Category Archives: Government and Public Sector

School days, school days, end of the golden rule days

As of this lunchtime I no longer have a child in school. After 15 years of book bags and reading practice and PE kit and lunch money and parents’ evenings and INSET days and school reports and grumbling about the price of uniforms, suddenly it’s all over.  One is off to university this autumn, the other will be heading for sixth form college, unburdened by the need to put his hands on his school tie  ever again.

They’ve changed a lot, of course, in the past 15 years.  Possibly not as much as the school system has. Beneficiaries of New Labour’s “education, education, education” largesse  they went to an excellent local primary school, and have kept one step ahead of the  reformers ever since.

The youngest enjoyed all the sports the local primary sports coordinator introduced him to –  shortly before the school sports partnerships which made it possible were abolished.  They went to an outstanding secondary school which was in the very last group of schools to be refurbished under the generous old Building Schools for the Future programme.  The oldest completed her AS levels in the year before AS’s were changed.  The youngest has just done the last year of old-style GCSEs before syllabuses, course work and the grading system itself are all reformed. They leave the school system while uncertainties about possible forced Academisation swirl around.  I have occasionally pictured their ride through the school system like a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark:  we are, collectively playing the part of  Indiana Jones running just ahead of the granite ball representing the Department for Education – or maybe we’re  Bart, they’re Homer:

They’ve done fine, of course, thanks to a series of hard-working, professional,  and downright wonderful teachers  who cajoled, inspired, and enlightened them all the way and who genuinely seemed to care about what happened to them. And not everything has changed since my day.  I asked my son how he felt about leaving.  “Now it’s over I can look back on it and say it was great” he said (remember, he left school about two hours ago) “But at the time, when you’re there and you’re a teenager and you hate everything, it makes you feel like banging your head on the desk.”  I doubt there’s anyone who went to any school, anywhere, who doesn’t know exactly how that feels.


University open days – five essential things to remember

I was bemused that The Guardian published its guide to university open days today.  Aren’t most of them over?  We’ve spent the summer trailing from hall of residence to library  to lecture theatre up and down the country.  I’m quite good at it now – so here, in no particular order, are things to remember when it’s my son’s turn:

  1.  The course your child wants to study is crucial.  But if he or she has researched this properly (and this is something only they can do)  you will only visit places offering courses they’re happy with. This makes everything else about the university really important.  Final choices are likely to be  made on things as seemingly inconsequential as the width of the corridors in the accommodation blocks.
  2. You need to know what you’re looking for before you go. Think about what’s really important to you before you arrive and cast a beady eye over those particular aspects of the university: Course content and teaching?  Nightlife? Proximity to home? Quality/cost of accommodation? Whatever it is, you need to know you’re choosing somewhere that delivers what you want.
  3. Attention parents!  It’s not our choice.  It’s not our future or our debt.  It’s theirs.  You are a sounding board for their impressions, you shouldn’t try to impose your own.  (It will be to no-one’s surprise that I didn’t always manage this.)
  4. It’s worth visiting the town as well as mooching round the student union.  If your child is used to the rattle and hum of a big city, will they be happy to move to a small, provincial town?  A friend of my niece’s is applying to the university closest to her home so she can visit her family as often as possible (hmm).  My daughter refuses to think about anywhere in London because she wants something different and can’t think of anything worse than living at home (I completely understand and am buttoning my lip about the fact that she’s discounting some of the best colleges in the world.  Note to self, see 3 above and read repeatedly).
  5. Make notes, take photos.  Universities are surprisingly similar. After a while they blur into one.  Oh, and wear comfortable shoes and take bottles of water.  You are going to be walking a LONG way.

The challenge for university communications departments

All five of the universities we’ve visited offer great courses and opportunities to study abroad.  They all have active student unions with more scope to sing/dance/play sport/climb mountains/be political or play tiddlywinks than one person could realistically fit into a lifetime.  They have broadly similar accommodation, costing roughly the same amount per week. What they offered was, frankly, much of a muchness.  Small differences in presentation take on huge significance when that’s what separates one from another.   A cry of “this website is RUBBISH” from my daughter, meant that the university in question had some catching-up to do when we got there.  A good website is essential; apps are de rigueur; maps need to be helpful to people with no sense of direction (ahem).

Enjoy it

More than anything else it’s been a joy to spend uninterrupted time with my daughter and realise again what good company she is.  Some of her friends started their university careers this week.  I’m both looking forward to and dreading her making the move next year.  But at least now I know that, wherever she goes, we’ve researched the hell out of the kitchen arrangements.

Picking your fights: why Jeremy Corbyn needs better PR

Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should have sung the national anthem at yesterday’s Battle of Britain remembrance service, by keeping quiet he has handed his opponents a massive stick with which to beat him.  Today’s coverage in the papers is dominated by accusations of disloyalty – something Corbyn’s supporters on twitter have picked up somewhat self-righteously.

Well, yes, they certainly should be talking about other things:

But JC has given them the perfect opportunity not to bother with that but to make hay elsewhere.  He needs, he desperately needs, someone competent to be running his comms operation.  The slurs, the innuendo and the self-inflicted wounds will stick to him right through his leadership (which currently looks as though it will be nasty, brutish and very, very short).

There’s a difference between the soulless spin of machine politics and a principled attempt to get your message out clearly to people who need to hear it. Corbyn is now – unfairly but probably indelibly – fixed in the public’s eye as a loony lefty who hates the Queen and won’t even do his top button up to support our most iconic national heroes.   Early images stick – ask William Hague, whose leadership  never shook off the Tory-boy images of himself in a baseball cap riding the log flumes at Alton Towers; or Ed Miliband still fighting the “brother-betrayer/ back-stabber” slurs five years after his own leadership win.

JC can hold the high moral ground of unspun purity, or he can sink beneath the waves.  William Hague has written a column for today’s Telegraph about the perils Corbyn faces. It’s headed There are countless sworn assassins waiting to knife Jeremy Corbyn in the back , there certainly are.  And at the moment he’s playing right into their hands.

Gunning for the BBC?


Has the public consultation to find out how the public feels about the BBC been  designed  so that the fewest people possible will respond to it?

The consultation is embedded in an 88-page document  with a two-page glossary of terms – (you can go straight to the questions online, if you prefer). I imagine it’s pretty impenetrable to anyone not familiar with the jargon of the broadcasting industry. I worked at the BBC for five years and Channel 4 for three and I found it pretty hard going. I suspect that many people who want to express their views on whether the BBC should or shouldn’t be doing Strictly, or how much they would be prepared to pay (or not) for Radio 4 will look, perplexed, at some of the questions they’re being asked and give up and do something else instead:

1   How can the BBC’s public purposes be improved so there is more clarity about what the BBC should achieve?

2   Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC?

3   Should Charter Review formally establish a set of values for the BBC?

10  How should the system of content production be improved through reform of quotas or more radical options?

14  How should the BBC’s commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide, be reformed?

15  How should the current model of governance and regulation for the BBC be reformed?

16  How should Public Value Tests and Service Licences be reformed and who should have the responsibility for making these decisions?

18  How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work?  What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls, should apply?

19 Should the existing approach of a 10-year Royal Charter and Framework Agreement continue?

I put some random sections of the consultation document through the Gunning Fog  index. GF is an academic tool which measures the readability of a piece of writing. The people at GF estimate that:

Texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12. Texts requiring near-universal understanding generally need an index less than 8.

As a rough rule of thumb I assume that the index relates to the years of formal education a reader will need to have had in order to understand something, so a piece of text with an index of 12 should be clear to an A-level student. The sections I analysed came back with an average GF index of 14.8, one section came in at 15.5. Either DCMS doesn’t know, or doesn’t care that the public consultation about the single most important cultural institution in the country may only be understood by people with a degree-level education who  know what accountability structures are.

I have additional worries about what will happen to the consultation documents when they are submitted. Will they be read (not a flippant question – I have sat in Whitehall meeting rooms with piles of unread consultation documents in a corner because no-one had the time to read them all). Who is going to analyse responses which will come in in the form of several thousand online free text boxes as well as via email and in the post? What kind of common measurement standards will they apply? And let’s not even mention the hanging jury which seems to have been assembled to assess the Beeb’s future options. For the time being let’s just concentrate on getting the public’s voices heard.

The Save Our BBC campaign has written to Culture Secretary John Whittingdale asking him to make sure that a Plain English Crystal Marked version of the document be produced. You could do the same,  or you could write with your general feelings about the BBC (good or bad, just have your say), and you could copy the letter to your MP (find him/her at They Work for You). Ask them to do whatever they can to make sure that the BBC gets a fair crack of this particularly dangerous whip.

Young people and politics – not just a photo op

School delegation for If campaign

School delegation for If campaign

Yesterday this group of young people went to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister. as part of the Oxfam “enough food for everyone”, If campaign.  When they got there they were kept waiting without explanation, not given the time to put their (pre-submitted, vetted and approved) questions to the PM and herded about by some aggressive PR handlers who really wanted to get the picture op over and done with. The questions were fielded instead by actor David Walliams who was there too – and handled the whole thing with aplomb, apparently.

I know this because my daughter was part of the delegation.  Her opinion of Mr Cameron – admittedly not high to start off with – has dropped a few more notches. Her cynicism about politicians has been reinforced.  I really hope that Oxfam got some pictures they can use – it’s a great cause.  Equally,  I really hope that No 10 don’t ever trot these images out as an example of successful engagement with young people.  I’m sure David Cameron has many, many important things to do in his day. Finding time to meet young people interested enough in the state of the world to get involved in a campaign like this should be one of them.  I’m equally sure that whenever these guys are old enough to vote they won’t have forgotten the way they were treated when they went to Downing Street.

Michael Gove and facts, facts, facts

According to this morning’s Guardian, Michael Gove is to make a speech claiming that rote learning is the key to success in education:

Competitive, difficult exams for which pupils must prepare by memorising large amounts of facts and concepts will promote motivation, solidify knowledge and guarantee standards.

Now, you could reach for the Dickens and quote Gradgrind to discuss this.  Or you can go a bit further back in time and let William Hazlitt debunk it for you:

William Hazlitt self portrait 1802

“The things which a boy is set to learn at school and on which his success depends are things which do not require the exercise either of the highest or the most useful faculties of mind.  Memory … is the faculty chiefly called into play, in conning over and over repeated lessons by rote… A lad with a sickly constitution and no very active mind who can just retain what is pointed out to him will generally be at the head of the form. ” (From  On the Ignorance of the Learned, 1820-ish)

And given the subject of the feature article in G2 on Eton and the old boy network, it’s worth remembering that Hazlitt also pointed this out – almost 200 years ago:

 It should not be forgotten that the least respectable character among modern politicians was the cleverest boy at Eton