Friday, 31 August 2007
Thursday, 30 August 2007
Wednesday, 29 August 2007
Tuesday, 28 August 2007
Saturday, 25 August 2007
Friday, 24 August 2007
Thursday, 23 August 2007
"It is notable how often a critic of university expansion is still keen for his or her own children to go there, while a vocational qualification is viewed as an excellent option for someone else's children. It is patronising, in that you really can't tell, just by reading a course title, whether it is any good or not, and whether it will be of any intellectual or financial benefit to the student.....Of course there are mistakes, and of course there are a great many students who drop out, get depressed, or feel they have done the wrong thing with their lives. But the final judge of the value of a degree is the market, and in spite of all the expansion it is still the case that university graduates have a big salary premium over non-graduates. The market is working more efficiently now that students have a direct financial stake in the matter, a financial risk, and an incentive not to waste their time on a course that no employer will value.
We can laugh at degrees in Aromatherapy and Equine Science, but they are just as vocational as degrees in Law or Medicine, except that they are tailored to the enormous expansion of the service economy. It is rubbish to claim that these odd-sounding courses are somehow devaluing the Great British Degree. Everyone knows that a First Class degree in Physics from Cambridge is not the same as a First in Equine Management from the University of Lincoln, and the real scandal is that they both cost the student the same."
So, on this occasion, I have to say, I agree with Boris. Is this the first sign of another big Tory u-turn in favour of university expansion?
Wednesday, 22 August 2007
One might be more sympathetic to the Tories' plight if they hadn't started becoming fast and loose with education statistics too. Today they claim that the proportion of students who get five good GCSEs in core subjects us 'in long-term decline'. The only way they achieve this ludicrous claim is by including a foreign language in the equation. If you take English, Maths and Science, and any combination of those subjects, the proportion with good grades has risen significantly since 1997 - for example 29% more pupils get five good GCSEs including English and Maths as did so when the Tories left office - as have the total numbers gaining five good GCSEs. One can argue about the merits or otherwise of French or German, but the failure of many who get otherwise good GCSEs to get a C grade in one of those subjects reflects the declining popularity of those languages in a country which speaks an increasingly universal language, not a decline in core subjects generally.
Monday, 20 August 2007
UPDATE: I have been contacted by a diligent QCA press officer who points out that GCSEs can currently be either unitised or linear (this has been the case since 2001). "We have to renew the exam criteria every 8 years or so, and we are asking what people think of unitisation," he says. He also points out that awarding bodies almost always offer GCSEs as linear (final exam) qualifications, even though they could offer unitised versions if they wanted to. So here's hoping they still will in the future.
Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Saturday, 11 August 2007
Friday, 10 August 2007
"It took some of our farmers less than 24 hours after the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) last week to demand an immediate and comprehensive culling 0f Britain’s ramblers, dogs, badgers, Defra vets, tourists, van drivers, biochemists, etc etc. It is not enough that we should subsidise our farmers once over; when misfortune occurs we should then further compensate them — and suffer in silence as they demand that footpaths be closed, wildlife exterminated and so on. They have not yet gathered, or do not care, that the meat industry is of minuscule importance to the economy compared to the tourism and leisure sectors; still less that the land upon which they rear their cattle is heavily supported by the taxpayer......
The last FMD outbreak, back in 2001, ended up costing us (rather than the farmers) some £8 billion, excluding revenues lost through damage to our tourism industry.... Did any farmer end up out of business or even out of pocket after the 2001 debacle — a debacle, it is worth reiterating, that was brought on [by] farmers, er, farmers?"
Thursday, 9 August 2007
Wednesday, 8 August 2007
Tuesday, 7 August 2007
However in sunny Turkey, I did enjoy uber-Democratic strategist Robert Shrum's slightly self-serving and presumably ironically titled autobiography, No Excuses, which though sadly light on his engagement in British, Irish and Israeli elections, is full of great anecdotes about his time alongside doomed campaigns from George McGovern through Ted Kennedy to Al Gore, involvement said by waspish Washington insiders to attract 'the curse of Shrum'. Yet given Bob Shrum's close relationship with Gordon Brown his book has a wider interest. And to be fair to Shrum, he masterminded numerous back-from-the-dead campaigns for senators, governors and congressmen and women. And his story is laced with delightful anecdotes, some told against himself. He fell out badly both with Jimmy Carter (whom he clearly loathes) not least as Kennedy's adviser and Bill Clinton (who still used his services to write State of the Union speeches), the latter after being overheard by a mate of Hillary's retailing gossip about the then candidate Clinton's women problems, in a DC diner. Political junkies will enjoy this book.
I caught up too with Peter Hennessy's engaging romp through the 1950s, Having it So Good, now in paperback. Hennessy takes us from the austerity of Labour's last year in government to Harold McMillan's 'never had it so good' enthusiasm for public spending. Hennessy's story is laced with engaging detail, not least on the Suez crisis, but perhaps more interestingly on the social and economic dilemmas facing the Conservative governments of the time. His fondness for cabinet papers and ministerial correspondence produces a crop of far livelier debate than might be imagined. We are reminded of how, for example, McMillan started a two month Commonwealth tour a day after his Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft and his junior ministers (including Enoch Powell) resigned in protest at a failure to implement some token spending cuts. Hennessy takes us through the 'winds of change' that led to independence for many African states, starting with Ghana fifty years ago. But intriguingly we also learn that Supermac considered joining Labour in the 1930s, but was supposedly dissuaded by Nye Bevan. Hennessy's book is a joy from start to finish: if only all history books were this good.
I also greatly enjoyed reading Andrew O'Hagan's tale of an English Catholic priest losing his way in a small Scottish parish, Be Near Me. O'Hagan writes beautifully, and has a great eye for detail. Ian McEwan's short taut tale of early 60s sexual frustration and fear, set in a Dorset coastal hotel on Edward and Florence's wedding night, On Chesil Beach, is a rewarding read. More extended short story than novel, it confirms McEwan's stature as one of our great novelists. Having found it second-hand recently, I re-entered a seedy and forbidding Dublin of drink, violence, dodgy politicians and despair over unemployment in the late eighties before the Celtic Tiger started to roar, in Dermot Bolger's gripping The Journey Home. Less impressive to my mind was the second novel by Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, whose tale of Islamicist terror and itchy IRA veterans Secret Asset ought to shout authenticity, but when the former spy chief thinks Dublin's main thoroughfare is called Connolly Street, it reads more like a particularly poor episode of Spooks. But for sheer pleasure and wonderful characters, I had to turn finally to Mma Ramotswe's Botswanese detective agency in one of her latest gentle adventures from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith. The plot of Blue Shoes and Happiness - a case of blackmail and a cook, and some mysterious happenings in the bush - is merely a sideshow in the sheer escapist ecstasy of being in the hands of a Master.
Monday, 6 August 2007
Nearby it is an extraordinary sensation clambering across the region's lunar landscape amidst remarkable sculptures of nature in what locals call Imagination Valley or looking down at the peribicalar or fairy chimneys near Urgup. We didn't see all that this fascinating region had to offer but did enjoy staying in the truly wonderful Yunak Evleri cave hotel which offers breakfast and dinner with one of the most breathtaking views imaginable (though you do need to smoke out the morning wasps). Particularly good for food is the nearby Dimrit restaurant, where we had a splendid dinner before taking in the mesmerising Islamic dances of the whirling dervishes.
We had flown on the efficient Sun Express from Izmir to Kayseri, having spent ten days in the seaside town of Foca, or ancient Phokaia, where we were well looked after at the Focantique, a self-styled boutique hotel on the seafront. A day trip to Ephesus arranged by the hotel with private driver enabled us to see the well-preserved classical city and its splendid 25,000-seater Great Theatre together with Mary's House and St John's Basilica at a more leisurely pace than a coach trip, a blessing in what turned out to be 44C heat. Foca is a sleepy sort of place in many ways, but popular with Izmir families and boasts well over a dozen restaurants, many of them serving splendid fish as well as kebabs along the harbour front. The town has plenty of daytrips to visit the Siren rocks and pass an island said to resemble the great Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk when viewed from the correct angle. Although there is a small and very busy town beach, the best place to enjoy the seaside is at the nearby Hanedan resort - involving a YTL1,50 dolmus - minibus - ride and a YTL10 admission charge for non-residents, which includes umbrellas generous enough to give proper shade to two. There are excellent beach cafes, with a tented traditional version offering fresh pancakes and spa treatments available in the hotel. Izmir is served from London by Sun Express and Thomas Cook Airlines. Restaurants we particularly liked were the Zeytin near our hotel; the Fokai, slightly hidden high above the yachts and boats in the main harbour; and for fish, the Mozaic Balik. The town also boasts a small hammam with efficient scrubs and massages.
We flew Turkish Airlines from Kayseri to Istanbul where we enjoyed the awe-inspiring Aya Sofya, a Christian church forcibly turned to a mosque, but secularised as a magnificent monument by Ataturk. We visited several mosques, including the Blue Mosque, which is more impressive out than in (a real contrast with the Aya Sofya). Particularly impressive were the archaeological museums, especially the displays of Babylonian street panels in the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the amazing burial chambers in the main museum. Admission is a bargain at YTL5 covering three museums. A day at the Topkapi palace is a must, and for us it was enlivened by a military music display in the extensive grounds. The harem, for which a second YTL10 fee is charged, is the most interesting part of the palace. We also took the 'touristic' ferry down the Bosphorus affording wonderful views of the shoreside houses and occasional palaces as well as giving a sense of the maritime importance of Istanbul. The ferry at 10.35 or noon offers the best option for a day out with a lunch break before returning.
We stayed in a delightful Ottoman hotel, the Dersaadet, right in the heart of Sultanahmet. Breakfasts are taken on a terrace with views of the Marmara sea and Blue Mosque (the terrace also acts as a bar until midnight) and the staff are unfailingly helpful. Rooms are furnished in traditional wood, but though small-ish, are well-equipped and good value at about £70 a night. Two particularly good local restaurants worth a visit are the Sera in the Hotel Armada, where the YTL58 chef's tasting menu gives you the chance to taste over a dozen dishes while you gaze over the Marmara sea from the wonderful terrace; and the fish restaurant allegedly favoured by the city's elite, the Balikci Sabahattin set in a garden in a surprisingly rundown neighbourhood. Full dinner with wine for two costs about YTL160 in both restaurants. Escaping Turkish food for a night, we greatly enjoyed the good value Dubb Indian restaurant, and for a top-notch dinner 18 floors over the newer part of town, we couldn't fault the drippingly trendy Mikla restaurant in the Marmara Pera hotel. Expect to pay YTL260 for dinner and wine for two there. Other local kebab houses offered lunch with beer for under YTL10 a head, and wine is needlessly expensive in most places we ate across Turkey. We returned to London via BA but there are also EasyJet and Turkish Airlines alternatives.
Our visit provided a good mix of sun and sightseeing, enjoying good accommodation and excellent meals across the country. Turkey is modernising fast but its history and culture remain endlessly fascinating.