Category Archives: Life

The ups and downs of life as it passes on by

My mum’s boomerang – it’s all coming back to me now

Here’s what I found in the attic in response to the Leftovers blog

On 2nd June 1961 my mum, in her early 20’s, boarded the SS Canberra with 2,237 other passengers and set sail on its maiden voyage for Australia.   Able to afford only a one way ticket and not much caring for the sea, I can only imagine the combination of excitement and apprehension.    Anxiety that can’t have been eased by her father’s anger when he heard about her plans and his refusal to see her off.

She spent the next 6 years in Australia, working largely for the Daily News, experiencing plenty of what the country had to offer.  A mixture of letters, recordings and one pre-planned phone call a year (her family back home in England didn’t have a telephone) was all she had to communicate with her parents and 5 brothers and sisters – oh for a facebook, twitter or blog!

She no doubt had some incredible experiences – many more than she’d every admit to her children. When she did eventually return, she was only able to bring with her a few treasures.   Two items that stuck in my mind were a large bow and arrow set and a boomerang – both given to her by an aboriginal tribe whilst covering a story with her boss for the paper.

I first saw them when I was about 8 yrs old – an age when my parents could trust me to visit the attic with confidence I wouldn’t come crashing through the floor via a mis-placed foot.   I remember the brutal strength required to pull the bow and the lethality of the tribally feathered arrows.    But what fascinated me most, however,  was the boomerang, which had been delicately carved and painted with aboriginal scribe.   How on earth could this funny little bent stick possibly come back to you once it had been thrown.   Impossible I thought.  But the seed was planted and I knew one day I’d have to give it a try.

During a hot summer holiday day a few years later,  I was off school and kicking my heels for something interesting to do and mum asked me to get something from the attic.   So up I went and purely by chance came upon the bent stick.  A light bulb went on – today this stick was going to fly and I would be the pilot!

With the boomerang stuffed under my shirt I strode purposefully outside and into the garden.  The image you might have at this stage is a large open meadow with a few apple trees clumped in one corner and a crumpled looking hedgerow framing the view as far as the eye could see.  Perhaps a more accurate image might be a square grassed area, size capable of parking 2 cars with a brick garage at one side (good for football I might add), a huge beech tree (always interesting to climb) to its left, a lamp-post (great for kick-stone games with the other kids) opposite and 2 cars parked on the drive providing cover on the final side.

At that age, little did I know that a boomerang requires more space than a yo-yo, but rest assured it was a lesson I was shortly to realise.   My right arm drew back like a pitcher and with all the ferocity I could muster I sent it off into the distance.   Well I’m sure it would have gone into the distance had the garage wall not provided an inconvenient obstacle.

The boomerang splintered into 2.  I involuntarily jumped from side to side as if standing on hot coals whilst muttering “oh s**t, oh s**t” – inappropriate language for a 10yr old I might add.  For a second or two I was so gripped by terror, I couldn’t function.  My legs wouldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, blood drained from every limb. If candid camera had been present I’d have been carted off to an institution.

Eventually I strode up to the shattered stick and like all boys of that age pondered how to get myself out of the mess.  First thought – who could I blame?  Sadly a very short-lived thought.   If Mum & Dad discovered the crime – that I had ruined a prize and irreplaceable possession, my life was surely over. I imagined that in all probability the bow and arrow might also get a first use in many a year, only with me as a target.   If I couldn’t admit it, then there was only one other course of action.  I’d have to try to fix it and hope for it never to be discovered.

So to another product young boys are rarely supposed to touch – unless accompanied by a mature adult – the superglue.  The strongest glue the world had ever seen – strong enough to hold a grown man upside down from an aeroplane according to the advert, so strong enough to fix a boomerang surely – and I might just get away with it provided I didn’t glue my fingers together at the same time.      A quick dab of glue on the boomerang, sandwiched between 2 books to keep it pressed firmly together and it was job done.  Up to the attic to return it (and the accompanying books) and all was calm.

I was in the attic a few weeks ago and found the boomerang – still actually pressed between the very same books.  Not by design, but because the books had also stuck to the boomerang – they certainly weren’t lying about the strength of the superglue. Maybe my son will follow in his father’s footsteps by one day attempting to throw the books & boomerang to see whether they all come back – now that would be interesting.

You might think I’d got away with it for all these years.  Sadly not.  A couple of years after the incident my Dad was clearing out the attic when he came across the scene of the crime.  A roaring bellowing noise crashed down through the attic hatch as I was summoned – don’t know how he knew it was me, I mean it could have been my sister – but obviously parents just know.   Mum came scurrying along to intervene. I’m sure with the intention of protecting her son from the angry attic beast. I prepared myself for my William Tell moment as Mum was presented with the evidence.    Clearly upset that a precious gift from another age was destroyed, she turned to me and saw my distress – my remorse for what I’d done and my fear for what was about to be done.

She just smiled, patted me on the head and said “I’m not sure it ever really worked anyway. So never mind – it’s been sat up in the attic for over 20 years so I’m sure we won’t miss it.  But you should have told me rather than trying to hide it and just tell me next time you need to use to super-glue as I don’t want a visit to A&E”.

I learnt a lot about being a parent that day and what’s really important.  I hope when my children put me to the test, the boomerang and all it entailed come back to me.   My mum passed away a couple of years ago and I never really told her how sorry I was for breaking the boomerang or how grateful I was for what she taught me.  Thanks Mum.

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Austerity – myth or reality

Just read an article by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, that has prompted this quick response – would like to have done it through twitter but I need more than 140ch to get it off my chest.

Now I must admit I went into this full of optimism that someone was finally set to expose the austerity story. The article at http://bit.ly/TYXXNJ starts quite well – but then it tails off into a whole pile of populist drivel. The sort of garbage that raises a loud cheer amongst the troops, but does nothing to show us the light.

The situation in the UK is fairly straightforward. We have an enormous debt of around £1.3tn (excluding a public pension deficit that would probably dwarf that figure) that continues to grow at an alarming rate. All we hear in the news is about reducing the budget deficit – which means we’re not reducing the debt at all, just reducing the rate at which is grows. I’d say that’s cause for concern not just for this generation but all those with the unpleasant task of following us and sorting out our mess.

So let’s be clear Mark about your statement, “But is there really less money around? Of course not. Our economy is still one of the largest in the world and some people are still doing very nicely, thank you very much”. What you fail to observe is that technically we are bust – if we were a business or an individual we would be declared bankrupt. The only money that is around comes from increasing the debt which a business or individual would not be allowed to do. I’m one of those old-fashioned types who believes if you can’t afford it, you can’t have it, but clearly when you refer to money your views are more “I want it, therefore it is my right to have it”.

What saves us is the fact that many other countries are in the same boat and one country will not call the loans on another because it would spark a meltdown that would put 2008 into the “nice to have” category. Fortunately, we have the luxury compared to some of being able to set our own interest rates. The Bank of England decided that low-interest rates were the order of the day – again only possible because everyone else was doing it. There were several reasons for that decision and one in particular related to our very high levels of household debt (which last year stood at around £28k for every single adult in this country) – and the absolute need to prevent a housing crisis similar to that seen in the US with sub-prime.

So prior to the 2008 financial crisis, we had interest rates running at around 5% and they are now at 0.5%. So what that means is the vast majority of people in debt were actually financially better off after the crisis than before because they were paying less to service their debt. Without all the trimmings (again to keep it simple) the average mortgage payments for approximately 10 million mortgage holding households have gone down by over £3000 per year. So every person who has remained in employment (we have more people in employment now than in 2008) who carries debt is better off now than before the crisis. That’s an awful lot of people.

I do however recognise that alongside that, many people have seen their pay reduced and for them the benefit of interest rate reductions might simply soften the blow. Mike points out that the public sector has come in for some fairly rough treatment and that is right. However one could argue that the public sector has simply become too big and needs trimming back – in 2013 almost 20% of all jobs were in the public sector. Whether you like it or not, the size of the public sector is dictated by the size of the private sector – the bigger the private sector, the more money is taken into the public purse to pay for services. The size of our national debt would infer the public sector is too big and the choice facing the budget holders is to reduce jobs, pay or both.

However, the people I feel sorry for are those with savings because the cut in interest rates means they are worse off. The moral of the government approach is spend yourself silly, get into debt, have everything you want now regardless of whether you can afford it (spending is always good for the economy) and then when it all goes pear-shaped we’ll help you out and shaft all those people who’ve tried to live within their means. Brilliant but the inevitable consequence is people won’t learn. Only next time it will be worse because all those debt addicts will carry on and many savers will join them because they might as well enjoy themselves.

Mark also refers to poverty which is something of red rag to a bull with me. Relative poverty defines income or resources in relation to the average. So let’s assume we have 5 people with incomes 100, 150, 175, 200, 225 – to put the average at 170 – which means that 2 people are in relative poverty. Now if someone enters our country with a large wad of cash (perhaps a Russian oligarch, a Chinese billionaire or rich Europeans hedging their assets) and an income of 350, then all of a sudden our average moves to 200 and we now have 3 if not 4 people staring at poverty. Their circumstances haven’t changed, but the headline figure of 4 in 6 people now in poverty is a real attention grabber. Even better, our economy is now showing growth because our new wealthy immigrant has lots of money to spend in the shops and on property and is more than willing to do so.

So let’s be clear relative poverty is not a very good definition of a person’s struggle to survive – it is simply a measure of the gap between the top and the bottom. That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s place, but it is currently being used mischievously out of context. And when you then use the poverty card against utility companies you seem to ignore the reasons why their prices have increased or the fact that many of our pensions a leading shareholders in those companies.

It also leads to another interesting question. In your country would you rather have more millionaires or less? Personally I don’t want to see millionaires who are well off because they have simply exploited others. I categorize people working in and around the stock market as such because all they do is gamble with other people’s money – if they win, they receive a ridiculously high bonus whilst the pension pot receives 5% and if they lose they receive a moderate bonus whilst the pension pot is obliterated. How the stock market is allowed to work as a no-lose casino for the traders is beyond me – but that’s for another day and another blog.

However I do want to see more millionaires who have created something – created products and services that generate good employment. Employment where the employees receive a fair market rate and good working conditions and prospects. The more of those millionaires the better and I’m sure their money will be welcomed up and down the country in every shop they walk into. I agree morally it is not comfortable to hear that the top 5 wealthy families are worth more than the bottom 20%. Clearly there is an imbalance but I’m not jealous of what they have earned – I’m thankful that they’ve chosen to do it in the UK so we have a little more money to fund our public services without financially crippling our future generations. Having said that, you might find if those families chose to leave the UK (and they are wealthy enough do so) then it would drag a large number of people out of poverty.

If Mike is going to be a responsible trade union leader he needs to think first about what is best for the country, then what is best for his members. That cannot ignore the debt.

A big tick or a red cross for the teacher’s strike?

The National Union of Teachers is planning a strike in England and Wales on 10 July because apparently the government is failing to make progress on a long-running dispute over pay, pensions and workload. Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT said “For teachers, performance-related pay, working until 68 for a full pension and heavy workload of 60 hours a week is unsustainable.”

In the UK there is a legal right to strike – and some would call it a human right to strike. It stems from the recognition of collective bargaining in the late 1940’s and is supposed to be act as a deterrent to prevent “bully boy” tactics by employers. Which all sounds very reasonable and logical. However what happened in the 1970’s showed that it could also be used by “bully boy” trade unions to get their own way as short-sighted union officials nearly bought this country to its knees.

In the mid 90’s I used to work for a company that had historically strong trade unions. One Saturday morning, I needed a trailer to be moved away from a loading bay to be parked in the yard. Just 1 trailer that would have taken 15 minutes to move. I asked the team of 4 shunt drivers whether anyone fancied the overtime only for my attention to be drawn to the union agreement. It stated that any weekend overtime needed to be offered to the entire shunt crew rather than any individual as it wasn’t fair to favour any one over the others and any employee turning up for weekend work would be paid a minimum of 8 hours at double time. So for 15 minutes work I would need to pay 4 people the equivalent of 16 hours pay each – in other words 15 minutes of work would cost the company 64 hours of pay. And by the way – no one other than the shunt drivers was allowed to carry out that work so we couldn’t bring anyone else in to do it either. My hands were tied and there was nothing I could do. I was so annoyed, I decided to have none of them in and leave the trailer where it was until the following week – it caused me a lot more work to re-jig the schedule but there was no way the union was going to blackmail me.

At the end of the day, the unions can hold massive power. A power that a company simply can’t compete with. That sort of power needs respect – by those who are against it but more importantly those who have it.

My example showed an agreement that was designed to “protect” the employee, but simply created a division between employees and management. An agreement that elevated workers rights far beyond what was sensible or appropriate. An agreement so inefficient that it could only lead to the demise of the company and instead of talking about overtime, we’d eventually be talking about redundancies – especially in a global economy. As with most things, the problem is people. In order to be an effective trade union you need to balance the long-term benefit of both the company and the employee. To recognise when the company is being too demanding, but to also recognise when the company needs to make changes to survive and prosper. To do that effectively, you need to have sat in the Management seat and had the experience of taking a company forward. Trade Unionists who have not been Managers are recipes for disaster.

Similarly, however management need to recognise the importance of their employees. Without the employees a company is nothing. How can a Manager who has never had experience working in the conditions experienced by some of the employees possibly understand their needs. Managers who have no experience of doing – on the streets, in the factory, in the yard – are a recipe for disaster.

So let’s move on to the teachers. To remove labour from our schools is significant. There is little more important than education and depriving children of something so fundamentally important is concerning. So surely it must be the last resort – well I mean surely it must be the last resort since the previous last resort strike in March.

But does the NUT have a legitimate cause? I know there are other issues at play but let’s look at the 3 points mentioned by Christine Blower – performance-related pay, working until 68 for a full pension and heavy workload of 60 hours a week.

  • Performance related pay: The idea to reward better performance sounds great but it all comes down to measurement, subjectivity and mitigating factors.  More often than not, employers measure the wrong things, often in a subjective way, without taking into account the circumstances.  So rather than be productive, they can actually de-motivate.  Teaching is about enabling each child to reach their potential and there are a whole range of factors at play.   It is pointless and hugely subjective to measure a teachers based on the results of the children. Is a teacher with pupils achieving A* grades performing better than one achieving B?   Is a teacher with a class where 99% achieve A*-B better than a teacher with 50% A*-B ?  No – we have no way of knowing because we don’t understand the influencing factors outside the control of the teacher.   Performance related pay can only be divisive for teachers.
  • Working until 68 for a full pension:  The truth of the matter is we’re living longer and there is already a massive public sector pension deficit.   No-one likes the idea of working longer for the same pension but you have to be living on Mars not to realise things can’t go on as they are.   Private sector pensions have been severely hit over the last few years with the removal of final salary schemes, greater employee contributions and an increase in pensionable age.   Many companies (massive household names) have huge pension deficits that they are trying to fund and many will go out of business as a result.   At the end of the day it’s basic  maths – what’s paid in vs what needs to be paid out – and if the payments out are greater than the payments in then we have a problem.  That’s exactly where we are and as a result, I have absolutely no sympathy for teachers on this issue. Teachers need to accept that everyone will face the same issue and given that their pension schemes are already far better than many they should be very grateful.
  • heavy workload for 60 hours a week:  A nominal school day is between say 9 and 4 so potentially it’s a 7 hour day times 5 days per week which equates to 35 hours per week.  So that figure of 60 hours would suggest every teacher is doing 25 hours extra per week or potentially 5 hours per night – which does sound rather a lot of marking, class preparation, extra curricular activities,  report writing etc.   Whilst many in the private sector are equally flogged, if teachers are really working 60 hours per week, then it is too much.  It’s too much because it would appear that our teachers, who’ve been trained to teach, are in fact spending almost as much time not teaching as they are teaching.  However to strike about this seems almost counter-intuitive.  The teachers will now have less days to cram in the same amount of work – assuming they’ll still follow the curriculum.   It would be better instead to concentrate on removing the non value adding tasks – and there are many in our schools – and making others more efficient.  I know the NUT and it’s members are probably up in arms throwing tantrums by the dozen because of the suggestion they are not 100% efficient – but none of us are and occasionally we can all do with re-pointing.

So there is only 1 point that is a justified grievance.  Performance related pay is a nonsense.  But is it really so serious that the only way out is a strike?   I think not!  The real motive behind this strike are not the issues of debate but a jostling for power and that sort of strike takes us back to the dark days of the 70’s and is an abuse of the right.  The NUT flexing it’s muscles against the unpopular Michael Gove who has the audacity to attempt to change a system that in all honesty doesn’t work as well as it needs to in the modern world.  He might not be right in some of what he’s trying to do, but the NUT are plain wrong.

Teaching is a difficult job and in our blame culture they are at the coal face when it comes to looking for excuses.   It’s not made any easier when the people supposed to represent them pursue a self interested agenda – and when you consider the hundreds of pounds the teachers pay for the privilege it’s almost laughable.

Perhaps children should go on strike to protest about teachers going on strike – then we’d really have something interesting on our hands.

How can state education steal the private marketplace ?

Why would any parent want to spend money on education when it is available free down the road? I mean would they spend £20 on a Big Mac when they could get one exactly the same for £2 down the road? I very much doubt it.  Whilst there are many people who suggest that state education is every bit as good as private, you have to conclude that the private parents believe there is a different product on offer to justify the cost.

Unfortunately in most cases those supporting state education fail to understand or grasp the significance of the major differences such as:   Education standards, aspirations, like-minds, facilities, links with other organisations such as Universities and networking.   The value of each differs between schools and the emphasis parents place on it but like it or not without them people wouldn’t pay for private education.

Education standards is usually where the argument centres and for many people it is the most important criteria. Does it mean better teachers? Not necessarily. I’m certain there are many equally capable, if not more capable teachers working in the state sector. Is it results ? Yes. For many private schools, if they are unable to demonstrate that their average results are better than the state competition then they will struggle to attract the best fee paying customers unless some of the other “differences” are more valued.  To maintain those higher standards, they either need to select the most able pupils in the first place or make sure that those who do come are pushed to the appropriate standards over the years.

This raises two interesting points. Firstly the idea of selection based on ability. This principle was actually led by the state school system and was called Grammar schools. Grammar schools were able to group together similarly able pupils, regardless of their social background in an attempt to provide an education more suited to their needs and create greater opportunity. Where I live there are still a few Grammar schools that are doing fantastically well and as a result, all the private schools are second choice – and we’re talking about some famous names in private schools. Parents will not pay if the free option is as good.

Secondly, how is it possible to raise academic standards to a higher level when the teachers are no better? This is an area that is consistently neglected when it comes to raising academic standards. Government and various education think tanks are constantly banging on about the need to measure and improve the teachers – if it’s not working let’s blame the teachers. That’s simply passing the buck because it isn’t populist to tackle the real issues. Where a private school has an advantage is that the parents have a vested interest in the outcome and that changes the behaviour of both teachers and pupils – as my former boss put it “they have skin in the game”. It gives the teachers the tools needed for control and it gives the pupils two taskmasters. If your parents are paying for your education you will put in some effort, but if you’re results don’t live up to expectations you will be told to try harder not just by the teacher, but by the parents as well. If your parents are paying for your education and they hear you’re misbehaving or not paying attention in class, you will hear about it under “I’ve not been working hard all these years to try to give you the best start in life for you to mess about with your idiot friends. Knuckle down or we’ll look at the local state school” – and the idea of losing your friends and starting again carries some weight.

A Department of Education report in 2010 confirmed that “parental engagement has a large and positive impact on children’s learning” and this followed a report by Professor Charles Deforges, OBE in 2003 that stated “In the primary age range the impact caused by different levels of parental involvement is much bigger than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools. The scale of the impact is evident across all social classes and all ethnic groups.”

Following closely on the heels of educational standards are like-minds and aspirations. If the primary motive for the parents sending their children to private school is to achieve a certain standard then already you have people with similar aspirations. Parents who’ve been through the same process, struggled with the same decisions and who value education similarly.

Private schools come with parental engagement of a sort already established. State schools simply don’t have that. It doesn’t mean that a child can’t do well in a state school, however the probability is lower. You only need a few disruptive children to hold back a class, but if the parents aren’t sufficiently motivated to play their part in resolving the problem then the teacher loses the tools needed to do the job. The more committed pupils can still achieve their potential, hopefully with the support of their parents to do that, but in the worst case a domino effect ensues and disruption spreads.

Facilities are often raised as being a key differentiator. The wealth of the private school enabling better sporting facilities, more IT equipment, better field trips. I’m quite sure that’s true when comparing many private schools with state. However, it seems to be a point raised more by the pro-state backers, that the private school parent doesn’t place much emphasis on it. I’ve heard plenty of parents comment on how good the facilities are at a school, but never heard of any allowing it to heavily influence their decisions.

And on to the final differentiator and possibly the most misunderstood. Networking and links to other organisations. “The old school tie” is often derided in the world of business and politics. Just by attending a certain school, opportunities open up for you. Some private schools, the elite famous private schools, are less about education and more about networking. Making sure you become friends with people or families of influence so that as you climb the ladder, it’s less about what you know and more about who. Despite the denials to the contrary – I mean everyone wants to believe they are there on merit rather than favours – it is absolutely 100% true.

However, before people march to the Capitol in protest, it is worth considering that the behaviour is not unusual. It would not be unusual for someone raised through the state system to help their friends’ careers, given the chance. Networking and nepotism exists at all levels of society. The key difference is the fact that the networking at the more elite private schools tends to play out at the more influential end of society where the financial rewards are greatest. In that context money buys influence which buys opportunity. But is it the principle of nepotism or jealousy of the rewards at the top that cause us most difficulty? I doubt we’d get too worked up if Lord Sainsbury was giving his old mate Earl Smyth a position on the checkout at the local store, but if he becomes the MD, we might be a little more upset. So I suggest it’s the latter.

Where does all that leave us. Money provides choice and if a parent chooses to spend on education then that is surely their right. It is no different to being free to choose what clothes to buy, where to go on holiday or whether to go to the match on Saturday. It’s your money, you’ve earned it and you can spend it as you see fit.   So why do people draw the line at education (and health).

Is it that health and education are fundamental entitlements that should be available to everyone?  Well they are available to everyone by virtue of the NHS and State schools. So then it must be that it’s not fair for some people to receive “better” than others. Is that based on sound ideology or as above, is it simply jealousy of the  “it’s not fair because I can’t afford it” type. If you break down the ideological argument you can only conclude that no-one should have choice in anything. You simply can’t apply freedom of choice to some things and not to others, purely because you don’t like it. If someone sees a market, is prepared to supply it with a product that people are prepared to pay for then it has to be allowed. I have fairly moderate outgoings because I can’t afford anything much different, but I don’t pretend that high-end spending should be banned.

If you were to ask me whether I think private schools should be allowed then absolutely YES – freedom of choice is a fundamental part of our society and it is a backward step every time we try to erode it – especially with petty jealousy.

If you asked me whether we should need private schools then my answer would be NO. The market for private schools exists largely because of the weaknesses in the state system. If you want to see less private schools then you shouldn’t spend your time attacking them – you should spend your time raising the standards of state schools to reduce the differences highlighted above.

Personally I would like to see selection return to state schools so that we can put like-minded, aspirational children together. Let them be great regardless of their social background – let them flourish and mix with people more likely to push them. I’m not just talking about identifying only the top, putting them together and throwing out the rest. I also want to see streaming going down through all the levels so that pupils are with similarly able and like-minded others and the curriculum and teaching methods can be adjusted according to their needs. When parents start to realise that their child can reach their potential in a state school, many will not even look at a private school.

We need to provide state school teachers with the tools needed to do the job. They are there to teach – not to act as councillors or parents. Stop expecting too much from them and get rid of the ridiculous measurements that simply promote averageness rather than excellence. Encourage better parental engagement. I’m not talking about attending a school fund-raiser. I’m talking about the parent making sure their child knows that a free education is a privilege and not a right. That they are expected to try their best and to behave in school and if they don’t the teacher has the absolute right to discipline them without parental comeback. Make a parent’s evening as much about the what the parents are doing to help as it is about reviewing the child’s performance.

Finally – just accept that nepotism exists at all levels of society. If it happens at the bottom then it will happen at the top and like it or not, you will never get rid of it. However it would be appropriate to break the monopoly of the elite private schools because that level of power amongst such a small number of people is a dangerous thing. Unfortunately, that will take generations to achieve but as with the argument above, it will never be done by attacking the elite. It will be done by raising the influence of other schools. If you want more influence to come from state schools then you must improve the standards within those schools to give the top Universities and employers a better reason to take more students from them. As state school improve, so more influencers will come from them and so the nepotism will spread.

If you have anything to add, then please feel free to comment

Football – troubled or triumphant ?

I love football. The skill, the unpredictability, the atmosphere and the drama all combined to cook up a viewing feast.

The first World Cup I ever watched was Argentina in 1978. I thought Peru were fantastic with their red striped tops and ability to leather it into the top corner at any moment. Then there was Scotland chasing an improbable margin of victory against Holland, being given hope by the glory of Archie Gemmell dancing through the Holland defence, only for Holland to snatch it back with an arrow like strike moments later. However the single most vivid memory was the white streamers and ticker tape pouring from the stands when Argentina played. It was just amazing and I’d never seen anything like it. I’m sure if it happened today it would be acclaimed by a brand of bog roll, but anyway I was hooked.

So roll forward to Brazil and I think we are witnessing the best World Cup ever – well certainly the best since 1978 which is as far back as I can muster. Surely the only conclusion is that football has scored a massive triumph – the games have been great, the stadia made it on time, the predicted riots haven’t materialised, even the USA fans have watched in massive numbers and all in all there’s been a party atmosphere. What could be better?

Well I have a feeling that the beautiful game is in danger of imploding. FIFA, that self-appointed body of unaccountables are constantly viewed with suspicion and their awards to Russia and Qatar have done little to improve that image. I only hope the “independent” investigation will lead to positive changes, although I’m not overly optimistic. But that’s not the cause of my main concern.

It is what’s happening on the pitch that is alarming. A few examples: First game – Neymar swings an elbow at Modric but stays on the field so that he can score the equalizer. Then Brazil are awarded the most ridiculous penalty you have ever seen. A short time later Croatia are denied a perfectly legitimate equalising goal. Next game is Mexico and they are denied not one, but two legitimate goals because they were deemed to be offside. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dubious decisions from the officials. But these decisions are massive because they are changing the results of games. Just the couple mentioned above would have meant Mexico topped the group and who knows whether Brazil would have even qualified?

Add to that the fact that in most games we have to watch players diving or rolling on the floor with a level of play acting that would make an Oscar winner feel proud. The likes of Thomas Muller apparently needing emergency surgery having been shot by Pepe’s finger tips only to make a miraculous recovery the moment Pepe decided to shove his forehead a little too close. And don’t get me started on the holding and pushing on a corner or free kick into the box, with the France vs Ecuador game taking the art of penalty box wrestling to a whole new level. It reminded me of a player I grew up with, who went on to represent England a few years ago, telling me how, at his club, they were taught how to dive and how to pull shirts. Alarming but true.

So putting it in simple, easy to understand language the players are cheating and what’s really sad is they are getting away with it. The results of games no longer provide us with the answer to “Who is the best football team?”. Instead the question now is “Who can get most of the decisions in their favour?”

The most notorious player of the last 2 World Cups will be Luis Suarez. In South Africa in 2010 he handled the ball to prevent a certain goal. A goal that would have put an African team into their ever semi-final. Although he was subsequently sent off, Ghana missed the penalty and eventually went on to lose the match. An act that changed the result of the game. In 2014, as we all know, he decided to satisfy his hunger by taking a nibble on Chiellini before throwing himself to the ground as if fortunate to still retain a head on his shoulders after receiving such a ferocious elbow to the cheek. Italy were down to 10 men and Uruguay scented blood – quite literally in some cases – but the score was 0-0 and that was enough to see Italy progress. At that moment, Suarez should have been sent off, which would have evened up the numbers and probably subdued Uruguay without their talismanic striker, putting Italy on the front foot. But it didn’t happen and shortly afterwards Uruguay scored and Italy went out. Again a decision that probably changed the result of the game.

I’d also like to add that whilst I’m disappointed by his behaviour – clearly he needs some help – I am disgusted by the “support” expressed by some leading figures who are portraying Suarez is the victim. Disrespectful to the game that made them and morally void for every young kid looking for their role models to show them the way.

To be honest I’m fed up of it. I want to see the best football team win in the right way – that doesn’t mean that we don’t get shocks and lesser teams can’t cause an upset – it’s simply a desire to see results based on playing within the rules. Not too much to ask for is it? After all we have a game, we have the rules and it’s just a question of seeing them implemented properly. What makes it worse is the fact that the solution is there – right in front of us every time we turn on the TV.

I don’t blame referees. They can’t possibly see everything on the pitch and get it right first time all the time. I agree they could be better, but expecting a perfect game is like asking for an iced lolly not to melt in the desert. The answer is using a video referee. We all know what’s gone on because we can see it on a TV replay. So why can’t the officials use that to help them?

Ah, in come the old-fashioned “it will slow the game down” brigade. What a load of old tripe. How long do you think it was between the moment Suarez bit Chiellini before the game resumed? How long before did the game stop before the Neymar fired in the penalty? Enough time for a video review? Of course – I’d seen the replay so many times, I was bored stiff by the time play resumed. In many cases it would actually speed up the game. I’m not suggesting it is used for everything, but exactly as they do in rugby, the referee calls for assistance as and when needed and the big calls are always right.

Even more important, if players realised they can’t get away with it, they won’t try it on in the first place. Before we know it, referees will be respected rather than abused and diving, pulling, pushing and biting will be a thing of the past because there is no longer any advantage to be gained.

For football to be triumphant, the authorities must follow the lead of several other major sports – if they don’t I fear football will become increasingly troubled.

Population and house prices – is there a link Sherlock?

According to The Office for National Statistics estimated there were 64.1 million people in the UK in June 2013, a rise of 0.63% on the previous year. That equates to a population growth of more than 400,000 which apparently is more than any other country in the EU and it’s a rate that will soon take the UK to over 70 million.

So where’s all that increase coming from. Apparently just over half was down to natural change – births minus deaths – while net migration represented 46% of the rise and interestingly more than a quarter of all births came from immigrant mothers. A quarter of the UK population growth was in London.

At the same time we appear to be caught up in another housing boom. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney warned of “deep structural problems” in the British housing market stemming from a shortage of fresh stock. It is most chronic in the South East where Savills estimates a shortage well into the hundred thousands. Co-incidentally last week official figures showed annual house price rising at around 9.9% pa – with London showing a near 19% rise.

And so the conversation concerning the Great House Price Inflation Robbery began:

Holmes begins, “Dr Watson, there is nothing like first hand evidence. We have a growing population, largely driven by immigration or the offspring of immigration. We have a shortage of houses which I deduce must have something to do with the fact that we have more people to house – I would surmise that should the population remain flat then there would be no material increase number of houses.”
Dr Watson steps in, “With you so far Holmes old chap, although perhaps I could add to your last point to acknowledge the role of the single parent family in all this. Apparently nearly 25% of households are now single parent – a number which has trebled over the last 4 decades.”
Back to Holmes, “Good point Watson and it is clear there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. So we would need a small increase in new homes to account for those people who can longer bring themselves to share the same living space with their family.”
Watson “Absolutely old chap. And a damned shame it is too! Then there is also the need to build houses that are replacements for those that are no longer fit for purpose.”
Holmes again, “Another point well made, my dear Dr Watson. However, having gathered these facts and smoked several pipes over them, trying to separate those which were crucial from others which were merely incidental. I concluded them as merely incidental compared to population increase as the leading culprit in this dastardly robbery.”
Holmes went on, “I confess to knowing no earthly reason why the leaders of our great nation do not appear to make the glaringly obvious connection between immigration and the increase in population that so violently contributes to the housing shortage and consequent bubble. Surely any man not blinded by the need of the populist vote could conclude the same and then react accordingly.”
Dr Watson exhales slowly before adding, “All very well old chap. But more people, means more “needs” to be satisfied which ultimately means more jobs and more spending. The connection may well have been made Holmes, but it’s a turkey voting for Christmas like move for any politician to stifle what little growth there may be in the economy. I’ve even heard some comment that the infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals and transport, can’t take the added load, only to be informed by those of a certain persuasion, that investment in infrastructure will in itself create more jobs and make the government more appealing to voters.”
Holmes responds swiftly “I think that you know me well enough, Watson, to understand that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time, it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you. This reminds me of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”
Dr Watson inquires “But the dog did nothing at night-time”
Holmes again “That was the curious incident! Here we have a government with an apparent need to demonstrate growth to the voting public. Growth is a curious beast. Its variances means little on the streets, but as a headline it symbolises prosperity and has become a battle cry to rally the troops. In a country getting close to the edge of all it can consume without losing it’s buttons and popping it’s shirt, the only way to maintain the illusion of growth is to grow the population. I imagine you will find a very different per capita picture from that promoted by our government of the day – something which the common man fails to grasp. In the short-term such rapid population growth will lead to house price inflation and it can also fuel anti-immigration sentiment as shown by the results for that Moriarty like creature and his UKIP party – but they are merely bumps in the road. More serious are the possible long-term effects of such an approach. A national debt of £1.4tn growing at over £5k per second simply cannot stomach the increased public spending required to grow the infrastructure needed to maintain a harmonious community – and that figure does not even include the alarming pension deficit. The night-time is fast approaching, Watson – decisions need to be made quickly to reduce the debt and ensure harmony on our streets is maintained – but if the dog doesn’t raise itself into action, it may be a long time before the light returns”

With that, Watson poured himself a quick tipple and changed the subject to why England seem incapable of winning the World Cup

Are teachers right to feel undervalued ?

Two-thirds of teachers feel undervalued, says OECD study as reported http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27985795.

It’s a fair point. They get up every day ready to be in school between 8 & 9 am, apart from the 13 plus weeks of the year when it’s the school holidays, obviously. They sit through a good few hours of lessons trying to pass on wisdom to an audience that might rather be playing on the X-box. Often with the inclusion of the odd little Jonny, who, despite being English, is more likely to become the US president than sit still without misbehaving for a whole lesson. They endure a tortuous lunch hour when they’ve either got to marshal the tear-aways in the playground or sit huddled together with other similarly worn down dreamers in the staffroom. Then between 3 & 4 pm the dark clouds part and a ray of light enters the room as the little rascals drift away, scruffier than when they arrived, and preparations begin to repeat the exercise all over again tomorrow. In between times there might be the added bonus of an extra curricular activity and a bit of homework to be getting on with.

All that and not a word of thanks from anyone.  The only recognition comes when poor little Jonny’s parents introduce themselves and him as the victims of teacher bullying – the fact that he might have stuck chewing gum in a class mate’s hair and sworn at the teacher trying to break up the ensuing fight is little more than a neglected detail.

Sounds to me like they’ve got a point.  As Aristotle proclaimed, “Learning is an ornament in prosperity, a refuge in adversity, and a provision in old age.”  Surely if there is nothing more important than education, then there is nothing more important than the providers of education!

Hold on – let’s take a step back to provide some balance.   I get up at 06:45 to make it to the office at 07:30 each day – that’s when I’m in the office and not travelling.  I sift through a raft of about 50 emails.  A few trying to sell to me, several we’d refer to as “arse covering” and then maybe 1 or 2 of any actual value.   Then the meetings start from around 09:00 and go right through to the end of the day, with odd gaps here and there.  I grab a sandwich for lunch which I eat during a meeting, much to the annoyance of the presenter, who recognises my attention is more focused on the misery of the slightly damp bread rather than his navel gazing analysis.   Then everything starts to wind down and I head for the exit at around 5:30pm so that I can get back home for 6:00pm.   A quick bite to eat, some time with the children and the it’s onto looking through the actions that I’ve picked up during the day and adding them to the growing list that I should have completed yesterday.   Then before I know it the alarm’s bleeping and we’re off again.

To be fair, every month the cycle is broken by a trip or two and as I’m sure you appreciate, travel is an absolute luxury.  It’s usually by plane, which means waking at 05:00 to get to the airport for 06:00, so that I can wait around in discomfort for a good couple of hours.  Then a squeeze into a seat that was surely modelled by primary school children and off we go.  Mid-way through I’ll be provided with some sort of cold sandwich, which provides little benefit other than passing the time, before the man in front decides I need to study his male pattern baldness in more detail by reclining his seat.  I’ve so far avoided the temptation to provide it with a Benny Hill like slap, but I won’t be able to resist forever.  After a few hours of being bumped around and losing any feeling in my legs, we endure a slightly nerve-wracking landing.  Then it’s off to stand in a clearance queue before the “will it/won’t it turn up” conundrum of the baggage carousel.   I’ll always remember standing at a UK airport, hearing an announcement stating that one of the baggage trucks hadn’t made it to the plane, so half the bags were left on the departure runway.  Shouts of “Come on my bag!” as if watching the Derby, echoed through the hall.

Feeling relieved, bags in hand, it’s off to the taxi rank for a journey of unspeakable horror with a driver of suicidal tendencies – this applies especially in European and South American countries and maybe others I’m yet to visit.  I suppose the clue is in the missing seat belts and cracked windscreen, but his car is next in line and you get what you’re given.   At the hotel, a quick beer to relax before checking out the room service – it’s seldom much fun sitting Billy-no-mates in a restaurant on your own.   Then crank up the PC and attempt to log onto the email server through the hotel’s exorbitantly priced internet service.   As the emails download at pre-broadband speed the TV goes on and you flick through a good 50 channels to find the only 2 that speak your language.  After the second news re-run, you flick through again – surely there is something you missed.  In the end it comes down to your language but boring, some irrelevant sport that you’re not the faintest bit interested in, or music.   The music goes on and you start working through all those emails that you’d have got to at 07:30 had you stayed in the office, only now it’s 8pm in the evening.   Lights off at around 11pm and a quick review of the day shows very little achieved apart from being a long way from home.   All that and not a word of thanks – and I only get a few weeks holiday a year, which I can only take when the Company allows me and the prices are through the roof.

I feel undervalued.   Why is no-one writing about me?

Perhaps the truth is that most employees feel undervalued to some extent.  They feel that they work too hard and make too many sacrifices without so much as a by your leave.    It might not be perfect, but unfortunately, that’s life and the recognition comes in the form of a pay check.

Do I value what teachers do? Yes  Do I think they are undervalued? Yes  Do I think they deserve greater recognition?  No more than the vast majority of those being paid to do a job.