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

Starmer’s Peake performance: lame not brave.

starmer takes a knee

Sir Kier takes a knee.

Here’s one I hear often: ‘Why are you people (that’s the term usually used) so insistent on holding Israel to higher account than other regimes?’ The ‘you people’ are left-wing activists and I include myself in their number. It might even be a half-decent argument, but it suffers from one significant deficiency. It’s not true.

A great many people work tirelessly to bring injustices around the world to the attention of those who may not be aware of them. Many of them are in the Labour Party or a plethora of left-leaning or charitable groups. Some operate in faith-based circles and many cross-fertilise their activities with the big issues of climate change and anti-racism. The most cursory of researches on social media will reveal campaigns calling out atrocity and inequality from Kashmir to the Rohingyas in Myanmar to the Uighurs in China. Support – real, practical support – for refugees from oppressive regimes is central to the outlook of practically all ‘these people’. For the avoidance of doubt, none that I have met have held any illusions about communist Russia or China for at least the last forty years.

And now I’ll try to be as clear and careful as possible. There is no Zionist Conspiracy. Jewish bankers do not run the world. There are, though, many Jewish people exercising a degree of influence in large parts of public life from the arts to politics to business in the UK and many of them – but, crucially, by no means all – feel affronted by criticism of Israel and its actions. I’ll surprise you: I know how they feel.

Followers of this blog will have heard most of this before and so can skip on if they wish. In many ways I, too, have become weary of having to trot out this defensive rejoinder, but needs must…..

….I was brought up in a household that sported a collecting tin for the State of Israel on the kitchen shelf. My grandparents had escaped the Russian pogroms at the start of last century and my father escaped the Nazis in Vienna by the skin of his teeth. I went to a Jewish primary school in Balsall Heath in Birmingham where it was not unknown to trade punches with the yid-haters from Hope Street School on the way home. As one of a handful of Jewish boys in a large grammar school I learnt quickly to stand my ground verbally and physically. I know what antisemitism looks like, thanks.

Coming from such a background, it was inevitable that I was proud of Israel and all that it accomplished in the face of adversity and historical injustice. An insult to the country was an insult to Jews. Simple.

And then I got interested in politics. A school project. Readers of a certain age will remember them. As a seasoned teacher, I think of them as the FOFO method – the second FO standing for ‘find out’. Go away and get interested in current affairs. For reasons I can’t recall, I chose apartheid and I haven’t looked back since. I was incensed, as only a self-regarding 14-year-old can be, by such injustice and inhumanity. During the half century of finding out that followed, my reading, study and activism revealed that imperialism, oppression and the subjugation of people in their homelands were stitched into the fabric of the abuse of power throughout the world. To my anger and disappointment, I realised that the Israeli state was up there with some of the major culprits.

Even making such a comment has become provocatively beyond the pale. We have reached the point in our political discourse about Israel’s actions where critical comment can be shut down by the instant accusation of anti-Semitic intent. Quite why this happens is dealt with in this article written prior to the general election and this slightly older piece which has been read over 15,000 times. If you can’t be bothered to follow the links, here’s the very potted version: faced with the prospect of a left-leaning government sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the Tories and the right-wing of the Labour Party found the effective, if  volatile, instrument of rash accusations of racism and antisemitism to be flung at their political foes. Argument closed; debate stifled.

All of which brings us to this week’s ugly chest-thumping from the leader of the Labour Party. A leading actress and high-profile Labour supporter is interviewed by a newspaper and suggests, incorrectly, that the technique used to execute George Floyd was learnt by the US police from the Israeli security forces. Just to be clear, the knee restraint is a technique used by these forces, as it is by their counterparts around the world. Nevertheless, the accusation that it was specifically learnt from Israel is untrue. The newspaper made that immediately clear in a prominent footnote and the actress herself apologised for her error. In the meantime, a shadow-cabinet member takes to Twitter (heaven help us all) to utter some gushing praise for the committed, if slightly careless, actress.

Her summary sacking elicits praise from every quarter. In a week when the Tories and their chums show that they still think it’s OK to tickle each other’s business prospects under the dinner table, this, we are told, is what decisive leadership looks like. What’s that you say? The individual concerned has impeccable credentials as a campaigner for social justice and is a committed anti-racist? I think you’ll find that it’s unwise for any new leader, desperate to make his mark, to pass up the opportunity of such a grand, masterful gesture.

Starmer’s actions have the intent, and possibly the effect, of closing down any discussion about the actions of the State of Israel within the Labour Party. In a telling current development, the Party is working vigorously to oppose the government’s ill-judged intention to shut down the Department for International Development. At its best, the Labour Party looks to address injustice, inequality and oppression throughout the world. It is a party with its roots (albeit forgotten by some) in collective action and representation. These traditions dictate that it should refuse to be silent in the face of injustice and inequality. Why hold anyone to lower, or higher, account?

 

Scrabbling to catch up? What a failure of our imagination.

Greasy pole

Somewhere along the line, I must have missed something.

It now appears that members of the Tory government lie awake at night fretting about the educational disadvantage suffered by thousands of schoolchildren. Who’d have thought it, what with them pouring the wealth of one of the richest nations of the world into schools with such reckless abandon for so long?

Maybe we ought to cut them some slack in these troubled times and allow ourselves to treat this concern in good faith. Let’s put aside their inbuilt, hard-wired refusal to listen to people who actually know stuff and concede that their arbitrary target for opening schools (they just love a target) was bred of genuine anxiety about children’s welfare. Even if we exercise such grace, it’s hard to take them seriously.

Children, they tell us, will need to ‘catch up’. Catch up to what? Catch up with whom? Catch up for what purpose? What’s the race – and what time is the cut-off point for stragglers?

This notion that education is a linear process with milestones firmly embedded along the way, the missing of which constitutes dangerous failure, is as ridiculous as it is outdated. In a post-pandemic world, it is genuinely absurd. Let me give you two examples of what I mean.

The TV coverage of the current attempt to return to school always shows the same thing. The camera pans across a sparse classroom to show desks, sometimes occupied by children, carefully spaced at governmentally -approved distances. Sometimes there’s a teacher doing her stuff at the front. There’s a problem here.

In the current circumstances, and especially at this time of year, the very last place children need to be in order to be educated is at a desk. Just in case we hadn’t noticed, the world around them has just been turned upside down. They need to talk, play, be outside, read, write and draw…..and to be fair to many teachers, I know this is exactly what they’re doing, despite the camera-shot cliché. It may not look like proper catching-up ‘work’ but anyone who knows anything about pedagogy and child development will tell you otherwise.

Then we have the unease about exam results: how are we going to manage without them? Will children get what they deserve? Can we trust teachers to give accurate assessments? Well, that last one’s a very interesting question.

Broadly speaking, when we ask physicians for an assessment of our condition, we trust that we’ll get a judgement given in good faith. And why on earth would that physician want, or need, to fiddle about with that result? Does s/he require a particular number of recoveries from athletes’ foot to be tabulated, registered and placed in public league tables? Will the reputation of that practice, possibly in a deprived, challenged location, be under scrutiny? Will the funding allocated to it be under threat? For schools and teachers, these ridiculous questions loom daily over their professional existence.

We need the grades to get the reputation to get the numbers to get the Ofsted report to get the pay rise to get the promotion to ensure our survival and put a banner outside to tell everyone how well we’ve done. So, kids, sit down, face the front, get your head down and get me and the school yourself the best grades you can.

It may be an old-fashioned idea, but if we removed the outdated, ridiculous notion of all children developing in the same ways and at the same time – and then judging schools by how well they conform to this rigid framework – we might just allow ourselves to trust the judgments of those people trained to teach our young people. All it requires is some genuine planning, forethought and imagination…….and I’ll know you’ll be ahead of me here, these are qualities that have been in tragically short supply in our current rulers.

You know times have changed when you feel yourself nodding along while listening to your old enemies. Twenty-five years ago, David Blunkett, before he became the minister for education, accused me and some of my friends of locking him and his guide dog in a cupboard. As colourful a story as this was, it wasn’t true, but it was an illustration of the deep-seated distrust between him and the teaching profession. This animosity has clearly not receded on his part. In recent weeks he has lined up with the Tory press to condemn ‘militant teacher unions’ for blocking the return to schools. But speaking on the radio this week, he got one thing absolutely spot on – we are approaching this important question devoid of energy, vision and….that word again – imagination.

As far as Blunkett is concerned, this extends to the use of dormant office spaces and the recruitment of retired professionals – both of which are perfectly reasonable suggestions. He talks of split-shifts, maybe even reconsidering the holy-writ of teaching solely in year groups. If we can knock up Nightingale Hospitals, why not the schools’ equivalent?

To be clear, I still don’t agree with all he says and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t take the leap and accept that teacher assessments could be superior to set examinations. But at least he emphasised the notion that we can’t saddle ourselves with the idea that all we’re accustomed to is how things need to be in the future. As with so many aspects of our lives, we’ve been given a breathing space to envisage ways of doing things that are liberated from entrenched practice which fails to work for the majority.

Here’s an idea. Maybe ask the people who know about children and how they learn and develop and then act on their knowledge and experience. It may be a first but we might even give ourselves a chance of catching up with whatever it is we’ve not yet reached.

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You can pick up my two books about how things in school could be very different – Teachers Undefeated and Putting the Test in its Place – for a few pence if you buy used paperback versions!!

 

 

 

How guilty is Cummings? Let Gogglebox decide.

old tv

Everyone has their favourites. Mine are the Siddiquis followed closely by Ellie and Izzie. I don’t much care for Giles and Mary.

Not with me? If that’s the case, you’re missing out on one of the most unlikely of guilty pleasures available at present – Gogglebox on Channel 4. The premise is quite preposterous and judged by any rational measure, the programme should be a hopeless non-starter. We, as viewers, are invited to watch people watching telly. It shouldn’t work at any level, but for a variety of reasons, it’s compelling stuff.

We forgive an obvious tendency on the part of some participants to play to the camera. In the same spirit, we allow editorial decisions – in particular the manipulative use of close-ups – not to tarnish our enjoyment of moments that are obviously spontaneous and authentic. I’m not familiar with all of the programmes which prompt their reactions, but it’s immaterial. The mixture of sadness, horror, anxiety and unbridled joy shown by our fellow couch-slumpers present us with an uplifting picture of humanity. During the groundhoggery of lockdown, it almost counts as a public service.

The programme’s editors have been bold in their decision making. Among the game-shows, dramas and soaps on offer, they have chosen to include news bulletins, current-affairs interviews and government briefings. Goodness only knows how senior cabinet officials currently spend their time; much of it seems to be deployed in socially distancing themselves from expert opinion. But in the unlikely event of them using their downtime to catch up on some light entertainment, settling down to Gogglebox would be an uncomfortable option.

Boris Johnson’s now infamous Sunday night word salad to the nation spawned an avalanche of brilliant parodies within hours of its wooden delivery. Many of us gleefully swapped memes and gifs, even in the knowledge that joking about life and death issues might not be the most grown-up of responses. But just when we thought we may have squeezed the last drop out of the Prime Minister’s ham-fisted attempt at gravitas, Gogglebox came along to reignite the hilarity. A simple internet search locates dozens of clips, all of which capture the mixture of bemusement, amusement and, ultimately, laughing contempt with which the viewers greeted this babbling mess of a message.

In this instance, as well as others which touch on the pandemic, a deep-seated lack of trust towards those in power is palpable. In an echo of a conversation that must take place in a million households, there is recognition that no government could have been expected to get everything right – but quite how and why we’ve made such a mess of it is beyond us all. As Umar Siddiqui says to his brother when talking of Johnson’s debacle: ‘no rationality or scientific advice was used in this announcement.’ It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that it takes a participant in a daft TV show to speak for us all – and that as well as being utterly furious, we allow ourselves to laugh along.

The disdain with which Johnson and his pompous gang treat the British public becomes more evident every day. Some days we do international comparisons, others we don’t; some days we count all the deaths, others we don’t; wear a mask, don’t wear a mask but do so on the bus that we don’t really think you should catch on your way to work if you really are going to insist on feeding yourself and your family. Is that a park you’re sitting in when talking to your mother (who you like more than your father) or is it a garden? It must be a garden and you must be the maid. Allow me to shake your hand.

And now we find that Johnson’s chief, unelected placeman, answerable to nobody but the Prime Minister himself, has blatantly broken some of the fundamental rules of lockdown. Fortunately, just like Professor Neil Ferguson, Dominic Cummings has immediately held up his hand, admitted his misdemeanour and resigned from office. Have I got that wrong? What’s that you say? He’s dug his heels in and admitted nothing? Johnson and his office have remained resolutely silent about the matter? Michael Gove has expressed his support? Maybe, unlike Ferguson, his skills, knowledge and expertise are so vital to the government that some kind of exception has to be made? That’s must be the reason.

Or maybe the explanation lies in a culture and set of behaviours that lead those in high office – elected or otherwise – to go through life firmly believing that there is one set of rules for them and another for those who are clearly too stupid and lazy to be part of their privileged coterie. Maybe the arrogance bred in the public schools and Oxford colleges that so coddled them in their formative years really does allow them to think that the swinish multitude couldn’t possibly be capable of working out much for themselves.

We are living through a period when opportunities for political resistance are limited. Those of us who have spent lifetimes plotting in dusty meeting rooms are all going through a sort of enforced political furlough. Zoom meetings are all well and good, but the organised resistance and campaigning that is required to expose this collection of liars and incompetents is partially on hold. So, in the meantime, let’s just allow ourselves the luxury of getting the Siddiquis, Ellie and Izzie – even Giles and Mary – to speak up for us. Pass the popcorn.

Back to school? Certainly – once we’ve shown young people how to address detail.

class cartoon

In September 1976 I started my first teaching job. I taught in state comprehensives for the next 28 years and have now spent a further 16 training teachers or working with them on their research into teaching and learning. I share this potted CV simply because a few people who respond to this blog tell me – as is their inalienable right – that on a whole range of issues I don’t know what I’m talking about. They’re entitled to their opinion, but on this one, I’m digging my heels in.

There are two enduring and insoluble problems about being a teacher. The first – and, again, I’m not complaining, just stating a fact – is that everyone has an opinion about how you should be doing your job. We’ve all been to school, we’ve all seen teachers in action at first hand, so we’re all perfectly justified in expressing our view about how well or badly they perform. I had a teacher friend who claimed that when asked about his occupation at social gatherings, replied that he was a cobbler, so fed up had he become with telling the truth and then being harangued about how hopeless his chosen profession was. I never saw this in action, but I know how he felt.

The second problem is the bar-room bombast about 13 weeks of holiday and six-hour days. My firm advice to new teachers when first faced with this is simply not to engage. Anyone who knows any teachers would never come out with such guff but, if absolutely necessary, simply point out that there is an ongoing shortage of teachers and so living this cushy life is just a simple training course away. On a topical note, there will be plenty of locked-down adults who might just have had these particular scales lifted from their eyes.

I turn to the topic of teachers because we’re going to be at the centre of an increasingly bitter political debate over the next few weeks. The return of young people to their schools and colleges is now a signifier of the highest order. It would represent a massive indication of a some sort of normality; it would be a catalyst for the resumption of much economic activity; we could start the job of addressing the obvious gaps in opportunity for young people for which, apparently, this government has discovered a new-found enthusiasm. Everyone wants to see schools opening.

Given that this is the case, the dispiriting headlines from some (not all) of the right-wing press tell an alarming story. The Daily Telegraph has led the way, talking of how ‘teachers are playing politics with our children’s lives’ and of ‘teacher unions…fighting to keep students out of the classroom’. Quite why this journal is leading the way in this old-fashioned bashing of teachers and their unions – especially at a time when the nation adores its newly recognised key workers – requires some explanation.

Teachers and their excellent representatives have made five clear demands that need to be met before schools can open. The number of cases need to be lower; this, in its turn, demands more testing; protocols for social distancing need to be firmly in place; vulnerable staff need to be protected and an action plan must be ready if infection is discovered. Simple, unambiguous and important measures requiring close attention to detail – something in woefully short supply in government circles. We’ve heard a good deal about modelling lately; what teachers and their unions are doing, as befits educators, is demonstrating what planning for a range of eventualities looks like. Fortunately, most parents, children and members of the public understand and appreciate this.

So why this irritable stance from the Telegraph and a handful of others? The answer lies in our hazy vision of what society will look like once the virus is under some sort of control.

An idea now cherished by millions of people is that we must emerge from this as a better society – one that is not constantly striving for growth and profit at all times and at all costs. There is universal recognition that the way in which the virus has struck has exposed gaping inequalities in society that we must address. The understanding that communities act best when they act together plays out in thousands of acts of unprompted kindness every day. We have learned that we can change our behaviour in radical ways and that our lives need not come to a juddering stop. Millions of us want to be in a re-ordered world that is more humane and more compassionate. A society where need, rather than greed, is the driver.

Even the most hardened Telegraph readers might find it hard to take umbrage at this vision, but what they understand in the depths of their collective soul is that this can only happen if we change our current models of leadership and power. Do we want people listening to well-informed trade union leaders or hard-headed men of business? Should the loudest voice in the room be the climate change activist or the oil magnate – the doler out of dividends? The inquisitive scientist or the communications guru? What’s the final choice to be – people or profit? ‘Our’ people or ‘theirs’?

The website of the National Education Union (NEU) was in overdrive this week. Thousands of teachers joined as they understood that here was an organisation that was working hard to protect the interests of everyone involved in protecting the education and welfare of our children. It’s little wonder that the little paper of little Britain felt its blood run cold and stiffened its sinews to ask, ‘who do these people think they are?’

Those of us who have spent a lifetime in education can provide an answer. These people don’t think, they know that they’re the ones who deal with young people who, just in case it’s passed anyone by, are funny, clever, frustrating and entirely unpredictable. They’re the people who know that children learn at different rates and in different ways. They’re the people who know that, above else – and even if they never show it – young people want their adults to be clear, certain and confident in their dealings with them.

We can expect more right-wing spitefulness in the weeks to come. But the more workers and their representative organisations follow the lead of the NEU and demand specific and detailed responses to their questions, the less likely we will be to be treated to the shower of incomprehensible bluster that so bemused the nation last Sunday evening. It’d be a good lesson to teach the government.