The Trouble With Grammar Schools

One of my earliest childhood memories is of being taken to a shop in Birmingham called, I believe, Midland Educational to buy Eleven Plus coaching material. Apparently, this was because I was thought bright enough for Grammar School. At ten years of age this didn’t really mean much, but I dutifully completed the exercises in the books and was sent off to do the exam which sealed my educational fate.

Great news, my parents told me: you are going to the Grammar School. Your future is bright, how lucky you are. I’m not sure I felt all that lucky: none of my friends were going. I had to start from scratch making new ones, not something I found easy at eleven. I had a five mile bus journey every day, and I was introduced to the brutal sport of ‘rugger.’ I was not allowed to call football ‘football.’ Soccer, I learned,  was the sport of the common kids.

It wasn’t all bad: I had some good teachers (as well as some truly dreadful ones) and I had some privileges. For example, unlike my friends at ‘the Comp’ I was lucky enough to travel to school wearing a cap which bullies could snatch from my head and throw over fences and into trees, usually just as the bus was coming.

There was a lot about the Grammar School experience which I just didn’t get at the time. Like why some kids were always bottom of the class and miserable. I now realise that they were probably square pegs forced into round holes. They probably just squeaked the exam, with the help of coaching, and would have been mid table performers in the Comprehensive School, and doubtless been much happier.

The teachers were always going on about ‘Oxbridge’ although I couldn’t find it in the atlas. But gradually I realised that I was being groomed for a top university. If that was not my ambition, I was probably in the wrong place.

Don’t get me wrong, there were many good things about my school. I developed my love of science and travel there. I also learned my first lesson about ‘privilege.’ The school was well known in my area and putting it on your CV got you to the top of the pile.

Much later in life, I learned the true iniquity of selection. A local Tory challenged me, ‘why are you opposed to excellence?’ But the answer is simple: I’m not opposed to excellence. But the price of your Grammar Schools is too high. Seeing broken-hearted children telling their parents that they have failed them because they didn’t pass Eleven Plus. Seeing the cottage industry in Eleven Plus Private Tutoring so that those families who can afford it can tip the scales in their favour. I served as a Governor at a secondary modern which was doing a pretty good job under the circumstances. There is a yawning chasm in the economic backgrounds of many families of secondary modern kids and grammar school kids. Far from promoting social mobility, the system entrenches it.

When I first stood for parliament in Wycombe, I was cautioned about the popularity of selection in Bucks. I realise now that it is popular with those families who’s kids passed eleven plus, those families who hope they can get their kids through it, and those families who can afford to send their kids to private schools should their children fail (and there are many like that.)

But surely all of our children deserve to go to excellent schools, don’t they?


Sea of Hope

Like many internationalist liberals, I have found the last couple of weeks desperately depressing. The tone of the debate has been divisive, and the outcome even more so. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that many more of my fellow citizens than I imagined held the views that shaped the outcome.

Then we hear of an increase in the abuse of immigrants (and many who are actually not immigrants, simply people with an accent or differing ethnicity), and we mourn for the tolerant, vibrant place that Britain should be.

Last weekend I escaped into the festival like atmosphere of the ‘Sea of Hull‘ event. If anyone has not yet seen the mass invasion of blue people in the press over the weekend, Sea of Hull was the latest installation by American photographer Spencer Tunick. He specialises in mass nude installations, and was commissioned by the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull to create something special for Hull, UK City of Culture 2017.

Not for the faint hearted, participation involved stripping in front of total strangers, and coating oneself in body paint. This is then followed by three hours of following instructions from the artist on the cold streets of Hull.

Preparing for the second day's shoot
Preparing for the second day’s shoot

The compensations were marvellous. Friendships were forged and the community spirit was uplifting. We were all genuinely sorry to part and email addresses and Facebook ‘adds’ were exchanged.

There were four different shades of blue, and some friendly banter was exchanged between members of the different colour groups. But then a penny dropped amongst my group: five minutes earlier, the divisions didn’t exist! And of course, underneath the paint we were all the same, or should I say all different – and yet here we were, classifying each other in boxes of our own making. Chatting later in an Italian restaurant, we realised that stripped of clothing and jewellery made us realise how much more we have in common than the things which divide us.

The whole experience made me feel hopeful that in these sad time, our humanity will win through in the end.

The lessons of history

There was a chilling inevitability about the findings of the Chilcot report.

I was at a political crossroads in 2003. Today, I rewatched Charles Kennedy’s speech which was seminal in my decision to actively support the Liberal Democrats. It beggared my belief that a British Prime Minister would commit our Armed Forces to the invasion of a country which plainly posed no threat to us, and had not invaded another country, and without a UN mandate.

We still live with the repercussions of the fateful decision. As Charles predicted, we are now less safe, not more. At the time, Charles was vilified by many but proven right.

Last night, I had the privilege of meeting some of our newest members. Just like me, they saw that our leader Tim Farron was standing up for what is right in the face of constant criticism. It cannot be right to destroy our economy, and the life chances of future generations when the case for Brexit was so blantantly flawed. It is up to people like us to speak up before it is too late.

Of course, I expect to receive sackfuls of comments accusing me of being ‘undemocratic.’ But bear with me. The referendum (which by the way is advisory, not binding) was deeply flawed.

52% of those who voted, voted ‘Leave.’ This is at any rate hardly a ringing endorsement. Several prominent leave campaigners had already indicate that a narrow remain victory would lead them to fight on. The referendum never specified a threshold for leaving the EU either in terms of the turnout or the percentage. However, if you were a trade union you would not have been able to strike, based on these figures. Something as far reaching and irreversible as brexit should surely need a clear threshold?

Secondly, neither the wording of the referendum nor the official leave campaign articulated what kind of ‘leave’ we were being offered. It is appalling to discover that HM Government didn’t have any plans at all. Cameron’s response? Resign and let someone else deal with it. Leaving the EU throws up vital questions about what sort of relationship we would seek to have with the EU instead. A Swiss or Norwegian model would protect our business interests, but would come at the prices of continuing freedom of movement. A total withdrawel will compound and deepen the damage that has already been done to our economy. When this question has been decided, a democratic mandate would still be needed to implement it.

Thirdly, we were lied to. The official leave campaign continued to repeat as fact, claims that had been debunked time and time again. The most vexatious being the £350 million pounds a week which was emblazoned on leave literature and even Boris Johnson’s battle bus. Not only was it demonstrably not £350 per week, but it was strongly implied that this could be diverted to the NHS.

The remain campaign weren’t blameless, of course. Whilst it was clear enough to anyone who understood the basics of the economics that brexit was ‘a very bad idea,’ the presentation of estimates and projections as if they were hard facts is regrettable. It led the public to wonder who was telling the truth and who they could trust.

Michael Gove famously said people had ‘had enough of experts.’ This was one of the most ludicrous statements I have ever heard. This statement alone should warn us that he is not fit to be allowed near the levers of power. No leader, or politician of any kind, can be an expert on everything. What a sensible leader does is consult experts before making major decisions. And the experts all agreed that brexit would cause major damage to the economy of the UK. Very major damage. The pound is heavily down against every major currency. Not just a bit down, it went down like it had been shot by a sniper. This is going to feed through into price increases very soon, especially fuel and tech products. But it will be followed by food prices rises (which are highly sensitive to fuel prices). Of course, the experts predicted this. We are all going to be worse off, and it is entirely self-inflicted.

The campaign has exposed very serious flaws in balanced journalism. I’m not talking about the press here, the Mail, Express and Sun published such hateful material, but nobody was surprised. But the television and radio news is meant to be balanced. The BBC and other TV coverage failed us spectacularly. Their interpretation of ‘balanced’ was to give equal airtime to leave and remain. Even before the referendum had taken place, journalists were becoming uneasy with this approach. They felt they were being forced to regurgitate statements which they knew were untrue or misleading. It was difficult for listeners and viewers to differentiate when a journalist was ‘stating a fact’ or ‘repeating a lie in the interests of balance.’ I have already mentioned the £350 million pounds a week. This was comprehensively debunked by both the BBC and Channel 4, but you only knew that if you dug around their websites. Another example was the claim that Turkey was on the verge of accession. Every journalist who uttered those words knew it was a ludicrous claim, but he was forced to repeat it ‘in the interests of balance.’ If we really want a balanced picture from our news outlets, we need to give them the freedom to clearly state when a claim is false or misleading.

In the mean time, we have exposed very real divisions in our society. We are right to campaign for a rethink, we won’t get another chance. But I believe we have to move away from the divisive and start to focus more on a positive, inclusive and fact based case if we are to take public opinion with us.


We may live to regret the empty chair

So David Cameron vetoed the new deal in Europe before it had even been written. As far as we can tell, Cameron’s position was that Britain must be exempt from any new regulation of the financial sector (you remember them, the ones who got us all in a mess to start with). Clearly Sarkozy (and others) were not going to be told at gunpoint that the British wanted a competitive edge over everyone else in what is supposed to be after all a free trade area – and said so. The result? British walk away before the real negotiations have even begun. No chance for compromise. No chance to argue our case. We aren’t playing.

Of course the Eurosceptics are cock-a-hoop. They should be – if Britain ever leaves the EU in the future, it will probably because of that one petulant moment when we vacated our chair at the top table.

The remaining countries at the table will still make their decisions, and make no mistake we will be affected by what they decide. We just have no input any more.

A sensible position might have been to take part in the negotiations, and then exercise our right to say no when the detail had been thrashed out. Even Thatcher and Major always stayed at the table, always fought Britain’s corner to the last.

This is a cop out and leaves us isolated and exposed. It’s a sop to the Eurosceptic back-benchers and the Eurosceptic press.

If the EU is a juggernaut travelling down the motorway (or autobahn/autostrada/autoroute) we are now riding on the roof. We cannot reach any of the controls and we certainly don’t have the ear of the driver.

And frankly, if we go around enough sharp bends we could easily be flung aside.

Melting Planet

For as long as I can remember, back to my childhood, there have been wonderful natural history programmes made by the BBC. Always narrated by the iconic David Attenborough, I find them utterly compelling viewing. The latest season ‘Frozen Planet‘ has just drawn to a close. One of the things I have most loved about the latest series has been the ‘Freeze Frame’ feature that lets us go behind the scenes and answers the questions about how some of the amazing shots were achieved. (The answer is very dedicated camera teams working in incredibly demanding situations).

The final episode dealt with the climate changes taking place in our polar regions. Attenborough manages to present the facts, alarming as they are, without a hint of the shrill sensationalism the afflicts most films about climate change. The stark reality of the speed of change and loss of ice at both poles comes across all the more powerfully as a result.

Any remaining climate change deniers would do well to watch the last episode when it reruns on Sunday. The photographs of glacier loss even in just the last 30 years, and the explaination of the albedo effect and runaway consequences of ice loss cannot be ignored.

I worry that global warming is taking a back seat in the debate because of the precarious state of the economy. When the remaining ice cover at the North Pole melts within the next few decades, it will make the Eurozone crisis look like a picnic.