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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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