In which IDS’s poisonous drivel on workfare fails to impress

Oh Iain Duncan Smith! Fuckity fuck, offity off!…

Your bilious shite in the Daily Mail is making me seethe.

You say that the work experience scheme is so successful that “around 50% of those taking part have either taken up permanent posts or have stopped claiming benefits”. Well, it’s possible to stop claiming benefits out of abject despair, so if they haven’t got a permanent job, don’t assume your scheme’s a success.

Anyhow, if I take that 50% at face value for a second and compare it with the Tesco success rate, I see they gave work to 300 out of 1400 participants, so at about 21% the firm that IDS claims is “absolutely brilliant” has about half the success rate of the scheme overall. How crap is that?

I don’t know anyone commenting on the scheme who thinks that young people shouldn’t work at Tesco or MacDonalds. Those I’ve heard commenting on the scheme think that if you work for Tesco for 30 hours you should be paid (by Tesco) for 30 hours work. That seems reasonable to me. Expecting to be paid for the work that you do is hardly “snobbery”.

IDS, you also say the scheme is voluntary, but it’s only in the first week that a person can pull out without sanction. That doesn’t sound very voluntary to me.

By the way, your Chris Burke success story isn’t all that it seems either, because he’s (you say) an “administrative apprentice” – and have you seen what the apprenticeship pay rate is? Frankly it’s just another way to squeeze ‘more for less’ out of our young people. If he’s working as an administrator, pay him!

These firms you name are not “helping the economic prospects of our younger generation”. If anyone is, I am. It is my taxes that are paying them. Being not entirely dumb, I can see that my taxes are actually helping the economic prospects of these big, profitable companies. No one is being snobbish about these jobs. Critics are pointing out that these are real jobs, that real people do. And because real people are doing them, they should be paid real wages.

You know what IDS? I started my career on the shopfloor too. As a Saturday girl at Peacocks. It was then (and is now*) a real job. And I was paid – from day one – real wages.

You arsehole!

While you are being so utterly hateful, why don’t you take a sideswipe at migrant workers too!?

Oh. You did.

*technically, of course, as Peacocks is in administration (I think), this is no longer a real job. But I think you know what I mean.


About the shoe

The shoe is where I live with my family. It is a real little place in a “mystery location” in the Thames Valley.

My family is:

DH (husband) who is a private sector techy, with a misanthropic streak, who is nevertheless a lovely partner and Dad. If it wasn’t for him, the children would never have packed lunches. And I would drink much less tea.

Four little shoe-dwellers. People like to make jokes about this. They say things like “Havent you got a telly?” or “There must be something in the water”. There are two girls, two boys. One of them is a redhead. People like to joke about this. They say things like “Are you sure they’ve all got the same Dad?” So far I haven’t punched anyone who has made this joke. I’m sure the day will come.

The youngest is still at nursery and the oldest is at secondary school. I don’t blog about them very much, although I tweet about them a lot, under the heading “Life in the Shoe” I don’t post pictures of them or share their names. When I want to refer to them individually here I call them 4yo, 6yo, 9yo and 11yo.

No pets. Absolutely no pets. Ever.

The shoe is a place for warm-hearted, good-natured chaos. We are untidy, but not dirty. Unpunctual but not lazy. Unruly, but not nasty. There is a lot of love here.

It’s Everything, Stupid!

What are we fighting for?

What is the single biggest issue for which we should be marshalling our resources and planning an all-out overthrow of this Government’s tragically misguided (or misanthropic) policies?

For lots of commentators, it’s defeating the Health and Social Care Bill. It was referred to recently as ‘the biggest issue for 30 years’.

Having galvanised the vast majority of the Royal Colleges, the BMA, the healthcare unions, health journalists, Directors of Public Health, grassroots activists from every political party, the Conservative chair of the Health Select Committee and up to three cabinet ministers against his preposterous proposals Andrew Lansley certainly seems to be riding a tidal wave of unpopularity right now.

Over 135,000 people have signed a Government e-petition demanding that parliament drops the bill. And it’s right that we should be demanding that it is dropped. Already it is wreaking havoc in the NHS. Things can only get worse. (Unless you are a privatisation-happy buccaneer).

But focusing all our energy on the Health and Social Care Bill and the #dropthebill campaign is not enough.

Remember ‘shock and awe’? It’s the vernacular description of a military doctrine based on the use of (Wikipedia definition, roll your eyes now) “overwhelming power, dominant battlefield awareness, dominant maneuvers, and spectacular displays of force to paralyze an adversary’s perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight.”

In political terms, this is what the Government is attempting now. So much massive-scale policy development on so many fronts at once; such a savage attack on all that is decent and humane about this country. How can those of us who want to be part of the resistance respond to these ‘spectacular displays of force’?

Perhaps we should take one stand-out ‘figurehead’ piece of legislation and do our best, focusing all our energies on that alone, to make sure that one is defeated?


Churchill is not high on my list of politicians-I-love-to-quote, but when he said “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.” he was right.

This Government’s dazzling display of political pyrotechnics in every part of our visual field creates a baffling array of priorities to choose among and risks – at best – making us concentrate on shoring up one set of defences while our remaining bulwarks are dismantled behind our backs; at worst – paralysing us all and crushing our will to fight.

I think we have four huge fights on our hands (as well as the many smaller skirmishes). Health is just one of them. But it is a fight we must have.

HEALTH: We must find a way to manage the ‘public good’ of health in the interests of all members of society. This means defeating the Health and Social Care Bill is an absolute must.

EDUCATION: There is a battle for Education too. We must find a way to manage the public good of education in the interests of the whole of society. This means resisting the creeping privatisation and social segregation that underpins the Free Schools and Academies movement, and it’s covert centralisation of powers to the Secretary of State.

JUSTICE and LIBERTY: We must find a way to manage the public goods of justice and liberty in the interests of the whole of society.

The number of different ways in which liberty and justice are under attack make it hard to know where the most important battlefront is in this area. Cuddly Ken Clarke with his jazz shoes and pantomime dame antics (see 16 Feb edition of Question Time for an example) is achieving more (and more damaging) change by stealth and smooth-talking than Gove in Education with his special ops SpAds and Lansley with his hapless human mine-sweeper impression.

Take a look at the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill if you want to see the foundations of a society where ‘justice’ is only for those who can afford it. We must defeat LASPO.

Theresa May’s damaging politicisation of policing, especially through directly elected Police Commissioners, is another area where the sporadic skirmishing doesn’t adequately reflect the significant damage to our civil liberties done by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, but this is already law! Resist! Resist!

HUMAN WORTH: Perhaps most important of all, as it is the foundation for all the rest. In another time and place this might have been referred to as “the economy, stupid”, but to do so now implies that zeros on a balance-sheet are more important than living, breathing human beings with needs that must be met and contributions to make in meeting the needs of others. So we must find a way to re-value the varied contributions people make to society so that business’s acquisition of money is not valued above human well-being.

The place to start on this issue is the Welfare Reform Bill, in which the main provisions should revolt all decent-minded people.

Unemployment is deliberately created to depress the labour market and make it possible to keep wages low and restrict workers rights. To do this is bad enough, but then to punish those who are poor because of this vicious, market-driven philosophy adds further injury to the original harm. When those who can never work or cannot work again because of illness or disability are also caught up in this unforgiving net, we should be ashamed to stand by and let it happen. When children are punished for the supposed ‘sins’ of their parents I become close to despair.

This is championed, by some who claim to have Christian values, as a ‘moral’ issue. Senior politicians like Iain Duncan-Smith can be presented with evidence of the harm their policies are already doing and still claim that the suffering does not exist. It seems that the ‘moral high ground’ is so far above the cloud-cover that the view of the ground below is obscured.

We incentivise the rich by giving them more money and the poor by taking what little they have away from them. How is this fair? It doesn’t even work. It’s time to swap the carrots and the sticks. Defeat the Welfare Reform Bill and start again.

So, these are my four battlegrounds: health, education, liberty & justice and human worth.

By which I think I mean “it’s every-bloody-thing, stupid”.

We must defeat the Health & Social Care Bill, keep privatisation (and the sticky mitts of Gove’s mates) off our schools, defeat LASPO, defend our freedoms against interfering politicians, defeat the Welfare Reform Bill and develop a social contract that puts people before profit every time.

We must do what is required.

Starting Gun

This came to me today from Pat Onions:

“Can you send this out in your capacity as my friend?”

And the short answer is Yes! of course I can.

So here’s the Starting Gun for some urgent action.

URGENT – please share this link with every one – Welfare Bill back in Lords on Tuesday. Last chance for Lords to help disabled children and ESA claimants. Please sign Pat’s Petition by Tuesday and tell the Lords to keep fighting for people with disability Pat tells Lords not to give up the fight

Pat x

Well…what are you waiting for?

Imw x

Turning up the “Heat” on Dumbing Down.

In the Spectator, yesterday, this piece ( by Toby Young gets grumpy about graphic novel adaptations of Dickens and then asks “So what are children studying instead of Dickens in most state schools?”.

The answer, he tells us, (as provided by Joseph Reynolds a “tireless campaigner against dumbing down”) is a ‘unit’ in which pupils are “expected to study” the ITV1 homepage and a 2009 cover of Heat magazine.

This ‘information’ Young uses as the basis for an assertion that Heat magazine is now an English set text instead of Oliver Twist or Great Expectations.

The article prompted some aghast reactions on Twitter including one from teacher and writer of a teaching blog @oldandrewuk who commented: “Don’t you think this is the sort of thing that makes middle class parents abandon the local comprehenxsive?”

Now I’m not a reader, let alone a fan, of Heat magazine, but I am a middle-class parent with a child at the local comprehensive (and three more to follow) and I haven’t started loading the lifeboats yet.

Regular followers will know that earlier in the week I’d been dissatisfied with a homework task for my 11yo (Shakespeare-based rather than Heat-based) which didn’t seem to me to serve any useful purpose. I care about my children’s education and I’m comfortable about challenging what appears to be sloppiness in how they’re being taught. But my response to this catalyst for middle-class abandonment of comprehensives was: “I’m a middle class parent with an 11yo at the local comp. He’s studying Shakespeare sonnets and also reading Charlie Higson’s “The Fear”. If he looks at magazine text too I’ve got no problem with that as long as I can understand what the intended learning outcome is of a piece of work.”

To cut a long Twitter saga short, my instincts were that Young’s story was probably not entirely accurate and that the use of the scorned material was probably quite justifiable, but that I couldn’t really comment on it till I’d seen the relevant ‘unit’.

I’m not fond of knee-jerk attacks of the vapours based on headline-grabbing statements without the benefit of supporting evidence.

A Tweetmate, @LearningSpy (who blogs here: kindly offered to provide me with the papers to evaluate. And while I was waiting for them to turn up, I took a little trip down memory lane (and indeed further back in time than my memory will allow) to have a look at some past papers.

When the Edexcel material did arrive, a couple of things became immediately clear. First (and I hope it doesn’t surprise you to discover this) “Heat” Magazine is not a ‘set text’. Shakespeare, Dickens, Salinger and Harper Lee are all presumably still safely on the list (even if one can get away – as I did – without reading any Dryden). 

Second, there is no ‘unit’ that requires the study of the ITV1 Homepage or Heat Magazine front cover, if by ‘study’ we mean a prolonged application of skill and effort to increase a person’s understanding of a particular subject. If you had visions of your middle-class child being subjected to week after week of Heat covers in place of the greats of the classical Western cannon in their English Literature classes, panic no more. 

What Joseph Reynolds and presumably also Toby Young and @oldandrewuk are all objecting to is a Controlled Assessment in the English Language GCSE; specifically the Theme Two element of Unit 1: English Today. Say what you like about the greatness of Dickens, using an extract of any of his novels in “English Today” is stretching the definition of ‘today‘ by over a hundred years.

There are two tasks in this assessment – a comprehension / commentary task and a composition task. These tasks look startlingly familiar even to an old fogey like me, because I remember very similar requirements from my own O’Level days. The requirement to read, understand, and comment on one or more pieces of contemporary text; the requirement to produce a piece of original text of my own within the time allowed and to the standards required.

Reading for enjoyment and critical analysis of the greats of English Literature happened in a different part of the curriculum – and still does.

For this particular controlled assessment (which is in any case, one of a choice of two) Edexcel provides six texts from which two must be chosen by the student for commentary. Three are digital texts, three from print media. Some are more ‘highbrow’ than others. They include, but are not limited to the texts Young mentions. The students need to be able to make comparisons between the texts they choose, support their ideas using detail from the texts and show how the original writers themselves use presentation and language to communicate their ideas. This is actually a more rigorous requirement than my own O’Level where the very leading questions and short-length answers had the effect of more strongly steering the student in a particular direction. (A more recent example of a similar style – on the subject of credit card theft – can be found here:…

In the 2012/12 paper, this element of the assessment looks for a 1000 word answer. Handwritten that’s about three sides of A4. Of course, the quality of the content the student produces is what matters, not what you or I might think about the texts (or subject matter) used as the jumping off point for the exercise. So, although I can understand that someone could take the view that “Talent TV’ as a subject matter is not their cup-of-tea, that’s not a meaningful critique in terms of what this Controlled Assessment is looking at. 

The other half of the assessment is the Writing Task. This again requires the student to produce 1000 words, either writing an article for a TV magazine or writing the script for a podcast. The exercise requires students to show that they can write for a particular purpose and audience and are able to produce high quality, accurate text. This is not purposeless or dumb. These are relevant, valuable skills. You could carp at the subject matter, I suppose. But why? 

At this point I am glad of the time I had to rummage in past papers before looking at the 2011/12 one. 


As you can see, in 1906 there was no Heat magazine. Funny that. Instead the contemporary preoccupations of “The Olympic Games revived” and “Travel in the Arctic or Antarctic Regions” were options for the 40 minute exercise. (Although with Sydney Carton on the ‘character’ list, I can’t deny that Dickens at least gets a look in). 


Move forward to 1951 and the themes for a 90 minute essay include “The Fascination of Shop Windows” and what your locality is contributing to “The Festival of Britain”. I have no quarrel with these themes, but nor do I see them as innately superior, either morally or educatively, to “Talent TV”. They are just subjects. Things to think about. Things to write about. Jumping off points. Something to get you started. Like “Monday” is perhaps.

I undertook to look at the material before judging whether “dumbing down” was indeed occurring in the GCSE English syllabus. My own view is that this one Controlled Assessment does not provide evidence of that. I see recognisable requirements that would not have looked out of place in the exams I took and a level of rigour and expectation that I understand and welcome. You can like or loathe the subject matter for the assessment, but – on the evidence so far – middle-class children’s minds remain safe in our community schools, and we can carry over our conniptions for another day.

Could a different subject matter have been chosen that would please and interest Joseph Reynolds more than this one does? Probably. But is that really a test of ‘dumbing down’? I don’t think so.

What would be really dumb – in my opinion – would be to leap to condemn (or for that matter to defend) this assessment paper without having read it. Dumber still would be to use such uninformed condemnation as the basis for an attack on the English syllabus, or on comprehensive education more broadly.

Ah yes. Comprehensive education. Lets stop worrying for a moment about the middle classes in our comprehensives and remember what comprehensive is meant to mean: children of all backgrounds, classes and abilities learning together. One of the more entertaining tweets in the exchange about this single Controlled Assessment (which became strangely and unjustifiably aggrandised into a whole ‘unit’ of study) was the one saying: “..we can teach criticism using any text, but *should* we? Why not widen horizons?”

Why not indeed?

Let’s perhaps all accept that something that maybe wouldn’t top our list of ‘worthy’ subject matter could nevertheless be the starting point of some good learning. 



A Life in Public Service

Today an ordinary, extraordinary man had his life celebrated by family, friends and former colleagues at a service for his cremation. In the hurly-burly of my mothering and other-working day, I was lucky enough to be able to make time to be there.

He had died unexpectedly in the middle of one of his many leisure pursuits. It would have been a good way to go, if only it hadn’t happened right now. Too early in life for such a sprightly and apparently so healthy 69-year old.

No one speaks ill of the deceased in a eulogy, but as the kind words and praise flowed, I was struck by the character of the life being celebrated.

This man had been a public servant of one kind or another all his life: an airman, a postie, a prison officer and eventually a civil servant. As well as being – formally – a public servant, his whole ethos was one of public service. As a dog trainer, narrow-boatman, biker and martial arts practitioner he was a role model for the many young people who encountered him. His wife of over forty years must have been comforted to hear so many stories of humour, kindness, courage and principle from the many people who attended.

It was ‘standing room only’ at the crematorium. People were gathered in clusters reflecting the various stages and interests of his life; the somber-suited former members of a certain government department; the high-visibility-jacketed biker crew. People enjoying being back in each other’s company again despite the sad reason for being there.

Good people are a magnet for other good people. The power of a room full of good people, drawn together warmly and humbly to honour another good person’s life, is that it’s a demonstration of how much good there still is in the world. And how easy it is to bring it together if we just take the trouble to call it in.

I find it easy to be angry every day at a world in which so much seems to be so wrong, but today, when I had expected to be sad, I found that really I was glad. Glad to be reminded of a life well lived; glad to be reminded of what matters.

For that, my old pal, I thank you.

And the Buddy Holly was a stroke of genius!