John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for January, 2021

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‘It’s like being in prison’: what’s behind the rise in school exclusions?

Saturday, January 30th, 2021

Exclusions in English schools have gone from a last resort to the go-to punishment for children who are deemed disruptive or simply don’t fit in. Is there a better way?

I meet Lewis just before the first lockdown, early in 2020. He is 18, and in the middle of his A-levels: a sparky, irreverent presence, with a strong sense of injustice about what he experienced at his London secondary school. In year 9, around the time he turned 14, he started being bounced around the school’s disciplinary system. At one point, he spent every school day for six weeks in a single-room facility called “the annexe”. He was also forced to spend time at home. Sometimes, work was sent for him to do; sometimes, he spent whole days doing nothing.

“I was in the top sets for a lot of things, and there weren’t many black kids in those classes, so I tended to stand out,” he says. “But also, I was acting up.” There were reasons for his behaviour: “I had a lot going on. My mum had had a miscarriage. My grandma was diagnosed with cancer. I had an uncle who was sectioned. I’m not going to be like, ‘I was a good kid.’ I was lashing out. But the worst part was, I’d spoken to some of my teachers about the reasons.”

I’ve seen children in isolation rooms on trumped-up charges. And they were full of black kids

There was no learning. Kids with headphones on, playing cards, turning up when they wanted. It was like a bad youth club

They have to sit there in silence for a day with three toilet breaks. Theoretically, they give them work, but they don’t

He’s been excluded for playing with a fidget toy that they gave him. He’s been excluded for asking for work

Children stab people when they’re angry. So we’re not forcing them into a situation where they have to react violently

They started just excluding me for the littlest things. And then they ended up getting rid of me

If 80% of kids respond well to a zero-tolerance policy, what about the other 20%? Do we accept them as collateral damage?

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These are big moments in our history. Why is Labour’s response so small? | John Harris

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

Keir Starmer can skewer Boris Johnson in the Commons, but competence isn’t enough. He has to spell out a vision, and soon

One of the most glaring aspects of the Covid-19 era is yet another Westminster-centred crisis of political leadership, if not politics itself. This may be a polarised age in which the idea of millions being helped through dark times by the people at the top is laughably old-fashioned. Trust in power has hardly been a feature of recent British history. But it has been clear from the start of this crisis that Boris Johnson has neither the gravitas nor the basic administrative talents to offer us any convincing kind of inspiration or comfort, and the surreally poor quality of the cabinet only makes things worse.

And then there is Keir Starmer. In the eyes of most voters, the Labour leader is clearly a vast improvement on Jeremy Corbyn. The skills he developed as a lawyer mean that he does such an enviable job of skewering Johnson and his colleagues’ failures that it has become a cliche to even mention it. The union jacks Starmer habitually appears in front of are clearly intended to tell the people rattled by Corbyn’s time at the top that all is now well again. But for many reasons, the use of such symbols feels awkward and incongruous: here, it seems, is someone who would like to channel the national mood, but cannot yet find a way to do it.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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The British public are careful and calm – the problem is that the government isn’t | John Harris

Monday, January 18th, 2021

A view of people as rule-breaking chancers is being used as a distraction from the Conservatives’ failures. They mustn’t get away with it

This is what a true crisis feels like. The UK has now recorded more than 100,000 deaths from coronavirus and, according to the government’s chief scientific adviser, the daily toll will continue to be awful “for some weeks”. Our capital city is so overrun that Covid patients are being moved to intensive care units hundreds of miles away, and across England nearly 4.5 million people are now waiting for operations.

A test-and-trace system that was meant to be “world-beating” is almost irrelevant; we now learn that the £78m plan for daily mass testing in English schools has not been approved by the agency that oversees medicines and health products. Vaccinations will eventually ease the situation, but everywhere else you look, there are government blunders, delays and failures which – in a more predictable world – would already have had huge political consequences.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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You don’t have to be a lockdown sceptic to worry about how Covid is being policed | John Harris

Sunday, January 10th, 2021

All the ‘tough’ talk ignores who is always targeted in such crackdowns, and those who still need help

The lockdown sceptics, it seems, are in abeyance. Opportunistic media voices who made a habit of denying the necessity of restrictions and the severity of the pandemic are still here, but noticeably quieter. Only 16 MPs, split between the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party, voted against the government’s latest measures. Bursts of dissent about restrictions and the truth of the virus itself will doubtless continue, as proved by the awful spectacle of those people outside London hospitals, seemingly dragged from the subterranean depths of social media into the everyday world, chanting “Covid is a hoax!” But with the crisis entering this new, frightening stage, the mood has inevitably changed.

At the same time, many things that ought to jangle our nerves are as clear now as they were in 2020. The Johnson government has an awful attitude to basic parliamentary scrutiny – and, in Priti Patel, a home secretary who draws on a deep well of authoritarianism and nastiness. Its current Covid regulations are so complicated that they are reckoned to stretch to just under 50,000 words, which makes any coherent understanding of them, let alone questions of enforcement, much more difficult than many people realise.

Related: How the British government is trying to crush our right to protest | Gracie Mae Bradley

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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‘Open all schools!’ ‘Close all schools!’ What England really needs is creative thinking | John Harris

Monday, January 4th, 2021

The pandemic has sparked a shouting match. Instead we should be working out how to keep everyone in education safe

The crisis enveloping schools, and the noisy resentment it has sparked, reflect just about every aspect of England’s Covid-19 story. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has taken the government’s grim mixture of arrogance and incompetence to new depths. When Boris Johnson was interviewed by Andrew Marr today it was striking to see so much of the conversation devoted to schools, but there was a wearying familiarity to the vagueness of the prime minister’s position on urgent issues. The fact that there is no clear line even on the proposed opening of all schools in England a fortnight from now hardly answers people’s need for clarity and leadership.

Yet again councils, who are only too aware of local realities, have objected to edicts from Whitehall. In London, boroughs that rejected the demand that their primary schools open on 4 January forced yet another government U-turn. Meanwhile, as concerns grow about the new variant spreading via schools, talk of “a switch to online learning” is now common – yet this could exacerbate many hard realities that have emerged during the pandemic. For plenty of families, “connectivity” amounts to a pay-as-you-go smartphone running on a mobile network; in millions of cases, remote learning is a completely vain hope.

Related: The government has pitted England’s schools against health. It didn’t have to | James McAsh

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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