I first locked horns with Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, on Sky News about four years ago. We were debating the merits of trying to teach all children the best that’s been thought and said and quickly got on to the subject of whether the grammar school education we’d received would be appropriate for everyone, or just those who passed the eleven plus. My view, then and now, is that it would. His view, if I remember it correctly, is that grammar schools aren’t suitable for anyone, gifted or otherwise. He had only survived his by the skin of his teeth.
Since then we’ve clashed a few times. He’s been an energetic critic of the Coalition’s education reforms, writing a monthly column in the Guardian entitled ‘Dear Mr Gove’. I’ve always found it slightly irksome that he’s introduced as an expert on primary education when, in fact, his reason for opposing the government is because he’s a militant socialist. Not just a Guardianista, but a regular contributor to Socialist Worker. But to be fair, he doesn’t make any attempt to disguise his radical politics. In every debate he participates in, it’s only a matter of time before the bug-eyed, left-wing zealot emerges from beneath the woolly-jumpered, kids TV presenter exterior.
Coincidentally, we’ve both just written books on the same subject – what parents can do to help educate their children. Mine is called ‘What Every Parent Needs to Know’ (co-written with Miranda Thomas), while his is called ‘Good Ideas’. What’s remarkable about the two books, given that we’re at opposite ends of the political spectrum, is how similar they are. (To read more, click here.)
I wouldn’t describe myself as a veteran of the summer festival circuit, but I’ve been to enough to have a theory about them. Or, rather, discuss someone else’s – in this case the theory of Matthew Taylor, the head of the RSA.
For those readers who’ve never been to a festival, I will begin with a short primer. They usually take place in a muddy field over a long weekend, often in the grounds of a stately home or similar, and cost upwards of £200 to attend. There is nearly always an adjoining campsite, where many of the festivalgoers stay for the duration, although the sanitary arrangements are invariably poor. The festivals usually feature second-tier rock-and-roll bands and a random collection of authors and journalists – these are the “performers” you’re paying to see, although many of them are people you’d cross the street to avoid. Towards the end of the evening, disc jockeys take over and play loud, repetitive music until 4am, making it impossible to sleep. Perhaps for that reason, a large number of festivalgoers will stay up and dance all night, even though the very same people have often brought their children with them. The upshot is that nearly every festival features a “lost and found” tent that fills up with abandoned toddlers after Midnight. (To read more, click here.)
Success has many fathers and on Twitter the fight to claim credit for the results at King Solomon Academy has already begun. KSA is an all-through school in London, Paddington sponsored by ARK and its results are breathtaking.
First, the context. Twelve per cent of the children at the school have special educational needs, 51.1 per cent are on free school meals and 65.2 per cent don't speak English as their first language. So a challenging cohort, the sort of pupils that critics of Michael Gove's education reforms claim simply cannot manage to get five GCSEs at grade C or above, including maths and English, let alone do well in the EBacc subjects. Expecting children from such deprived backgrounds to study the same curriculum and sit the same exams as children at Eton or Westminster is "elitist". They're bound to do badly and that, in turn, will damage their "self esteem". Much better to teach working class children useful "life skills", such as how to walk (an actual recommendation made by the deputy general secretary of the ATL). Forcing them to do traditional subjects like History and Geography is "totalitarian".
Okay, so how did they do, these lumpen proles written off as too thick to tackle academically rigorous GCSEs by the teaching unions? (To read more, click here.)
Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, was uncharacteristically silent yesterday following the publication of this year’s A-level results. Earlier in the week, he claimed that Michael Gove’s A-level reforms would “close the window of opportunity for many young people wanting to go to university”.
In fact, the percentage of students getting A* and A grades has only declined by a tiny amount – from 26.3 per cent to 26 per cent – and a record number of young people are likely to go to university this year.
Must try harder, Tristram. Once again, the floppy-haired ex-public schoolboy has proved he was born with a silver foot in his mouth. (To read more, click here.)
I feel some sympathy for Mark Simmonds, the Conservative MP who’s resigned as a minister and is stepping down at the end of this Parliament because he can’t support his family. His announcement has been greeted with scorn and derision by the chattering classes – how dare he complain that an MP’s salary isn’t enough to live on? – even though most of them are earning far more than him. Any politician who utters a murmur of dissent about the terms and conditions of his or her employment is an instant pariah.
In fact, if you can be bothered to read beyond the headlines, Simmonds’s complaint seems pretty reasonable. His constituency is in Lincolnshire and under the new expenses regime he isn’t entitled to claim for the cost of renting a flat in London large enough to accommodate his family, just a hotel room. If he had a flat, his wife and three children could spend the weekdays with him and the weekends in his constituency, but as things stand he is forced to spend four nights a week sleeping alone in some seedy Westminster hotel. “Any parent would hate that – and I do,” he said. (To read more, click here.)
I’m due to speak at an Intelligence Squared debate on Saturday and I’m worried that I might be on the wrong side. The motion is ‘Monogamy equals monotony’ and I’m opening the batting for the opposition. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly happy to make the case for monogamy. But the problem with framing the debate in this way is that it invites those of us opposing the motion to argue that, in fact, being faithful to one person is every bit as exciting as sleeping with whomever we choose.
Not only is that a difficult argument to win, but if we base the case for fidelity on those grounds, we deny ourselves one of the main pleasures of being in a monogamous relationship — namely, the sense of superiority you have over those who are too shallow to commit themselves to one person or too weak to keep their promises. When I compare myself with my unfaithful married friends, I don’t want the difference between us to consist in their failure to appreciate just how stimulating monogamy can be. Rather, I want to feel morally superior. I know that being unfaithful would probably be more fun, but I’ve chosen not to because I think keeping my marital vows is more important than massaging my ego via an endless series of sexual conquests. (To read more, click here.)
I think it’s fantastic news that Boris has announced he'll stand for Parliament in 2015, and not just because I think it will enhance the Conservatives chances of winning the next election. There’s also the small matter of my £15,000 wager with Nigella Lawson. Back in 2003, I bet her Boris would become party leader by 2018. I was too drunk to ask for odds at the time – it was an act of blind loyalty – and for a long time it seemed like a terrible bet. But as 2018 edges closer, it’s beginning to look more and more prescient.
Nevertheless, I still think Nigella’s money is safer than mine. By my reckoning, there are five major obstacles standing between Boris and the Iron Throne. (To read more, click here.)
I spent last weekend at Port Eliot in Cornwall. This is supposed to be a literary and music festival and my reason for being there was to talk about my new book ‘What Every Parent Needs to Know’. In reality, though, it’s just an excuse to go camping with old friends, drink plenty of alcohol and stay up late. You’d think this would be difficult with four children in tow, particularly children as young as mine, but Port Eliot is an object lesson in benign neglect. By the end of the three days I had been taught more about parenting by the festival-goers that I’d managed to teach them.
Caroline and I are quite relaxed with our kids – at least, that’s what I used to think. Yes, we make sure our children do their homework, but we’ve stopped worrying about junk food and screen time. They subsist on a diet of crisps and Nutella. They know next to nothing about history or geography, but even the six-year-old could pass a GCSE in Minecraft.
So we weren’t expecting to be shocked by the attitude of our fellow campers at Port Eliot. (To read more, click here.)
A few years ago, a family friend described my father as being a bit like Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, by which he meant that he neglected his own family in favour of helping others. By way of proof, he cited the famous occasion when my father abandoned all of us on Christmas Day to spend time with some elderly widows in the local cemetery, pouring cups of tea into the graves of their dear departed husbands.
He had a point. My father wasn't a deadbeat dad in the conventional sense of the word, but he was a workaholic. The only time I can remember him playing football with me was on my birthday – a huge treat. The rest of the time he was either at work or ensconced in his office at the top of the house. As a result, I became reliant on other people’s dads, like Max Herman, whose son Lucas was in my class. He used to take us ice-skating every Saturday at the Michael Sobell Leisure Centre just off the Holloway Road. I remember thinking at the time that it was odd of Lucas’s dad to want to spend so much time with his son. I now realise that it was my father who was odd. (To read more, click here.)
Plenty of critics of the Government's education reforms have latched on to the Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham as "proof" that granting schools more autonomy is dangerous. See this piece by Fiona Millar in the Guardian, for instance. The argument is that if you allow taxpayer-funded schools to break free of local authority control, it's inevitable that some of them will be taken over by extremists.
However, the report into the affair by Peter Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief, reveals that the Islamist plot to take over Birmingham schools dates back to before any of them became academies. The school at the centre of the plot, Park View, only converted to academy status last year and before that was run by the local education authority. As Clarke points out, the Islamist infiltration of Park View and other schools was brought to the attention of the local authority two years ago, when the schools were still Birmingham City Council's responsibility, and officers did nothing. According to Clarke, they decided not to intervene because they didn't want to risk upsetting the local Muslim population. (To read more, click here.)