The MP, the Tory-linked law firm, and profiteering from education

duddridge at the beach

When I blogged earlier this year about James Duddridge’s constituency surgery, exclusively for Halifax customers, I was clear that in my view it wasn’t malicious, simply a fairly sizeable lapse in judgement.

As I outlined last week, I don‘t think Mr Duddridge’s judgement generally speaking is particularly impressive. He has managed to alienate not only large sections of his electorate, but a not insignificant part of his local activist base.

Much of this falls into the “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” camp. True, I am a Labour activist. True, I am not a fan of Mr Duddridge. And true, I am very much hoping to see him replaced by Ian Gilbert next May. But read on, if you will, as I unfold the pages of another example of the question marks hovering over James Duddridge’s judgement.

Read on…

Heckling schoolgirls (or how one person ruined it for everyone)

It was all going so well — but of course someone had to do something to spoil it.

Last year a small contingent at the Labour conference heckled the mention of Tony Blair. This year they managed to go one step better, heckling a year 11 schoolgirl who was making a speech about her school: Paddington Academy.

I was there, in the hall, so I can comment on exactly what happened. Firstly, it was one person amongst the thousands attending conference. Secondly, the heckle was hostile to academies and supportive of comprehensive. Thirdly, the mood in the hall was overwhelmingly hostile to the heckler.

The academies scheme is contentious, as education policy goes, and a large part of that is the confusion between the academies scheme of the last Labour government and Michael Gove’s academies. The former was a radical solution to the worst failing schools. The latter is a sweeping policy to centralise education.

Paddington Academy is one of the first category (it replaced North Westminster Community School in 2006), and Joan Al-Assam’s speech should have been seen by the heckler for what it was: the complete turn-around of a failing school.

But this goes beyond policy. The fact is that this was a teenager, who stood up at a party conference and made an extremely eloquent speech to a teeming hall. I’ve already mentioned on this blog that I had been hoping to speak, and when I was trying to get the attention of the chair I was a jittering bag of nerves. I’m twenty two. I can only imagine what a fifteen/sixteen year old would be feeling.

But as I said, this was one person, and the feeling in the hall was one of hostility to the heckler. Ed Miliband has already condemned the remarks, and it seems pretty clear to me that this action, though disgusting, reflects only on that one person.

Not that it’s stopped Michael Gove from trying to capitalise on it. According to the Education Secretary, it “shows the real face of Labour“. He also thinks that “the culprit must be expelled from the party“.

Of course, since his party still permits membership for a a councillor who thought it was okay to joke about two police officers killed in the line of duty, the Nazi-partying MP Aidan Burley, and Andrew “learn your f**king place” Mitchell, I don’t think I’ll be taking any lectures from Mr Gove on this. Especially after he told the Leveson Inquiry:

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time.

And when Walter Wolfgang was ejected from the 2005 Labour conference, for heckling, David Cameron said that it:

lays bare the full absurdity of the Orwellian New Labour project


But Conservative hypocrisy doesn’t change the fact that heckling a teenage schoolgirl who has plucked up the courage to talk to conference, about what is a Labour government success story, is disgusting. It was a sour note on which to end the conference, it’s utterly unrepresentative of Labour Party attitude as a whole, and it’s given Michael Gove the opportunity to go on the attack.

Whoever you are, I hope you’re proud of yourself.

This Demonic Youth

Maybe A-Level results getting better year on year is a sign of young people working harder, rather than of academic decline? (Graph from BBC News website,

Young people today really are little shits, aren’t they?

I mean, if they aren’t lingering on street corners and mugging old ladies, then they are rioting and looting across the country. And then they all take easy exams and get qualifications which aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, because A-Levels have gotten much easier, and swan off to university to do “non-degrees”.

Surely these little bastards are the sole reason why the country is going downhill, right?

Today is, of course, A-Level results day, which means that all across the country 17-19 year olds have been tearing open brown enveloped and gazing upon the results breakdowns therewithin with either glee or devastation, and crashing the UCAS site with judicious mashing of their F5 keys. And the pundits have probably already begun rolling out the tired, annual accusations that A-Levels are a walk in the park nowadays, not like twenty/thirty/forty/etc years ago when you had to wrestle bears just to come out with a pass, or whatever.

It’s the same story every year, and it gets horrendously tiresome.

And on top of that, it’s not a fun time to be a young person at the moment. If you’re not being blamed for rampant civil unrest and the breakdown of society (when it’s actually more likely that you were involved in the clean-up than the destruction), then you’re a feckless waste of space whose achievements are denigrated, and whose very existence is considered a burden.

The fact is, the government makes a palpable show of not caring about the youth- but to be fair, whilst the Lib Dems courted young people at the General Election and then deserted them, the Tories never really seemed to promise them anything at all (leaving aside Cameron’s ridiculous “hug-a-hoodie” PR moment. Tuition fees have been trebled, education budgets have been cut, youth services are being shut down across the country, and even the EMA which would allow less priviliged children continue their education is being heavily curtailed.

But take a look at our society today. This isn’t the Britain of the fifties, where the majority of kids went to work (mostly in industry) at 16, and only the very gifted few went to university. Today we are a post-industrial, largely service economy, and increasingly an undergraduate degree is essential to get anything more than a menial, minimum-wage job. And this is the message that is sent to young people, that if they don’t go to university then they have failed.

With that in mind, is it any surprise that A-Level results would improve year on year? Young people are put under tremendous pressure, because A-Levels are their gateway to higher education. They are forced by their circumstances to work incredibly hard, and the results (I feel) show that.

So here’s to all those who got their results today. Ignore the media, the pundits, and (occasionally, and embarrassingly) the government, saying that you’re some sort of demonic horde, to whom qualifications have come too easy. You’ve worked damn hard, and done damn well, whether or not you met your university offers (or indeed, whether or not you’re going to go to university). The day will come when we’ll be running the country, and I’m not despairing quite yet.

Youth in Revolt

This is the fate which I, and thousands of other young people across the country, fear will be their long-term future.

(This piece was written for the website of Maidenhead Labour Party, where you can see it at its original home)

These are not terribly enjoyable times to be a young person. Of course, they aren’t exactly fun for everyone else, unless you happen to be an old Etonian politician, or the CEO of a bank. But young people seem to be taking a real hit at the moment.

The recent rise in tuition fees has been a definite headline-grabber, with thousands of students taking to the streets in an apparently futile bid to force the Liberal Democrats to honour the vote-winning promises they made before the election. But beyond that, there are so many other regressive policies which are already devastating the life chances of the young.

The rise in tuition fees is a poorly constructed cover for a massive cut to the budget of higher education institutions. This means that universities will be forced to cut back the facilities and services they offer to students starting from September 2012. So yes, students will be paying a good deal more for a good deal less. Which doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me.

And this, of course, is if they get to university in the first place. The withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, will hit thousands of sixth form students and prospective students. Introduced in 2004 by the Labour government, it was aimed at encouraging young people to remain in education, by giving them the funds necessary for them to do so. It was a lifeline for the poorest young people in our society, giving them hope of getting a better education, and a better job at the end of it. That lifeline has now been cruelly cut by Michael Gove and his Department of Education.

And even for those who manage to get into university, life isn’t rosy. I have just finished studying for a Law degree at the University of Sussex. Three years of hard graft, and now I’m finding it incredibly difficult to find a job. The recession has meant that there are less jobs available, but even now that we’re moving out of recession (albeit into stagnation, thanks to George Osborne’s misguided economic policies), there are graduates from the previous few years still fighting for any new jobs.

Youth unemployment in the UK is currently at record levels- something in the region of one million young people are not in employment, education or training. My biggest fear as a young person at the moment is that I will spend the next few years queuing outside the Jobcentre, irreparably setting back my life chances. I know that this is a fear unique to myself.

So what is the way forward for young people, in today’s climate? Well, the best thing that anyone can do is keep trying. The moment you give up is the moment you lose- and they win. But more than that, and I am biased here, I would remind young people that in thirteen years of government, Labour massively expanded education and provision for helping them into jobs. For example, the Future Jobs Fund, which was one of the first casualties of coalition austerity policies.

I’d also remind them that the Labour party is still fighting their corner- and tell them that active, passionate and enthusiastic Labour party branches are to be found all across the country. And if you’re under 27, it costs only £1 to join.

On High Horses, and Getting Down from Them


I don't believe that Michael Gove and Katharine Birbalsingh are evil. I just think that they're fundamentally wrong.

Yesterday, I read an article in the Guardian. Specifically, it was in the G2 section. It was entitled “Katharine Birbalsingh: ‘I spoke at the Tory Conference, so I must be evil'”. Upon seeing the title, I made a joke that my biggest problem with her was that I couldn’t pronounce her name. Then I read the article, and realised how wrong that statement was.


For those of you who don’t know her, Katharine Babalsingh is the state school deputy-head who gave a speech (to standing ovation) at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, basically saying how awful the state school she worked at was, and how right Education Secretary Michael Gove’s changes to the education system were. She was then sacked from her post by the school for bringing negative publicity on them, and the school will now be closing, largely due to lack of pupils applying.

The G2 article was published in anticipation of her book, soon to be released, which as far as I can gather is meant to be a fictionalised account of her life in teaching which will persuade all of us how awful state schools are. Except, judging from the interview, she has some of the most contemptuous views I’ve seen.

Now, let me nail my colours to the wall here. I was educated in the state school system. I attended a state primary school. I attended a state secondary school. I got good GCSEs (three A*s, seven As). I attended a state sixth-form college, and studied the International Baccalaureate. I am now in the third year of a Law degree, at the end of which I expect to get either a 2:1 or a first. I can only assume that I’m not the failing student Ms Barbalsingh is talking about.

Which is fine, I’m not saying that there aren’t state school children who are failing, of course there are. But Birbalsingh’s conclusions seem to be based on broad, sweeping, and at times rather insulting generalisations. Take this gem, for example:

…she claims that whereas private school kids read five or six novels in a year, “In a state school they might read two chapters, and then watch the film,”

Now I can tell you from the start that this is a) a generalisation, and b) an untrue one. Private school children may read more novels, I can’t testify to this; I never have, and never would, attend a private school. But to make a blanket claim that state school children don’t read is thoroughly insulting to the vast majority of us who do. When I was in year 7, I was reading the novels of Anne McCaffrey. At that point I was the exception. A year, two years later, the vast majority of my classmates would be reading for their own pleasure and personal advancement.

And I’m by no means holding up my secondary school as a shining example of what a state school should be. In many ways it was a shithole. But it wasn’t as bad (and I suspect very few in this country are as bad) as the picture Ms Birbalsingh painted.

Another thing I take objection to, is passages like this:

…inspectors are “now obsessed with making lessons ‘fun’ and ‘interactive’, through endless games and group work and the use of flashy technology”, traditional teaching methods are penalised, even if they engage the pupils and get good results.

Again, I’m sorry, but that is fundamentally rubbish. “Traditional” teaching methods (by which I can only assume she means the teacher lecturing to the class, and the class taking notes, unless she’s actually and rather slyly advocating a return to corporal punishment) are still used. They’re used where they’re appropriate, which is for the most part in heavily fact-based subjects. But even where new “fun” and “interactive” methods are used, I don’t see the downside. If they engage the children, if they get them interested in learning, then what’s the problem?

Michael Gove has, with his English Baccalaureate and other such measures, been trying to move the country back to a 1950s model of education. I realise that the 1950s are a glowing model of what the world should be like for the Tories, but the world has moved on. What was true then, is not necessarily any more. And what worked then, is not necessarily appropriate now. Privileging “academic” subjects like science, maths and history looks very nice, but on the flip-side penalises other subjects like the arts (which, honestly, this government seems to have it in for).

In the end, I just disagree with the lie that Katharine Birbalsingh is perpetuating. There are problems in state schools. Reform is needed. But this is not the right direction. I’m offended by the sweeping generalisations she makes, which as the author of the article points out serve only to demonstrate that her experience stems from a very limited base. Birbalsingh wants to be painted as a martyr, but so far as I can see, she did draw (perhaps undue, certainly inappropriate) negative attention to the school she worked at, and is likely responsible for its subsequent closure. So her dismissal, from where I’m sat, doesn’t seem unjustified.

I don’t think Michael Gove is evil, Katharine. I just think he’s wrong. And likewise, I don’t think you’re evil. I just think that you’re every bit as wrong on this subject as he is. So get off your sodding high horse woman.

The Fight to Save EMA

EMA is the latest target in the government's ongoing war on the poor and students

As I write this, a debate is going on in the House of Commons. It might not at first seem an important debate in the same way that, say, the debate on raising tuition fees was. But in this writer’s opinion, it absolutely is. The debate I’m referring to is, of course, the debate on the future of EMAs.

EMAs, for the uninitiated, are Education Maintenance Allowances. This is a payment of up to £30  per week given to further education students from poor backgrounds, to encourage and assist them in studying further. A fairly simple measure, I think, and one of the best policies that the last Labour government instigated.

The current issue being debated is the scrapping of that scheme. The government seems to be continuing its war on students. So many of the cuts that have so far been announced are going to hit young people the hardest. From the headline measures such as tuition fee rises and the cancellation of the BSF programme, to more behind the scenes cuts like the closure of the hugely successful Connexions centres. All of this whilst the bankers, who caused the economic woes that we’ve suffered recently and are still feeling the effects of, get off scott free.

I’ve seen a lot of misinformation bandied around lately by Tory supporters about EMAs. The most common seems to be that it bribes 16-18 year olds to go to school. My suspicion is that this comes from relatively well-off people.

I attended the Henley College, in Henley-on-Thames, which sounds a lot posher than it actually is. I myself didn’t qualify for EMA, but plenty of my fellow students did, and for those students it was less about bribery than it was about enabling them to attend. For a college with the wide geographic range of students like Henley College, transport was an issue. At further education level, there is no free provision of transport. And it can get damned expensive (God knows that mine was). For many students, EMAs were a lifeline which enabled them to actually get to college in order to study.

Aside from that, there are other costs in associated with studying beyond GCSE, which are difficult to meet if your family cannot foot the bill. Food, stationary, equipment. All of it costs money, which EMAs were designed to meet and help with. Taking that away, restricting it in order to save money at the expense of the poorest sectors of society, cannot be justified as anything other than a regressive move.

I could write about this all day, but instead I’ll finish with a couple of quotes:

Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won’t.‘ -Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, in an interview with the Guardian in March 2o10.

I said we don’t have any plans to get rid of them … it’s one of those things the Labour Party keep putting out that we are but we’re not.‘ -David Cameron, Prime Minister, at a “Cameron Direct” event in January 2010.

The Lib Dems betrayed students and broke their pledge on tuition fees. Now the Tories are doing the same with EMAs. There is no difference, it’s just as regressive, just as harmful to the futures of students, and should be resisted just as hard.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


Vince Cable's suggestions of a graduate tax to replace tuition fees, are somewhat damaged by other more regressive suggestions.


The Coalition government has today proposed introducing a graduate tax to fund higher education in this country, rather than the current system of loans that sees graduates leaving university with crippling amounts of debt. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s something that has been suggested many times, by many people- most recently by shadow secretary for education, Ed Balls.

But let’s not dwell on that. After all, it’s surely a good thing if the government accepts it when the opposition has a good idea? Anyway, that’s not my point here. My point is the compromise that is inherent in any coalition, and in particular a coalition between such polar opposites as the Tories and the Lib Dems. Every achievement that one side makes is tempered by an achievement of the other. Or rather, every concession the Lib Dems manage is tempered by some crazy rubbish that I sincerely hope comes from the other side.

Take the student finance, for example. Along with the graduate tax idea (which I welcome, as I did when Mr Balls suggested it), the announcement contains suggestions of all manner of things, including shortening degrees to two years. I’m not sure how many degrees this would actually apply to, but I can’t think of many where it would be a good idea. I’m a law student, about to go into my second year. Now, I know I didn’t really shout too much about it, but I had my exams a few months ago. And they were hard.

The stress that I went through this year, and last year, is largely due to the massive quantity of “stuff” I have to learn and remember. It might not seem like it, but there really is a lot to learn in Law. And I’m not nearly arrogant enough to assume that other courses aren’t the same. My point is that the stress levels, and the amount of material covered is at the limits of what is manageable. If you reduce course duration to two years, one of two things will happen: either the rate of stress-related breakdowns will increase, or the standard of graduates will fall. Neither of which seems desirable.

And that’s not to mention the potential for forming a two tiered education system, which seems to be something the Tories quite like the idea of. If both two and three-year courses are offered, at different prices, you’ll end up with those whose families happen to be rich enough to afford it getting the higher standard three-year education, and those whose families aren’t so well off having to settle for two-year “basics” degrees.

Now, there’s already a divide between the education that the rich and the poor receive, under the current system. A graduate tax would do a lot to allieviate that, as money wouldn’t be the primary obstacle for students from a poorer background, but rather they would be judged on academic ability.

A double standard of education based on wealth would destroy any benefit there, however. And it’s not just that it’s against the interests of social justice. It’s quite clearly against the interests of the country as a whole. What the public seems to misunderstand, and certain politicians are keen to encourage them to, is that students are not a drain on the taxpayer. They are an investment, by the country. Yes, it requires money from the taxpayers to educate them, but who gets the benefits? Who gets treated by the doctors trained at our universities? Who is defended by the lawyers? Who is going to rely on the graduates of the future?

I’m not even going to answer that for you. It’s just galling that I’m forced to watch every sensible, liberal, progressive suggestion that is made by this coalition of contradictions, be checked by some conservative, reactionary nonsense. What our economy is going to need as it crawls out of recession is not less jobs, nor smart and capable people excluded from the education which would benefit them and the country, simply because they weren’t lucky enough to be born into money.