Wednesday, February 13, 2008


A Government of High-Quality Fantasists?

The Labour Government’s fantasy world of choice usually seems to be an Orwellian dystopia in which they grab more and more power to run the lives of more and more citizens. In the real world, this is mainly ameliorated by their sheer incompetence. So many disastrous losses of personal data, for example, give the impression of Airstrip One done as a school play. But there’s one little Minister who seems different, who dreams not of an iron fist but a velvet seat. This morning Andy Burnham declared, starry-eyed, that there would be opera for all on fifteen quid a year.

Usually, Labour Government Ministers on the Today Programme come across as arrogant and bossy. Frequently, they come across as clueless too, which is when they start bullying to try to hide it. Their standard aim is to terrify the listener, and paint everyone who disagrees with them as in league with the object of terror to destroy civilisation as we know it: ‘Look! Terrorists! Hoodies! Criminals! Tories! Oooh, scary! The only way to stop them [this week] is to [insert bonkers plan here].’ And, that, of course, is their pretext for more insanely bossy laws which will stop us living our own lives, give the Labour Government supreme power and, um, destroy civilisation as we know it. This sort of appearance on the Today Programme usually inspires a response from me which a Labour Minister would classify as anti-social behaviour.

This morning, I listened to Culture Minister Andy Burnham and found an unusual reaction stirring. Sympathy. Disbelief, yes, but sympathy. He sounded like he wanted children to be treated as if they were something other than scary ASBO-fodder. Astonishingly from a Labour Government for which work is almost as much the Holy Grail of life as is unthinking obedience to the state, he even sounded like he wanted children to be creative rather than drilled McDrones. I could almost agree with what he seemed to be after – perhaps I was still asleep? No. Because there was one tiny problem with his utopian plan. He clearly didn’t have the faintest idea how to achieve it.

Now, boys and girls, what does a Labour Minister do when they haven’t got a clue how to do something?

George – don’t do that.

Yes, that’s right. They tell everyone else that they’re not allowed to do it. But there’s something else they do, isn’t there?

No hands up?

Then I’ll tell you.

They set a target, and they give someone else responsibility for fulfilling it.

That way they can just give orders rather than ideas or money, and they have someone else to criticise when it doesn’t happen!

And I’m afraid that’s just where Mr Burnham showed that he was just a little Labour Minister after all. Having come up with the goal of letting children be more creative, he immediately reached for the target of making children be exposed to Labour Government-approved Sources of CreativityTM for five hours a week. Oh, Mr Burnham!

“Five hours a week of high-quality culture”

When it comes to education, my instinct’s always been that there’s a role for teachers’ choice, but that I’m wary of them when they act as a monolith; that there’s a role for parents’ choice, but that I’m wary of them when they want to deny their children access to anything that might open up their minds beyond their parents’ ambitions and prejudices; and that there’s a role for children’s choice, but that… No-one else seems to think so. On the national government’s choice and how it should dictate to every individual school, however, I’m less ‘wary’ and more ‘completely cold’.

So when Mr Burnham comes up with the idea of another target and talks excitedly about it on the Today Programme, while for once I can believe a Labour Minister means well, I just can’t believe how many ways he’s got it wrong. He was prefaced by a grumpy teachers’ representative; now, I’m not one to let teachers have it all their own way, but I couldn’t disagree with a word when this guy pointed out that it was difficult to see how five hours of “high-quality culture” could be stuffed into a school week already micro-managed by the National Curriculum, already required to deliver five hours of sport a week – dear Lord Adonis, I hated the one or two hours I had to do at school, and five hours sounds like utter hell – and when the budget for even the pilot schemes the Labour Government has announced (and pilot schemes always get more money, after all) amounted to just fifteen pounds per child per year.

When Mr Burnham was pressed on all this, he excitedly announced that his plan meant children would be able to visit opera and top theatre shows, galleries and dance, or they could learn a musical instrument, make films or do creative writing. Yes, said John Humphrys, but – and I paraphrase, but I get the gist – how do you do that on fifteen quid a year, and how do you make the hours of the school day bigger on the inside than on the outside to fit an extra hour to put all this (and Mr Humphrys didn’t even point out that most of these proposed quality hours of quality culture would require additional quality hours of quality travelling)?
“It’s easy to be cynical,” said Mr Burnham.
Yes, and I often think Mr Humphrys is much too cynical, but here there was much to be cynical about. Limited school hours – no solution from the Minister. No budget – nowt, zip, nada. But if we all clap our hands and make a wish, it’ll happen (again, I paraphrase, but not by much). It was at this point that it became clear that Mr Burnham was on a school trip of his own, away with the fairies.
“You are right to say that it’s an ambitious goal…”

“I’m saying it’s an impossible goal.”
Another morning miracle; not only did I feel some sympathy toward a Labour Minister’s dreams, but I laughed at that answering sneer from a Today interviewer rather than rolling my eyes. But none of it’s going to make children being exposed to high culture – however the Labour Government and its scary-sounding Youth Culture Trust prescribes it – any closer to being a reality. Mr Burnham’s ‘plan’ sounded more like a brilliant wheeze someone turning up to an educational policy consultation session had suddenly come up with on the hoof than anything that had had a moment’s thought applied to it.

Now, it’s true that Mr Burnham left dangling the possibility that some of this might take place outside regular school hours, but if that’s so, that would only raise the additional budget query of ‘where does the money come from to pay the teachers for an extra hours’ work a day, and the travelling time, and are they expected to have lives, at all?’ On Mr Burnham’s past form, you’d imagine he probably thinks keeping children behind after school to keep them out of trouble – I’m trying not to spoil my ‘be charitable to the Labour Government’ morning by thinking this is what’s behind it all, he did sound like he meant it – would be a good idea, and particularly for children whose parents aren’t married (something of which he disapproves). But I suspect the opposite would happen. Mr Burnham is touting this as the solution to parents who aren’t interested in culture, to give those kids a chance, and that’s a laudable aim. Without the money that, say, Nick Clegg is proposing to target on kids from poorer backgrounds, where will the schools try to get the cash for these trips? That’s right: from the parents. And which parents, according to Mr Burnham, would and wouldn’t be interested…? So the typical after-school ‘culture hour’ would be likely to go something like this: ‘All right, culture time. Posh kids, into the coach for Stratford-on-Avon; chavs whose parents wouldn’t pay, sit at the back of the classroom and do some creative writing.’

I’m not knocking creative writing, and I’m not sneering at Stratford-on-Avon, and when Mr Burnham talked of all the great places in Manchester that kids could go to see, my heart went out to him. But I went to a comprehensive, a really good comprehensive, a couple of dozen miles from Mr Burnham’s seat, and we went to Stratford-on-Avon just once in five years (to see The Merchant of Venice), while we spent an awful lot more time doing creative writing. I was fine with that – the single thing I loved best at school was writing stories. I wanted to do more of it. The thing is, though, it won’t give you a cultural education in the round; an awful lot of kids will hate it as much as I loved it; but, if Mr Burnham’s proposal goes ahead, it’s likely to be what almost every ‘culture hour’ consists of… Because sitting a kid down with a pen and paper (or a PC) and telling them to get on with ‘being creative’ is by a long way the cheapest option.

The problem isn’t just the budget, nor the hours. It’s the ethos. Just as the Labour Government’s plan to devise a national motto to which we will all no doubt be required to pledge allegiance before the Union Flag sounds almost the antithesis of Britishness, nothing is likely to put kids off all aspects of ‘culture’ than making it a five-hours-a-week box-ticking chore to Labour Government targets, and nothing is less likely to encourage creativity than being told you have to write a story because the Labour Minister wants you to be creative and, as it’s the second week of January, the term’s opera budget’s already run out. I wrote last year that the secret of children’s books is to write stories that children want to read, and the same goes for any ‘improving’ works to be delivered by fiat rather than letting people find their own way.

You can’t raise enthusiasm to order. You can’t promote creativity by setting targets. You can’t make kids loosen up by tightening your grip on every aspect of their lives.

Reassuringly Authoritarian

For all those disconcerted by a Labour Minister trying to do good in almost exactly the wrong way this morning, it may have been a relief that a few minutes later Jack ‘Boot’ Straw, the Demon Headmaster himself (insulting to the charismatic Terrence Hardiman, I know, but the name’s stuck) came on the Today Programme to champion some form of written constitution that would be more a safeguard of the Labour Government’s power and its ability to exclude people it didn’t like than a protection of citizens’ rights (and even that much is years off):
“Which would set out not only people’s rights, but their responsibilities.”
Phew. Well, at least we know that he just wants to boss people around from on high in the traditional bullying / incompetent Labour Government mix of a boot aiming to stamp on a human face forever, but missing and stubbing its toe. There’s no ‘Oh, so near and yet so far’ sympathy for Mr Straw, is there? If a right is contingent on doing exactly what the Labour Government tells you… It isn’t a right, but an inducement. Sadly, the interviewer didn’t take the opportunity to ask just what he thought he was doing by pushing through legislation to decide inquests from above by removing juries and bribing coroners, but it’s all part of the same bullying bossiness.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that the Labour Government’s latest brilliant database idea is to track every teenager from the age of fourteen, permanently recording their personal details, every exam result and every exclusion, so that if you get into trouble once then every potential employer will see you branded a trouble-maker for life? You could call it the ‘anti-social mobility database’. And the Labour Government has such a brilliant record with data safety, anyway.

Mr Burnham, for once I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you probably did mean it for the best. But you’re unbelievably clueless, Mr Burnham, and the rest of the Labour Government are scary bullies who dream of bossing everyone around and whose only limit is that they don’t have a clue how to make that work, either. So, for the sake of the children, Mr Burnham, your Labour Government has to go.

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…And I’m in this week’s Britblog Roundup, too. Woohoo!

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