John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for March, 2014

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Teachers: life inside the exam factory

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

Long hours, endless targets, worried children: as Michael Gove shakes up our schools, we find out why teachers are quitting in droves

It’s a Monday morning in Weston-super-Mare and a year 8 class at Worle Community school are doing a drama lesson. In charge is Nancy Powell-Brace, 55, who has been working here for 22 years.

It’s the second time I’ve met her. She reminds me of the teachers who always got the best out of me and my friends when life was all double geography and regular tedium: she has an innate sense of fun and an instinctive bond with her students, but also makes it plain – via the odd well-timed “Shhh!”, chiefly – that there have to be limits. The week before I visit her, she was a contestant on Come Dine With Me (she came second, with food and entertainment inspired by The Sound Of Music).

This morning’s class of 27 13-year-olds has an hour of drama once a fortnight. Today, they’re tackling a morality tale about bullying called The Terrible Fate Of Humpty Dumpty. Watching what happens is a reminder of the magic a good teacher can work. The highlight is an exercise in which seven of the class take on the role of bullies accused of having something to do with Humpty’s death – and are sent outside to improvise a fake alibi. Three are then cross-examined by their peers, and it’s a hoot; but it’s also about teamwork, performance, public speaking and more, and Powell-Brace manages to both critique and encourage them.

Unfortunately, this academic year will be her last. Now that the government has raised teachers’ retirement age, she could carry on for at least 10 years, but she wants out. Drama is being sidelined, she says, and teaching is falling into a cold fog of targets, endless new “strategies” and the idea that someone’s education is reducible to a set of results.

Fifteen years ago, Powell-Brace would put on annual productions, with a cast of over 100 and the help of 30 other staff: The Wizard Of Oz, Guys And Dolls, The Boyfriend. “Big productions,” she says. “The school was renowned for its drama.”

Now students in year 11 (fifth form, in old money) can’t devote time to such activities in case it disrupts exam preparation; funding has dried up; and the hall is endlessly used for the exams taken in the run-up to GCSEs. In any case, the government sees drama as a “soft” subject, best pushed to the margins of the curriculum.

“I saw something on TV last night, about the rise in stress in 16- to 24-year-olds,” she says, “and I think being so driven by results is part of it. We have strategies at school that encourage the kids to want to do better. And of course you want them to do better. But they shouldn’t feel that, if they don’t, they’ve failed.” The same exacting logic, she says, applies to teachers, too: “You feel you’re being judged all the time, not trusted to get on with the job you’ve been trained to do.”

Time was, 60 kids would be studying GCSE drama at any one time. Now, it’s half that. Yet drama, she says, can instill fundamental life skills. “It teaches people how to cooperate, to listen, to put aside their differences and compromise.” The increasingly mechanistic model of education in England may “turn out people well qualified on paper for a job, but they won’t be able to hold down the job, because they won’t know how to deal with people and the world they’ve been thrown into.”

So, come July, she’ll be off. “Teaching’s been my life.” She wells up. “I’ve loved it and got so much from it. But I don’t want to be here any more.”

If you have kids and they’re at state schools, you may be at least vaguely aware of the morale crisis gripping the profession. The primary teacher you meet each morning might seem harried and in need of a break; the secondary school staff you see at parents’ evenings may be worn out. A recent survey by the Department for Education (DfE) found that, on average, teachers reported working over 50 hours a week – primary staff just shy of 60. A majority of teachers said they spent some or most of their time on “unnecessary or bureaucratic” tasks, and 45% said this aspect of their work had increased. Both 2012 and 2013 saw regional strikes by the two biggest teaching unions, over pay, pensions and workload, and the National Union of Teachers has called a national strike on 26 March.

In January 2013, more than half of the teachers who responded to a YouGov survey for the NUT said their morale was low or very low, and 77% agreed the government was having a negative impact on education. And last December, the other big teaching union, the NASUWT, revealed that over half its 230,000 membership had considered quitting their jobs in the previous 12 months. Even the government’s own figures say that 40% of new teachers quit within their first five years. And there is a palpable sense of fear hanging over the profession: contrary to the myth that far too many of them are gobby militants, it takes me a month’s worth of calls to find teachers who will talk to me on the record; the remainder are happy to explain their predicament, but insist on being anonymous.

As a lot of teachers see it, they are the focus of bitter hostility from ministers and educational high-ups, and the victims of an increasingly oppressive machine. Schools are swamping their pupils and staff in data and targets, leaving no room for the kind of human values that were once at the centre of what teachers did. These aspects of education, teachers say, also distort their priorities, so filling in spreadsheets sometimes takes precedence over actually teaching kids.

History teacher, 28, east London: “If I don’t take work home in the evening, I feel guilty, and if I don’t work at weekends, I worry that I haven’t done anything for two days. In the holidays, there’s a lot of marking and planning, and revision sessions. I’m 28 and don’t have any children or extra responsibilities, but I’m worried about the future: this is my career, it’s what I want to do, but how will I do it with a family?”

For over 20 years there has been angry argument about how much formal testing goes on in English schools, and the tyranny of official rankings. After around three years at primary school, children are the subject of mandatory “teacher assessments”, and at 11 they sit watershed tests known as Sats. Whether schools are seen as successful is partly down to their place in the league tables that rank their results: GCSEs and A-levels in secondary schools and sixth-form colleges; Sats in primaries.

Much of the way state education now works is traceable to the last government, and a succession of Labour education secretaries who left teachers punch-drunk. But Michael Gove, secretary of state for education since 2010, is in a different league, and is using the machinery bequeathed to him to drive through a real revolution and defeat an educational “establishment” he calls “the blob”.

Like most politicians, Gove paints his plans in primary colours, but close up, what he’s doing is so mind-bogglingly complicated that many teachers – let alone parents – have difficulty keeping up. The national curriculum has been rewritten, to ensure that five-year-olds can do fractions, nine-year-olds know about relative clauses and 11-year-olds are taught poetry by rote. Gove is set on doing away with levels (the grades children are currently given) and has made noises about the drawbacks of incessant testing. But he has also enthused about “regular, demanding, rigorous examinations” and in certain cases there are actually plans for more tests: new compulsory assessments for four- and five-year-olds are coming, and last month Gove suggested all state-educated 13-year-olds should sit the Common Entrance exams used by private schools. Meanwhile, there is speculation that children will effectively be given a pass or fail at the end of each school year – and, among teachers, a fatalistic belief that, whatever its drawbacks, the current mountain of targets and tests will remain because schools have got so used to it.

There are plans for drastic changes to GCSEs: starting with English language, English literature and maths, coursework will be done away with, results will be decided by a single summer exam, and grades will be numbers rather than letters. Gove is pushing for more schools to become academies, which can employ unqualified staff (as can the government’s 174 new “free schools”). And his next big move is the introduction, from September, of performance-related pay, a change that has only increased teachers’ dismay.

Newly-qualified primary schoolteacher, east London: “I work in quite a deprived area, and our data’s in the danger zone, so there’s lots of pressure. I do getting on for 60 hours a week. On new teacher’s pay, that’s around minimum wage. Four people I trained with have already left teaching. Once this year’s out of the way, I plan to set up music tutoring and switch to supply work: if I continue on this road it’ll kill my love of teaching.”

There is another significant player in this story: Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), which has been in existence for 21 years. It is Ofsted that decides whether a school is “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” or is “inadequate”, and whose inspectors pay close attention to the data that teachers now spend endless hours compiling.

The state of Ofsted’s relations with Gove became headline news when he sacked its chair, Baroness Morgan. But up until recently Ofsted and its chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, one-time head of the renowned Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, have tended to be in step with the government. Before he began the job in January 2012, Wilshaw looked back on his time as a head and said: “If anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low, you will know you are doing something right.” In May 2012, he added: “Teachers do not know what stress is.” His pronouncements are music to the ears of large swaths of the press who paint teachers as lazy, leftwing reprobates, who habitually go on strike and snooze their way through long summer holidays (which Gove, inevitably, wants rid of).

Talk to teachers about their work and Ofsted comes up within minutes. Inspectors visit schools at least once every three years and pass judgment on everything they do. Teachers are assessed on the basis of short observations and often prepare for inspections with an almost neurotic devotion (staying up all night is not uncommon). Woe betide any school given an overall 4, which denotes “inadequate” and can easily mean the arrival of “special measures” – which, if a school is still run by a local authority, usually means swift conversion into an academy, with all the disruption that entails. Passage into this dread category can be swift and unexpected, and though Ofsted denies it, there are widespread claims that inspections are being manipulated so as to ensure more schools become academies.

“There’s an atmosphere of oppression,” Powell-Brace says. “People think Ofsted is punitive rather than supportive. At my school, people believe they’re being held to ransom.” Ofsted inspectors last paid Worle Community a visit two years ago, identified “areas for development” and said they would soon be back to see how things were going. They have yet to show up. “So every week for the past 18 months, every member of staff has gone into school on edge, thinking, ‘Is it going to be this week?’ It’s a huge thing, Ofsted coming in. You can’t imagine the pressure it puts on people.”

Sarah Cumberlidge is 30 and teaches at a secondary school an hour’s commute from her home in Sheffield, which means getting up for work at 5.30 every morning. When she did her A-levels, her English literature teacher would occasionally get the class to teach each other, and he thought she stood out: “He was like, ‘You’re a natural. You should be a teacher.’” After graduating in English, she spent two years working for H&M, but realised she was “getting nowhere” and studied for a postgraduate certificate in education, or PGCE.

She has had her current job for six years. “I’m passionate about literature, and getting to share that with kids is brilliant. I’ve taught Of Mice And Men, like, 25 million times, but every time the kids come out with new stuff I’ve never thought of. That’s wonderful.” There is a sadness in what she says, related to government plans to make the study of English literature at GCSE optional, and she says finding the space thoroughly to teach her students about plays, poetry and novels can be a struggle. “The hardest thing,” she says, “is that I never feel what I’m doing is good enough. No matter how hard I work, my to-do list is never cleared. You can never be outstanding all the time. They just give us impossible targets.”

And who are “they”? “Ofsted, I suppose.” Her school had its last inspection just before Christmas 2013. “Everyone was like, ‘Shit!’ Everyone freaks out; everyone’s terrified. So much was resting on it: we knew if we got ‘requires improvement’, it would be hideous. We were scared for our jobs.”

English and special needs teacher, 42, central London; founder of teacherroar.blogspot.com: “People feel their professionalism’s been taken away because it’s all about getting kids to pass tests. Passing a test is not necessarily learning: it’s a snapshot of one day. We’re not equipping kids with critical thinking. With years 10 and 11, we’re just endlessly redoing exam papers. I became an English teacher because I love literature and want to inspire kids. But we’re just drilling them.”

What she has to do day-to-day, she says, is reducible to the so-called “flight paths” that map students’ projected progress through school. “They’re straight lines that say what they should be achieving. But children don’t achieve in a straight line. Puberty happens, and all sorts. But there’s constant pressure. We put in data for each child every term, and if they are not on target, we have to justify why. You’re not allowed to say, ‘This kid’s naughty’ or, ‘This kid doesn’t listen.’ You’ve got to say all the things you put in place to make sure that child is achieving. And that’s constant.”

What does this regime do to the kids? “It’s heartbreaking, sometimes. You get kids to do a controlled assessment in English: they do a really good piece in exam conditions, and you know it’s a true reflection of their ability. They’ve worked hard on it and they’re proud of it. But because it doesn’t represent four levels’ progress, they have to redo it. I’m having to say to a kid who’s got a C or a B they’re pleased with, ‘That’s not good enough. You’ve got to do it again.’ It’s horrible.

“They’re under massive pressure and some of them are just switching off: they think, ‘Oh, sod it, then – I just won’t try.’ And some, especially the brighter ones, you can see them struggling. Especially when you get to year 11. There are quite a number of kids now who can’t go to the hall for exams because they have panic attacks. I don’t remember that happening when I was at school. It’s the able girls who seem to suffer the worst.”

The school’s last internal observation, she says, rated her teaching as outstanding. But she wants to quit. “I feel like I can’t live up to what they want,” she says, meaning the government. “And anyway, I’ve got no work-life balance.”

History teacher, 28, east London: “I’d say 20% of what I do does not benefit the students. It’s just proving I’ve done this and that; that I know what level they’re at and have set them all these targets. I have to do it, but it’s pointless: a lot of it will sit in a file and no one will look at it. But everything is just in case. Just in case the inspectors turn up.”

It is easy to assume that the crisis in teaching has really only kicked in under this government. In fact, ever-increasing hours, the dominance of targets, the snowballing power of Ofsted and the great academies drive are things that took root in the Blair and Brown years, and there are plenty of ex-teachers who quit when Labour was in power.

One is Theresa Devlin, who was a teacher until April 2010. She lives in Brentwood, Essex and now works as a full-time foster carer, as well as looking after four of her own kids. She went into teaching at 37 – “I was a TA and I’d watch teachers and think, I can do better than that” – and worked at Dorothy Barley junior school in Dagenham, the outer London borough where she grew up.

It was not the easiest job, given Dagenham was becoming the capital’s cheapest housing market and its social problems were multiplying. “Parents would come in, no appointment,” she says. “They’d eff and blind at you, all sorts. With one teacher, the parent came in with the child there, and said, ‘See him? You ain’t gotta take no notice of him, cos he talks out of his arse.’” When it came to dysfunctional families, she was at the sharp end: for an extra £1,500 a year, she was in charge of safeguarding: “a massive responsibility” that, among other things, involved referring cases of child abuse and neglect to social services.

A year after Devlin started work, Ofsted put the school in special measures, and the fine details of her job were suddenly dictated by the borough council, via the school’s management (aka senior leadership team). She was handed lesson plans from above, and instructed to stick to them.

“They actually said, ‘Now do this, now say that.’ The basis of it was being told exactly what to do. There was a geography lesson I wanted to teach, on ‘Connecting yourself to the world’. I got told off, because I contacted someone in America who had the same name as me, and I got my whole class to write to her. We took photos out of the window, sent emails, and she replied. I thought it was great: she was in New York and we were in Dagenham. But I was told it wasn’t appropriate because it wasn’t what was on the lesson plan.

“The kids were bored. You’d say, ‘What do you think of what we’re doing?’ And they’d say, ‘It’s boring.’ And if you’ve got a bored kid, that’s when the behaviour problems escalate. And they were really bored. The lessons were so stale. There was no fun. It was just about improving on things in the Ofsted report. Nothing else seemed to matter.”

What really got to Devlin, though, was the fact that her workload was extending into the distance. “When I first started teaching, I’d work through the week, till 10, 11, 12 o’clock, and weekends were for my kids. Then I started working on Sunday afternoons. Then it was all day Sunday, then part of Saturday as well, you know? And holidays – even in the summer, you’d spend half of it preparing.”

The snapping point came when she was called to do jury service, on an attempted murder case. “I had a lunch hour,” she says, still marvelling at the idea. “And it was like being normal. And the day I finished jury service, I went into work and they got a phone call saying, ‘Ofsted are coming in again.’ And it was, ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough.’”

Her old school is now seemingly on the way to being converted into an academy, to be sponsored by a private-sector educational organisation called REAch2. At the last count, all 36 of its staff were opposed to the plan. But, as similar cases prove, such things do not tend to count for very much.

History teacher, 40, Lancashire: “In 2010, we were rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. Results dipped in 2011-12 and we got hit by an inspection. It felt as if they were waiting to get us. And they gave us a 4, ‘inadequate’, just before the next set of results came in – they’d gone back up, and are predicted to go up again. But we were hit by an Academy Order, and they’ve chosen a sponsor – before their consultation starts! It seems a set-up.”

I meet Phil Brett just before the start of a new term. Since last year, the 51-year-old has been a year 5 teacher at a primary school in Haringey. Between 2002 and 2012, he did a similar job at Downhills primary in Tottenham, a school that eventually became a byword for what the government is doing to education, and the subject of a huge news story.

Downhills, he says, was a typical inner-London primary, with “a whole diversity of races, religions, backgrounds – although predominantly working class or below.” The school’s ethos amounted to “trying to do the best for these children… reading, writing and maths, obviously, but we were also in a music scheme, where every child in year 4 could take home a violin or cello to learn. And there was an emphasis on art – not at the expense of reading, writing and maths, but… a rounded education, so they wanted to learn, so they weren’t just statistics on a league table, commodities. And the staff were together on that, with the parents and children.”

In January 2011, Downhills was inspected by Ofsted and given “notice to improve”. Changes were made to the way some subjects were taught, and that September another inspection found the school was making “reasonable progress”.

And then something unexpected happened. In December 2011, it was announced that the DfE intended to close Downhills and open an academy. Parents led a huge campaign to oppose the plans, supported by teachers and the local Labour MP. But in January 2012, Gove ordered another visit from Ofsted – the secretary of state can do this, though it’s very unusual – and a team led by the same inspector who had said Downhills was improving said it was simply “failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education”.

The school was put in special measures. After that, changes happened quickly: the DfE sacked the entire board of governors, the head resigned and the way was cleared for a takeover by the Harris academies chain, founded by Philip Harris, Tory peer and founder of retail chain Carpetright.

“There were tears in the staffroom,” Brett says. “We’d been playing one game, and new rules had been brought in. There was a general feeling that it was a stitch-up, that no matter what we did, Gove wanted us turned into an academy. It was playing politics with children’s education.”

Brett worked for one term at the school that replaced Downhills, the Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane. “They’re very keen on corporate image. The main meeting of a big day we had was the selling of private health insurance. Apparently you get up to three operations a year. For me, it was like, ‘I don’t want to be part of this.’ If I’d wanted to join the corporate world, I would have done it.”

He has the same complaints and concerns as just about all the teachers I meet: the onward march of the academies programme, ever-changing “strategies”, the mountain of paperwork, the sense that teaching the whole child is being reduced to pushing up sets of dry numbers – and an overwhelming feeling that teachers work in the face of tremendous hostility from politicians. “I’m going to sound sappy now,” he says. “I’m proud to be a primary schoolteacher. I think it’s a great job, and teaching in somewhere like Tottenham, you think there’s a point to your job. I won’t say we always skip into the staffroom, but you don’t join up thinking, ‘Wow – you get 13 weeks’ holiday and the pay’s all right.’ You join because you want to make a difference, because it’s important, to teach children. And that keeps you there, despite government policy. But shouldn’t it be because of government policy?”

All the teachers I meet return time and again to one key argument: that though some of their concerns are about the profession, in the end they are also about the kids they teach. Everyone has anecdotes they say shine light on the contorting effect all those targets and assessments are having on children, and on how the cold, mechanistic teaching methods are beginning to be reflected in the way children don’t just work, but think.

Long-serving teacher who now works at a new academy in eastern England: “After my last school became an academy, pretty much all the staff left. Some amazing teachers went. The new ones are Tiggers, all style and no substance. My new school’s an academy, too, and there’s a culture of fear. Certain people have been… disposed of. If you create scapegoats, people keep their heads down, don’t they? No one says a thing, for fear of going in some sort of black book.”

Sarah Cumberlidge remembers a taster day her school put on for kids in their last year of primary: “Little year 6s, who came in to do a lesson and try a few things. And afterwards, they said, ‘But Miss, what was the learning objective?’ I was horrified.”

Back at Worle Community school, I talk to three of Nancy Powell-Brace’s GCSE drama students. They knock back the idea that it’s a “soft” subject: quite apart from all the theory they have to learn, they say it teaches them to be assertive, and supportive, and to empathise. “You have to act out other people’s emotions,” says Asha Sutton, 14.

How do they feel about the rest of the stuff they have to do at school? “It depends what subject it is, whether they’re drilling it into you,” says Lucy Jenkins, 15. What subjects does that happen in? “English, maths and science,” they say in unison.

“There are just lots of tests,” Lucy says. “‘You must get to this level, or you’ll have to retake it.’ You know what you’re capable of doing, but sometimes they expect more than your best.”

And what does that do to you? “I lose concentration and I mess all of my work up.”

“Sometimes, you snap at people,” says Yasmin Robinson, 14. “Teenagers go through all these changes anyway, and you’ve got the stress of that, plus the stress of meeting all these targets.”

One Worle student knows only too well the effect this can have. Off the record, she says: “Last year, I was at home for a week because I had a breakdown at school. Because of all my subjects, the expectations and the stress. There were tests coming up, and a mock exam in science that would decide whether I do my exam this year or next.

“You need fun,” she says. “It shouldn’t be just about the core subjects. You have to have something that’s your passion.” Then a borderline heresy. “That you enjoy, you know?”

• This article was edited on 14 March 2014. The original said Theresa Devlin worked at Dorothy Barley infant school in Dagenham, when in fact she worked at Dorothy Barley junior school, a quite different school entirely. This has been corrected.

John Harris

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Nick Clegg v Nigel Farage? The Ukip leader must be licking his lips | John Harris

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

The Lib Dem leader embodies everything Ukip voters take against. Only Clegg could pick himself as the man to turn them round

Fans of ham acting, broken promises and political phone-ins will presumably be delighted that Nick Clegg has insisted he will remain as Lib Dem leader “through the whole of the next parliament” until 2020, whether or not the Lib Dems are part of the next government. Devotees of the absurd, meanwhile, may well be delighted by news that Danny Alexander is reportedly “positioning himself” for a leadership bid at some unspecified point in the future, but let’s park that one.

Fair play to Clegg, perhaps: though opinion polls recurrently show his party bumbling along at around 9%, his quest and that of his colleagues to begin differentiating themselves from the Tories is being energetically pursued, and in moments of weakness one might imagine them avoiding wipeout in 2015, and the leader remaining in post. Or perhaps not: even their own people have acknowledged that they face disaster in next month’s European and local elections, which would cap a run of electoral disasters and thus highlight grim auguries for the general election. You can surely see it coming: the party pushed back into a few West Country redoubts, Clegg summarily sent on his way, and a new job for that proud defender of the orange flame, Tim Farron.

Meanwhile, by way of suggesting that his party is the same principled force it ever was and running towards the sound of gunfire, Clegg has decided to pick a fight with Ukip – and more specifically Nigel Farage. He will debate Britain’s place in Europe with Farage at 7pm on Wednesday 2 April (on BBC2, presumably so as to not to mess with The One Show). And at the Lib Dems’ spring conference over the weekend, he fired some rhetorical buckshot at his new quarry.

An ungenerous, backwards-looking politics has emerged in Britain,” Clegg said. “The politics of blame has found an acceptable face: it wears a big smile and looks like someone you could have a pint with down the pub. So I’m drawing a line in the sand. I am going to defend the tolerant and modern Britain we love.” EU-wise, he said, “the Liberal Democrats are now Britain’s only party of IN”. The block capitals are there in the official transcript: the Lib Dems’ love of Brussels is unabashed that they do not want in, but IN. By way of illustrating all this, one Lib Dem MP was sensibly photographed at the conference in a Farage mask, holding the obligatory pint and fag, apparently so as to illustrate how feeble the party’s latest enemy is. How we laughed, and all that.

There will, obviously, be big problems with all this. Last time Clegg attached himself to a noble cause – electoral reform, remember? – his presence ensured that the issue took its place in a mess of other grievances, about his broken vow on tuition fees, the Lib Dems’ acquiescence in austerity, and his own alleged uselessness. And when it comes to Europe, much the same thing will happen, but on exactly the terms that Ukip would like. In other words, the noise surrounding this debate, not to mention the TV duel, will only partly be about whether Britain should be in Europe or not: the rest of it, one would imagine, will centre on the issue of immigration, both in terms of its links with the EU, and as a public concern that informs just about every other area of policy – and, implicitly or otherwise, the sense a lot of people have that we are governed by a homogeneous, well-heeled, cosseted bunch of politicians, and among the only people who offer any kind of alternative is Farage, complete with his pint and fag.

Now, it’s not like the political class had an extraordinary annual general meeting and appointed Clegg as its new anti-Farage attack dog: with his customary chutzpah, he simply appointed himself to the role. But could you imagine a more perfect embodiment of everything Ukip voters take against?

Actually, I could: Harriet Harman springs to mind. But anyway: it’s worth taking seriously the analysis proffered by the authors of Revolt On The Right, the impressive-looking new book on Ukip, who reckon that Ukip draws heavily on the support of “working-class, white male voters” who “feel left behind by Britain’s rapid economic and social transformation and left out of our political conversation; struggling people who feel like strangers in a society whose ruling elites do not talk like them or value the things which matter to them”. Some of us would argue that they have a point. But even if they don’t, would anyone pick Nick Clegg – Nick Clegg! – to somehow turn them round?

Farage should chuck another few percentage points on his poll rating, it seems to me. And come the big debate, unless his opponent manages to summon up the ghost of Cleggmania, even on the substantive issues, he will do much better than some people would like to think. Like so many modern politicians, Clegg tends to resemble a one-man school play about Tony Blair. He has the same tendency to piety, a similar style of speechifying, and the same habit of briefly acknowledging that a given issue is more complex than he himself sometimes seems to think, before making everything sound blissfully simple. There was a sense of his basic pitch in Sunday’s speech: a rather cringe-inducing tribute to our national character, a brief mention of that fact that the EU “needs reform”, and then a tick-list of why we should stay in: jobs, the fight against climate change, the need to catch international criminals, and the idea that Britain stands “tallest in the world when we stand tall in Brussels, Paris and Berlin”.

Before I wrote this, I sat in my local caff with my customary cup of English breakfast tea (too early for a pint and fag, you understand), and read the latest issue of the Economist. There’s a very good essay in it about the worldwide prospects for democracy, and an eye-catching paragraph about how much the EU has let people down on that score: “The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the Euro elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats …”

And so it goes on. It may be the case that, as Clegg says, an “ungenerous, backwards-looking politics has emerged in Britain”. As it grows in popularity, Farage’s party undoubtedly has all kinds of questions to answer, and it may yet wither in the spotlight. But at the same time, a lot of British people have a keen sense of the kind of oppressive behaviour of which the EU is more than capable, and the associated arguments for Eurosceptism, and even our outright exit. And here is today’s question: is the Lib Dem leader really the man to persuade them otherwise? Well?

John Harris

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What does Michael Gove’s choice of school mean for David Cameron? | John Harris

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Labour politicians have long faced criticism for sending their children to private schools, but the education secretary’s decision to keep his daughter in the state system makes it an issue for the Tories as well

It’s a story so common as to have long since become a cliche. A senior politician has a child approaching the end of primary school, usually in London. They can apply for a place at any number of state-run institutions – but, as evidenced by the experience of such figures as Nick Clegg, Tony Blair and Harriet Harman, passing over local schools in favour of some distant, highly rated, possibly selective place will bring on noisy controversy. And if they go private? On that score, whether fairly or not, one story stands as a chilling cautionary tale: that of Diane Abbott, who sent her son to the £10,000-a-year City of London school in 2003, and then acknowledged that doing so was “indefensible”.

Politicans now live lives akin to Big Brother contestants: the media is constantly on the lookout for cant and hypocrisy, while the public is encouraged to believe that even the holders of high office should be able to empathise with ordinary folks. Up until now, though, the question of where senior politicians chose to have their kids educated was always focused on the Labour party. The days when such Labour leaders as Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan could go private were obviously over. But why did no one ever hold the Tories to account?

Self-evidently, private education is a much more problematic notion for the left than the right. But have there not been long-overlooked tensions between what senior Tories say and do? Margaret Thatcher successfully reinvented the Conservatives as the supposed party of self-made meritocrats with its support rooted in the aspiring working class, but her son Mark ended up at Harrow (he left with three O-levels), while daughter Carol went to the fee-paying Queenswood school in Hertfordshire, and west London’s exclusive St Paul’s girls’ school. By the same token, there is an obvious discrepancy between George Osborne minting the phrase “we’re all in this together”, and his own choices: in 2008, it was reported that he had “withdrawn” his two children from a state primary close to the Houses of Parliament, and secured them places at an £11,500-a-year prep school.

In the end, though, all this probably comes down to something even more fundamental. In 2012, the former Labour education minister Andrew Adonis claimed that politicians who went private should have no say in the state education system. “Too much of failed education policy since the war has been the result of ideological ministers who don’t use the institutions that they expect the general public to use,” he said, “and that has been true of the Labour side as well as well as the Tories.”

Sarah Vine’s explanation of her and Michael Gove’s decision makes no reference to any of that. Instead, she admirably pays tribute to the comprehensive ideal, has a welcome pop at private schools’ “snobbery”, and seems to question whether education needs to be so fixated with results (which, interestingly enough, sits ever so slightly awkwardly with the approach taken by her husband). But the fact that Gove is the first Tory education secretary to use a state secondary opens up some very big issues. And in doing so, it is likely to make life for senior Tory politicians much more difficult than they would like.

David Cameron has a daughter at the same state primary school attended by Gove’s. In 2009, he said that he would like his children to “go through the state sector”. But the following year, apparently ignoring the fact that London’s schools are now outperforming those in the rest of the country, he said he was “terrified” by the prospect of living in central London and trying to find “a good secondary school”, and made reference to people “breaking the bank” to have their children privately educated. He will have to make a decision later this year; the Gove/Vine story has inevitably raised the stakes, and then some.

A country where even an Eton-educated Tory prime minister sends his offspring to comprehensive schools – can you imagine? Might, at long last, questions even be asked of the royals? While we’re here, it’s also worth noting that last time he was asked where his children might be educated, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt – an alumnus of £6,000-a-term University College School, Hampstead – gave a rather lacklustre reply and said he would “never rule out whatever takes place”, whatever that meant. He will be asked the same question again – perhaps, thanks to this story, in a matter of days. What will he say this time?

John Harris

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Foreign nannies furore exposes worrying double standards among our political leaders | John Harris

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s use of overseas domestic staff shows the real issue of immigration – class

Had it not been for all those headlines about Stephen Lawrence and the Ellison review, many of today’s papers may well have been a riot of outrage about the government and immigration. The story has unfolded through the week: a tale of mixed messages, plenty of cant, and wildly different experiences of the issue, depending on where you sit in the social hierarchy.

To recap: on Wednesday, the new Tory immigration minister James Brokenshire gave a not exactly eagerly awaited speech at the headquarters of thinktank Demos, outlining some of the ideas he is going to bring to a job he got when his predecessor, Mark Harper, resigned. Remember him? In the midst of all the government’s tough posturing – those notorious “Go home or face arrest” vans, for instance – Harper learned he was employing an illegal immigrant as a domestic cleaner and quit.

So in came his replacement: an unremarkable-looking fella, straight out of Westminster central casting, who might reasonably have been expected to say very little of any consequence. But no: on Wednesday, his very pointed message was seemingly addressed to his predecessor, among others. Brokenshire had a pop at the “wealthy metropolitan elite” for their use of cheap labour from overseas, and duly sparked no end of coverage – including, by yesterday, news that among those wealthy metropolitan types he may have had in his sights were the prime minister and the deputy prime minister. Nick Clegg, it transpires, employs a “lady” from Belgium as a home help; David Cameron has used nannies from Nepal and Australia.

The latter, one Sammi Strange, was apparently hired by the Camerons via a series of Skype interviews, like you do. At first, questions about her and the Camerons’ domestic staffing arrangements were stonewalled, but it was then announced she had now become a UK citizen, and all was therefore tickety-boo. “We have always said we want people who want to work hard and get on,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said. “Do we want the brightest and the best? Yes we do. And that would absolutely include, for example, Mr and Mrs Cameron’s nanny.” So that’s all right, then.

The Labour MP John Mann is now demanding that the entire cabinet disclose how many domestic staff from overseas they employ, while the general public chews over some very gristly examples of double standards, and Nigel Farage – assuming, of course, there are no Lithuanian gardeners, Gambian nannies or Costa Rican cooks on his payroll – prepares to make hay. In the coming weeks, there may yet be further stories about ministers proving their commitment to tough immigration policies and helping the benighted victims of unemployment by employing cheap domestic help from overseas. We shall see.

One other aspect of this story came earlier in the week, with an official report about immigration and its effects on the UK labour market, and the government’s apparent attempt to sit on it. The resultant coverage reflected another habit of the wealthy metropolitan elite: reducing immigration to a stupid numbers game – so that if you’re of a liberal-left disposition you claim that new arrivals have little or no effect on wages and unemployment, and thereby try to shut everyone up, while the right endlessly pledges to cut net levels of migration by this or that many thousand – to no appreciable effect.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, a very problematic reality has long taken hold which only a handful of politicians seem willing to talk about. The veteran Labour MP Frank Field, for instance, recently said this: “A new servant class, equal to that of Downton Abbey times, has been recreated. It’s not upstairs and downstairs any more, though. The elite bring the servant class in when they want cleaning done, ironing, gardening, decorating and so on.” Brokenshire would presumably agree. He also thinks too much immigration threatens to “force wages down and house prices up and put pressure on social cohesion and public services”.

You could put all that another way, in the kind of blunt language that most politicians choose to avoid, but which you can find buried in some speeches made a couple of years ago by Ed Miliband. “Immigration is a class issue“, he said in 2011. The words duly disappeared into the great fog of public indifference, but how right that was.

John Harris

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Whatever the result of Scotland’s referendum, nothing will be the same | John Harris

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

What will happen if – or more likely, when – the no side wins? Labour in particular has good reason to fear the answer

Tunnelling through the sudden avalanche of coverage of the Scottish independence referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that the prospects for September 2014 are as binary as the question that will be on the ballot paper. If the Scots vote yes, all hell will break loose – but if a majority opt for no, everything will once again go quiet, the union will be glued back together, and most of the English media will once again forget that north of the border actually exists.

But it is not going to work out like that. The referendum campaign is underlining the huge differences between politics as practised in Edinburgh and London. Even if they lose, the yes campaign’s repeated highlighting of the Tories’ illegitimacy in Scotland will have done its work, while the spectacle of Westminster politicians threatening the Scots with blue murder if they go it alone has only increased the sense of the London political class as an alien, oppressive force. Besides, the Scottish referendum is just one part of a much bigger story – of ferment and division that cuts across the UK, and a huge gap between an over-mighty capital and the rest of the country.

Over the next few weeks, the question of what might happen if – or rather, on current figures, when – the no side wins will be brought into much sharper focus. At the Scottish Labour conference later this month, that party’s devolution commission will announce its plans for post-referendum Scotland. Since its interim report last year, those who would like an extension of Holyrood’s powers over such matters as income tax have been clashing with Scottish MPs who want the status quo to remain. Pessimists fear Labour proposing a relatively trifling increase in the Scottish government’s clout, but presenting it as a great leap forward. But over the weekend, there were rumblings about plans not just for new tax powers, but the devolution of such policy areas as housing benefit and welfare-to-work.

If Labour seems conflicted, it’s understandable: its more clued-up people are aware of the Scottish appetite for a boost to self-rule, but at the same time their arguments could harden support for things the party would find petrifying. Recent polling suggests as much: while 31% of Scots believe their parliament should make all decisions that affect Scotland, another 32% support devo max, whereby Westminster’s role would be drastically reduced to only defence and foreign affairs. That does not look like much of a basis for any return to business as usual – particularly if we get another Tory-led government pledged to shred what remains of the welfare state, but also if Labour takes power in Westminster having only tinkered with devolution, and resumes its usual habit of tacking to the right.

Too many Labour politicians want to avert their eyes from this. The Tories claim to be looking at the case for greater devolution via their own commission, but it seems to be running late, and has not yet talked about specifics. The Lib Dems, for what it’s worth, laid out their position 18 months ago in a report by Menzies Campbell: now, thanks to “Campbell II”, they are going to resume the argument for a new federal(ish) structure for the UK, and granting Scotland new powers such as control of income tax rates, while the British government would still see to foreign affairs, defence, VAT – and, crucially, social security.

Unionists might accept this kind of vision as the basis for cross-party agreement, but would it fly? The hated bedroom tax is a totemic issue in Scotland, and if any government arrives in 2015 pledged to tighten the welfare screw further, resentment about Westminster’s hold on policy would skyrocket. Even in the unlikely event that Westminster was left only with foreign affairs, (which no mainstream party advocates, but could conceivably materialise) it would not necessarily heal Scottish wounds: do not forget that Tony Blair’s dire reputation there was sealed by the Iraq war, or that associated resentments about London’s treatment of Scottish army regiments inflamed the sense of Westminster little understanding matters of deep national significance.

If the near-future turns out to be as convulsive as all this suggests, the debate will be as much about England – and Wales, and Northern Ireland – as Scotland. Quite apart from what increased Scottish devolution would entail for the latter two countries’ arrangements, any post-referendum boost would surely push the so-called West Lothian question – essentially, what Scottish MPs are doing voting on exclusively English matters – to breaking point. Does anyone really suppose that granting new powers to Holyrood would leave that debate pretty much as it is? This is why so many Labour people, in Scotland and beyond, are terrified. Tories, by contrast, see a watershed coming, and would presumably rejoice if it arrived: a plan to reduce the power of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs was in their 2010 manifesto, and last year it was reported that Oliver Letwin was leading work on a decisive plan for giving English MPs exclusive control of English matters.

Can you hear the sound of constitutional explosions yet? What that would mean for a future Labour government is mind-boggling: the maths is finely balanced, but it would threaten the prospect of the party being in office, but not in power, recurrently surrendering control of its programme to the Tories. Consider also another scenario: eight months after the Scottish referendum, with the debate about further devolution in full flow, the Tories win a majority of seats and/or votes in England, but Labour takes office thanks to MPs sent from Wales and Scotland. Tories would go ballistic, and they would have a point.

And so to a part of this puzzle that has been largely unexplored, which even a radical federalist solution would not solve. The Scottish referendum is the most dramatic manifestation yet of the estrangement of London from parts of the country that think in very different ways. The Tories endlessly fret about their demise in the north of England. To some extent, the rise of Ukip is based on an overlooked east-west English divide, and such counties as Norfolk and Lincolnshire feeling as marginalised by Westminster as the UK’s old industrial heartlands.

It may take different forms, but we all know what has fed this countrywide disaffection: the rise of a homogenous, metropolitan class; the domination of Britain by the City; and Tory and Labour governments that have taken power on a minority share of the vote, but then strut around as if we all gave them our support. More devolution will exacerbate such tensions, and if the Tories win in 2015 they could explode – but we should not discount the prospect of a Labour government also making things worse. One hesitates to say something so sweeping, but if the British political genius amounts to our ability to avoid great schisms and allow our institutions to calmly evolve with changing circumstances, that talent may be about to face its greatest challenge in centuries.

John Harris

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