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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.