Dame Angelina: Jolie delivers her speech at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, London 13 June. Photo: Getty
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Naughty parents, supermarket schooling and Angelina Jolie's campaigning

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

One would like to think that no government will act on the latest proposal from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief schools inspector, that head teachers should have the power to fine “bad parents” who fail to attend parents’ evenings, read to their children or ensure that homework is completed. The fines would fall most heavily on single-parent families and on those in which both adults struggle for an adequate household income from low-wage jobs involving unsocial hours.

But adoption of Wilshaw’s idea would be consistent with the government’s policy of blaming the poor for their plight and generally making their lives a misery. They are, if we believe Michael Gove and other ministers, letting us all down. Thanks to their bad parenting, Britain is slipping down international league tables of educational performance, stunting our potential for economic growth and allowing Asian tigers to forge ahead.

 

Background check

Wilshaw’s comments came as part of a Times series on the “schools revolution”. The series is extended propaganda for Gove, the paper’s former columnist, who, as we are constantly reminded, has a picture of Lenin in his office. His mission is to use education to smash the class system. If state schools do as he tells them – teach lots of facts, make kids do their homework, stamp out “discovery learning” – economic deprivation in childhood will no longer prevent social mobility.

This claim is now made so often that it is worth repeating what the evidence tells us. Schools can indeed make a significant difference to children from all backgrounds. So can other things, such as genes, peer groups and parenting styles. But any study of large numbers of children shows that the single greatest influence on attainment is socio-economic background. Britain, like the US, has high levels of economic inequality. Both countries also have high inequality in educational performance. The two are connected.

The claim that deprivation need not be a barrier to success, while half-true, allows Gove and other Tories to justify doing next to nothing about entrenched poverty and inequality.

 

Inside the basket case

The Times series also includes an interview with Dominic Cummings, Gove’s faithful friend and former adviser, who has acquired a reputation for outspoken eccentricity. On this occasion, he describes David Cameron as bumbling “from one shambles to another”, the Education Department as “a basket case” and Nick Clegg as “a goner”. Yet Cummings has a certain intellectual rigour. He says: “You’ve got to move the [school] system from being a cottage industry to companies that deliver excellence at scale. Supermarkets . . . work because they get very high performance out of mediocre people.”

In other words, whatever Gove intends, the ultimate outcome of his “reforms” won’t be lots of self-governing schools run by little platoons of parents, teachers and social entrepreneurs. It will be schools handed over to a few big private corporations, offering standardised education and squeezing out local suppliers. That’s what’s right for “mediocre people”.

 

War on war

The American actor Angelina Jolie (aka Lara Croft, tomb raider) has been made a dame not because she’s “the world’s most beautiful woman” (all media), nor because our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is apparently besotted with her, but because she campaigns against “sexual violence” in war zones. I do not wish to belittle her work. Rape is deplorable and so is war. Most people agree – except perhaps Tony Blair, though I suppose even he would draw a line at rape. The euphemism “sexual violence” is revealing. A rape-free war is about as much an oxymoron as a non-violent war. Throughout history, soldiers have committed rape. Shouldn’t Jolie simply campaign against war, or against arms sales, even if that annoys important people such as Hague?

 

Parents’ penalty

If England make an early exit from the World Cup, as could well happen after their defeat to Italy, it will be disappointing. Football is among the few sports in which the national team is genuinely national (contrast this with cricket, in which South Africans, West Indians, Australians and so on routinely play for England) and nobody can accuse the players of enjoying a private-school education (same contrast). But if our working-class lads can’t keep up with the foreign competition at the World Cup in Brazil and elsewhere, Gove and Wilshaw must surely act. Shouldn’t parents be fined for reclining in deckchairs instead of playing beach football with their children?

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 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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