The Write Time

I turned 60 last August. Heading for 61. People my age are turning up dead in the media. They always have but now perhaps I notice more often. I have fewer teeth and more expensive dentures. My lapses of memory are more frustrating and worrying. My hair is either greying fast or gone. Sometimes small injuries don’t heal as quickly. Bruises stay longer. It sometimes takes a lot of energy to cross to the sunny side of the street. Sometimes the woman I love takes me by the elbow and guides me there.

I still feel desire: to nurture the vessels of my genes (life’s purpose), to love, to be loved, to communicate, to make love, to lessen my pain and the pain of others, to live. To write. But sometimes I can feel time shortening. Just sometimes.

I can remember being a very small baby and the idea of a day, a week being a long time. A year was an age; the time until my next birthday. And a year is actually the same length now. The same number of days, hours, minutes. Time not to be wasted worrying about being old or to be wasted worrying at all, even if the ongoing struggle to control the mind that is doing the worrying can be a worry…

At the same time a second, a minute, hour or day are a lifetime for some. They might be all that is left of my lifetime. I can either be senselessly worried senseless about dying or I can get on with living as much as possible. This in turn means becoming well and fitter and staying productive, maybe more productive than ever before. There are projects in all directions.

Just as a day is as long as it was when I was a child, so life has always been as precarious. I can’t deny I’m heading for 61 and that deterioration is evident but I can’t deny either that it’s amazing to have existed as the pinnacle of evolution – a self-aware and conscious human –  at all. It’s amazing to have survived this long and to have lived in a country not plagued by war, disease, famine or – er – plague in that lifetime.

All this means I have opportunities even if in the best scenario of another 40 years plus the deteriorations of ageing will take increasing effect. Heading towards 61 I have a window that, although not as wide as it was at 21, can be exploited with the knowledge, understanding and empathy that those 61 years of awareness bring. I just need the energy.

I have noticed that the expectations of age are something that other people – especially young people – seem to put on one. For some reason I have a Senior Citizen’s Railcard and I get my medication free. There are many negatives to slowly increasing frailty but there is also the increased authority. It might be that I have somethings to say and some people who might listen. So I had better tell them. Soon.

Once I found it hard to begin to write and sometimes couldn’t find anything to write about unless I was seeking relief from my own unhappiness (unhappiness is another frustrating waste of time…). Sometimes I was afraid to write because there was only one thing to write about really, And writing about it would blow my life even further apart. These days there are almost too many things to tell you; too many stories and lessons. And nothing to stop me.

Still sometimes I am just guiltily tired and want to sleep at times when I should be in or out and about doing, doing, doing. Is that allowed? But increasingly now, once my mind is focussed on writing, the ideas and concepts to be explored come in to my head as suddenly and unexpectedly as birds flying over the fence and into my garden. I might be focussed on photographing this flower when suddenly there is a robin or blue-tit or blackbird or jay hopping about on the lawn or hanging from the bird-feeder. I need to photograph them too but not only are they beautiful distractions, they are gone by the time I have time to turn and refocus my camera. Sometimes there are squirrels…

I am breaking one of Hemmingway’s rules of writing: when it begins to flow and the ideas come quickly, stop. Then the idea you stop with will still be there and getting going will be easier next time. Writing this time has – oops there was a magpie! – taught me that it might be important to keep a notebook and pencil beside the keyboard to catch and hold the tits and sparrows that appear from the undergrowth. The tits and sparrows are what I might be writing and blogging about next time or the time after that.

Being 61 then – the general probability of decline suggests – might be a great time to write, an important time to write, an urgent time to write before the wisdom goes cold, before the climate gets too hot, before the sea levels rise too high, before the coral is all dead, before the cod is all gone, before the country is overcome by the angry hungry from the south, before the revolution, before the next plague, before a bee is a creature from the past, before it’s your turn to be nearly 61.

So, later, I will get on with it. In the meantime duty calls.

 

 

 

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The Balcony People.

It has been a while since I blogged. Almost too much has happened. I have been to Turkey for the day – four aeroplanes, a very fast BMW, a ferry across the bay of Izmir and back home at 2am the next morning with AN IDEA. One that I am not going to tell you about.

Since then there has been a garden party where I met the new Mayor from the office next door, a new tyre, days at the office and days at home, a Grandparent’s Day at Manby Lodge School, an extraction and new dentures I can’t wear yet, sunburn and a soaking, a bank holiday, an attempt at the Jubilee Pageant and the Surrey Country Show . Life has been very, very busy and I havn’t given the blog the priority I need to. Events, events, events. Maybe I’ll call it research. At the same time I havn’t used Twitter or Facebook as often either. There have been fewer photographs taken. Perhaps I’ve been in a little downswing, what with the pain from the extraction and the renewed popularity of the Monarchy. Time now for an upswing and tonight I can feel it.

It wasn’t just me though. The major topic on the “Connexions Services Need To Unite And Fight” Facebook page during this peculiar period of hiatus seems to have been the question of whether we should allow users to post adverts to recruit other people to Multi-Level Marketing Schemes. Not exciting but the beginning of a theme that has emerged over the Jubilee weekend. A sort of “this is what we’ve come to” theme:-

  • Skilled, experienced, graduate professionals being recruited as into someone’s Downstream sales team. That’s the sales team whose members rarely make money unless they also recruit their own Downstream sales team (or mugs as we used to call them) to sell the slightly overpriced goo to their acquaintances. Sooner or later you run out of friends, work colleagues, neighbours or fellow church members. I remember someone trying to sell me Canada Life Insurance when I worked at The Biggest Shoe Shop in the World. I still had to be dead to collect. Didn’t seem sensible at 20 years old. Is this what we’ve come to?
  • The Queen waving to a parade of old boats. The weather didn’t co-operate and I’m convinced Phillip said “Bugger this” the next morning and booked himself in for a course of antibiotics to flush away when no-one was looking. A sort of Royal sickie so he didn’t have to attend a Jubilee concert three-quarters full of naff has-beens. (They know who they are but if they are offended I’ll tell them they were in the other quarter). Is this what we’ve come to.

Daughter Number One is in the History Business and wanted to see some so we went to the River. We met at the Tate Modern Cafe (where they don’t seem to use butter and put toast instead of fried bread on your Full English) with Daughter Number Two and Son Number One at 10am. We took up a great position on a slight rise upstream of the Wobbly Bridge That No Longer Wobbles. It was cold and wet and already there was no paper in the Portaloo. Son Number One was on pretty good form. We watched the artists set up their weasels (private family joke) on the bridge. Daughter Number Two didn’t really want to get any colder or wetter. My absence of teeth was hurting and I really did feel quite alarmed at the rapid build-up of Idiots behind us.

We were too early. It was already midday and it looked like it would be another 5 hours before we might see someone waving not drowning. A man should never be where a man does not belong. Maybe it was the overdose of Nurofen Plus but I felt really weird.  I made a decision to be really assertive (not aggressive) and honest and..walk back to Waterloo. The Offspring were concerned about me but off I trudged past more Idiots. More flooded off the train I boarded at Waterloo. More waited at stations I passed on the way home. These people have the Vote.

I felt I had let the Offspring down. As I entered my home Queenie was just climbing into her first boat. I’d made the right decision.

I phoned The History Daughter later to be told The Offspring had watched it on TV and that it had been a disappointment: less colour, more rain, bigger gaps between the types of craft than in the Canaletto that had inspired us to go and eat at the Tate Modern. Health and Safety and unpaid security staff.

The Balcony obviously needs a bit of scaffolding if it wouldn’t hold the rest of the family. William and Katherine were so worried they appear to have been dieting heavily for the last few weeks. For some reason that will upset those who would like to think it was time we stopped going on about the War they sent a flypast of Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster. Queenie became more animated than we’d seen her all day; smiling and pointing the machines out to the crowd. Merlin’s do make a wonderful sound. The RAF sent the Red Arrows for a quick whiz-past and we all had tea. Where are all the Eurofighters we are paying for?

My position on the monarchy might surprise you. I’m not as rabid and tasteless a republican as some of the groups I subscribe to on Facebook. If we are going to have a Monarchy we might as well have the Balcony People as anyone else. Mostly Harmless and less expensive than they used to be, I believe. My father was a Grenadier Guardsman. Some of it rubs off.

The Balcony scene was interesting. Here were Elizabeth II, Charles (who seems more generally competent and maybe likeable these days), Camilla (who seems to have been Forgiven), the aforementioned Thin White Duke and Duchess and The Boy Who Doesn’t Resemble His Father Or Grandfather But Whom We Like The Best. A good few years of monarchy to come right there then.

In these times of global terrorism I half-expect an outrage at every major public event and imagine the spooks and other people who hold up the umbrella the rest of us live under must be very busy right now. Well done whoever you are. Do keep it up!

Maybe there were so few on the balcony because they didn’t want to risk having the entire Royal Family wiped out by one Rocket Propelled Grenade launched from a hotdog stall in St James’s Park. Maybe someone is keeping their powder dry for the Olympics. Paranoia is a terrible thing.

It is what we’ve come to. Let’s go somewhere else.

School Funding: Stumbling Towards A Fairer System? Or Just Stumbling?

“Next Steps Towards A Fairer System” could have been the title of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s old manifesto because that’s what I wanted then too. Gove’s document will probably be more widely read (although less widely red…) but this strange and convoluted comparison does raise the question “Fair to who?” or “In whose interest?”. As usual the devil is in the detail. (Just as he was in the old manifesto…).

One of the very first questions I was asked to address when I was studying politics at university was “Does the Common Good Exist?” This was an invitation to look beneath the surface of policies and “economic realities” to perceive the class interests that might be promoted by any given policy.

So, School Funding Reform then. No politics there…

Are the proposals any good? Aside from being suspected as an attempt to divide learners currently in the SEN community between those whose special needs might arise from social disadvantage, less effective parenting or poor teaching in overfull classes (“High incidence low needs” – currently those on School Action or School Action Plus, apparently the undeserving poor) from those with needs arising from very severe and complex or otherwise undeniable disabilities and conditions (Low incidence high needs – those currently  Statemented or seemingly the deserving poor)? The answer must be maybe, for some, if everything falls into place. And that’s a very big IF.

Will they bring fairness for children with special educational needs? Will they keep parents and local authorities out of the High Court? Will they promote the development of appropriate new local educational provision? Will it be easier to find Further Education provision for students with learning difficulties and disabilities? Will they bring an end to post-code lotteries? Are they the best way of achieving those ends? Are they enough?

As always Mr Gove wants: “a system where taxpayers’ money intended for education goes directly to those schools responsible for delivering it” (read removed from any local democratic control through those pesky – expensive – professionals in the local education authorities)… “a system where good, popular schools find it easier to expand in response to demand from parents” (read a system the cynic would say is quietly fixed so sparkly new Academies with all their sparkly new funding opportunities can expand). At the same time the proposals will “maintain and improve the arrangements for equivalent and consistent funding between maintained schools and Academies. Hmmm!

The BIG Thing with evolution is that those most fit for the environment survive and reproduce. It’s an untidy environment. Evolution works. Respect it. This Government of the inevitably inexperienced and inexpert took one big lesson from Tony Blair: His one regret was that he didn’t change more in the first two years. He was too cautious (and much else). The inexpert rush in and change an evolved system at their peril. Look what happened to Connexions. And youth unemployment. Once again they threaten to disrupt locally evolved systems – and this time with a sort of genetically engineered system they want to localise decision-making.

The new funding proposal as it is to apply in all sectors apart from public schools seem to be based upon a “place plus” structure. All providers (including special schools and independent specialist colleges) will get basic funding of so much a place. On top of this “Core Funding” (Element  1) there will be “Additional Support Funding” (Element 2), a budget allocated to providers to provide additional funding for high needs pupils. Both these budgets will be directly under the control of the Head. “Top-Up Funding” (Element 3) to meet the needs of an individual high needs learner, based on their “assessed needs”. Element 3 will be a notional budget distributed to local authorities so they can commission provision and provide top-up funding to providers. The “assessed need” are likely to be those recognised as a result of the combined Health and Education assessment proposed in the Sarah Tether’s SEN Green Paper. So, the theory is that the funding – especially the individually commissioned Element 3 – will follow the learner from the early years to age 25, with no stops on the way.

For the learners I work with – mainly those with low incidence high needs – this all sounds very good indeed. I can’t help wondering if Mr Gove has actually read the document he’s written a Foreword to.  Schools and colleges will know how much funding they’ve got to spend on the children with special needs they might usually expect to accommodate. Local authorities will know how much they can spend on special provision or with existing  mainstream providers to get them to accept high needs students they don’t usually expect to accommodate and how much they can use to encourage the creation of new provision. Simples. But then this stuff won’t be happening in a vacuum…

It’s the policies elsewhere – outside the book – that really worry me. The expectation that teachers can teach the undeserving poor – the large mixed ability classes with those high incidence low needs pupils – without adequately paid learning support assistants, the idea that offering parents £100 parenting vouchers in Boots will somehow encourage the “responsible”, skilled parenting previously supported in SureStart Centres, the mistaken belief that a terminally reorganised Health Service will have the capacity to co-operate with cut-to-the-bone – sorry, “efficient”, local authority SEN departments to produce the new assessments, the idea that the software and infrastructure exists to give accurate predictions of numbers of learners, the likelihood that the pressure on local authorities not to provide too many statements will become pressure not to produce too many assessments, the increasing tendency of FE colleges to cautiously refuse a place to a student with SEN in case they get sued under the Equality Act when a placement falls down, the stupidity of government in trashing the careers of so many careers advisers in April when they will be needed in September etc. etc., rant rant…

Even for those learners with high needs, it is the amount in that notional budget that worries me. That and how individual local authorities will manage their budget. Inner city boroughs can count all they like but children with special educational needs are not parcels. They don’t ride on conveyor belts and arrive at predicted times in quality-assured condition. Sometimes they are born in the borough, sometimes they arrive at 16 or – worse – 17, sometimes they improve, sometimes their condition degenerates, sometimes their parents speak English, sometimes they don’t. The local authority will plan the use of its notional budget as carefully as it can. It will keep some back for contingencies and thus risk underspending on someone and still get it wrong. The budget is notional but if they ask for more they’ll find its all gone to the bankers or the replacement for Trident. Damn those Iranian North Koreans…

Sometimes, however you draw the system, it is all about the money. And we’ll be able to judge our government and our society by how much there is for these children.

Here’s a wager for you. I bet you all three funding Elements combined for any child with SEN will always cost less than the fees at Eton . The devil is in the detail.

The Weybridge Contradiction: A Tale of Three Schools

Regular readers will have gathered that I live in Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond’s constituency. This week his local Tories found themselves in an embarrassing position. His colleague Michael Gove has, as we know, an enthusiasm for Academies (and probably for Grammar Schools). It seems that he has made a large sum of money available for them to bid for if they have a wish to expand but in Surrey (where they argue that they run a tight ship) this has run absolutely counter to their “Localism” agenda.

Weybridge has two excellent small local community infant schools – Manby Lodge and Oatlands – that have the enthusiastic support of their pupils’ parents. The expansion plans of the local Academy are about expanding down the age range to offer an extra 120 infant start places in Weybridge, making one big unhappy “straight through school”. Unless you all move to Weybridge and start having babies (actually not a bad idea Ellie and Lucie…) this would mean the rapid closure of the two existing community schools. You can follow the main bones of the debate by following this link.

As The Little Emperor attends one of the community schools, his Grandma and I attended this meeting to join with parents and others in learning more and opposing the Academy expansion plans. It was fascinating. Some parents, I know, are afraid to show up at such meetings or put their names to a petition opposing the Academy’s expansion plans because they fear that they will be refused the option of a place at the Academy when they are old enough. It is easy to live in fear when your child’s education is at stake. Academies are pretty much a law unto themselves so this is scary and sad but not surprising.

I should have guessed something significant was happening when the big public car park behind the library was absolutely stuffed. I had to park in the Library staff car park to a cheery wave from on of the intelligent, properly qualified and experienced professional staff).

Weybridge Hall was absolutely full, with even the balcony occupied.

Politicians from Labour and Conservative parties were up the front in their suits and various appropriately coloured ties opposing the expansion plans to applause, along with an excellent official from the education authority who gave the basic facts and explained that the authority could do nothing about the plans, over which they are not consulted and which go directly to Michael Gove’s Education Department. There were at least three Conservative councillors. One with a beard he borrowed from Colonel Sanders.

The Lib Dems were represented by someone piping up – albeit very informed and very articulate – from the back. The Labour politician who was chairing the meeting asked that Politics (note the capital P) be kept out of it…

And I really tried for 30 seconds.

But having asked where Phillip Hammond MP was when so many of his constituents were so clearly upset (he already had a prior appointment and defending the nation [presumably including my porch] apparently takes precedence – huh!), I proceeded to express sympathy with the Tory politicians because here they were with a hall bursting with articulate voters applauding their expressed opposition to the Tory government’s policy.

Lots of other people spoke up. Lots of outraged parents, ex-pupils, school governors spoke up. Local residents were concerned about child safety and traffic (not always in that order). A brave solitary governor (spy?) from the predatory Academy – who took lost of notes – explained that his fellow governors had only been asked to agree that the Head should explore the option of an expansion and that there wasn’t actually a plan at all…until he had to admit that a proposal had gone to the Education Secretary.

It is not just these schools or education itself at issue here. The meeting and the discomfort of the Weybridge Conservative councillors illustrate the contradiction that seems to be at the heart of Conservative ideology.

There seems to be a localism agenda for empowering local citizens (Tory committees for the defence of the revolution?) to take over and attempt to run public services cheaper than the professionally qualified and experienced staff and a complete absence of democratic control wherever Tory ideology might be opposed by the majority.

I might be wrong but that was certainly the impression made on me and many others at the meeting. There are the – admittedly strange and sometimes pink faced – local Tories who give up their time to defend and advance the interests of their constituents and also the iron fisted ministers who appear to be making deals with everyone from Murdock to Google to advance the interests of a very small and immensely monied class. No wonder the locals are embarrassed.

I suspect these odd-looking locals wouldn’t recognise a contradiction if it fell on them…

The meeting ended with the information that the first half of the ext Governor’s meeting at Cleves Academy is open to the public. Many expressed a desire to go and speak to the head. I imagined a mob carrying torches and pitchforks. Others – including me – suggested that Cleves governors should move “no confidence” in their head teacher because their expansion plan has been so mishandled and has cause so  much distress to the parents of young children in Weybridge and so much embarrassment to the people who should be the Academy’s political allies.

After all, all the parents want is the parental choice that David Cameron once made a priority. It seems now in Weybridge you will have any infants school you choose as long as it is Cleves Academy. And that can’t be right.

As the hall emptied I found an angry parent had left behind a JP Morgan Asset Management corporate umbrella. This as Weybridge after all. But Weybridge is angry and and someone should listen.

From Hertfordshire to Tooting

This week (so far) has taken me from the town to the country, from a public school to the hearing impaired unit of an inner city comprehensive, from working to keep a boy with Aspergers Syndrome in school and out of the hands of pushers to trying to find a social worker for the twenty-year-old physically disabled, deaf-mute, French sign language using, single mother of a child of three from the Congo living in a tiny flat with her mother and sister (and child). From trying to get one more filing cabinet to writing a funding application and Section 139a assessment to get a 19 year old boy with profound and multiple learning disabilities to a specialist college. It keeps me busy.

I’m not sure under the new arrangements which of these tasks are the duties of the local authority that employs me, the schools the young people attend (or would like to) or even whether I will be employed to do this much longer. But if I weren’t, who would?

The government has completely disrupted my profession. It has replaced a potentially co-ordinated and better managed “Connexions Service” working through a network of community and school- and college-level services (a service capable of reform it should be stressed) with a completely wasteful hotchpotch of Departmental, school and council responsibilities and a “market-place” of box-ticking private companies happy to proclaim that customer is always right even when the customer is plainly wrong or stupid if the customer is paying.

Before the election David Cameron spoke of respecting professionals, setting them free from artificial targets and allowing them to form and lead mutuals. Fantastic. So far I’ve seen my fellow professionals being set free through redundancy to seek a different profession and at least one “education services” company cynically mutualising itself the better to win bids from Cameron’s government.

I think most professionals know that the efficient matching and placing of informed people within a dynamic modern economy is a strategic, national priority. They recognise that we need a strongly managed national careers service that offers people of all ages and abilities the challenge of professional, impartial, independent, face-to-face all-age careers guidance backed by a great website and call-centre not replaced by them. Any party that has the vision and intelligence to understand that and to invest in such a service might get my vote.

A Family Party On The Edge of Civilisation

It is a sunny fresh Saturday morning, even here in Walton Leisure Centre where Heather is selling books to passing gymnasts and swimmers. The coffee shop manager has three kids and two jobs. She is not quite at her best this morning. It has been an exhausting week for everyone. This will be a long blog entry. I’ve been working, listening and watching not just drinking and sleeping…

My Dad used to ride a bike around Westminster as a messenger for Conservative Central Office during the Heath Government. His political conclusion from this and other experiences was that the country was best run by the Tories with a very strong, inquisitorial, challenging Labour Opposition.  We used to argue like any working-class Tory and his teenage socialist hippie son but now I find myself wishing the country was in just that position as maybe some kind of improvement over the messy incompetence we are splashing about in on all sides. I also wish Mr Altzheimer hadn’t knocked Dad off his bike and ridden off with it.

In 1973 I bestrode the stage of the Colwyn Bay Theatre for four nights as a new, young, enthusiastic member of the Colwyn Abbey Players as a cuckolding dentist in a medley of Alan Ayckbourn sketches with a performance that the critic from the North Wales Weekly News described as “barely competent” (It’s OK I’m over it now). Ed Milliband bestrides the Political Theatre stage to similar acclaim. People come and applaud at the end of the play because it was well written, some of the other actors are quite good and they are very bored with the black and white “Austerity” documentary playing endlessly at the Gaumont down the road in Llandudno. Tickets are sold but there is muttering in the theatre bar and the young would-be star is blanked back-stage. The electorate swept the Tories and their orange labadoodles out of Town Halls in reaction to the incompetence of the Coalition and in spite of the incompetence of Milliband. I left the Abbey Players and both they and I moved on to better things. Labour needs a Real Star for The Next Time.

The fading Livingstone’s predictable failure in London should be a very sharp lesson: with Milliband as leader Labour won’t win the next election, even if Cameron loses it. With you, me or almost anyone else at the top of the bill they might win. I’m sure he’s a nice man though.

Globally the Great Economic Experiment has become more interesting .

A “socialist” France (how socialist it will be we’ve yet to learn) will seek a sort of hopeful, Keynesian, Nouveau Deal, growth-led route out of the depression of recession to set running alongside the British public service cuts-led route that seems to be based upon the increasingly obviously mistaken belief that the sainted private sector will take up the challenge to provide the services and paid jobs that will allow people to spend on their credit cards again and get the whole bloated illusion of capitalism off the ground…again. If only UK wages and pensions can be depressed enough to make investment attractive enough in competition with the Chinese, Indians and soon-to-be desperately poor and desperate for jobs Greeks. Let’s see who gets out of recession first. The French? or the UK? Where would you invest? In people with hope or in people without hope? Either option means working people accepting – and one way or another paying for – a “reality” they did not create and need not accept.

The extraordinary people of Greece have not accepted the Poverty Is Inevitable option and have voted; expressing their anger at having been told the crisis is all their fault and at the same time distrust and confusion in the absence of any clear political alternative. Recently unified (remember?) and energised Germany, who might (perhaps embarrassingly) have been quietly achieving dominance in an increasingly politically unified Europe (a kind of bloodless 4th Reich?) now seems increasingly willing to let Greece leave the Euro if those unreasonable Greek voters insist upon having decent schools and a health service. The Greeks are, when you think about it, further down the road of Prosperity Through Impoverishment than the Tories can yet confess they are about to lead the UK.

Sadly the various Greek fascist parties have become dangerous again as Greek voters (this time including the ignorant and angry searching for scapegoats) get desperate enough to vote. In the UK the Nasty UKIP offer populist, petit-bourgeois, free-small-business, cut-red-tape (read workers’ rights), foreigner-blaming, solutions in a relatively small way so far.

Meanwhile Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail attacks Cameron for not being a Conservative and not using the Queen’s Speech to pledge still deeper cuts to public services so we have enough cash available to shore up a couple of the banks that might be overexposed in the Eurozone. Simon, what if we just said “Bollocks!” to that. Maybe a new spectre should be haunting Europe…

Obama has begun his campaign for a second term with speeches from a moral ground considerably higher, more competent and more intelligent than that scrapped over by the collection of bizarre Republican personal grooming models that oppose him.

China’s economic miracle/threat has faltered a little because people in the West can’t afford to buy stuff even at their prices. Russian generals threatened pre-emptive action if the USA and NATO pushed ahead with the deployment of anti-missile technology in Poland (designed to stop any stupidity from Iran we are told) whilst Putin was sworn in (again) and blessed (again)  and continued to back the Wrong Side in an Arab Spring after which only the truly courageous and lucky look like seeing Summer.

The world is not without hope, even if it looks more disgusting and disturbing the closer you look (especially around Rochdale). We do our best to make our way in it. Before it gets right down to you or me it gets down to families and here, a little closer to the abyss at the edge of Civilisation families must strengthen and enrich themselves as the secure and loving home from which we venture out into the wasteland that is being created by a capitalism that looks like it is running out of wheezes. We might not be able to vote with any meaning but we can do that.

Stick together out there and bring something to the party. We did. My son William was 21 on Wednesday. Together we recommend Bluebeckers ribs followed by chocolate cake with candles on.

I have recovered from The Swarm at Thorpe Park, which is best visited on a rainy day it turns out…

Tripping over on the way to an Apprenticeship

I try to introduce and use the apprenticeships.org.uk website with pupils in schools. It can be a nightmare. Schools are busy places, pupils of 15 or 16 can come from a wide range of backgrounds but often have short attention spans when it comes to websites that are not up to the slick standards of social networking sites (the sites they are not allowed to access in schools). If a site has too many barriers they walk away.

Apprenticeships are one of the major options for young people about to leave school at the end of Year 11. Why must the website be so hard to use with them?

My main criticisms of the website begin with the organisation’s seeming inability to respond to criticisms! I know they have heard all that follows before because I’ve been to conferences and presentations over the last year or so when they have sought – and been given – this same feedback. And nothing has happened. Maybe if enough LinkedIn members respond they might listen and act. I know that – like voting – if LinkedIn ever changed anything they’d ban it but lets try…

1. Crucially, information about wages, hours, qualifications sought and to be gained are all hidden behind the frustrating (see below) process of registration and signing in. It’s difficult to incentivise teenagers to continue without this basic information up front. It shouldn’t be difficult to get this right. (After all, the old vacancy cards in careers and Connexions centres provided all this information minus the employers name and did motivate the young person to speak to an adviser to find out more).

2. Even if we get beyond problem one (above) we find the process of registration a real hurdle. Bear in mind that this is a website the pupil will not use on a daily basis. Coming up with a user name is not always too difficult (although you’d be surprised). The password is another matter. The site asks for a “capital letter, a number and a special character” combination. Now I understand the argument that this guards against identity theft etc. but this requirement actually undermines security by not allowing the young person to use a password they already know or might remember and they end up writing it down on a piece of paper in their pocket. If they can be bothered and if they know that a “special character” doesn’t mean Thor or Captain America…

3. Should they overcome barriers 1 and 2 they find that they have to enter their email address. Fine and perfectly reasonable for the professionals and adults who operate the site but a real problem if they have – as most do – a Hotmail or Facebook account that they cannot access on school computers!

So having done my best to sell the Apprenticeship concept to them using my log-in and then spent a long time – if the bell doesn’t ring for the next lesson – helping them to set up an account, the entire “sales” process falls before “closure” when I have to rely on them going home after school, not losing the piece of paper with their over-complicated password on and remembering to log in to their hotmail account BEFORE THEY EVEN SEE THE PAY, HOURS OR QUALIFICATIONS THEY NEED. Next time I see them, a day or week later, they have usually forgotten the username, password and havn’t visited the site again anyway.

It is much easier for them to apply to college. The information they need is right there. They know the course will be there in September when they need it. They can apply on-line on the same website.

I know young people – like their careers advisers – can be frustrating and are not always their own best friend but the apprenticeship.org.uk website should be designed with those facts in mind. What do other people who work with real young people in schools and colleges think? Is it just me?

Government by the villagers of Sandford.

The BBC tells me that Maths as taught in schools is viewed by many pupils as irrelevant to the real word. I said the same in 1969. Little has changed. Maths nerds continue to argue that the subject is valuable and exciting when taught for its own sake. 6th Form maths maybe. Until then most of us want to be sure we are getting the right change, can buy the right number of floor tiles, can measure twice and cut once and that we don’t get screwed by credit card and payday loan interest rates. And maybe understand surveys…

The City and Guilds sponsored survey also tells us that “today’s young people are ambitious and entrepreneurial, with almost half of the 16- to 18-year-olds questioned saying that they would like to run their own business”. They might have to. Precious few businesses are recruiting and few of them are recruiting young people. There are over a million looking for work right now, with young people with disabilities and learning difficulties getting even less opportunity than ever. When the economy forces everyone from MBA’s downwards to enter the labour market from a lower rung on the ladder some young people can’t reach the soft ground where it is so unsteadily planted.

“Contact with employers was the most highly rated source of information on jobs, with 88% of 16- to 18-year-olds who had visited an employer saying a visit to an employer had been useful”. How the 16 to 18 year olds actually knew how useful their contact had been is hard to gauge when so many havn’t found employment. That “usefulness” is largely untested. Only a quarter of this age group had actually visited a potential employer anyway. When you take away self-employed parents and friends of friends how many are left?

The report says that most young people have done work experience (up to 2 weeks of it at age 15), but “many” found their work placement irrelevant or of poor quality.

Mr Jones of City and Guilds said: “More needs to be done to ensure young people get the advice and experience they deserve.” Wise and urgent words. Sadly this government is driving – incompetently – in the opposite direction.

First Eric Pickles – the incoming Secretary of State for (seemingly the destruction of…) Communities and Local Government cut the Local Management Grant that funded Connexions resulting directly in immediate cuts to service and the loss of qualified, experienced careers advisers. Then John Hayes MP – Minister of State for (evidently the disruption of) Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (who doesn’t merit his own Wikipedia page) pushed through legislation against all professional advice that moved responsibility for the provision of independent professional face to face careers guidance for young people under 19 from local authorities to schools (that’s the schools who have no budget for its provision and who are keen to fill up their 6th Forms) resulting in the redundancy of the vast majority of properly qualified careers advisers by the 31st March when the contracts under which they were employed ended.

Schools, who have only just been issued with some very leaky guidance, take over this duty in September 2012 with many of the quality assurance, qualification and independence regulations not taking effect until 2013 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, far from getting “the advice and experience they deserve” young people are getting at best dodgy opinions from hard-pressed teachers and other staff and the contractor careers companies are very busy getting into other work. If you are under 19 and out of school the National Careers Service offers you…a website designed for adults and a telephone call centre.

This is government by the villagers of Sandford. The accumulation evidence suggests that this government doesn’t like young people. Make’em pay tuition fees, take away everything from Sure Start to the EMA and get rid of the careers advisers that could have guided them into a place where they actually had a realistic stake in the economy and society.

I look forward with some trepidation to the summer and beyond when we begin to see this lost cohort, this generation unchallenged by face to face professional one-to-one careers guidance, not provided with relevant careers information, self-knowledge or understanding of modern industry hits the shrinking workplace and..clogs it up when they find they have been recruited into a job they don’t like or can’t actually do. Of course, everyone but the Minister will be blamed by the Daily Mail – teachers for teaching the National Curriculum, young people for being…young, exams for being passable by young people who have studied the National Curriculum and probably the Olympics for getting those young people running, jumping and “over”-aspiring.

But we know where the responsibility will really rest, don’t we dear reader…

“I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Blaise Pascal

London: Bucking a trend or setting one?

The Office for National Statistics tells us unemployment has fallen by 35,000 in the three months to February (to 2.65 million). Nationwide the unemployment rate is 8.3%: down by 0.1 percent. That’s 0.1%. 10% of a 100th. Meaningful eh?

10.1% of the workforce living in London are claiming Job Seekers Allowance. 7,000 more Londoners began claiming Job Seekers Allowance between December and February. London is going the other way. Almost a quarter of all working age Londoners are economically inactive – 1.38 million people.

There are 1.03 million 16 to 24 year olds looking for work. That’s 22.2%, down from 22.3% three months earlier.

The Coalition gives thanks for 0.1% improvements, but there may be a long hot summer coming. (OK, this is England so it might b a long hot wet summer).

The Connexions Centre in Battersea, just down the road from the riots at Clapham Junction is now closed.

70% or so of the public expenditure cuts still to come

How much is a life free from fear?

Young people with disabilities come from all social and economic backgrounds and ethnicities. As individuals they vary as much as anyone else. Only more so.

Last month I visited a young woman with moderate to severe learning difficulties on a small estate in SE London. It took considerable persuasion to agree an appointment. When I arrived her mother challenged me from the upstairs window where she was speaking on her mobile. She explained she had double booked me…

The home was a little bit knocked about and sparsely furnished, even with the leather sofas and the 27 inch TV, even with the laptop on the knees of the 11 year old brother sitting two feet from said TV (which remained on throughout my visit). The 11 year old didn’t want to leave the room so we could discuss his brother but eventually took the laptop upstairs. His sister of about 10 was told to go and hoover her bedroom before the new double bed that she had insisted on (sitting in two halves in the hall alongside the mattress) could go up and be put together later. “I don’t do hoovers” she told her mother and stomped off. Nice beech wood floors though.

Mother was…volatile and not a great listener. It took some patient time to explain who I was, how I was there for her daughter until she was 25 and how I am independent and impartial, even though I am employed by the council. Her 16 year old daughter, the one I hadn’t yet met, the one whose future I had come to discuss, hid in the other room for most of our discussion. She’d thought I was a social worker. She has no ideas about what she wants to do for a job in the future or much idea what work is at all yet. This is not a bad thing. She has time if we play our cards right.

I will not go into the details of our discussion but if we are careful she will spend another two or three years at a special school and then transfer to a local FE college or – a life changing opportunity for her – a specialist residential college for a further three years. That’s six years during which her “horrible” siblings can grow through their behaviour difficulties and social services can encourage her mother to live an orderly life and do some more appropriate parenting. At the moment the home she provides has all the potential to terrorise her daughter. The next day I learnt that there is a court case regarding the children’s care pending. Hence her hiding.

Six years of post-16 education might seem very expensive. She might never get a job. But she might get a life without fear. How much is that worth?