Get the tech firms to do the banning? Let’s go for education instead.

You taught me language and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.’ Caliban: The Tempest

‘What the great ones do, the less will prattle of,’ says the sea captain at the start of Twelfth Night. Written four hundred years before celebrity mags and reality TV came to fill us with jollity and with us still waiting for Twitter to improve the quality of our lives, it’s some foresight on the part of the boy from small-time Strafford.

It has always been the inalienable right of onlookers to pass judgement on those who are in the public eye. Or to chatter aimlessly with their acquaintances about the conduct of the great and the good. When the opportunity arises, we can shout opinions into the wind at public events, sporting occasions or when chance meetings occur. Social media, however, takes this one -way conversation to an entirely different level.

As diverting as it could be, I have no genuine Twitter presence. For one thing, life has taught me that my immediate reaction to events, particularly those that alarm or disturb, is not always as reliable and coherent as it might be. What’s more, like many people, I’ve become acutely aware that I’d like to spend less time perusing vacuous trash on my phone. It’s true that the quick-witted and the pithy can use it to entertain and provoke and that it is a form of swift riposte that can spark a superficial sort of shadow debate. But it also offers short-lived empowerment and, for a tiny number of those who so avidly pursue it, a few moments during which they have been noticed – however anonymously.

The last couple of weeks have revealed tales of breath-taking, sickening bile directed at footballers and athletes or, to be exact, black footballers and athletes. Women in any sort of public sphere have long needed to steel themselves as open targets and, scarcely believably, the victims of crime and tragedy are often singled out by the deranged, vile or dangerously bored.  Politicians of any stripe are fair game, it seems, and obviously deserve anything that’s spewed at them.

There’s an obvious solution, isn’t there? The social media giants must act, mustn’t they?  Users must be registered and, if found culpable, banned. Because it’s a universal truth that the peddlers of such vitriol are incapable of establishing a variety of online identities. We’re told that the companies themselves must create and deploy protocols which enable them to both censure and censor. Because multi-national corporations are precisely who we need to be the guardians of public morality requiring precise and delicate judgements. And, of course, they operate so independently of any vested interests.

Banning, blanking and cancelling are simply not the way to go. Never mind crude algorithms that quash saucy place names or even left-wing groups, once we start leaving social media firms to self-police, we’re asking for trouble. Fortunately, alternative methods are possible – and there’s never been a better time to instigate them while we reassess what schools need to do as, chastened, we start to think about what’s worth knowing in the world.  How about making social media literacy as important a part of a child’s education as being able to pluck Shakespearean quotations just in order to show off?

To be literate is to equip ourselves – and, crucially, our children – to be able to navigate the world in which we live. An overwhelmingly prominent feature of that world is social media – and it’s  toothpaste that is never going back into the tube. If we leave our young people (or anyone else, come to that) ignorant about how it works, who controls it, how its content is generated and how it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous to degrade, delude and diminish, then we’re selling them dangerously short.

And who would be against the development of such knowledge? Well, Nick Gibb, that’s who. No? You can be forgiven because, by and large, he keeps a low profile. He’s the minister charged with school standards and he’s seen off Michael Gove and all his successors at the Department for Education, which is where he’s been since 2010. He’s a bit of a traditionalist is Nick and he’s not a fan of any fancy modern ideas. ‘The romantic notion that teachers need not focus on knowledge and instead turn their attention to developing creativity or communication skills has gripped many countries around the world,’ he griped in a speech in 2017. That’s right, Nick. While our children are bombarded with image after meme after insult after disturbing video, why on earth would we want to teach them about communication skills?

When, at last, we get our children back into schools and when we’ve given them the chance to talk, play and make sense of what has happened to them, maybe we’ll turn our minds to a new subject on the curriculum. One that could shape their lives and, if left unmediated, distort it and cause destructive confusion. Maybe if Nick Gibb and government ministers can’t grasp this, we’ll need to call on a young, black footballer who’s been on the receiving end of those hilariously named anonymous posters. That often seems to do the trick………over to you, Marcus. Get tweeting!

Free connectivity? What? For everyone? Don’t be ridiculous.

A hundred years ago in December 2019, we had a general election. The principal issue was Brexit – which seems to be going swimmingly, by the way – and the Labour party’s complete confusion on the issue cost it dear.

Depending on which narrative you choose to believe, a pressurised Jeremy Corbyn, spotting the writing on the wall, either formulated an imaginative plan for a vital social provision, or desperately plucked an idea from the line of optics in the last chance saloon. It did him no good. It was so obviously stupid, impractical and, above all, ridiculously expensive.

Every home, he suggested, should have high-speed, full fibre broadband and…..wait for it….it should be free. Oh, how his detractors hugged themselves with unbridled delight: he’d clearly fallen off the edge of reason. The Daily Express gleefully shrieked that ‘reckless Corbyn’ fully deserved the universal derision coming from Tory MPs who were asking whether the woolly old veg-digger had ever considered the cost of this. Nicky Morgan, who has gone on to enhance her political career by leaps and bounds  – oh, no, wait a minute –  sneered about his blinkered disregard for how this would ‘cost hard working tax payers billions of pounds’. The estimated bill would be in the region of some £20.3 billion. Madness.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, in his sober and measured way, calmly recognised the importance of the issue and pledged to bring forward a full commercial roll out from 2033 to 2025. How he must have chortled contentedly to himself. Free broadband! As if.

It’s just over a year since the last of the scoffing died down. If anyone thought that broadband access wasn’t a priority before the election, they’ll have been disabused of that notion by now.  As one of the indices of inequality, it’s up there near the top – and nowhere is this more acutely obvious than in terms of education.

Steve Chalke is the founder of the Oasis Academy chain of schools and, to be honest, I wouldn’t  imagine that we could ever be chums, despite the fact that both of us have spent decades trying to improve the life chances of children through education. But I cheered his radio interview to the rafters this morning when he suggested that having a child living in a home without good broadband access is akin to living in one without electricity or water. For the avoidance of doubt, should you harbour the notion that Steve Chalke is some bohemian sprite, riding the waves of liberal free-thinking, just give him a quick google.

Inequality is now the hallmark of the pandemic, markedly so in a highly developed economy like ours. Education should be able to act as a leveller. We can leave aside the nonsensical discourse about children having to ‘catch up’; learning is neither a race nor a competitive sport. However, we are now certain of one thing: even in these straitened circumstances, a child has a better chance of learning something if s/he has space, some support from people with the time to provide it and – not just in times of pandemic – access to a decent digital device with an affordable broadband service to make it work.

Johnson and his party made a commitment to levelling up those parts of society that had been left behind and who were angry and resentful as a consequence. Let’s suspend our disbelief for long enough to accommodate the idea that the party of self-help and blame was ever committed to such a pledge. If it’s still on the to-do list, then this week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will have given them a further, shocking jolt. Put simply, if you work in poor conditions for low wages in jobs that that can’t be done from home, you’re five times more likely to become infected with the virus than if you work from your house.  And you’re more likely to be able to work from your house if your digital connection is strong, reliable and affordable so that you can work while your children get access to some lessons at the same time.

And if, just if, that astronomical £20 billion had been shelled out for this apparently barmy scheme, how much of a dent would that have made in the national budget? According to figures from the ONS and the National Audit Office, projected government borrowing for the financial year from April 2020 should have been around £55 billion. Covid has made those figures look ridiculous and the current projection is now nearer £350 billion. The cost to the economy has been massive; the cost to our general health and welfare, especially that of our children, may yet be inestimable unless the drifting and u-turning comes to a halt.

So, why would we decide to pay £20 billion for a national asset that could help to educate our children, enable greener working practices, keep people safer and also end up with a significant piece of digital infrastructure? Of all the hare-brained schemes, that one’s right up there, isn’t it? Yep. Completely reckless.   

If the world spins differently, a few exam passes are sort of irrelevant – aren’t they?

Put aside for one moment the ridiculous reality that someone put Gavin Williamson in charge of education. We are, as the modern cliché goes, where we are. And let’s be gracious: his job is not an easy one. He’s also not helped by the fact that he is saddled with a set of ideas about the purpose of school that become more demonstrably useless with every passing day.

Now that he’s been allowed out to speak to us – having been given the simplest of briefs to avoid saying something stupid – there’s one idea he trots  out as a ‘common sense’ life-saver at every opportunity: young people who are preparing for exams must return to school as soon as possible. And he’s not alone. Headteachers appear on news bulletins to reiterate this incontrovertible truth. Parents call in to talk shows to tell of their heart-breaking concern about their children’s miserable anxiety. Because, we are told with shrieking certainty, these exams are important and will determine their life chances.

At this point, I am obliged to wheel out a pre-emptive disclaimer that regular readers will have heard before. Children should be assessed from time to time so that we can find out what they know, understand and can do. It is then our job as educators to push them on to the next thing of which they could be capable. It is also up to educators to acknowledge that not all young people are good at the same things and that the golden key to is to find those areas where individuals can flourish and encourage them to pursue these further. What our knowledge of pedagogy and human development tells us is that people are more likely to develop ways of learning – and discover further interests – on the back of these successes. (I appreciate that Gavin might already be struggling with some of this).

This is a very different model from the one that stamps itself on schools, teachers and students. From a narrow range of subjects which have not changed significantly for a century, an even narrower range of topics and ideas are centrally chosen. This meagre selection is then formulated and packaged in a way that makes assessment of them relatively uniform and straightforward and, hey presto, a child comes out of the other end stamped, categorised and ready for the next part of the process. Whether or not anyone has ever actually, genuinely learned anything is a luxurious irrelevance. It’s the data that counts.

An increasingly narrow curriculum and an absurd hierarchy of subject importance – maths good, drama bad – is disappointing enough. What makes matters worse is the way in which schools have been forced to define themselves and their success by this sole criterion. Slice it however you like, how well children and their teachers do in this narrow band of inflexible, often outdated set of formulaic tests and exams is the toxic fuel that drives what happens in our schools. If you convince yourself that this is a tolerable state of affairs, you end up howling into the wind that a 16-year-old sitting a test is important while the world around that child is changing, irrevocably, with every passing hour.

And before you jump to any daft conclusions – no, I’m not advocating free-spirited yoghurt weaving as an alternative. Unlike Gavin, I’ve been at this education lark for well over forty years and these things I know as incontrovertible truths:  young people like their adults to be knowledgeable, firm, consistent and reliable. They want their teachers to exude purposefulness in everything they do. With some dishonourable exceptions, this characterises pretty well all the teachers I have known. Which leads us to the crunch question. If, grudgingly, Gavin and his chums have had to acknowledge the central importance of teachers and what they do, why not trust them to assess what their pupils know, understand and can do?

The answer is because in this aspect of their professional behaviour, as far as politicians are concerned, teachers are not to be trusted. They’d inflate the grades; they’d be soft on their own pupils; they’d over-coach them and let them see questions beforehand. Let’s leave aside the inconvenient truth that during a fleeting period in the 1980s and 90s teachers had brief, overall control of some GCSE exams and none of this happened and look at the question from a different angle. If we stripped away the notion of competition between schools in terms of results, and if we removed a regulatory regime that inspected and categorised schools on the basis of these results, what incentive would there be to engage in any such malpractice? In whose interests would any skulduggery be? 

For Gavin, his Tory chums and their New Labour predecessors, there would be an even more disturbing problem. Dismantle the high-stakes, punitive scrutiny that rests on notions of delivery and production and we are left with only one alternative. Schools run by headteachers, teachers and professionally informed bodies that decide what’s good for particular children at particular times and in particular circumstances. Who devise a range of ways of assessing where children are at present, what they need to address next -and who can be trusted to report on this to parents and outside bodies in a professional and dispassionate way.

Or we can carry on behaving in the same way, pretending that all around us has not changed. When introducing new teachers to the profession, I use a brief clip from the original 1930 film, All Quiet on the Western Front. In it, a young soldier, just a few months out of school, complains to his grizzled senior officer that nothing he learned there has prepared him for what he now faces. ‘They didn’t even teach us how to light a cigarette in the wind,’ he grumbles. From there, we discuss the choices we make about the purpose of education and, in particular how it might, theoretically, prepare young people for an unknown world. It’s a discussion we should all be having right now – and  there’s nothing remotely theoretical about it.

Need to deliver the vaccine? I’ve got a mate who can help you with that.

Just when you think that Gavin Williamson must have reached the outer limits of his own dimwittery, he manages to confound us all. The reason Britain is at the forefront of rolling out a vaccine before France, Belgium or the US is because, according to Gav, ‘we are a much better country than every single one of them’.

Was he joking? Was it one of those chilling moments at a social gathering when the jest falls horribly flat? It’s difficult to know. Williamson, lest we forget, does have something of a runaway tongue. He was, remember, sacked by Theresa May because she was pretty certain that he’d let slip the odd state secret or two as defence secretary. It’s a measure of how we’ve become accustomed to a discourse of catastrophe that we’re no longer entirely appalled that this clownish figure was once entrusted with the defence of the realm, potentially controlling military deployment and lethal weaponry. You might argue that we should take solace in the fact that fouling up the country’s examination system couldn’t have accidentally triggered mass slaughter. So, determining whether this was Gav’s idea a jolly quip is a tricky business.

His buddy, Matt Hancock, had paved the way for his crass stupidity a day earlier, telling us that the rest of the continent just wasn’t quite up to speed. The UK, according to Matt, had a definite edge which was down to ‘the pace of the Europeans who are moving a little bit more slowly’.  The dullards. Thank goodness we won’t be having anything to do with them in four weeks’ time as we wave them goodbye and make our own way in the world.

Talking of buddies, Matt’s been able to send a little business the way of one of his own. His mate, Alex Bourne, used to run the Cock Inn at Thurlow in Matt’s constituency and although Alex now denies they were anything like chums – despite being pictured cheerily pulling a pint together –  he knew him well enough to send him a WhatsApp message in March offering his services to the NHS. Not to volunteer, you understand, or anything so public spirited. Alex had moved on from his boozer and now ran a firm making plastic cups and takeaway boxes. Maybe there was an opening for him in this time of crisis?

And, hey presto, so there was. After a bit of toing and froing and one rejected application, Alex’s Hinpack firm was awarded a contract to supply test tubes and vials, even though this his firm had never produced such items. Now, I’ll be clear. I’m all for repurposing of industrial production and it’s one of the things that will be vital in the post-Covid economy if we’re not going to incinerate the planet. But you’ll just have to forgive me if I’m a touch sceptical about whose number actually gets called when it comes to handing out the work. As it also happens, Alex’s relationship with the whole truth is occasionally a touch fragile. Although his lawyers vehemently denied any contact between their client and Hancock, poor old Alex was then forced to admit that he’d exchanged plenty of texts and mails with the minister. Nice to do business with you, boys.

None of which is to deny the relief and optimism that the news of the vaccine brings. But leaving aside the ramblings and rantings of the barmy anti-vaxxers – polio, anyone? TB, perhaps? –  why has this astonishingly good news been met with wary reserve by so many of us? For the avoidance of doubt, it’s important to distinguish between perfectly legitimate concerns about testing, development and long-term effects from the idea that Bill Gates is in cahoots with the mad scientists as they brew up the microchip with which we’re all going to be injected. The reason for the hesitancy is obvious.

Set aside the allowance that even a government at the top of its game would have made mistakes when faced with the pandemic. That’s no excuse for making them habitual. Tardy initial lockdowns, bungled PPE contracts, blasé handshaking, crazily mixed messages and the utter farce of track-and-trace have all contributed to a sense of public mistrust. The fact that there is now a website dedicated to the cronyism that corrodes public life as conducted by Boris Johnson and his band of slapstick clowns, tells us all we need to know.

And the reason we don’t trust them is because we know what we experience every day. Want to know why local authorities are struggling to keep up with the private sector and so are unable to ‘win’ the contracts for the services needed for the public good? Want to know why, despite the humanity and expertise at its human edge, the NHS has to run to keep up? Want to know why science labs that work for knowledge and not for profit are not even on the radar of the Williamsons and Hancocks of this world? Because we’ve entrusted the great offices of state to blank-minded ideologues who wouldn’t understand the notion of not-for-profit public service unless it coughed all over them.

So let’s enjoy the prospect of a brighter future and just trust to the fact that when it comes to distributing and administering the vaccine, neither Matt not Gav gets to enjoy a pint with some bloke who once ran a mini-cab firm. An English bloke, of course.

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As well as writing this blog, I’ve recently written a couple of books about football. One is about the burden of being a lifelong supporter of a club that can only dream of achieving mediocrity, the other about football in a post-pandemic world.

Good news at last, but keep your eye on the dullards – and their chums – still in office.

For a few days at least the news became tolerable. The man-baby was defeated and, just for the moment, the fat boys cuddling their unfeasibly large weaponry haven’t wreaked their revenge. The weeds and nerds in Downing Street, for whom playing with people’s lives and livelihoods was never more than a creepy game – and to whom the results were a matter of detached indifference – have been shown the door. Let’s not worry that it is the latest of the Prime Minister’s paramours who temporarily appears to be the loudest unelected voice in his ear. Just enjoy the moment of Cummings and Cain lugging their meagre cardboard boxes out of Downing Street. Dom was, apparently, very fond of informing people that if they didn’t like how he did things, they knew where the door was. Oh, Dom; you make me shudder when you’re so masterful. (Or maybe you’re doing the trembling to yourself).

Perhaps the loudest sniggering might be coming from Sonia Khan, the aide sacked so unceremoniously because of accusations of leaked information. Rather than have their clumsy misdemeanours aired in public, her employers have elected to avoid an employment tribunal and paid her a sum running, allegedly, into tens of thousands of pounds as compensation. Maybe Cummings and Cain had one of their ‘weirdos and misfits’ lined up to take her place, but I think we could be forgiven for questioning how the boyos splashed taxpayers’ money by sacking an accomplished professional and then paid her thousands of pounds once their macho posturings caught up with them. But then, it won’t be them forking out the compo. They don’t do taking responsibility for your actions – that’s so last century and carries the stench of public service. Ugh.  

As it happens, this is all quite familiar territory for Dom. He enjoyed some destructive time in the Department for Education where he cut his teeth working with the Tories’ favourite runner-up, Michael Gove. Along with his chum, James Frayne, he landed his employer with another five-figure payment when a department employee (yes, female, of course – they like to pick on girls) complained of a ‘macho culture of intimidation, favouritism and laddism’.  That’s not a great look for any workplace, but it’s genuinely alarming when it’s taking place in the government department charged with the education and welfare of the nations’ children.

And all of that after we heard the best news of all. With extraordinary speed, a viable vaccine seems to be on the horizon. What follows is not an attempt to take the shine of this truly wonderful, game-changing achievement, but early doubts have begun to surface. The simplest, if rather unflattering, way to express these is to ask an innocent question. Would you trust Hancock, Raab, Gove, Patel and Sunak, the holders of the great offices of state, under the guidance of the now unfettered Prime Minister, to make suitable arrangements for its manufacture, distribution and application to the general populace? While you’re pondering that, here are a couple of supplementary concerns.

From his newly isolated bedroom, we have to hope that the Prime Minister is putting the final flourishes to the trade deal that he will pull out of the fire in the next few days. No? Me neither. However, unless all the vaccine doses are going to be rolling off 24-hour production lines from the premises of Britain’s pharmaceutical establishments, we’re going to have to import some. We’ve just got to hope that this process won’t be held up by the lorry park that will soon go by the name of Kent. Or that tariff-free stuff becomes taxable.

And to whom will he look to solve the logistical problems that need to be addressed? I’d like to think that before he reaches for Dido on speed-dial, he might have quick look at the efforts of Harvard scholar, Sophie Hill. She has put together her My Little Crony map which reveals, in all its self-satisfied shamelessness, the bare-faced cheek of this government’s chumocracy. Whatever happens, we shouldn’t be surprised. Brazenness is the one thing this lot really do deliver on a world-class level. Robert Jenrick makes a dodgy development proposal to an old buddy at dinner. What to do? Sack him? Nah – make him the minister for housing. Gavin Williamson plays fast and loose with confidential state secrets. Boot him out? Nope. Put him in charge – and I use the term loosely – of education.

So, let’s enjoy a few moments of good news at last. But let’s not lose sight of the woeful ineptitude that has bedevilled us for months and which all of us need to call out at every turn.

When football met the pandemic – and how it coped

Project Restart. Real-time history about football and lockdown

My new book about football – well, football and its place in society – comes out today. The foreword to it is reproduced below. To buy your copy, go to the Pitch Publishing website where there are links to all major booksellers. Some of them pay tax.

With footballers outstripping our elected leaders when it comes to social justice and with fans contributing to food banks instead of paying (again) for pay-per-view TV, the link between football and wider society becomes more marked and important by the day.

This book captures some of that spirit and pays tribute to those at all levels who love the game and all that it can do for people.

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I’ve always known that I lived in a society where there was unfairness, inequality and tragedy. All the same, for a long time, I didn’t think I lived in one where something really, genuinely bad would happen to everyone.

Sure, we’d had those miserable climate warnings. For some, the UK winter of 2020 had already brought unbridled misery as persistent, torrential rain ruined properties and livelihoods. Doomsters had been warning us for some time that ‘freak’ weather could become the norm unless we changed our behaviour. It all seemed a bit distant, though. Stuff like that really wasn’t going to affect our lives in the long term.

Pandemics? Shocking and tragic as they may have been, they happened in other countries whose authorities didn’t have stuff under control like we had. And then it became horribly real.

Like almost every genuine football supporter I know, I frequently ask myself a question to which I don’t know the answer: why do I let the game in general, and my team in particular, matter to me? For all the jokiness, you’ll know what I mean – checking the score when you should be grinning happily at your niece’s wedding; knowing that you’ll be grumpy that evening if you’ve lost; flicking the remote from a major world event because you just need to know some  entirely inconsequential scrap of football-related nonsense. Let’s not even talk about planning holidays, arranging social events and skipping off work early.

In those first few shocking and unsettling weeks in March and April, we had to square up to what we’d always known: football really isn’t that important in the face of real danger and disaster. The impact of Covid 19 was all-consuming and despite the foot-dragging of many of those in charge, it soon became plain that professional football, played in front of crowds of people, was an unthinkable folly.

All of which lasted for about three or four weeks, by which time it became acceptable to start asking what was going to happen to the beautiful game. With plenty of time for idle contemplation during lockdown, I became fascinated by how this whole process of restarting football was going to play out.  In the pages that follow, I’ve tried to put together a living history of what happened, looking at football and its place in the wider world. At the centre of this are case studies of nine clubs operating at a range of levels. The choice was arbitrary other than trying to ensure that I got a spread of clubs from the Premier League to your local sports and social set-up.

Communicating with anyone from any of the fully professional clubs during the height of the pandemic was almost impossible. Attempts to set up online interviews, get a response to emails or find someone to answer the phone became a dispiriting business. In the lower leagues, many non-playing staff had been placed on furlough – a term which I don’t think any of us had ever used in our lives before, but which became quickly installed as part of everyday conversation. Up at the top level, particularly as the restart became a fact of life, over-stretched media teams became entirely inaccessible. 

 But there were – and are – plenty of other sources from which the temperature of the times could be taken. By trawling media – local and national – and loitering on forums and chat rooms, I’ve put together a picture that I hope will be familiar in many aspects to fans of all clubs. Eventually, I got to speak to a quite a few key people: members of supporters’ trusts and supporters’ clubs; stalwarts of non-league football who do everything from maintaining the website to painting the goalposts; managers, chairmen, chief executives, academics and researchers.

At the core of this book are the chosen clubs, from the Premier League to the parks, but there is plenty of mention of other teams and you’ll be able to find where yours features because a handy index is provided. My principal intention has been to paint a picture of what was happening in football but to do so I make no apology for looking at the game in the context of what was happening in society in general. In order to do that, I’ve had to engage in occasional political commentary. I haven’t been so coy as to pretend any neutrality; you’re at complete liberty to disagree with the opinions expressed and I’ve even furnished you with contact details at the end so that you can tell me why I’m such a fool to think as I do. 

Much of this book was written in June and July. At that time, the only two leagues who were able to get back into full action were the Premier League and the Championship. Below that level, barring some play-off action, all we could do was wait and see and hope that somehow, some sort of football would soon take place, not least so that some income could be generated and the employment of hundreds of people could become more secure. In this, especially below the top two levels, those who worked in football, in whatever capacity, were in the same boat as the rest of society.

One of the things we learnt during the pandemic was that the people who emptied our bins, stacked the shelves, drove the buses, worked at the pharmacy or delivered our post and parcels genuinely were those who kept us going. That’s even before we get to those who cared for the elderly, tended the sick, nursed the terminally ill and worked until they were emotionally and physically drained. The pages that follow acknowledge that even though we were all trying to come to terms with a world turned on its head, it was just about permissible to strive for those things we knew were trivial: we’re capable of carrying two ideas in our heads at once. We knew that it was possible to be respectful to those who had suffered while trying to grasp for some of the trifles that make life normal.

Footballers showed themselves as keen as anyone to demonstrate humility and a sense of perspective. Some went a great deal further than that. This book is written out of gratitude to the van driver as well as the star striker. Both remind us of what it is to be human.

We know Trump’s a lost cause – but the clever ones around him really should know better.

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany

There’s a useful maxim about making comparisons to the Nazis on social media posts. The moment such a correspondence is drawn, you can be pretty certain that whoever has made it has lost the argument. So, before I even approach such swampy territory, I’ll go back to a schoolboy memory – and one that has stuck with me stubbornly throughout life.

When I first learnt about the horrors of the Holocaust, I could scarcely comprehend the extent of human cruelty I was discovering. There is no hierarchy of horror, but one chilling element of the Nazis’ behaviour still haunts me. Once the notion of a final solution became government policy, the issue of how to arrange killing on an industrialised scale needed to be addressed. To put this into practice, the contribution of a range of experts was required.

The complicity of such people is alarming. Architects designed death camps. Engineers and accomplished administrators drew up unerringly accurate transport plans. Doctors devised means of mass murder and were complicit in unthinkable scientific and medical experimentation. Highly educated people, probably at the peak of their professional and academic powers, used their knowledge, experience and expertise to enable acts of unspeakable inhumanity. How could they have lived with the knowledge of what they were doing?

In some respects, the answer is straightforward. By the time the Nazi regime was fully installed, its apparatus had ensured that even for society’s comfortable professionals, membership of the party or, at the very least, unwavering acquiescence to its diktats, were matters of life and death. The exercising of professional judgement, never mind compliance with ethical or moral codes of practice, were no longer in the hands of individuals or their representative bodies. Whether or not the architect who had just drawn up plans for a gas chamber went home, slumped in his chair and put his head in his hands, or simply shrugged and told himself he was just doing his job, is immaterial. His choices in his newly normalised society had been eradicated.

Intelligent, well-read and highly qualified people, probably with refined and sophisticated tastes – but serving the needs of a monster and a monstrous system. Living with themselves must have been excruciating. Mustn’t it?

The shocking truth was that they were living in a society experiencing the strangulation of democracy. It didn’t happen overnight, but by the time it was a fact of life, it was too late to do much about it. In his poem about what fascism looks like, Michael Rosen warns that it won’t come in grotesque Nazi dress, it will ‘restore your honour/make you feel proud…..clean up the neighbourhood/remind you of how great you once were.’ It doesn’t start off by talking about curtailing liberties, generating disinformation and imprisoning people.

But that’s exactly what we face as we cringe behind our sofas and watch the villains facilitating the slow death of American democracy. There is a famous quotation from the 1930s, often attributed to Sinclair Lewis but actually the words of James Waterman Wise, suggesting that ‘when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.’ With Trump failing to confirm that he will honour the outcome of the forthcoming election, casting doubt on the validity of postal voting and, most disturbingly, failing to condemn the para-military groups already gearing up for election-day vigilantism, the alarm bells should be ringing.

Trump’s conduct during his period of illness has only confirmed that if there were a test for basic human decency, he would be an abject failure. But we knew that anyway. He is demonstrably a man incapable of dealing with anything but the simplest of ideas – and then only doing so one at a time. American immunologist Anthony Fauci recently spoke of the President’s attention span being ‘like a minus number.’  Our expectations of him simply could not be any lower. But around him are intelligent, accomplished individuals who must know better but whose tongues remain resolutely bitten.

There’s Dr Sean Conley. Decorated military veteran educated at the University of Notre Dame and then at a prestigious Philadelphia medical college. He clearly believes the spluttering president is ready to reinfect his adoring public and his increasingly nervous staff. There is New York University graduate Maria Bartiromo rantingly batting for the president when even Fox News wasn’t so sure he was doing the right thing. Of most concern, though, is Kayleigh McEnany, his press adviser. Harvard educated but incapable of admitting that her boss ever downplayed the importance of Covid 19, despite clear video evidence of his words playing in front of her eyes. ‘The President,’ she assures us, ‘has never lied to the American public on Covid.’

At the end of the day, does she kick off her shoes, pour a glass of something and congratulate herself on a job well done? Or does she fret, even for a moment, about her abdication of responsibility to the people her boss is supposed to serve? Another disputed quotation warns us that for evil to triumph, all that is required is for good people to do nothing. Both here in the UK and in the United States, there are people using their talent and ability to allow evil to flourish – to encourage it, even. If we stay silent and fail to call them out – and fail to support those who exercise their right to do so – we will have been complicit in disaster. The buffoons and clowns might hold the highest offices, but it’s those who have put their consciences to bed who need to shoulder the blame.

Debate didn’t ring your chimes? Relax. It could never happen here.

At the end of my last blogpost, I bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t find anything to lift the gloom cast by the daily news. And then, just as we all thought that we had peered at the floor of the abyss, we had the US Presidential debate.

Like most people, I’ve only seen snippets. That’s been enough, of course. Anyone compelled to endure the whole ninety minutes could be excused if they were still still taking deep breaths in a darkened room. If this had been two flatulent uncles frothing blindly at each other after too much Christmas sherry, it might even have been mildly amusing in its demeaning inevitability. It wasn’t. It was two men vying for one of the most powerful positions on the planet. Well, there were three of them, of course, given the presence of the ineffectual coat-holder flapping about as moderator. I don’t know if he got paid for his efforts; if he did, he should congratulate himself on pulling off the trick of getting wages for doing bugger all.

It’s tempting, of course, to exonerate Biden. Of the three old boys on show, he was the least culpable. That he allowed himself to lapse into occasional tit-for-tat has been blinked at by some as understandable in the face of Trump’s gross intemperance. I’m not so sure. First, he must have known what was coming: second, there are a few shrewd old operators around the world who’ll know how to prick a thin skin when they spot it if the time comes. Nevertheless, nobody could possibly make the case that it was anything other than Trump’s vile conduct and commentary which made this such a genuinely revolting spectacle.

In the days and memes since, I’ve seen a recurring response. The argument is that in the USA, where vulgarity, ignorance and over-consumption seem to so dominate public life, those Americans are getting what they deserve – and that maybe now they’ll come to their senses.  If they don’t, then they’re clearly a lost cause and they’re going to hell in a handcart. Even if we leave aside the inconvenient truth that in an interconnected world, the actions of a world superpower affect us all, another irritant remains. Deal or no Brexit deal, one of our own florid uncles will be sitting across the table from one of these septuagenarians and the outcome might affect the toxicity of your supper. These people are our bestest friends. Apparently.

Another reaction can only be summed up by the German term schadenfreude – the derivation of pleasure from the discomfiture of others. Thank goodness, we tell ourselves, that we have the class and style which prevents us from sliding into such unseemliness. Except that’s not exactly true, is it?

The post-Covid House of Commons has spared us the grim spectacle of grown men (it’s pretty gender specific) braying at each other, exchanging infantile, theatrical gestures as a substitute for measured debate. But for all this unedifying legacy of the prep-school playground, it’s unthinkable that we’d allow ourselves – the inheritors of one of the world’s most refined democracies – to be duped into electing buffoons, charlatans and just plain old dimwits into positions of the highest office. We’re far too vigilant and savvy for that. Possibly.

Because while we’ve all been wrestling with whatever today’s lockdown rulings might be, the sparkling business of the internal market bill is still exercising those members of the mother of parliaments who might still care. I appreciate how the very mention of this piece of legislation will have your blood running to fever point but bear with me – it’s important.

Should parliament decide to approve this bill, it would be doing two things. First, it would be reneging on an agreement about withdrawing from the EU that it passed less than nine months ago. Second, it would be breaking international law – and doing so in an entirely intentional and brazen way.  ‘Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way,’ Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told the Commons, but ‘in a certain very tightly defined circumstance.’ Oh, that’s OK then. We’re just breaking the law a bit.

Of all the outrageous bile spewed from Trump in recent weeks, the most alarming is the increasingly disturbing notion that he won’t accept the result of the election. Of course, we reassure ourselves, that could never happen because the law would sort it all out. Except that the law is not a constant. It reflects the morals, ethics and values of those who make it and in Trump’s America, the replacement of liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg with staunchly conservative Amy Coney Barrett could have drastic and lasting outcomes. One of these is that  the law could, indeed, back Trump in the event of a defeat.

But no need for us to worry. If there’s one thing we know about, it’s the sanctity of the law and its role in a democratic society. What’s more, we all make it our duty to keep an eye on the lawmakers, no matter how dull their deliberations seem to be. Don’t we? We can happily sit back and tut to our hearts’ content as Americans have to endure such miserable, degraded politics. It could never happen here.

Leave the door to reason open and in come the clowns.

Protecting freedoms in Trafalgar Square

As far as I can tell and see, most people are thoughtful and considerate. They wear masks in shops and try to maintain some physical distance.  Children are a bit lax about it all and young adults are getting fed up with not being able to go about doing the stuff they’re supposed to do. It’s a rotten, miserable time for millions of people, but most of us are trying to do our best. Apart, that is, from some complete numbskulls. I have no idea whether that’s now a cancelled, non-acceptable term, but it’s the one I’m sticking with.

Last Saturday, a few of them had an outing. They went to Trafalgar Square, linked arms, made a nuisance of themselves with exasperated coppers and proclaimed their independence of spirit. They refused to be afraid and, at the same time, reminded the rest of us that we have been duped, sheep-like, into accepting the hoaxes and lies foisted on us by the political elite. They were almost all male and white, with footage suggesting that a good number of them were fuelled by significant quantities of fizzy lager. At least this time no one decided it would further their cause by spraying the residue from this over a monument to a dead policeman.

One of things making them cross was the possibility of vaccination becoming mandatory. Let’s leave aside the minor inconvenience of there being no vaccine. Whatever happens, if it comes, these guys ain’t having it. In this they have a sturdy heroine and champion – Professor Dolores Cahill from University College, Dublin. Dolores was on the case with Covid back in May. The pandemic was being used by politicians and the media, she announced, ‘as a fearmongering propaganda tool to try and take away rights from people and to make them more sick and to force vaccinations on us.’ Dolores didn’t try to explain just why this unholy alliance of MPs and journo hacks wanted to make us all poorly, but her sun-blistered apostles lapped it all up.

What makes Dolores’ ramblings even more disturbing is that she’s not even up there with barmiest of the numbskulls. Look closely at the cardboard placards and you’ll see a smattering simply adorned with a large Q. No? Sit back, take a deep breath and, if possible, pour yourself something sustaining.

The Q represents QAnon which, you’ll be astonished to know, is a collection of ideas promulgated on the internet. This is what its followers believe – and I promise you I’m not making it up. A cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrat politicians, some Hollywood celebrities and a handful of billionaires (including Bill Gates, of course) run the world in a way which conceals their paedophilia, human-trafficking and the harvesting of life-extending chemicals from the blood of abused children. The champion who can prevent all of this from continuing – and I suspect you’ll be ahead of me here – is Donald Trump. He says of QAnon that they like him very much which, he says, he appreciates. If necessary, he explains, he’d be more than happy to help them ‘save the world’ from these cannibalistic paedophiles.

So here is where we find ourselves at the start of the third decade of the 21st century. Numbskulls on the street, ready to believe the oldest conspiracy theory of them all – the Jews steal the blood of children. And the leader of the free world thinks they’re a bunch of fine fellows indeed. There is a very good chance that this person will be re-elected – it’s difficult to imagine how Joe Biden will inspire the voter registration needed to prevent it – and that UK politicians will soon be sitting with him, trying to knit together the deals to sustain us in a post-Brexit world.  

Even allowing for the fact that, thank goodness, the anti-vaxxers remain on the edge of the fringes and that we don’t yet have our own QAnon (down, Nigel, down) these are alarming things for people to believe. But how surprising can it be when the mainstream politics they so despise has been so inadequate? Even as I’m writing, the rules about our social conduct – not yet, incidentally, deemed worth of parliamentary debate and scrutiny – are about to be changed. I consider myself well-informed and greatly engaged in public affairs, so I take no pride in admitting that if pressed on what the current restrictions are, I’m not sure I’d be 100% accurate. Like most people I know, I’m a touch baffled. And like everyone I know, I’m certain that I’ve been subject to too many promises and too few positive outcomes. World class test-and-trace, anybody? Moonshot? And now that I’ve eaten out to help out, is it me to blame because I stayed out later than 10 o’clock?

Nature abhors a vacuum. Into the space created by inefficiency, misplaced, bumptious optimism and bare-faced cronyism step the snake-oil salesmen. Who doesn’t want to hear that it’s a load of old nonsense? Who finds it hard to mistrust authority so clumsily wielded? In the dark, who doesn’t want to listen to comforting tales of lost worlds? Keep an eye on the clowns in Trafalgar Square, but a closer one still on the reason they’re there – the other collection of numbskulls just up the road, sitting on their hands round Johnson’s cabinet table.

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Sorry that it’s proving so difficult to find something light-hearted to poke fun at. If you’re a football fan, you may find my latest book diverting. There’s a taster here.

One more item on the Johnson charge sheet: pathetic cowardice

Johnson 2

I started my teaching career in 1976 when the entire world was in black-and-white. Since that time there have been 17 ministers for education of varying quality and ability. Some have vanished into the mists of time without ever really troubling the scorers – Damian Hinds and Gillian Shephard, anyone? Others have done enough to make themselves recognizable to the wider public; Blunkett, Balls and Alan Johnson. One of them – just the one, mind – had actually been a teacher, Estelle Morris and one was Michael Gove. We’ll come back to him in a minute.

In a way, you should be able to judge the performance of these ministers in the same way that football fans think about referees: if you don’t notice them, they’re probably having a decent game. To be honest, until a few weeks ago, if that had been the sole criterion, then the current incumbent, Gavin Williamson, might be basking in the glory of a successful career. Not now. The utter, unspeakable fiasco of the exam results means that somehow, this grey nonentity may have gained just enough notoriety to get himself picked out in an identity parade.

Which is possibly where he should be anyway. Just over a year ago, Theresa May (c’mon, of course you remember who she is) sacked him from his role as defence secretary, believing that there was compelling evidence that he had leaked details of a confidential security meeting about allowing Huawei to develop its 5G network in the UK. The fact is that May was probably having her doubts about Gavin’s grasp of geopolitical issues once he had expressed the view that relationships with Russia would be improved if Putin would ‘just shut up and go away.’ Anyway, whether or not he was the leaker, his adherence to the creed of Brexit meant that Boris Johnson awarded him with the education post. Honest Gavin picked up the job and the salary, even though for a while, he may have been pocketing both his payoff from his sacking as well as his meagre weekly wage.

Like everyone else in that array of talent which is Johnson’s cabinet, Gav was dealt a bad hand when the pandemic came along. When schools closed at the end of March, it was the proper thing to do. But it’s an ill wind that blows no good for somebody and so at least he had plenty of time to contemplate how the difficult issue of examination results, due out in five months’ time, could be handled. That’s nearly half a year. To do one of the basics of your job. One of the predictable, certain, immoveable facets of your job.

All of which has resulted in just one question on the lips of anyone even remotely interested: how come he hasn’t been sacked (again)? You don’t have to be Nostradamus to work out why. Next week, children will be going back to school and, for the main part, that’s what everyone wants. But there will be problems. Infection will spread, some form of local lockdowns may well be necessary and plans and arrangements will have to be put in place when this happens. The government’s track record of the last few weeks (and I apologise for invoking the notion of tracking, so obviously beyond the competence of another of Johnson’s buddies, Matt Hancock) tells us that this will be badly handled. If I were Gavin, I wouldn’t be planning on any office renovations. The execution that should have come during results’ week is just pending until back-to-school hits the buffers and a fall-guy will be needed.

In the meantime, in an act of spectacular, cringing cowardice, the only P45 issued from number 10 (assuming Johnson isn’t on another of his rolling holidays) has been to the chief civil servant at the Department of Education (DfE), Jonathan Slater. Not the high-profile (if temporary) minister: a paid functionary of the state. Let’s be clear. This government harbours deep-seated, visceral hatred and mistrust towards civil servants. The witchfinder general in this regard is the free-spirit that is Dominic Cummings – the cuckoo introduced to the DFE nest by Michael Gove and who has stayed on to burrow his way into the ear of those in the cabinet, most of whom he openly despises. In his impenetrable blog posts, Cummings defines himself as an iconoclast, sweeping away the fossilised thinking of unelected (yes, really) mandarins. The truth behind this cavalier nonsense, dressed up as refreshing modernity, is bland and prosaic.

Civil servants deal with detail. If this decision is made, what are the knock-on effects elsewhere? If this policy is implemented, how much will it really cost? Can we predict lasting benefits from this pronouncement, or will effects be short-lived? Boring, dull, pesky, obstructive, necessary detail. Now, if there’s one thing we know about Boris Johnson, it’s that he’s big on optimism and bluster but when it comes to the nitty-gritty, even his most loyal advocates can’t pretend that it’s his cup of tea. So when Dom whispers to him that he can be rid of these restricting pen-pushers at a stroke, he sighs with happy relief. Off he goes to baffle kids with some bumble about mutant algorithms and sacks the bloke who might just have the knowledge and expertise to stop it happening again.

A few days ago, the Prime Minister invoked the notion of ‘moral duty’ when it came to parents sending their children back to school. This blog post is too short to list the multi-dimensional litany of Boris Johnson’s moral failures, but if I were looking for guidance on how to live my life the right way, my first port of a call would not be at the door of a weak, cringing coward.

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You’ll have noticed the football reference in this piece. If you’re a proper fan, or if you know one, have a look at my new book about being a football supporter. Almost, but not quite, politics-free!

 

 

Failed your exam, minister? You should have listened to the teacher.

schoolroom

I suspect I’m not the only wizened old schoolteacher who has spent most of this week with my head in my hands. This most fearful of fiascos about exam results, with our young people buffeted about in the centre of it all, is the most shocking of indictments of the actions of our political leaders – and, my goodness, it’s not as if they haven’t got an already impressive playlist on display.

Indulge me while I tell you a story of times past: its intention is to illuminate, not to wallow in meaningless nostalgia.

As a schoolteacher, I always used to like results’ day – until the late 90s, anyway. That was a time before the elevation of a few test results to numerical information of national importance. I’d stroll into school – ‘look, Sir’s wearing shorts’ – where there’d be kids milling around comparing bits of paper and either smiling or shrugging. I’d congratulate or commiserate accordingly. I wasn’t usually surprised by the outcome, although there would always be an occasional shock one way or another. We’d maybe talk retakes, staying on at school or not, or possibly different sixth-form or career choices. But here’s the thing, and I want you to read this very, very carefully. In four decades’ worth of going into school on results’ day, I never witnessed one incident of a child’s life-chances being damaged beyond repair.

I saw plans change and sometimes I saw reality-checks being administered. I saw sympathetic, professional behaviour from colleagues and equally mature acceptance of disappointment from teenagers. What was never contemplated in any serious way until the turn of the century was the possibility of appeals or remarks. Understanding this cultural shift is central to understanding what went on this week, even given the most extraordinary and unwelcome circumstances in which this set of results has had to be concocted.

The introduction of school league tables, first by the Tories but developed with glee by new Labour, made test and exam results the most highly valued currency of education. These were the blunt instrument by which schools could be ranked, judged and, most importantly, funded. The tables were then backed up by a punitive inspection regime, Ofsted, that applied equally unrefined measures of assessment about a school’s worth. All of this information then went into the public domain so that those who could do so were able to make a choice about where they sent their kids to school. Want to guess who those people were? Here’s some clues: they weren’t black and they weren’t rich and they didn’t live in areas of social advantage.

Results have now become the driving force in schools. Standardised results of standardised tests sat by all children of a certain age at the same time. And that’s because, as all parents and teachers know, all children develop at exactly the same rate and in exactly the same ways ……..no?

Over one hundred years’ worth of knowledge and research about how children learn and develop has been thrown out of the window so that the most revered of riches in the modern world – data – can be gleaned from our schools. The outcome? Teaching to the test in a reduced, narrow curriculum becomes the order of the day. Teachers’ knowledge about the subjects they love, the children they know and their potential for development, become secondary to the crude grades that now define the complex business of educating people.

I think I may be able to detect some wailing out there, so before you run away with the idea that people like me spent our entire teaching careers getting kids to weave their own yoghurt while finding their inner selves, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. In the weeks running up to exam time, we coached, cajoled and rehearsed so that students would squeeze every last mark out of every last question. But that all started in those few weeks in the final run-up – not on day one of the process. Prior to exam season, we took charge, proudly, of what went on the classroom and left tests to take care of themselves at the end of it. You’ll be unsurprised to know, I hope, that our grade predictions were usually pretty well spot-on. (And I’m not suggesting, incidentally, that there aren’t thousands of teachers still doing the same thing).

All of which is by way of asking why shouldn’t we trust teachers to give an accurate assessment of how a young person is getting on? Would it really be beyond our wit and wisdom in a world turned upside down, where the future remains cloudy and a touch foreboding, to be a bit quicker on our feet? We could scrap the league tables and data that so divert and corrupt the learning process and say to employers and universities – who aren’t exactly living in a land of certainty themselves – that in a troubled, difficult time, this is the best professional judgment we can offer of how well a young person is getting on.

Well, I’ll tell you why Gavin Williamson and his string-pullers won’t allow that. Because to do so would be to undermine the whole apparatus of scrutiny, judgement and datafication of schools on which their meagre, measly view of the purpose of education is founded. What’s more, it would hand genuine power and responsibility to the people charged, on a daily basis, with fostering teaching and learning. If we’ve learnt one thing from this collection of dimwits and incompetents, trusting people who know stuff is the last thing they think of doing. There’s a lesson there for someone.

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Regular readers will know that I’ve been diverted in the last few weeks. I’ve been promoting my latest book about football and writing another! So – if you’re interested in football (or maybe even if you’re not) follow the links to have a look.

A brief intermission……

Normal service will soon be resumed, but for a few weeks, I’ll be concentrating on the more trivial area of my writing – football. It doesn’t mean that, like all of us, I’m any more satisfied with this lazy, deceitful government and its handling of the pandemic….I’m just taking a temporary break while I promote Hugging Strangers and continue to work on another book about football and Covid.

Hugging Strangers is out on 27th July and available from all bookselling outlets. Some of you have been complimentary about my style (and some not, of course) so even if you’re not a football fan, you may like it. I hope so! I’ll be back with the politics soon.

Hugging Strangers