Saturday, December 23, 2006

Five years later: Still no change in Lewisham schooling dilemma
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Evening Standard ran a story on December 20 that showed how more than eleven kids are chasing each place at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross, which makes it the most oversubscribed school in London. But this story of Lewisham over subscription could have been taken from an old article published more than five years ago.

Of the 208 places available at Hatcham College next September, 2,374 applicants are vying to be selected. It paints a pitiful picture that makes this borough look bad. In 2001, Lewisham Council said it could not access fresh money to build new schools while there was spare capacity in its State schools. This borough is still grappling with the issue of its schooling and as it emerges from the fiasco of the U-turn over the demolishing of the Ladywell Pool for a new school, it is found wanting. It is left to schools like Haberdashers’ to help. Outside of the ten percent it reserves for those that excel at music, Hatcham College runs a lottery for its remaining places. Otherwise, wealthy parents can buy token addresses within the catchment area of the school and effectively lock out poorer families. The other thing Haberdashers’ has done is taken over the old Malory school in Downham, which was slated five years ago for poor performance. A parent called Maxine Smelly was emotional at the thought of sending her son, Aaron, to that school in 2001: "My son cried when he heard he was only being offered a place at Malory School. Children know what kind of reputation the school has. I cried as well and I'm not the only parent who did so. I will keep him away from school rather than send him there." Thank heavens that reputation seems to have gone yet Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy – the successor to the old Malory – is also now facing an application overload: 911 children are chasing 208 spots, or more than four people for each place, for next year. You just can’t win, can you?

It seems to me that Lewisham Council ought to take a leaf out of the book of Alastair Pettigrew, their director of children's social care. He has argued for a new idea of looking after children in care using GP surgery-like practices. Run by the private and volunteer sectors, they would ultimately take over from local authorities. How about extending the same concept to schools? Why not invite organisations in the private and volunteer sectors to also take over our schools? And considering the success Haberdashers’ has had, I could not think of a better entity to turn to. But we better hurry up because Haberdashers’ seems to be looking beyond our borders. The Evening Standard of December 20 quotes Hatcham’s CEO Dr. Elizabeth Sidwell as already pondering another entity to include within the Haberdashers’ family: “It has just made it very clear to us that this is an offer that parents and children want. We would look to another school if we can, not necessarily in Lewisham.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Honesty in politics: Is it misleading or lying?
Lord Norman Warner of Brockley has resigned from his job as health minister. He says he wants to “spend more time with his family and not his red boxes”. Downing Street denied it was anything to do with the IT project of the NHS he was overseeing at the time although it was silent on whether it had anything to do with his misleading Parliament over the use of life coaches in the Department of Health. Oh dear, that old chestnut of politicians not telling the truth versus lying is up for debate again.

In September this year, the Lord stated in a written Parliamentary answer that his department had no contracts with executive coaching companies Praesta and ER Consultants. Two months later, he had to sheepishly admit that in fact, this was not so: “I regret that the answer I gave . . . was inaccurate . . . This was caused by human error when extracting data from the department’s accounting system and was not a deliberate attempt to provide misleading information.” Ah, it was accounts’ fault. This was the latest in a long line of NHS gaffes from the Brockley Baron. And speaking of money, you would have thought that life coaches, who can earn some £250 per hour, would have left something more behind than just a bill. Considering we - the taxpayer - ultimately pay life coaches like Praesta a small fortune to help our leaders become `better’, we ought to take an active interest in their work. The Sunday Times says they become `critical friends’ to our public officials and use role-play to improve their confidence. Hmmm. I can’t recall a shy politician ever canvassing for a vote. Residents of Lewisham ought to take an additional interest since Bridget Prentice the MP for Lewisham East is also parliamentary secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs: Her department alone is spending nearly a quarter of a million pounds with Praesta. What’s that all about?

It seems to me that there is something wrong here. In the Code of Ethics that Praesta subscribes to, it places great emphasis on professionalism when it says: Ensure that any claim of professional competence, qualifications or accreditation is clearly and accurately explained to potential clients and that no false or misleading claims are made or implied in any published material. If it’s good enough for the practitioner then it ought to be good enough for the client too. Especially if said client has control over the NHS. And what of misleading someone versus lying to them? Does it always hinge on unknowingly misrepresenting the truth as against acting with deliberate deceit? How can you demonstrate you genuinely did not know something? Isn’t it impossible to prove a negative? And isn’t this even worse in politics when there are umpteen layers of administration for such lapses of knowledge to fall between? For all the pomp and majesty of the House of Lords in particular and the centuries of tradition of Parliament in general with its cut and thrust of debate, the first casualty, like in war, is the truth. And considering that one of this country’s most controversial entanglements in decades – Iraq - was allegedly based upon flawed information, can we ever trust our politicians when they speak? And when they are inevitably found out, what then? In recent times, the commonly used device is to try and `spin’ out of the mess, with predictable groans of contempt from all around. Which is what makes the legacy of the late John Profumo, arguably the best critical friend a politician should ever need, glow all the more brightly…

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Watch out, watch out! There’s a Bullock about!
For those of a certain age, there was a TV ad in the seventies with a long red and white striped straw appearing on screen with a mysterious slurper who loved to make off with your milk, hence the tagline-cum-title of this post. This came to mind when I read about the latest exploits of our Mayor of Lewisham, Steve Bullock. He is now backing Mayor of London Ken Livingstone in the latter’s efforts to have more control over planning decisions in our city.

The psychologists will probably say I am sub-consciously linking Mayor Bullock’s praise of recycling cows with his name and some long-forgotten childhood fears over the boogieman (and did I mention that spooky Cravendale ad where the cows want back their milk?) But Mayor Bullock is not some vaudeville scoundrel you shout “Boo!” at when he enters stage left cackling and twitching his moustache. He represents a far bigger danger to us all. His fellow Mayors have the sympathy of the Prime Minister in giving them more powers over us. He apparently represents the interests of nine councils in London run by his political party although this is not a straightforward figure. `London Councils’ says the figure is eight including Lewisham, which has no overall political control, but then the GLA itself, courtesy of fellow party Mayor Livingstone, is possibly the ninth. And isn’t it grand that although his party has fewer councillors than the combined opposition, Lewisham can still be considered politically red: How many councillors is one Mayor really worth? Countless, it seems. And don’t forget that our Mayor also sits on the board of the New Local Government Network, a well-supported think-tank that seeks to promote executive Mayoralty in this country. Mr. Bullock has written to MPs with that old chestnut of `give us just a little more power and no more’: He says "Any new powers will only be used to address issues of real importance to all Londoners, such as providing more affordable housing or ensuring important waste recycling facilities are delivered." He says elsewhere: “There are no proposals to remove planning decisions from local councils. No statutory housing powers and duties that currently rest with local authorities are being transferred to the Mayor.” But this is from a man who sees himself bigger than Lewisham Council, so little comfort there. Mr. Bullock also adds: “Far from reducing local accountability and transparency the Government's proposal to devolve planning and housing powers to the Mayor of London will mean more affordable homes for Londoners, and will not erode local democracy as is being suggested.” I cannot help but consider the opposite is the truth. Mr. Bullock has an amazing ability to say contradicting things at the same time. He was quite happy to both praise and condemn the Save the Ladywell Pool campaign simultaneously. Therefore, I have to assume the worst.

It seems to me that we have been here before. A small, seemingly limited form of rule making decides it needs just a little more control to deliver better service. And over time, bit-by-bit, it becomes more intrusive in our lives. It ends up being totally different from what was proposed to us in the beginning. And there is little you can do unless you declare total opposition and openly fight it. So just like the European Union is today, we could one day have a form of unaccountable local Government where people like Mayors Bullock and Livingstone will order us about with impunity. Save for us shouting, “look behind you! Beware of that unmasked man!” there may be little else to do. And unfortunately, Mr. Bullock, unlike any Humphrey, will be around long after panto season is over…

Monday, December 04, 2006

Media (not) for All? Society (not) for All?
A recent report was made on the success of a media training charity in Deptford called `Media for All’, and how it was set up to help troubled Black youngsters. While the story focused on the organisation’s aim to help Black people gain a foothold into media, the charity’s website itself makes no reference at all to Blacks in particular. This contradiction actually offers an accurate portrayal of the race issue in Britain today: That age-old phenomenon of good intent undone by confusion of direction.

Originally titled `Offering help to Black youngsters’, this story notched up fourteen (at the time of writing) responses online – a hot issue for sure. Posters were highly critical that special emphasis was being made for Blacks. One poster was even Black himself and felt such separatism caused ill feeling. This prompted the newsroom to change the title to `Offering help to youngsters in media’ although the rest of the article was left intact. One of the reasons cited for the emphasis on Blacks in the story, and which is indeed common in other related areas, was that there was an under-representation of Blacks in media. Therefore to solve this supposed problem, special measures were (and some may say, are still) needed to increase the participation of Blacks. So an awkward link has been made between population diversity and population activity. Forget that the origins of each of these two areas are as different from each other as can be; it’s the end result that counts. A recipe for disaster beckons as social engineers start to flirt with positive discrimination that can yield resentment (not unlike seen in the angry replies to the media charity story) and it raises a justified concern whether Blacks are in fact patronised with preferential treatment. Society cannot have it both ways: It is impossible to reconcile the aim of a racially neutral world by emphasising racial differences. True diversity is where labels are always in deference to value in the pursuit of integration. Overtime, the sum of the parts becomes more valuable than the parts themselves. This is not the same as making those parts redundant – taking even a small fuse out of an electrical appliance would affect the entire machine. Unfortunately, this view would upset certain people who dwell on the past and seek to keep race very much on the agenda. And it also is at odds with those obsessed with multi-culturalism, a devious social plaything that gives age-old divisiveness a contemporary feel.

It seems to me that we can gain guidance on the best way forward by studying a man who personally lived through and fought extreme prejudice: Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. In his 1964 book `Why we can’t wait’, Dr. King referred to the American Wagner Act of the 1930s that helped support U.S. trade unions to organise in the teeth of State opposition to organised labour. He also felt that similar targeted help was needed for Blacks in the 1960s to overcome racial prejudice in opportunity. But Dr. King was talking in a different time from today: The same book also described job automation as a peril, causing a collapse of manual labour which was, in Dr. King’s words, “an intolerable situation”. But the other thing we can learn from Dr. King is his recognition of not just how to start a crusade but how to close it as well. In 1965, he told members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee that one had to consider how to end a campaign as well as how to commence it. Such an approach was not one of weakness but measured and flexible strength. It gave more open-minded opposition parties a chance to concede without losing face while isolating the extremists. This was a far more effective approach than endless fighting that would have been hard to sustain, create increasingly hard-line factions that would give support to extremists and possibly escalate into a far worse environment. Roll on forty years, and we seem paralysed in what to do about racism in Britain today. Many people are unable to distinguish multi-culturalism as being different from multi-racialism. The first is a matter of choice and the other is an act of nature. Defend the freedom to choose, but do not impose the choice while protect against the discrimination of that which no one has control over. There is nothing wrong with an unequal society as long as there is equal opportunity. And how about imposing timelines like Dr. King advocated? Is it beyond our ability to aim for a date where the need to racially profile ourselves in questionnaires can be phased out? Would such a demise be more acceptable if support was given to use undercover operatives to unearth acts of racism in the provision of goods, services and employment, and, as well as name and shame the guilty, praise the colour-blind? This country can’t afford to support well meaning - but badly defined - initiatives with flawed and dated solutions. And it can’t continue without end either.