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?

Sally Bercow – new columnist for the Daily Star Sunday

Sally and John Bercow

With husband John

Sally Bercow now has a column with the Daily Star Sunday.

The Daily Star Sunday online is a mackerel to hold down – as there is little distinction between it and the Daily Star online – indeed its banner is the ‘Daily Star Sunday – The Daily Star Simply The Best Seven Days A Week’ – so not Daily Star Sunday then! You can’t have a Sunday on a Wednesday – you just can’t!

The Daily Star is owned by Richard Desmond, and among his many other media outlets are The Daily Express and Channel 5 – politically he is to the right if not quite as far as Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch.

Sally Bercow is the wife of the Conservative Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow but she is openly a Labour supporter. A very modern marriage if an attitude that seems to irk the ever dull and curmudgeon Daily Mail. So is this lying down with the Daily Star Sunday just Sally Bercow sleeping with her political foes?

I am assuming that Sally Bercow must have been head-hunted by the Daily Star Sunday rather than she submitting her CV to it!? She was you may know one of the housemates in Channel 5’s Celebrity Big Brother and alas the first housemate to be evicted – your mealy-mouthed words mean nothing Kerry Katona! It would seem if not Richard Desmond himself then someone in the Daily Star has developed a soft-spot for Sally.

And I assumed and later confirmed that the Daily Star has not seen the Damascus Light and shifted left-wards – the bearded boozy face of Garry Bushell was the first image to greet me when I visited their website earlier today.

The Daily Star Sunday

The Daily Star Sunday – or any day of the week…

I welcome the Daily Star having someone of a different political persuasion writing a column for them. Do any of you know whether a conservative pundit writes for example for The Mirror or The Guardian?

A charge often leveled at online media is that it is a bubble world – like attracting like, like minded souls with like minded beliefs and prejudices – but usually this is a charge from newspaper journalists – who don’t seem to realize the irony! At least with the online equivalents of The Guardian and The Sun those of a different political view are able to visit the sites and post comments of a contrary nature – and do they! Taking delight in posting comments designed to wind up the traditional readership – ethical trolling?! Whereas it is far less likely that a Labour supporter would buy The Sun newspaper so as to write critical letters to it and then that such critical letters would get favourably edited let alone published – and likewise a Tory hoping for the same outcome with The Daily Mirror newspaper. Indeed with the online equivalents of The Sun, The Mirror et al this closed-world bubble is bursting.

Also to the credit of the Daily Star Sunday I came upon this article about possible strike action by British Trade Unions starting November 30. It presented the case for it from the Trade Union Congress General Secretary, Brendan Barber, and the case against it from the Conservative Party Co-Chair, Baroness Warsi, without any editorial comment and/or interference of its own. Though I would have liked the article to have been open to comments from its readers.

Sallly Bercow Celebrity Big Brother

Evicted from Celebrity Big Brother

How many readers of the Daily Star Sally Bercow will bring around to her own world-view may prove to be negligible but I admire them both for getting in bed together.

I was though not able to find her column on their site – I came upon this article on there about her and fellow Celebrity Big Brother Housemate and eventual winner Paddy Doherty and it refers to her as ‘housemate’ not as Daily Star Sunday Columnist!

Hiding her light beneath a (Garry) Bushell – sorry! Not got around to updating their website yet? Only available to read in print?

Does that mean I will have to buy a copy of the Daily Star Sunday and worse be seen buying a copy of the Daily Star Sunday?! Thank Darwin for the Tesco Self-Service Checkout! I can surreptitiously swipe it through with my other Sunday Morning comestibles!

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency

This series is to mark the 200th anniversary of this brief but revolutionary and creative period. At its helm the Prince Regent himself, the great patronizer of art and design.

On the BBC 4 website she asks us when was Britain at its most elegant and most decadent, its most stylish and most radical. Her answer as you might expect is that it was the regency and she goes on to explain why she thinks that. Also detailed on this page is what we can expect from this series. It looks at the man the era was named after, the Prince Regent, along with other Royals and Aristocrats as well as its working people and how they all experienced this decade, 1811 to 1820. Also covered are the celebrities of its age – the likes of Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Joseph Turner and John Constable.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency The Prince of Whales

The Prince of Whales

In the first episode Warts and all – Portrait of a Prince she looks at how the Prince Regent, George IV, was obsessed with outdoing Napoleon – “not on the battlefield but in terms of opulence, bling and monumental architecture’. The BBC iPlayer page provides further details of this episode.

She finished her opening introduction advising us that there was a lot more to the regency than Mr Darcy!

Her team at Kew Palace on discussing what the public know about The Prince Regent, reported on a visiting little girl who said he was ‘Sad Mad Bad and Fat’!

George was the United Kingdom’s ruler but a regent not its king owing to the temporary absence of his father George III due to his incapacitating mental condition, yet despite this he was the subject of much virulent irreverent satire by commentators and cartoonists. It is hard to imagine any of our present royal family being pictured as a whale which in ‘The Prince of Whales’! he was. Nearly two hundred years on our satirists seem very tame if not obsequious to our current heads of state – whether Royals, Lords or Commons.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and His Wife

Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and His Wife

The program looks at George’s art collection – he bought prodigiously – including the most expensive in his collection Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and His Wife.

Alongside his collection the program looks at the extensive collection bequeathed to Dulwich College by Peter Francis Bourgeois, landscape artist and court painter to George III which unlike the Prince’s private collection was open to the public. His collection could have been left to the British Museum but he considered it was ran by snobs and too closely associated with the Regency Inner Circle. He was of the father’s royal court not the son’s. Hence his bequest to the Dulwich College. The Architect John Soane built an art gallery within the college grounds to house them, also out of money left by Bourgeois. It was the first gallery open to the public.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency The Prince

The Prince Regent

The Prince Regent also liked his clothes – his budget for fashion as extravagant as that for his art-works. The most fashionable man in London at this time was Beau Brummel – whose influence also extended to the Prince. The program uses ‘Dandy’ by The Kinks to showcase their outfits – Brummel himself is credited with inventing the suit. Though when saying his budget it is notable that he bought his extensive wardrobe on credit – he ran up huge debts, many remaining unpaid.

At this time Britain was the reigning European superpower having just beaten the French and Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo  – but the Prince Regent had little to do with it not being a soldier let alone on the fields of battle. But he was clearly vain-glorious and self-delusional and had become the subject of many paintings with him as the conquering war hero – Wellington a mere shadow of him. Appearance trumping reality reminding that spin is nothing new just the methods of its commission.

The royal portrait painter was Thomas Lawrence, president of the Royal Academy, and referred by Lucy Worsley as the ‘Chief Flatterer’ and very definitely counter-weight to the cruel cartoon caricaturists. Lawrence was the Photoshop of his time, routinely taking pounds and years off the monarch.

To most of his subjects these paintings would be all they would have seen of him. Appearance clearly was more important than reality.

I look forward the next episode Developing the Regency Brand which will explore its architecture as part of the rebuilding of Britain during this period.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency Dulwich College

Dulwich College

Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters – history unspun…

Wallis Simpson: The Secret LettersThis Channel 4 program based on fifteen hitherto unrevealed letters between Wallis Simpson and her second husband Ernest Simpson overturns what we the British public have come to understand about the whole WE (Wallis, Edward) affair.

Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters narrated by Samuel West and written and produced by Simon Berthon tells a very new story.

Edward VIII gave up his throne for Wallis – a grand romantic gesture – we never considered what she gave up for him.

The secret letters of the program’s title were discovered by Wallis Simpson’s latest biographer Anne Sebba for her book ‘That Woman’. They show that the love between the abdicated King and Mrs Simpson was unrequited – he desperately in love with her but she still in love with her second husband Ernest. He had passion for her, she only affection for him.

Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters Anne Sebba

Biographer Anne Sebba

She had conspired to aspire in British Society and, well, who better, than the future king to achieve this. But she was to succeed in capturing more than the king’s manifest material comforts and honours, instead the King’s very heart and soul

Two stories have endured, one that she, Wallis, a Scarlet woman, double-divorcee (scandalous in the 1930’s if unremarkable now) and whisper it she was an American – undermining genteel English society – or exposing its hypocrisy – as you like it.

The second story is a more romantic one – what the King gave up for her – against all the odds and the might of the English establishment – and their ultimate exile – not just physical but emotional, social and political.

Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters - Ernest Simpson

Ernest Simpson

These letters tell a new tale – as in the first story Wallis was certainly a cool and calculating schemer and as in the second story the King did give up his kingdom for her – but the exile for Wallis was a very different one. The king had given up his throne for love, she had given up love for the king.

The letters establish not just that Wallis was still in love with Ernest – a very different WE – but that the divorce itself was an illegal exercise in collusion – a fabrication of infidelity.

She writes to him of the King ‘what can I say when I am standing beside the grave of everything that was us’ – this line alone lays waste everything we had ever thought about the love between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

That ultimately Wallis Simpson was the hunted not the hunter. And she had wanted out. She had wanted to exit the affair waiting for his royal coronation and duty to inevitably put her out of the regal picture – she did not know that he planned to abdicate. Their affair then became public and they then went into French exile. When discovering his plans to secede to his brother George VI she had pleaded with him not to – he did not want to listen. A further letter to him explaining she and Ernest were meant for each other and that she and Edward could never make each other happy resulted in Edward threatening to slit his throat!

Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters - Wallis

Wallis Simpson

The pending marriage between Edward and Wallis was referred to between Ernest and Wallis as ‘the final catastrophe’ and of which Ernest considered Wallis entirely blameless. When on June 3 1937 they finally married it is well documented not one member of the Royal family attended.

As well as these tangled web of relationships between Wallis, Edward and Ernest the program explores the early life of Wallis – her parents and her upbringing and her first marriage to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr.

The program reminds that like Diana Spencer and Kate Middleton the press have always had an obsession with Royalty and long before these two princesses were subject to intrusive press and paparazzi attention Wallis Simpson was similar prey to their prurient camera eye.

This program turns upside down what we had thought we knew about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

A soon to be released film directed by Madonna of the couple titled ‘W.E.‘ as English actress Andrea Riseborough as Wallis and James D’Arcy as Edward VIII – Ernest Simpson is played by David Barbour. I wonder how incidental his part will be in the proceedings of this film knowing as we now do his far more central role. As Princess Diana was to state so memorably about her ultimately doomed marriage to Prince Charles ‘there were three of us in this marriage so it was a bit crowded’. The third there was Camilla Parker-Bowles, a very present factor, whereas Ernest a very absent factor, but no less significant because of that.

I understand that the film is now completed and ready for a December 2011 release in the USA – I wonder how much of this Channel 4 show or the Anne Sebba biography writers Madonna and Alex Keshishian would have been aware of?

If not aware then ‘W.E’ perhaps will have to content itself in being the last of that particular 20th Century English Royal myth.

And now another film – about ‘WEE’ not ‘WE’ – is waiting to be shot. I wonder what director will best tell it?

Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters Edward and Wallis

Wallis and Edward

Just Another Shocking News International Revelation – Time for Rupert Murdoch to close The Sun and The Sunday Times?

News International TitlesAnother second passes another appalling News International scandal. Just how many more hacking allegations are there to come? And what else has been hacked – Email and other Computer related accounts? And what other scandalous practices are there out there in Tabloid Land that remain yet to be uncovered?

Last week Rupert Murdoch did the right thing in winding up The News of the World – first there was the phone hacking of murdered Milly Dowler’s mobile phone then the phones of the bereaved relatives of the 7/7 victims then those of the widows and other bereaved relatives of British soldiers. Surely there were no lower depths to plumb?

And then the violations of the ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown by The Sun and The Sunday Times of among other confidential details his bank and son’s medical records. Again Rupert Murdoch should do the right thing and wind up these newspapers.

This would leave us with just one National Murdoch owned title, The Times. They would have to learn the lessons – that is if they themselves are not already tainted.

All mainstream parties are now remarkably and impressively supporting a House of Commons Motion presented by Labour Leader Ed Milliband for Rupert Murdoch not to proceed with the bid for BSkyB as not ‘in the public interest’ – that is quite a turnaround for Murdoch – in that context from hero to zero.

This so far has been a partisan post unavoidably as notably no politician victim of this hacking has been a Conservative – and because all three titles are of the right. However I am quite sure from what I understand that these practices are quite widespread in other publishing homes and not just the conservative ones such as Express Newspapers (Northern and Shell) and Daily Mail and General Trust but also Trinity Mirror plc.

The whole industry could collapse under the weight of its own depravity.

We could end up with a situation where only the Financial Times and The Morning Star are left in circulation!

This would be no loss – most readers would migrate online if they are not online readers already. Online media is much more plural – not just the online presence of the printed-titles themselves, but many flavours of political magazines, the radio and television media, the blogosphere and yet other sources of news and opinion. And not just confined to the UK too but a world wide perspective.

Daily printed newspapers are increasingly ever more irrelevant and it is an irrelevance of their own making. The invidious presence of monopolistic press barons and unashamed partisanship and the damaging effect this has on UK Parliament and the general body UK politic could finally be laid to rest.

Lay this body down.