Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' bid to close Sulivan primary school is a triumph of ideology over evidence

The plan to demolish the award-winning primary to build a free school shows contempt for parents and for children.

Last week in the Commons, I asked Michael Gove  to save Sulivan Primary School in Hammersmith & Fulham from closure. Sulivan is currently rated the 233rd best primary school in the country which comfortably places it in the the top two per cent in England and Wales. The school holds over 300 pupils, from diverse and different social backgrounds, with over 30 different languages spoken. It is a model of an modern inclusive community primary. Recent accolades include a letter from Education minister David Laws praising the school and Boris Johnson placing the school in his "Gold Club list".

Despite all this, the school finds itself threatened with closure by the local Conservative council. One of the school’s few remaining hopes lies with Gove, who could grant Sulivan’s application to become an academy, removing it from the grip of what he calls the "dead hand" of local authorities.

So what was his response when I asked him to save Sulivan? First, he praised Hammersmith & Fulham Council – the enemy of Sulivan. Then he noted that Sulivan is not in my constituency (though some of its pupils live there), but that of Tory MP Greg Hands – whose silence on Sulivan’s fate has been total. Finally, he said I should not deny a good education to others since I had attended an independent school.

Gove’s response is typical of the way he operates, and shows why teachers and parents are losing any respect they had for him. But it is revealing nonetheless.  Firstly, he – like the Conservatives in Hammersmith & Fulham – thinks a good school must be a free school or academy, or an independent. Thus he ignores the evidence and disparages the majority of excellent schools in the country.

Secondly, he prejudges the decision on Sulivan – he will adopt unquestioningly the decision of fellow Tories to close Sulivan, rather than doing his job by considering its application for academy status.

Thirdly, he shows contempt for the hundreds of children, parents, staff and supporters of Sulivan by turning a reasonable request into a bit of silly political sparring.

The Tories’ proposal is to close and demolish Sulivan in order that a Church of England secondary boys’ free school can be built on its site. Officially, the council maintains that no decision has been made but Gove’s letter to me in January rather gave the game away. The Sulivan debate is not, as the Education Secretary would have it, a community versus free school battle with both sides in their trenches. Unlike Gove, the Sulivan campaigners are not prejudiced. They do not attack free schools, church schools, or this school in particular. Indeed Sulivan’s application to remain in business is as an academy is sponsored by the London Diocesan Board for Schools – which, in recognition of its excellence and ethos, wishes to adopt it as a community school in preference to a Church of England school taking its site.

They do, however, object to the personal and political ties between the senior local Tories and some of the free school’s sponsors. But this is something on which the Tories have form. It is only a few years since Peterborough primary – Sulivan’s neighbour – was closed to provide accommodation for a lycee sponsored by the French government. I should declare an interest – I went to Peterborough too.

Hammersmith & Fulham will not use capital to expand community schools despite a shortage of places. New schools are opening across the borough but they must be free schools or academies, even though one of these is already in the top 50 most unequal schools in the country (when eligibility for free school meals among pupils is compared to that in the catchment area) 

The Sulivan case is compelling and is receiving a lot of public attention for one reason only. The Conservatives are trying to close a great school for ideological and partisan reasons. No one should defend that, least of all the Secretary of State for Education.

Andy Slaughter is MP for Hammersmith and shadow justice minister

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear