Friday, 31 December 2010

Annual OCD Book Exercise

I was always a bit slapdash about the books I read, but on leaving university and reverting to reading for pleasure (!) I started to make a note of what I had read and how long it took me. Over the years, this has helped when I couldn't remember if I'd read a particular book by a certain author, and gave me a rough idea how fast I was reading. By and large, when I start a book, I persevere with it (dishonourable exception: Bonfire of the Vanities, which I started to read on the plane back from the States in 1990, and never bothered picking up again once I was on terra firma).

This year marks the 20th anniversary of this endeavour, so I thought I'd review how it's going. It looks like this:

Oddly, the highest number of books read was in '93, despite (or because of?) the trauma of moving house. The lowest were during the years when the girls were born, and where much of my time was taken up with small children, hospital visits and full-time work. 

Of course, none of this is very scientific, as I don't record the number of pages for each book (that would be real mania and I leave that to my other half, who has been doing so since the 1980s!)

As I go into my declining years, it will be good to remember what I have read, if only because my little list tells me I have! 

And yes, I have read Nick Hornby.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Blog Mission Statement

This post is a re-edited version of a note I put on Facebook within days of the General Election. It pretty much sums up how I feel about most things....

Within days of the Labour victory in 1997, we won a cricket match, we won the Eurovision Song Contest and my first child was conceived.

When she was born, and was almost immediately diagnosed with Sturge Weber Syndrome, we realised we would be facing the prospect of a lot of interaction with the National Health Service. When, at 6 months, she suffered her first seizure, we were ushered straight in to our GP's surgery and within minutes we had been sent direct to Acorn Ward the old Manchester Royal Infirmary, where we remained for a week while the medics tried to stabilise her.

Over the years she has been treated by a paediatric neo-natal specialist, neurologists, psychologists, Manchester dental hospital, Manchester Royal Eye Hospital; she has had 9 years' laser surgery to reduce her birthmark, an operation on a detached retina which saved her from having an eye removed, radiotherapy and cataract surgery. She has seldom had to wait very long for appointments and has had exemplary service from the medical professionals she's been involved with.

It's been the same with Education. She attended an excellent local authority-run nursery and then a very good barrier-free primary school where she received 1:1 in-class support from a number of excellent Teaching Assistants. At nine, she was additionally diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum; her ASD diagnosis came in time for us to be able to plan her secondary education carefully and she has made a successful transition to a mainstream secondary school, still with support, but with a level of independence she would not have in a special school. At her first Parents Evening we received comments such as "a pleasure to have in my class". Anyone who knew us when she was in Reception/Year 1, would appreciate how much that means to us!

That's why I voted Labour on 6 May - I'm proud to have done so make no apologies for it. As a family, we've had a far better life under Labour than we had under the Tories, but it's not just about us - millions of other ordinary families did, too. 13 years in which legislation gave protection from discrimination, lower crime rates (we were burgled 4 times between 1993-97; 0 times 1997-2010), where a less antagonistic attitude to Europe gave us greater credibility and influence, and where the concept of "society" was reintroduced. I have to say I never liked or trusted Tony Blair (even when everyone else seemed to), but was prepared to put up with him because - and here's a thing - I was more concerned with party's policies than the personality of the leader. Some of the trashing of Brown has been, frankly, disgraceful and I think it shows the mettle of the man that he's put up with it. In time, I think his reputation may recover - after all, John Major is now seen as a genial elder statesman!

I fear for the next five years - the proposed removal of a right of appeal in school expulsions (you get a right of appeal if you're convicted of murder for god's sake!); the very real possibility that 'stopping the closure of special schools' has a corollary of 'let's get these pesky SEN kids out of mainstream'; the concept of paying to see your GP; the re-demonisation of those who are 'different', be it gay, unmarried, disabled, etc. It was quite nice to have 13 years where I wasn't constantly told I was a second class citizen.

That's not to say there weren't times when I despaired of some of the things that were happening. The decimation of the social housing stock was not reversed, the ridiculous relaxation of the licensing laws which could only have been thought up by people who spend far too long in Tuscany, getting sucked in to the Bush War on Terror, some frankly unacceptable assaults on civil liberties and, on a personal level, the mania for outsourcing government projects to BPOs (at vast expense) which ends up costing far more and delivers a poorer service for the 'customer' than local authority provision did.

That aside, the overall movement of the country since 1997 has been towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation. Of course it's possible that the sainted Nick Clegg will be able to show the Tories the error of their inward-looking, exclusive ways, but I wouldn't hold your breath.

Seven months on, I can't say that I'm reassured....

Friday, 10 December 2010

More on the protests...

I promised more on EMA yesterday.

While the student protests have mainly centred around the hike in university tuition fees, in reality the removal of EMA will have far more impact on young people from poorer households and while in the main most young people will just bite the bullet and accept the new loans regime, the removal of EMA will disenfranchise a whole generation of young people between the ages of 16-18, whose sights may be set lower than a degree but who will now struggle even to get to Level 3 qualifications.

I remember, as a sixth former, voicing the opinion that there should be some form of financial support for those staying on past 16. EMA finally came along some 30 years later. In my previous existence I worked on its sister scheme, the Adult Learning Grant, which gave a second chance to the thousands of adults who had been failed in one way or another by the education system. It was the most satisfying job I have ever done - a feeling that you were really making a difference to people's lives. Although the two schemes differed in that EMA existed as an incentive to keep young people in education and ALG offered support to those who were willing to take the risk of returning to education as adults (no mean feat in some cases), they both had this in common; they were simple, they were targeted, relatively difficult to abuse and they were both reward-based. So long as you were in full time learning, met the income criteria and (crucially) turned up for every lesson every week, you were retrospectively paid between £10 and £30. 

Certainly, there were some cases where students (or in most cases, their parents) got round the eligibility criteria and obtained the grant, but this is true of all schemes and was, for the most part, rare. Being attendance-based, there was little incentive for potential fraudsters to set up a claim unless they were going to put the hours in.

On Question Time last night, Liam Fox told us that the statistics show that 'most' of these students would stay on in education anyway (and with the extension of the school leaving age, they will have no choice), but I would question this (from the base of having done statistical work on the schemes). True, most would have signed up for courses in September, but where EMA made the difference was in attendance and retention. Sticking the course out without the financial support was a real challenge for kids from poorer backgrounds, especially where there is no culture of continuing education or parental support for it. School sixth forms may well be full of committed students who would remain on course no matter what, but in FE colleges EMA has made a real difference in lowering drop-out rates.

I suspect the coalition's real reason for dropping the scheme is not that it is not 'targeted' enough (means tested and attendance based  - how much more targeted can you get?) but that the schemes are administered through expensive contracts with private sector BPOs rather than at cost via local authorites (the pilots for both EMA and ALG were run, very successfully, by LAs) and are costing a lot of money. Actually, I rather agree with them on this - New Labour were just as guilty of buying in to the myth of outsourcing always resulting in better value for money as previous Tory administrations, but I wish they'd come out and say so rather than pretending that EMA 'doesn't work'.

Potentially, the removal of EMA will have a far more significant impact on the life chances of young people than the tuition fee issue. The FE students protesting in London yesterday will not get their EMA this week, as they will have missed lectures to go to London (and will have incurred expense getting there). Clearly, though, they feel strongly enough about the issue to make that sacrifice - pity no-one's really noticing.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

May You Live in Interesting Times.....

Fascinating, truly fascinating. 

A number of things going on today which may keep me from doing the stuff I really should be getting on with. 

The Tuition Fees vote - another of the "quick, get it through before anyone has a chance to look at it properly" pieces of 'progressive' legislation from the Coalition (how can they be quite so morally bankrupt this early in their tenure?). It's heartening to see students out on the streets and occupying university buildings. When I was at uni in the late 80s/early90s (when you would have thought there was something worth protesting about), the political activism seemed to revolve around whether to re-name the student union building in honour of Bruce Forsyth (far more significant than Steve Biko, wouldn't you say?) and electing odious little creeps like Derek Draper. 

Even if the new proposals had been given adequate time for discussion about quite how 'progressive' they are (not as much as Nick Clegg says, by most independent accounts), there remains the fundamental, ideological (there - I said it!!) question of whether and how much the recipients of education should pay for  their own education. We somehow managed to fund higher education during the post-war austerity era and the economically-challenged 1970s. Mandatory grants for all but the very wealthy. Because there was a consensus that education had a worth beyond simple earning power. Of course, far fewer people actually went on to higher education then, and there is an important argument to be had about whether 50% participation is either achievable (less likely once these changes are enacted) or desirable (while qualification to Level 4 is desirable, is the university model necessarily the right one?). The fact remains that for most young people, the prospect of that level of debt will be a significant deterrent to furthering their education. And that's without even taking into account the much more important factor of removing EMA (another post, I promise you)

Possibly because I have spent all my working life in the public sector, I know very few people (graduates or otherwise) who are massively wealthy; very few, in fact, who are in the 40% tax bracket. I never planned or desired to make shedloads of money, but instead wanted to do something with my life where I felt I made a difference - hence, local government. It's safe to say that what I gained from my degree was the ability to think, plan and analyse - at no time (apart from pub quizzes, when I usually let everyone down spectacularly) has my knowledge of American history, politics or literature been of any use in the real world. It does, however, inform my world view and allows me to analyse and question what I'm being told by the media/government.

Which brings me on to......

Wikiwars - I'm still equivocal about the whole Wikileaks thing. In general, I think that having things out in the open is "a Good Thing" and that withholding information is " a Bad Thing" (straying into Sellar & Yeatman territory here), but I'm also not stupid enough to think that there are no occasions when secrecy is required to protect national security. So far, I see no evidence that lives have been put at risk by any of the leaked cables - reputations, maybe, but that's hardly 'national security.'  

What is fascinating, though, is the cyber-response to governments' clumsy attempts at damage limitation. In the main, hackers will always have at least a temporary advantage over governments/corporations because they can think on their feet and adapt their approach instantaneously when one avenue is closed to them, and it's fun watching the game of noughts and crosses currently playing out across the web. Far from limiting damage, the attempts to shut Wikilieaks down has prompted guerrilla retaliation which has brought it even more publicity. People who couldn't care less what some ambassador said about a country they've never heard of are now taking an interest, just in case their Christmas presents don't arrive because their Mastercard payment might not have gone through!

And for those of you who doubted the US government has no appreciation of satire, I leave you with this little gem......

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A Leap Into the Unknown

It was probably always going to happen. Despite the desperate pleas of my partner - "Oh, please don't start blogging!" - it was pretty much inevitable that I would succumb. First Facebook, then Twitter - it was only really a matter of time.

I've never been short of opinions, or of voicing them, and have found that I need somewhere to vent my spleen (since May,increasingly so). In the end, it was at the suggestion of the lovely GuerrillaMum that I got started.

I won't promise great coherence, but I will do my best to let you know what's bugging me. In the main it will be the coalition.

Especially Education.

Having spent all my working life working for local authority education departments and with two kids in the system (one with special educational needs), I am fearful of what's being done by that archetypal school swot Michael Gove. Not just cross, fearful.

It's the same with the NHS, on which we rely very heavily and from which we have always (under Labour) had exceptional service provision.

And Housing. We're lucky to have bought our own house before prices got silly and as long as I can find a job and my partner (working for a local authority) doesn't lose his (I know, that's a lot of assumptions!), we at least know that we have a roof over our head. Which is more than can be said for anyone unfortunate enough not to be able to buy - either a temporary council/HA property or the private rented sector, none of which will in future give you any real security of tenure. Built-in transience and no foundation on which to build communities.

The country is in a mess but not because of the last administration. Because of the unprincipled avarice of a minority of people too wealthy to need the state and who therefore think it isn't needed. Who are now being propped up by others like them.

This blog will be political. It won't be as beautifully argued as some out there, but it will be heartfelt. I had better go away now and think about what I want to say. and how best to say it.