Sunday 29 July 2012

De-skilling in schools

I've spent the past twenty five years in an industry where de-skilling was a constant issue. Since PC's started to be found in every home the world and his wife have become typographers. Our trade was flooded with hipster designers who knew their way around a Mac but hadn't a clue about kerning, leading and ligatures. Now -  just I am about to invest time and money into joining the teaching 'profession' the same thing is happening there.  

Whilst Olympic euphoria is grabbing the nation, Education Secretary Grove has  snuck in an announcement that Qualified Teacher Status will no longer be required by teachers in academies. This matters because he also has a declared vision that the majority of schools will be academies - and in some parts of London they already are.

Perhaps Grove is trying to emulate 'independent' - or to give them their proper name    - fee-paying schools where teachers have never had to be formally qualified. Perhaps he really thinks that this in itself is the reason for their better academic results - with the implication that this is because of better teaching. Translated to the state sector, with all the very different real world challenges it faces, de-regulation of teaching represents one thing only - teaching on the cheap and de-skilling. 

Since being around schools one of the big differences I have seen from my own schooldays is the proliferation of people in the classrooms who aren't actually teachers. I have seen some very experienced, effective and highly motivated cover supervisors and Higher Level Teaching Assistants but they were never intended to replace teachers - although the pressure of work and scarcity of resources means that they are often called upon to do the work of teachers. This too is a form of creeping de-skilling.

There is a huge contradiction at the heart of current Tory education policy -  an unresolved clash between free market de-regulation and traditional paternalism. On the one hand more stringent 'skills tests' for student-teachers, and on the other no qualifications needed at all. Obsession with a prescriptive national curriculum - and a crusade to build up 'independent' academies, and free schools who don't have to follow it. Or harking back to traditional 'proper' subjects, whilst encouraging competitive league tables that drive academies to put students through questionable 'equivalent' vocational courses in order to hold their place in the rankings.

None of this deters me from wanting to be a teacher - or taking the year required to get my PGCE (followed by another NQT induction year).  It may not be necessary for much longer - but it remains to my way of thinking, the right way to do it. I am dubious about the coded class-distinction that differentiates 'trade' from 'profession' - but  in de-skilling I see the same trend that seems to permeate every aspect of late capitalism. A trend of 'good enough' and 'to a price' that de-values peoples' skills and belittles their pride in the work they do. To the detriment of everyone.

Saturday 28 July 2012

London Olympics open at last

Like the finale of Hey Jude - or Paul McCartney's career in general - the Olympic opening ceremony went on far too long.

But it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been: Tory-twat Aidan Burley has got himself into trouble for branding Danny Boyle's pageant 'leftie-multicultural rubbish' and Her Maj appears to have run the gamut of emotions from bored shitless to mildly disapproving. So it can't have been all bad.

We did have a new version of the Whig interpretation of British history: Merrie England with (much anticipated) cows, village cricket and may-poles was rudely replaced with a spectacular Industrial Revolution. This was overseen by a very smug looking Kenneth Branagh as the supreme creator - Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You were left with the impression that this was a noisy and messy process but unquestionably a Good Thing because Britain became the workshop of the world. Or something.

It  then all became a bit less portentous and pompous. Danny Boyle managed to sneak in the NHS as one of Britain's greatest achievements - which doubtless must have caused a few Tories to squirm awkwardly  in their seats. But the moment passed as the pageant moved on again to remind us that although we might not have any industry or empire anymore, Britain is still really the top nation because we are the funniest (cue Mr Bean), the hippest (cue Dizzy Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys) and the nicest to kids (cue JK Rowling). So suck on that Mit Romney.

So there you go. Although I was struggling to stay awake by the end - the opening ceremony kind of surpassed my expectations in that it was NOT entirely awful. In fact it was a damn sight better than previous opening ceremonies with their overbearing  and fascistic undertones. But I couldn't help wondering if the doctors and nurses who had been roped into performing in the celebration of the NHS wouldn't have preferred instead to have just received a bit more funding. And of course we should have had some Morris dancing ...

Friday 27 July 2012

Remploy strike

For the past couple of Thursdays I have been dropping in on my nearby Remploy picket line. Like many others it is faced with imminent closure - and my local factory is a small one that has been deemed 'uneconomic' for quite a while. The workers there are solid in their support for the strike - nearly all of them have been on the pickets - but in truth they don't seem to be holding  out for much more than a decent redundancy. Although they are still pinning some hopes on the union fighting it out  in the courts. 

I've seen quite a few picket lines over the years - but I don't think I've ever seen one where there was a stronger  sense of 'solidarity' between the workers. And I don't mean solidarity in the hack-sense of jargon-ese but of genuine mutual care and awareness for each other. It may be says something about the undeniably special aspect of Remploy workplaces.

It's a special something that the Tories who are effectively now withdrawing funding for  Remploy have no respect for.  Whilst also  adding insult to injury with a hypocritical spin that this is  not about austerity but about better 'integration' of disabled workers  who will now be supported by charities and quangos to gain work in 'mainstream' workplaces. 

Talking to the people on the picket yesterday they reckon that only  a third of current Remploy employees will be able to hold down work in these 'mainstream' workplaces. The rest simply won't be able to get the levels of support they require -  and so will join the ranks of those who are having to navigate their way around the increasingly punitive benefits system for disabled people who can't work. Most of all though - they said that they will all lose the sense of identity and mutual support that working together at Remploy has given them.

In giving these workers our support - it is not at all a question of patronisation or condescension - the rest of us could quite simply  learn a thing or two from them in terms of solidarity and class pride.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Armed bodies of men in our streets

In the summer of 1911 - almost a hundred years ago to the day - Britain was on the brink of civil unrest and a potential revolution. A dispute in the London docks had spread to the other major ports, railwaymen had gone on strike as well, and engineers had followed them. 20,000 troops from the Woolwich and Aldershot garrisons were put on standby to impose order in the capital when the Port of London Authority backed down and made concessions to the dockers' demands. Strikes continued in the other ports and in Liverpool two warships were ordered up the Mersey and troops deployed in the streets. Shots were even fired over the heads of protesters. It was not the finest hour for Winston Churchill the gung-ho Home Secretary who earlier in the same year had overseen the sending of troops into the Rhonda to impose order against striking miners.

Right now HMS Ocean is moored up near Tower Bridge, we have air to surface missile sites in the East End,  and there are large numbers of troops in camo uniforms all over the place. It is probably the most visible military deployment in London since the Second World War. But interestingly the general public response has been sympathy for the squaddies who have been obliged to give up leave after returning from Afghanistan in  order to pick up the pieces for the bungling of Olympic security by the ConDems and big-business private security contractor G4S. It speaks volumes though that  I am far more troubled by the sight of squads of tooled-up wannabe robo-cops from the Metroplitan Police. 

PC Simon Harwood, the un-convicted killer of Ian Tomlinson personifies the psychological type drawn to their ranks. An aspiring action man with a hair-trigger temper who hasn't got the bottle to join the real army and fight anyone who shoots back - so he opted for the safer option of combating unarmed civilians at home. If that seems like an exaggeration I challenge anyone (if they dare) to go and inspect any serial of TSG cops. The likes of PC Harwood or Sgt Delroy Smellie seem to fit a certain profile that is a prerequisite for the Met's goon squad.

Most ordinary people will treat the squaddies - disproportionately from the most economically shat-on parts of the UK - with good natured class solidarity, but they have every reason to be wary of the pit-bulls of the  Met currently  straining at the leash. I am certainly going to be careful about treading on the cracks of the pavement in the next few weeks ...

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Hypocrisy of John Lewis

I have to confess to having had a soft spot for John Lewis/Waitrose. I know that an Orcado account has become almost a compulsory requirement for the card carrying liberal chattering classes of North London, but even so I can't help but feel that they are ethically preferable to the bare-faced cuntishness of a company like Tesco. And from a strictly consumers' point of view it seems that John Lewis' benevolent paternalism towards their own staff pays off in having a helpful workforce who generally seem to give a shit about what they do.

The story of how they become a profit-sharing partnership is - on human terms at least - not easy to ignore. The heir to the family business comes back from World War One having  experienced some sort of egalitarian epiphany as an officer serving alongside the working classes in the trenches .  So he resolves to share the profits and create a benevolent paternalistic business with generous staff benefits. It's certainly wasn't workers control but only the most doctrinaire  would not see this as anything other than massively preferable to the McJobs culture that dominates most retailers.

But the story that contract-cleaners at John Lewis are now on strike to secure a living wage blows this whole ethical mythology to pieces. It may not be a question of conscious hypocrisy on the part of the management (although of course it may be) but it is an insight into the dark vacuum at the heart of big business.  Quite simply they want to pay cheap prices -  for everything - and don't ask of their suppliers how these cheap prices are possible. Through some moral contortionism, the left hand of corporate ethics chooses not to know what the right hand of corporate procurement does. 

The same  contortionism means that these big business can have policy statements galore about minimum wages or  how they won't use child labour or how they recognise the right to join trade unions - but just so long as their sub-contractors sign up to these they won't ask them too many questions. In fact the John Lewis story is just a little too close to home: Over about five years I saw the small business I worked for rung dry by retailers who looked for savings year-on-year without any thought as to how these savings were possible. Then the same retailer cried crocodile tears when we were finally unable to give away any more because we weren't prepared to off-shore our own jobs. And if I sound bitter and twisted about it - it's because I am.

Monday 16 July 2012

Union exit strategy

I feel as if I have crossed the Rubicon - I have finally cancelled my membership of UNITE (London Graphic branch).  It's no more than an acknowledgement of what I've known for some time - I'm not going to be working in the industry any more and in a few weeks I'll be in the NUT. 

Even so after twenty-five years it does feel like a bit of a milestone and it didn't feel right after so long to just cancel my direct debit as if I was cancelling a gym membership. So I phoned them up to let them know what I was doing and why.

As it turns out cancelling a gym membership is more of an emotional process. They at least ask you why are you cancelling your membership - Are you joining another gym? Were you unhappy with the services they provided ? My union on the other hand couldn't give a toss. In fact they seemed a little put out that I was disturbing them to let them know something they would have found out when my subs just didn't come through next month.

It was much the same when I phoned them back in October to let them know that I had been made redundant. They downgraded my subs to the unemployed rate but there was no concern expressed or follow-up. Nobody even asked if I was satisfied that I'd received my rights and I didn't get a standard hand-out to tell me what these rights were.

I knew that since the heady days of the 1980's most unions  have  became little more than  friendly societies providing discounted car insurance and legal support. But I didn't realise  that  even by the limited criteria of other service providing businesses - their level of 'customer care' is found wanting. In fact it seems that  KwikFit care more about me than the union I've paid my dues to for all my working life. 

At least every time I buy a  new tyre from them I get a text and a phone call asking  how my 'customer experience' was. I know they don't really care but at least they have the decency to pretend.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Economic migrants

Just listening to some non-story on Radio 4 this morning about the worry of Hollande's policies sparking a flight of capital from France. 

One 'entrepreneur' interviewed is off to Signapore to escape regulation and capital gains tax. It seems that his self-proclaimed public-spirited dedication to assisting start-up business is conditional upon tax breaks. And Brits from Muswell Hill drawn to the Dordogne by the lure of  sun,wine, cheeses and cheap period properties to restore are now  running scared of punitive taxes on second homes. Apparently these are the dangers of a government trying to make the better-off in some  way shoulder  their share of the pain of recession in a modest attempt to alleviate the worst of austerity. Such governments should be aware of the risks of the middle classes sulkily upping sticks and moving away.

Good. Fuck them all. When it comes to economic migration, the levels of  class hypocrisy and double standards is simply staggering: 

Imagine the outrage of a migrant worker blatantly saying that he was fed up with his own country where there were few prospects of employment and no welfare or health system -  so he was heading off somewhere that better suited the needs of him and his family - someone like Britain for example. The Daily Mail would bust a bollock in outrage. 

Saturday 7 July 2012

Reasons to be cheerful ?

Since church-going has declined, new opiates-for -the-masses  have replaced religon. Celebrity obssession is one. But the old stand-by of patriotism to distract us from hard times is never far away - and this year more than ever.

The prospect of a triple-whammy of Jubilee, London Olympics - and Andy Murray winning Wimbledon just makes want to dive under the covers and not come out until September.

Setting aside 'our Andy's' apparent total  lack of personality - or to more precise  his utterly  boring, dour and sulky personality -  his  only apparent saving grace is that he is British. I'm afraid it all adds up with a horrible predictability -  Wimbledon with its  lawns, strawberries and cream, blazers and panamas - and much-discussed rain is about as British as it gets. 

So I wince at the flag-waving prospect of a Murray victory this year echoing Virginia Wade's victory in the silver jubilee year of 1977. Just wake me up when it's all over.