Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The road to 1984?

In June of this year the government published its draft Communications Data Bill, which, if passed would give the government far reaching powers to search and store private information. The government naturally have all sorts of justifications, principally security concerns, yet they successfully opposed a similar bill which the previous Labour government attempted to introduce.

The Coalition Agreement clearly states,  “We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion,” and, “We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.”

The previous government's draft bill had been originally been published in May 2008, and the then opposition parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were instantly raising concerns. The Shadow Home Secretary of the time Dominic Grieve said, "Putting all this data into the hands of the government, will threaten our security not make it better." At the same time, Chris Huhne the Liberal Democrat spokesman was calling it, "an Orwellian step too far."

Such was the outcry that in April 2009, the government dropped this 'Intercept Modernisation Programme' (IMP), but carried forward with plans to require internet service providers to gather more data on customers activities. This is on top of the existing police and security service powers to, "read your emails, tap your phone, plant hidden cameras and microphones in your house and intercept your internet use. All of which can be done without any approval of a judge."

Such were the concerns that Grieve published a document in September 2009 entitled Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State in which eleven proposals were outlined to protect personal privacy and hold government to account.

As the document rightly says in the executive summary:

New Labour has excessively relied on mammoth databases and wide powers of data-sharing, on the pretext that it will make government more effective and the citizen more secure. Its track record
demonstrates the opposite, with intrusive and expensive databases gathering masses of our personal information - but handled so recklessly that we are exposed to greater risk.

He boasts that any Conservative government's approach would be 'fundamentally different.'

They would hold fewer personal details, held only by those needing them, and, "Wherever possible, personal data will be controlled by individual citizens, who have the power to decide which agencies can access or modify this information."

The document emphasises that private citizens would be protected from the 'surveillance state' as part of a Bill Of Rights. The British Bill of Rights may still happen, and perhaps that will be brought up at the Conservative Party Conference, but it would not seem to tally with the draft Communications Data Bill currently being examined by a joint committee (of Commons and Lords) to report in November.

Considering the song and dance the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats performed when Labour brought forward their proposals, it doesn't really do much to build public trust, when as soon as they're in government, the coalition bring forward their own version.

As I said earlier, the authorities already have far reaching powers to use surveillance where they have genuine cause, such as in the case of six suspects arrested in July this year.  So to widen that to include the emails, texts and various other communications of citizens, seems unnecessary and contrary to the civil liberties rhetoric the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have espoused over the years.

When first announced, Home Secretary Theresa May defended it as a way to catch more criminals, and to keep up with the technology they were using (though I'm sure the determined ones will find a away round this anyway), though as Conservative MP David Davis said, that it was 'incredibly obtrusive,' and would only, 'catch the innocent and incompetent.'

Mrs May's second defence was that it was different to Labour's bill, which wanted the data to be stored in one place. With the record of these big projects over the last few years, it was a good job it was abandoned, thanks in no small measure to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the House. But it seems to me that more than anything the government is missing a principle here.

The problem is not really where or how the information is stored, but that it is tracked and stored in the first place, this is what is wrong.They stopped the I.D. Card legislation shortly after taking office, because they felt this was in intrusion into privacy, and against civil liberties in the United Kingdom, but it appears that has all changed now they're in government.

The full Draft Bill is available here but let's look at what it actually says, and demonstrate just what an attack on the rights of us all this bill would be.

In her foreword Mrs May says:

Communications technologies and services are changing fast. More communications are taking place on the internet using a wider range of services. As criminals make increasing use of internet based
communications, we need to ensure that the police and intelligence agencies continue to have the tools they need to do the job we ask of them: investigating crime and terrorism, protecting the vulnerable and bringing criminals to justice.

On the face of it this sounds perfectly reasonable, but within it there are many things to be concerned about. First of is the line about criminals making more use of the internet to communicate. It's almost as if that justifies tracking everyone's just in case we're doing something illegal. Jack Straw's attempts to significantly widen the DNA database in 2001 raised precisely these concerns.

Criminals also use cars, but are the police going to be checking us everytime we go out to make sure we're obeying the law? No they won't, because it would be too expensive and difficult, this however, in the great scheme of things is easy. The technology to track us already exists, and is stored in various places anyway, so the government is seeking to make it legal to delve into every aspect of our lives.

As for the safety of that data, considering the ease with which groups such as Anonymous (and individuals with a bit of know how such as Gary McKinnon) are able to break into supposedly secure databases, the thought of government also holding that information does not fill me with confidence.

In the opening paragraph you see what just how much information on your communications would be accessible without even reading them:

Communications data is information about a communication. The term is carefully defined in existing legislation and described in codes of practice and includes data about a subscriber to a mobile phone or email account, the time, duration, originator and recipient of a communication and the location of a communication device from which a communication is made.

So as you can see, immediately they can see who you contact, how often you contact them via mobile phone or email, and where you are contacting them from. It reminds me of that scene in the X-Men where the professor is able to track the movement and location of every mutant on the planet.

Naturally the government seeks to reassure us that this data is not the same as actually reading those communications, but the fact that they could read those emails, or read the transcript of a conversation if they 'had cause' is disturbing.

Now I don't think any of us would say that the ability to trace and track communications was wrong when the need arises, or if there is strong evidence of nefarious activities being planned. But being able to retain day to day data is just asking for trouble.

As you can see here, communication in many cases is already required to be stored for a time, with access by the authorities allowed under the right circumstances:

Companies providing communications services are currently required by law to store some communications data which they have business reasons to generate or process. They are not required to retain data which they do not need. The police and some other public authorities can then access specified communications data held by the service providers on a case by case basis. But
they must first demonstrate that the data is necessary to their investigation and proportionate to their aim and objective. The police have no power to get access to data where it is not connected to a specific investigation or operation.

There will be readers of this who will fundamentally disagree with this amount of storage and access, and indeed they may well have a good point. Some will take an absolutist view that none should be stored, but I think most of us would accept that a balance does need to be struck, and I would say that this is already as far as it needs to go, and some should be reined back. I would also repeal the legislation that enables so many CCTV cameras, but there is not space to go into in in this essay.

The government is expecting these companies now to store much more information, as it is harder for the authorities to access this data (I'm sure we've all seen TV detectives trace communications through telephone bills), and as is plainly stated, " the proposals set out here will require some communications service providers to obtain and store some communications data which they may have no business reason to collect at present."

The government is demanding data be stored purely for the government's own purposes, and of no value outside of that, therefore we need to know, what extra security will be provided to ensure this information is not accessible to other agencies? The plea is that existing safeguards will be extended, but I honestly don't think they can guarantee that, and as was mentioned earlier, supposedly the most secure agencies in the world are vulnerable. The government also tell us that 'nothing will authorise the interception of the content,' but if the content can not be read if deemed 'necessary' then what is the point of storing it in the first place?

One of the problems the government of a state has is to balance security, often cited as a government's first priority, and democracy and freedom. Admittedly we in Northern Europe have been fortunate in that since the Second World War, we have not had to face the threat of dictatorial governments. The only countries that have been under military and dictatorial rule in the time have been Spain, Portugal and Greece.

We looked to the east, to the Soviet Union and its satellites and decried the way they sought to control the lives of their citizens. If dissent rose, it was quashed as the likes of Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Sharansky were imprisoned for raising their voices. If countries showed signs of going a different way from that dictated to them by the Soviet Union, such as Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the tanks would roll in, crushing the rebellion and either killing or replacing the leaders.

Oh how we cheered as we saw the Berlin Wall come down, and invited these now free states to join us. Germany reunited, and many of those formerly under the Soviet yolk have become full members of the European Union.

We also rather complacently read the dystopian novels of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, believing it could never really happen here. Orwell's 1984, a satire taking its ideas from Soviet and National Socialist ideology, is most often cited, a world in which a citizen's every move is watched, and even thinking the wrong thoughts can find you in room 101.

But it seems our complacency is becoming more and more misplaced as time goes on. In the United Kingdom we had found a need for a number of anti-terror laws as the troubles in Northern Ireland, but other than this we felt safe.

Peace, or at least the perception of it, in Northern Ireland led to these acts being superseded by the Terrorism Act 2000 and later the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 which was enacted when provisions in the 2001 Act were deemed to violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thus began the Labour Party's problematic relationship with civil liberties, the most well-known aspect being the attempt through the Counter Terrorism Bill 2008 to raise detention without trial to 42 days. There was a great outcry about this and the Conservative Home Affairs spokesman David Davis resigned his seat, and fought a by-election over the issue.  The measure was eventually dropped altogether, and in its early days, the coalition government reverted to 14 days.

Labour's original Data Communications Bill was an attempt to put into legislation the EU Data Retention Directive 2006, "which provided for a mandatory framework for the retention of certain communications data." This was first enacted in a 2007 Act, then superseded by the The Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009 (S.I. 2009/859), which meant internet and various types of telephone communications had to be retained.

Therefore, it seems even more puzzling that the government feels it is necessary to bring bring forward this legislation, as it already exists in sufficient form to do the required job. It is also politically hypocritical as they opposed and succeeded in bringing down Labour's own version.

It would seem it's all the fault of the defence review carried out by the new government in 2010 which allowed , "law enforcement agencies to obtain communications data within the appropriate legal framework ." It is also tied in very closely to RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) which ensures that the data collected is in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

So it is obvious that it is not only in its political institutions that a democratic deficit exists, but also its legal ones, and any reforms must also focus on these areas.

As I have gone through this potted history of this sort of legislation, and the government's reasoning behind this new draft bill, there is one thing that keeps nagging at me, what are they not telling us? They can already do many of the things this bill would enable them to do, but also give them the power to demand communications organisations retain data they have no use for.

So what does the government want it for? They have successfully foiled terrorist and criminal plots over the last few years under the existing legislation, although it has also led to many arrests and releases as well.

Civil liberties in the United Kingdom have always been conditional, and free speech has been reliant on the tolerance of the government of the time. In the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, any criticism of the government was been treated harshly, and whilst Walsingham was Elizabeth's principal secretary Tudor England is often regarded as having been a 'police state.'

There are many who believe the modern Britain has reverted to this, as we are unable to escape CCTV cameras almost wherever we go. This being an example of unintended consequences from legislation passed by the last government. The British became known as the most watched people in Europe, and it was even satirised by The Simpsons.

And this new bill is rife with the dangers of unintended consequences, as data is held on every communication every citizen of this country makes. As I said earlier, holding the data under the circumstances mooted seems pointless without being able to access the content if it was felt needed. After all, there doesn't seem to be much difference between information about the communication and the actual content.

I few months ago I said to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, that New Labour had, with some justification, been condemned for its approach to civil liberties, and that we should oppose this bill out of principle.

I am pleased to say he agreed, and so I am a little disappointed by Yvette Cooper's response which although it raises many importance questions, falls a long way short of outright condemnation. We will have to see how it is played when the joint committee reports, but I will be lobbying extensively to the leadership to reject the bill out of hand. I would rather Labour be hypocritical for now opposing something we once attempted to bring in ourselves, than for supporting a bill that my party brought down.

There are many reasons for opposing this bill are in this article by Henry Porter, and he sums it up much better than I could:

One good reason, as the Cambridge academic and database expert Professor Ross Anderson points out, is that old trick from the Labour years, which was to allow the secretary of state to make additions to the bill after the fact. This means that we have no idea what the legislation will eventually look like and it allows the secretary of state enormous discretion when it comes to the use of statutory instruments and afterthoughts of an oppressive and invasive nature.

Therefore I urge everybody to oppose this bill in whatever form it emerges from the committee, as our liberties really are at risk, as Dominic Grieve's document cited earlier amply demonstrates.

It is a sad indictment of modern government that they have come to believe that we can only be free and safe if they are more and more aware of where we are, who we're talking to and what we are saying.

1984 could be closer than we ever thought really possible.  

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Super, Summer of Sport

For once the hyperbole and the hype were justified, it really has been a super summer of sport. There are so many great events to write about, and that's without the Olympic and Paralympic games.

To my mind it actually started on Sunday May 13th, when Manchester City won the Premier Division for the first time, and their first championship in 44 years, as it encapsulates the sheer drama of sport. Sergio Aguero's goal deep into injury time, virtually the last kick of the season, as Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team, could only wait expectantly.

This is what sport is about, as success and failure are divided by small margins, whether it is 100ths of a second in a 100 metre race, or if the referee adds on 30 seconds too many which gives a team time to get that winning goal.

Only days after this Chelsea, against all expectations, overcame Bayern Munich in a penalty shoot-out to lift the Champions' League for the first time. This also brought in the fairy tale element, as the popular Roberto Di Matteo had taken over earlier in the year when Andrea Villas-Boas had been sacked. Di Matteo was only supposed to see Chelsea to the end of a season which was largely written off, yet he finished with two major trophies, as the F.A. Cup was also placed in the trophy cabinet.

It wasn't long before the European Championships started, and although England did better than expected, they did manage to once again lose a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage, this time to Italy after being totally outplayed for 120 minutes. I expect I wasn't the only person to say 'at last!' when we thought the Italians had scored near the end. But the whole championship was a feast of football, and watching the way the great Spain team took the Italians apart in the final was a delight to witness.

Whilst all this was going on, Wimbledon was  also dominating the sporting headlines, and two weeks of really high quality tennis, culminated in a men's singles final between six time champion Roger Federer, and Britain's Andy Murray, the first British man to reach a grand slam final in 76 years. As an aside, that there have have been three British female grand slam champions in that time; Angela Mortimer, Ann Jones and Virginia Wade is almost completely ignored, in the typically British way disappointment being preferred to success.

Unfortunately Murray was unable to prevail despite being on top for the first two sets, but Federer worked his way back into the match, and eventually won his record equalling seventh title. However, Andy Murray's tearful speech afterwards, for the first time endeared him to many tennis fans, as for they realised just how much he really cared.

But the pre-Olympic drama hadn't ended, as for the first time in many years, the Tour De France became a mass television event as a British rider, Bradley Wiggins, was the favourite to win. With the magnificent support of his fellow Team Sky members, Wiggins did indeed come through after twenty hard stages, through the French countryside. Wiggins became the first British winner of the event, and added the yellow jersey to the Olympic golds he had won previously.

Wiggins' victory was sealed on Sunday 22nd July, and was a great precursor to the big event of the summer of 2012, the Olympic Games. The following Friday, a packed Olympic Stadium, and a worldwide television audience of billions, watched Danny Boyles' stunning and evocative opening ceremony, which set the tone for over two weeks of incredible sport.

It's impossible to sum up the first part of London 2012 in a few words, so I don't think I'll try. A week after his Le Tour triumph, Bradley Wiggins was amongst the favourites for the men's road race, along with his colleague Mark Cavendish, but perhaps a combination of poor tactics and tiredness meant that they were well down. Team GB had to wait until the following day to win its first medal with Lizzie Armistead winning a silver in the women's road race.

Indeed it seemed to take the British competitors a few days to really get into having the games in their own country, and there were fears that after so much hope, it might turn out to be a damp squib after so much hope. Fortunately those fears were unfounded, and a couple of further silver medals followed, before on the Wednesday August 1st, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning brought home gold in the women's coxless pair, the first of four rowing golds for Team GB, three of them from women's teams.

Later that day Bradley Wiggins added the time trial gold to those he had already won, but it would take too much time, and be too boring to write about all Team GB's gold, silver and bronze medals, and a full list can be found here.

But it would be wrong to leave the Olympics without mentioning those victories that particularly stand out, Mo Farah's great 5000 and 10000 metre double. Jessica Ennis heptathlon, and Greg Rutherford's shock long jump gold medal on that 'super' first Saturday of the athletics programme.

There were historic moments too as Nicola Adams became the first women's boxing gold medallist, which was backed up by further boxing golds for Luke Campbell and Anthony Joshua (a medal I felt he was lucky to get personally).

The track cyclists did us proud as usual although there were also some more forgettable moments, Victoria Pendleton being downgraded in two of her three events, but winning the other. Chris Hoy came away with a pair of golds to make him Britain's most successful Olympian ever. Although I think Ben Ainslie would probably think his record fourth sailing gold was equally as valuable, as he only gets one go a games.

There were surprises too, as our slalom canoeists picked up gold and silver, but the big one was Jade Jones' in taekwondo, as she beat higher ranked opponents all the way through to cap off a great night on August 9th.

There were, of course, stunning performances from Non-British competitors, with Usain Bolt becoming the first man to retain the 100 and 200m gold medals, and David Rudisha's great world 800m record, perhaps the run of the games. Although I make no excuses for this blog being mainly about British successes.

Team GB exceeded the medal target it had set itself, but more importantly the games themselves outdid anything that could have been predicted. The transport system worked (though probably down to the fact there was a dearth of visitors who weren't attending events), and after a tricky start due to sponsors not taking up seats, once that was sorted out, the crowds flocked to all sorts of events, with only the football missing out in the main.

The spectacular closing ceremony, brought down the curtain temporarily, as a three week hiatus set in before the start of the paralympics, although the football season did kick off. If one thing stood out during this time, it was not only that England beat Italy in a friendly, but that we actually passed the ball, and didn't give it away as much as usual.

On August 29th the opening ceremony for the Paralympics (meaning parallel), which started at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948, a centre for spinal injuries, although the first official games took place in Rome in 1960.

Once again the opening ceremony was a feast, as more countries than ever before took part, and over 4000 competitors prepared for competition. Team GB (or Paralympic GB as it was known) had much higher expectations than ever, and  a target of over 100 medals was set.

From the first day British medals stacked up as Sarah Storey won the first of her four gold medals, and Jonathan Fox gained a surprise one in the pool. Swimming proved a very successful event in the paralympics, unlike in the Olympics where Team GB came away with just three medals, two of which belonged to Rebecca Adlington.

Day after day the Paralympians served up an amazing set of sporting achievements, from Hannah Cockcroft's jet powered chair, to the sheer determination and strength of David Weir, whose four golds at 800m, 1500m, 5000m and the marathon show that disability is no barrier to sporting excellence.


 As earlier in the summer, the cyclists brought home medals galore, although it is Jody Cundy's red mist when not allowed to restart one of his events that most will remember.

Team GB won medals across the board, where other nations that had done well in the Olympics such as the United States fared much worse, and is perhaps an indicator that they have yet to embrace the idea that disabled athletes too can thrill the crowds. As with the Olympics there isn't space to talk about all Britain's medallists, but you can find the full list here.

The paralympics were a supreme example of sporting endeavour, as athletes overcame all sorts of disabilities, overcoming them in various ways, to achieve remarkable things. An example being the American 'armless archer' Matt Stutzmann who uses his feet and his teeth to fire his arrows.

My favourite moment of the games came from double amputee Richard Whitehead, whose performance in his 200m event even now amazes me.

Or the amazing 34pt 4 x 100m women's relay in the pool where Australia beat Great Britain by 3/100ths of a second. That sort of drama is found hardly anywhere else but the sporting arena.

The Paralympics also have their fair share of superstars, and I have already mentioned a couple, Hannah Cockroft and David Weir. But there is also Ellie Simmons, Jonnie Peacock, Annis Al Hannouni, Marie-Amelie Le Fur, Natalie De Toit, and the one who currently surpasses them all, Oscar Pistorius

The South African sprinter, who also became the first Paralympic runner to compete in the Olympics, is a real superstar, and has raised the profile of Paralympic sport immensely over the last few years. Although this time he was overshadowed by Jonnie Peacock in his 100m, and Oliveira's in the 200m, and his reaction to that defeat which many saw as sour grapes. However, he came back to win the final event, the 400m in fine style.

But in London in 2012, the Paralympics themselves became their own ambassador, as the world watched these amazing athletes compete at a level many able-bodied people can only dream of. The dedication that the athletes put into their sport is there for all to see, and perhaps one day, it may be possible to fully integrate the two, so they really are the Paralympics?

So how do we cap all of this? It had been 76 years since a British man had won a grand slam, as we saw earlier, Andy Murray broke that chain by reaching the Wimbledon final. Well at the Olympics he went one better, and after dispatching Djokovic in the semi-finals, beat Roger Federer in straight sets win claim the gold medal. Then in partnership with Laura Robson, a silver was added to the tally in the mixed doubles.

Murray and Robson carried this through into the US Open, with Robson defeating first, three times former champion, Kim Clijsters, then world number 9 Li Na reached the fourth round. Murray on the other hand, took full advantage of the absence of Rafa Nadal, and the surprise defeat of Federer, to battle through to the final, where he faced defending champion Novak Djokovic. In what was a final filled with incredible rallies and  remarkable shots, Murray took a two set lead, which Djokovic brought back to 2-2. A year ago, Andy Murray might have buckled under this pressure, but last night he dug into his reserves to win a famous victory, and earn his place in the record books.

So a truly remarkable summer of sport comes to an end. A summer filled with incredible achievements, and drama of the highest order, and it will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Monday, 10 September 2012

12 steps to education heaven?

Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools by Andrew Adonis (Biteback Publishing Ltd, London, 2012)

Andrew Adonis was the principal driving force behind the education reforms of New Labour, his main contribution being the development of the academy system to improve the standards of failing comprehensives. This book describes how and why he arrived at this conclusion, and what he believes is the way forward. 

The child of a Greek-Cypriot immigrant brought up in a Camden Children’s Home, Adonis’s father and social worker gained him a place at Kingham Hill Boarding School in Oxfordshire.  His final headteacher David Shepherd urged him to try his old college Keble in Oxford, where he studied history, before eventually becoming a historian and lecturer himself.

Andrew Adonis became an education advisor in Tony Blair’s Labour governments after 1997, and inspired by his early experiences writes in the foreword:

“All this gave me a burning sense that education matters fundamentally. That inspirational teachers, and all who work with children, matter fundamentally. That institutions matter fundamentally. And that values, sometimes through religion, matter fundamentally.”

Lord Adonis puts forward a twelve point plan for reforming schools in England. There are a number of ideas in here which I can agree with, subject specialism for teachers through most of the school system, greater democracy and citizenship (including votes at sixteen), greater provision at the pre-school stage, and streamlining of governing bodies.

He doesn’t hold back, stating that in the eighties and early nineties comprehensives were ‘palpably and seriously failing.’ But he also holds himself up as a radical who is fighting against the tide, quoting Machiavelli from The Prince, “For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.”

He embarked on his mission to transform what he saw as the ‘secondary modern comprehensive,’ schools he believed little better at best, and in too many cases no better, than the secondary moderns they had replaced. But he faced obstacles, especially from those involved in schools on a daily basis. His concern was, “How to end the bureaucratic levelling-down culture within the teacher unions, the local education authorities and the education department itself?”

He felt the Thatcher government’s Grant Maintained Schools had failed because they had weak leadership, were in the firm grip of Local Education Authorities and ‘militant’ NUT involvement. They were not improving, the initiative placed little emphasis on setting up new schools and there were no new governance models.

Indeed, it was the little known City Technology Colleges (CTC) that impressed him, the key being they were independent, had sponsor/promoters, were not for profit, and non-fee paying. That they had been largely ignored by the outgoing Conservative government, meant that Labour in 1997 were not under any pressure to abolish them, which seems to have suited Adonis down to the ground.

                                Thomas Telford School a CTC that inspired Andrew Adonis
Quality of leadership is vital in any organisation whether school, business or government for that matter as he rightly says about comprehensives, if these things weren’t already in place before taking on CTC status, then merely renaming them wasn’t going to solve the problems.

Adonis seems to see academies as the only way to improve educational standards in underperforming schools saying, “It is urgent that all underperforming schools, primary as well as secondary, become academies.”  

However, he is uncritical of how the coalition government reversed the policy, when instead of concentrating on the failing schools they set about turning outstanding schools into academies. Although this was the end game of Adonis’s policy he fails to defend it, as there remain some 650 failing comprehensives which you’d expect him to believe were the priority.

One of the big concerns with academies was how they would affect surrounding schools, taking away funding for these big new projects. He is very dismissive of these, saying that the evidence shows surrounding schools raised their standards to compete. However, he doesn’t say how these schools were doing before the academy came into being, whether they were good schools, or improving, as otherwise they would have been academy candidates themselves.

Adonis does not really acknowledge the doubts that parents and indeed many educational professionals have with sponsors,  principally that as academies are outside of local authority control, these sponsors could have a counter-productive influence on the curriculum and the running of the schools.

He also doesn’t really address another reason for opposition and how experience, as well as ideology will have affected views. He writes extensively about the failures of past reforms but doesn’t consider whether this is what worried opponents, another expensive and complicated reform, that would do little or nothing to improve education or the life prospects of children.

Sir Michael Wilshaw now Ofsted chief was head of Mossbourne Academy which replaced the closed and failed Hackney Downs School.
Andrew Adonis supports the free schools which Michael Gove has introduced, seeing them as, ‘academies without a predecessor state school.’ He completely avoids telling us that free schools can be established in any building that is not necessarily fit for purpose, and that they do not have a requirement to hire qualified teachers. 

He does not mention at all the New Schools Network which has the sole responsibility for deciding whether a free school has a viable business plan and as we have seen in recent weeks, there are faults, as schools can have their funding withdrawn very late, meaning parents and local authorities have to find places very close to the new term. Whatever you may think of the academy system, and the way it’s set up, Andrew Adonis can’t be accused of not caring about, or thinking about how it should work, and went about it with rigour.

One theme that Andrew Adonis keeps going back to is the small number of graduates that come into teaching from Oxbridge and the Russell group universities, seeming to believe that only top graduates make good teachers. He heavily promotes the Teach First model, a private charity which selects apparently quality graduates from the top universities. They are then put through an intensive period of summer training, then placed in schools in deprived areas, on a two-year placement. 

The principles of Teach First are laudable, and they seem to be very good at what they do, though currently it is they, and not the school, that pick who goes where, which Adonis feels should change. If I have one bone to pick, it’s that in his promotion of Teach First, Lord Adonis should declare an interest and mention he’s a founding ambassador and trustee of the charity.

As a member of the Labour Party and someone who works in education, I was very keen to read this book and I certainly found it very interesting.  The journey to academies is painstakingly described, but he does tend to gloss over some of the problems, and like a true evangelist, focusses on the positive, whilst downplaying the negatives.

The idea of Andrew Adonis’s I am most enthusiastic about is that specialist teaching should not only be guaranteed, but should start sooner. I wouldn’t go as far as to start it in year one, I think for the first three to four years of schooling other things are as important as academic education. I would start specialising at year four, or five at the latest, and encourage a middle-school system. Many academies in the early days set themselves up for the 14-19 range, and this would be ideal I believe.

The Conservatives in government will love this book, because it supports their ideas that it is by involving those considered the drivers of the economy is the best way to go. The left will generally hate it, especially those who were against the academy idea from the outset, as it confirms all their prejudices, not only about New Labour but also about the possible dangers of allowing companies to take over schools.

The twelve point plan is somewhat utopian, especially in the idea of schools as community hubs, but it is only by aiming for the best, and constantly striving for it, that you have any chance of attaining it. I admire Andrew Adonis’ zeal, and his genuine goal to improve the education in English schools. He tends towards a one size fits all approach, which is ironic as that doesn’t seem to be his intention. Schools can’t all be the same, because the children aren’t. 

The book sells itself as a series of radical reforms by a ‘professional optimist,’ something anybody seeking to reform education in England needs to be.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Uninspired Cameron stores up trouble, whilst giving Boris his issue.

Well after months of speculation David Cameron has finally got round to performing his first, unforced reshuffle of his cabinet, and pretty uninspiring it was too.

As we know the principal positions remain unchanged; Osborne, May, Hague, Gove, Duncan Smith, Alexander, Cable and Pickles, therefore showing no significant shift in government thinking.  Andrew Mitchell's appointment as Chief Whip and Chris Grayling's as Justice Secretary indicate a right wing shift, especially on law and order. Mitchell is known as a bit of a hard man, and will be expected to keep the rebellious backbenchers more in line, with promises that if they bide their time, then their day will come.

The cabinet does take on a very old-fashioned look, totally dominated by white men in suits, which could well lead to a view that the Conservative party has not changed. This includes those members who are Liberal Democrats, who seem less and less significant, as demonstrated by Nick Clegg's deflated and defeated demeanour during yesterday's statement on the House of Lords debacle.

There are now only four women in official cabinet positions, Theresa May and Theresa Villiers (promoted to Northern Ireland), Justine Greening (now International Development, but more of her later), Maria Miller (replacing Hunt at Culture, Media and Sport) though others will be at the table. Although this is disappointing, no one can really criticise the dismissals of the truly appalling Baroness Warsi and Caroline Spelman.

A number of women have been placed in lower positions and perhaps they will move up as the election draws close, in order to give the government a more balanced look. However, Cameron's abilities as a talent spotter are doubtful as he promotes the likes of Grayling and Miller at the expense of  competent ministers like Harper and Hendry.

There are inevitable disappointments, even for somebody who doesn't support this government like myself. Some of my fellow travellers see all members of the government as the same, but I do not, perhaps because I came later to Labour politics, and was an interested outsider for a long time. Ken Clarke's demotion is a real blow to those who see community justice as a way forward, whereas Grayling is more from the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. Clarke will have a floating role as a minister without portfolio, but this is unlikely to provide satisfaction unless he has something to get his teeth into.

                                          Copyright Daily Telegraph

Lansley's removal brought initial optimism, as an opportunity to get same reining back on NHS privatisation presented itself, but unfortunately his replacement is Jeremy Hunt, a reward for not dropping Cameron totally in it during the Leveson Inquiry. Hunt has been known to support the dismantling of the NHS in the past, so we'll have to see if he still holds those views.

                                          Copyright Daily Telegraph

 I'm not going to go into a detailed examination of the reshuffle as others much better qualified and informed will do so, but just give a brief overview and a few thoughts. As I've said, there is no change in direction economically, with Osborne, Alexander and Cable staying where they are, and socially a rightward drift.

So although an uninspiring reshuffle, with the media really trying to find things to talk about, Cameron could have created a few problems for himself, a situation he is not unfamiliar with.

Firstly is the problem of no change in direction on the economy. George Osborne has overseen a return to recession, with no immediate prospect of recovery, as yet more downgraded forecasts indicate. Something needs to be done here, which both left and right agree on, even if they do on what that should be. Both say that some way to encourage growth is required, but differ substantially on whether stimulus or greater austerity is the way to follow.

Osborne seems unable to decide which he wants to follow, and so dithers along doing nothing in particular, and is on the way to borrowing more money in five years, than Labour did in thirteen. So Cameron's refusal to make any changes here is just storing up even more trouble if the economy doesn't show signs of picking up.

However, he has also given himself a number of ticking bombs with his treatment of Clarke and Lansley. As the only 'big beast' in the government he may find it difficult as a sort of roving troubleshooter, and eventually decide he'd prefer life on the backbenches.

Andrew Lansley has sweated blood in pushing through the Health and Social care Act and may well feel that his demotion to Leader of the House is demeaning. He may well be prepared to put up with it for now, perhaps hoping that once the furore over the reforms to the NHS has died down, he can be found a more senior position elsewhere. If this is not forthcoming within the next year or so, he too may feel a spell on the backbenches will suit him better, and he knows where the bodies are buried.

There is one more timebomb, which, if true, also indicates that Cameron was not necessarily making the decisions. Iain Duncan Smith is rumoured to have been offered Justice, but refused to move, which could indicate that the Prime Minister is weak in the face of really determined ministers. This could have ramifications on future cuts where Duncan Smith has apparently said enough is enough.

But there is one man I believe who will be delighted at the reshuffle and its possible ramifications. Michael Fallon was on Newsnight insisting that the government maintained its position on a third runway at Heathrow, but the removal of Justine Greening as Transport Secretary, who is implacably opposed, and replacing her with Patrick McLoughlin has raised suspicions that this stance is about to change.

                                         Copyright Daily Telegraph

As has been trailed extensively in the media, Boris Johnson is almost seen as a Conservative leader in waiting, the one person who could sweep in and lead the Conservatives to victory at the election, save he's not actually an MP at the moment. That problem, however, is solvable if Boris really wants to try.

But the one thing he has lacked is a big issue, something that substantially differentiates him from David Cameron, and this could now be it. He has made public his opposition to a third runway for some time, but today's machinations have really given him the opportunity to repeat them, calling it a 'mad plan.' 

This is what Johnson needed, a big issue that he can make his own, and if the u-turn does occur, and especially if Zac Goldsmith follows through on his threat to resign and force a by-election on the issue, plenty of publicity. Who knows, perhaps that could be his opportunity to fight it an anti-runway campaign, and return to parliament with his own agenda, but this could of course just be idle speculation.

The third runway is not a minor issue, as it has potentially far-reaching economic and environmental effects. Justine Greening, like Zac Goldsmith is an MP from the area which would be greatly affected, and therefore not just a side issue which just affects the locality. It is Greening's move that is the trigger here, having been so clear in her opposition to the third runway and as I said earlier, McLoughlin's appointment to the transport portfolio could signal a change of heart.

Adding up all this, Cameron could well just be storing trouble up for himself, and with other non-parliamentary issues still bubbling away, I don't see his next couple of years being any better than his first.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Firing the first shots...........

For many of those that lived in Colchester, the first action of the Civil Wars took place on the 22nd August 1642. When St. John's Abbey, the home of Sir John Lucas, was attacked by a crowd from the town, and set in train what became known as the 'Stour Valley Riots.'

The Lucas family had a chequered relationship with the townspeople of Colchester, and could really be described as being 'in' Colchester, but not 'of'' Colchester. The family were not recent residents, having acquired the Abbey during the reign of Elizabeth, but its place just outside the walls gave it a certain separation.

Sir John himself had made enemies amongst the townspeople with many disputes over water and local gentlemen like Sir Thomas Barrington. However, it was during the period of personal rule that he did much to antagonise the gentlemen and common people of Colchester.

Ship money was a tax a Monarch imposed on coastal towns to build ships in times of trouble. However, in 1629 Charles I had dissolved parliament and ruled without it until 1640. Without a parliament to vote through supply, Charles needed to raise money elsewhere, particularly for his wars against the Scots, and so decided to ask for ship money from towns that normally would not need to contribute.

As you can imagine this was not greeted with universal delight, and many in Essex, particularly Colchester, were reluctant to pay. Indeed Sir Harbottle Grimston (the father of the subject of the biography I'm writing) was imprisoned at one stage for refusal to pay. Essex ended up as one the places most in arrears, and Sir John Lucas was appointed to the task of gathering it.

In this he proved extremely efficient and managed in the space of some eighteen months to make up the arrears. He was forced to use harsh, if legal, methods to accomplish this, and so long before the rumblings of war began, his popularity amongst the people of Colchester was very low.

So on the night of August 21st rumours began to spread that Lucas and a troop of armed men were preparing to leave the following day and join Charles at Nottingham. The Mayor put a watch on the house, and called up the trained bands (England did not yet have a standing army as we would understand it) and at midnight as Lucas (supposedly) stepped out of his house and this was taken as the signal for the troops to move out.

However the crowd read it as their own signal to attack and they did with alacrity (although this wasn't the first time Lucas's property had been attacked) ransacking the house, threatening servants and family, and eventually moving onto next door St. Giles' Church where they broke open the family vault and desecrating some of the coffins.

I won't go into any real detail here as that will be saved for the book, but the riots spread throughout the region, with Lady Rivers at St. Osyth being very hard hit also, and with that attack and those on Laudian ministers, a strong anti-Catholic and anti-Laudian element was involved. Indeed, the attacks spread to such an extent that John Walter believes that calling them the 'Stour Valley Riots' is actually a misnomer, and they were symptomatic of general unrest in a country on the verge of civil war. It was later that day that Charles raised his standard at Nottingham beginning the civil wars between monarch and Parliament.

So as we've seen, Colchester was there from the very beginning, and Richard Baxter wrote of the events at St. John's, "the warre was begun on our street before the king or the Parliament had any Armies." As for Lucas himself, the story is that he and a Laudian minister with him Thomas Newcomen were in effect arrested and taken to London by the town's MP's Harbottle Grimston and Sir Thomas Barrington, although Walter says this is untrue and that Lucas was already in London.

Whatever the case, the attack on St. John's Abbey was amongst the first notable events of the civil wars, and Colchester played another major role with the siege of 1648. So as well as commemorating this event, we also mark the start of the wars of the three kingdoms (although the people of Hull may well disagree), and the many changes that it wrought both militarily and constitutionally.


Sunday, 19 August 2012

Julian Assange's plea!

Julian Assange made his plea to the world today, and although in many ways many of us can sympathise with the words, his refusal to defend himself against the accusations against him, does not endear him to us. Anyway, watching the speech he made from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy today reminded me a bit of Juliet, so here is my attempt at a pastiche.

Oh freedom, freedom! Wherefore art though freedom?
You have been denied me;
By that which was founded in that name, but be aware, I will not be crushed.
Even though thou art my enemy, and continue a witchhunt against me;
And thou does not act in the name freedom but as a watcher on the world.
But the world was watching too, and so the convention was maintained.
You hold a man who upholds that freedom, as Russia does those who ask for it,
Freedom is not just a word it is a concept, and I applaud the resolve and generosity of this support,
And so I say to the Americans, look to your past, re-affirm that spirit of freedom or you will
" lurch off the precipice, dragging us all into a dangerous and oppressive world in which journalists fall silent under the fear of prosecution and citizens must whisper in the dark."

(P.S. I do not claim to be a poet)

Saturday, 28 July 2012

An armchair view of the London Olympics 1

I have been looking forward to the London Olympics for seven years ever since we won them in 2005. The joy was marred the following day by the murder of 52 innocent people just going about their lives in London. I was pleased that this wasn't forgotten by Danny Boyle in his breathtaking opening ceremony last night.

Indeed, I'd go as far as to say it was my favourite moment, not only for the montage of the photos of the victims, but for the brilliant Akram Khan dance that went with it. The second, and truly spectacular moment, was when the iron workers created five metal rings, which then lifted up to create the Olympic rings, absolutely astonishing to watch.

I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the ceremony too, which had many elements, and yes, was a bit jingoistic, but these things are events, they are huge one stop advertising campaigns for the host nation.

Opinions have been very divided, with many loving it, but just as many it seems hating it, for all sorts of reasons. Some feeling that its portrayal of British history was just too good, and missed out on the many bad things we had done over time.

Well yes, it would, as I said the opening ceremony is advertising pure and simple, and advertisers always exaggerate the good bits. Others have disliked it for its 'left wing' message, though if promoting things like women's suffrage and the NHS is a purely 'left wing' exercise that would upset a lot of Conservatives, with one or two making unwise comments, which they've then backtracked on.

Some just found it cheap and tacky, but I, and many I know were enthralled, across the spectrum, and treated it like an event. That's all I will say on the actual show, other than to say the final scenes when Sir Steve Redgrave brought the torch into the stadium, and handed it to seven young athletes who then went on to light the cauldron was a fitting end to the entire ceremony, and fits in with the legacy the games is all about.

So what of the first day's sporting trials and tribulations? Well to start with, it wasn't really the first day, as the men's and women's football tournaments had already kicked off, and yesterday two world records were broken in the men's team archery preliminaries. The British men scraped a 1-1 draw against Senegal, whilst the women have beaten New Zealand (1-0) and Cameroon (3-0) to secure a quarter-final place.

Today's big hope for British medals was in the men's road race, which following on from Bradley Wiggins' brilliant victory in the Tour de France, was expected to produce a gold medal for the world champion Mark Cavendish. Alas it wasn't to be Team GB's day, and a probable combination of tiredness (the Tour only finished last Sunday) and poor tactics meant they were never really in it, once the breakaway occurred.

Other than that, it has been a typically mixed day for the British competitors, with a few very good performances in the rowing, which contrasted with a number of early exits in events like the team archery, and men's and women's doubles in tennis, though an honourable mention here to Laura Robson and Heather Watson who ran a combination of Angelique kerber and Sabine Lisicki (Wimbledon singles semi-finalists in 2012 and 2011 respectively) very close.  We did have one victory on the courts with Elena Baltacha dispatching her Hungarian opponent with ease.

One of the advantages of hosting the games is the opportunity for British teams to compete in events they have previously failed to qualify for. Therefore today our women competed in handball, and men and women in the two forms of volleyball. This can only be good experience for the future, and hopefully will encourage children to take up these sports.

A number of medals have already been awarded, with Alexander Vinokourov beating a Colombian rider to that road race. Italy had a very good day, not only surprisingly beating the United States to the team archery gold, but collecting all three in the women's foil in fencing.

A world records was set winning gold in the pool with 16-year-old Yi Shiwen of China (who incidentally won the first gold of the games in shooting) won the 400m individual medley. Ryan Lochtie won the USA's first gold, but it looks like the chinese are already looking the country to beat outside of the track.

So I found it an absorbing first full day of competition, and look forward to the rest of the games. Naturally I hope to see a great deal of British success, but if we see good performances, few, or even better no disqualifications for drugs, and nobody gets seriously hurt, the games will be a success. New stars will emerge, and others will fade, but that is life as well as sport. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I intend to, and will give my second view in a couple of days.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Be this Cicero reborn?

Harbottle Grimston was the eldest surviving son of Sir Harbottle Grimston Bt of Bradfield Hall, Manningtree in Essex, near the town of Colchester. Grimston had been elected one of the MPs for Colchester in April 1640 in the parliament that ran until May 5th that year, and is known as the Short Parliament.

Charles I had dissolved parliament in 1629 and instigated what became known as personal rule, which he maintained until April 1640. During this period, as you can imagine, a lot of grievances built up and so when parliament was recalled, because Charles had run out of ways to raise money, parliament presented him with the Grand Remonstrance.

The reason Charles had recalled parliament was so he could be granted the funds to fight the Bishops War, which was an attempt by the Scottish church to resist the reform of its Presbyterianism system. Although Scotland was still nominally independent at this time, because Charles' father, James I, had also been King of Scotland (James VI) they shared a single monarch.

Therefore there was an inevitable clash between the desires of the King and parliament, and as agreement seemed impossible, Charles dissolved the House after only three weeks.

The title of this blog is inspired by a poem written in the 17th century and published in the Essex Review as part of an article on the Essex Petition of 1679-80. Entitled 'The Essex Ballad' it is a tale of Essex, and more specifically Colchester, with its references to oysters, the Dutch and bays. The second and third verses read:

The Squire, whose Name does famous grow
As Marcus Tullius Cicero
And keeps true time with Sir A________ _______ A___________

As freely gave himself his hand.
As once his Voice to rule the Land
By such as should not understand
Too rashly.

The author believes the squire mentioned to be Harbottle Grimston, who like Cicero had been a lawyer,  before he entered parliament. Marcus Tullius Cicero had been a Roman statesman noted for his oration, and also a rebel in his own way, so the allusion is perhaps doubly apt.

As a new MP in 1640 Grimston had a reputation to gain, and having taken the parliamentary side in the arguments regarding supply versus grievances, and like Cicero, he used his speaking skills to attack the organs of the state, particualarly the advisors to the King. The poem, if it is Grimston, probably refers to a speech made in 1679 protesting against an action of Charles II, but you'll have to read the book to find out about that, unless nobody wants to publish it of course.

Grimston had made a number of interventions since parliament's recall by Charles I, but his first really noted one came in 1641, when he spoke in a debate in which he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of high treason.

Throughout the period of personal rule, Laud had been one of Charles' key advisers, and this, for puritans such as Grimston was a problem. One of their greatest grievances was a belief that Charles and Laud wanted to return England to Catholicism. Although untrue, what they they did like was ceremony and glamour, and their high church faith which included many Catholic element, which they believed was driven by arminianism.

But I am not intending to give a history of these arguments, they are stated in great detail elsewhere, and I will save my views on it all for the book. However, to Grimston these accusations put William Laud amongst the worst possible men. Some of Grimston's ire may well have been driven by his father suffering imprisonment for refusing to pay ship money (a tax Charles used to raise funds during his personal rule), but as we look at the speech, we can perhaps see where his reputation came from?

The previous day, a House committee had agreed to sequester the Archbishop, but as Grimston began he wished to, "offer my reasons, why I concieve it more necessary we should proceed a little further than the desire of bare sequestration only."

But early into his speech, Harbottle Grimston tells us exactly what he thinks of Archbishop Laud:

We are now fallen upon the great man, the Archbishop of Canterbury; look upon him as he is in highness, and he is the sty of all pestilential filth, that hath infested the state and government of this commonwealth. Look upon him in his dependencies, and he is the only man, the only man who hath raised and advanced, that together with himself, have been the authors and causers of all our ruins, miseries and calamities we now groan under.

The members sitting in the chamber can have had no doubt what Grimton's intentions were, and as he followed this with an excoriating attack on those that Laud had promoted to positions of prominence, the 'popish bishops.'

The men advanced were not, of course, Catholic, but to puritans such as Grimston (Pym, Prynne, Hampden and others you will hear of in the book) their love of splendour and ritual meant they were not followers of the true faith.

He accuses them of 'devouring the flock' when they should have fed them, although this includes a convenient amnesia regarding the actions of Henry VIII and Edward VI when he said:

It was the happiness of our church, when the zeal of God's house eat up the bishops, glorious and brave martyrs, that went to the stake in the defence of the protestant religion, but the zeal of the bishops hath only been to persecute and eat up the church.

To the puritans, this percieved attack on the church was the most important of their battles. Although there were many other grievances that had been stated in the Grand Remonstrance, it was this that was galvanising them into action.

However, Grimston cleverly extends the insidious reach of Laud into trade, particularly that of tobacco, and how it was affecting the day to day lives of those employed in the trade, and was causing people to lose livelihoods they'd been in since apprentices. Grimston is accusing Laud of spending more of his time raking in money from this trade, rather than in the pulpit.

There were few rules guiding 'unparliamentary' language in those days (indeed it was actually illegal to record debates, but many did by various methods), and so Grimston's attack on Laud became even more vociferous. He gets into his stride as he expounds:

Mr Speaker, we know what he hath been charged withal in this House, crimes of a dangerous consequence, and of a transcendent nature, no less than the subversion of the government of this kingdom, and the alteration of the protestant religion.

The assault is relantless as Grimston says that there is 'clear and manifest proof' that Laud's hand is present in every complaint and grievance, and he was like a buzzing and angry wasp, "his sting is in the tail of everything."

After this build up, there was only one place Grimston had left to go:

Mr Speaker, he hath been the great and common enemy of all goodness, and good men, and it is not safe that he should be near His Majesty's person, to distil his poison into his sacred ears, nor is it fit for the commonwealth that he fit in so eminent a place in government, being thus accused....This man is a corrupt fountain, that hath corrupted all the streams, and until the fountain be purged, we can never expect, nor hope to have clear channels.

Then comes the killer blow:

I concieve it is most necessary and fit that we should take up a resolution to do somewhat, to strike while the iron is hot, and to go up to the Lords...and accuse him of high treason..

The Archbishop of Canterbury was indeed subsequently imprisoned in the Tower, and eventually executed in 1645. Although there were other speeches that day in support of Grimston's motion, his was almost certainly the clinching argument.

At the opening of this blog, I posted a couple of verses from a poem, in which a man, believed by the author to be Grimston, was compared to Cicero because of his oratorical skills.Whilst having read many Harbottle Grimston speeches during my research, and agreeing he was a good speaker capable of making points in a powerful way, he lacked the rhetorical flourishes that resound down the ages:

Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.

“For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.” 

“What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.” 

So I think we can say the anonymous author of the poem was using poetic licence in comparing Harbottle Grimston to Marcus Tullius Cicero, what he did do, was draw attention to a man whose rhetoric made a great impact in his time.

With this speech Grimston cemented his place amongst the leading lights of the Parliamentary Party, and he was placed on many of the House's most important committees, including chairing some of them. The next taster will deal with the commission which was sent to the Isle of Wight to try and negotiate with Charles, and end the first war, of which Grimston was a member.