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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.