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Climbing trees, and the C in BVC


Thanking trees again


Affordable homes – the case for buying  


Abolishing GCSEs


Why parents should do more to educate their children



Thoughts on …


Climbing trees, and the C in BVC                                             12/12/18


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Thoughts on …


Thanking trees again                                                               13/11/18


I’ve been thanking trees again and shall continue to do so for a while yet. Perhaps I should be hugging them. But there are a couple of obvious problems with hugging. I would have to stop the car abruptly whenever I saw one that deserved a hug, plus I would probably have people thinking I was a little peculiar.


I’ve been thanking trees again because they’ve been ablaze with colour for the past few weeks as they are every autumn. Ablaze is the right word. The tree in my garden has been a mass of unquenchable flames, a ball of fire through the translucent glass of the front door.


We should be thanking trees all year round not just in autumn. In spring we can thank them for their buds and blossom, in summer for their hues of green and in winter for their stark silhouettes. Their munificence is a constant source of nourishment for the soul.


Trees are great glories of our environment, both rural and urban, and too often we take them for granted. We don’t need to visit an arboretum or the grounds of a country house to see them, as they are always around us.


We should make a conscious effort to appreciate what they give us so please join with me in thanking them for lighting up the days so wonderfully. Or if you feel moved to do some hugging go right ahead and do some.



For more about thanking trees see my post from two years ago: Thanking a tree this autumn






Thoughts on …



Affordable homes – the case for buying                                  17/10/18


The call for more affordable homes to be built in this country has long been heard. It has been made across the political spectrum in response to what has been seen as a shortage of housing and what is now called a housing crisis – a crisis in the sense of too many people not having a good home to live in.


I want everyone in this country to live in a good home. We all do. I want everyone on the planet to live in a good home. Again, we all do. Nobody wants to see pictures of our fellow human beings living in tin shacks in shanty towns. For present purposes, however, the focus will be on homes in our own country.


What is a good home to live in? Our answer to the question should, of course, begin with the reminder that a home is not just a house. It is made from the people who live in it, and is much more than the walls, the roof and the ceiling. If you inhabit a house where you and your family lead a happy and contented life you live in a good home even if it is cramped, cold or in poor repair.


Nevertheless, I am sure most of us would prefer our homes to be spacious, warm and comfortable and contain all the amenities deemed necessary for modern living. And I can see no reason why, as an affluent society, we should not be able to organise ourselves to provide such accommodation for everyone. If this is what society wants then we should make it a priority to ensure that it happens.


How, though, do we go about this? Should we provide more houses that people can afford to rent or should we be making houses more affordable to buy? It is my firm belief that we should do the latter. We should be helping people buy their homes and actively encouraging them to do so.


In the short term it may be necessary to build more social housing that can be rented. Housing associations or local councils can build more homes for this purpose which will add to the large number of people who already rent their homes in this and the private sector.1


The main benefit of renting in the social housing sector is that, in the short term at least, for most people it will probably be more affordable than buying a property and certainly more affordable for those in receipt of housing benefit.2  Apart from this, renting as a whole offers two further benefits. One is that maintenance and repair is the landlord’s responsibility which removes the expense and anxiety from what can be a worrying aspect of home ownership. The other is that private renting especially provides convenience and flexibility for people who are prepared to move to different parts of the country to take up new employment.


Because these benefits are meeting a number of needs there will always be a demand for rented accommodation. However, I firmly believe there are far greater benefits to individuals and society in homeownership. The greatest benefit in an extension of homeownership would be the creation of a fairer society. The more people who own their homes the more people enjoy the same benefits as everyone else. Moreover, if everyone who wished to own their own home were able to do so there should be no social stigma attached to renting since it would be clear that choosing this option would mainly be for reasons of personal preference and not affordability.


What, then, are the benefits of owning one’s home? Different people will have different ideas about their relative importance but they include the following.


Owning property gives us a sense of being in control of our own lives which is one of our basic psychological needs. Owning the roof over our heads seems to provide us with the feeling of security we need in order to be able to exercise this control even when life events are troubling. Our home is our base, literally and emotionally.


Because we are in control and feel secure we have more independence to direct our own lives and not be over-dependent on others. This independence in turn strengthens our self-reliance and our sense of personal responsibility.


These elements of control and independence play out in practice in a number of ways. Homeowners have the freedom, subject to planning regulations, to alter and improve their property in the way they wish. They can add extensions and conservatories, put bedrooms in lofts, knock down walls and create their ideal kitchens and bathrooms. Despite the frustrations and expense involved I expect most people derive considerable satisfaction, and hopefully enhanced well-being, from planning their home improvement projects and achieving the desired outcome.  


Even if homeowners are not interested in making significant alterations to their property my guess is that most take pride in its appearance and state of repair. Here I must confess that for some of us the appearance may be governed more by shame than by pride – we try to keep the external appearance in reasonable condition because we are ashamed to let our neighbours see it looking shabby.   


Improving one’s home, and keeping it well-maintained, may add a certain amount of value to it which might be useful if one wished to trade up to a larger property but more value is, of course, added by house price inflation. This will not in itself normally help the trading up process, since all property prices will go up simultaneously, but to embark on this process it is necessary to be on the housing ladder. Those who wish to move to a more expensive house may feel able to because they earn a higher salary than previously or have paid off some of their existing mortgage.


Being in a position to trade up and choose the sort of house you would like to live in, and where it is located, is a key benefit of the control and independence that home ownership brings. Another benefit is that, although overall it may be a more expensive option than renting, the basic cost of owning one’s home is greatly reduced when the mortgage is paid off, usually in later life. Having no monthly housing costs helps to counterbalance a lowering of income in retirement.


One final benefit of owning rather than renting a home is that it provides people with a financial asset as well as somewhere to live. This can be used for various purposes. It could be given to one’s children or relatives, or to charitable causes. It could be used to pay for any necessary care in old age and, through equity release schemes, it could be a source of additional income – a dubious source some might say.


But how can we help and encourage people to buy their homes rather than rent them? The answer is to commit ourselves as a society to making it possible for everyone to be able to do this. And the best way to achieve this aim is to ensure that everyone earns enough money to be able to afford it.

This will mean that people on low salaries need to be paid much more generously for the work they do and the contribution they make to society. It will therefore be necessary to raise the minimum wage to a considerably higher level than at present. This would lift the household incomes of those in poorly paid work and make buying their own homes more attainable.3


Recognising, though, that it will take time for the idea of a high minimum wage to become widely acceptable we need to continue with the present, excellent schemes for those on low incomes as well as introduce other ideas. In the former category are: right to buy, help to buy and rent to buy, together with the shared ownership scheme – including OPSO, a charming acronym standing for Older People’s Shared Ownership. Additionally, for first-time buyers not on low incomes there is the starter home scheme and an extremely generous savings ISA available. 


New ideas that could be introduced might include a requirement for banks and building societies to offer shared ownership arrangements for buying private homes similar to those offered by housing associations.


Another possible means of helping first-time buyers might be for local councils to provide cheap mortgages and grants for the purpose of modernising older or rundown property. This could be an attractive proposition for younger people with qualifications in practical skills who were interested in such a project.


A third possibility would be to use the tax system. Tax relief on a sizeable percentage of the whole of a mortgage repayment, not just on the interest as used to be the system, could be given to first-time buyers on a low income for as long as this was below a certain threshold.


Apart from these suggestions I am sure there are other ideas that could be implemented to help first-time buyers onto the property ladder. Which means there is no reason, in my view, why collectively, with commitment and determination, we cannot make it possible for everyone to own their own home if that is their wish.


We may need to do more to persuade young people of the benefits of homeownership. We may need to explain that owning their own homes will probably require some lifestyle adjustments such as cutting down on expensive cars or not updating their smartphones. It may also mean that initially they will have to furnish their homes as economically as possible.


But if the benefits of home-ownership are made clear and if financial incentives are widely available I believe that most people will be motivated to take their first step onto the housing ladder. And in the fullness of time when we have created a more equitable society in which every kind of employment is adequately remunerated, the motivation to own rather than rent one’s home will be greater still.


We must always keep a rental sector but in the interests of a fairer society we should aim to reduce it considerably. Politicians of all persuasions should come together in support of a substantial drive to increase home ownership.


Apart from the benefits it brings to individuals and society there is something almost elemental about owning one’s home. It is time for this aspiration to be within reach of everyone.


1    At the end of 2016, around 65% of UK households were owner-occupiers, 17% were renting from a private landlord and 18% were renting from a social landlord. Social renting has declined since 1996, while private renting has increased. The rate of owner-occupation is also slightly lower than it was ten years ago. House of Commons Library, 9/6/17

2    For some people buying a property in a shared ownership scheme with a housing association could possibly be more affordable than social renting. 

3   A higher minimum wage might mean that all of us as consumers pay more for the goods and services we buy and use, it might mean lower salaries allocated to positions that are presently well-paid and it might mean shareholders receiving less in dividends. All of which we should be prepared to accept.    

Note: 5/11/19 According to a report by the National Audit Office no homes have actually been built under the starter home scheme.




Thoughts on ... 


Abolishing GCSEs                                                                        23/8/18


I am looking forward to the time when the annual ritual of GCSEs results day will no longer take place. There will be no results day because GCSEs will have been abolished.


I don’t want to take anything away from those who have worked hard to gain good grades this year but I am not persuaded that their efforts have been necessary or have resulted in the best possible education for them.


They are not necessary because they do not adequately fulfil two of the essential purposes for which they are intended: selecting and preparing young people for their future employment.


With regard to selecting them they are steered into either vocational or academic routes on the basis of their grades. This is not sensible at this point in their education as they will continue to develop their cognitive and practical skills after the age of sixteen as well as change their minds about what they want to do. Moreover, it is my belief that if they are well-motivated and work hard they can probably train for most occupations, whether academic or practical, thus making selection by GCSE results unnecessary.


As for preparing young people for employment this is equally inadequate. Looking at the exam process itself, rather than the content of what is being tested, the ability to write at breakneck speed about 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.


With regard to the actual quality of education that GCSE courses provide I accept that pupils learn about most aspects of the world in which they live, and develop creative and practical skills, but their education is not the best it could be. The production-line model created by the present system limits opportunities to make schoolwork interesting and engaging, and acquiring knowledge is seen as a means of attaining a good grade at GCSE rather than gaining intrinsic pleasure from a subject.


GCSEs should be replaced with national tests in the four key skills of literacy, numeracy, computing and critical thinking since these are essential for employment and everyday life. Other subjects can be assessed at this stage according to each school’s preferred method of assessment.


This system would ensure that young people are fully prepared for life and work and also receive an engaging and enriching education in subjects besides the key skills. GCSEs would no longer be required.



                                                                                                                Thoughts on … 


Why parents should do more to educate their children           15/8/18


I share the Education Secretary’s passion for doing more to ensure that disadvantaged children have the same educational opportunities as everyone else.1 This is a basic ethical principle which should be upheld in every civilised society.


I part company with the Education Secretary, and probably most people, in not sharing his reason for being so passionate about the issue. He sees equalising educational opportunities as a way to promote social mobility.


My understanding of the term social mobility is that it means climbing a ladder that takes you to what is considered to be an occupation with a certain amount of status, or one that is well-remunerated or one that is both of these. It is a concept I have moved away from and no longer regard as contributing greatly to the best sort of society to which we can aspire.


I certainly want all young people who leave school or college to be able to enter any form of employment which nowadays means they must be highly proficient in the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and computing. However, I have serious reservations about whether their qualifications should lead to higher salaries or any sort of elevated social status.


I want them to have the opportunity to have a wide range of employment possibilities in order to choose a job they will find fulfilling, not in order to earn a particularly high salary or achieve a dubious uplift in their status.  And if, having chosen, they become care workers, refuse collectors or white van drivers, then I, for one, will acknowledge the invaluable work they do,  accord them the social standing they deserve and argue that they should be well-remunerated.2  


But I want education to provide opportunities for fulfilment in people’s leisure time also. It should be about enriching the whole of our lives as well as simply giving us the means to support ourselves and our families. It should introduce us to fields of knowledge and creativity that will inspire us to pursue interests we will continue to find interesting and fulfilling as adults. 


If we are well-educated we will know how to paint pictures, make things in wood, play a musical instrument or cook a special meal for our friends.  We will be able to enjoy different sports, physical activities and outdoor pursuits. We will have developed an interest in science and technology, in history and archaeology, and in sociology and economics, and we will have a knowledge and appreciation of the natural world that will last a lifetime. When we go on holiday abroad we will be able to have a proper conversation in the language of the country we are staying in.


Perhaps more than anything in terms of providing future fulfilment in our leisure time, our education should enable us to read for pleasure – any book, fiction or non-fiction, any newspaper, any magazine, or anything on the internet we find interesting.


Apart from helping us enrich our lives away from the workplace another absolutely crucial opportunity that education must provide is to be able to use effectively the essential life skills of literacy, numeracy and IT. This is so we can understand and act upon all kinds of information that will affect how we manage our everyday lives.  Such information will range from insurance policies to instruction leaflets to online procedures for booking a holiday. The digital revolution has generated more information to be read and processed than ever before and everyone must be educated to understand fully what they read.  


Of the utmost importance education must also provide us with the ability to think clearly and rationally about the issues that affect our everyday lives, plus the issues that affect society at large. We must all have the capacity to make rational decisions about how we manage our own finances, for example, and equally come to rational conclusions about how the government is managing its finances.


And there are even more opportunities that education must provide us with. It must educate us about our physical and mental health so that we have the opportunity to lead healthy lives. It must enable us to understand our emotions. It must offer guidance on establishing relationships with each other.  Above all, through the shaping of our behaviour, values and character, it must give us the opportunity to lead a good life – a life that is good for ourselves and good for other people.


All these are the essential opportunities every child should have. They are the reason why the Education Secretary is absolutely right to say that parents should be teaching their children basic language skills from an early age – not, as he says, because their education should provide them with the opportunity for social mobility but because, as I am suggesting, it will provide them with far more opportunities than this.


Moreover, I go much further than he does in his expectations of the contribution parents should be making to their children’s education. I see no reason at all why children should not actually be taught to read by their parents rather than by teachers in schools. Children will learn this skill naturally when parents share books with them and when words and sounds are pointed out. They will develop their vocabulary when they begin to read for themselves and when they engage in conversations about what they read and about what they are discovering in the world around them.


Parents should also teach basic numeracy skills. These can be learned naturally, too, through counting rhymesasking children to count the things they see around them and through playing board and card games. The basics of IT are easy to teach at home as are the basics of getting children to think critically – which must be an imperative in all households.3


It is vital, too, that parents feed their children’s natural curiosity about the world by showing them different features of the man-made and natural environment, explaining these to them, answering their questions and encouraging them to look up more information as well as watch documentaries and videos. In this way not only will their childhood be enriched but they will develop a lifetime’s interest in the natural world, in history, in science and in the landscape of this and other countries.


As part of their children’s education parents should also make models with their children and should show them how to cook and do household tasks. They should play different sports with them, go jogging with them and take them on plenty of good, long hikes.


And all the time, every day, directly and by example, they must instil the very best behaviour, values and character in their children which ultimately will provide them with the best opportunity for their future well-being, fulfilment and contentment.


The support and encouragement parents give to their children’s education should not be limited to their early childhood. It should continue well into their teenage years and beyond when complex aspects of their school or college work should be discussed with them and when the moral and political questions of the day should regularly be examined. Emotional issues and relationships will also need to be addressed sympathetically.


The education secretary states in his speech that he has no interest in lecturing parents about how they should educate their children. I don’t wish to lecture parents either but I do want society to persuade them, almost to the point of insistence, that they should do much more. If they want the best for their children, and they all do, they should not abdicate the responsibility for their education to the state. They have a responsibility, and therefore a duty, to be powerful educators themselves across the wide range of learning activities outlined above.


If they fully embrace this responsibility they will create a culture of learning in their families and with it a love of learning. This culture and love of learning will then become the norm in society.


Education should not be narrowly focused on social mobility. We should be looking to establish an equitable society in other ways, primarily by recognising the true social value of what are currently low-paid jobs and paying those employed in them far more than they currently receive. When we reach this position, which is entirely rational and not difficult to achieve, we will then be able to reshape our thinking about the purpose of education.4


We will see it as more than merely a means of assigning young people to different rungs on the ladder of so-called social mobility – largely by means of an antiquated and irrelevant examination system.5 We will see it as providing for all the opportunities that we need to make use of as adults – employment opportunities, certainly, but also the many more opportunities that are part of our lives.


And in order to ensure all these opportunities are available to everyone, parents must see it as their duty to be much more involved in their children’s education than many of them are at present.



1  Speech to the Resolution Foundation, 31 July 2018


2  See: The definition of a good job


3  From an early age children can be asked why they think something is as it is, be encouraged to take part in discussions and to justify their opinions. They should always be asked to explain any unwanted behaviour.


4  See Chapter 7 of Forever Learning, Purposes


5  GCSEs fail the test