The Maggie Thatcher effect

Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, is good news for the country -- but not nece

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"Hard work": two words that Australia's new prime minister, Julia Gillard (pictured above left with the governor general of Australia, Quentin Bryce) managed to squeeze into her initial address five times.

Five times! No harm in being clear about things, though it seems fairly unlikely anyone had the country's first female leader pegged as a slacker. In fact, with two biographies of the 48-year-old former deputy PM due out this year -- the same number as appeared about Kevin Rudd in 2007 -- you might suspect that some people saw her rise to power coming.

As far as Australia's Labor Party is concerned, Gillard is A Really Good Thing, more or less: popular with voters and within her party, she also has union backing and she's great at handling the media.

She may not be Australia's strongest politician when it comes to policy -- the less reverential of her two biographers, Christine Wallace, points out that several of the Rudd government's failings fall within Gillard's (extensive) portfolio. And her defence of a 2009 Australian TV show featuring blackface was . . . utterly indefensible.

But there's a general election due in a few months, and within hours of Gillard becoming prime minister, Labor had become the hot tip to win once again. And, casual acceptance of casual racism aside, the woman even appears to have a sense of humour:

At a shopping centre in Hoppers Crossing, I'm handing out stuff. I'm standing next to a board with my photograph on it. This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, looks at me, then turns back to me and says, "Taken on a good day, wasn't it, love?" I said, "And you'd be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?"

In the light of all this, it seems almost a shame to come back to Gillard's woman-ness. But I'm going to do it anyway. Because, from a British perspective, it's interesting how much she has in common with our Labour Party's former deputy, now acting, leader, Harriet Harman, and how completely differently Harman is treated.

Both come from legal backgrounds, hold multiple political posts, have strong union connections, speak with distinctive voices and are always politically "on". But while Gillard is popular and respected, Harman is often, very unfairly, spoken of as hectoring, dowdy and not very bright. Even before Gordon Brown's departure, her chances of becoming Labour leader were the same as the number of forthcoming Harman biographies: zero.

Politically, there's a glaring difference between Gillard and Harman. One has fought consistently for a feminist agenda, while the other has approached her political career with individualistic ambition. Not to do Gillard down -- she's very good at her job and she deserves her success -- but her premiership isn't necessarily any more of a great lunge forward for women than Margaret Thatcher's was thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, Harman's drive to push issues such as rape laws and the Equality Bill into the spotlight has undoubtedly been good for British women -- and a huge contibuting factor to her unlovely public image.

Gillard's success is still a symbolic step forward, signalling that the presence of women in Australian politics has become normal. And it looks likely to be good news for the country as a whole. But it's not as if Australian women now have a Harman at the top to look out for their interests.

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The SATs strike: why parents are taking their children out of school to protest against exams

Parents are keeping their children away from school to highlight the dangers of “over testing” young pupils.

My heart is beating fast and I feel sick. I force myself to eat some chocolate because someone said it might help. I take a deep breath and open the door…

The hall is silent except for the occasional cough and the shuffling of chairs. The stench of nervous sweat lingers in the air.

“Turn over your papers, you may begin.”

I look at the clock and I am filled with panic. I feel like I might pass out. I pick up my pen but my palms are so sweaty it is hard to grip it properly. I want to cry. I want to scream, and I really need the toilet.

This was how I felt before every GCSE exam I took. I was 16. This was also how I felt before taking my driving test, aged 22, and my journalism training (NCTJ) exams when I was 24.

Being tested makes most of us feel anxious. After all, we have just one chance to get stuff right. To remember everything we have learned in a short space of time. To recall facts and figures under pressure; to avoid failure.

Even the most academic of adults can find being in an exam situation stressful, so it’s not hard to imagine how a young child about to sit their Year 2 SATs must feel.

Today thousands of parents are keeping their kids off school in protest at these tough new national tests. They are risking fines, prosecution and possible jail time for breach of government rules. By yesterday morning, more than 37,000 people had signed a petition backing the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign and I was one of them.

I have a daughter in reception class who will be just six years old when she sits her SATs. These little ones are barely out of pull-up pants and now they are expected to take formal exams! What next? Babies taught while they are in the womb? Toddlers sitting spelling tests?

Infants have fragile self-esteem. A blow to their confidence at such an impressionable age can affect them way into adulthood. We need to build them up not tear them down. We need to ensure they enjoy school, not dread it. Anxiety and fear are not conducive to learning. It is like throwing books at their heads as a way of teaching them to read. It will not work. They are not machines. They need to want to learn.

When did we stop treating children like children? Maybe David Cameron would be happier if we just stopped reproducing all together. After all, what use to the economy are these pesky kids with their tiny brains and individual emotional needs? Running around all happy and carefree, selfishly enjoying their childhood without any regard to government statistics or national targets.

Year 2 SATs, along with proposals for a longer school day and calls for baseline reception assessments (thankfully now dropped) are just further proof that the government do not have our children’s best interests at heart. It also shows a distinct lack of common sense. It doesn’t take a PhD in education to comprehend that a child is far more likely to thrive in a calm, supportive and enjoyable environment. Learning should be fun. The value in learning through play seems to be largely underestimated.

The UK already has a far lower school starting age than many other countries, and in my opinion, we are already forcing them into a formal learning environment way too soon.

With mental health illness rates among British children already on the rise, it is about time our kids were put first. The government needs to stop “throwing books at heads” and start listening to teachers and parents about what is best for the children.

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, mother-of-two and creator of stolensleep.com, a humorous antithesis to baby advice.