An Afghan banana seller in Jalalabad, 2013. Each of the fruit contains more than the RDA of sugar. (Photo: Getty)
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Getting into state school Gove-style, milking the dairy industry and going bananas about sugar

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

Michael Gove has won praise for sending his ten-year-old daughter to Grey Coat Hospital, a girls’ comprehensive in Westminster. It is refreshing that a Tory education secretary has opted for a multi-ethnic urban school (nearly 30 per cent of its pupils don’t have English as their first language) and that his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, has written about “the miracle of our state education system . . . [which] welcomes all-comers”. Vine admits that “snobbery” (her word) plays a part when parents choose fee-charging schools. They are “paying for their child to mix with the right kind of kids”.

While giving the Goves due credit, we should note that they aren’t exactly sending their child to the neighbourhood comprehensive. She will travel more than five miles from their home in west London, bypassing several other comprehensives rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.

More important, you need nifty footwork to get your child into Grey Coat. It is not only a Church of England school but also a specialist language school, which admits 10 per cent of its children after an “aptitude” test. It is hugely oversubscribed, with more than six applicants for each place, and the criteria for choosing the lucky ones are exceedingly complex.

More than two-thirds of places are reserved for Christian applicants who have attended church with their family weekly for five years. The child must also acquire “points” from baptism, confirmation, Sunday school attendance and “a role in public worship”. Parents, too, must accumulate points from, say, “elected office in the church” and “practical involvement”.

In November, the schools adjudicator deemed these arrangements neither open nor fair as required by the government’s
admissions code. Working hours or childcare difficulties prevent some families, especially single parents, from participating in church activities, the adjudicator ruled. Did Gove take advantage of an admissions process that breaches his department’s rules?

Following Shephard

While we’re about it, it isn’t true that Gove is the first Tory education secretary to send a child to a state secondary. Gillian Shephard, in office from 1994 to 1997, sent two sons (actually stepsons, but their mother died young and Shephard raised them from infancy) to state schools. But Shephard is a woman, so I suppose she doesn’t count.

Dear dairy

Tesco’s latest cut in the price of milk – it will sell four pints for £1 – has led to another spate of stories about the imminent collapse of the British dairy industry. I do not know enough about the economics of farming to judge the veracity of these reports. I do know that, all my adult life, people have complained about things that, though the complainants do not realise it, are the result of successive (mostly
Tory) governments trying to make the British economy more “competitive”.

Rock-bottom milk prices putting farmers out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1994 of the Milk Marketing Board, which once set prices according to production costs. Small, independent retailers going out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1964 of resale price maintenance (RPM); RPM allowed producers to fix the prices at which their goods were sold. Unhelpful and ignorant sales assistants? Blame the end of RPM again, because retailers now compete on price, not on personal service. The country has repeatedly voted for more capitalism. It should now grin and bear it.

Sugar goes bananas

Is milk good for us? Who knows? Following advice on what to eat has as many ups and downs as following the England cricket team. Keep sugar to a minimum, we are told. Fine, many of us already call it “white death”. Now the World Health Organisation says we should aim to limit it to six teaspoons a day. A banana contains seven teaspoons, the WHO adds. I deduce that I should never eat a banana or, if I do, I should eat half, saving the other half for another day. On either day, I should take care not to eat an orange, which contains four teaspoons. Can that be right?

Tell me Hawaii

Sir Tim Rice seems baffled by the failure of his latest musical, musing that people don’t want new songs, only old ones repackaged. Reluctant to reject a production because it lacks popular appeal, I hastened to buy tickets before From Here to Eternity closes at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. The music was unmemorable, the set colourless (though it’s supposed to represent Hawaii, a tropical island), the choreography ragged, the historical context (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) barely evident. Sometimes, the popular verdict is spot on. Rice should try writing better shows.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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

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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.