Brief comments on various issues


Scroll down to 1/11/17 for my letter to MPs about PMQs, and to 8/9/17 for the most important school rule.

Plus scroll down for comment on Partition.





Spending more money on schools


Sent off an email this morning to Radio 4's Any Answers in response to comments I heard about education funding last night on Any Questions.  The producer gave me a call and asked if I would like to speak about the issue live on air but I declined her kind offer. I’d have been a gibbering wreck.


But I’m pleased the email was read out. I listened to the other contributions on the subject which were mostly in the direction of how schools were struggling to manage with the money they were being allocated. I have quite a lot of sympathy with heads who have to make difficult decisions because of the situation in which they find themselves, and I am absolutely opposed to making teachers or teaching assistants compulsorily redundant, but I firmly believe that spending more and more money on schools is not the way to improve education.


As a society we have become far too dependent on the education that is provided by the state through schools and colleges. We should be doing much more for ourselves which in the internet age is easier than it has ever been. Parents should be doing what I set out in the email to Any Answers below and they should also be taking their children to places of interest, engaging in sporting activities with them and helping them to be creative in different ways.


We certainly need to spend more money on the health service and social care but not on our schools. We haven’t the expertise to deal with complex health matters that affect our children but we are all capable of doing a lot more to assist with their education.


The email 


Instead of asking parents for money for their schools headteachers
should be asking them to spend more time helping with their children's
education at home. They should be asked to monitor and discuss all the
work their children do in school and to spend at least an hour a week
going over a specific aspect of their learning. They should encourage
their children with all their schoolwork and ensure they are always
conscientious and well-behaved in the classroom. Promoting a culture of
learning which starts in the home is a far better way to improve
education than pouring yet more money into schools as three of the
panelists advocate.


See also the comment below on 29/3/17






The Balfour Declaration


Excellent coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on the Today programme this morning. The declaration was included in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leading proponent of Zionism, and stated that the British Government viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for Jewish people whilst guaranteeing the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities. In effect the statement provided the basis for the creation of the state of Israel.


It has been the creation of Israel and the consequent loss of the Palestinian’s homeland that has been the cause of conflict in the region. Over many decades the violent hostility between Israel and the Palestinians has been a tragedy that has brought enormous suffering to people living there. Attempts to find a solution to the conflict and bring about a lasting peace have so far not succeeded. At the moment a lasting peace seems as far away as ever.


Although the past often explains the present it should never be allowed to get in the way of the future. The Balfour Declaration and what followed is history, but it is the future that matters. For the sake of all those who live in the region, particularly those who are suffering hardship and anguish as a direct result of violence, the international community must make a much greater effort to find a permanent solution.


The two state solution proposed by the Oslo Accords must not be allowed to wither away. It is the best way to deliver peaceful coexistence because self-determination for the Palestinians would meet one of their key objectives. Global support should be gathered for the United Nations to implement this two state settlement and this would include the UN being responsible for mediating in disputes and providing policing on the ground.


Today is yet another anniversary of a momentous occasion and it provides an opportunity to think about the future even more than the past.


See thoughts on the anniversary of Passchendaele and comment on Partition.






More on PMQs


I have aired my views about the poor behaviour of MPs at Prime Ministers Questions on previous occasions. My letter about this to the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn has, of course, made no difference at all and nor has my letter to John Bercow.


As I would like to see a big change in the way we do our politics I’m trying another tactic. I’m writing directly to MPs to ask them to get together with their colleagues and consider seriously whether PMQs should be discontinued. I am confident they will ignore my request but maybe my letter will challenge some of them to ponder on the damaging consequences that are brought about by the occasion.


In the interests of improving the lives of everyone we can and must do politics better. 


See the letter here.






The cough


If there’s one thing our media commentators excel at it is generating froth when they report on politics. I’ve just listened to Theresa May’s conference speech in full, having previously only heard extracts, and her coughing may have been distracting for some but it was, and still is, perfectly easy to listen to.


Those who were obviously most distracted were the members of the commentariat. John Pienaar was the first I heard to use the word excruciating to describe his experience of listening to the speech and he was followed by two of his colleagues. The coughing became the story for the BBC and the rest of the media, which would have been sufficient in itself but was gloriously embellished by a prankster who handed the Prime Minister a fake P45 form and by letters which obligingly fell off the slogan on the backdrop behind her.  Needless to say the whole occasion became one big metaphor for disaster and an excuse for yet more frenzied speculation about her continued occupation of  Number 10.


Which was a pity as it was the issues raised in the speech which should have been the focus of attention – by the media and, more especially, by the electorate. Issues such as whether the free market is in fact delivering the great benefits that Theresa May claims it is; whether we should be doing even more to encourage home ownership; and whether presumed consent is the best way to increase the number of organ donors.


The Prime Minister dealt with her cough with determination, poise and good humour. She also nonchalantly dealt with the fake P45 and even made a quip about giving one to Jeremy Corbyn. Completing her speech and putting over her points was an impressive performance and I say that as someone who is a long way from being a Conservative. I’m sure many people from across the political spectrum agree with me.


We the electorate should be extended the courtesy by the media of being treated as intelligent adults who want to understand what exactly is involved in the issues raised by our political leaders. It is the job of commentators to help us with that understanding by presenting us with serious arguments for and against what our politicians are telling us. It should not be their job to try to entertain us with an exaggerated story about how a having a cough could determine the future of a Prime Minister. It was all totally ridiculous. It was froth, and these days there is so much froth surrounding the reporting of politics I’m finding it – to use BBC vocabulary – rather excruciating.






Bricklayers, plumbers and electricians


It’s great to see that bricklayers, plumbers and electricians are earning good salaries. (Report in Daily Mail, 12/9/17) They richly deserve to be well paid. They are highly skilled, they work hard and they are doing manual labour which fewer and fewer people seem to want to do these days.


I have a few thoughts about this item of news. First, the high salary levels of workers in these occupations is a neat example of the law of supply and demand. Not enough skilled workers to do work that needs to be done means that good rates of pay have to be used to get people to do it. I’m pleased that the operation of this law is delivering generous remuneration for these particular workers but I have reservations about its operation more widely in our free market economy. We accept it far too readily as an immutable law of economics when we should in fact be looking to exercise far more control over how it operates.


Which brings me to my second observation. If the law of supply and demand results in high salaries this will not benefit everyone as can be seen in the case of an electrician – or anyone else for that matter – who earns a 150,000 a year. This may just be a bit too much. It could mean that those on lower incomes have to pay more than they can really afford in order to have any major electrical problems attended to and more, of course, for other services they pay for directly or indirectly  in which high, and often excessive, salaries are paid.


Third, the high salaries of these skilled tradespeople should be used to challenge the current obsessive drive to get more and more young people to university so they can reap the rewards of the increasingly illusory graduate premium. Young people should instead be advised to consider alternative routes for their future employment which will train them for a wide range of satisfying, well paid careers where their skills will always be needed.   


Finally, I hope that the fact that those who do skilled, practical work are now earning good salaries will give them the high status in society they deserve – which is close to the top of the social mobility ladder.






The most important school rule


I am very pleased to read on the website of the school at which Prince George has just started that the most important school rule is to “Be Kind”. It should be the most important rule for every school in the country.


And if there were a GCSE in kindness it would tower above every other qualification.






The women’s rugby world cup final and my lapse of discipline


Exciting. Skilful. Played at a breathless pace and with lots of commitment and passion. The women’s world cup rugby final the other night was an excellent sporting occasion, of superb quality and great to watch – even though I only managed to see the second half. England didn’t win and were rather overwhelmed by the intensity of the New Zealand attacks, but they tackled fearlessly and showed great skill and resolve.


There is nothing new about women’s sport being played at the highest level. It has been happening for a long time. For decades, and as far back as the early part of the twentieth century, women have participated in top level competitions in tennis, hockey, gymnastics, swimming and athletics. Over the years people have enjoyed watching great sportswomen such as long jumper Mary Rand, American tennis player Maureen Connolly or the swimmer Anita Lonsbrough.


What is new is the growing interest being shown by women and men in top competitions that have long been considered traditional bastions of male sport: cricket, football and rugby.  Evidence of this interest can be seen in the extensive media coverage of the recent women’s European football championships and the women’s cricket and rugby world cups. Given the skill displayed in these competitions it is not surprising they generated large audiences throughout the world.


One of the main obstacles women have had to overcome in their endeavour to play these three sports seriously has been the opposition of men – including myself. I well remember arguing at staff meetings against girls’ football being introduced at the primary school where I taught. I can’t remember what my arguments were but I imagine they would have been based on what was then the traditional view of gender and gender roles.


These views seem to be disappearing rapidly and the public discourse surrounding the whole issue of gender is as lively as ever. It is something I need to ponder.  But not now.


Meanwhile I have a confession to make. I’m going to fess up to having shouted at the television whilst watching the rugby. As the England winger raced towards the line and scored a try I couldn’t stop myself from loudly uttering “Good try, darling”. It was indeed a classy piece of play deserving a shout of approval but did I need to add the word “darling”?


I accept this was a serious lapse of viewing discipline for which I should have been red carded. I await further sentencing and hope I’m not banned for life from watching women’s rugby.  






70th Anniversary of Partition


The media coverage marking the seventieth anniversary of the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in August 1947 has made me aware of events of which I have been completely ignorant. It has been disturbing to read about the extreme violence which accompanied the decision to create a separate nation for the Muslin population of India. My ignorance about what took place has troubled me, as it so often does.


The new nation became Pakistan which consisted of two blocks of territory a thousand miles apart. It was the border drawn to separate India and Pakistan which brought about the problem of those practising a different religion from the majority of the population being stranded in a hostile environment. The dividing line cut across the province of Punjab in the north-west where widespread killing and atrocities took place as well as the migration of millions of  people who left their homes to begin a new life either in India or Pakistan.


It seems that in the subcontinent as a whole perhaps a million people died from the violence or diseases that were rife in the refugee camps. The essential cause of the violence was antagonism towards those who practised a different religion.


Violence for any reason is never acceptable but when it is associated with religious belief it is totally bewildering. Religion should be about doing good and loving one another. It should not be about intolerance and hatred.


The tragic events in India in the middle of the last century which brought untold suffering and grief to millions of people are another ugly scar on human history – as was the tragedy of Passchendaele, commemorations of which have also recently taken place.


Sadly lessons have not yet been learned. There are still too many parts of the world where religious or ethnic differences result in violent conflict. It is up to all of as individuals to speak out against such violence and insist that our leaders do not permit it to happen. We have a duty to ensure that wherever on the planet violence occurs we must argue strongly against it and take effective action to bring it to an end.


For an excellent summary of the events surrounding Partition see William Dalyrymple's article in The New Yorker.






Critical thinking


Listened to a radio programme on this subject last night.1 The contributors argued persuasively that critical thinking should be on the school curriculum. I agree with them entirely and have made the same argument strongly in my book, Forever Learning. In the chapter on Purposes I propose that a key purpose of education should be to instil the ability to think effectively.


I would like to see critical thinking as one of four areas of the curriculum that each pupil is tested on at the age of 15, the other three being literacy, maths and computing. National tests in these subjects would replace GCSE examinations which, it seems to me, have limited educational benefits and are well past their sell-by date.


The extract below is from Forever Learning and sets out some of the thinking strategies that pupils should learn and the benefits of doing so:


    To equip young people to think effectively in a variety of situations they should be taught some basic thinking strategies. They should be trained to acquire the habit of asking what, how and why about the situations they meet and the information they receive. They should be taught to solve problems by assembling the relevant facts, identifying the cause of a problem, devising methodical procedures to deal with it and testing whether the solution has been successful. When analysing information and ideas they should learn to check the logic of what they read and hear, and the evidence for it, and they should learn to present information themselves that is logical and coherent. In any situation in which they find themselves they should know the importance of looking at the advantages and disadvantages of a course of action and, unless the situation demands an immediate, instinctive response, they should know it is better to think before they act. When they form their opinions they should look at all sides of an argument, be aware of any bias they may have which influences their thinking and have sound reasons for the conclusions they come to.

    The benefits to individuals and society of being able to think effectively are enormous which is why teaching this skill must be a key purpose of education. It should be taught as a separate subject but additionally should feature prominently in the delivery of every area of the curriculum. Being able to think effectively allows us to make better decisions at home and at work which improves life for ourselves and those around us. It steers us towards the best thing to do when difficult situations arise and it gives us confidence when discussing complicated issues in our jobs, or in matters relating to our health, our children’s schooling or our financial affairs. Moreover, in helping us understand every aspect of the natural and man-made world in which we live it adds to our fulfilment and well-being.

    Being able to think effectively also helps us learn by ourselves by providing us with the wherewithal to process and apply knowledge and skills. It helps us with our understanding of everything and helps us develop an enquiring mind. We need to acquire the habit of thinking from a young age so that we gain the maximum benefit from this unique human capacity as we go through life.


1   Bringing up Britain presented by Mariella Frostrup






Manchester bombing


The news is desperately sad. Like everyone else I feel the basic human need to talk about it and share my thoughts. Our hearts go out to the loved ones of those who have died and we will think about those who have been injured and wish for their good recovery. Sadly there will be much grieving and many shattered lives for many years to come.


What can we do? If we know anyone affected we can offer practical and emotional support over the difficult months and years ahead. The pain of those who have lost loved ones is unimaginable.


Is there anything we can do to try to help prevent horrific acts of terrorism? I doubt if we will ever be able to stop evil acts being committed but we may be able to reduce the number if we report any suspicious or unusual behaviour by people we know. This was a comment I heard from someone on the radio and it is something that maybe we need to do more of.






Houses are probably more affordable than we think


I’ve just been listening to Mishal Hussein on the Today programme reporting from Birkenhead on the issue of housing. She interviewed someone about how difficult it was for him and his wife to buy their own property. They were newly married and had decided to rent. Their joint income was £40,000. They had their wedding in Las Vegas and had done some travelling in America. Previously on the programme there had been an interview with a spokesperson from Lovell homes who were building new properties in Birkenhead, prices of which in their Victoria Place development are 114,000 for a 2 bedroom mid mews home.(I couldn’t remember the figures from the spokesperson so I looked them up)


I cannot see why buying one of these would not be affordable to any couple on a joint income of £40,000 given that interest rates are so low at present. I’ve checked the monthly repayments for a mortgage of £100,000 over 25 years at 5% and they come to £585, which is very affordable and not a lot more than the £530 per month the couple in the report are paying in rent. I don’t know whether this rate is available but it is at least a rough, notional indication of affordability.


The whole question of why people are choosing to rent rather than buy needs to be examined much more carefully than it is and the BBC has a duty to do this. It must be very careful not to peddle what may well be popular myths on this or any other issue. There are probably reasons other than affordability which account for the move away from ownership to rental.






Why I'll be voting for Jeremy Corbyn


As a political nerd and erstwhile activist who began campaigning by delivering leaflets at an early age in the Torrington by-election I confess to having been fascinated with the beguiling world of politics for most of my life – a fascination created by nurture rather than nature. I shall be absorbed by everything that happens on the election front over the next few weeks and closely follow what is said – but not because I need to know the arguments to help me decide which way to vote, purely out of interest.


I don’t have to think about my decision because I made up my mind to vote for Jeremy Corbyn when he was elected leader of the Labour Party. I believed he was sincere in wanting to create a fairer society and do more to help the disadvantaged and least well-off. I share that belief although I’m not persuaded that his brand of old style socialism, in terms of policies or rhetoric, is the best way to deliver this objective.1   


As a supporter of a firm Brexit, however, I have to say that I’m not dismayed at the prospect of Theresa May being returned as prime minister. It will be good for everyone if she is able to deliver our departure from the EU in a way which brings benefits to individuals and families in our own country as well as contributing to the well-being of others in the wider world.


I think this puts me in the pleasing position that whether Jeremy or Theresa wins the election I will have something to welcome.



1  I ought to say that I also share his views on the monarchy and not having an independent nuclear deterrent. 





Why should a heart surgeon earn more than a McDonald’s employee?


Why should a heart surgeon earn more than a McDonald’s employee? A thought-provoking headline I spotted on Twitter to which I would like to add: Why should the CEO of Barclay’s Bank earn more than a care worker? Why should a barrister earn more than a hospital cleaner? And why should a footballer earn more than a lorry driver?


Interesting questions which we should ponder a lot more than we do. I dare say we all know the reasons why most societies operate with different rates of remunerating work but are they good reasons?


Whether or not we are in favour of preserving the huge wage differentials we have at present, and I’m not, most of us can surely agree that everyone is entitled to receive a basic wage they can afford to live on. Which is why I’m in favour of raising the minimum wage to the £10 an hour that Jeremy Corbyn has recently proposed. And if this means we all pay more for what we buy then we should willingly accept this. Otherwise we are guilty of exploiting people on low wages whenever we use their services or buy the goods they are involved in producing, distributing or selling.


“From primary school onwards children should be taught that all jobs are worthwhile and contribute to society.” Forever Learning, p100


NB I'm hoping the £10 minimum wage will be in Labour's election manifesto.





Increased spending on education


Comment to members of the Public Accounts Committee


Much as I’m in favour of having an equitable national funding formula for schools I am very doubtful whether increasing overall educational expenditure will make any difference to standards of education – however these are defined. Factors that will  actually make a difference cost no money at all. They are: a real culture of learning in society, the support and encouragement of parents, high expectations, the motivation and effort of pupils, and good teachers.  


Best wishes


Alan K


A few extracts from Forever learning:


    The basic principles that must underpin the drive to raise standards are familiar enough in theory but sometimes seem absent in practice. To begin with we need to have high expectations for all pupils across all areas of learning. …

For pupils to meet our high expectations we need to imbue them with a positive attitude to schoolwork and must explain that making an effort will often be necessary to achieve results…

    To meet our high expectations we also need to constantly inspire and motivate our children to learn. All learning needs to be made interesting and we must give them a fascination with knowledge…

    Moving to my three specific proposals the first is one I keep referring to, namely expecting parents to do more in the whole business of educating their children. …





School Funding Lottery                                                             


The details of a national funding formula for schools are presently being discussed. Such a scheme is long overdue. It has been a national disgrace that pupils in different edcuation authorities have been allocated different sums of money for so long. Postcode lottery is the only way to describe it. Education should be seen as a national, not a local responsibility, for the simple reason that all of us, surely, want the best for our pupils in whichever city or county they happen to live. That will benefit them as individuals and benefit society as a whole.  


I am pleased that serious discussions are at last taking place and hope that an equitable formula can be agreed. It is eleven years ago that I first wrote about the school funding lottery in an edition of School Report and it seems that the situation in recent years has been no better than it was then. It's a pity that such a relatively simple matter can take such a long time to put right.


Whilst on the subject of school funding I'm not in favour of the government increasing expenditure on schools. This will not raise standards of education. What will raise standards is parents taking much more responsibility for their children's learning and supporting them at home from the earliest years right through to adulthood. The whole question of raising standards, as well as the question of what should be the purpose of education, are key themes in my book, Forever Learning.


If we move to a national formula for funding pupils it seems to me that this would present an ideal opportunity to introduce an even more interesting innovation - a voucher or tax credit scheme to be made available to parents who wished to organise the education of their children themselves. More about this in the last chapter of the book. 


Good luck to those who are engaged in negotiations about the new formula. If anyone is interested I've copied the relevant sections of Edition 31 of School Report below. Other editions can be read by going to the School Report page.


Plus: see School Funding