Education, education, education and the Hillsborough Disaster

HansardMonday October 17th in the House of Commons was Education, Education, Education before the finale of the Hillsborough Disaster and whether there should be full disclosure of government documents relating to it.

The education debates were certainly varied and detailed – Maths GCSE Results were debated as were the GCSE results of the new Academies. Additionally the new English Baccalaureate and University Technical Colleges were tabled along with Faith Schools, Music, British Sign Language and Sure Start.

Strood Academy

Strood Academy, Kent

Academies are a current favourite of the Conservatives, primarily it seems because they can perform beyond the control of their Local Authority – a politically motivated and ideologically driven change does not inspire me with confidence in them. The Conservative Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton explaining ‘that all the evidence from around the world…’, a statement itself so ludicrously sweeping as to confirm that there is no such universal evidence, ‘…is that three factors give rise to improved performance – autonomy, high-quality teaching and external accountabilities’.

I am not going to spend much time on external accountability – who could argue with it? – other than to merely note that it is not clear how a school outside the control of a Local Authority is any more accountable than what that is not?

Autonomy though concerns me as it suggests that schools are better off running themselves without any over-riding national body or external audit, indeed to borrow that ugly phrase, without any external accountabilities.

I strongly question the idea that parents should decide a school curriculum – what do most of us know about most secondary school subjects? How well educated are most of us that we could better decide syllabus than Education Professionals with University Degrees?

And why stop at the parents, why not let the pupils decide? If that idea was proposed the conservative commentariat would cry ‘Lord of the Flies’ and pooh-pooh the woolly-headed liberalism of it all – but parents deciding is not much of a further fetch from that?

I want my teachers to educate not manage school budgets. The same as I want my GP to treat not  manage health budgets.

As for the phrase ‘high-quality teaching’ that is a facile circular remark – like saying high-quality care leads to the best outcomes – you don’t say! Such a statement completely absents itself of how an academy education provides high-quality teaching in a way that other private and public education does not.

University Technical Colleges

University Technical Colleges

Also discussed were the new University Technical Colleges – Comprehensive Schools with a greater vocational emphasis and sponsored by business such as Rolls Royce, Blackberry makers, Research in Motion, and Boeing. This is an England wide initiative and one that I believe has promise. The last Labour government rightly focused on increasing participation in education but I thought over-focused on academic skills at the expense of vocational ones. There is also I think good reason to re-introduce Apprentices which surely ally to these University Technical Colleges.

They also provide another source of education funding from the private sector – but one that will need to be monitored – no strings attached as it were. The Member of Surrey Heath also used perhaps the most purplest prose of the day in answer to a question about government bureaucracy not hampering their implementation “…the officials in my Department are allies. They are terrible, swift swords cutting through the bureaucracy that has so far held this country back” – recent examples have suggested this swiftness can often come at the expense of cool consideration and I do not buy this idea of unpatriotic public servants bent on stalling all private-led initiatives.

I love the language politicians employ – a balancing act between masters of spin and masters of the meaningless! Are our primary schools to be next renamed as University Technical Schools, and Kindergarten as University Technical Pre-Schools?!

English Baccalaureate

Already abbreviated to EBacc – because it cannot otherwise be reliably spelled correctly!?

Michael Gove Secretary for Education

Ed Sec

The new English Baccalaureate was later debated, introduced by the Conservative Member for Surrey Heath, I will refer to it hereafter as that member does by the short-hand ‘E-bac’. The Conservative Member for Banbury expressed concern on the negative effect of the ‘E-bac’ on Religious Education. The Member for Surrey Heath first thanked him for ‘being an effective spokesman for the place of faith in the nation’s life’ but then countered that the number of pupils studying RE was on the increase. One wonders whether there is any place for faith in education, that faith by its nature is anti-education? And was saddened too that the teaching of RE (or RI – you work it out!) is on the increase and that the Education Secretary thought this was something to be applauded. With apologies to Pink Floyd but ‘we don’t need no Faith education’.

Next up for debate was the reduction of funding to the Labour initiative Sure Start. It does appear this excellent program of theirs is only being cut due to party-political spite from the Conservatives and it is a notable shame that the Lib Dems led by their Member for Brent Central have not broken coalition rank on a social democratic issue such as this. The Labour Member for Washington and Sunderland West successfully summarised that the Brent Central Member did not have very much of a clue, beyond the usually woolly rhetoric, of the actual impact on the ground of their revised measures.

British Sign Language was raised by the Liberal Democrat member for Wells in respect of its possible pilot as a GCSE Foreign Language.

Hillsboroguh Stadium by Jam Sandwich

Theatre of Dreams, as the fans have it!

The final item of the day was the Hillsborough Disaster recorded as ‘Backbench business’ and a debate commenced by the Labour Member for Liverpool, Walton in respect that the “House calls for the full disclosure of all Government-related documents, including Cabinet minutes, relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster; requires that such documentation be uncensored and without redaction; and further calls for the families of the 96 and the Hillsborough Independent Panel to have unrestricted access to that information.”

He then proceeded with a very long speech in favour of such actions.

The Home Secretary then gave a long speech in response. Reading the minutes of Hansard may give a dry feel to this debate but which, as reported on Twitter and other media outlets, was a very emotionally cathartic process difficult to convey by the written word alone. Better instead to watch the televised recordings of the debate.

Many further contributions were made of similarly substantial length by members from both sides of the House with notable contributions from those members of the constituencies most effected in Liverpool, Sheffield and other neighbouring areas of the North West of England.

The debate commenced at 5.42pm and went on to 10pm and I could not possibly do it justice by commenting on it, save but to urge you that rather than reading about it in the particular prism of a party-political media outlet, you should consider reading the minutes of it verbatim here on Hansard.

A batty Thursday in the House of Commons…

Oliver Letwin

Carry On, Minister!

Foremost political news story in the British media last week was regarding the increasingly incredulous revelations about the foreign and security affairs of the Conservative Member for North Somerset and the cherry on the ice-bun the Conservative Member for West Dorset with his disposing of Government papers in the bins of his local park. Both were members of the Coalition Cabinet at the time – the Doctored one no longer is, the unDoctored one still remains – for now?

While these scenes, that would be barely plausible in a Spooks episode, continued to struggle to resolve themselves, in the House of Commons on Thursday October 13 more prosaic affairs were being debated.

The affairs of the House of Commons (and Lords) are ever available for scrutiny even before cameras were allowed into the Houses thanks to Hansard and now more current and accessible thanks to their online publication.

The days affairs are started rather like a school day and its assembly with prayers. And rather like a school I wonder whether this is the secular place for such a practice? Certainly I have never been at a workplace where we all first gathered to say a prayer.

Much of Thursday’s business was broadly regarding matters of faith too.

Bats in the Belfry by Bennie B Off

From Flickr, by Bennie B Off

And to paraphrase the Conservative Member for Maidenhead ‘…I am not making this up’ one of the first items up for debate was Bats in Churches – these purblind creatures cause damage to Churches internal fabrics through their urination and defecation – but this item was not the day’s final item on churches or indeed bats.

Later debated were Church Commissioners then The Theft of Metal in Churches and then again Bats this time sans Churches! Then time was given to the inhabitants of those buildings practised beliefs, first on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to Africa then the fate of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Fiona Bruce – no not the Scots newsreader and current presenter of The Queens Palaces – but the Conservative Member for Congleton – wanting to know what support the Church Commissioners were giving to them. Pardon me but this feels very much like the business of a village hall and raffle raising for those deemed less fortunate and deserving of charity. Whilst accepting there is a very serious and difficult issue about respecting the sovereignty of a country whilst having concerns of the (often deadly) treatment by governments of those sovereign nations towards groups of peoples it is supposed to be representing (and protecting) – if that is they have any sort of democracy in the first place.

Threading through the odd-couple chiroptological and Southern Kirks affairs were a number of constitutional issues.

United Kingdom Elections were considered toward increasing their participation – notable with voter turnout at historic lows – since 2001 less than two-thirds has become the new-norm. Though also notable in the context of other plans by The Electoral Commission to move toward Individual Voter Registration from the current system of Household Voter Registration which if not implemented carefully could lead to voter-registration falling not rising – some estimates such as from Unlock Democracy – by over one million.

MP Edinburgh North and Leith

Member for Edinburgh North and Leith

In passing the Labour Co-op Member for Edinburgh North and Leith challenged the very integrity of our UK elections due to a section (of about one-and-a-half-million) who can work, join the armed-services, give their sexual consent (and there are further anomalous examples) yet are legally disenfranchised – namely those 16/17 – no taxation without representation! An organisation Vote at 16 are currently campaigning this issue. The Member raising the issue noted that in Scotland the SNP as part of their proposed Scottish Referendum to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK are now considering adding another motion to it, that the voting age should begin aged sixteen.

Vote at 16 LogoFurther constitutional business concerned the proposed election of Police Commissioners. The Labour Member for York Central was more concerned about the cost of such elections making an obvious political if not unfair cost comparison to the cutting of police numbers and budgets as part of the Coalition Government’s ideological – sorry necessary – shrinking of Big Bad Government. And if Small Government is Good Government then presumably the apotheosis of Good Government is No Government – Anarchy for the UK – is that the Conservative Member for Whitney’s real unsaid agenda?! A Big Society, just not one that involves very much governance or regulation.

Next up was Local Referendums, specifically proposals to give powers to communities to hold local ones. This issue was raised by the Conservative Member for Harlow. Though it was not quite clear how a community was being defined here – I presume at the very least an electoral ward. I support referenda and do feel our democracy would benefit from greater use of them – whether at national or local level – though can see a danger too that if used too liberally they will decrease rather than increase electoral participation. And rather like online petitioning which I also approve the sheer number of them is making them unmanageable and thus unworkable?

On the other hand we already have a worrying Democratic Deficit where the two main political parties (leaving aside the SNP in Scotland) Conservative and Labour struggle now to get a third of the voters behind them – a feeling of Crony Capitalism and Government by the Few for the Few?

Caroline Flint – a Labour leader in waiting?

On Question Time

Another good panel on Question Time last Thursday on BBC 1 – Jeremy Hunt and Jo Swinson fielded well for the Coalition, Professor Lord Winston and actor Simon Callow provided insights from their own particular fields but it was Caroline Flint for Labour who impressed me most.

She made her arguments clearly, forcefully and passionately.

Her points about the radical NHS reforms not being in either of the coalition parties manifestos and that the spending cuts being as much an ideological choice as a fiscal need resonated well with me.

Her views against the Alternative Vote I found less convincing and not just because I am in favour of it!  Lord Winston was also against it and made a more thoughtful and persuasive case.

Overall though Caroline Flint presented well the Labour cause and with some free-flowing passion amongst often complex and difficult ideas which I would like to see more of from Ed Milliband.

I still have reservations though about her and Labour – in particular due to the financial crisis.  She rightly reminded the panel and audience that it was the bailing out of the banks that ballooned the national debt but overlooked that this happened on Labour’s watch. It was Labour keen to be bedfellows with the Haute L’argent of the City along with its light-touch regulation of the banking sector that contributed to that particular financial melt-down.

Likewise under them the gap between the rich and the poor in our society grew – the distribution of the national wealth became ever less equitable.  This again lies with their taxation policy – trying to out-Tory the Conservative Party.

They did in the 1990’s need to ditch aspects of Old Labour to become electable but having achieved this they then seemed more about schmoozing the wealthy than improving the lot of the rest-of-us.

The financial crisis was not just a sector event but totemic of a crisis in capitalism itself – it is tottering on its heels with no signs of recovery just more voodoo economics.  And New Labour sadly still seem as wedded to the Crony Capitalist ethos as the coalition parties.

There is popular opposition to the banking model yet I feel the Coalition and Labour only respond to this because of their populist instincts, not because they really get it. Sound bites and rhetoric but not really matched with actions to address for example moral hazard and too big to fail.

No mainstream party seems to be embracing social democratic values – perhaps the Labour Party needs a coup from within – and I am not sure if Caroline is the person to do it.

That person might be the quiet unassuming former Chancellor Alistair Darling – but that’s another post!