Saturday, 28 April 2012

Back the teachers

When at school I remember an excellent history teacher called Richard Leveson. He really made the subject come to life, with the enthusiasm he brought to the classroom.
A friend of mine was so inspired by Mr Leveson that having got a top grade at O level, he decided to take the subject onto A level. Half way through the course though Mr Leveson left. My friend, Neal, became disillusioned with his replacement, who simply went through the motions, without any great enthusiasm. A little later, Neal left the VI Form altogether, failing to complete his other courses. I got my A level but it would all have been much better if Mr Leveson had stayed on.
The story is instructive because it shows how important good teachers can be in inspiring students onto bigger and better things. Equally, less able teachers can thwart or disillusion, often impressionable students.
Given the value of teachers in this context it is difficult to understand why so many politicians feel it is ok to openly attack the profession. How often recently has the cry gone up that it must be made easier to sack teachers and close schools?
Teaching used to be a respected profession. Now the one concern seems to be the need to sack people. Whatever happened to dignity at work?
The way in which teachers have been bullied and scape goated over recent decades is nothing short of scandalous. The micromanagement of the teaching profession, going back to the days of the lamentable Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker, has been incredible to behold.
The whole creation of the inspection edifice, titled Ofsted, with its powers to come in and inspect schools. The resulting obsession with league tables, leading to an exam factory ethos. Children now travelling miles around the country each day to attend schools all in the name of parental choice.
Parents have also been one of the problems. While parents should be constructively engaged with their children’s education and so the performance of the school, many go way beyond these requirements. So many parents load their own totally unrealistic expectations onto the child and the school that he or she attends.
The reality is that everyone does have unique gifts, the job of a school is to help discover and hone those gifts for life. This type of process is not always helped by the exam factory atmosphere, where everything becomes subservient to the league table culture.
Teachers and pupils need to be valued for what they are and how they contribute to education. Government ministers should start listening to teachers and the unions about what is going on in the class room and what needs to change.
The present drift of education is back to the future. The excellent comprehensive system of education brought in during the 1960s and 70s - to give everyone regardless of background an equal chance - is being steadily dismantled, often by public school educated ministers.
The move to academy status by so many schools, taking them out of local authority control to become autonomous self governing entities, could quite easily be laying the ground for the return of grammar and secondary modern school education.
The well resourced and managed academies operating in affluent areas will do well, attracting many of the most able students and teachers. But what of the least well resourced schools operating in the poor areas. They will have an uphill struggle. Lack of resources will make it more difficult to educate, the results won’t be as good, so special measures will resort. An inevitable spiral to the bottom ensues. The teachers will get blamed again, when they have been given an impossible job.
What successive governments have failed to understand about schools is that they are not exam factories. It is not about running a conveyor belts of pupils, coming in wearing one uniform, then going out another door a few years later ready to wear another and conditioned for “the real world.”
Education is a wonderful thing when it is not conducted as some sub-division of market capitalism. It can open and expand the minds of people of all ages. Teachers should be valued because they can inspire people beyond all expectations in their chosen subject. Yes there are bad teachers, but there are bad performers in every form of human activity. They maybe in the wrong job because they didn’t get the right education themselves in the first place, who knows? However, the vast majority of teachers are hard working people, doing the best for their pupils and schools.
They have had much to put up with over recent years, suffering regular abuse from government and media whilst seeking to defend the vestiges of education from those who seek to turn the whole process back to the dark ages of mandatory 11 plus style selection.
It is time for people to get behind the teachers as they seek to defend the education system whilst educating the next generations.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Racism alive and well in British society

The recent revelations about racism in the Metropolitan Police once again raise the question as to how far society has moved in addressing this issue.
The racism at the Met emerged once again due to one of the individuals being abused having recorded the whole episode on his mobile phone. The means of report brought back memories of how the attack a couple of years ago on street vendor Ian Tomlinson, who later died, only came to light when a film from a tourist was forwarded to a news organisation. Up until then the police were denying all wrongdoing in connection with the incident.
Applying this logic to the question of racism raises the question as to whether anything has really changed in the decade since the McPherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. The inquiry discovered institutional racism in the police and a wide number of other bodies in society.
There seemed to be a positive response. In the case of the police, the Home Office moved to implement many of the 75 recommendations made by the inquiry. Institutional racism would not be tolerated, racists would be rooted out ran the mantra.
Yet a few years later came the BBC investigation titled the Secret Policeman where an undercover reporter discovered deep levels of racism in police forces. Now these latest revelations add to the belief that what followed McPherson was all one big public relations exercise to create an impression of action having been taken to deal with racism, whereas in reality little changed.
The latest expose of the 20 Metropolitan police officers suspended and under investigation for racist offences tends to support this viewpoint. Though as others have suggested it does also provide proof of some police officers coming forward to expose racism and the forces themselves then moving to take action. So there are some positive developments.
Other recent statistics suggest that racism is alive and well in British society. Unemployment among young black men has doubled in three years, rising from 28.8% in 2008 to 55.9% in the last three months of 2011 The revelation that half of all black youngsters between the age of 16 and 24 are out of work, compared to one in five among their white counterparts confirms that whatever employers say there is still a colour bar operating.
There have been recent instances of racism on the football field, These come despite a number of high profile efforts from the authorities to kick racism out of football.
Vice chair of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice Haynes Baptiste thinks little has changed since the McPherson inquiry. He believes the racism is still there, just better hidden. “The racism is still there, efforts may have been made to address racism but they clearly have not been effective,” said Mr Baptiste. “Racism has simply been put under the carpet. The changes of recent years have just made racism more difficult to find.”
Mr Baptiste also believes that little has changed in the Catholic Church. At the time of McPherson, the Church said it would also be looking to its structures to see whether institutional racism existed. No doubt there must have been some sort of audit process brought in across the Church to assess the success of the implementation of such policy but on the surface little seems to have changed.
The Church in Britain has traditionally been a migrant Church, never more so than in recent years with the inflow of migrants coming to work in the UK. These migrants have brought a real burst of vitality to churches up and down the land. But have the migrants been integrated or assimilated as part of parish life - still outsiders?
Certainly in London, there is incredible diversity of races but in many areas it is still the ageing white priest who administers to the flock. And as Mr Baptiste has pointed out, there is still no bishop from a black or ethnic minority background.
Things need to change in the Church and society as a whole. There needs to genuine root and branch change of the type recommended by McPherson. It is no good simply putting together a lot of public relations babble, designed to give an impression of change, only to be later caught out as the truth seeps out in a variety of different ways. The Church could offer an example in this area by ensuring that its structure is truly representative of the increasingly diverse congregations that sit in the pews.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Government must reject advances of nuclear industry and embrace renewables

The first anniversary of the Tsunami in Japan, that caused such dramatic damage to the Fukishima nuclear plant, aroused debate across the world.There were programmes marking the event, interviewing those involved from the Japanese Prime Minister to the brave fire fighters who put their lives at risk to bring it under control.The Prime Minister chillingly revealed that the whole thing sat on a razors edge and could have been much more catastrophic in its effects.As it is the effects of the radiation are likely to make the area around the plant uninhabitable for many years to come.It was most galling to hear the squalid defenders of nuclear power playing the numbers game, claiming few people had been killed. Those killed by such huge radiation leaks don’t die immediately but usually have long lingering deaths over years due to cancer and other diseases. One result of what has happened is that Japan is now looking to eliminate nuclear power as an energy source. Germany has followed suit, committing to phase out nuclear energy and switch much more fully to renewables. Other countries are looking to follow. After any of the major nuclear disasters from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl it is as if there is a sudden reality check amongst nations as to the true horror of what could happen gets unleashed. The nuclear industry usually takes a big hit as a result.Indeed, it is ironic that the threat of climate change has this time revived an industry that was in decline. Politicians and nuclear industry advocates have managed to promote nuclear power as a low carbon, climate friendly form of energy.The nuclear industry has been particularly successful in Britain in promoting its wares. There is huge investment in public relations in order to promote nuclear power. It seems less than coincidental that Britain, unlike Germany and Japan, is pushing on with its new generation of nuclear reactors as part of the mix for low carbon energy provision.Indeed, rather than looking to renewable energy sources, like wind, wave and solar it would appear Britain could be moving away from these sources. There was the recent letter from over 100 MPs urging the government to remove subsidy for inshore wind turbines. This has helped create an uncertain environment, dissuading big companies from investing in the UK thereby creating jobs in the green technology area.It is difficult not to think that the attack on renewables is linked in some way to the pervasive and influential nuclear lobby. The industry has powerful influence with leadership of all the political parties.Yet, those who have had direct dealings are less than impressed. Former energy minister Tony Benn has said he would not believe a word they say. He recalled how when he was the minister responsible, not being told about a huge fire at the Windscale plant in 1957. Since those days the nuclear industry has only become more powerful and persuasive in the corridors of power.Walking around the shores of this land the massive untapped energy sources of wave, wind and solar power are obvious for all to see. It will be sad if because of the short sighted nature of the political class, and influence of the nuclear lobby, these sources remain tapped.Ofcourse the same sources that provide such potential for renewables also represent another danger for the nuclear industry. The vast majority of Britain’s nuclear power plants are positioned in coastal location, rising sea levels due to climate change will mean they require ever more fortifying from the sea. Otherwise a potential catastrophe awaits - another cost, another danger.Today, Britain needs to invest heavily in renewable energy sources. It is not helped in this respect by seemingly having a Chancellor who is a climate sceptic. The content of the recent Budget confirms that those at the head of government remain wedded to the idea that there is no such thing as peak oil and that supplies are infinite. As oil runs out so the price will increase and there is only a certain amount of time that tax payers can be expected to increasingly subsidise the motor and airline industries. Building a new airport will be one of the biggest white elephants that any government has invested in over recent years.The UK needs to move away from oil dependent industries toward renewables. Nuclear power is no solution . The sooner that Chancellor Osborne wakes up to this reality and recalibrates the economy toward green technology the better

Caritas developments welcome if justice is at the forefront

Caritas developments welcome if justice is put at the forefrontThere was some surprise expressed recently at the sight of a job advertisement to become the director of Caritas (Westminster) on a salary of £45,000 to £50,000 per annum. The post holder will “lead the Caritas work within the diocese with the aim of enabling the Catholic community of Westminster to respond appropriately to those experiencing poverty and social exclusion.”The role it would seem is the first step in creating a Caritas network across the country, the equivalent of CAFOD on the domestic front. The impetus for this development came from the Pope’s visit to the UK when he challenged Catholics to engage in the social responsibility agenda. Following the challenge, Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) became the vehicle for this development. The engagement initially was with the government’s Big Society agenda. A series of conferences were organised to discern the way forward in terms of social engagement.The underpinning of this process was the development of CSAN as the domestic CAFOD. It was always the intention that CSAN as an agency of the Bishops Conference for England and Wales would take up this role within the larger international Caritas family from its inception in 2003. However, this never really happened. CSAN came about as a result of the merging together of the Catholic Agency for Social Concern (CASC) and the Catholic Child Welfare Council. It has 37 fee paying members varying from Housing Justice and the Cardinal Hume Centre to the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Services, the Irish Chaplaincy and the St Vincent De Paul Society. The membership represents a considerable concentration of expertise in the area of social welfare and social action. CSAN’s declared aim is for” the relief of poverty in all its manifestations in England and Wales. It promotes social justice and its members and partners.” Over the years since its formation, CSAN has done some valuable work, notably on elderly people, dementia and social care but it could never be said to have fulfilled the role of becoming the domestic CAFOD.Under its new chief executive Helen O’Brien the organisation has been much more willing to speak out on matters like housing, workplace injustice and the criminal justice system.Much of the credit for the growth of CSAN has to go to the support given to it by Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols and Archbishop of Southwark Peter Smith. They have led in promoting the organisation as part of the Church response to the Pope’s call.Now with a separate Caritas organisation developing in Westminster, following on the earlier developments in Salford Diocese, the whole organisation looks set to spread out across diocese. Mrs O’Brien confirms that there will be CSAN road shows going around the diocese, with an event a month, over the next couple of years inviting people to get involved. How Caritas then develops will depend on the individual diocese.Mrs O’Brien stresses that there is not a corporate model with well paid directors and support staff lined up to do the work in every diocese. “How it works in each diocese will be different,” said Mrs O’Brien.Concerns though have been raised about the new development, especially from justice and peace activists. They fear that an organisation that they effectively laid the seeds for, in the case of CASC, now looks set to take over and could side line their activities. Resourcing is a key concern, though yet to be proven. Only 12 of the 22 diocese have paid J&P workers, many of these part time – including Westminster. The director of Caritas in Westminster will also have an administrator, fieldworker and a secretary making up his or her office.Another concern is that the new Caritas organisations will be all about charity and forget justice. There is already much for the existing Caritas members to do in picking up the pieces of a society being hit by the government’s cuts agenda. This is a vital part of social action work. However, it is as important to question the root injustice of policies hitting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. It would be wrong to simply become another part of the charitable service sector.Overall, the developments with Caritas are welcome but only if they work with people like the National Justice and Peace Network rather than sideling them. How resourcing works out and whether the Caritas developments at diocesan level are from the grass roots up rather than in corporate style top down will also be key to the likely success or otherwise of the venture. Justice must also be at the centre of the Caritas calling.Any initiative on social action from the Church must be good news. It is in accordance with the Church’s social teaching on working for gospel values. Also from the viewpoint of the world of real politic it gives the Church a bigger say in the public square of debate in society. A Church that contributes to social welfare to the extent that happens via Caritas in many other European countries is far less easily sidelined by those with anti-faith agendas.

The West Ham Way

What does it take to make a West Ham fan happy? This is a question that has been asked repeatedly in recent weeks with growing discontent among the Irons faithful regarding the present regime of manager Sam Allardyce.Allardyce was not many fans’ first choice to take over as manager when the club parted company with Avram Grant following relegation last season. The major issue was that Allardyce has a reputation for playing the long-ball game, kicking it high and long, then relying on physical strength to outdo the opposition. This, as was pointed out at the time, is not the West Ham way.The feeling over last summer was that the fans were prepared to put up with the “Allardyce way,” just so long as it got the club back into the Premier League at the first attempt. He then may be worth keeping in the top flight if things go well, but hit a bad patch and he’d be out.This script has to a large extent continued to be played out. There has been much in the media about fan discontent with Allardyce over the style of play, with reports of chants of “We’re West Ham United, we play on the floor” at the recent away match at Peterborough. Allardyce’s take on the “West Ham way” is that it is nonsense and if there was such a thing it landed them in the Championship. The manager has a point. He has also been unfairly pilloried over the long game, given that in many games the ball has been kept very much on the floor. The problem has been the failure of the strikers at the club to score goals. Allardyce has been extremely patient with his underperforming front men. It can even be argued that he has bent over backwards to placate the fans, for example not signing El-Hadji Diouf, an old favourite from his Bolton days, due to his particularly bad relationship with the fans. Diouf could well have scored the goals that would now have West Ham in the play-off places.The concept of the “West Ham way” goes back to the days of managers Ron Greenwood and John Lyall. Greenwood was a master tactician, building on the brilliant football of the 1950s Hungarians — one-touch football, played on the ground. Greenwood also had the players, with World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst forming the backbone of the team, to put his plans into action. The myth that West Ham won the 1966 World Cup is one that no supporter over the age of 40 is slow to reproduce at the drop of a hat. The name of the game, though was entertainment — win, lose or draw you always saw a good game at Upton Park.This approach meant that several West Ham sides of the 1960s and ’70s spent more time fighting relegation than challenging for the championship. Few West Ham fans question why a team with three World Cup winners spent quite so much time fighting relegation. But entertainment was the key.The West Ham way took a severe blow with the disgraceful sacking of John Lyall as manager back in 1988, following relegation. He was replaced by Lou Macari, whose short reign has eerie similarities to that of Allardyce today. A man known for results and the long ball game, Macari came in, made several good signings but failed to ever win over the fans. He was out by Christmas, replaced by West Ham favourite Billy Bonds. Then came Harry Redknapp, who assembled a group of players almost to rival the “World Cup winners” — Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe. But the nature of football had changed, winning was all, so these players moved on to bigger clubs.Another disgraceful action followed in 2000 with the sacking of Redknapp. Since then a series of managers have followed, none lasting long and some like Alan Pardew and Gianfranco Zola most definitely playing the West Ham way.The problem at West Ham is a certain detachment from reality. The World Cup winners myth helps foster a view among many fans that the club is on a par with the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal. The reality, no doubt shared by the present owners, is that the club is more akin to a Stoke or Blackburn. The club needs to get to grips with this state of dysfunctionality. The present situation sees a manager who needs the fans support to get promotion. Otherwise it will be another season in the Championship playing Doncaster and Peterborough rather than Manchester United and Chelsea. Results must be the name of the game now.Then who knows? Maybe the club can reach a happy compromise next year, blending both the West Ham and Allardyce ways

Where will the next Rosemary Read come from?

Where are the next generation of Rosemary Reads and Elizabeth Rendalls going to come from?Rosemary Read’s funeral brought hundreds of people to St Joseph’s Church in Derby.It was a time of sadness but also rejoicing of a life given to the glory of God. There were the many local people drawn, who have known Rosemary over the years, and those from further afield brought in by her work in national and international Church networks concerned with working for justice and peace. Rosemary’s was a truly remarkable life of witness for justice and peace.The last time that I spoke to Rosemary was at the February meeting of the National Council for Lay Associations. It was her first as president of that organisation and she was working out a new strategy.The conversation that stuck was about how in the 1970s Rosemary’s husband had left, leaving her with four young children to bring up. The life of the single parent has never been easy but in those days it was even harder.Among Rosemary’s many achievements for justice over her life, bringing up her four children in such circumstances may well be the greatest. She was a grandmother, who a couple of years ago was proudly accompanied by two generations of her children and grandchildren on the Wave protest about climate change.Among those drawn to Rosemary’s funeral from the wider social justice world were Columban Vocations for Justice editor Ellen Teague, Progressio director Christine Allen, Pax Christi general secretary Pat Gaffney, Cafod director Chris Bain, former Cafod director Julian Filochowski, Columban Fathers Frank Nally and Aodh O'Halpin. The former head of education at Cafod Brian Davies sang On Eagle’s Wings as he did four months earlier at the funeral of former J&P activist Elizabeth Rendall.Both Rosemary and Elizabeth gave fantastic witness to the Church’s work for social justice. The funerals were celebrations of lives of service, however other questions arose, not the least of which was where will the new Rosemary and Elizabeth’s come from? As anyone who attends the annual National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) conference at Swanwick in July will realise the justice and peace community is ageing. The hardcore of those involved could be described as the children of Vatican II. It was that revolution in the Church that inspired so many to get involved in work for social justice. This legacy though is not infinite.There seem to be forces at work in the Church today set on going backwards to pre-Vatican II days. Clericalism is reviving. There are those who seem set on closing those Church windows that Pope John XXIII so gloriously opened. The move is to an inward looking body, consolidating what remains, rather than looking out to engage with the new challenges.The impetus for adult formation that was so dear to the hearts of Rosemary and Elizabeth is not there at the moment. Yet adult formation is desperately needed, not least amongst the clergy. Too many churches are not reaching out to change the world but sheltering behind the bricks and mortar as the world goes by outside.This lack of stimulus for formation of adult Catholics means that the Rosemary and Elizabeth s of today are probably not looking to the Church as the place to fulfil lives of social action. Catholics though are still looking to serve. There are many Catholics involved in trade unions, the caring professions, the health service and teaching – all giving service form a basic belief in doing the right thing and serving the common good. The line that young people are not interested is just wrong. They are not interested in the dour, clerical pie in the sky stuff that comes out of so many pulpits across the land. They are interested in the devastation being caused to the planet, wars being undertaken in their collective names, injustice in the workplace and economic disempowerment. There have been millions of youngsters (under 25) on marches for these causes. I would hazard a guess that a disproportionate number have been Catholics, but they do not look anymore to the Church to live out the social justice aspect of their faith.They are not impressed with the hesitant words, if words are uttered at all, about war or climate change from the hierarchy of the Church. They want action and they look to organisations outside of the Church for realisation of this goal.The challenge for the Church going forward is how it recaptures that spirit of Vatican II. How can those young people and others who work in all sorts of ways for social justice find a home once again in the Church – how can they become the next Rosemary Read or Elizabeth Rendall? It won’t happen if the hierarchy continue to shy away from the social justice challenges and sup with an ever longer spoon with those who bravely battle on through organisations like the NJPN and others. It is time for the Church to recapture the spirit of social justice, get back its confident voice and push forward with the work of creating the Kingdom on earth.