One of the most important debates in Britain’s history took place in Westminster earlier this week. The issue was absolutely critical to our future and will affect not just the current inhabitants of these islands, but future generations too. I’m talking, of course, about the discussion in Westminster Hall on Tuesday night about how best to dispose of dog waste. Should we place it in little black plastic bags or use the ‘stick and flick’ method, i.e. find a stick and flick it into the undergrowth?
At this point, I would love to update readers about the fate of Leo, the Young family’s Hungarian vizsla, but I can’t for two reasons. The first is that my children have forbidden it. They heard about my ramblings from their friends at school and, for the first time ever, actually read my column. They were predictably horrified — ‘Why do you hate him so much, Dad?’ — and it took me the best part of an hour to persuade them that a formal complaint to Ipso wasn’t the best way to go. The deal we struck is that I’d never write about Leo again (I hope they don’t think I’m breaking the agreement by writing about not writing about him). The second reason is that a civil case involving Leo and an Ocado delivery man is currently wending its way through the courts and I have been advised by my solicitor that it would be prudent not to write about him until it’s been resolved. (To read more, click here.)
’m not surprised the Chancellor allocated more money for the free schools policy in the Budget. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the most successful education policy of the last 25 years.
To begin with, free schools have proved to be a cost-effective way of meeting the need for additional places. This was underlined in the National Audit Office’s recent report on school capital, which said that on a like-for-like basis, they cost 29 per cent less than new schools built under Labour’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme. Given that the Department for Education has estimated that we will need 420,000 additional places between 2016 and 2021, it makes sense for as many of these as possible to be in new free schools. (To read more, click here.)
When Kingsley Amis won the Booker prize for The Old Devils in 1986, he said that he had previously thought of the Booker as a rather trivial, showbizzy sort of caper, but now considered it a very serious, reliable indication of literary merit. It was a joke, evidently. Indeed, when he said it during his acceptance speech he grinned from ear to ear, just to make it crystal clear that he was being ironic. But it didn’t do any good. In a BBC round-up of the events of the year, the presenter said that Amis had won the distinguished literary prize in spite of having previously disparaged it. This was portrayed as a brilliant bit of sleuthing on the presenter’s part, as if his own dogged research had exposed Amis’s ghastly hypocrisy. In his memoirs, Amis concludes this anecdote by issuing a warning to writers and others: ‘Never make a joke against yourself that some little bastard can turn into a piece of shit and send your way.’
As a journalist whose stock in trade is telling stories against himself, I also experience these infuriating episodes from time to time. Perhaps the most memorable was at the Cannes film festival in 2008 when I spoke at a press conference to launch How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, the film based on my memoir of the same name. One of the assembled hacks — a friend of mine — asked how I felt about being played by Simon Pegg, who happened to be standing right next to me. I glanced at him contemptuously and said: ‘A bit disappointed, obviously. I was hoping for Brad Pitt.’ (To read more, click here.)
Last year, the Oscars came in for quite a bit of criticism within the American film community. The problem wasn’t that the nominees were too worthy, or the speeches too long. Nor was it that some of the best films of 2015 – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian, Steve Jobs – were snubbed. Nor did anyone complain that the picture that received the most nominations – The Revenant – was a three-hour snorefest starring the finger-wagging environmentalist Leo DiCaprio. No, the reason for all the grumbling was that the 88th Academy Awards weren’t politically correct enough. The good burghers of Hollywood got on their high horses about the fact that the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the people who make up the Oscars electorate – were too old, too male and, yes, too white.
Jada Pinkett-Smith announced she would be boycotting that year’s ceremony because no African-Americans had been nominated in the the four acting categories, including her husband Will Smith who was overlooked for his portrayal of a forensic pathologist in Concussion. Other African-American filmmakers joined the boycott, including Spike Lee and Don Cheadle, and the Twitter hashtag associated with the protest – #OscarsTooWhite – went viral. (To read more, click here.)
I was astonished to discover in conversation with another dad last week that he and his wife intended to introduce a screen ban over half term. Not limiting their children to something reasonable like two hours a day. But a blanket ban. How on earth will they cope — and by ‘they’ I mean him and his wife, not their two kids? It’s not as if they’re going on a family cycling holiday on the Dalmatian Coast. No, they’ll be spending this week at home in Acton. The poor buggers will be forced to play Monopoly Empire from first thing in the morning till last thing at night.
When I hear talk of screen bans, it makes me want to set up a National Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adults. Maybe it’s worse if you’ve got four kids. We tried it once and within 48 hours Caroline was muttering darkly about filing for divorce. Life without the electronic babysitter — or should that be digital heroin? — was unbearable. Suddenly, our children were lively and inquisitive, asking all sorts of questions about the world around them. For the first time in years, they wanted to engage in conversation. They reminded me of the catatonic patients in Awakenings after Robin Williams has given them a dose of L-dopa. We felt suicidal. (To read more, click here.)
For the past six years or so a variety of arts organisations have been campaigning against the English Baccalaureate, or the ‘EBacc’, as it’s known. To meet this standard, schoolchildren have to get grade C or above in seven GCSEs (Eng lang, Eng lit, maths, two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language) and, according to the campaigners, this means students have been turning away from arts GCSE subjects such as music, drama and dance. They claim that since the EBacc’s introduction by Michael Gove, arts education has been decimated.
Now, I have some sympathy for the lobby groups making this argument. The first part of their case — that the arts are one of the UK’s biggest strengths and are increasingly critical to our economic success — is unassailable. Since 1997, the growth of Britain’s creative industries has outstripped that of many other sectors, adding a gross value of over £84 billion, or 5.2 per cent of the UK’s GDP, in 2014. No one in this debate is suggesting that arts education isn’t hugely important, although the anti-EBacc lobbyists might think otherwise. (To read more, click here.)
I feel conflicted about Jon Platt, the parent at the centre of the court case about unauthorised school absences. On the one hand, there’s much to admire. When he was fined £120 by Isle of Wight Council for taking his daughter on a trip to Disneyland during term time, he decided to fight back. He got the decision overturned in magistrates’ court, the council appealed to the High Court, the lower court’s decision was upheld, and the council then appealed to the Supreme Court. Yet in spite of this gruelling legal process, Mr Platt hasn’t backed down.
When interviewed on television, he seems genuinely angry about being told when he can and can’t take his children on holiday. He doesn’t regard himself as a deadbeat dad — his daughter’s attendance rate at school is above 90 per cent — but believes the new rules, which were introduced by the government in 2013, are too severe. Seen in this light, he’s a conservative hero: a doughty yeoman standing up for his liberty by taking on the overmighty state. (To read more, click here.)
I feel a bit sorry for Piers Morgan. On Tuesday, Ewan McGregor was due to appear on the sofa with Piers on ITV’s Good Morning to talk about the Trainspotting sequel, but he failed to turn up. Later, the actor explained on Twitter that it was due to the journalist’s remarks about the women’s marches that took place last weekend, in which he described some of the participants as ‘rabid feminists’ and suggested he should organise a men’s march in response.
I had a similar experience about five years ago when the actor Matthew Macfadyen pulled out of an interview he was due to do with me. Like McGregor, he said he wouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place if he’d known the journalist in question was a right-wing bastard — or words to that effect. This was for the in-house magazine of John Lewis, in which I had a regular interview slot. I think the editor had been having difficulty persuading anyone famous to sit down with me, because after Macfadyen’s bombshell I was sacked. (To read more, click here.)
The secondary school league tables published yesterday contain a mixed picture for free schools.
On the one hand, results for post-16 free schools were fantastic. Admittedly, we’re talking about a small number (only 15 schools), but they topped the charts for both progress and attainment, recording better A-level results than any other type of school. A whopping 27.8 per cent of students got A/A/B or better, compared to a national average in the state sector of 19.9 per cent.
Some individual post-16 free schools did extraordinarily well. At King’s College London Maths School, for instance, 94.5 per cent of A level entrants got A*/A/B, making it one of the top five state schools in the country. Fourteen of King’s students have received an offer from Oxbridge – an impressive 23 per cent of the year group. Critics will attribute this to the fact that it’s highly selective, but it also achieved a value added score of 0.71, making it, by this measure, the fifth-best state school in the country.
Another big success story is the London Academy of Excellence, with 20 of its students getting offers from Oxford and Cambridge this year. Again, this success isn’t just down to its high entrance requirements. The LAE achieved a value added score of 0.56, placing it in the top 20 for A level progress. (To read more, click here.)