (or perhaps I should name the specific politicians!).  But it is certainly not undemocratic for the Lib Dems and Labour to seek to form a so-called 'progressive alliance' with the tiny parties.  

The debate about our system of voting and our unwritten constitution can be had another day.  But until now, I'll declare my hand as resolutely in favour of my party (Labour) doing all it can to ensure that progressive policies, strong management of the economy and economic recovery, radical change to our discredited political system and a commitment to fairness remain at the heart of the next government's programme.  They will not if the Conservatives were to take power with or without the Lib Dems in tow.

Those who favour a 'brief period of opposition' may well have a point: a Tory-Liberal coalition may take the flak for the inevitable tough spending cuts that they must introduce, the coalition may be inherently unstable, it may provoke huge instability within each party as the grass roots object to the indignity of working with the enemy.  Yet this may not transpire.  David Cameron is an astute and occasionally brave leader.  His negotiating team have shown poise, dignity, generosity and a spirit of compromise towards the Liberal Democrats.  This indicates to me that in this so-called 'new politics' the Tories may actually be willing and capable of making such a coalition work.  Many in Labour's ranks seem to think that opposition is preferable to the undoubtedly difficult period of coalition government that we may be about to enter into.  I fear that this may be the comfort of a bed in an open prison, watching the world go by but unable to participate.  The only question would be how long is the sentence that must be endured.  We know from past experience that Labour is often sentenced to long periods by the public under the first-past-the-post system.