In the Ning Nang Nong, where Michael Gove makes sense

12 06 2012

It’s the only poetry I can remember:

In the Ning Nang Nong,

Where the cows go bong,

And the

And the… And the? I give up.

Twelve words from a Spike Milligan nonsense rhyme I used to read when I was about six. That’s all the poetry I can recite. And I can assure you that my life and my education are no weaker for it.


Hey kids, today we’re going to memorise Ovid! YAY!

Sorry kids, but Michael Gove, the “decentralising” dictator of Britain’s school system, has had another brainwave, and the result is that you’re going to have to start memorising poetry from the age of five.

Having waffled some stuff about “setting schools free” in his first few months as Education Secretary (a cover to create a privatised market in education), Gove has been bent on dictating to schools what they must teach and when ever since.

And unfortunately, that tends to amount to a pastiche of an imagined 1950s education – when, as the Daily Mail will tell you, Everything was Better.

Gove himself wasn’t born until 1967, so precisely what he knows about 1950s schooling is a mystery, but he won’t let that stop him.

So now, after Bibles in schools, teaching Latin, and forcing children to learn all the kings and queens of England, five-year-olds will now have to memorise poetry by heart. Presumably they’ll be tested on questions like, how will any of this help you in your later life?

Latin is a great example of this kind of policymaking by editorial. Open up a right-wing newspaper on any given day, and you’ve a good chance of finding a comment piece by some jumped up “intellectual” holding up Latin as the litmus test of whether British education is (a) a rigorous gold standard the world looks up to, or (b) Grange Hill.

Well I’ve got news for them.

I studied Latin. My secondary school made it compulsory in Year 7 and optional after that. Most of us took the first opportunity to ditch it for modern languages like Spanish or German. Not me. I took it to Year 9, and when selecting my GCSE subjects, it was the first on the list. Why?

Because here’s what they never tell you – Latin is a piece of piss.

Seriously. For all that the Toby Youngs and BoJos of this world want to convince you that it’s Oxbridge at age eight, Latin is a walk in the park. None of those impenetrably long German words, or that annoying French rolling of the ‘r’. Just add ‘us’ to the end of any English word, and there you have it – Latin.

It was the ultimate doss subject. After my GCSEs I made a conscious effort to forget it all. Never needed it since.

And so to memorising poetry. What precisely is this for?

Is it

a)      because it sounds ‘rigorous’ and ‘traditional’

b)      to make it seem like the government is doing something

c)      because a think tank junkie told Gove it’s a good idea

d)     a combination of all the above

e)      because children’s education will benefit from it

Well done if you said (d). Have a gold star. Detention for anyone who said (e).

Poetry, like Latin and kings and queens, harks back to bizarre fantasies over what education should be – rigorous, traditional, tedious, and useless. My GCSE English teacher – perhaps the best teacher I had – was quite open with us that in her day they’d had to memorise poetry and lists of monarchs, and that it had been a total waste of time. None of us doubted it.

There was an excellent piece by Tom Chivers on the Telegraph site yesterday. Chivers is not a political commentator, and therefore is not paid to churn out crap. Instead, he argued in response to Gove’s latest announcement that education policy should be based on considered evidence, not on fads, theories and headlines.

I couldn’t agree more. At some point I’ll write in more detail on the nonsense of British education policy, but the sum of it is that successive governments are obsessed with their own pet fads, and dictate the education (and, therefore, futures) of millions of British children on the back if it. One government has one set of theories and implements them, then another government comes in with a set of rival theories and implements those instead. Teachers are left scrambling to keep up – and then cop all the blame when things go wrong.

Schoolchildren will generally pay attention to what is interesting, or what seems useful. If something is both tedious and demonstrably pointless – like memorising poetry – they’ll soon switch off.

Well done then, Mr Gove, on failing both tests.

Update: Turns out I don’t even remember those two and a half lines of poetry – Tom Bowker in the comments confirming that it is, in fact, ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’, not ‘In the Ning Nang Nong’ (now there’s a sentence I never expected to write). I could have Googled the poem beforehand, of course – but that wouldn’t have been me remembering it then, would it?


Free elderly transport heads for the chopping block in Darlington

2 08 2010

Darlington’s council cabinet has agreed to axe transport concessions for the elderly and disabled as part of its £2.6m first round of spending cuts.

The council is cutting its discretionary travel scheme for bus passholders to travel for free before 9.30am and after 11pm on weekdays (they have a statutory right to free travel at other times), as well as scrapping its taxi vouchers scheme, which enables bus passholders to use taxis to reach locations off bus routes.

In addition, Darlington is cutting its subsidy for the Shopmobility service, meaning users are likely to have to pay £2 per trip. This particular cut will save the council a whopping £8k per year. The less-used Ring a Ride service is also being cut.

The council’s equalities impact assessment describes the concessionary transport cuts as ‘high risk’. Darlington has 21,000 bus passholders, 1,600 people who use taxi vouchers – mainly over-75s living in care homes and younger disabled people – and around 1,600 registered users of Shopmobility, with 350 usages per month.

‘The withdrawal of taxi vouchers combined with the termination of Ring a Ride could have a significant impact on the more infirm older people, particularly those on lower incomes who are both less able to use buses and less able to pay for taxis,’ according to the impact assessment.

School crossing patrols are being axed where automated pedestrian crossings exist – because children always pay attention to red and green lights. They might do with full road safety education – except Darlington is also cutting this budget by 45 percent, which will affect provision for older junior school children. The council’s impact assessment describes the health and safety impact of these cuts as ‘high risk’.

Darlington is cutting £100k from after-school clubs and £240k from its Connexions budget in a salami-slice response to the government’s in-year cuts, as well as withdrawing concessionary transport for children who are not eligible for free home-to-school transport. In total, £355k is being cut from the council’s schools services budget.

More than 10 percent of funding for the council’s ethnic minority and traveller education service is being cut, as the council reduces the service by deleting vacant posts. The service provides targeted teacher and bilingual classroom assistant support for children for whom English is not their first language, and provides training for schools on raising achievement among ethnic minority and traveller children.

In a classic example of how sterile sounding administrative cuts can actually have risks at the frontline, Darlington is cutting ‘service auditing’. This rather dry process actually involves checking the quality of council services, such as school meals, against set criteria – and according to the council’s own risk assessment, frontline staff are in no position to carry out this work themselves.

The council’s assessment admits that “this would significantly reduce the quality checks and audits on services”, and will lead to an “increased risk of service failure, e.g. food hygiene standards”. Presumably the risk of an E.Coli outbreak is worth the £25k this cut will save the council each year.

In addition to these cuts, Darlington is also scrapping capital spending on ten planned playground schemes in response to the government’s de-ringfencing of the Playbuilders grant,

This first phase of cuts will lead to 20 job losses and 13 unfilled vacancies; this is on top of 33 redundancies that are already underway. As the cuts programme develops, far more job losses can be expected.

The council’s own description of its strategy is telling – it is ‘moving towards a strategic commissioning organisation’, ‘structured around broad outcome groups (as against specific services’.

This shunt from provider to commissioner reflects the direction local government is set to take nationally. Councils will be expected to pay social enterprises and companies to provide services for them, in the vague expectation that this deliver better services. If it doesn’t, tough.

But the worst part is that all this is just the tip of the iceberg. The £2.6m of announced cuts barely dents the £22m the council expects to have to save to 2015. Darlington will have to endure plenty of pain yet in order to meet the coalition cuts.

Daily Cuts Briefing – Friday 30th July

30 07 2010

Quick one this morning – just the headlines:

Nick Clegg is changing his mind on an almost daily basis these days. Having previously insisted that he swung behind the Tory deficit hawks after a post-election chat with Mervyn King (which King denies), he claimed last night that he actually changed his mind before the election – but didn’t bother to, y’know, tell the voters –

Michael Gove is made to look ridiculous yet again, as the ‘thousands’ of schools supposedly rushing to become academies turns out to be, er, 158 –

Council tax rises above a certain level are to be made subject to a veto by voters, according to Eric Pickles –

Iain Duncan Smith is to set out options for welfare reform that he says will simplify the current system and reduce benefit cuts for those who enter work – but Labour fear the measures could mean benefit cuts for those still out of work –

And details are emerging of the cuts that will be made to the defence budget – – while Trident continues to run into cash problems –

How scrapping BSF flies in the face of the evidence

9 07 2010

Michael Gove’s decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) school-building programme has morphed into the government’s first real difficulty.

The botched release of the list of affected schools created a sense of farce around the move, and the growing discontent among government MPs whose constituency schools have been hit by the decision has forced Gove onto the back foot.

Little wonder. Look at the evidence of two independent reviews of the BSF programme, and the rationale for axeing the entire programme melts away.

The National Audit Office published a report in February 2009 that found that the programme had suffered from over-optimistic early targets, time-consuming bureaucracy, and rising costs due to a decision to increase the scope of BSF and inflation of building material prices.

But despite this, the NAO report found that BSF schools were cheaper than standalone academies – the model of school that Gove prefers to fund from the public purse.

Setting up the first BSF schemes was expensive, but Partnerships for Schools – the national agency set up to oversee the BSF programme – subsequently streamlined the process to partly reduce the costs. BSF’s model of using a regular partner to develop all the schools in an area was found to lead to quicker procurement of new schools further down the line.

Following the NAO report, the ever-feisty Public Accounts Committee produced its own critical report into BSF in June 2009. The PAC report focused its attention on the government’s initial timescale for refurbishing the national secondary school estate, which it said had been optimistic and unrealistic, with initial projects taking years to come to fruition.

As is so often the case with private finance spin-offs, the planning and procurement of local BSF programmes was taking years to come to fruition and the scheme was well behind schedule as a result. Costs were rising, although this was due to the increased scope of the scheme and inflation of building material costs rather than overrunning building work.

Neither report called for the BSF programme to be axed.

So where does this leave us now? There are two immediate conclusions:

  1. the evidence suggests that most of the delays and costs were racked up in procurement, rather than during building work
  2. many of the school projects that have been cancelled were right at the end of the procurement phase

Gove has said that where BSF schemes had chosen a preferred bidder, the one or two ‘sample schools’ to be developed first may still go ahead. Most if not all of the other schools in these schemes will be cancelled.

Take Oldham. The local BSF scheme had been in planning since the end of 2007. A preferred bidder was chosen last month. The long, expensive and bureaucratic procurement process was virtually over – what waste exists in the BSF system had been and gone. Work was nearly ready to start.

And now, Gove’s decision means that only two sample schools and – inevitably – three proposed academies have a chance of going ahead. Eight school projects have been ditched.

Look at those parliamentary reports – the expense was in planning and procurement. Oldham had pretty much got that out of the way. Now its investment is a write-off, to enable Gove’s grandstanding.

This is the logic of the government’s slashernomics. In order to be seen to cut as much as possible, as fast as possible, the government ensures that even more money is wasted.

By scrapping projects that had reached preferred bidder stage, the government writes off considerable time and investment from local authorities and opens itself to possible legal action over cancelled contracts.

Rather than scaling down the national BSF programme, simplifying planning and procurement and ditching the PFI garb, the government has (as a colleague who covers BSF deals puts it) caused maximum damage for minimum gain.

What most infuriates taxpayers is when they don’t see an end product for their money. BSF was not perfect, but it gave them an end product – new and refurbished school buildings. The government has now guaranteed that the taxpayer gets absolutely nothing in return for the money it has already spent.

If this is the new politics, the education secretary needs to go back to school.

Gove’s dishonesty over school-building programme

6 07 2010

Michael Gove counts his fingers. Well, half of them.

Among the Education Secretary’s various pronouncements on the scrapped Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme yesterday, perhaps the most dishonest was his claim that it had only improved a smattering of schools.

“After thirteen years in power only 96 new schools out of a total secondary school estate of 3,500 schools have ever been built under BSF,” Michael Gove told parliament as he axed Labour’s flagship school-building programme.

Just 96 out of 3,500 schools? Well that’s not very impressive.

But wait. Partnerships for Schools (PfS) – the national agency that helps run the BSF programme – has its own list of schools that have benefited from BSF funding, viewable here.

The PfS list names 180 schools that have benefited from BSF – not just scheduled for improvements in a future phase; actual, concrete improvements that are now up and running, be they improved IT, refurbished premises or a whole new school building. They have been completed and teachers and students are using them right now.

That’s almost twice the number of schools that Gove presented yesterday as evidence of the failure of BSF – to say nothing of the 1,400 schools that were due to open in the next few years (half of which Gove has now scrapped).

What’s going on?

Well, the Department for Education produced its own list yesterday (available here) covering every single proposed BSF and academy school in the country. But even that lists more than 160 schools that have opened. So Gove hasn’t got his 96 figure from there either.

Gove’s figure has come from what we could euphemistically call a stripped down version of the truth. He has merely counted off the number of ‘new build’ schools on the PfS list – those projects that involved opening whole new school premises. Including a smattering of primary schools, 96 of these have opened.

Handily, he’s left out schools that benefited from a new school building where the rest of the school was refurbished (‘new build/refurb’ on the PfS list) – apparently they don’t count. If dilapidated premises could be improved more efficiently by being renovated rather than replaced, they fall off Gove’s list. And recently built schools that only needed IT improvements are clearly wasting taxpayers’ money. All these school upgrades have been completed under BSF, but as far as Gove is concerned, they don’t merit any mention.

Gove has form here. Last September he launched a broadside against the BSF programme for overspending. He claimed that “only 15 local authorities have had any changes made to their schools”.

It was left to a PfS spokesperson to point out that Gove was using old figures, and that in fact schools in 32 local authorities had opened under BSF.

Not for the last time, Gove had given half the true figure. At least he’s consistent in his dishonesty.