Bullingdon Boris and Schools Bully Gove
HEARING that Boris Johnson was blaming bad schools for the London riots, I dreaded to think what the Mayor of London had in mind for taming the nation's youngsters early in life. At my own primary school, back in what some doubtless consider the good old days of inflicting pain on kids, the head was a cruel tyrant and the strap omnipresent.
Hence we learned that authority was the enemy, that since you were likely to get punished anyway you might as well have the pleasure of doing something to deserve it, if you could; and that violence was no way to achieve things unless you were bigger and better armed than your victims, not to mention having the backing of the state. Not a bad guide I suppose, though I've not always managed to stick by it.
But reading on it seems to be fair, Boris the Old Etonian toff was not recommending more beltings, but arguing that if we had a better start in life, particularly with the three 'R's, we might stand more chance of getting a job and be less inclined then to riot and rob. Pity the news today is of a millionaire's daughter, by luck called Johnson, who was caught up in the riots, or more exactly, driving some low-life ex-boyfriend and his mates around robbing people at knifepoint, though in mitigation she had met him at a mental health clinic and says she was driving under duress.
What worries me though is that the Mayor, who could perhaps blame his own youthful misdemeanours on falling into bad company at Oxford with the Bullingdon Club, rather than Primrose Hill Primary or even Eton, was offering his ideas on education not just the way one does over a pint when the young are in the news, but suggesting he could put things right by taking power over schools.
I don't know what Johnson's qualifications as an educationalist are. His arithmetic is a little suspect. Proud of his campaigning for a reduction of top rate tax on the rich, he is less willing to connect this with the higher tax on pensioners, saying "It's not my blooming budget".
I suspect the reason Boris Johnson got his job was partly that many Londoners were fed up with Livingstone and Labour, partly that seeing the job of mayor as showman, a lot of people felt Boris was good for a laugh in these troubled times, and might be trusted in a job which did not seem to have real powers and if it does no good, cannot do serious harm either.
But that's a mistake. Having talked about bringing back guards and conductors, but gone for unmanned stations and now promising trains without drivers, Johnson is expanding his sights to education. Who will stop him?
There might be a case for centralising London schools back from the boroughs to something like the Inner London Education Authority which succeeded the London County Council. I've no personal experience of education in London but I remember when young meeting contemporaries and being impressed by the range of activities they could do at school because of shared resources. I also know some London comprehensives developed specialities and drew gifted pupils from a wide area.
But though the authorities had leadership they were committees, based on democratic bodies, not celebrities with gimmicks.
Can the Con Dem coalition be trusted with local democracy, or accountability, when they are pushing academies which take education away from elected local government and into the hands of religious outfits or business? Is the promise that parents can run their own "free schools" worth any more than Andrew Lansley's pretence that GP can control the Health Service?
We have seen Education Secretary Michael Gove sending out King James Bibles with his own introduction to schools, and laying down the law about which cultural events they can attend, and the other week he invoked special powers to sack a London school's governors, against the parents' wishes, and force it to become a business-linked academy whether people like it or not.
Gove issued a compulsory Academy Order, and drafted in an "interim executive board" to run Downhills Primary School in Haringey, north London. The board includes two people from the government's preferred academy sponsor, the Harris Federation, set-up by carpet king Lord Harris of Peckham, a "great friend" of the Prime Minister .
"The board is charged with raising standards and will consult on whether the Academy conversion, with Harris as sponsor, should take place. But Downhills looks almost certain to become the 14th Harris academy after the Coalition used swingeing powers, introduced by Labour, on Thursday".
Ironically it was Harris' carpet shop in Tottenham, Haringey, that went up in flames during the summer riots last year, though the incendiarists are unlikely to have realised the special significance the owner would have for their borough.
Soon after Gove's announcement Lord Harris, chairman of Carpetright, was presented with an outstanding achievement to retail award by David Cameron. Speaking by video link from the United States, Cameron said: "For a long time Lord Harris has been a great supporter and a great friend to me. He's also been a hugely successful retailer with Carpetright, one of the heroes of our economy and of society too.
"The children [at Harris schools] are well behaved, the teachers have authority, there's ambition and high expectation, so much of that can be traced back to the passion of one man.".
Last month Gove denounced protesting protesting parents as "Trots". It is the fourth time the Coalition has used its powers to replace school leaders, for all its talk of encouraging local control.
Last month Downhills' head teacher Leslie Church resigned, despite full backing by the governors and parents, after the school was placed in special measures by Ofsted inspectors, despite signs of improved results.
Haringey council, who will lose control of the school, said the DfE had consistently failed to demonstrate how academy status would lead to improvements in primary schools. "Becoming an academy is ultimately a decision for the school following proper consultation with parents who need to be convinced it is the right solution and not simply told it is. Haringey's primary schools are improving at a faster rate than the country as a whole," it added.
A DfE spokesman said: "Ofsted has found that the school is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and that those responsible for leading, managing and governing the school do not have the capacity to secure the necessary improvement."
Although I've never worked in teaching, a teacher friend in north London was telling me a few years ago about the turmoil at his school as staff uncovered strange practices with the school roll and found the head had set up a business on the side for which the school secretary had been pressured to do work. Just when it was all about to blow the head took off for a higher paid job - with Ofsted. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
But that is by the way, as is the point noted above that Gove and his government are using powers introduced by Labour. All three parties have gone for the Academies idea when the leaders saw a chance of teaming up with friends in big business, and we have not forgotten how Tony Blair enthused over creationists running schools as long as their results looked good. It is after all the Private Finance Initiatives, a Tory idea that Gordon Brown took up, which have given us private profit and public debt and cuts in the NHS before Andrew Lansley's bill even gets started.
The point is this government is using whatever powers it can to impose its will and treating ordinary people with contempt as it transfers power and resources from public to private. If we stick to the old rules and wait we might wake up and find the bodies we elect no longer have much say in anything.