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Prime Minister's Questions


Having a May/Corbyn coalition 


Alternative manifestos (To see AK's Alternative Manifesto click here)


Why taking children on holiday during term time can be good for their education


Teaching practical life skills 





Thoughts on …


Prime Minister's Questions


My thoughts about Prime Minister's Questions are contained in this joint letter to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn requesting they get rid of them.  


Dear Mrs May and Mr Corbyn


I am writing to both of you jointly to request that you give serious and thoughtful consideration to the future of Prime Minister’s Questions.


I find it an absurd ritual in which a vast amount of unintelligent and immature behaviour is regularly displayed. I say this because jeering at members of parliament who belong to a different political party, and cheering members of one’s own party, is clearly an indication of behaviour that is determined by herd instinct rather than rational thought. I am sure that both of you, along with everyone else, want those who are serving the nation to be thinking rationally about the arguments for and against particular proposals rather than engaging in unseemly conduct.


The people of this country want and expect those who are making decisions on their behalf to possess the ability to think clearly for themselves and have the strength of character to say what they genuinely believe. People want and expect their MPs to listen carefully to opposing viewpoints, respect the opinions of others and be willing to alter or modify their own if they decide that alternative arguments are stronger than theirs. They want and expect them to be courteous at all times and possess the self-control not to indulge in immature behaviour.


Many of us, as you are all too well aware, are weary of the unnecessarily divisive and  adversarial nature of our present party political system. You have both spoken of governing in the interests of the whole country. I am actually in favour of you forming a coalition together which would enable this to happen but if this is not possible can you at least jointly get rid of the demeaning spectacle of Prime Ministers Questions? Can you also please ensure that all debates and discussions in parliament are conducted in a mature and thoughtful manner without the accompaniment of partisan sound effects.


I am not persuaded, as some might suggest, that Prime Minister’s Questions, or similar disorderly occasions, allow arguments to be scrutinised and tested thoroughly. By far the best way to achieve this is to discuss ideas calmly and rationally and consider them with an open rather than a closed mind. I am sure that members of parliament have the intellectual capacity to be able to do this and I am sure, too, that in their different ways they are seeking to create what they believe will be a better society.  They must, however, resist the temptation to engage in behaviour that contributes absolutely nothing to a careful analysis of the issues.  


A rational, mature and non-partisan approach to political debate would be much more beneficial for the country than the primitive, tribal politics that continues to blight our system. I hope you agree with this and will make every effort to change the culture we have – leading, of course, by example.


No one objects to views being expressed passionately, or indeed with humour, but the synthetic passion and cheap jibes that we often see and hear at PMQs and on other occasions are wholly inappropriate and counterproductive.  


We can and must do better.


Yours sincerely


Alan Kerr



PS:  I would be very happy for this letter to be shared with your parliamentary colleagues and I am sending you an email copy so this can be done conveniently.




Thoughts on …


Having a May/Corbyn coalition



There is a simple, sensible and entirely rational solution to the problem of not having a government with an overall majority. The solution is a May/Corbyn coalition. This would be the ultimate in governing for the whole country and the ultimate in democracy, an election result in which everyone is a winner because everyone’s vote has counted.


Theresa May has said very clearly that she wants her government to work for everyone. So what better way to achieve this than to have Conservative and Labour politicians working constructively together to agree on policies that improved the well-being of the vast majority of people especially those who are disadvantaged, those on low incomes or, to use the phrase spoken by Theresa May when she first became prime minister, those who are just about managing.


The idea is currently being mooted that there should be cross-party discussions about the future of Brexit negotiations. Of course there should be. A lot of people were unhappy with the referendum result and a lot of different considerations need to be taken into account. Having calm, sensible discussions on a wide range of Brexit issues instead of endlessly repeating the same tired slogans to each other would be a much better approach and one more likely to end in a negotiating position that would be acceptable to most people.


If it makes sense to have cross-party discussions on how we go about leaving the EU then surely there is no logical reason why we should not do this with other issues. MPs, politicians, media commentators and the general public should be looking at policies in a much more non-partisan way. They should be subjecting ideas to the closest scrutiny and thinking carefully and logically about them in order to arrive at their conclusions. And to help them achieve this they should be listening to, and respecting, the views of other people, and trying to understand why they hold different views. People can still hold strong views and express them with passion but, with a few exceptions, they should always acknowledge and respect the views of others and be prepared to modify their opinions if they encounter arguments that are stronger than theirs.  


Unfortunately, calm, rational and respectful discourse is far too often absent from our politics especially during elections. Instead we have discussion that is strident, partisan and disrespectful, and which lacks maturity, intelligence and wisdom. We should demand better from our politicians and also from those who report on their deliberations. Unfortunately, too, we have all become conditioned to accepting the adversarial nature of the system we have which is particularly noticeable in the chamber of the House of Commons. The most obvious example of adversarial politics is, of course,  at prime minister’s questions where astonishing levels of immaturity and lack of intelligence are regularly displayed.


As a society we need to break out from the mental and emotional captivity which keeps us imprisoned within our outdated, inflexible political system. We need to substitute thoughtful political discussion for the parroting of party dogma. Everyone, and especially those we elect to make decisions on our behalf, must learn to think for themselves and listen to other points of view.


Listening to each other and respecting each other’s viewpoints is what May and Corbyn should be doing. They both want the best for ordinary people so instead of constantly making cheap jibes about one another they should be working together, in the interests of the many, to get things done.


There is plenty to do. There is Brexit of course but more importantly there is plenty to do to secure the well-being of those who are disadvantaged for whatever reason and those who are just about managing – Mrs May’s phrase when she was first elected. There is plenty to do to counter the constant threat of terrorism. And there is plenty to do on the issues of social care, spending on the health service, tuition fees and deficit reduction.


Moreover, if we really can begin to change our political system for the better there is plenty to do in this endeavour. MPs can start the ball rolling on constitutional reform immediately by getting rid of PMQs and abandoning some of the silly traditions that accompany the Queen’s speech.1


The British public should seize the opportunity presented by the result of the general election to demand that their members of parliament begin to sweep away the ridiculous system of adversarial party politics that blights our decision-making and move to a more inclusive approach.


A May/Corbyn coalition would be a bold statement of intent that we were finally on the road to a mature democracy. Such a coalition would not only be good for the whole country in the immediate future it would pave the way for a transformation of our political culture. May and Corbyn can secure an enduring historic achievement if they go down this route. I urge them to do so.



1   See the section on Government in AK’s Alternative Manifesto for some thoughts on reforming the system.




Thoughts on …


Alternative manifestos


We need some new thinking on the issues that feature in the election campaign. So I’m doing a bit of thinking myself and compiling a manifesto with some rather different ideas in it.


There’s no reason why we shouldn’t all be doing this. We should all try to compile some mini-manifestos in our heads or perhaps jot down some ideas on our tablets, or on a piece of paper. If we thought about why we wanted to include certain proposals in our manifestos it would help us reflect seriously on the many issues that affect our lives and the lives of other people. Our proposals need not cover the whole spectrum of human existence but contain just a few of the things we would like to change in society.


Unlike the documents drawn up by political parties our alternative manifestos will not be put to the electorate and will not therefore be used to continue the pretence that these documents are a vital part of the democratic process. Politicians like to claim that a manifesto provides a democratic mandate to proceed with the policies contained within it but this is disingenuous and untrue.


To begin with, it is extremely unlikely that the party of government will have been elected by the majority of the electorate so how the policies of such a government can possibly be claimed to be democratic is beyond my understanding. Looking at the results of general elections since 1945 no government has been elected with more than 50% of the votes cast and in the past three elections this has been considerably below 40%. Bearing in mind the low turnout at these elections the last three governments were actually elected by less than a quarter of the electorate as a whole  - the 2005 Labour government being elected by just 21.6% of the electorate which stretches the definition of democracy well beyond what is sensible.  


But even if it is widely accepted – but not by me I’m afraid – that a government has a certain democratic legitimacy by virtue of having the largest number of MPs, although only winning the support of a small percentage of the electorate, it is still completely false to say that this gives it a mandate to implement all its manifesto proposals. It does not. For the simple reason nobody knows how people will have voted on a particular issue. Because manifestos contain a raft of proposals it is impossible to establish whether they will all have commanded widespread support among those who voted for the party of government. People may have voted in a certain direction because they were attracted by certain policies in a manifesto but may not have agreed with other proposals. Moreover they may have voted for a party for reasons that were nothing to do with party manifestos – they may have always voted that way, or preferred one party leader to another, or as must often be the case, voted on the basis of what they perceived to be the economic competence of those seeking to govern.


An obvious illustration of the problem is this. If the creation of more grammar schools is in the Conservative manifesto for this election, and if the Conservatives were to win and go on to introduce legislation to bring this about, it would be quite wrong for them to claim a mandate for this policy if most people who voted for them were opposed to it but voted Conservative for other reasons.


We need to see manifestos differently. They should be viewed as documents which contain proposals and ideas which broadly indicate the programme a political party would follow if it became the party of government. They should also be used to promote discussion, debate and, most importantly, serious thought about different issues but they should not be used to provide a mandate for everything they contain.


A much better way to seek a mandate for specific proposals, or to gauge the level of public support for them, would be for the electorate to vote on a number of key issues at the same time as electing their member of parliament. This exercise in direct democracy would be seen as equally important as the election of MPs and it would be a constitutional obligation for a new government to take account of the level of public support for the various issues that were voted upon. More politics, which might not please Barbara from Bristol, but an instrument of democracy we urgently need to introduce.


For the moment let’s keep manifestos and use them in the way I have suggested. But let’s also try to compile our own and as soon as time permits start thinking about what we would like to include in them. And when we’ve firmed up our ideas let’s share them on social media or in face to face conversations – remembering always to say why we believe in them and putting our case calmly and rationally.




I’m spending more time working on my alternative manifesto than most people can spare but just having a few thoughts about what you would put in your own mini-manifesto would be a good way to engage with the issues at this election.


My ideas may seem unconventional at first but I think they’re worth giving some serious thought to. I will add to them over the coming weeks.


See: AK’s Alternative Manifesto




Thoughts on …


Why taking children on holiday during term time can be good for their education



Schools need rules, as do all institutions. They would not be able to function otherwise. If pupils could turn up for school or lessons at any time there would be chaos as there would be if they were allowed to run down corridors.1 Breaking the rules can be disruptive and it was the disruptive effect of unauthorised absences that was pointed to in Lady Hale’s comments about the Supreme Court judgement against a parent who had taken his child on holiday during term time.2  


One of the questions to ask, of course, is who should be making the rules. Should it be headteachers, school governors, politicians or parents? Moreover, should those who are making the rules, and who are in positions of authority, be allowed to make rules which infringe people’s liberty – in this case the liberty of parents to decide the date when they will go on holiday with their children. Without wishing to explore the territory of liberties, rights and obligations I would suggest that in society as it is presently organised, the ultimate decision-makers should be those who are paying for the service being provided, who in the case of public sector services such as education, are the taxpayers. If the majority of taxpayers believe that schools should not allow parents to take their children on holiday in term time then that should be the policy; if, on the other hand, they feel schools should be more flexible then this approach should be adopted. I’m not proposing we should have a referendum on the issue but government ministers and headteachers should certainly take account of public opinion.


One of my beliefs about our system of schooling is that the state, and schools as agents of the state, have become far too dominant in the way education is delivered – both in our own country and elsewhere. This has led to an over-dependency on what is provided by the state, the removal of responsibility from parents and a monolithic system of provision. Our educational system has become too controlling and indeed overbearing. Telling parents when they should take their children on holiday is but one aspect of this.


Parents should be at the heart of educating their children in every respect. They should be encouraged to do much more than they do at present – in teaching their children behaviour and values, in showing them how to treat other people, in equipping them with life skills for the future and in giving them an understanding of everything in the world around them. They should be doing this all the time, every day, including when they take them on holiday, whenever they choose to do this. Holidays, in fact, provide an ideal opportunity to advance children’s all round learning and development away from the pressures of school.


It does seem to me that too many parents are keen to take their children on holiday abroad instead of letting them encounter the fantastic places our own country has to offer. But I’m not going to lecture them about this at the moment and I’m happy to acknowledge that going abroad is an exciting experience. It also has the potential to be an infinitely enriching educational experience. And this is what it should be – achieved in a relaxed but engaging way through doing things together as a family and spending time talking about them. I’ve set out below some of the essential purposes of education which can be met by going on holiday abroad.3  


The most important of these is for children to learn about living well as a family; learning about having quality time together and using this for chatting, laughing, having fun, listening to each other, being close to each other, not having arguments, not getting annoyed or stressed, and not being allowed to do any complaining or whingeing. This quality time will also provide opportunities for calmly reinforcing behaviour and values, for insisting that children say please and thank you regularly, and for asking them to be helpful and polite within the family and with everyone they talk to at the airport, in the hotel or anywhere else. 


Holidays provide an ideal opportunity, as well, to remind children about the virtues of being appreciative and grateful – grateful for what their parents are doing for them by taking them on holiday and grateful for everything else they do for them. It is equally an opportunity for children to think about the billions of people in the world who never have a holiday because such a luxury is way beyond their means. 


Both before and during a holiday there are opportunities for children and young people to learn and practise life-skills. They can learn about booking the trip, about insurance, about exchange rates, and about pricing and discounts related to supply and demand, especially relevant in the holiday trade and a key factor in the current dispute. Younger children who are not confident with the 24 hour clock can become familiar with arrival and departure times, and all ages groups can remind themselves of compass directions. On the writing front children can do a Facebook diary or, better still, a proper, handwritten diary with photos, drawings and sketches. Indeed why not have the whole family doing some drawing and sketching?


Holidays provide great opportunities to encourage children to be curious about the world around them – not just when they are younger but in their teenage years too. Human beings are naturally curious and this capacity should be developed and nurtured all the time. So, if you are a parent, ask your children if they know how planes fly and how they can possibly take off given how heavy they are. Talk about how they move forward and fly at such great speeds, and how the science involved in a jet engine differs from that involved in the use of propellers. Investigate together the whole business of air traffic control and its amazing contribution to modern travel. 


Encouraging children’s curiosity about their destination and how they will get there is not only educational it is an essential part of the excitement. If they are going abroad they should learn about the country they are visiting from the internet and books they buy or borrow from the library. They should find the country on a map of the world and know roughly how far away it is. They should look up information about its landscape, towns and cities, and flora and fauna together with its history and economy, and its climate and cuisine. They should learn some of its language and practise useful phrases.


When they arrive they should not spend all of their time by the pool or on the beach. They should be taken to places of interest, and places where they mingle with local residents, and they should try to speak the language as much as possible.


The journey itself is full of learning opportunities. In which direction is the country they are flying to?  Which countries will they fly over? On the plane they should look out of the window and be in awe of what they see, and should certainly be allowed to give a running commentary. They should try to identify what is below them including rivers, mountain ranges and cities, and they should be aware of changes in the weather.


There is no doubt in my mind that the educational potential of a holiday is immense. It provides scope for essential learning in social skills, values and life skills, and the opportunity to engage actively with a wide range of knowledge that can be as enriching and meaningful as anything that can be learned in school. If approached properly none of this real-life learning will be seen by children as being tedious or boring – in fact the opposite will be true.


Parents need to be creating a culture of learning themselves instead of leaving everything to be provided by the state.  We have become far too reliant on school-based education and it is time to redress the balance. If parents take their children out of school for a couple of weeks and do some educating themselves along the lines I have suggested, this would be hugely beneficial.


Schools, local authorities and Ofsted need to be much more relaxed about children having holidays during term time and adopt flexible policies to accommodate parents’ wishes in this matter. A fortnight’s holiday will have no effect on children at primary school and very little effect on pupils of lower secondary age. It could possibly have some effect on older pupils taking GCSE courses but this could easily be overcome if parents helped their children with the work they missed.4 Moreover, if teachers were to build regular reinforcement into their planning, and not just leave this until exams were about to be taken, pupils on GCSE courses would regularly revisit any parts of their course they had not covered the first time around.


A change of mindset is required in society which would bring about an expectation that parents should take much more responsibility than at present for all aspects of their children’s education and that the role of the state should be to support them in this. We have become far too dependent on what the state provides and too accepting of the present system – including the way it is dictating to parents when they should take their holidays.5


1   Though why there needs to be rules about wearing school uniforms is beyond my comprehension.


2   “Unauthorised absences have a disruptive effect, not only on the education of the individual child, but also on the work of other pupils, and of their teachers.”


3   See the chapter on purposes in Forever Learning – printed in full on the website.


4   I am proposing to ask the DFE to point me in the direction of the evidence which shows that “every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.”


5   The involvement of parents in their children’s education is a far better way to raise standards than spending more money on schools. See Comments page. 




Thoughts on …


Teaching practical life skills


There is more to a good education than league tables. So said the new head of Ofsted to a recent conference of school and college leaders. No one will disagree with her and teachers will look forward in due course to seeing her views on what, in her words, “makes a really good curriculum.”1


In my recent book, Forever Learning, I’ve set out my own views on the school curriculum. I’ve also set out what I believe to be the purposes of education.2 These need to be clearly established before we can frame a curriculum to meet them. It is regrettable and puzzling, however, that these purposes are rarely discussed these days except for the one purpose that shouldn’t be a consideration in educating children under the age of fifteen  – that of providing social mobility.3


One of the purposes I identify as essential is to equip young people with life skills. These include literacy, numeracy and IT in all of which a high degree of competence is required for everyday life in modern society. These are, of course, also essential skills for employment.


But there are other life skills which should be taught: practical skills which although not essential, will be useful in adult life. Moreover, and importantly, they will contribute to the sense of fulfilment that comes when we achieve something by completing a task and this will play a part in adding to our feelings of well-being. The fact that they are practical skills and require us to do things with our hands will also add to our well-being. Doing things with our hands has been a key factor in our earliest evolution as human beings and is something that is deeply embedded within us psychologically and emotionally, as well as biologically. We need to use our hands, and this gives us satisfaction and pleasure. In our high tech age it is even more necessary in order to restore some balance in our lives.


Ideally many of these practical life skills should be taught at home but often they seem not to be. One of the reasons for this is that many people probably don’t have the skills that need to be taught. They were not learned at school, nor from their own parents, and have not been learned thoroughly in the course of doing necessary jobs around the house.


So, what are these practical life skills I am referring to? The one that is uppermost in my mind at the moment is how to use a paintbrush correctly – not the sort you use to do a delicate watercolour but the sort you buy in the decorating aisles of B and Q or somewhere similar. I’ve had a paintbrush in my hand for months as I’ve slowly edged my way round door frames, skirting boards, window sills, radiators and the sides of stairs. I don’t know whether I’ve been using the correct technique or not and, although I’m reasonably happy with the end result, this may well have been better if at some stage I had been properly taught.


The same applies to using a roller. I’ve only done a small amount of emulsioning on this occasion, and it looks reasonable enough, but maybe it could have been better, or applied more quickly, if had been given some instruction.


I have not hung any wallpaper this time round – I paid someone to do this and he’s done a brilliant job. But over the years I’ve done a fair bit. I’ve read the DIY books and learned the hard way through experience but I have never been taught. Nor have I been taught how to put up shelves properly which may help explain the imperfections in some of my workmanship. Similarly my attempts at tiling are certainly not perfect even if the overall effect is satisfactory.  


I can see no reason why young people should not be taught these practical skills in school and no reason why many more should not be taught. What’s wrong with teaching them how to use a saw correctly, how to drill into a wall and how to fix a leaking tap? And for the outside of the house why not teach them how to mix cement, lay a patio or put up a garden fence?  This is not to lessen the importance of having skilled professionals to call upon when we need them it is just equipping people with some basic techniques if they want to try doing something themselves or if they can’t afford to get someone in.


Practical life skills include more than those involved in DIY. Knowing how to use a needle and thread helps when there are sewing jobs to do. Learning how best to wash clothes, clean floors and remove stains from carpets is useful knowledge to acquire. And learning the best way to use an iron should also have a place on the curriculum as I think it still does in Finland. There should be nothing unusual about pupils going straight from a history lesson to a lesson where they learn how to iron a shirt or blouse.


Two more hands-on, practical life skills can be added to the list. One is gardening and generally looking after plants whether outdoors or indoors. Sowing seeds, tending shrubs and growing vegetables are life-enhancing pursuits at any age and pupils should be given plenty of opportunities to learn about these things.


The other is cooking – a subject that is already on the curriculum. It has recently been made more of a priority and should continue to be allocated a significant amount of time throughout primary and secondary school. Moreover, all parents should be encouraging   their children to do as much cooking at home as possible so that it is something that comes easily to them as adults.


Being taught practical life skills by teachers and parents will normally be better than simply watching demonstrations on YouTube, however instructive these are. I hope the new head of Ofsted, and everyone else involved in educational decision-making, will give serious consideration to ensuring that learning these skills is on the curriculum in every school.4


1   Speech to the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) – available on GOV.UK website.


2   See:


3   We urgently need to rethink what we mean by social mobility and how it can best be achieved. Surely we should have the highest regard for those who do the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs that are so vital to our daily lives and remunerate them at a much higher rate than at present. We should value all the work people do, whatever it is, and accord it the high esteem it deserves.


4   Extract from Forever Learning (P 60)


    A third weakness lies in the lack of attention given to practical life skills. Passing on life skills from one generation to the next should largely be the responsibility of parents but schools have a role to play when parents are not doing their job properly. I do not see every pupil being taught how to put up shelves, how to paint a skirting board or how to wallpaper a room. And I do not see everyone learning how to iron a shirt or blouse, as they do in Finland, or shorten a pair of trousers. Cooking skills are taught but all pupils should be shown how to grow vegetables and feel the excitement of harvesting produce they have grown themselves. Personal finance and household management have not been given the emphasis they should have received and nor have two other life skills which should be made compulsory immediately: keyboard skills and first aid, the latter to be practised regularly from primary school onwards.