Status Quoventry

I visited Manchester recently to see the mighty Status Quo at the Apollo. As ever, they were magnificent and showed a clean pair of heels to bands half their age and pedigree. But what impressed me even more was the city itself. It had a life and a vibrancy which really struck me. It was both original whilst being familiar. It was British whilst being international. It wasn’t ashamed of its past nor of its present. In fact it was just like the Quo. Not ashamed of its past but looking to the future. A higher compliment I cannot pay!

What evidence do I have to make these claims then? Do I still have my tourist hat on or am I wearing my rose tinted beer goggles?

The first thing to say was how impressed I was with its transport infrastructure. I haven’t seen that many buses since being in London. And they were complimented by trams going to places people want to go. One quick look around and you can see this is made for Manchester and no one else. And that’s the first obvious difference between Coventry and Manchester. We need a transport system with Coventry the centre of its attention, not the West Midlands or Birmingham.

Secondly, the city was full of old fashioned pubs, eateries and buildings yet if you wanted a Weatherspoons or a Premier Inn your luck was easily in. On top of this, they have their various quarters such as the Chinese, Gay and cultural areas. These aren’t just side streets tucked away but well known, well visited and greatly appreciated and loved parts of the city. Coventry has an unfair disadvantage when comparing itself with the likes of Manchester and I don’t seek to do that. Manchester is a regional capital. Coventry is not. We are working towards a cultural area in Far Gosford Street which with hard work and some luck can work. The innovators at the heart of this work are to be congratulated. The rest may come. We will have to see!

The other thing which I really noticed and I have seen this elsewhere across the country. Statues! The best and most iconic cities have statues of their most esteemed sons and daughters. Soldiers, artists, politicians or sports men and women litter plinths across the country and none more so than in Manchester. In Coventry, I believe in the past we have had a distaste for such things which to me is a great pity.

Yes, we have Lady Godiva and latterly Sir Frank Whittle. Yet, where are our great industrialists or benefactors? What of our history? Did you know the War of the Roses began in Coventry? Coventry was also the capital of England for a period of years can you believe? Where are out statues which mark these historic and momentous events? I know people will say we have signified these events with plaques or the information is buried away in some dusty historical tome. Yes it’s true; there is a real tapestry of exquisite design and importance in St. Mary’s Guild Hall which with a trained eye can explain itself. What of the person who made it? What of our great ribbon traders, car makers or watch making entrepreneurs?

People like looking at people. It gives a sense of awe and wonderment to think about their lives by looking deep into their soul through their eyes. Think about how you feel when you eyes gaze upon a statue of a long gone but famous Roman Emperor? You imagine how he lived, what he felt, how his subjects felt. You think what a tyrant he was or the great battles he fought or temples erected in his name. All to his glory of course. It’s awe inspiring. These sorts of monuments mark a city out without doubt. It gives a place real character.

I doubt this idea will ever happen in Coventry though. Why? Since the war, in the main the city has been run in part to try to get away from a past which had just been devastated both physically and mentally. We have spent 70 years reinventing ourselves. Yet to know the future, you must know your past. It is part of you. Part of a city and it cannot be erased no matter how much you want to. We should celebrate and remember the good and the bad. In Coventry we have had great people from all sorts of backgrounds with all shades of political opinion and we should celebrate that not deny it.

With that last point in mind, I leave you with an idea. After the war, the Cathedral was rebuilt giving a symbol of hope and giving Coventry the title of the City of Peace and Reconciliation. Who opened the new cathedral? Queen Elizabeth II. What greater monument to our past and to our future than a statue marking that historic moment. It would make Coventry proud. Every great city in our country celebrates our country.

That would define the Status Quo in Coventry perfectly!

What a load of billiards!

I am going to risk mixing my sporting metaphors this post by going off piste and talking about snooker. In particular, I want to talk about Ronnie O’Sullivan. I am sure many of you who read my blog will ask: who? And then ask: why? You write about politics not about sport, never mind a marginal past time like snooker. This is where friends you miss the point! There is a parallel both for life and for politics.

I grew up in the 1980s watching and admiring the exponential growth of snooker and its protagonists. Standing at the top of this great sporting leviathan stood Steve Davis, the greatest player of his era and at the time, ever. He bestrode the snooker and sporting world like a goliath. And believe it or not he won Sports personality of the Year in 1988, the only snooker player ever to win it. Not bad for a player labelled boring by the critics; winning a popular vote of the public! I admired him for his ability, his will to win and his never give in attitude. I found it inspirational and was something I learned from. And before anyone says it, no I’ve never mixed politics with sport or music for that matter. If I did, I would be truly bored and boring!!

The sport of snooker has never in my opinion ever truly reached the heights it achieved in the 1980s. Certainly not in terms of public interest in the UK. Yes, Stephen Hendry took the standard to a new and greater level in the 1990s and redefined how the game was played. However, for whatever reason, its popularity faded during this time. It is having a revival at the moment across the globe, not least of all in China where the sport seems to be growing faster than their economy. It’s only a matter of time before the Chinese dominate the sport I am sure.

That being said, the quality of the play today is higher than it’s ever been. That is beyond doubt. And without doubt, the best of them all is Ronnie O’Sullivan. His rise to the top of the sport has been as different to Davis’s as it can be. A troubled soul in the past who has had well documented run-ins with authority and suffered publicly with his mental health. I honestly do not know what he has done to overcome or cope with his problems. Maybe someday he will share his experiences with those who suffer similarly. It is without doubt though totally inspirational.

I’m not one for hyperbole but this guy is on another planet. It is a great pity the sport of snooker doesn’t get the coverage and exposure it did in the 80s. If it did, we would be hearing about a superstar of sport ranking alongside the likes of Messi, Federer, Bolt and Mayweather. He is that good and I would argue better. As he gets older he seems to improve. Easy you might say in snooker. After all, it’s not a sport is it?

It is. The days of gentlemen in their late 40s winning snooker championships in smoke filled halls whilst downing alcoholic drinks are long gone. Davis did for the older players in the 80s and today the top players are all in their 20s or early 30s. The profile has changed. Yet O’Sullivan is redefining that. At a time when the standard is at its greatest ever with the competition at its most fierce, he is putting the sport and his younger opponents to the sword in his late 30s. It is truly remarkable to watch and culminated recently in defeating his Chinese opponent by 9 frames to 3 whilst knocking in a maximum 147 in the last frame.

He has shown you can turn adversity around and overcome huge challenges. He has shown you should never give up. But most of all, he is probably blessed with the greatest natural talent of any of his sporting contempories anywhere in the world. We should cherish him because we will not see his like again. To paraphrase Ali: He is the greatest!

Adopting good practice

I see the numbers of children being adopted continue to rise in Coventry. From just 23 in 2010/11 to 43 completed adoptions with 27 pending this year. This is a combination of more children in care with little or no prospect of ever returning home safely and a determination to give these children a permanent and loving home. This is the result of changes I helped to introduce a couple of years ago and it is pleasing to see it bear results.

It was as clear then as it is now that the numbers of children coming into care was very high and that we needed to make sure our systems were working correctly to ensure these children had a future built on the stability of a normal family life.

The pressure on the service is not reducing, a symptom it would seem of too many parents sadly, unable or unwilling to look after their own children properly. I pay tribute to all those who work in Children’s Services in Coventry. They do an incredibly difficult job at a time when demand continues to outstrip the resources available.

These days when all you seem to read are negative stories about Children’s Services, let me pay tribute to those who work in this profession. I know what a great job you do.

Keep up the good work.

Hey Inspector! Leave those kids alone.

I’ve been a school governor for a number of years, with admittedly varying degrees of involvement. Often it is a case of simply not being able to be in two places at the same time. This might be an excuse for just not being committed enough, as some would see it. They could be right, but I don’t think I’m the only school governor to be beset by other commitments. All governors are volunteers as far as I know, so you will always have diversity in membership. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing.

However, excuses out of the way, that’s not how the government view it nor their henchmen at OFSTED. They do not expect but demand as far as I can see, professionalism and will accept no other level of service. I saw a report recently where Michael Gove accused governors of being ‘local worthies.’ I don’t doubt for a minute there is some of that but what a broad stupid brush. The problem as far as I can see has always been getting someone to do the job. Gove’s ‘secret’ plan will come to pass though. Governors will quit (where they are not sacked) which is what he wants and be replaced by all these wonderful volunteers who have been waiting in the wings for years for the ‘worthies’ to move aside. Another triumph for the government’s ‘big society!’

What leads me to this conclusion? Simple answer: the new inspection regime. I can hear teachers shouting ‘what’s new mate?’ It’s always been like that. Overbearing inspectors breathing down their necks seeking out the slightest imperfection and going in for the kill at the expense of the poor teacher who by now has had their confidence shattered and their career ruined. The truth is it wasn’t like that I don’t believe. It was tough and it was I believe hard on failure.

The inspection regime previously focused on a range of indicators, it also took account of the schools ability to perform under tough conditions. Teachers were rewarded for getting the best out of disadvantaged kids who had tough starts in life with no immediate prospect of life at home getting better any time soon. This considered the children and indeed the whole school community beyond the class room and school gates. Not excuses but realism and pragmatism.

Now, results are all they appear to focus on. Floor targets, which if failed to be reached by the school will deem the school to be in disgrace. This takes no account of the value and progress made by children who often start with no English and a family with no understanding or recognition of education. In many schools, turnover of pupils puts huge pressure on year groups and skew results. Progress is then condemned because it’s not good enough. This is the stance now executed by OFSTED.

I’ve met OFSTED inspectors in the past whilst carrying out their duties and they have always been polite, engaged, understanding and challenging. They have listened and been listened to. They have been robust and can see a ruse or trick a mile off. The new regime now has commercial targets as their incentive. They will meet their goal by filling in the correct boxes and picking up a tidy sum of loot for all their ‘good’ work. Be in no doubt; Inspectors working for their private company have an incentive to achieve their goals – and they will.

That is the reality of school inspections today. The children come first? I don’t believe so. Dogma and form filling on a whole new scale driven by profit and a desire to fail as many schools as they can in an attempt to drive up standards.

And their silver bullet? They change the name of the school.

Evil genius.

Save the Children?

I see how the debate about Child Protection is getting very confused with mixed messages across the country about what is to be done. This though is what happens when a couple of examples are held up as a barometer which proves the system is not working. Whether it is cases of disgusting abuse or the Italian woman who had her child removed following an emergency caesarean section, you now have the fruits of this polarised debate. No longer based on facts but instead seeking to repair and fix what apparently is not working. On one hand you have social workers and their systems pilloried because there are not enough children in care and so are leaving those kids in danger. On the other, there are too many children in care and the Family Courts are both unfair and unjust.

Who then is right and what can be done to repair it? The problem with this question is that it affirms the system of child protection in our country is broken. This goes against the evidence both nationally and internationally. So, why is this happening now?

We have a tried and tested habit in this country of having national knee jerk reactions to incidents which are rightly condemned when they come to light. The problem though is then people in child protection are vilified and condemned in turn forcing them to look inwards and defend themselves regardless of right or wrong. We then have the ‘experts’ lining up to show the latest tragedy is evidence of systematic failure. As long as this type of emotional response continues you will never improve but merely fiddle which in the end leaves those children that need our help more at risk.

Take the scandals of Children’s Homes in the north east in the 1980’s and the huge public outcry about what was happening to kids in the system. A whole shift occurred towards moving away from institutions to home based solutions. We see in the papers how society is still dealing with the fall out of this and more is to come with the latest and biggest enquiry ever, as reported by the BBC, in Northern Ireland about abuse committed in Children’s Homes. This then inevitably leads to people extrapolating this as evidence today of failings and how their case should be taken up. Now one MP suggests parents should take their kids abroad when faced with enquiries and potential court proceedings! This though is often brought about because the system today is in reality more robust and responsive to concerns raised.

Until a more mature and intelligent debate is had, we will continue along the lines of these knee jerk responses which lead to poor outcomes and bad legislation. The same people who make emotionally charged accusations about failings in social care when a child is murdered by their savage parents or carers are often the same people who attack the system for being out of control and child snatchers. Neither is of course true. People don’t come into the profession to break up families or abandon children. Sometimes things happen which are outside the control or knowledge of social care and indeed society. It does happen and it’s not nice but we should understand that.

But until society and all their representatives seek to improve and not vilify, we will see again tinkering which in the end might make someone’s conscience feel cleansed but will not make an ounce of difference to a Child Protection system which in the UK can always continually look to improve but actually is held up as a model elsewhere across the world.

Bleeding obvious

There has recently been a number of “studies” which “prove” some seemingly obvious points which no one could disagree with or say: well I’ll be damned, I never knew that!
So, what are these gems which rank alongside CBeebies for insight and new thinking.

1. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Academics have ‘proved’ the old Victorian saying to have some real medical benefit. Really? Now we all know – fruit is good for you. You don’t say!

2. Middle class parents buy houses close to schools they want their kids to go to. Academics have ‘proved’ this to be true also. Are these people serious? I was really not aware people did this!

3. There are not many working class kids at grammar schools and they do nothing for social mobility. Well I never! You’ll be telling me not many poor kids go to Oxford or Cambridge next.

The problem with this sort of dross is that it appears to have infected all aspects of life. Because these people are academics or ‘experts’, their rather obvious findings are given a staggering amount of coverage in the media. The real problem with this is the way it affects policy making. Too often these pearls of academic wisdom become all the justification needed to push through daft ideas or wacky policies such as the ‘traffic cones hotline’. Remember that one?

Take for example debates in political parties, played out in the various dailies about the latest wheeze from a fresh faced policy wonk talking in language only used by a select few who have had the ‘operation’. Yet look at the letters pages of these same papers which will tell you about the things that really matter to people. People want concrete action on houses, jobs and the health service, not academic meandering. Just compare the reactions to Ed Miliband’s conference speech in 2012 on Predistribution and this year’s promise to freeze energy prices. Straight forward commonsense wins out.

A reliance on ‘gurus’ and wonky ideas only serves to widen the gap between politicians and the public. Whether it is High Speed Rail, Immigration, Education or the NHS, too many people have stopped believing what they are force fed by the media, the civil service and their politicians. The truth is the public can spot a stunt or sound bite a mile off. Our politics, left and right, has too many ‘Great Answers’, when the truth is you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.

The CBeebies are out of control! It’s dumbing down of the highest order. It’s bleeding obvious: we need people not frightened to think the unthinkable and tell it like it is. Otherwise, the gap between the public and its politicians will grow wider.

Bah! Happy Christmas.

NHS: Back to the 1980’s

Something is wrong with the NHS that much is clear. What can it be I wonder? Is it anything to do with the government? Well, let’s look at the evidence. Ever since the coalition came to power they have been involved in a huge reorganisation of the NHS which has seen GPs take control of the service because they know their patients and their needs best. Huge upheavals of staff, systems and oversight have been rolled out in the name of modernisation and accountability. All this has cost anything between £3bn to £4bn and counting. At the same time, there has been on an economy drive looking to save £20bn per year from the budget. Add to this the top slicing from the overall budget of over £1bn per year allegedly for social care for the elderly and you can perhaps see a picture emerging.

Of course, I am too cynical because we all know the Tories love the NHS and it is safe in their hands. All the talk of walk in centres closing, Accident and Emergency units downgrading and hospitals closing or merging are just that: talk. I should learn to embrace the government’s new found love of all things NHS! Can I though?

I visited a couple of doctor’s surgeries the other day to get a feel for what GPs are thinking in this brave new world. It was enlightening and interesting. There were similarities but also huge differences and cynicisms. What all said was they wanted to do the best for their patients. You’d expect that though wouldn’t you? And I believe it. However, they also recognised there was huge disparity in quality with GPs in Coventry which is a point well understood in our city. Their answers though were different when it came to the question of what to do about it.

Some embraced modernisation and their chance to influence improvement whilst offering a service from purpose built premises owned lock stock and barrel by the GPs themselves. Others just carried on the same as they always did as they felt they offered a great service which their patients really liked. New systems be blowed was the attitude. However, let’s think about this for a minute. GPs now control about 60% of the overall NHS budget – about £70bn. When you consider in 1997 the overall NHS budget was £33bn you can see the enormity of this responsibility. You would think therefore with GPs doing the best for their patients that improvements would be seen in all sectors of the service. Yet the truth is somewhat different.

In the meantime the government continue to talk up failings of the NHS whilst saying that any decisions about closures, increasing waiting lists or cancelled appointments and operations are local decisions and nothing to do with them. The sheer deceitfulness of their policy is exposed as an attempt to bring the NHS to its knees so the Tories can then ‘prove’ it can’t work and must be done away with. It can’t be modernised they will say because we’ve tried that!

As someone once said: Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

Let’s get some energy back!

With ever rising prices, is it any wonder the public are in uproar over the energy firms profiteering at their expense. The time has come to take control of the situation and let the public have their voices heard. This means a future Labour government should either nationalise or take a controlling share in these companies to help customers and not the shareholder.

I’m not harking back to the old days but thinking with a very clear head about what’s happening here. Recently, a new build nuclear plant was announced to be jointly funded by a French energy firm and Chinese investors. In other words, the French and Chinese governments will build and own this facility. On top of that, they will sell electric to customers. Why are we as a country allowing foreign governments to generate and sell energy in the UK to make huge profits for themselves? Why can’t our government do that? Haven’t we learnt the lesson of ever increasing prices with ever increasing profits going to these and other firms with no benefit to the customer or the tax payer?

Labours pledge to freeze prices is right. Now let’s go the next step on behalf of the hard pressed public wanting to do nothing more than heat their homes. In 21st century Britain, that’s not much to ask is it?

Free Schools: For or against?

The issue of Free Schools is one that continues to cause controversy. In many ways the debate itself shows how in the mire we are when it comes to education policy in our party. The truth is we have been tied down with old dogma, crusty old educationalists and a fear of the middle classes.

On top of all this is the battle between national and local government and the desperate fight to wrest control of schools from big bad Local Authorities. Now we have a middle class commentator as the shadow spokesperson for Labour whose first day in the job was to row back on comments made about ‘yummy mummy’s’ and pledge his undying love for free schools! No wonder education is such a basket case!

Closer to home in Coventry secondary schools seem to be doing OK. Results continue to rise with some extraordinary performances at schools like Sidney Stringer Academy, driven by an excellent Head teacher and her staff. The same cannot be said of our primary schools (with Frederick Bird being an exception) which have been through a torrid time recently brought on by OFSTED coming in and condemning standards as not being good enough. What though is their motivation and is any of what they say actually true?

On the face of it, their motivation is to raise standards, which we cannot disagree with. It’s the process by which they want to do it though which is flawed. Turning schools into academies or free schools overnight does not raise standards. How can it? You have the same kids, but perhaps more importantly you have the same teachers. Often, the leadership team will change which brings in fresh thinking and new motivation. But that can only last so long unless something more fundamental happens. An analogy with idiotic football teams comes to mind, constantly changing the manager and wondering why they continue to fail.

Last year, I was looking closely at budgets in Children’s Services in an attempt to balance the budget and redirect resource to Child Protection and Early Intervention. This budget had taken a terrible hammering from the government, which had seen the budget shrunk by over 50% in real terms in less than 3 years. It is fundamental to making children safer and supporting struggling parents. I came across a colossal budget apparently ring fenced for ‘school improvement.’ It ran into millions of pounds and seemed to support rather large salaries for staff. What were we getting out of it I asked? I wanted some of it diverted but was told because it came from the dedicated school grant (DSG) it was untouchable and any way it wasn’t my budget. Needless to say, I pursued the point relentlessly. Extra resources were identified for early intervention by up to about £2M this year from council resources in the 2013/14 budget, though I’m not sure what the current state of play is.

It was some weeks later that OFSTED descended and went to town. Suddenly, we were in a whole new ball park. Something had to change. For too long, this school improvement had often been driven by ex teachers recruited by the Local Authority on lucrative contracts. It was piece meal and didn’t work in any meaningful way across the primary sector. This has been going on for years under all shades of political party and I could see it was wrong. Head teachers do not like ex heads coming in to tell them how to run their schools. School improvement became more like school ‘gatekeepers’ with a so called ‘light touch’ to stop real scrutiny of what was happening. In other words, the tax payer was funding school improvement to virtually leave schools alone! It was a closed shop.

Things are changing now with poor performance rewarded now with a P45 instead of a new job with the council or a lucrative pension pay off to let them go. This has to be right if we want to do the best by our children who get one shot at school.

Problems have been exacerbated though by politicians holding on to quaint ideas of systems: ‘Comprehensives are the only way to get results’. ‘Mixed ability classes mean everybody achieves.’ ‘All kids are the same and the system will support them all.’ All out dated dogmas which totally misses the point: standards of teaching matter, not the system. Yes, you need good management. You need good Heads and leaders. But don’t get hung up on what a school is called. And as for this myth about schools under local authority control, what control exactly? For years schools have been able to do their own thing away from Local Authorities to school meals or HR through to start and finishing times and sourcing equipment or repairs. Any control comes from national government such as their finances or the national curriculum.

As a party, Labour need to be on the side of kids and their parents. But that doesn’t mean acceding to their every whim. I notice how Labour has come out in favour of Free Schools whilst at the same time Nick Clegg is busily moving his party away from the government’s position. Cynical he might be, but it shows again how we are being caught out and looking decidedly shifty. Instead of worrying about upsetting a few elite voters from the chattering classes, we should support all good schools and champion high standards and brilliant teachers and pledge to help them in their work and ambition for our young people. We should pledge to root out bad practice and failing Heads or teachers. The test should be standards not systems. That would get support.

You can’t get me ‘cos I’m part of the Union!

I’ve recently completed a Trade Union course where I spent time refreshing my knowledge and dare I say it, skills. I’ve had a little bit more spare time recently and wanted to fill it usefully and this seemed a decent thing to do. I’m thinking about becoming a lay companion which is what the law calls someone who goes into a non-union workplace to represent someone who needs help with a discipline or grievance. There are more of these around than perhaps people realise as most workplaces are small or medium enterprises that don’t recognise trade unions. The right to have representation was enshrined in law by the last Labour government and so far has not been a right which this government has sought to get rid of, though I won’t hold my breath on that one.

The purpose of this post though is not to tell you all about Trade Unions or comment on the terrible things the government are doing to worker’s rights but to talk about how liberating the course was. It was a breath of fresh air for me and reminded me how much I enjoyed being a shop steward and convenor and how much I have missed it. A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work is all ultimately, people want, and it is amazing in this day and age how many are denied this basic right.

It was great to share stories and experiences of cases we had all dealt with in the past and the surprising amount of similarity many of them had with each other. What also came across loud and clear is the desire of my colleagues to help those that need it. In politics some lose their purpose in the race to be promoted, elected or indeed in the day to day running of a department or a council. Being a lay companion puts you right at the sharp end where you see the reality of decisions taken and the sometimes devastating impact they can have. That’s a big motivation for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever lost that sense of ‘why’ I am doing something and have always sought to do my best and work through the consequences of decisions enacted.

In this day and age of harsh austerity, which is still with us no matter what the government try to say about the economy, workers more than ever need help and support. With continuing wage freezes and rising prices you can see the need for a fair days wage more than ever today. It almost sounds old fashioned when you say it, yet is as relevant today as it ever was. Unions get a bad rap which is both unfair and inaccurate. They do a great job in really difficult circumstances and deserve our support.

It was also good to spend time with people who had no side or angle to them. Egos were left outside and the ribbing and mickey taking was liberating and funny. It was great to actually have a laugh and a joke with people who didn’t take it personally. That was the high light for me and showed working people at their best. Politicians, please take note!