Archive for April, 2013

Gove’s Reforms are for Gove not Children

So Micheal Gove wants to increase the school day and shorten holidays. Specifically he would like the school day to run until 4.30 and to have a four week summer holiday instead of six in an attempt to “catch up” with East Asia and be “family friendly”. Good job I was on the train when I read this or I would, once again, have choked on my cornflakes. It’s rare that I agree with a Union but on this occasion I have to agree that he seems to be making this stuff up on the fly. So let’s take the reforms one by one.

Firstly running the school day until 4.30. For older children, especially those doing GCSE and A levels I can actually see this making sense. It gives the children more time in a focussed environment to concentrate on study and revision rather than relying on them doing it at home. But as soon as the children are younger than this then it does seem to be, well, monumentally stupid. Very little children certainly cannot study until 4.30. Boy is in Year One at the moment and he is regularly shattered and pale when he’s picked up. In reception some of the kids are still 4 at the end of the summer term and, when I did the pick up as I do once a week, you could see that at 3pm they were on the verge of meltdown.

Finishing at 4.30 for little ones would see them going home in the dark every day in the winter whereas the current day end allows them to get home before dark even in winter. Whenever a proposal is made to get rid of the idea that our clocks change one argument is that children further north would have to go to school in the dark. Now we seem to be quite happy to send them home in the dark. Is it more dangerous or not?

But the worrying thing about this is the desire to emulate East Asia. The exam focussed learning there goes back to the 1890s and before – exactly the reason Gove says the school day needs to change. In Imperial China your best chance of a good job in the civil service depended on your ability to pass exams, each one harder than the next, that you could in theory take unlimited times. Long after Sun Yat Sen and Chiang  Kai Shek’s revolution the Chinese culture of cramming remains but is it healthy? I lived in Taiwan for nearly three years and the children there, while ostensibly focussed and studious, are actually only that. They are not children. Huge pressure is put on them to succeed so that the stress of their education and a lack of role model has led to a notoriously high teenage suicide rate. Not having a role model  may not seem connected but, of course, if your thinking is purely based on cramming and how to pass an exam, you may not have the creative ability to understand what it is that you want to do with your life. This is something they are starting to understand in Singapore for, ironically, as Gove wants to make us more like Singapore, Singapore wants a more creative and holistic education system.

Ultimately though, and most importantly, I think that children should be children rather than little adults. To have time to play, explore and be with their families.

Now the holidays. Do you like going away to somewhere foreign and sunny in the summer holidays? Because under Gove’s proposals you’d pay a lot more for doing so and have less chance of having your leave approved. In my day job I manage a team of three people and all of us have school age children. Every summer there is a balancing act that needs to be done between ensuring the staff have a break with their family and that work continues without the quality suffering. This is hard enough to organise in six weeks. Trying to cram four people’s trips away in to four weeks would be harder still. Your two weeks in the sun, if you have school age children, may be about to become one.

That may be ok though because it will also become far more expensive. We all know how much more expensive flights and hotels are in the summer holidays right? Well now that demand is going to be spread over not six but four weeks if Gove gets his way. The simple law of supply and demand dictates that the price will rise.

So a more competitive society with cleverer kids? Or a more rigid and tired society, prone to depression, and with a government supposedly committed to wealth imposing another indirect cost rise as a result of policy?

I can’t help but think that if you thought about it for more than five minutes you can see that this reform is not about the children at all and as such loses any claim to be ‘family friendly’. So if it’s not for the children who is it for?

I am sure that deep down many Tories think of teachers as lazy, militant public employees working 8.30 to 3 and doing nothing in their huge six week holiday than rolling out of bed late and catching up on Jeremy Kyle. How UNFAIR they cry when employees in the private sector are pulling 13 hour days EVERY DAY for the love of it! Taking aside the fact that teachers are actually marking and lesson planning, and preparing and hosting parents evenings, again what is so healthy about the alternative? You’ve watched The Apprentice right? Where in a rush of testosterone and duty (especially the girls) the teams roll their sleeves up and pull an all nighter for the good of the task. The task of course goes horribly south because it’s being carried out by people who are tired, inexperienced and unnaturally competitive. They all head back to the boardroom to remark on what a spectacular failure it’s been and to turn on each other like savages. Not quite how I want my kids’ teachers to behave.

But I don’t even really think this is the motivation behind the changes. I think the real reason is that Michael Gove goes home at night and imagines people in ten years time referring to ‘the Gove reforms’. He’s after fame, not improving your children.

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My Family and Margaret Thatcher

OK, so everyone’s writing about Maggie. I could – and possibly should – be writing about the kids vomiting or driving my wife insane or refusing to eat my scrambled eggs because I milk them. But hell, it’s been on my mind non stop.Maggie came from Grantham. I know that town. I know that grocer’s shop. And she has, one way and another, had a profound effect on my life and my relationship with my own parents.

My mother was raised in a little village in the Lincolnshire countryside a few miles from Grantham and she went to Kesteven and Grantham Girls School just like Margaret Hilda Roberts had done many years before her. She may well hate me for this, her politics being very far removed from Maggie’s, but it seems the school specialises in turning out strong, determined and successful women. Or maybe it was the town rather than the school. It’s the sort of place your work very hard to make sure you leave.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere, not even on the M1, it was the sort of place that struck me as being quintessentially British. Market at the weekend. Department stores and a church spire that dominated it. Pubs that may well have been excellent but that called last orders bang on time. Thatcher hated football fans but this didn’t come from having them charge past the Grocer’s in their hobnail boots every other Saturday. If you wanted to watch sport in that area then village cricket was your best bet.

We went up to stay with my Mum’s Mum every summer. Grantham is where I learned to swim, despite coming from a town by the sea. Why? Because after going to Granddad’s allotment and running through the spinney and playing cow-pat football there was nothing much left to do. My dad took us swimming to the Grantham baths as often as he could. Every time we’d drive by the Grocer’s shop. By then Maggie wasn’t in it. She was running the country.

My last ever visit to Grantham summed the place up perfectly. It was around the time that Converse All Star were trendy the first time and I was in the market for a new pair. I’d saved pocket and paper round money and my Gran had given me some extra. I went excitedly to the sports shop in Grantham. No trainers, especially not trendy ones. Just good old fashioned sports equipment. It was like there was a sign on the wall that read “There’ll be none of your poncey American canvas boots here m’duck.”

At the start of her first term I knew nothing about her politics or unions. I had watched the Falklands on telly – we all had – and later the miners strike. Teenaged me felt sorry for the miners but had a suspicion that Arthur Scargill was a wanker. Adult me still does.

But then, in her autumnal Prime Ministerial years she cast a shadow greater than any time we had driven past the out of commission Grocer’s. When I was 17 my parents divorced. Interest rates shot up. First 11% then 14%. Then 15%. Or as my dad remembers them ‘fucking expensive’. We had stayed with dad – I suppose he became an early SAHD – but though this was the right thing at the time emotionally it may not have been financially. The rates were crippling his business and ability to pay the mortgage. Then, just to really shit on our fireworks, she introduced the Poll Tax and suddenly anything I wasn’t giving in keep went to local government. We needed to take in a lodger and we still came within weeks of being repossessed. Neither Dad or I claimed a penny in benefit. Think on that when the Tories claim they support small business and strivers.

One of our lodgers was Patrick*. Short, Scottish and working class he claimed to be a Rangers fan from Edinburgh. In due course he would rip off a local pub and do a runner but he always paid us on time to the penny. One day, before he ripped the pub off, I went to work and, in the afternoon Carol started crying. Carol was the 30 year old Assistant Manager who dressed like a 50 year old and idolised Thatcher like I idolise Brighton and Hove Albion. The old hag had resigned. That’s Thatcher, not Carol. I could barely conceal my glee. When I got home me and Dad and Patrick were in the kitchen. “Terrible fuckin’ shame eh?” said Patrick. Then we opened a bottle of whisky. When it was gone Dad went out and got another. We partied like it was 1999, astonishing since it was only 1990.

Yesterday she died. I felt neither sadness nor celebration. Maybe it’s because I consider dancing on an old lady’s grave distasteful.  Maybe it’s because as I’ve grown older I’ve moved far more to the centre. Or perhaps it was because she has left us a legacy that won’t be talked about in the countless obituaries. Me and my Dad. A bond that can never be broken, strengthened, as they often are, in adversity.

*Not his real name. Obvs.

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Bedroom Tax- Cruelly Timed and Badly Thought Out

Today something is introduced that has been appearing on my timeline and in my newspapers that I have not cared about perhaps as much as I should. I mean I’ve cared about it. Just not as much as I have about North Korea or George Osbourne’s continuing smugness or Boy singing the Check-A-Trade Dot Com jingle. That something is The Bedroom Tax.

On the face of it this is something I should be in favour of. Here I am getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning to commute to a job to pay the bills and, thanks to the rise in property prices, those bills cover a tiny two bedroom house. Which would be fine except I have two children. One of each. And in the private sector I’m one of the ones lucky enough to own my own place. Many families of our age are stuck renting.

Meanwhile feckless Granny Shameless up the road has finally kicked out her seventeenth child and, up to today, had the right to rattle round in her luxurious five bedroom council house, that I was paying for ON MY OWN out of taxes and sweat, for the rest of her life. But only up to today. That’ll show you Granny Shameless.

C’mon. You know Granny Shameless don’t you? You must do. She’s everywhere. Except I don’t and you probably don’t either. You might be able to point to s similar example in a national tabloid but you know why that is?

Two reporters, John and Mick return back to the News Editor with a story from a council estate. One features Paul who has been trying to get work for over a year. In that time he’s applied for over 200 jobs and had three interviews. Now he’s being sent jobs that he’s totally unsuited to by Universal Jobmatch. The other story is Granny Shameless and I’d have to agree she’s far better copy. Guess who gets reported on? The thing is you know her only from the papers. I know a real Paul.

The idea that making people downsize their social housing when they don’t need the extra room is, however, a good one in principle, or at least more fair. It should introduce fluidity in to a system that currently has none. However, it is flawed by the fact that everything else in the social housing market isn’t equal. There is no huge stock of smaller properties to fall back on. This study from Case includes a table that shows the inevitable mismatch.

The Guardian meanwhile reports that 66% of affected people are disabled. The Government disputes that and, lets face it, it was The Guardian. So let’s halve that and say that it’s 33%, just for arguments sake. A policy change where one third of the people worse off are disabled, and far more likely to need their benefit as the safety net it was intended as, cannot be fair or equitable. And I am inclined to believe that they are the greatest proportion affected because we can all see how some bozo in a housing office has had to allocate them a house rather than a bungalow because of ill thought out preference rules or, again, lack of suitable stock. That ‘spare’ bedroom may be unwanted and up a set of stairs the tenant can’t use.

Then there are fathers who keep a room for children from previous relationships. It’s entirely possible to see how a family breakdown could lead to a need for social housing, about how the children’s father now faces not seeing the children, paying extra rent or, y’know, just bunking in with the kids and hoping the social don’t notice. Still it’ll make those Bulgarians and Romanians think twice about accepting their luxury 7 bed Mansion when all 29 million of them pour over to nick our jobs and live on benefits.

So all  in all you could say I’m against.

But here’s the real kick in the teeth. Later this month, Saturday in fact, the highest rate of tax will be abolished because it raised only 1 billion instead of the £2.5 billion predicted by Labour.

What a failure eh? I mean, which of us, if we were offered a billion pounds, would turn it down with a flat “I’m sorry, it’s 2.5 billion or nothing thanks.”

Not me that’s for sure. For a cool billion I could buy an island and a car and a bigger house for the kids, and several Jeroboams of Krug and some nice jeans and a dragon and some really expensive hookers that I’d just keep around to serve cocaine to the dwarves, and a lawn mower and a toy train and a private jet. I could even employ some Bulgarians, not that I’d pay them minimum wage because, frankly, the tax on that billion would already be paying ALL their benefits. Or something.

So yeah. One week after an idea that sounds fair in principle but horribly wrong when you analyse it the richest people in the country will be getting a tax cut. And let’s not forget the politicians who thought this up think they deserve a £20,000 pay rise.

Sheesh.

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