Queen of Scott’s: Nigella Lawson arrives for the first day of the trial of her assistants, December 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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Name-dropping in Manhattan, Ukrainian deals and those Nigella pictures

Sue Douglas’s Diary.

Respite from the weather at last. But a cold front of non-meteorological proportions instead . . . an icy-cold wind fluttering across our horizons, needling into the recesses of our memories of an old world order. I sat early morning and late night, motionless in front of my widescreen TV, Sky News on a constant spool of live updates from Kyiv, transfixed by the unravelling drama.

I felt more involved than my journalistic licence usually allows when seismic stories appear from nowhere and threaten to engulf us. Just over a week ago, I had been to dinner at Scott’s in Mayfair. I have a tiny bolt-hole flat around the corner. People tease me that it’s my local café. Other people I work for do not find the bills I put on expenses so amusing. Something always happens at Scott’s. Perhaps the biggest something was one of the most poignant stories of last year, as Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi locked in combat, unaware of John Gordon’s paparazzo lens a matter of feet away. I ran the picture in the Sunday People newspaper the first week of my new job there. But I digress.

I digress into the wonderfully random nature of life. I had just been reappointed as media queen, aka publisher of Sunday Brands at Trinity Mirror, and lots of people held their breath. Not for long. My ambitions were strangled – but didn’t die, and, leaving Trinity Mirror two weeks ago, I am about to rescue my new media baby from its adopted parents.

 

Oysters, champagne, big business

I was dining at Scott’s with a clever and charming Ukrainian businessman, interested in my new media business venture. We were joined by his effervescent boss, Lada Firtash. Lada has quickly become a very dear friend. She is also a sharp businesswoman in her own right. She should not be defined by who she is married to, any more than I ever wanted to be judged by my now ex-husband, Niall Ferguson.

However, as we sat eating oysters and sipping champagne, I lived a little walk-on part of the events unfolding in Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Dmitry Firtash is the husband of Lada. His Wikipedia entry says that he “has become one of the leading investors in the power sector and chemical industry in central and eastern Europe. His . . . companies are present in Ukraine, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Tajikistan, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria and Estonia.” It rattles on about his wealth, his power through his Inter Media TV companies and his extravagant philanthropy, including chunks of Cambridge and the Ukrainian Catholic University. Then it cites some controversy about his implication, never proven, in the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko and mentions his close association with the regime of the fallen leader, Viktor Yanukovych.

Back at home, I turned on the TV again. And there was Tymoshenko, wheelchair-bound, with her signature Heidi hairstyle, released from her prison cell only hours earlier. She was addressing the crowds in measured, almost soothing tones while the president disappeared east to nest with his protector Vladimir Putin.

I called my dear friend Askold Krushel­nycky, who was filing a report from the square for the Sunday Times. It was before dawn there but it was hard to hear what he was shouting against the tumultuous noise. I think it was something like “. . . things are never ever what they seem”.

 

Celluloid sleb fever

The cold winds were blowing when I arrived in New York. Six inches of snow was forecast but only a dusting fell. In the meantime Obama’s froideur about Ukraine resulted in US visa bans and possible economic sanctions against certain Russian and Ukrainian officials implicated in the occupation of Crimea. But the city was really preoccupied with red carpets and Oscar mania.

The cloying reverence of celebrity culture in the US palls, even when you have been a tabloid queen as I have and lived for the colour of Kate Moss’s nail varnish. Much as I enjoyed 12 Years a Slave on the plane, the way CNN practically attempted to own anti-slavery made me gag. The rictus smiles of TV presenters and the shameless obsession with actresses’ clothes and hairstyles is enough to make you long for a war zone.

 

Logophile in New York

The power of the written word: I fell in love as a schoolgirl and the affair only deepened. So, when my daughter Freya, who hitched a weekend in New York with me, dragged me to the Met’s Chinese exhibition “Ink Art”, I got all excited about my Fleet Street days and hot metal. The show is a beautiful snapshot of the vibrancy and life in the shapes and colour of words on parchment and paper – all black and white and splashes of red, a bit like tabloids in the Eighties. I liked the show nearly as much as the Guggenheim’s mesmeric “Italian Futurism”, based on the manifesto Marinetti published in 1909 in Le Figaro, which we also went to. Words as hero, again. It isn’t often that a child can teach a parent so much in half an hour.

 

Where the rich things are

And finally, a glimpse of another Scott’s. I missed the familiar faces and menu of my favourite Mayfair eatery as I took my seat, and my Bellini, at the Cipriani between Lexington and Park Avenues on the Upper East Side. “Can you tell the identity of a tribe (as in rich metropolitan show-offs) by what they eat, or where they eat it?” I wondered. There were seas of corpulent businessmen with waifer-thin younger wives and partners, bedecked in designer kit and, apparently, displaying a great deal of Botox. They all seemed to have the same handbag.

My friends Jacqui Safra, an investor from the Swiss banking family, and the producer Jean Doumanian were indulging me. If I sound like I’m name-dropping, I am. It’s much more fun being in an affluent goldfish bowl at feeding time than it is to stand in the queue at Nando’s with your kids. Jacqui, Jean and I enjoyed the other diners much more than the food. Which I am not sure I would say at Nando’s. Things are never, ever what they seem.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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