Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Rhymes & Routes Christmas Message 2015

By the time we reach December, it seems as though Christmas has already been around for months. That's because it has: I saw my first Christmas merchandise in September. In 1956, the science fiction writer Frederik Pohl published a short story called “Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus.” It's set in a future when September is the height of the Christmas season, and the shopping frenzy has only another three months to go. On Christmas night, everyone removes all traces of Christmas to prepare for the next selling season, unaware, or perhaps uncaring, of the fact that Christmas Day is meant to be the beginning of the holiday, not the end. It's a tale that seems increasingly prescient as time goes by.

Religious types sometimes complain that all the shopping and partying detracts from what they call the true meaning of Christmas, but even they know that Jesus wasn't really born in December and that his year of birth is variously estimated between 2 BC and 5 BC. It's a bit rich of them to complain about Christmas being hijacked when the early Fathers of the Church themselves decided to claim pagan winter festivals, such as Saturnalia and Yule, as their own. Christians are fully entitled to celebrate at this time of year, but they cannot claim exclusive rights.

This is all by the by. There are nasty elements in our society who can only see this time of year, irrespective of whether it's a time of religious celebration or of parties and materialism, as an opportunity to further their own malicious ends. They surreptitiously spread the message that it is politically incorrect to celebrate Christmas in case it offends people with other religions, and many ordinary people fall into the trap of believing it. We hear stories of Christmas being “banned” by local councils and schools; such tales are almost always a deliberate misinterpretation of the facts, which are usually quite innocent when properly examined.

This is a complete lie
In recent years, we see people posting Christmas pictures, such as nativity scenes, on Facebook with messages stating that Facebook is trying to get such scenes removed because they are offensive, so let's keep posting them to prove them wrong. This is a malicious falsehood without the slightest basis in fact and is a deliberate attempt to make people think that the symbols of their culture and their celebrations are under attack. Why would anyone tell such lies? Because they wish to stir up ill-feeling against religious minorities in this country. They are extreme right-wing racists who aim to get ordinary people unnecessarily worried so that they become unwitting allies by making them think that everything that defines their way of life is under attack. Unfortunately, I've seen too many ordinary decent people fall for this malevolent nonsense.

The truth is entirely different.

Ten years ago, in my capacity of union rep, I visited one of my members at his home in December to discuss his personal case. In the corner of the living room there was what I took to be the family Hindu shrine, and while we were talking, his younger sisters were decorating a Christmas tree, and doing a really good job too: it was all looking very festive. Inspired by the sight of young Hindu girls putting up Christmas decorations, I said to him as I left, “Happy Christmas”, and he replied similarly. No offence intended, or taken.

In 2013, the Muslim Council of Britain produced two cards wishing everyone a HappyChristmas, along with a statement that said: "Who wants to ban Christmas? Not Muslims. So put up the Christmas tree, prepare the roast, wrap the presents and spread the Yuletide joy. None of us will be offended if you go ahead and enjoy the Christmas cheer. We'll remember too the blessings Jesus gave to all of us. He was, after all, an important Prophet to Muslims.”

There you have it: it is not politically incorrect to celebrate Christmas, and no one really minds if you do. Living in a multicultural society doesn't mean anyone has to surrender their own way of life. It simply means we have various different cultures living side by side, and there is absolutely no reason why, with good will, we can't do that in peace and harmony. Surely that is at the heart of the Christmas message.

So whatever your religious beliefs, or if you have none at all, I sincerely wish you a Happy Christmas, however you choose to enjoy it!

alias Nev Grundy

Thursday, 10 December 2015

OFSTED, Standards and the Pantomime Season

As Christmas approaches, the pantomime season begins. Pantomime was once regarded with scorn by serious actors, but it has grown in esteem among the acting fraternity, and it is now common to see thespian luminaries such as Sir Ian McKellen, Jo Brand, David Hasselhoff and even Anne Widdicombe (she was a Fairy Godmother) tread the boards in productions such as Aladdin, Puss in Boots, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk. I think it a good idea, then, to continue the trend by casting a pantomime with leading figures from politics and education. No better candidates for pantomime can be found than the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has recently been passing comments and judgements on secondary schools in the North West and the Midlands.
In the annual OFSTED report (a sort of round robin Christmas card), the BBC comments:
"... the report highlights concerns about a north-south gap - with stronger GCSE results in London and the South and weaker results in parts of the North and Midlands.
"This gap is a worrying one. We don't want to see a divided country after the age of 11," Sir Michael said.
More than 400,000 pupils in the North and Midlands go to a school that is "less than good", and the Ofsted chief said this could not be "explained away" by higher levels of deprivation.
Primary schools were much more successful than secondary, Sir Michael said, despite facing similar problems of social disadvantage".
Sir Michael, you see, has anticipated the obvious criticism: the fact that many areas in the North and Midlands are areas of severe poverty and social deprivation. This grossly obvious point, please note, is regarded as merely "explaining away" the situation.
Now, in my casting of the OFSTED panto, my initial casting for Sir Michael was as the rear end of a pantomime horse. This is because his apparently logical conclusions are not as accurate as might at first be believed.
Firstly, schools in areas of deprivation tend not to be as well resourced as those in more prosperous areas. I have personal experience of this. As a Religious Education (R.E.) co-ordinator in a Liverpool primary school in the 90s, I was allotted an annual budget of about £50. When I took on the same role in a West London primary school in the noughties, I was allowed nearly a thousand pounds! And, please remember, R.E. is generally regarded as a Cinderella subject in primary schools (no irony intended). Core subjects received much more funding. Resources are vital to all schools in order to help in the delivery of the curriculum, and this is a factor that OFSTED should have accounted for in their report.
Another point missed by Sir Michael and his acolytes is the fact that many secondary schools in deprived areas find it difficult to motivate pupils to work for examination success when they can see no job at the end of it. It may be argued that there are deprived areas in the South, but that does not hold water - in the South, and London especially, there is always the chance of some kind of a job. This is not the case in Skelmersdale, Toxteth or Rotherham.
There is also the fact (ignored by Sir Michael) that teaching is increasingly becoming a good profession to leave. As the BBC article says:
"Head teachers' leader Brian Lightman linked the north-south gap to the "very serious difficulties" that schools faced in recruiting teachers.
Mr Lightman, head of the ASCL head teachers' union, said schools in challenging areas were finding it "incredibly hard" to find teachers in some shortage subjects, particularly affecting schools in some parts of the North...
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: "More needs to be done to deliver educational excellence everywhere."
Mrs Morgan, significantly, shows no recognition of the obvious problem, and perforce offers no solution to it - the fact that hazards such as classroom violence, OFSTED pressure and a pay freeze are making teaching an unpleasant job, leading to a teacher exodus and grave difficulties in teacher recruitment. Max Fischel, an assistant headteacher, said in a letter to the Guardian:
" Anyone (like me) who has tried to recruit teaching staff over the past couple of years knows there is already a desperate shortage of qualified teachers out there...
Headteachers’ and governors’ relentless pursuit of “outstanding” ratings from Ofsted is a major factor in driving teachers away; pressure on classroom teachers to churn out data which Ofsted will like is not only pointless but anti-education, yet it is the mantra across the country. In the 20-odd years since its invention, Ofsted has cost hundreds of millions, but has done nothing to improve education."
So - where does this leave my OFSTED pantomime? Well, I have chosen Aladdin as a suitable play. The role of Aladdin goes to Mrs Nicky Morgan, Abanazar can be played by Michael Gove, and Sir Michael Wilshaw can be Widow Twankey. The role of Wishy Washy, Aladdin's brother who works devotedly in the laundry without reward or recognition, can go to any ordinary teacher who gets treated in their jobs in exactly the same way. I have yet to cast someone to play the Genie of the Lamp, though. Can anyone suggest a suitable candidate?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Syria, Bombing and Avoiding the Terrorist Trap

I think it fair to say, that if there is one issue that we have heard enough about this week, it's the House of Commons vote to bomb Syria.  Not that it has been uninteresting - far from it. The marathon debate on Tuesday made for riveting viewing, with many good speeches made by proponents of both sides of the argument. There is no point in my revisiting the arguments here, except to express my own view on the vote and its consequences.
For me, the crucial question is: how effective are the RAF bombing attacks going to be? After all, many other countries have been bombing ISIS in Syria for months, and it has not stopped attacks in Tunisia, Paris and, now, San Bernardino, California. Even President Assad has said that the bombing raids have had a nugatory effect on ISIS, who have continued to advance in Syria. There has been much discussion on how to deal ISIS a severe economic blow, and the RAF has joined in the attacks on oil installations with gusto and, I'm sure, with great skill. But knocking out oil production is not as simple as it sounds - especially since ISIS have scattered oil production over a wide area, with many small oil pumps that will be impossible to eliminate.
There is also the risk of alienating civilians. This is so obvious now, that I won't bang on about it too much. All I will say is that ISIS must be looking forward to an influx of new recruits, rather like the IRA experienced after Bloody Sunday in 1972.
The only benefit from the Commons' decision will be to reassure our allies that we will support them if they are attacked - and we can now feel free to ask for their co-operation if we suffer terrorist atrocities. However, as Gerald Kaufman MP said, our bombing runs will be little more than a gesture, as we, the nation that launched 1000-bomber raids against Nazi Germany in WW2, will be providing less than 15 planes. And, as some anti-bombing Tory MPs pointed out, bombing alone, unaccompanied by ground troops, will be largely ineffective.
Reading the above, you might think that I am opposed to the bombing of ISIS in Syria. It will come as a surprise to some people to learn that I am not against bombing ISIS - it is a vile organisation that must be extirpated from the face of the earth. I listened with sympathy to the anti-bombing lobby, but they failed to present a viable alternative strategy. Whether we like it or not, we are at war with ISIS, and we must take decisive action against them. The key word, for me, then, is decisive. I believe that we must assess where bombing has been effective, and that the RAF would be better employed in these areas. There is one area where bombing has been successful, and that is ground support for ground troops - especially the Kurds. With air support, the Kurds have gallantly taken the war to ISIS, recapturing much ground and many villages. I support bombing if it is to be used effectively; had I been an MP on Tuesday, I would have voted for it.
At this point, someone might well be looking at my previous posts about terrorism and terrorist strategy and saying: "Hang on - aren't you falling into the trap of doing what the terrorists want us to do?" Well, no, I'm not. ISIS are counting on indiscriminate bombing in Syria/Iraq and a rise in Islamophobia in Europe and the USA. The former would be a huge blunder and the latter, totally wrong (even though there are worrying signs of an increase here). Nevertheless, ISIS must be destroyed intellectually, strategically and physically, even if we have to make alliances with detestable states and individuals. After all, we've done it before.