As a Game of Thrones fan, I feel ambivalent about the fact that the saga is finally wending its way to a conclusion. The latest season, which debuted on Sunday, is the last series but one; there will only be a total of 13 episodes across both. On the one hand, I feel sad about the fact that a television series that has given me so much pleasure is coming to an end. But I’m also a
At times, following the sprawling cast of characters and multiple story-lines has felt a bit too much like hard work. The past few seasons have become bogged down as the writers have dutifully charted the fates of minor figures such as Tommen Baratheon, an almost supernaturally boring princeling. I often found myself having to Google who the characters are just to keep track of them. The overarching storyline inched forward at a snail’s pace and the series began to take on a soapy quality — a drama without a proper engine. (To read more, click here.)
Listen to James Dellingpole and me talk about the first episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones. Among the issues we discuss: Do we detect signs of political correctness sneaking into the GoT universe? Is 'Winter is coming' a metaphor for global warming? Will Jon Snow and the Mother of Dragons end up getting married? Is Sansa's transformation from victim to warrior princess plausible? And what the hell was Ed Sheeran doing in there? (To listen to the podcast, click here.)
Fifteen years ago, when I was The Spectator’s drama critic, Caroline used to complain that she had become a ‘theatre widow’. I was spending at least three nights a week in the West End while she was cooped up at home. Occasionally, I was able to persuade her to come with me, but most of the time she just made a face: ‘I’d love to accompany you to the musical version of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but unfortunately I have an unbreakable appointment with the sofa and the TV set.’
Well, she has her revenge. Caroline is captain of the Park Club Ladies Second Team and if she hasn’t got a match or a tournament, she’s doing ‘drills’ or playing in the ‘social’. I’m lucky if I only have to spend three evenings a week on my own. During peak season it has been known to go as high as five, and at the weekends I don’t see her for dust. I’m now a ‘tennis widower’. (To read more, click here.)
On the front page of today’s Times it says ministers are thinking of scrapping the free schools policy in order to give more money to schools. I hope it’s not true. Not only would it constitute a terrible loss of self-confidence on the Government’s part and confirm the narrative that the Conservatives are enacting Labour’s manifesto rather than their own. It would also be a betrayal of the thousands of people who’ve set up free schools and are in the process of setting them up. We have taken on the educational establishment and put our necks on the line at the behest of successive Conservative Education Secretaries. Are they really going to abandon us now?
It would be particularly insane to throw the policy out the window at this point as it is just beginning to bear fruit. Free schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted than council-run schools, more popular with parents and getting better results. To give just one example, the King’s College London Mathematics School, a free school in Kennington, topped a new league table published last week showing A level results in STEM subjects. (To read more, click here.)
Is diversity training snake oil? According to its proponents, women and minorities are not competing with white men on a level playing field when it comes to career advancement because of the ‘unconscious bias’ of their white male colleagues. The solution, if you’re the CEO of a large company, is to pay a ‘diversity consultant’ to train your managers to recognise and eliminate this bias. In America, it’s an $8-billion-a-year industry, yet a recent study in Australia suggests that, whatever is holding back women and minorities, it isn’t unconscious bias.
The Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian government has just published the results of a randomised control trial involving 21,000 employees of the Australian Public Service to see if the introduction of ‘blind recruiting’ would help promote gender equality and diversity. The employees were asked to shortlist candidates for a managerial position, with half of them being given their names and other identity markers and the other half not. If these public servants were suffering from unconscious bias, you would expect the ‘blindfolded’ group to be more likely to shortlist female and minority candidates and less likely to shortlist white men. In fact, the reverse happened. (To read more, click here.)
I felt a twinge of disappointment on hearing about the government’s decision to shelve its grammar school plans.
I went to the sixth form of a grammar – William Ellis in North London, which is now non-selective – and before that I went to two middling comprehensives and failed all my O levels, apart from one. Had I not retaken my O levels and got into William Ellis, I might not have ended up at a good university.
I would not want to deny to other children the opportunity I had or one I might easily have chosen for my own children, had I not succeeded in setting up the West London Free School.
Most participants in the grammar school debate refer to "the evidence" as if it was unequivocally on the side of the opponents, but that is not the case.
As Theresa May has pointed out, children on free school meals perform better in selective schools, on average, than they do in non-selective schools, and that remains true if you control for prior attainment.
But the difficulty with increasing the number of selective school places as a solution to the problems identified in this week’s Social Mobility Commission report is that there are not that many of these children.
At present, just under half of England’s 163 grammar schools give preferential treatment in their admissions arrangements to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, yet less than 3 per cent of those who get in are on free school meals and very few are from the UK’s lowest achieving demographic – poor white British boys. (To read more, click here.)
On the face of it, there is nothing complicated about the politics of Harry Potter, who made his first appearance in The Philosopher’s Stone 20 years ago. Like his creator J.K. Rowling, who once gave £1 million to the Labour party, he is a left-wing paternalist in the Bloomsbury tradition — the love child of John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He feels a protective duty towards the common man (‘muggles’ in the lexicon of the novels) and a loathing for suburban, lower-middle-class Tories like the Dursleys, his Daily Mail-reading foster parents. The arch-villain of the saga is Voldemort, a charismatic Übermensch who believes in purity and strength and in the final novel promotes his own version of the Nuremberg Laws through the Ministry of Magic. Indeed, the novels are shot through with the mythology of the second world war and its aftermath, linking the struggle against fascism to the emergence of a socialist New Jerusalem.
But look more closely and something stranger hoves into view. What is Hogwarts, after all, but an idealised version of an English public school, with its houses, quadrangles and eccentric schoolteachers? As George Orwell points out in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, his 1940 essay in which he tries to understand why millions of children find stories set in boarding schools so spellbinding, the ‘snob appeal’ of this milieu is ‘absolutely shameless’. ‘The heroic characters all have to talk BBC,’ he observes, something that is equally true of the Potter novels. (To read more, click here.)
Earlier this week the Guardian launched ‘Brexit Shorts’, a series of monologues written by Britain’s ‘leading playwrights’ about the aftermath of the EU referendum. Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘What fresh hell is this?’ But bear with me. Watching the first batch of these short films, which are on the Guardian website, isn’t complete purgatory. Not because they’re much good, obviously — although one is, and I’ll come to that in a moment. But because the reason these writers are so anxious about Brexit is due to their uncritical acceptance of Project Fear. Perhaps they’ll become a little less hysterical once they’ve been introduced to some solid facts.
Take ‘Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit’ by Stacey Gregg, which is set among the ‘peace lines’ separating Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods in Belfast. It’s not a fully fledged drama — more a piece of agitprop. And it makes the same point over and over again, namely, that if the UK leaves the European Union there will inevitably be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. ‘We know what it means to be divided,’ says the protagonist, a ‘peace-worker’ played by Bronagh Gallagher. Then she says something a bit odd: ‘I remember the border, do you? Wasn’t much craic.’ (To read more, click here.)
I first met Nick Timothy in July 2015. He had just been appointed director of New Schools Network, the free schools charity I now run, and wanted to talk about the future of the policy. He has been portrayed in the media in the past week as a right-wing thug, as well as a swivel-eyed Brexiteer, but that wasn’t the impression he gave as he sipped his builders’ tea. On the contrary, he was trying to think of ways to weaken the association between free schools and the Tory party, particularly within the education sector. His mission, he explained, was to create cross-party support for the policy by setting up more free schools in disadvantaged areas.
He was in the job for less than a year before joining Theresa May in Downing Street, having worked as her special adviser from 2010-15, but in that short time he went some way to achieving his objective. He set up an outpost of NSN in Manchester to spread the gospel of free schools in the north. He launched numerous successful campaigns, including one to persuade teachers to set up their ‘dream school’. And he created an advisory council that boasts several Labour grandees. It’s also worth noting that NSN staff enjoyed working for him, as did many of his colleagues in politics — I only heard the words ‘arrogant’ and ‘high-handed’ from his enemies. (To read more, click here.)