Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tonight’s Homework

I see the government has rumbled one ruse, reportedly used by schools to 'get extra funding and inflate their position in new-style rankings' and that's to label as many pupils as possible with 'Special Educational Needs'. Apparently, in some schools, as many as half of pupils are now diagnosed with learning difficulties or behavioral problems, it was revealed, just weeks after a cross-party group of MPs criticised schools for being too quick to label children with poor reading skills as dyslexic.

Given the enormous pressure placed on schools to improve their results by the government, I'm not surprised at this or in fact any other gambit being used to show an annual league table improvement and in many ways, it mirrors the pressures being applied to hospital trusts in showing constant improvement or to conceal what often appears to the man-in-the-street, to be a steady decline in overall standards which are contradicted by statistics.

The reality of the matter is that few people trust what the author Mark Twain described as: 'Lies, damn lies and statistics' and an excellent example might be the audit commission and the way its assesses councils and local authorities. Naively, I believed that a common set of metrics were used but I've since discovered otherwise and so in future I'll accept 'independent' performance figures as lying somewhere between 'Showing improvement' and 'How long is a piece of string.'

Staying with teaching a moment, I felt this month that the Conservative plans to make teaching a higher-level graduate profession might discriminate against those very good teachers I know who might not carry a first-class degree but show a wonderful control of both the class and the subject they teach. Half the struggle, these days, outside grinding paperwork, is simply class control and keeping the attention and interest of pupils, a number of which might have Special Educational Needs. My own experience is that the best teachers are not always the academically brightest but those with a vocation, incredible patience and a love of their subject. Quite honestly, given the challenging nature of teaching today, which to many educators appears to be more about making children feel good about themselves rather than teaching them, one has to be extremely committed to consider a career in the classroom. It can be extremely rewarding but like water under pressure finding the smallest crack in a dam, today's children will very quickly assess the character strength of any teacher in front of them, which is why the profession experiences high early retirement, nervous breakdowns and stree-related illness.

The issue that government, really has to address, I believe, is not education as such but the nature of the society that feeds into the education system. If like me, you find yourself in a classroom with six 'statemented' teenagers, attempting to play havoc at any opportunity, you really have to ask what the purpose of the teacher really is in such circumstances, as a professional educator or an extension of social services.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

All at Sea

Black is white and white is black. Well maybe, if you listened to the 'Ken and Mandy' show on Channel 4 News last night.

Meanwhile, more worrying news today, that the poverty gap has widened even faster than before under Labour and of course Harriet Harman is disappointed, as you might expect.

The good news, of course, lies in the announcement, not that Tony Blair is set to make another small fortune by giving a series of three speeches to one of the world's largest hedge funds but that reportedly the wiley Lord Mandleson has revealed that Mr. Blair will be back to fight the forthcoming General Election on the side of New Labour and Gordon Brown.

Now whether anyone, let alone a Labour politician, would want Tony Blair turning up to offer campaign support is a matter for deep discussion. I'm sure, there are a number of Conservative marginal seats that would be delighted if Mr. Blair hove into view to offer a stirring political endorsement of this government and his own record as Prime Minister. I can see Dr Ladyman writing the invitation now and I'll certainly turn-up to listen with everyone else if I can afford the fee.

Finally, if I had my time again, I might follow the stirring advice from a Gilbert & Sullivan opera and go to sea, not to join the Royal Navy but to become a Somali pirate, an adventurous life, where the hours are somewhat better and quite possibly the pay too. Apparently, possession of a rocket propelled grenade launcher and a small boat full of light and heavy weapons, isn't enough to prove that one is a pirate, hundreds of miles away from land in the middle of the Indian ocean. No, any intercepting Royal Navy vessel has to assume that you are an honest fisherman, casting out for your meager catch with high explosives and so it's only reasonable to detain you long enough for a quick medical check-up and a re-supply of food and water, before sending you on your way.

One former Navy commander said the Navy appeared to be operating a 'maritime welfare system' rather than enforcing law on the high seas.

Of course, in less enlightened times the Royal Navy would hang anyone with a striped-shirt, a wooden leg, a parrot and an eye patch, simply on suspicion of piracy, which is why Somali pirates are careful not to draw attention to themselves by dressing in this manner. I recall that a young Julius Caesar, having been captured and ransomed by north African pirates, returned with a fleet and crucified the lot of them in a very unenlightened fashion, which must leave pirates everywhere thankful for the Human Rights Convention that all civilized nations now follow.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Expanding Sarah's Law

I welcome the suggestion, from the Home Secretary, that 'Sarah's Law' might be expanded beyond its existing pilot sites in trialled in Hampshire, Warwickshire, north Cambridgeshire and Cleveland to the rest of the country.

"Sarah's Law" was proposed after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a convicted sex offender 10 years ago.

Sarah was kidnapped and murdered by Roy Whiting in West Sussex in 2000.

Readers may recall that a couple of years ago, I wrote to the Chief Constable of Kent, under the Freedom of Information Act, and asked how many registered sex offenders were living in Thanet, who might pose a potential risk to local children. You may also recall that such information was refused on the grounds that it might' provoke public disorder.' Given the Government's unwelcome policy of 'dispersal' to seaside towns without informing the local authorities, I believe it  would be in the public interest to be able to enter a postcode and at the very least, be given some indication of the presence of potentially dangerous and registered sexual predators living in the local area, without necessarily revealing their identity. It makes the difference between allowing one's child to walk to and from school or the shops or not for many parents.

Listening to Labour's Harriet Harman 'fudging' this and the Government's poor child poverty record on the BBC Politics show today, I would also welcome both of these topics as subjects for our coming General Election debate. Apparently, the big date is now May 6th, according to an interview slip by Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth today.

Now, for all readers and indeed many councillors who haven't visited the site, I would also draw you attention to the Office for National Statistics website, which has lots of useful local information. So if you happen to be a councillor, like me, looking for any manner of local statistics on population, poverty, housing, employment or more in and around your own ward, simply tap in the postcode and read-on. For example, my neighbourhood, had at the last census in 2007, an estimated 1,686 residents and 1,100 dwellings.

I have left a link in the sidebar in case you forget where to find it again.

Finally, I see that David Cameron, interviewd on the BBC Politics Show, said he hadn't yet been on holiday in Margate, Sandwich or Deal and so I think we should get this particular tourism bid in early!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Watching Brief

With the risk of a terrorist incident now raised to the level of 'Severe', I've come out from under my desk long enough to write this short blog entry, before returning to cover my windows in brown paper.

What this heightened state actually means in real terms is hard to fathom and the Home Secretary doesn't appear to be any wiser either. What he can't say of course is who might be responsible or indeed, whether 'they', whoever 'they' might be, may have returned from any recent adventure holiday break to Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia.

I'm pretty sure though, that if you went down to the bookmakers and placed a bet, call it risk profiling if you like, based on actual incidents over the last ten years, you would get pretty short odds on the suspects, leaving one to wonder why Auntie Mabel really needs to experience the indignity of airport body scanning, now she's passed the age of seventy.

So for now, we all have to treat each other with equal suspicion in what is yet another paragraph taken from George Orwell's novel, 1984, just in case….

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

I heard on the BBC news this morning that Kent Police want to use BAE systems 'drones' – rather like the 'Predator' in Afghanistan but without the impressive weaponry' – for a range of different tasks which include traffic policing. Forgetting the enormous expense for one moment, I've a personal objection to unmanned aircraft buzzing around the world's busiest airspace. Last summer I was prevented from flying a banner over one of the V-Festivals in the north of England by the police and subsequently discovered the reason, that they were testing an unmanned drone, sitting over the stage at 2000 feet, watching and photographing the crowds. While I'm sure that the intelligence these systems offers can be extremely useful, the Kingsnorth power station demonstration would be an excellent example, I worry that the system would be abused; isn't it always, and the costs would detract from the investment to police communities properly, which is what people really want rather than 'RoboCop'.

Unfortunately, with 2012 and the Olympics fast approaching, I can promise you that RoboCop and much more is what we are going to get as the authorities become increasing paranoid and security conscious in the period between now and the games. But when the Olympics are over, the security infrastructure will remain in place and like proliferating CCTV, is most unlikely to be dismantled, ever.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rowena Court Fire

The smoke billowing from the corner of Rowena Court attracted my attention at just about the same time as I heard the approaching sirens from several fire engines this morning.

I was out walking the dog along the beach at Westgate's St Mildred's Bay at 8am and so had a grandstand view of the action unfolding in front of me.

There was a fire-alarm signal bleeping loudly from the corner building – one very good reason to have one of these installed in your own home - and the firemen were energetically trying to find the best way to approach the building with their engines. From where I was standing, this offered a future lesson to our own planning officers and members of the planning committee at the council when judging such applications in the conservation area. Building Rowena court flat-up against the sea front provides no easy means of access for the emergency services and this led to a visible delay in deploying the vehicles, ambulance included, as they had to leave the road and negotiate tightly parked cars. Before I was a councillor, some readers may recall my aerial banner protest against the demolition of Sea Tower and a new development, positioned just next door to Rowena Court and in future, I believe better planning attention needs to be given to the possibility of events similar to those I witnessed this morning.

I watched, as Fireman donned their breathing equipment and went into the building, apparently recovering one elderly gentleman, who was taken to a waiting ambulance. As I left to take my daughter to school the four fire engines appeared to have the incident under control. While I don't pretend to be an expert in such matters, fire engines are of a standard size and if the fire had been more serious, I believe the delay in being able to deploy the emergency response in such a tight and potentially inaccessible spot could have proved an important factor in rescuing residents.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

All that Glitters

Encouraging people to sell 'Old Gold' is an increasingly popular business in these hard times and I see that 'Which' magazine, has revealed that the public are being ripped-off by advertisements in the press and on TV offering good value for items of jewellery.

The Daily Mail reports "The Which? Money magazine picked out three items of jewellery on the high street, a £115 bracelet, £215 bangle and £399 necklace, and purchased four of each. In November 2009 it sent them to four TV gold buyers, as well as getting quotes from three high street pawnbrokers and three jewellers.

CashMyGold offered the lowest prices on all three items, offering just £38.57 in total for the three pieces.

The firm offered just under £10 for the 9ct gold bangle. This compared to a scrap metal price quote of £54 from an independent jeweller. In one instance, Money4Gold told a Which? Money researcher that a 9ct necklace he bought for £399 was 'not gold' and it would cost him £10.95 to have it returned."

The salient paragraph in the 'Which' report is: 'Companies that encourage people to sell their unwanted gold by post are offering consumers shockingly bad value and should be avoided.'

Here in Thanet, I've also read warnings over a number of new, so-called, debt advice agencies operating in the area, taking advantage of the recession and the post-Christmas financial crisis among many hard-pressed families. The Citizens Advice Bureau is invariably the best place to start for impartial advice for many people and doorstep salesman and seemingly attractive offers through the post should best be avoided. Sadly however, getting to the people who need the best advice about such matters is frequently one of the most difficult tasks for the agencies involved.

We heard from the Prime Minister yesterday how unemployment has fallen from the first time since the recession began but the Total Politics website takes a less rosy view of yesterday's figures, reporting:

"A less superficial reading of today’s employment figures suggests that there are some tell-tell signs that the economic crisis is far from over and is becoming increasingly entrenched. The employment rate (the percentage of the labour force in work) was down 0.1 per cent to 72.4, the lowest since before Labour came to power in 1997. Full time employment fell massively by 113,000, counteracted by a rise in part-time employment of 99,000 to a record high of 7.71 million. 

What this tends to reveal is that people are making do with incredibly tough circumstances by going into part-time or self-employed work. In total there were 1.03 million employees and self-employed people working part times because they could not find a full-time job, the highest since records began for this statistic in 1992. This will have a knock on effect as part-time work leaves people will less money to spend on non-essentials."

All that glitters most brightly in politics and statistics isn't always Gold!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Microlight Adventure Tragedy

The loss of the microlight adventurer, Martin Bromage, in the English Channel yesterday is very sad news.

He took-off from Gloucestershire Airport at Staverton for the 11,000-mile trip to Australia yesterday morning and ran into the almost predictable barrier of fog between Dover and Boulogne. I suspect, with a record-breaking trip on his mind, he was reluctant to turn around and pressed on and then found himself trapped with no avenue of escape.

A number of years ago, I was on a day trip to Le Touquet at this time of year and ran into something similar. At the time, I had a brand new private pilot IMC rating, which qualified me to fly on instruments (get out of trouble) and I suddenly found myself with fog on all sides. I beat a hasty retreat back towards Dover but wrote the experience up in Pilot Magazine as a lesson to others.

Even with the benefit of an instrument rating, thick fog when you are on your own in an aircraft lies somewhere between unnerving and downright worrying. In a microlight, without basic attitude instruments, I can't think of anything worse. When I first started training as a pilot, I was told the average life expectancy of a pilot in cloud and without an instrument qualification was less than 120 seconds. Once cloud or fog, the same thing in principle wraps around you, then you have no idea what is up and down and only the instruments in front of you tell the truth. These can insist you are flying straight and level but your senses, without the benefit of an outside view of the world can be screaming that you are flying at a ninety degree angle and going up or down. I always admire the calm of airline passengers when coming into an airport in thick fog because they have little idea of how challenging and stressful it can be up on the flight deck, even with a fully computerized landing system.

I'm sure other adventurers will try and break the record and you may recall, I wrote, last year, about meeting Brian Milton, when he dropped into Maypole; the man who crossed the Atlantic in a microlight. It's both sad and ironic in this particular tragedy, that the 17 miles of English Channel still represents one of the most dangerous weather obstacles to overcome in a flight to Australia.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mention in Dispatches

I see that this weblog has been given a mention in Ian Dale's Diary, picked-up, I assume, from the Total Politics blog-directory. While I can never hope to compete with 'Labour's 99th most popular blogger', Lord Nottingham of Northwood, who has been uncharacteristically quiet of late, I'll settle for a mention in dispatches!

Some of you may have watched the excellent BBC2 documentary on Lawrence of Arabia, last night, to be concluded next weekend. As readers may recall, I'm a bit of a Lawrence fan, having tracked his progress across the wastes of Arabia and so I was fascinated to see Rory Stewart, sharing my interest with the character and his influence on current American military thinking in the Middle-east and Afghanistan. Apparently Lawrence's experience figure as an important part of the training of their officers as do the lessons of Arab history and yet, Foreign Office diplomat, Stewart, appeared strangely quiet on whether the Seven Pillars of Wisdom figures to any significance in or own military curriculum:

"Some Englishmen, of whom Kitchener was chief, believed that a rebellion of Arabs against Turks would enable England, while fighting Germany, simultaneously to defeat Turkey.

Their knowledge of the nature and power and country of the Arabic-speaking peoples made them think that the issue of such a rebellion would be happy: and indicated its character and method.

So they allowed it to begin..."

Watching the BBC's 'Politics Show' at lunchtime today, I caught by UKIP's Nigel Farage telling John Soper they were a symbol of an "increasingly divided Britain"; revealing that a ban on the burkha may be a part of the party's manifesto in the coming General Election, following the example set by France. I suspect that all the main parties, with the exception of the BNP, have good reason to be worried by this, as essentially it would, in principle, be delivering a single-issue referendum question to the British public on multiculturalism and the influence of Islam. Labour's Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was caught a little off guard when he was asked if his party would consider the same and he replied with a 'personal' view that it would be quite inappropriate for any government to dictate what people could and could not wear in public, remarking, it was "not British" to tell people what to wear in the street, and accused UKIP of indulging in "unpleasant politics". Farage raised an interesting argument for debate, when he said one can't wear a crash helmet in a bank or a balaclava on the London underground and so why should the burkha be exempt at a time when, as a society at war, we are obsessed with the threat of Islamic terrorism? I'm sure readers will have their own thoughts on the subject.

Back to the Ed Balls interview where, like the LibDems, he launched a withering attack on David Cameron's proposal that the institution of marriage should enjoy a tax concession, given that there is overwhelming statistical evidence that nuclear families are of greater benefit to children's development than a single-parent environment. Ed Balls insisted that this discriminates against single-mothers but I'm not sure this is the point we should be considering and neither did the BBC's John Soper, who launched into Labour's abysmal track record on remedying inequality and child poverty. The core of the argument is that marriage offers a proven benefit to both children and society at large and a decade of Labour's social-engineering has demonstrated the consequences of a tax and benefits system encouraging partnerships. How the genie is returned to the bottle without one group or another being unfairly discriminated against I don't quite know but clearly Labour plan to make this a pillar of their own pre-election campaign in tandem with the predictable resurrection of the familiar class-war spectre, as revealed by communities secretary, John Denham, in his "target class, not race" speech of last week.

Back to local matters and it was only recently that I supported the putting-green in Westgate's St Mildred's Bay, to be opened to the public, off-season. It's popular with dog-walkers when the tide is in, me included and today I see its rapidly becoming a veritable dog-toilet, even though there is a green disposal bin at the entrance. To be honest, I despair. Yesterday I watched one man let his dog perform right in front of him and walk past the mess. Catching-up, I said, "I've a spare bag if you would like it?" and he was shamed into returning to collect the mess. I'm tempted to ask the council if they would close the green off again to let the grass recover but everywhere I walk, I'm seeing a chronic problem with people simply not clearing up after their dogs; normally the larger breeds. I'm sure the PCSOs and wardens have better things to do than try and follow 'dodgy' dog owners around Westgate, hiding in the bushes in the hope of fining them in the act and even then, when a penalty is issued, the type of character being fined is more likely to be at a much higher probability of defaulting on the fine.

Don't forget, there's a community safety PACT meeting at the St Johns Ambulance hall in Cuthbert Rd at 7pm on the 19th. I hope to see some of you there.

Friday, January 15, 2010

iPhone Home

Today, I finally joined the massed ranks of Apple's iPhone users, swapping out my Blackberry 9000 for the first batch of the popular smartphones to ship out of Vodafone.

I've been patiently for a year now, as O2 users have had the device for rather a long time and have delighted in showing me how limited the Blackberry, which is powerful in its email capability, is when it comes to 100,000 iPhone 'apps'.

I mentioned that I gave my wife one of the HTC Google Android devices for Christmas and to be honest, it's much easier to install than the iPhone and given its powerful integration with the expanding Google product platform, possibly a better device. However, the iPhone has all the aviation and business apps that haven't yet appeared on the Android and from my point of view, it's apps library has some 80,000 more compelling applications available than Google's but I'm sure that will soon change.

In my view however, if you are looking for one of these super smartphones, then the Google Android is probably the best choice, unless of course, like me, you happen to be looking for specific applications or want to integrate the richer Apple multimedia experience through iTunes.

Perhaps one good thing about switching out of the Blackberry or 'Crackberry', is to wean myself away from PDA attention deficit disorder, every time the incoming email tone warbles. Now my mail is set for collection every fifteen minutes rather than in real time but I will miss the Blackberry keyboard because typing anything sensible on a touch screen phone is both tedious and long-winded!

This week, I stumbled across a book that I wrote twenty years ago, being sold on eBay and it rather surprised me to think that it still holds some residual value today. 1989 was interesting time because we were at the cusp of one the great leap forwards in computing, mid-way between Microsoft's Windows and IBM's OS/2 as both Operating Systems vied for world dominance. We all know which of these won! However, there was a huge amount of disruptive convergence happening at the same time and several of the technologies I wrote about in my book never actually saw the light of day as events overtook them. In any event, it remains an interesting time capsule and perhaps in another hundred years, some researcher will find a dusty copy and find it a useful reference in marking a point in history when the biggest and most successful names in the IT industry were quite oblivious to the sudden rise of a Microsoft which would rapidly push them into extinction or a second-rate position in the software business.

I hope the pupils from the Charles Dickens School, visiting Microsoft next week, will both enjoy and benefit from the experience. In ten years time, who can say what PCs and Smartphones will look like and my iPhone may be gathering dust in the attic along with the 'brick' I first used as a mobile phone twenty years ago!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jessica - A Sad Loss

I was saddened to hear the news today of the death of Jessica Wales, only three weeks after receiving the double lung transplant she had been waiting for.

Twenty-year-old Jessica lived in Westgate’s Linksfield Road, and her organ donor awareness campaign attracted considerable national and international attention. Jessica received support from many sources and celebrities, which included the Prime Minister and his wife Sarah Brown, Jonathan Ross and the singer, Natalie Imbruglia.

I’m sure all my readers would wish to join me in extending their sympathies to Jessica’s family for their loss of such a courageous young woman who was a credit to her community.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gesture Politics at its Finest

Up to the big city today and the large amount of snow on the ground past Herne Bay towards London came as a surprise to me; as did the presence of British Transport Police on the train. Where the former was concerned this illustrated how much Thanet benefits from its micro-climate and the latter, well I've been corresponding with the Chief Constable of British Transport Police in conjunction with Thanet North MP, Roger Gale and I'm delighted to see they have a series of operations running on the trains between here and Faversham. With luck, an occasional police presence will deter the teenage element that I frequently see causing problems between Margate and Herne bay when I'm travelling.

I did notice today an initiative from Gordon Brown to put PCs into the hands of more deprived children and their families, a laudable objective. In fact, when he did this first time around at the beginning of the decade, I was still working with the present Government through the Cabinet Office and recall talking about the initiative on Sky News at the time. Subsequently, I also vaguely recall what happened to the first batch of PCs that were distributed this way. Liverpool, I seem to recollect was where the most were reportedly stolen or went missing but deprivation and loss appeared to go hand in hand, a lesson to Government at the time. While I'm sure some families benefited, overall, I think it may have been a wonderful gesture and a chronic waste of taxpayers' money.

I think, the conclusion was that if you are going to give away millions of pound technology in this way and to this particularly deprived group, then you need to take proper account of domestic and social circumstances and try and encourage the children to come to a facility or after-school club, where they can be properly taught and encouraged, rather than being left to their own devices, frequently in family circumstances which aren't conducive to the educational principle behind the gift. Simply throwing a computer and an internet connection at the problem doesn't, in my mind at least, deliver the results that Government may be seeking.
Anyway, there's a much deeper underlying problem that needs addressing here, the nature of the digital divide in the second decade of the 21 century and I'm not convinced that middle-aged politicians and policy makers are sufficiently in tune with the rapid advances in technology to grasp the social implications of failure.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


The threatened snowfall appears to have passed us by and curled across East Anglia instead. It's a relief to see the roads and pavements clear of ice. Off towards Herne Bay there's still wet snow in the fields but the warmer microclimate that we enjoy here in Thanet, on a line roughly defined by the old Wantsum Channel is a blessing for all those people who have been stuck in their homes and the struggling wildlife. The RSPB have warned that this harsh cold spell could prove the greatest catastrophe for birds since the winter of 1963 and so if you have a garden, apparently even crumbled old mince pies are better than nothing said the lady on television.

This afternoon, walking the dogs on the beach, I noticed there had been a mass die-off of crabs of different species. I gave 'Rock Doc' Alasdair Bruce a call and he told me that the high tides and unusually cold sea temperatures are the cause. Apparently, it's enough to collect stunned Lobsters from the rock pools around Foreness Point "But don't put them in your pocket", he warned "or you'll have a nasty surprise as they warm up!"

From the look of it, business and life in general, west of the St Nicholas roundabout, remains disrupted. I've a meeting in London to attend and others in Maidstone and in Canterbury and I'm not altogether certain that even if I get to Victoria station, South-eastern trains will be able to get me home again if more snow falls. My experience of last week was that the economy had gone into suspended animation, in that I found it nigh impossible to find anyone at work that I wanted to. Here in Thanet, the council workforce did a great job of struggling in but I suspect that a great many people who commute to jobs in London simply gave up and stayed home as the nation's transport infrastructure collapsed under the weight of snow.

A quick reminder to Westgate residents that the next public PACT meeting will take place at the St John's ambulance hall in Cuthbert Rd on the 19th of the month at 7pm. It's your chance to raise questions or concerns with your local police and community officers. I hope to be there as well along with your other local councillors.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Not So Snow Free

In contrast with other parts of the country, Thanet appears to have escaped relatively lightly in terms of overall snowfall. The sea on both sides of us has the added benefit of raising the temperature slightly, which is why we are frequently snow-free, when only a matter of miles away towards Whitstable and Canterbury, the snow starts to build. Yesterday afternoon, I walked back from Margate along the beach, the only place I could find a sure footing and the cold, on the exposed sand at Westbrook, from the strong wind was quite intense.

The forecast for this coming weekend into Monday, very much looks as even our position and surrounding sea temperature isn't going to protect us from the heavy snowfall rolling towards us from Belgium and the plummeting temperatures in the easterly wind chill. As we have so many elderly and retired people in Thanet who are most at risk from the present conditions, whether it be icy pavements or simply the bitter cold, I would urge everyone to keep a watchful eye on any vulnerable neighbours. If you do come across any circumstances that deserve my attention or intervention as a Westgate councillor, please do let me know.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Frozen Fish

It's a bit quiet out there this morning. The road in from Birchington is almost empty, on account of both the A28 and the Thanet Way being closed by accidents, effectively cutting-off the island from the outside world until cleared. We appear to have escaped the worst of the snow as usual, having warmer sea temperatures on both sides and the further west you go, I hear the worse it is.

I'm trying to get to a meeting at the council offices in Margate today so rather than risk the icy roads; I plan to walk along the seafront, as it's a pleasant if rather brisk day. Neither one of my small dogs is prepared to volunteer for arctic sled work and earlier, the older one arbitrarily decide to turn around and head for home after experiencing the bitter wind chill on the beach at 8am.

Yesterday was one more exciting day in politics with what appears to have been a failed attempt by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, to unseat Gordon Brown from his 'Scotsman –like' grip on the premiership. By the end of the day, even young Milliband had issued a statement of support for Gordon, hammering a nail firmly in the coffin of the dynamic duo. Labour, it appears, are still convinced that the country loves Gordon and that he's the man to lead them to victory in the forthcoming election. I wonder how many readers out there would be prepared at this time to risk a fiver at the bookies, betting on a Labour election victory? I rather doubt that taxes and VAT will be going-up until after any change of government though and reportedly, the Labour Party much like the nation, will be bankrupt before that date, as political donations appear to have dried-up outside the big £million size cheques written by plutocratic loyalists like of Lord Sainsbury.

Finally, giving new meaning to the expression, 'Fiscal Prudence', the good news that the Icelandic government has agreed to repay its £billion pound banking liability in fish; setting a new gold-standard in equivalent weight of frozen Cod. The Bank of England, private investors and a number of County Councils have welcomed the gesture of goodwill and reportedly deliveries of the new currency will soon be appearing in specially prepared frozen vaults in banks around the country. With the pound now heading towards parity with the Euro, Chancellor Alasdair Darling is expected to announce Britain's own currency commitment to the new Cod-standard, on account of his predecessor having sold –off most of the country's gold at a rock-bottom price when Labour first came to power.

Monday, January 04, 2010

It’s About Skools

I'm not convinced that Schools Secretary, Ed Balls and I share the same planet. After watching his interview on BBC Breakfast this morning, I'm even more concerned that he's 'lost the plot' in a fog of well-meaning and wide-eyed socialist zeal.

To cut a very long story short, Ed, like everyone else, wants the best possible education for all our children to give them the best possible start in society and to deliver the best possible skills to the economy of tomorrow. It's a laudable aspiration shared by every politician regardless of party.

The Schools Secretary however believes that he can legislate for such success, increasing the education budget and guaranteeing parents that if their child falls behind, then one-to-one teaching will be made available. It's a little more detailed than this of course but I think you will grasp the broad picture.

Strangely enough, even his BBC interviewer appeared a little incredulous. After all, you may throw large amounts of money at the growing problem of educational failure but where are the teachers going to come from among other pressing and important questions. The answer appears to involve political magic of some form because as a politician of the first order, Ed avoided answering any of the questions directly.

What concerns me more about this interview is the implication that schools and teachers are responsible for failure and that Government can somehow legislate to bring every child up to the same standard, regardless of environment, background, social class and more. Instead, Mr Balls and the Government should be asking what social conditions are leading to chronic illiteracy and failing numeracy among well-identified social groups and communities? Children are not like Personal Computers, simply waiting to have the appropriate software installed and then to perform in an identical manner. They are not clones. Human history tells as this as does the familiar bell-shaped curve of intelligence and achievement within any group. Enshrining 'success' in law is not going to make little Johnny a model student if he's truanting from school, committing minor crimes and has a young single mother and lives on crisps and cola.

Perhaps, Ed Balls, should spend some time observing in schools and in particular classes where a high percentage of children have educational statements of one form or another. For the teacher, simply getting through the hour and remaining sane, with even the most modest learning objective achievement for the majority is a success.

Tinkering with education, the curriculum and schools in not going to solve a much broader problem in our society which has to be dealt with first. And to do this, Ed Balls and Gordon Brown and others need to accept that money is not a magic wand and that education must be as driven and supported as equally hard from the home environment as from the school.

Read the reaction from the Total Politics weblog

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Written in Sand

It occurs to me that Britain's' future security won't so much be determined by what happens on the playing fields of Eton rather than the mountains of Yemen.

I was invited to the country five years ago by the UN to speak at a conference in the capital, Sana'a. I really wanted to visit as this is one part of the Arab world that I have yet to set foot in but with it being a hotbed for Islamic terrorist groups, I decided to give the British Ambassador a call for her opinion on whether it was a safe choice of destination. As she only ventured out in the company of an armoured Range Rover and a handful of Special Forces bodyguards, her answer was quite unequivocal. So I asked the UN if they were able to guarantee my personal safety and the reply was an equally unequivocal 'No', so I politely declined the invitation.

In the week that saw the release of IT consultant Peter Moore, from long captivity in Iraq as well, I'm rather glad that I didn't take-up the offer of a visit to Baghdad either. I think I learned my lesson many years ago when the DHL aircraft carrying all my belongings back from Saudi Arabia, stopped in Beirut and never took-off again; the Israeli army choosing that moment to invade the country. However, once again, I'm left with the thought that we are pursuing an unwinnable war in Afghanistan while Islamic terrorism breeds unhindered in Somalia and Yemen.

Yesterday, I saw on the news that the heroin harvest from Afghanistan has also reached new records, with the Russians politely pointing out that under their occupation of the country; it was a fraction of what it is today. The Soviets reportedly had a zero-tolerance policy on the opium poppy production which funds terrorism and crime in the country and simply 'bumped-off' the warlords engaged in the trade. In contrast, Western governments appear to be attempting to persuade the Afghans, that drug production is a very bad idea and try to buy them off instead. The Afghans, being a pragmatic people, think this is, in turn, a jolly good idea and simply keep the dollars and continue growing the opium poppies that you see our troops wading through on news reports from the green zone.

But none of this is new, as a nation we've been here before and simply forgotten the lessons of history in both Afghanistan and Iraq. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) in his "Report on Mesopotamia" for The Sunday Times (22 August 1920) wrote:

"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, and incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster."

What Lawrence wrote then echoes through the pages of history and serves as a reminder of where we find ourselves today, short of money, manpower, equipment, policy and above all, solutions to a problem that now has us by the throat and not the other way around..

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Postman Always Knocks Twice

The postman had to remind me this morning that it wasn't Sunday. "It's OK," he said, "I almost forgot as well" and so thankfully, I avoided waking the family up in time for church.

After a while, the Christmas holiday starts to resemble the film, 'Groundhog Day'. There's still half a Christmas pudding left under cling film and the cream is reaching its sell-by-date and so someone has to make that final gesture of selfless courage and eat it. The two bottles of good Irish whiskey present me with a rather more difficult challenge before work starts on Monday.

The New Year is hardly hours old before all the political parties are starting their pre-election campaigns. I caught the LibDems Chris Hulme this morning taking a thinly disguised class-war swipe at David Cameron over Conservative plans for inheritance tax reform, suggesting it was a cynical ploy to pander to his rich friends and George Osborne's.

Curiously enough though, the BBC ran a programme on Radio 4, a couple of weeks ago where the balance of the taxation contribution in our economy from both rich and poor was investigated. I was quite astonished to discover the remarkable degree to which the wealthier members of our society, (anyone earning over £50,000 pa) through taxation, already subsidise the broad majority who are the net beneficiaries of welfare. The economists clearly warned that the 'Class War' epithet was a political myth and that the LibDems 'Mansion Tax' plans and more risked pushing the system beyond breaking point. Like policing, taxation is only possible through consensus and it has to be sensible, fair and pragmatic across the entire society. Skewing this to penalise the more successful, could simply drive us back to the 1970s and a position where people and businesses simply leave the country.

Regardless of political affiliation however, there's a huge gap in the public finances to be filled and simply squeezing the so-called 'rich' isn't going to achieve it. Britain is going to have to learn to live within its means and for many families, this is going to come as a terrible wake-up-call after so many years of experiencing life in one of the most generous welfare states in the world.

Meanwhile and on a  lighter topic, here's a Rory Bremner sketch that you may not have seen.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A World Down Under

Reading today's papers, one story in particular struck me as one with a deep interest in both education and technology.

Reportedly, a group of eight primary school head teachers have spent £32,000 of taxpayer's money on a three-week training course in Australia, which involved visiting 12 Australian schools. This was apparently an 'investment', or as the trip head teacher Lauren Connor said: 'We want to learn more about how they are using ICT as a delivery mechanism for the whole curriculum. "We made a short film to present to the Australian Education Department in Sydney, and we are looking forward to establishing closer links with schools down under."

To be honest, I can't really see what can be achieved from a trip of this kind 'down-under' as head teachers are pretty much locked-in to our own national curriculum and their own tight budgets. In recent months, I've been on a university course and have also been in school, observing how new technology is being integrated into today's curriculum and I've been very impressed by the efforts and dedication of the specialist teaching staff involved and by the scale of the resource now available to young people in our schools. That said, there are a number of concerns I have, reflected in my earlier blog post: 'In Another Ten Years' and in the article I wrote for the Observer newspaper at the beginning of the last decade, when I identified three, so-called 'Digital Divides': 'access to the internet; a skills gap between those who know how to benefit from the internet and those who don't; and speed of access to the internet.'

My present opinion is that the curriculum, while intensive, is arguably static; i.e. it's very much locked-in to applications as business and productivity tools; the lingua franca of fundamental computer literacy and remains slow to recognize that many students are way ahead in their use and exploration of Web 2.0 and the emerging cloudscape that is increasingly represented by Google in people's minds, rather than Microsoft. There's nothing wrong in teaching students to use MS Office and program simple Flash animations but the technology is now moving so swiftly that it begs the question as to where we should now be concentrating both our imagination and our efforts in teaching the subject.

As an example, I bought my wife a Google Android phone this Christmas and I'm deeply impressed with its seamless integration with the Google cloud of applications, its location and wireless network awareness and the free applications available on demand. Me, I'm also waiting for delivery of an Apple iPhone as well, with 10,000 or so 'Apps; of its own and my fourteen-year old daughter, with her own iPod touch, is already stretching her imagination in regard to what can be achieved with this new generation of handheld devices, the 'Cloud' and a PC.

So now we have a new kind of digital divide and one that I've observed in schools. Access to the internet may be pretty much pervasive these days but there's a wide spectrum of difference between those who are using it for different purposes in our society, from the most basic to the advanced.

As an example, many poorer homes with single-parent families may have very limited access beyond the internet, games and Microsoft's 'Word'. If several children are involved sharing one PC then the opportunity horizons may be very limited indeed. Simultaneously, government talks of bridging the skills gap and introducing new skills but conveniently ignores the fact that simply delivering a Personal Computer and a selection of approved applications in schools (approved at the beginning of the last decade) is really going to influence the rapidly moving software economy of tomorrow beyond the delivery of the fundamental computer literacy skills required to survive in the 21st century.

What the answer is in this cash-strapped environment I can't really say and I'm looking for an opportunity to raise the subject with the Conservative's Michael Gove. However, what I do believe is important is that young people are given the opportunity to see what can be achieved in their future careers if they take an interest in technology. This month, I've drawn-down a favour from Microsoft's head of government relations and arranged a visit for students from the Charles Dickens School in Broadstairs, a sponsored specialist school, to the Microsoft campus in Reading. The company doesn't normally offer school visits but I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for these youngsters to see what life is like on the other side of the fence, on the 'bridge' of the Starship Enterprise, so to speak and Microsoft have very kindly offered to show them and their teachers around for the day. With luck it may provide the seeds of inspiration and an exciting potential career path for at least on boy or girl from Thanet.

2010 + 11:00

Happy New Year everyone and outside the sun is shining and the earlier hailstorm has left behind a very pretty winter's scene indeed!

Here's wishing you all the very best for the year ahead with an encouraging clip from YouTube that I just noticed on Ian Dale's excellent weblog.