In which I proffer a little opinion on the whole Jack Straw/Malcolm Rifkind thing

This morning’s headlines are all about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind falling for a Channel 4/ Telegraph sting to where they were filmed apparently offering their services to a private company for cash. Both men have ‘strenuously denied’* any naughtiness, but have also referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards authority. I have thoughts on this issue. They are threefold, and so, because I haven’t done one for a while, I shall share them with you through the medium of a numbered list.

1. The oft repeated idea that politicians need to tackle the perception that they are out of touch with voters completely misses the point.

Malcolm Rifkind, apparently, charges £5-8000 for half a days work. £5-8,000. The average (mean) salary in the UK is somewhere around about £27,000 pa. If we take the lower end of Rifkind’s half-day rate, that’s about 2.5 months income for an average earner. Or to put it another way, the average annual salary equates to less than 3 days work for a senior MP offering their services to a private business. A single jobseekers’ allowance claimant in this country is entitled to £72.40 per week. That’s how much the government has decreed an individual needs to live on after their rent has been paid. Someone claiming jobseekers’ allowance would take roughly a year and four months to get to an income of £5,000.

Rifkind talks about not being paid a salary. He has pointed out that he was referring to a salary from private business, over and above his MP’s salary, but it’s hard to get away from the impression that his £67,000 income from being an MP is insufficiently substantial to stick in his mind.

This isn’t a situation that creates a perception that MPs are out of touch with the rest of the population. It’s a situation that highlights the reality of just how out of touch they are.

 

2. If the best thing you can say about your behaviour is that it’s not actually illegal, that’s too low a bar

Both Straw and Rifkind have been at pains to emphasise that they don’t think they’ve broken and codes of conduct, and believe that their behaviour is well within the letter of the law. Well, so what? We don’t live in a world where there’s ‘illegal behaviour’ and ‘good behaviour’ and nothing in between. It’s the same situation as when UKIP get tied in knots explaining how some specific comment wasn’t racist, as if ‘racist’ and ‘fine’ are the only available categories of activity, and so long as they’re not racist they must be a’ok.

It’s entirely possible for behaviour to be entirely legal, and still abhorrently unethical, or a bit dodgy, or slightly disappointing. ‘Not illegal’ isn’t the same as ‘right’ or ‘good.’ There’s a whole range of behaviour that isn’t illegal but also fails to add to the some total of joy and kindness in the world. More than that, there’s a whole range of stuff that isn’t illegal, but still makes the world a little bit sadder, greyer and more disappointing. Which brings me to my final point…

 

3. Voters aren’t going to respect the office of MP, if MPs don’t respect it themselves

Two former ministers of state, prostrating themselves in front of an overseas agency for a quick buck. Really? Show some self-respect gentlemen. Neither of you, I’m guessing, is short of cash. You’re members of what should be considered one of the most august institutions on the planet. You’ve both been members of government, and you’re both still serving MPs in a period when the reputation of MPs has been tarnished by the expenses scandal, and repeated ‘cash for influence/access/questions’ type hoo-hahs. This is a moment in time when you need to be better than this. This is a moment for saying actually we ARE all in this together, and my MPs salary is more than sufficient to compensate me for spending all my working time on constituency and parliamentary business.

I’m not saying MPs should never have outside interests. I’m very much in favour of MPs coming to Parliament after spending some of their working lives in a real non-Westminster-bubble job, but if you’re an MP who wants to broaden their world view while serving in Parliament, can I politely suggest voluntary work? It’s good for the community. It’s good for the soul, and it won’t cause your voters to think you’re obviously just on the take.

 

And breathe… So there’s the rant for the day. A day earlier than usual I note, but the news world will have moved on by tomorrow, so I figured why wait?

 

*Why are politician’s denials always strenuous? Are denials never issued wearily, angrily, or cheerfully, or are journalists subject to strict limits on adverb use?

 

And if you want to read me in more jocular, more fictional, and less shouty mood, my first novel, Sweet Nothing will be out in paperback from August, and is available to order right now.

In which I do a little bit of a politics catch up

During my period of non-blogging, on account of all the book-finishing and holibob-going, a range of politics has occurred. Three things in particular caught my wandering attention: firstly, David Cameron had a little cabinet reshuffle; secondly Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the government; and thirdly Mark Simmonds resigned from the foreign office.

The cabinet reshuffle was generally seen as a pre-election attempt to move aside some of the less popular figures in the government, notably Michael Gove, and to bring in some new blood, specifically lady blood, on account of how David Cameron is totally down with equality, at least now it’s been explained to him that holders of a uterus are also allowed to vote. What the reshuffle was trying to say was that the cabinet are modern; they’re in touch with the normal people; they’re just like us. What would be quite poor, from a PR perspective, then would be to lose one of your most prominent female, and most prominent non-white, minister shortly after the reshuffle.

Baroness Warsi resigned in protest at the government’s failure to come out with a strong response to Israel’s military action in Gaza. Since quitting she’s been pretty vocal about the difficulties she feels she experienced within cabinet in terms that only serve to exacerbate the image of a group of privileged, out of touch, old public school boys unable to engage with the wider world.  But that’s just one person’s opinion. So long as it’s not followed up by another minister complaining publicly about how terribly hard done by he is by being paid shedloads, I imagine David Cameron will probably still feel that things are going ok.

Oh dear.

On August 11th, Foreign Office Minister, Mark Simmonds, resigned citing the impossibility of housing his family in central London on his meagre expenses allowance as his reason for stepping down. Now I actually feel that it’s really important that MPs are reasonably paid and remunerated for their costs. If they’re not, then politics really does become an avenue only open to people who are already wealthy. However, this is Mark Simmonds, who was employing his own wife as his office manager on a salary of £20k+ on top of his own £89k salary, and refused to consider the horror of renting a property in outer London. This is an expenses system that allows for 30 return trips per year from constituency to London for MPs’ family members, and would have allowed Mr Simmonds around £28,000 per year towards rent on a London property. The reality is that however ‘intolerable’ Mr Simmonds found his situation, most people, in a country where food banks and rough sleeping are things that happen, will struggle to sympathise with someone bemoaning the meanness of only being allowed slightly more than the national average salary to pay for his second home.

So, if you’re a Prime Minister trying to look open to diversity, modern, in touch with the country at large, I would have to conclude that it’s not been a great couple of weeks. Having said that, part of me is slightly cross with myself for writing this post. If I’m going blog about politics it probably should be about stuff that matters: like education; or the NHS; or the feeble international response to the situation in Gaza.

But actually I think the other stuff – the stuff about perceived privilege and lack of equality – is more than just PR and Westminster bubble vacuousness. We are supposed to be a representative democracy, but the people who are supposed to represent us don’t reflect the range of people in the country, and I think that does matter. Diversity is one of those concepts that people pay lip service to. ‘Yes, it would be great to have more women, but they don’t apply.’ ‘Obviously we’d be open to more disabled candidates, but there are practicalities to think about.’ ‘Of course we want more black people, but they just happen not to have made it through the selection process this time.’ More diversity in government gives you a broader range of experiences to pool into policy making. That gives you a broader range of ideas, and a broader range of expertise. That gives you a much better chance of coming up with a good idea, and of spotting the flaws in the terrible ones. It makes decision making less cosy, but ultimately better, and that should be what matters – that our politicians make the best decisions and pursue the best possible policies for the whole country and for the gloriously diverse mixture of people who live in it.

So that was day 4 of the Week of Awesome Blogging. Come back tomorrow for some more, when I shall be writing about something. I have no idea what. Jolly good.

In which I go to a party and consider a political tsunami

Two weeks ago I confidently announced the Friday was blogday from now on. And then last week I failed to post anything, so I think we can all agree that that idea’s going well. I have an excuse though, which given my mother’s reluctance to write me a note excluding me from blogging duties*, I shall explain myself.

I was at a party.

Ok, so it’s not a great excuse. It’s pretty much on a par with taking a  day off school to go to the Radio 1 roadshow, a common practice at my school, but another one I could never get my own parents on side with. Anyway, last week was the RNA‘s Summer Party which includes the presentation of the Joan Hessayon Award for new writers. As an award contender, I squeezed myself into my spanx, did my hair, applied actual make-up and made my merry way to London town. There were seventeen of us up for the award, which mathematically equated to a 5.88% chance of winning, and the winner was… drum roll please… not me. Ah well, never mind. It’s fantastic just to be a contender etc. etc. Cue much use of my excellent ‘magnanimous loser face,’ and many many congratulations to the very lovely and clever Jo Thomas who actually did win. Hurrah for her!

2014 Joan Hessayon contenders
2014 Joan Hessayon Award contenders

Whilst I was glamming it up in London Town being all writerly and control-panted, there were European and local elections going on across the country. The results of those elections caused a political earthquake, or tsunami, or storm (depending on the natural force metaphor selected by your news provider of choice), which is a media way of trying to make the story that UKIP did quite well and the Lib Dems did quite badly sound significantly more exciting than it actually is.

If you look at the actual numbers – I know boring, but potentially actually informative – you end up feeling that rather than looking at a tsunami you’re looking at a moderately sized wave, and nobody ever uttered the phrase, ‘Look! A moderately sized wave – run for the hills!’

There are a few reasons for thinking that politicians from the main parties should dial down the panic levels in relation to the UKIP surge (and be warned – there are very few jokes in this bit, but there are a number of moderately interesting statistics). Firstly, turnout in the European elections is always low. This year, in the UK, it was around 34%. As a comparison the turnout in the 2010 general election was just over 65%, so there’s an awful lot of potential voters who simply didn’t participate in this election. Within the 34% who voted, UKIP secured around 27.5% of the vote – that’s less than a third of the vote from a third of the electorate, and it’s always wise to be a little bit cautious about electoral figures based on relatively low turnouts.

Secondly, it’s very difficult to assess how much of the UKIP vote is either likely to translate into UKIP votes at a general election, or is suggestive of strong anti-EU feeling. Mid-term European elections are traditionally a repository for protest votes and dissatisfaction with the government of the day. A YouGov poll looking at general election voting intentions yesterday put Labour’s lead over the Tories at 7% (38 to 31) with UKIP down on 16% – significantly different from the European election results just a week ago. And we can add to that the fact that pre-election polls suggested a disjoint between voters choosing UKIP in the European elections, and voters who actually want to leave the EU. A YouGov poll just before election day suggested that 42% of voters who planned to vote UKIP, would actually vote to stay in the EU in a referendum on the subject.

All in all, that suggests that what we’re dealing with here is a significant protest vote, and the main parties have to decide how they deal with that. The answer to that question all depends on what they think people are protesting against. Is the appeal of UKIP that they’re anti-EU and anti-immigration? Or is it that people feel Nigel Farage is an ‘ordinary bloke’ rather than a media-trained slick politician? Some of those polling figures, combined with the fact that scandalette after scandalette during the campaign failed to dent UKIP support suggests to me that it’s probably more the latter than the former.

So here’s a crazy idea for the other political parties – less spin, less focus-groups, less trying to guess what the electorate might want and pretending to care, less trying to make Ed Milliband look like a ‘regular guy’ when he’s clearly the natural born leader of the political uber-nerds, and more saying what you really think and letting the electorate decide. The European election results suggest to me an electorate grown weary of politicians, tired of the disingenuous streak that runs through political debate, and which isn’t often challenged effectively by the Westminster bubble political press. So stop wittering on about which party leader has the best idea of the cost of a pint of milk, and try actually thinking something’s a good idea and then doing it. It really doesn’t seem that complicated. *Sighs wearily in the direction of Westminster*

So there you go – a writerly awards party and a little bit of electoral statistics. A lovely start to the day.

Comment your little hearts out and come back tomorrow when there will be a bonus blog post following on from Laura E James in the Main Character Blog Hop.

 

* At least I assume she’d be reluctant. I haven’t actually asked. That would seem like I was taking the whole endeavour far too seriously.

In which I wonder whether it’s even worth having an opinion

There are some truths which, in this little hippy liberal corner of the interweb at least, we hold to be self-evident. Things like the idea that extreme weather events definitely aren’t caused by Katy Perry kissing a girl and liking it, and that the welfare state is, on balance, A Good Thing. Other Good Things would include the NHS, the BBC, free movement of people across borders and the recognition that newspaper headlines that are phrased as a yes/no question can almost always be answered, ‘Probably not.’ (EG ‘Is your iPod giving you cancer?’ ‘Are floods of immigrants going to establish sharia law in Melton Mowbray?’ etc. I made those two up, but you get the idea.)

What is depressing this little corner of the interweb today, is the unfortunately equally self-evident fact, that none of these opinions matter. My opinions, like most of yours, are irrelevant to my political overlords. I’m not rich enough to be likely to donate significant money to any political party. I’m not a hard-working family, being childless and generally quite lazy, and therefore, it would appear that very few politicians see me as a demographic worth pursuing.

Having said that I do live in a relatively marginal parliamentary seat with a current majority of less than 3000. Marginal seats are the places that actually matter in general elections – the seats where the sitting MP has a small lead and where the seat could plausibly change hands. That should mean that I’m one of the people who politicians are spending stupid amounts of money trying to please. So why aren’t the papers full of stories about politicians competitively trying to outdo one another over how lax they want to make our border controls, and aggressively trying to give passing unemployed people free monkeys and tv licences, and maybe a nationalised railway to play with? All of that would appeal immensely to me, but none of it is happening.

And it’s not happening, because although I live in a relatively marginal parliamentary seat, I’m not an undecided or swing voter. The problem is that I know what I think, so when my hereditary Tory MP turns up on the doorstep, our views are already too diametrically opposed for there to be any significant risk of me voting for him, so, although I might berate him lightly for a while, neither of our hearts are really in it, and in the end we just shrug at one another and he pops off to try to woo someone more plausibly wooable. Essentially the people whose opinions matter to politicians are the group of people who:

a) live in marginal constituencies;

b) are undecided about how to vote (and ideally are undecided between the 1st and 2nd place parties – people umming and aahing between the Greens and a friendly looking Independent are less relevant); and

c) are definitely intending to vote for someone.

In the 100 most marginal seats in Britain at the moment (based on 2010 electoral boundaries and results), the total number of votes between the 1st and 2nd place parties is just over 120000. If we keep things simple (simpler admittedly than they actually are) and just think about votes shifting from the 1st place to the 2nd place party, you only need half (plus one) of those voters to move to change the result. So that’s 60000ish voters whose intentions politicians are actually interested in. The current population of Britain is roughly 64 million, and the number eligible to vote in general elections is around 46 million. That means, in practical terms, somewhere around 0.1% of the electorate actually have the electoral clout to influence political debate and policy. Obviously that maths is massively dodgy and oversimplified but the conclusion pretty much holds. A very small section of the population actually cast votes that make a difference to the outcome of major elections, and I’m not one of them, and if you’re not one of them there is very little incentive for career politicians to care what you think. And I find that rather depressing. That is all.

In which I weigh into the debate on qualified and unqualified teachers

The coalition have had a little falling out recently over education, specifically over the rules regarding unqualified teachers. Currently free schools and academies are permitted to appoint teachers who don’t hold qualified teacher status, and in September 2012 the rules on teacher qualification for all state maintained schools were slightly relaxed. As yet, it’s not clear how big an effect this most recent change has had, but there’s some more information on numbers of unqualified teachers in free schools here.

I’ll pin my colours to the mast upfront, and say that I am a qualified teacher. I’ve never taught in school, and specialise in teaching adults in the workplace and community. However, I still have a bit of a bee in my bonnet over the perceived professionalism of teaching.

The idea of allowing, or encouraging, schools to appoint individuals without a teaching qualification seems to be an attempt to get more inspirational individuals from different professional backgrounds into schools. On face value, that’s laudable. A big part of education is about engaging and inspiring students, and having direct contact with people who’ve achieved success in different professions is one good way of doing that. It’s also a way of bringing up to date expertise into the classroom, and it’s perfectly possible that some of those individuals will be charismatic classroom teachers. Others won’t – in-depth knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge are not necessarily overlapping skills.

However, subject expertise and charisma aren’t the be all and end all of good teaching. You need to be able to do behaviour management, lesson planning, formative assessment, summative assessment, designing learning outcomes, designing learning activities and resources, differentiating within your lesson for different abilities and learning speeds, adapting your lesson plan to the realities of the class in front of you – and all of those things are skills that need to be thought about and developed.

That doesn’t mean that someone who joins a school without a teaching qualification can’t learn those skills, but I do think it demonstrates that teaching qualifications have value. It also suggests to me that politicians in the department of education don’t really understand the complexity of a teacher’s role. It appears that they equate good teaching with simply knowing about your subject and being able to talk about it. Both those things are important, but they’re not everything. A teaching qualification demonstrates that you’ve spent time gaining an understanding of the theories and practice that underpin good teaching and effective learning.

Michael Gove (oh come on – you knew I’d get to him eventually, didn’t you?) has been vocal about GCSE and A’Level ‘grade inflation,’ and spoke last week, defending his preference for more rigorous testing of children. He said:

“Imagine that you had a choice not of schools, but of airlines. There is Test Airlines, very rigorous, and there is Warm and Fuzzy Airlines. What’s the difference between the two? In Test Airlines they actually insist that the pilots have passed a test so that they can fly a plane. How old-fashioned can you get?

“At Warm and Fuzzy Airlines, they don’t bother with these tests to see if pilots can fly. They just concentrate on all of the pilots giving the customers a warm and fuzzy feeling as soon as they get on board. Which would you fly with?”

Well yes. Quite. What I simply don’t understand is why you would apply that logic in one case and decide that tougher qualifications are good for children, but, at the same time, conclude that formal qualifications in teaching aren’t necessary for their teachers? Either qualifications matter and tell us something about a person’s skills and expertise, or they don’t. The bottom line here, I suspect, is that Gove simply doesn’t see teaching as a complex, expert profession; he sees it as something that anyone who knows a bit about a subject can probably have a jolly good stab at. And conversely, that attitude is probably exactly the one that will discourage the most expert and highest achieving individuals in different fields from considering teaching as a career. Rather than opening up teaching, it lowers the status of the profession, and discourages both current and potential teachers. You wouldn’t want an unqualified doctor, dentist, pilot, solicitor, or electrician. So why would you value your child’s (or your own) education less highly than your fusebox?

In which there is a little scandalette and it gets me thinking

Demonstrating the dizzying pace of the modern news agenda a small political storm has brewed and passed over just in the time I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what to blog about.

The Electoral Commission in the UK releases quarterly figures showing donations made to political parties. The figures released today showed a bequest for half a million which was split between the two Coalition parties. A little bit of light journalistic digging showed that the bequest was made in the will of a Joan Edwards who specified that the money should go to “whichever government is in office… in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.” It was speedily pointed out that thinking fit to keep it for yourself was probably not quite in the spirit of the thing, and within a morning both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems had conceded the point and agreed to hand the money over to the Treasury. Cue many editorials about the grasping nature of modern politicians and their lack of engagement with the notion of public funds for the public good. Some of those editorials may even be wise and worth reading, because, yes, if you’re the government and you get a wodge of cash to spend as you “think fit” and your first thought is that you could use it to pay for a better wine selection at your party conference then shame on you.

However, my first thought on reading this story wasn’t about how disappointingly grasping and self-serving the politicians involved seem to be, it was about the bequest itself. Somewhere out there a woman decided to leave half a million pounds to the government of the day, not knowing, presumably, which party that would be or how they would choose to spend the money. I can’t decide whether that demonstrates a refreshing faith in government and democracy or simple naivete. Maybe it’s neither – maybe the woman in question had fallen out with her local cats’ home and left the money to the government just to spite them.

What I am fairly sure about is that I wouldn’t do the same. If I had half a million pounds to spare (and a quick rummage under the sofa cushions confirms that I don’t), I can imagine wanting to use the cash for the greater good. I am a proper hippy bleeding heart liberal after all. I believe in outdated stuff like the welfare state and universal healthcare and higher taxes for the comfortably-off. But to voluntarily bequeath half a million to the government of the day like Joan? I don’t think so. And there are three reasons why not:

1. I’m a bit of a control freak. Sure, I want to improve the world with my money but I want to choose how.

2. I want to see what happens to the money. That kind of rules out the whole bequest thing. I think I’d want a scheme where I just went “Here is some money. Please tweet me if you’ve got something cool you’d like to do with it, and I shall pick stuff that sounds good/interesting/worthwhile…” Back to the control freakery again.

3. I don’t quite trust that any political party would definitely use my money for the greater good, and that’s a really bad thing. Polls repeatedly show that the British public lack faith in their politicians. This Ipsos MORI poll from June 2013 is a good example, showing the extent to which we believe our politicians to be self-serving. It is, therefore, really annoying when they act in ways that reinforce that belief. After expenses scandals, and previous question marks over party funding, politicians should be going out of their way to clean up their act, rather than opportunistically divvying up bequests between themselves. Perhaps that perception is that if the mistrust extends across the party divides then there’s no comparative loss if the public don’t trust you, because they don’t trust the other guy either.

And at this point I feel I should have a pithy conclusion as to how to fix the break down of trust between electorate and elected, but I don’t I’m afraid. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments. And feel free to share your spending plans for any unexpected (or, indeed, imaginary) cash you might have lying about.

In which I struggle to muster the energy to get annoyed with Ian Duncan Smith

So Ian Duncan Smith, Minister for Work and Pensions, thinks he could live on £53 per week. In fact he’s sure he could because he’s been unemployed before and is therefore very much down with the common man. If you’ve missed out on this little news titbit, it’s worth reading the Guardian’s version of the story, not least for the supreme piece of editing that butts IDS’s claim to have experienced poverty right up next to the additional detail that he’s married to the daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe.

And clearly, he probably could live on £53 for a week or even a couple of weeks, but that’s not really the point. You can probably get through the first week without needing to go to the launderette and eating only value beans on value toast. The second week is more difficult. By the third week you smell bad, you’ve run out of stuff like soap and toilet roll and you’re starting to want to throw value beans at passersby.

All of that is so utterly self-evident and not really worth the energy it took to type, that it’s making me wonder if I’ve actually reached the point of anger-fatigue with the current state of British politics. I used to get mad about this stuff. There are sufficient ranty blog posts on this very site to show my ability to get a tad worked up about major and minor policy issues. But today I’m struggling to work up a good head of rant. Maybe the triple whammy of Legal Aid cuts, welfare cuts and NHS “reform” is just a bit overwhelming for my poor liberal bleeding heart, but I feel tired. Tired of complaining. Tired of virtuously keeping myself informed, writing letters to my MP, signing petitions, retweeting links to campaign sites, and actually turning up to exercise my democratic whatnot at every election from local council to Westminster to Europe, without it really seeming to make a blind bit of difference.

I feel confused by a political landscape in which poor people and immigrants are unquestioningly talking about as scroungers right across the political spectrum. I feel confused by a set up where jobseekers’ benefit rate is experiencing a real-terms drop, but large companies are allowed to negotiate how much tax they feel like paying. I feel confused by an Education Secretary who talks about the importance of evidence-based education policy only after he’s announced a whole set of major education policies. And I feel like, in voting terms, there’s nowhere for tired confused liberals to go and have out metaphorical wounds licked. Maybe we need a new political party, born out of disenfranchisement, like the early labour movement. A party peopled by slightly over-anxious liberals who’s main contribution to parliamentary debate would be to suggest that it might be a bit more complicated than that. Or maybe I just need to take a break from reading the papers and come back when I’ve got the energy to get properly wound up again. Ho-hum.

In which I get quite het up about social mobility, and the lack thereof

So I’m 1 day (or 8 days depending when you’re counting from) late with the blogging. Apologies. I’ve been busy. There was work. And my dog ate my blog post, or it was stolen by pixies or vultures or something. There was a reason for my ineptitude I’m sure, and it almost certainly was not my fault.

I’m here now though. So that’s all right. And I’ve been thinking about poverty. Poverty is, when you put your detached academic hat on, a bit of a tricky concept. Do you measure it relative to a national or global average or do you maintain an absolute measure of poverty for a particular country or region? When and how do those measures change – if it’s in line with inflation, then who’s preferred measure of inflation should you use? Should it be one that places high emphasis on the cost of essentials (eg. utilities, rent, basic food) rather than “luxuries,” on the basis that a higher proportion of a poorer person’s weekly budget is spent on essentials than for a better off person? It all gets a tiny bit complicated.

There are some things we can say for definite about poverty in the UK though. Both Save the Children and Oxfam consider it UK poverty to require charitable intervention. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts an 300000 increase in children living in absolute poverty between 2010/11 and 2020/21. They also  predict an increase of 700000 working age adults living in absolute poverty over the same period. The Trussell Trust currently run over 250 foodbanks across the UK, providing essential food to people who can’t afford to buy it.  At that point it ceases to matter how you academically define poverty – when you’re relying on a charity to eat, you don’t need a nice man with a questionnaire to tell you if you’re poor.

And in a sense, so what? Some people are better off than others. This is hardly news. What makes me cross though, is the absolute breakdown in the ability to shift from “Have Not” to “Have”. In some, probably imagined, rose-tinted past, it’s reassuring to think that we believed that if you worked hard it was possible to better oneself. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that.

There is a gulf between the richest and poorest in our society. In 2009 the top 1% of UK earners earned a higher percentage of the total national income than at any point in the previous 50 years. In 2011 the OECD found that the link between parents’ income and child’s income was stronger in the UK than in France, Italy, the USA, Canada or Germany. Wealthy people have wealthy mummies and daddies.

It’s ok though. Our lack of social mobility is being taken in hand. Nick Clegg has a strategy. This is disheartening in itself. Deputy Prime Ministers develop strategies on things that aren’t quite important enough for the Actual PM to bother with them, or for there to be a government department and minister responsible for. Deputy Prime Ministers are places for parking issues where you sort of feel you should probably do something, but where actually doing something might be tricky or expensive, or tricky and expensive.

And in the meantime, we continue to talk about people living with the day to day problem of scrimping on food to feed the gas meter, or arguing with the Tax Credit Helpline about yet another mistake in their calculation, or trying to explain to the children why they can’t go to their classmate’s birthday party because you can’t afford the bus fare and the obligatory gift, as scroungers or shirkers. The language of many politicians is still steeped in the notion that if you’re poor, it’s your own fault, while never acknowledging that if you’re rich, there’s a pretty good chance that that was entirely down to daddy.

And that is my rant for today. I hope I’m wrong about the Deputy PM’s strategy. I mean, I’m not, but I hope I am.

In which I am genuinely confused by the gay marriage debate

Yesterday British MPs voted in favour of allowing gay marriage in the UK. Yay! At least a moderate yay! I’m not gay and so aren’t really planning to do any gay marrying, so it’s not a massive YAY! like it would be for the really properly important stuff that actually affects me. But some people are gay and some of those people want to get married so it’s definitely a yay! for them.

What I am a bit confused about is why anyone who isn’t wanting to have a gay marriage themselves would care enough to actively oppose the idea? This is the absolute definition of an issue that really doesn’t affect anyone else. Objecting morally to gay marriage isn’t the same as objecting morally to stealing. Someone choosing to steal adversely affects the person they steal from. Two people choosing to get married doesn’t adversely affect anyone, unless you’re in love with one of the getting-married people, but then your problem is really that they love someone else – the marrying someone else is simply the cherry on top of the icing on top of your cake of heartachey-pain.

I was absolutely certain that gay marriage didn’t affect me, apart from in a broad “it would probably be good to live in as fair and equal society as possible” sort of a way. But then it was pointed out to me that it does affect me. My husband drew my attention to the issue, and a man on Radio 4 drew his attention to the issue. You can rely on Radio 4 for drawing your attention to things, for example, in this case, it drew my attention to the fact that EngineerBoy has become prematurely middle aged and started listening to Radio 4.

Anyway, I digress. In this instance Radio 4 drew our attention to the fact that some of the objections to gay marriage are predicated around the notion that a marriage between a man and a woman exists, in substantial part, for the purposes of making and raising babies. There’s two issues there – we’ll deal with the one that isn’t just all about Me first.

It’s not just straight people who want to raise children. I know. Who knew? Some gay people like the idea of doing their child-raising within a marriage. Clearly, there are some additional challenges for a same-sex couple in the area of actual baby-making. However, we live in a society where there are children who can’t be cared for by their biological parents and need loving adoptive carers. If you feel that parenting is something best done by married people (for the record I don’t personally feel that particularly, but some other people do), then gay marriage is a big positive for lots of potential adoptive children. Yay again!

And now onto the bit that is mainly about Me – the idea that marriage is substantially about raising children causes me some concern. I’m married. I appear, by the “raising children” standard, to be doing it wrong. I’ve never really wanted kids (a characteristic I mused on at much greater length here). Neither has EngineerBoy. This is just one of the very good reasons that it’s fortunate we married each other, rather than lumbering two other poor unfortunates who might have been of more baby-friendly mindsets. The implication seems to be that I’m not doing marriage properly. It would appear that quite inadvertantly, and despite having married someone of the opposite sex, I have made a union that some people would equate with a same-sex marriage. So Yay! indeed for MPs voting in favour of gay marriage – it turns out it does affect me after all.

Or to put it more concisely – people loving each other is nice. People wanting to celebrate that love with their friends and family is nice. People wanting their community to recognise their commitment to each other is nice. People wanting to love and raise children is nice. None of those things are compulsory. None of those things follow automatically from the one before. Everyone having the option is good, and giving everyone the option doesn’t really make the tiniest bit of difference to anybody else.

Farewell then. See you all back here next week?

UPDATE: I’ve just had a query over on fb about my use of the term gay marriage rather than equal marriage, suggesting that equal marriage is a preferable term. I’d broadly agree with that. I’ve used “gay marriage” as a term in this post because that’s the common term used in a lot of media and because that tends to be the term that opponents of equal marriage use, and it’s really the thought process leading to opposition that I’m musing on in my own mind today rather than the actual issue of equal marriage itself. Hope no offence is caused by my choice of terminology.

In which I think about Michael Gove and it makes me go “Grrrrrrr.”

Last week I claimed I was going to blog about MPs voting on a 30% pay rise for themselves in the same week as approving a 1% cap on welfare benefits rises. It turns out that was lies, not least because it would be a very short blog. It’s pretty much obscene. That’s all I really want to say.

So now I can move onto other issues, and the thing that has caught my flutter-minded attention today is the intriguing phenomena that is Michael Gove. Mr Gove, the Gove-ster if you will, is Education Secretary. Just to be clear, that means that he’s in charge of education policy for England, not that he does the typing.

Since taking office Gove has had three main headline-grabbing policies. First he decided that he would send a bible to every school. Then he decided that GCSEs were too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. Today, he’s decided that A-levels, in their current form, are too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. And yes, I do see that technically, that’s only two policies, and the first one of those is just silly anyway.

The bible for every school thing is daft, not least because it’s pretty much the most widely available book on the face of the planet. The whole thing’s available for free online in multiple different editions and languages. Amazon will download you the full King James, Gove’s preferred version, to kindle free and gratis. If anything is holding back the educational progress of British schools, I think we can say with some confidence, that it’s not the inability to access bible texts.

So let’s have a look at his 2nd policy – the idea that young people today aren’t learning enough proper hard academic stuff and that exams should be harder. In both the replacements for GCSEs and the current A-levels one of the key ideas is that assessment will be by a single end-of-course examination, set and assessed by an external body.

Now that’s something I should probably be in favour of. I was one of those annoying kids who was good at exams. I passed the coursework part of my History A-level by writing the full 5000 word course work essay over a single night, starting at 6pm the night before it had to be handed in. Essentially I reduced the whole research-draft-reflect-revise coursework process into a 12 hour high pressure exam.

But I’m not blown away by Gove’s ideas, and I’m not blown away because I have no faith at all that he understands what he’s actually doing. Designing assessment in education is hard. Good assessments are ones which have reliability, validity and fairness.

Reliability, is sometimes called replicability. Essentially it means that if the same student, with the same level of knowledge/skill, took the same assessment at a different time and place they would get broadly the same result. Similarly, results between similar groups of students should be consistent.

Validity means that you are actually testing the thing you are setting out to test. This is incredibly difficult. If you are trying to assess knowledge of a particular subject, do you do it by ongoing course work or by single exam? Ongoing coursework might assess subject knowledge, but it also assesses research skills, time management, organisation, and possibly, ability to copy from the internet or get your mum/friend/teacher to write it for you. Single exam assesses subject knowledge, but also ability to cope with pressure, ability to write quickly, ability to cram or revise, and possibly, creativity and imagination in your approach to cheating. Coming up with a form of assessment that solely assesses the thing you’re claiming to assess is all but impossible, and I don’t think Michael Gove understand that.

Fairness means that all your students have a fair crack at getting a good result – it relates closely to validity. It covers things like not assessing students’ descriptive writing by asking them to write a paragraph describing the taste of bacon. Jewish students, for example, are likely to find that significantly harder than a child who’s eaten a full english every day for the last 16 years.

So, yes, review assessment and education processes. It’s important that we make them as good as we can, but understand that doing that is really difficult. Simply deciding to make it “tougher,” or “more academic,” or – and this is what a lot of education reforms ultimately amount to – “more like it was in my day,” is lazy policy making. And it’s policy making with no basis in evidence, and no basis in an understanding of how learning and assessment work.

Several eons ago I had a little rant on this very blog about the rise of the career politician, and Michael Gove is a prime example of why this matters. Gove is a product of the political bubble. Prior to entering Parliament, he was a political journalist and the chair of a conservative thinktank. If only there was some sort of training or job one could do that would allow a person to enter politics with some knowledge of how education works, or doesn’t work. But no… I can’t think of any such career. Oh wait. Hold on one tiny little second. There’s actually being a teacher. There’s an idea. How about having an Education Secretary who knows something about education, beyond a general sense that things were better in the old days, and that every child’s schoolday would be best commenced with a gown and mortar-boarded master reading verses from the King James Bible before requiring the boys (and weirdly in the mental picture I’m creating there are only boys) to recite their 12 times tables out loud until their tonsils start to bleed?

I think that’s all. In summary – Michael Gove: grrrrr. Comments please!