Tuesday 30 December 2008

Australia: the 1950s blockbuster reborn

To see Baz Luhrmann's sweeping epic Australia last night. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman shine in the story of a British aristocrat who finds herself on a ranch in the Northern Territory fending off attempts by a local mass cattle rancher to buy her late husband's estate with the help of his evil sidekick. Her doggedness leads her on a mass cattle drive north to win an army contract to supply the troops. But with the backdrop of the Second World War - which saw Japanese bombs strike Darwin - and the scene-stealing presence of the mixed race boy Nullah (played by Brandon Walters) and his efforts to assert the aboriginal side of his identity and escape the clutches of the missionaries, this is an epic on a grand scale. Like the best of the 50s blockbusters, it touches all the emotions, and while it may lack the 'message' of a Rabbit Proof Fence, it holds the attention for all of its 165 minutes.

Sunday 28 December 2008

The preposterous pomposity of the Shadow Chancellor

When George Osborne embarked on his suicidal attempt to smear Peter Mandelson over his conversations in Corfu earlier this year, he showed extraordinary political misjudgment. But in an interview in today's Sunday Times - apparently part of his 'comeback' from those events - he inadvertently reveals another unappealing side of his character. Martin Ivens and Jonathan Oliver report:
We are in his Commons office, decorated with ugly cartoon caricatures of the prime minister. On the mantelpiece is a bottle of Newcastle Brown, relabelled “Bottler Brown”, a memento of a Conservative stunt following last year’s election U-turn.
Serious politicians of all parties have the ability to laugh at themselves and the maturity to respect their opponents. They even make a point of acquiring grotesques of themselves by the likes of Steve Bell or Scarfe to decorate their walls. But not, apparently, George Osborne of the Bullingdon Club - he clearly takes himself far too seriously. And through such pompous self-regard he once again demonstrates why the rest of us can't bring ourselves to do so.

A misplaced belt of the crozier

Today's extraordinary outburst from a cluster of Bishops about the 'immorality' of the Labour government rests on a series of fashionable - and wrong - assumptions. Their lordships clearly feel more comfortable relying on the wisdom of newspaper pundits rather than facts.

And contrary to received wisdom, those who have done best from this government have been the poorest who have been helped by everything from massive investment in education and the NHS to a huge injection of tax credits. Recent research has shown that the gap between rich and poor has not widened under Labour, but started to narrow.

Equally fatuous is the suggestion that the government is immoral for encouraging people to spend more, when a key reason people are losing their jobs is because retailers are sinking by the day. The economy needs people to spend more - and nobody is suggesting they should do so by racking up credit card debt.

I have always defended the rights of the churches, particularly when it comes to education. But bishops should not engage in party politics, especially when they seem not to know the facts. In Ireland, bishops developed a reputation for giving politicians a 'belt of the crozier' for legislation they disliked, all the while covering up appalling practices by some priests in their dioceses. I have just returned from there, where the big news has been about a bishop who allowed child abuse scandals on his watch displaying the most breathtaking arrogance in the wake of a series of events as shocking as anything in Haringey. Nevertheless, other bishops have rediscovered the Christian virtue of humility as a result of revelations over recent years.

Given that the Church of England is not exactly averse to a little speculative investment in property, oil and hedge funds, perhaps a touch of humility would be in order from their Lordships on this occasion too?

Monday 22 December 2008

Merry Christmas

We are in Ireland for Christmas with my family, enjoying the eyepopping effects of Euro-Sterling parity for the first time. So no blogging for a few days.

But in the dispute that seems to matter, it has to be the gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen. Happy Christmas.

Friday 19 December 2008

Conor Cruise O'Brien 1917-2008

Conor Cruise O'Brien has died at the age of 91. He was undoubtedly the most courageous figure in late 20th century Ireland. Born into a family steeped in nationalist tradition, he married into another. Yet in a career that transcended the history of the Republic, he went from being DeValera's nationalist propagandist in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to becoming the IRA's fiercest critic as a Labour Party Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in the seventies coalition government, and subsequently a unionist member of the Northern Ireland forum. His time in Africa saw him leading a doomed UN mission to Katanga, on which he published a memorable account, and as an early Chancellor at the national university of Ghana in the early sixties.

Behind the politics there was a formidable scholar, author and journalist: few Irish books since have matched the quality of States of Ireland; few memoirs are as brilliant as his; nobody else was as knowledgeable on Edmund Burke; and his journalism as Observer editor, and a columnist for the Atlantic Monthly, Irish Times and Irish Independent was prodigious. Perhaps he was wrong in his estimation of the potential for peace and compromise in Northern Ireland, and his hatred of Sinn Fein led him to underestimate the extent to which their acceptance of a six counties solution was a defeat for their primary objective. Yet his penetrating critiques of the despicable Charles Haughey - whose chicanery he recognised more than most in the memorable phrase GUBU (grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented) - and of militant Republicanism were a rational antidote to the self-delusional nationalism of seventies and early eighties Ireland.

We have lost one the greatest Irishmen of recent history. May he rest in peace.
UPDATE: Eamon Gilmore, Leader of the Irish Labour Party, has paid generous tribute to Conor Cruise O'Brien. O'Brien had rejoined Labour in his later years.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Obama's smart education pick

Barack Obama has named Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools chief, as his education secretary. While Duncan is no reform outrider, he has supported the sort of change needed in Chicago's schools and is a reformer, doing so in a way that has largely won plaudits from both reformers and teachers. And those who believe that reform matters will be mightily relieved that he has not appointed the teaching union favourite Linda Darling-Hammond.

Testing must stay

Lord Sutherland's report on this summer's testing fiasco is a tale of incompetence and wishful thinking. It clearly catalogues the role of both the curriculum authority and the contractor, ETS Europe, in causing entirely preventable problems with the tests. But their failures must not become an excuse - as the teaching unions clearly hope - for the wholesale abandonment of tests.

Ed Balls has already scrapped the tests at 14. I think he should have reformed the tests rather than abandoning them. But what's done is done. However, at least we have in GCSE results a degree of external accountability for the achievements of secondary schools. Without external tests at Key Stage 2, we would have no such measure in primary schools.

At a time when the Government is experimenting with controversial curriculum changes, it is more important than ever that we know whether or not individual primary schools are doing their primary task - teaching youngsters to read, write and add up. This doesn't mean there is no case for reform of the Key Stage 2 tests; it does mean that we need externally set and marked tests that every older primary pupil is required to sit.

Those who think this is a terrible burden clearly have short memories. The reason the national tests were introduced was because we used to have no idea whether or not primary schools were doing their job. When the first national test results were published in 1995, and over half of all youngsters failed to reach the expected standard (it is now 20%), the country was shocked. When individual school results were published despite the objections of the teaching unions, we learnt how apparently similar schools were achieving radically different results.

In short, those same forces who are now demanding an end to testing had conspired to hide the truth from parents and taxpayers. The problems with this year's tests must not become an excuse to return to those days. And Schools Secretary Ed Balls must speak up loudly and clearly in favour of school standards - after all, they matter most to the least advantaged children who lack the parental support to get on without decent schooling.

Monday 15 December 2008

Winter wassailing

To see the formidable Norma and Mike Waterson, with Martin Carthy and a great group of young singers - Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and Jim Causley - for a great evening of Christmas and winter song at the Komedia in Bath last night.

England's best folk singers were in wonderful voice (even if Eliza was absent for understandable reasons) as they gave us traditional Yorkshire carols and plenty of wassailing, as well as less well known versions of Twelve Days of Christmas and While Shepherds Watch...., together with some favourites from the Frost and Fire collection. The show is now a Christmas regular, but it's none the worse for that. Catch it if you can.

Ed Stourton's departure

The decision by the Today programme to sack Ed Stourton - a voice of calm moderation, intelligence and reason on a programme too often privy to sensationalism and pointless interruption - seems but another sign of the sorry state of the BBC these days. The manner of his dismissal - without telling him - is particularly outrageous. I think the BBC will regret it.

Of course, there have to be changes in personnel on such programmes. Personally, I think it is good - and very timely - to have someone with economic literacy on the programme in the shape of Evan Davis. I have no strong views about Justin Webb, one way or the other.

What I do know is that Ed Stourton has his supporters - perhaps a lot more than the BBC imagines. This morning a lady at my local station overheard our conversation about a newspaper story related to Stourton's sacking, and came over to say how outraged she was, and though never having written to the BBC before, planned to do so now.

I doubt she is alone. The BBC takes its listeners for granted at their peril. There is little enough on air to justify the licence fee - BBC Four and Radio 4 aside - and they can ill afford to continue to alienate the views of so many of those who pay it.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Ken Boston quits

Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has resigned ahead of a critical report this week about the problems with this summer's tests. While the problems seemed largely to have been the fault of ETS at the time, one assumes the Sutherland report on Tuesday is also critical of QCA. If so, he is wise to go now rather than face the media pack in full flight later in the week demanding his head.

I had many dealings with Ken Boston over the years, and always respected his no-nonsense Australian manner, even if I worried sometimes that he was getting too close to the teaching unions in his occasional kite-flying. I have no doubt that his contribution to English education will be missed. The system needs serious players like Ken - and it has too few of them.

In poll position?

A poll in tomorrow's Independent on Sunday gives another indication of the public's view of the 'do nothing' approach being taken by David Cameron. Labour is just one point behind the Tories, and the latter have lost six percentage points in support. Clearly the Angela Merkel worldview has not helped Cameron, at least for now - opposition to Labour's high levels of borrowing is pretty strong too.

Why can't we revive popular drama on TV?

To see the revival of Alan Ayckbourn's very seventies Christmas black comedy, Absurd Person Singular, at the Bath Theatre Royal. The three act play depicts events in the kitchens surrounding Christmas Eve cocktail parties at three different couples' homes, as the fortunes of the cast change from year to year. All have a strangely dated feel - the play was written in 1972 - and all depict the excrutiating nature of such events, with nobody either wanting to host the parties or be there. That one party revolves around the repeated suicide attempts of the unwitting hostess while her guests proceed to clean her kitchen and repair the plumbing says it all.

But the script sparkles, and the cast, especially Foyles War stalwart Honeysuckle Weeks, are all top notch. There was a time when we could look forward to several such productions on BBC and ITV over the Christmas period. While Victoriana is being revived - and who could complain about the recent Little Dorrit adaptation - and there are some great new comedies and detective dramas, there is too little popular contemporary stage drama like this on TV. Yet they are definite crowd pleasers. If Saturday night variety can be revived, why not this sort of drama too?

Friday 12 December 2008

Who will be Obama's education pick?

So far, President-elect Obama has played a blinder with his cabinet picks. But reform-minded progressives are watching closely to see who he decides to make his education secretary.

The AP has listed six potential candidates, where Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools boss, John Schnur, who has developed the brilliant New Leaders for Schools programme or New Orleans recovery superintendent Paul Vallas would all signal that Obama is a reformer, a supporter of accountability and charter schools, and is open to the sort of radical change that the bipartisan efforts of Ted Kennedy with President Bush failed to achieve through lack of funds. New York's Joel Klein would be another good pick.

Alternatively, he could pick his education adviser, Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, and set back the cause of reform by decades. Obama cannily played both sides of the debate in the election. Soon he will have to decide. His decision will be an important one for the direction of progressive politics.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

English pupils in the top ten in Maths

News that English 10 and 14 year-olds are doing better in Maths and remain in the global top ten for Science will come as a bitter disappointment to those who would want us to believe that educational standards have dived compared with other countries as a result of Labour's educational reforms.

Today's TIMMS survey shows that

* No European country outperformed England in any of the four assessments [in Maths or Science] nor did the United States, or countries often perceived as high performers such as
Australia, Sweden and New Zealand.
• England’s performance over time has continued to improve in mathematics at age ten and, for the first time in the study, performance in mathematics at age 14 also significantly improved. For science, the previous high performance was maintained in both age groups.
• Although 14-year-olds’ enjoyment of mathematics had fallen since 1999 in England, there was a significant rise in the percentage of 14-year-olds valuing mathematics highly, i.e. recognising that it can be useful to them.
• Compared with the international average, headteachers and mathematics and science teachers in England are more likely to say that their schools (at both age ranges) are well-resourced.
• England’s science pupils at age 14 are more likely to spend their lesson time doing practical science activities than many of their international counterparts.

As John Dunford says, the results are a tribute to the teachers and students. But let's not forget too that this is the generation of 14 year-olds who were educated through Labour's numeracy strategy from the start of primary school.

Monday 8 December 2008

A balanced approach to the curriculum

It is never a good idea to pay too much attention to the early media reports of any changes to the curriculum. So nobody should prejudge Sir Jim Rose's excellent primary curriculum review paper published this morning before reading it. For this is not a death notice either for any subject or for academic rigour.

What Sir Jim has done with his characteristic skill is to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, by showing how the trend for more thematic lessons, already a feature of many primary schools, can be accommodated within a national curriculum that is demanding in its expectations of children in the basics. As the report says:

There was considerable agreement among those consulted on the following points:

• The existing structure of knowledge, skills and understanding within the programmes of study holds good for any changes that are likely to be proposed for shaping curricular content whether taught as subjects or otherwise.

• There is a strong case for adding the development of good attitudes to this three part structure;

• Knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes might be seen as ‘organisers’ of curricular content that can be interrelated and used to plan valuable crosscurricular study;

• Subject disciplines remain an important but not necessarily exclusive way of organising the content of the primary curriculum; and

• No matter how the curriculum is construed, more and better opportunities should be provided for children to use and apply their learning to enquiry and problem solving for the purpose of increasing their understanding and learning capabilities.

These perspectives helpfully counter a long-standing, worrying tendency in primary education where discussion about the curriculum is often mired by treating as polar opposites, things which should be complementary and together act to benefit children’s learning, for example: Subjects vs cross-curricular studies; Knowledge vs skills; Child initiated learning through play vs teacher directed learning; Formal vs informal classroom organisation; and Summative vs formative assessment.

It is not just that he has identified some obvious trends such as the computer literacy of so many youngsters, who have been ill-served by an ICT curriculum that may be demanding on the teachers but is often boring for tech-savvy children. Nor that he has suggested practical ways to accommodate foreign languages in a supposedly crowded curriculum. But he has done so within
the context of recognising the need for a national curriculum to provide every child with a minimum entitlement, even if it is broken within thematic descriptors rather than more straightforward subjects. As the report notes:
Despite claims of overload and over-prescription, the Review has found almost universal support for the continuation of a National Curriculum. Many of those consulted recalled, unfavourably, the time when far too much of the primary curriculum was ‘do as you please’ and considerably more uneven in breadth, balance and quality than was the case after the introduction of the National Curriculum.
But the real strength of the report is that it seeks successfully to marry the trend towards 'skill-based learning' with the recognition that it must be a means towards acquiring knowledge not a substitute for it. All children should have the entitlement to learn a range of skills and knowledge, and to benefit from a range of cultural and educational experiences, while they are at school. This is what today's report recognises and this is what ministers must now start to evangelise about.

But if this is to work as Sir Jim hopes, the final report needs a very clear set of criteria to accompany the new curriculum, restating, for example, the commitment to phonics as the primary teacher of reading, and setting out the minimum of what all pupils should know as well as what they should be able to do by the age of 11. There must also be from government an unambiguous commitment to externally-set and marked national tests in primary school so that we can properly measure whether or not these new approaches are working.

Friday 5 December 2008

The anti-police party

There was a time back in the 1980s when some so-called 'loony left' London boroughs acquired a reputation for their opposition to the Police. Some schools kept them off the premises. Extreme left leaders made a fetish of their opposition to the Police, providing an easy target for a Tory government determined to reduce the powers of local government.

Now it would appear that the Tories have decided to become the anti-police party, as the Damian Green affair has already shown. I'm indebted to Toby Harris for some shocking evidence of how much contempt the current Tory chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority has for the rule of law.

Time for Southern Africa to get Mugabe out

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has supported calls from a growing number of respected African voices for decisive action to remove Robert Mugabe from office. Mugabe has already lost an election, despite his best efforts to rig it. He has failed to take the chance given to him to develop a workable coalition with Morgan Tsvangirai. The economy has been a basket case for months, with the currency beyond parody. Now with cholera spreading rapidly in a country without proper clean water supplies in the cities (thanks to Mugabe placing urban systems under the aegis of his corrupt cronies) and without adequate health services, the other countries of Southern Africa must act. If they don't, Robert Mugabe will not be the only leader in the region responsible for the deaths of thousands of Zimbabwean citizens.

Thursday 4 December 2008

The Changeling

When a movie receives mixed reviews, it is often a sign that it is a flawed film. So my expectations of Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort The Changeling were not great before we saw it last night. The reviews were wrong to be cautious. (A notable exception being the great Philip French in the Observer, whose review is very apt). The Changeling is a triumph. With Angelina Jolie in her best role yet as Christine Collins, a distraught mother whose son disappears in 1920s Los Angeles only to have another child 'returned' to her, and John Malkovich as a crusading Presbyterian pastor, the movie is taut, dark and gripping. Despite its length at well over two hours, there is little wasted in this film: its largely true tale of police corruption, appalling mental health procedures and a mother's undimmed fight for justice is utterly compelling. Do not miss it.

Time for a new Speaker

Until yesterday, I had subscribed to the view that the constant sniping against the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was the result of class prejudice. I would therefore have defended him against the jabbering from the Tory backbenches. After his utterly ungracious statement yesterday, where he sought to shift the blame for the decision to allow the Police to search Damian Green's office without a warrant onto the Serjeant at Arms, Jill Pay, I am no longer of that view. It is time for Mr Martin to go.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Has Cameron's attack on the police hurt the Tories?

After some disappointing polls for Labour following last week's PBR, along comes one to put a spring back in Gordon Brown's step. That's Tories 37, Labour 36. The Independent sees it as a positive verdict on the PBR. But as the only poll conducted after the arrest of Damian Green, could the voters be telling David Cameron that they don't want politicians to be trying to undermine the police in their investigations?

Monday 1 December 2008

Change we can believe in from Obama

Today's confirmation by Barack Obama of his national security team, with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Robert Gates continuing in Defence and Eric Holder as the first African American attorney general, is further confirmation of the mature and thoughtful approach that the president-elect has been taking to the transition.

Where previous presidents struggled in their first 100 days, let alone their cabinet picks, Obama looks set to hit the ground running in the New Year when he takes over from Bush. By picking not only strong former opponents like Clinton from his own side, but also strong Republicans, he is showing every sign of being a strong and confident leader. His Treasury picks have all seemed equally inspired.

That some of his supporters are dismayed that he didn't pick radicals suggests they misunderstood the nature of the change Obama promised: it was not a revival of the 1972 George McGovern campaign but a return to responsible intelligent government, where people are appointed more for their ability than their politics. And that is change that we can all believe in.

Tories must answer some questions too in the Green saga

Both Matthew Taylor and Toby Harris offer some useful observations in the Green case, as some of the media join the Tories in a disgraceful attempt to turn Jacqui Smith into a scapegoat for her refusal as Home Secretary to interfere in an active investigation.

What is particularly bizarre is that today's latest twist in the saga concerns the 'outrage' felt at accusations apparently made by the police that Green had been 'grooming' his civil servant informant. But how do we know that the police used such terminology? Only because a 'friend of Mr Green' told the media about it. And while the language may be unfortunate, the Tories are well aware of the legal difference between passively receiving leaked documents and actively seeking them from civil servants.

Green strongly denies the allegations made against him, and I have said before that once the investigation is over, I believe there should be a full review of police procedures in these matters. I agree with a lawyer letter writer to the Times this morning that the police should think more carefully about the use of arrest in criminalising the innocent:

For many years police forces across the country have eschewed the practice of dealing with criminal suspects “on summons” in favour of the practicality and convenience of arrest and charge. This is especially the case since the latter procedure entitles them to enter and search premises without a warrant.....A small number, however, are guilty of neither criminal nor moral wrongdoing and have become the subject of suspicion through no fault of their own, that or they have made a genuine mistake or error of judgement. In such cases police reluctance to allow suspects to be dealt with as “non-casual visitors to a police station” coupled with the removal of restrictive powers of arrest in favour of the very wide power to arrest “to allow the prompt and effective investigation of an offence” occasionally criminalises truly innocent individuals. The decision to arrest in every case has become routine, even policy.

But the letter also suggests that Green was treated in the same way as ordinary mortals, however unpleasant the experience. And since the shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve and his party leader have been bombarding ministers with questions that must be answered now, here's a few for him:

1. If you are Home Secretary and a good friend is being investigated by the police for a crime, do you (a) take to the airwaves to demand his immediate release because you know he's a good egg, and apologise for any inconvenience caused or (b) let the police conclude their investigation without interference and say sorry afterwards if the police got it wrong?

2. If you are Home Secretary and you find that secret documents are being stolen on behalf of the Opposition on an almost daily basis, some of a sensitive security nature, do you (a) say: "well, that's democracy for you, not to worry" or (b) ask your permanent secretary to conduct a leak inquiry?

3. If you are Home Secretary and the Met Police Commissioner has strong reason to believe that an MP is actively and wholly illegally encouraging a member of your Private Office to steal confidential documents and pass them to him, do you (a) tell the commissioner to stop his investigations immediately because the MP is only exercising his democratic right to break the law or (b) allow him to carry on his investigations until they reach a conclusion, even though an MP is accused?

4. If you are Home Secretary and you are told that an opposition front bench spokesperson has been arrested, do you (a) go on the Today programme to denounce the police or (b) recognise that you do not run the police but resolve to review procedures after the investigation is complete?

5. If your answers are mostly (a) do you really think you are ready to be Home Secretary?

Balls has been decisive in Haringey but he shouldn't hesitate to use his full powers

The decision by the longstanding Haringey council leader George Meehan and the Member for Children and Young People to resign - after a highly critical Ofsted report on the council's children's services and their handling of the Baby P case - is welcome, as is the sacking of the officials in charge. It is to be hoped that the Government moves quickly to bring in new management from outside to give the council's children's services a long overdue shake-up.
UPDATE: Ed Balls's very full statement is here. He has appointed some respected leadership to the officer posts on a temporary basis, with the excellent Graham Badman from Kent to chair the local safeguarding board. But I hope that Balls seriously considers using his statutory powers to require the Council to enter into a contractual arrangement with an external provider for the delivery of Haringey's children’s services. Those powers were used to good effect in Labour's first term (though not as strongly as they should have been in Haringey after councillors balked at their use) and they should be used where necessary again.