Exiting the news purdah

A month ago today I saw the exit poll results and turned the news off. I haven’t turned it on again.

I’d embarked on an unplanned news black out. I stopped watching TV and I avoided Question Time, which is really just a middle class version of Jeremy Kyle anyway. I stopped listening to the radio, apart from Radio 3, which only has news once an hour and pirate radio, which has news never.

What’s done was done and it was going to be bad for anyone unlucky enough to be poor or incapable. There was nothing I could do about it, so I switched off.

Social media was also off the agenda, because I knew that most people I knew would be raging into the echo chamber of Facebook and Twitter and that felt disheartening and pointless. I averted my eyes from free newspapers when I was working in town and avoided conversations about politics.

Some news filtered through early, mostly from the far-off land of my teenage son, but mostly I spent the last month vacuum-packed, protected from unsightly post-result posturing and jostling. I only found out Michael Gove was Justice Secretary last week and immediately wished I hadn’t.

My news blackout posed an interesting question: what happens when you’re not being enraged and distracted by the minutia of the daily news grid?

The answer is that unsurprisingly, it gives you back a lot of time. It also focuses the mind on what you can do rather than what you can’t. Cabinet ministers waft into the distance when you don’t see them every day, remote and shapeless as smoke, and local problems pop into focus in their place.

The last month of national radio silence has made me want to connect locally. The main thing now is rediscovering our individual and collective impulse to do it ourselves, to find opportunities to volunteer, and to strengthen ties with the communities we’re already part of through location or background or interests. We need to make alliances outside of our usual friends and family. And then, who knows what might emerge?

We don’t have the same collective impulse as Spain, which makes it harder for a phenomenon like Podemos to occur, but we do have a long-established tradition of DIY culture. If the mainstream isn’t providing, we’ve filled the gap with grassroots responses, whether that’s pirate radio or punk. We’ve also, thanks to a useful bit of local democracy, now got new neighbourhood forums that give communities legal rights and powers to shape new developments.

So that’s what I’m saying: DIY and do it local – and don’t let the news distract you.

Image: Jon S

 

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Soweto stories

Earlier this month I travelled to Soweto for the inaugural Amaphiko Academy. It’s a ten day academy for social entrepreneurs, put together by Red Bull.

Eighteen South African social innovators were selected to take part. Some of them were running pretty sophisticated social enterprise, others had never heard the words ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ put together and certainly didn’t know that their after-school art project or skate education scheme or township gardening operation was indeed a social enterprise.

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It was eye-opening for everyone. Each day comprised a moderated lecture (hence my involvement) with a top-flight guest, ranging from MIT’s entrepreneur-in-residence Julius Akinyemi, to Subway Art photographer Martha Cooper to Andy Walshe, director of high performance at Red Bull. The afternoons were spent in small crowdfunding workshops or in sessions where participants could co-create a logo or a short video, or where they could just work out ways of explaining exactly what they do.

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Soweto is a huge place (population 1.5m) and much of the world’s most famous township is in pretty good shape. There’s a growing tourist industry, a new theatre and one of SA’s largest shopping malls. Some of Soweto, though, is still grindingly poor, like Kliptown, the area just across the tracks from our hotel where Amaphiko staged three evening events – itself a small, trusting, leap from the usual way of doing things. There’s nothing quite like walking along train tracks in the dark, with burning tyres as street lighting, chaperoned by street kids in youth centre t-shirts, to challenge your preconceptions.

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I saw a huge degree of civic duty, innovative thinking and low-resource ingenuity. Meshack Sitoe runs an arts project for people with learning difficulties where they don’t have money for clay – so collect it from the riverbed. When his project was kicked out of their community centre he dusted himself off and set up in a friend’s back yard. Ramona Kasavan realised that girls were missing over 300 days of schooling a year because they couldn’t afford proper sanitation during their periods – and developed a two-pronged solution that involves a low-cost, high-performance pad and the rebranding of periods as ‘happy days’. Sifiso Ngobese realised that the township reclaimers who lug hug loads of rubbish each day to recycling for pittance wages were actually doing a great civic service – and developed branded, durable carts that both make life easier and rebrand these workers as heroes, not lowlife.

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This resourcefulness was also present in the people we met along the way, like the Kliptonians who run the SKY Youth Centre, or the collective of artists behind the Post 77 Gallery, or the kids adapting reclaimed plastic toy trucks with a long stick to make them more navigable. In a world where low-resource ingenuity will become more valuable as resources become increasingly scarce, societies like Soweto are well-placed to thrive – and there’s a lot we can learn from them.

It’s increasingly obvious, to quote Peter Senge in this month’s RSA Fellowship Magazine, “we’re not going to be able to keep privatising profit and socialising cost to the degree we have been.” Projects giving grass-roots social entrepreneurs access to networks and opportunities are a good start. It’s about putting social profit on a par with financial profit and recognising the value that both bring.

I don’t feel I got to know too much about the vastness of South Africa in my short stay, but I feel like I got a strong taste of Soweto, a place described in Philip Bonner and Lauren Segal’s excellent ‘Soweto: A History’ as “a catalyst… what happens in Soweto will determine what happens in the whole country.” On the 20th anniversary of democracy in that country, here’s to a new generation of social upstarts. And the next Amaphiko academy. I’m in.

 

London Festival Of Education 2012 #Gove

I went down to the inaugural London Festival Of Education yesterday, with Live Magazine politics editor Omar Shahid. It was clear it’d be an interesting day when we turned the corner onto Bedford St to the end of a queue that snaked all the way to the Institute of Education and to the expected handful of protesters in Gove masks, handing out leaflets with suggested questions for the Secretary of State for Education.

The attendees, a mix of students, teachers, heads and the miscellaneously interested, didn’t need much help with questions for Mr Gove, the best of which was one from the front which asked the famously erudite Scot whether he was aware of the truism that weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to blog about the festival in two parts because there’s a huge amount to reflect on. First up, then, the opening session, where Michael Gove was in conversation with journalist and writer David Aaronovitch for a talk titled ‘What does an educated person look like?’

The festival was opened by a Year 10 student, who spoke eloquently about wanting to be a barrister. It was the right note to open on, as you really can’t talk about 21st Century education without involving students, and the Festival did a good job of starting to get the recipients of education involved – although I hope next year they get more students running or adding to sessions, interviewing big names, and being visibly at the centre of things.

Gove came on stage to a few muted boos. “Don’t boo me,” said Aaronovitch with a neat line in diffusion. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

I’m waiting to hear if the session will be hosted online, but it was fascinating, depressing and vaguely tragicomic all at the same time. At the start, Gove used an unlikely example: the British Communist Party of the 1950s, with their libraries and demand for education, was, he said, “quite admirable” . I imagine this was the quote bone he was throwing to waiting journalists, and he even brought a book along as a visual prop should this be required for photographs.

There were a few specifics points worth commenting on. It looks like he wants to introducing individual purchasing power into sixth forms, saying that every student over 16 should have cash and be able to say to schools and FE Colleges ‘you have to tell me which course will get me a job’ and chose on this basis. He claimed that the EBacc is the encapsulation of what happens in other countries that have been successful at raising achievement, particularly Poland, and said that his proposed examination system would not preclude the teaching of arts, although @localschools_uk claimed that 187 schools have dropped Art GCSE in the last year which may suggest otherwise.

Gove was unrepentant, as you’d expect, on Academies, claiming that he’s never met an Academy head who wants to go back, although I imagine that the increasing use of Non-Disclosure Agreements for staff in both academies (and in the state sector) may be influencing this. “Resistance to academies is with people who want to swim at the edge of the pool, not strike out to the centre. To them I say come on in, the water’s lovely.”

He appears not to believe that schools focus aggressively on exam results to the exclusion of everything else: “Someone people say some schools are exam factories and are prisons of the soul. These schools do not exist”. The audience murmured and occasionally heckled their dissent.

It also looks as though education will remain ring-fenced after the Autumn budget. “The Lib Dems have helped me argue that education remains well-resourced.”

The most instructive moment (apart from when Gove experienced what body language experts call ‘leakage’ during a discussion about the sense of making hormonal teenagers do exams, when he talked about things ‘going wrong hormonally’ during teens and stiffened his left leg in a most peculiar fashion) was during the Q&A session. He was asked about over-assessment.

Gove: “You can’t have education without assessment.”
Audience: “Why not?”
Gove: “We need it. Education without assessment is just play”

As someone pointed out to me later, what does he think happened in Primary Schools before SATs?

It’s a classic example of why politicians shouldn’t get involved in the content and mechanics of education. Governments need assessment, in order to prove they’ve raised standards, and whilst students need some assessment, there’s plenty of evidence, particularly at Primary Level that too much assessment is bad for students.

For what it’s worth, my cod-psychological take is that Mr Gove is involved in a powerful psychological projection in which he wants to replicate his own schooling. I once read an interview with his mother who described her son being so brilliant that teachers would invite him up to the front of the class to take the rest of the lesson.

I think it’s ego leading this, not evidence about how young people learn, nor 21st Century requirements. This is a shame because on today’s showing he’d be a most entertaining conversational companion – and a damn dangerous person to have in charge of education for a generation which is more diverse, in all senses of the word, than any before.

Who polices the police?

In the past, the people formerly known as bent coppers could get away with a range of malpractice from dodgy deals to rarely, unexplained deaths. It’s been nearly thirty years since a police officer has been convicted of manslaughter for crimes committed on duty, despite the fact that 1,433 people have died in custody (which includes prison) or after contact with the police since 1990.

Yesterday a different kind of malpractice was finally admitted, with the release of the Hillsborough documents after a relentless campaign by the families and the Hillsborough Independent Panel. They show a sustained conspiracy to alter evidence and to smear the Liverpool fans, and like the case of the young man racially abused in the back of a police van, the most shocking aspect is that people are so shocked.

The police appear institutionally prone to closing ranks, protecting their own and in extreme cases, reframing circumstance. Juries are notoriously reluctant to convict police officers. The consequence is that police have lost their natural legitimacy for a small but signification portion of this country. There are plenty of brilliant police officers who do their job well – but they won’t be seen as the true representatives of the force until more of the country share a comparable experience of the police, and until the good policemen and women are empowered to blow the whistle on their colleagues. None of the officers at Hillsborough whose evidence was changed reported this fact: the ‘no grassing’ law seems to apply as much to the police as it does to those at the other end of the law-breaking spectrum.

The police often work in extreme and unpredictable environments. But when things go wrong, officers and their bosses need to hold up their hands – not to change evidence, or to close ranks.

The response to the release of the Hillsborough documents has been to emphasise that the South Yorkshire Police have changed, and that the closed, duplicitous culture of 1989 is long-gone. It’s exactly the kind of historical revisionism that compounds the problem, especially given the recent reports that the Met had witheld evidence post-Tomlinson about PC Harwood’s disciplinary records.

This is a significant moment for all of us, because of the disconnect between the experience that mainstream society has of the police and the experience of say, young people in the inner cities, or football fans in the ’80s or of families whose loved ones have died after contact with the police. The former – most people – experience the police as a benevolent safety net: the people you seek out if you’re lost or if you’ve been burgled. The latter know that the police can act with impunity, and that some people end up injured or even dead in police cells – and that the relevant CCTV cameras are frequently ‘broken’.

It’s a disconnect we need to close. How can we trust the police if they can’t apply the law to themselves?

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