Alan White's Olympic diary: Ten reasons the Olympics have been absolutely awesome

The athletes! The facts! The medals! Ian Thorpe! The volunteers!

Conscious I’ve been moaning too much this week; so as not to give a false impression:

1. The opening ceremony

As Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail correctly surmised, this was a work of Marxist propaganda. Those of us familiar with Danny Boyle’s oeuvre have understood his political leanings ever since we heard about his famous homage to centralised work targets, 127 Hours. Mr Boyle’s ceremony was a classic piece of insidious leftism, from its flagrant celebration of the fact Britons receive free health care to its steadfast refusal to re-enact great moments in our foreign policy such as the Battle of Omdurman or the sinking of the Belgrano, both of which would have worked well set to something appropriate like Don’t Look Back In Anger.

Despite these failings on Mr Boyle’s part, he somehow produced a performance that was quirky, heartwarming, witty and exciting.

2. The lure of the obscure

It’s amazing how quickly one can move from a) Not knowing what sport it is, to b) Not understanding the rules, to c) Being really quite engrossed, to d) Swearing at the TV when the British contestant does something wrong.

During yesterday’s trap shooting the entire process took me something like three minutes and thirty-seven seconds, which puts me in Medal Contention (see point six).

3. The athletes are incredible

From the tortured vulnerability of Vicky Pendleton to the folksy, mutton-chopped charm of Wiggo, they’re all just so damn lovable. And to pick an example from yesterday:

What I consider adversity: The fact I had to catch a rail replacement bus service some of last month.

What Gemma Gibbons, silver medal winner in judo, considers adversity:  The death of her mother when she was 17. Her mother had brought Gemma up alone and had taken her, on public transport, to all her judo classes. Gemma later worked as a receptionist to pay the rent, all the while attempting to become a professional athlete.

She was, in terms of this tournament – a no one - ranked 42nd in the world at the start. That’s why I think the shot of her after the semi-final might well end up the defining one of the games, because she’d just laid the smack down on someone from France. Because she embodies the Olympic spirit. And that’s just our girl. Look at the story of the woman who beat her.

4. Politicians proving beyond all doubt they’re weird

Boris getting stuck up a zip wire like a great big toddler in a sling, the Romneyshambles, Aiden Burley’s ill-advised tweets, The Curse of Cameron...where does it end? Politicos have been queuing up to look like Normal People this week, and failing miserably. Jeremy Hunt today claims Locog tricked him into paying £2,400 for four tickets, but the telling suggests he didn’t understand his own organising committee’s website. It would be a big story, but given this is a man who nearly killed a woman with his bell end a few days ago, the take-up hasn’t been huge. Nothing will surprise us.

5. Meet the parents

Is there any sweeter a sight than the parental pride we’ve witnessed at these games? I know I’ve already linked to both these videos, but the parents of Aly Raisman and Chad le Clos deserve to become stars in their own right. I particularly enjoyed the commentators last night exclusively referring to the latter as “The son of Bert le Clos”. More of this please.

6. The languages

Two things, here. First, I love the feeling of being in a crowd and thereby surrounded by the world. At the Table Tennis, it was admittedly an annoying Australian woman who kept cheering on her competitor even though he being destroyed and the rest of the stand was watching a different game, but at the boxing I was near a whole group of excitable Kazakhstanis who were making a thoroughly rousing din, and it’s not often you can say that.

Then there’s the Olympic language of neologisms. “Podium” and “medal” as verbs are rather nasty, it must be said, but one BBC commentator saw a rider fall off a trotting horse and inadvertently claimed they’d “decanted”, which I love.

7. The games staff

We Brits really don’t do this stuff very well, normally. Ever tried engaging a Heathrow border guard in chit-chat? At best you’ll get a forced smile; at worst, or perhaps slightly better, you’re looking at a cavity search.

But the games volunteers I’ve met have been, to a man and woman – wonderful. Who are these 70,000 purple-jacketed lunatics? Why are they doing this? Because they want to? Read the words of this strange creature. Is this really Britain?

And never mind them – let’s talk about the army. Many of us don’t get to meet soldiers all that often, nor hear about them in anything other than a negative context. But the ones I’ve met have been every bit as cheery and charming as the volunteers. This despite spending their down-time in somewhat basic conditions. And the thing that really strikes me, and I expect will next time a sombre mood grips the House of Commons for 30 seconds before the Punch and Judy of PMQs kicks off: most of them seem so very, very young. I don’t care if that makes me sound like Max Hastings.

8. “Now, what I want is facts”

They never cease to amaze, if you’re boring, like me. Ten million litres of water in the Aquatic Centre. 30,000 elephants’ worth (official Locog measurement) of concrete to make the Olympic Park. 150,000 condoms given to the athletes (unsure how many elephants’ worth that is). 1,233km of fabric to make the volunteers’ uniforms. 25,000 loaves of bread for the Olympic Village. 10,000 toilets. I could go on, and if you ask me after I’ve been drinking, I will.

9. The presenters

Claire Balding has earned the plaudits she’s deserved for years. Intelligent, professional, geekishly well-informed yet never boring, partisan but not bombastic, she has been a wonder. Stitch that, AA Gill.

The Linekers, Johnsons and McEnroes are known quantities: like the best British teams we don’t have any stand-out stars, at least half our best performers have been imported from overseas and there’s a vague sense of a horrific calamity round the corner. We gave the world Colemanballs, remember.

The wild card in this mix is Ian Thorpe. Now I know opinion on this has been divided so I think it’s important to be clear where I stand: he’s a wonderful man with fantastic dress sense and he’s made me reconsider my sexuality. I’d like to see him become a regular on the BBC, starting on something like The One Show and eventually progressing to become Director General.

10. Medal rush

Where are we in the medals? Why aren’t we ahead of Kazakhstan yet? Why haven’t we won any medals? Ooh, there’s a medal! And there’s another medal! Oh no, we could have had a medal there too! Now where are we? Still behind South Korea? Want ALL the medals. Why? Don’t ask why! Medals! Must have the medals! What’s that? There’s still two weeks to go? We’re going to have you, China!

Odds and Ends is having a day off.

 

Team GB's Gemma Gibbons wins her judo semi-final. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”