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For one of the reasons why I voted "leave" see numbers 5 and 3



GCSEs failing the test


Leadership. direction and the rudderless ship


The result of the EU referendum


Bus drivers


The EU referendum and a global vision





Thoughts on …


GCSEs failing the test                                                            


The annual summer ritual of sending out exam results has begun. By the end of next week young people will have learned the grades they have achieved in their A levels, BTECs and GCSEs. As usual there will have been plenty of success to celebrate and no one should begrudge them a good set of results. Those who have attained high grades will have worked hard and deserve their success.


But as well as celebrating success we should seriously be questioning whether the incredible amount of time and effort spent on taking exams is justified. Looking specifically at GCSEs I take the view that they are not necessary and nor are they conducive to a good education. With regard to the latter point they encourage too much cramming and do little to enthuse young people with the pleasure of learning. It is a production-line model of education which reduces opportunities to assimilate knowledge thoroughly and is a hindrance to making full use of pupils’ natural curiosity.


But are GCSEs necessary? It is my belief they are not. They are simply not an effective means of fulfilling two of their main functions: preparing and selecting people for employment. The first of these, preparing future members of the workforce, is ludicrous. Being able to write down information at breakneck speed about, for example, the characters in Romeo and Juliet or the factors that led to the rise of Hitler, is not a skill that is ever likely to be required in the world of work. Nor for that matter is the ability to solve quadratic equations at a rapid rate.


As for the second function, selecting young people for employment, I cannot see that steering them into either a vocational or an academic course on the basis of their GCSE grades is either sensible or fair. This is what usually happens and it perpetuates the outdated idea that we are born with innate abilities that suit us for particular occupations. The truth is that most of us have the ability to enter any occupation we choose if we set our minds to it and work hard.


It is time to replace GCSEs with a basic skills test taken at 15 that would assess English, maths, critical thinking and IT. Up until that age pupils would still follow a national curriculum but it would be taught in ways that enthused them with learning. Post-15 they would begin to prepare properly for specific employment and this is when they would need to be rigorously assessed on their capabilities.


GCSEs fail the test of providing secondary pupils with the best possible education and also fail the test of adequately preparing and selecting them for employment. They should be phased out as soon as possible.



For more on the subject of GCSEs see Forever Learning Chapter 6.





Thoughts on …


Leadership, direction and the rudderless ship


It has been a good couple of weeks for the nautical metaphor. Since the country voted to leave the EU David Cameron stated he should not be the captain to steer the country to its next destination. He, and someone else I heard, spoke about “steadying the ship” and I listened to somebody using the expression “it will not be plain sailing in the days ahead.” However, the nautical metaphor that has attached itself, like a barnacle to my consciousness, is that of being rudderless. We, that is all of us on board our great ship of state, are without a rudder – that vital piece of equipment attached to the rear of a boat which determines the direction in which it sails.

What has happened to the rudder? Where has it gone and why has it disappeared so suddenly? It seems it has been lost or damaged in the raging seas caused by hurricane Brexit. Which means we are no longer able to sail in the direction we choose. We are drifting in a stormy, unpredictable sea.

Whether or not the rudderless metaphor has clarified our understanding of recent political events is open to question but it does at least convey the impression of a lack of direction in our body politic. Two factors appear to have brought this about. One is that no one has known precisely where we are heading in the post-Brexit world and the other has been the absence of leadership in the government and opposition – the former now resolved with the installation of a new prime minister. Since leadership and direction have   become significant issues in our present political discourse now is as good a time as any to think about what these concepts should be offering us.

Starting with leadership. It is a notion that has been around in human society for a long time and has been talked about over the centuries especially in the contexts of warfare, politics and religion. It receives even more attention today either in casual conversation or as an important component of business and management courses. We have widened discussion about it to include its use in business, in campaigns for social reform, in mobilising public opinion, in public services and in schools where headteachers are now referred to as school leaders.

Plenty has been written on the subject1 and plenty of serious analysis has been presented in seminars and lecture halls. I have never actually participated in a seminar on leadership but I imagine the qualities good leaders should possess, and the approaches they should adopt, are poured over in minute detail on these occasions. No doubt the qualities of great leaders in history are used to support the arguments that are advanced with Churchill, Gandhi and Martin Luther King probably among the many names that are mentioned. I hope some of the unsavoury leaders of the past are also mentioned. In terms of leading people Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan were highly effective but in terms of direction they could not have been more wrong. They were undoubtedly strong leaders, however, which makes me wary of describing anyone in this way even if their intentions seem benign.

Having the right sense of direction, in my view, is more important than possessing qualities of leadership. We have become too preoccupied with leadership and not enough with direction. Political leaders need to think more carefully about the sort of society we should inhabit and the direction we should take to obtain it. I know what sort of society I wish to live in. It is one based on securing the welfare of every human being on the planet, especially those who are disadvantaged, and one based on an equitable distribution of wealth and income.

Those of us who believe we should be much more resolute in securing the welfare of everyone should make our views known to each other and to those in authority. We must use clear, rational arguments to persuade our leaders to move in the right direction and we must assist our leaders in persuading other people that the direction is correct. We must constantly be educating each other and reminding each other of our essential values and precepts. We should think for ourselves, challenge accepted orthodoxies and beliefs that prevent us from taking the right course of action and come up with thoughtful ideas that will help us achieve our objectives. All of us must see it as a duty we owe each other to be involved as much as possible in the discussion and decision-making that will determine the direction we take.

We should not be seeking strong leadership from our new prime minister and government. Instead we should be demanding leadership that uses persuasion and is compassionate, gentle but determined in the pursuit of a better society. Its direction should be based on the highest values and ethical principles that we know. In our own country that means ensuring no one is disadvantaged by poverty, disability, ill health or inadequate housing. It means raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount and guaranteeing everyone employment. It means not renewing Trident and it means funding social care more generously. In the wider world it means arguing for greater action to end global poverty and much greater action to resolve the many conflicts that are the cause of so much suffering.

I have been more than happy not to have been led by our politicians during the past couple of weeks. Whether we have been rudderless, or not, since the result of the referendum the sun has still been shining, society has not collapsed and people have been going about their daily lives as normal. And the reason daily life has continued as normal is because to a large extent we have been leading ourselves in the direction we have chosen in our personal and family lives. Our free society enables us to choose our own direction in life and what is happening on the national stage does not usually have an immediate effect on us – however dramatically it is portrayed by the media.

Perhaps, though, we could use recent events and talk of the nation being rudderless to reflect on our own direction in life and how we are leading ourselves. Perhaps, too, we might think about setting our course to one that takes us in the direction of considering the well-being of others at all times. Not precisely the direction Theresa May was pointing in as she spoke outside 10 Downing Street yesterday but one she seems to be drawing closer to. If she is, many of us will be wishing her well and trying to persuade her to be even more compassionate and radical than she is presently planning to be. 



1    Typing the word leadership into Amazon’s search brings up over 170,000 titles.





Thoughts on …


The result of the EU referendum


Well. How wrong I was. I’m delighted and surprised at the result of the EU referendum. Delighted because, although I’m strongly pro-European as I’m strongly pro every other country in the world, I have never been a fan of the European Union – I voted No in 1975; surprised because understandably most people tend to be politically cautious and prefer the status quo to the unknown.  I’m very pleased my prediction was way off the mark. I predicted 55% to 45% remain.


I felt sure that this morning I would be writing that the vote to remain was not quite as momentous as politicians and BBC correspondents were asking us to believe. We would, after all, still be getting up, having breakfast, going to work, doing the school run, the shopping and maybe some cleaning.  We would still be carrying on with our daily lives in the way that we normally do and above all we would still be loving and supporting those are close to us. Outside our personal spheres Glastonbury would still take place, complete with mud, as would Wimbledon, and as would the next round of European football championships. If the sun wasn’t shining it wouldn’t be because the world had come to an end it would be because we couldn’t see it above the clouds.  And all of this would be true, of course, whichever side had won.


I say well done to the many people who voted to leave in the North East and Wales and other former industrial areas. I am not surprised they wished to register their dissatisfaction with the political establishment. The decline of large parts of manufacturing industry in this country has created high unemployment and brought hardship to many of these regions. As a country we should appreciate the contribution to our prosperity made by generations of people who toiled in coal mines or steel plants. We owe them for what they have done for well over a hundred years. Being a member of the EU hasn’t delivered on the debt we owe. We need to make the northern powerhouse, and other powerhouses, work through our own policies and not rely on those that have been handed down from Brussels  


I hope that leaving the EU will be better for families everywhere in this country who are not well off or who are disadvantaged. I hope leaving will be better for the poor and disadvantaged throughout the world. As I said in my previous column I am strongly of the opinion we should be truly internationalist, not narrowly European. We should have a clear global vision in which we strive to improve the well-being of everyone whichever country they happen to live in. We should be doing this through trade, through education, through aid, through encouraging small businesses and through constantly putting the case for a fairer society. In countries where there is suffering because of conflict we should be willing to intervene as an international community through the United Nations. Where global decisions need to be taken on climate change or other problems we should have international cooperation accompanied by international, not European, legislation.


I have to say I found some aspects of the referendum campaign not to my taste. I didn’t like the impression given by the leave side that people from other countries should not find us welcoming and appreciative of what they contribute to society. I didn’t like the hostile attitude to Turkey shown by both sides. I thought the way the cost of our membership of the EU was presented by the leave side was highly dubious and I thought the scare-mongering by remain was ridiculous. I didn’t think the debate was generally conducted in a spirit of mutual understanding but sadly our politicians seem unable to engage in debate about anything without being confrontational.


Back to momentous decisions. Lots of people will be making some in their personal lives in the next few days and these will be much more momentous. They will be making decisions such as whether to get married, whether to apply for a job or whether to buy a house. In the wider world of global politics a momentous decision has just been made in South America where the government of Columbia and the Farc rebels have signed a ceasefire ending a conflict which cost the lives of almost a quarter of a million people.. Here in the UK political arena we should start thinking about some of the momentous decisions we should take in the future – perhaps about whether to allow the money markets to dictate what should be happening in society, perhaps about whether to raise the minimum wage to a much higher level or perhaps, even, about whether to have more referendums – on renewing Trident, for example, or going ahead with the new high speed railway.


One instant decision should be made by our political leaders. When we finally get round to leaving the European club we should immediately give our membership fee to the NHS. As for me my not very momentous decision today has been to celebrate the news I heard early this morning by setting down these thoughts. And I now have a very minor decision to make about whether to do something in the garden. Life goes on.




Thoughts on …


Bus drivers


An unusual subject to have thoughts on – especially for my first column. Not one that crops up in conversations at social gatherings or over a Costa. Not one that has ignited serious discussion in the media or political circles but nevertheless one that can be used to make us think.


If the subject of bus drivers rarely occupies our thoughts the subject of buses certainly does. It does for millions of us on a daily basis. We have thoughts about buses as we wait for them, clamber onto them, find a seat on them, or momentarily think about the person we are sitting next to. For those of us who rarely use buses but encounter them on the roads they enter our thought processes when we follow them, pull round them or just see them coming towards us – something that demands immediate caution in the village where I live, especially when it’s a lumbering, broad-beamed double-decker.


Buses are part of the fabric of our society not only in our own country but throughout the world. They are a very visible presence in the lives of billions of people. In both urban and rural areas they are a vital means of transport and for those who do not drive they provide an essential public service.


It is only recently I have taken to using buses again after decades of ignoring what they have to offer. Some months ago I used one for a return journey from Weston-super-Mare to Bristol. I was impressed with the comfort and speed of my chosen means of travel. Moreover, sitting upstairs I was able to soak in the scenery as well as watch people going about their business, neither of which is possible whilst driving.


For many years my daily routine did involve a considerable amount of bus travel. Each morning, satchel on back or when I was older, briefcase in hand, I caught a bus to my secondary school and each afternoon I caught one home again. These journeys were invariably a lively part of the day and I have good memories of them. Without buses I, and millions of other people, would not have been educated and we should remember that this method of transport is still needed today to take young people to and from schools and colleges.


It is also needed, of course, to convey people to and from their places of work, the places where they shop and the places where they socialise. Without buses the mass movement of people for these purposes would be impossible.


But buses need drivers. And it is bus drivers to whom we should be hugely grateful for the enormous contribution they make to the functioning of society, the success of the economy and the well-being of individuals and families. They deliver an indispensable service and we depend on them every day. Their skills and professionalism are tremendous. They are constantly judging the length and width of their vehicles as they control them in heavy traffic, along streets and roads cluttered with parked cars. They negotiate left-hand turns, right-hand turns and roundabouts with consummate ease. They pull into bus stops with precision. They are responsible for the safety of their passengers, pedestrians and other road users – a massive responsibility requiring the highest levels of concentration and alertness. What a fantastic job they do. What a debt of gratitude we owe them.


And yet, because strange ideas still exist about the social status of different occupations, we fail to recognise the vitally important role that our bus drivers play in society – just as we fail to recognise many other vitally important roles such as cleaning hospitals, stacking shelves in supermarkets or caring for the elderly. We unquestioningly accept the concept of an occupational hierarchy which, in its upward direction, confers higher status, higher remuneration and maybe even higher self-esteem. Unfortunately it also confers an accompanying hierarchy of aspiration with some occupations being seen as much more desirable to aspire to than others.


Which brings me to the new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the fact that his father was a bus driver. Having been continually reminded of this in the media, especially by the BBC, we have, by implication, been invited to applaud Sadiq’s achievement in rising high above the humble background into which he was born by virtue of his dad’s job. I’m sure Sadiq is extremely proud of his father and the job he did and I’m sure he is grateful for all the support and encouragement he received from both his parents. But two thoughts should be considered. The first, as I hope I have shown, is that far from being on a lower rung in the occupational hierarchy his father’s job was, and still is, absolutely invaluable, deserving of immense respect and up there near the top of the ladder. The second is that I see no reason why there should be any connection between the sort of employment parents have and the way they bring up their children. All parents, whatever job they do, should support and encourage their children in every way possible and prepare them fully for their adult lives.      


I admire Sadiq’s achievement as I admire the achievement of others who work hard and fulfil their ambitions. I wish him every success as mayor of London. I am sure he is totally committed to improving the lives of all who inhabit the city and that he will do his utmost to secure this. However, I look forward to the day when we no longer feel it necessary to comment on the parental occupations of those who attain prominent positions because more enlightened attitudes will hold sway – attitudes which do not include an acceptance of occupational hierarchies or an acceptance of an association between the jobs parents do and how they support their children.


If Sadiq comes close to matching the huge contribution his father made to the well-being of Londoners in his job as a bus driver his term as mayor will definitely be a success.  





Thoughts on …


The EU referendum and a global vision1


It is puzzling, and regrettable, that we do not have a global vision of the world despite our ever-increasing global connections.  Many people now travel quickly and conveniently all over the world and communicate regularly with their families who live abroad. We happily trade with far-distant countries as we have done for hundreds of years, we do business on every continent, we have strong sporting, cultural and academic links with other nations and as consumers we buy a vast range of products made in foreign factories thousands of miles away. We welcome many workers from overseas who contribute to our society and support our economy through being employed in a wide variety of occupations.


There is, today, a huge, positive, global dimension to our daily lives and to the daily lives of everyone else on the planet. It must be sensible, therefore, for people everywhere to acknowledge they are global citizens and not just citizens of the country where they happened to be born.


My global vision is that we continue, of course, to travel all over the world, continue to trade and do business internationally, and continue to have as many links as possible with other countries. But I would like our vision to be massively enlarged. As caring individuals and as a caring, outward-looking nation we should be striving to create a better world – not just a better world for ourselves or the residents of Europe, but a better world in every corner of the globe. We should be working to secure the well-being of every person on the planet wherever they happen to live.


Our unwavering commitment should be to create a world where no one is suffering because of hunger, poverty, disease or conflict; a world where everyone has basic human rights and liberties; a world where everyone is remunerated fairly for their labour, has a comfortable standard of living and has access to high quality health and welfare provision; a world where all nations and groups of people live in peace with each other.


The future of our country should not be narrowly European. It should be truly international and global. I believe we urgently need to use our natural generosity of spirit and basic values to help shape a better world which will benefit all its inhabitants including ourselves. Being so closely associated with Europe has distracted us from our obligations to our fellow human beings elsewhere. On 23rd June I shall be voting to leave the EU in order that we can embrace a global future.



1  These thoughts were written as a letter to various newspapers but to my knowledge it has not been published.  


22/6/16 My thoughts on the result. I haven't looked at the opinion polls but I will in a moment. I'm going for 55% remain, 45% leave.