CategoriesPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

Carpe diem, Gavin Williamson

At the request of The Yorkshire Post, for whom I occasionally write, I have penned this comment piece. Perhaps they will publish it. Time will tell. I was limited to 750 words, but there is far more that I could say on this subject! Enjoy.

 

I’ll admit it: middle-class parents, like my wife and I, had a good pandemic. Working from home, deliveries, Zoom and a garden, we never had it so good. Our children – girl and a boy – aged 11 and 9, fared well, thanks to devices and internet. To supplement the lamentable online “schooling” from their state school, we hired a teacher for daily online lessons. When one child was learning live, the other was completing homework.

Encouraged, we challenged our children to find an additional tutor – in any subject, in any country. Using an app, my son selected an Argentinian-based coding teacher, whereas my daughter instructed a drama tutor, all the way from Lancashire. (The pound goes further in Argentina!). These weekly lessons continue. Through making their own choices, our children have reconfigured their view of education.

Naturally, I have inexhaustible sorrow for the children whom Covid eternally penalised. The gulf has widened. So, what to do?

Treat Covid as an opportunity. Historians will declare this time – revolutionary: a promiscuous, Catholic Prime Minister; furlough extravaganza; exodus from the cities; Brexit; amber lists; space races; UFOs; wild climate; Tories in Hartlepool; national sporting success; and Natwest in profit.

Meanwhile, over at the Department for Education, for Gavin from Scarborough it’s business-as-usual.

The aftermath of WW1 delivered women’s suffrage. WW2 spawned the welfare state. Post-Covid, here is my uncosted education bucket-list, emanating from a new Education Rights Bill.

First, fundamentally restructure education and the status of educators: teachers should be atop the status hierarchy. Education should become a life-long process. Double the pay of state schoolteachers and make it harder to qualify. Private school advantage will haemorrhage. Empower the teaching regulator. Looking back, all of us remember a teacher who saw something in us that nobody else did. Similarly, most of us remain embittered by a poor teacher, who caused our shameful grades. In future, those who can, teach. Then, pay school governors, encouraging the best to apply, removing the cosy relationship with the Head.

Lengthen the school day. I recommend six terms. Half the summer holidays, given that children no longer harvest. To improve traffic flow in an area, vary school start times. Country-wide, to end the extortionate cost of foreign holidays, term times should vary. And scrap fines for taking children out of school, too, if under ten days. To foster a better balance of genders and ages of staff in primary schools, legalise positive discrimination.

Each child – state school or private – should be given a budget, managed by their carers, to purchase their schooling, as well as any extracurricular activities, additional lessons, clothing and school meals. Want to learn fencing or horse riding, fine. Higher budgets for poorer children and those with special needs. Parents can add to the pot, as they do already. Granny can buy Latin lessons as a gift. The State should have a statutory obligation to provide a free device with free internet.

Each citizen – not just children – should be given an encrypted, personalised education dashboard – a repository for all our educational activities and results, from cradle to grave. One-third of lessons ought to be streamed, available for anyone in the world. If children are poorly, isolating or on holiday, they can watch later. Private schools could maintain their charitable status, only if they stream one-third of their lessons. Want to know what Eton is like, then attend their lessons, either live or watch on-demand later. Didn’t understand the lesson, then go over it again in your own time.

Whilst a British education remains prized, with English the world’s lingua franca, by exporting our online lessons for free to our former colonies, and at cost to others, we can culturally lead. A bulwark against Chinese domination, with its impenetrable Mandarin. To offset the drop in our foreign aid budget, newly qualified teachers must spend their first-year teaching abroad.

Trip-advisor-style reviews from pupils and carers should inform school rankings. With so many online lessons for anyone to view, the best teachers will become celebrities. Scrap Ofsted, SATs and GCSEs. Employers which received furlough cash must provide work experience, allocated by lottery, opening-up the professions. On top of that, I want to see mandatory CPR, sign language, and philosophy lessons, with Shakespeare the preserve of higher education.

School buildings and playing fields must be opened-up to their communities. And like at Hogwarts, children should be allocated a House, with online competitions. Finally, as a right, our children demand clean air, both inside and outside of school.

 

CategoriesHealthEssaysThought of The DayBusiness

Surely, we can do better than this, right?

Wired-up to a portable ECG monitor whilst I type, I feel like a hybrid human-cyborg. Doubtless this state-of-the art gizmo is cleverly reading all the electrical signals going to my heart, but the contraption’s poor wearability contrasts sharply against the brilliance of the tech. When my heart plays up – or, when I think that it does – I press the green button on a small, dangling pad. The pad is the end point for all the wires criss-crossing my torso. The pad will attach to a belt in such an ungainly manner, wires hanging everywhere. Even more cackhandedly, the pad might just squeeze into a pocket, with the wires protruding as if I’m wearing some form of suicide vest.

Design-wise, clearly what would be optimal is if the pad could be strapped to the body – somehow – because when, say, one needs the bathroom, down goes the trousers, which in turn yanks the pad downwards, straining the wires stuck to my chest. What a palaver! Should the wires become disconnected from the pad, the ECG test fails, to be repeated next week, probably. Showering or bathing is out of the question, which again is a preventable inconvenience. If the pad attached to my chest, then I could then wash waist-down, but no.

Not in the least do I feel put out by this minor imposition, which will only last 36 hours or so, but what has fired me up is that the solution to the dangling pad is so very simple. Over the years hundreds of thousands of people will have gone through this process, but nobody has yet thought to improve its user experience. Why is this? Is it because the user – i.e. me, the patient – doesn’t purchase these things, rather it is the medical practice which does?

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Famously, from its seemingly impregnable position as the leading player in video rental back in the 1990s, through foolishness, Blockbuster didn’t become Netflix. When Blockbuster’s CEO recommended to the board that they moved into streaming services, the Board poo-pooed the idea, stating that they made too much money from late returns – returns which wouldn’t happen with a streaming service. Goodbye Blockbuster Video!

Similarly, due to inertia throughout all car manufacturers, a start-up electric car company, founded by someone who knew nothing about cars or manufacturing products, became the most valuable company in the world: Tesla. The other car manufacturers continue to play catch-up. Thank goodness for Elon Musk.

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Speaking to a senior paramedic recently, I asked him – just how invaluable did he and his colleagues find the health apps stored on smart phones, available to emergency workers? He had no idea what I was on about, so I showed him what I meant. (If you don’t know, your smartphone should allow you to record some basic health information about yourself, ideal if you’re unconscious and someone needs to know why that might be.)

Of all the thousands of paramedics, most will have smartphones. Of these, many will be aware of the healthcare app functionality and, I imagine, a fair percentage of these will have updated their own information. Despite this, it has not become standard operating procedure for paramedics (and police, we think) to access such information. Why has this happened? It seems so obvious to an outsider. Does the culture of ambulance services stymie positive change?

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Since Facebook became omnipresent, most users realise that they are the product; that data is a new currency. The more in-depth a platform knows its users, the better it can allow third parties to sell to their users. Mass data is powerful.

Though the internet is readily available in the West, I am only aware of Stuff That Works as a means of collating vast amounts of data on health conditions and using AI to link various conditions, for the benefit of all humans. This is a new entity, set-up by a lady whose daughter had a chronic health condition. Spending hours scouring the internet for tips, with a background in tech – having helped found the awesome app, Waze – she created this tool which I predict will revolutionise medicine. Watch this space.

But why did the NHS, or a similar organisation somewhere in the world, not create this? Why has an outsider – a non-medic, like with what Elon Musk did with electric cars – create this game-changing health tech, rather than an insider?

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Three interconnecting theories spring to mind.

First, as Tony Blair talked about in his famous 1999 speech to the Labour Party Conference – The Forces of conservatism speech – he outlined that in all elements of society, including within the Labour Party itself, forces of conservativism hold back progress. Many people don’t like change, goes the argument, blocking improvements in all sorts of organisations – be they public sector, private or third sector. Conservatism, with a small “c”, delays human development.

Blair said:

“And it is us, the new radicals, the Labour Party modernised, that must undertake this historic mission. To liberate Britain from the old class divisions, old structures, old prejudices, old ways of working and of doing things, that will not do in this world of change.

To be the progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism.

For the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism.

They are what hold our nation back. Not just in the Conservative Party but within us, within our nation.” My underlining.

Blair was right.

Second, as David Epstein argues in Range, often the most successful people in a given field, hadn’t specialised in that field early on in their careers. Citing numerous, compelling examples, Epstein posits that the generalist is more likely to make a breakthrough in a field than someone who has been working in that field for far longer. He says that generalists deploy orthogonal thinking to solve problems, drawing on their wider knowledge of often unrelated areas.

Third, in the case of the ECG machine’s dangling pad, capitalism isn’t at work here in the traditional sense, as the user isn’t directly parting with their money. Had Amazon reviews been an option, the minor adjustments needed for the ECG would have been made long ago.

Well, that’s my take on matters.

CategoriesLegalPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

The Middle Class Advantage?

(I would prefer never to speak of any particular “class”, but as the term retains utility, I shall use it.)

On Friday evening, I had an emergency telephone consultation with a GP. Her advice was unequivocal: go to A & E. Not what I wanted to hear – of course – but I appreciated the clarity.

What I think I needed was for my blood pressure to be checked. Attending A & E alone was a non-starter, as I couldn’t stand up. We therefore asked our wonderful neighbours for an emergency babysitter. In that chat group was a GP.

Now I can assure my readers that I did not want our friend to check in on me, but check on me she did. (As I thought, my blood pressure was too low on standing, flooring me. A & E was spared my needless presence). For our friend, I feel immense gratitude, and I hope that she never needs to check on my again. But such fortuitousness (or not) gave me pause for reflection at the reason for my “luck”.

During my teens, my middle class, wonderful parents secured me two weeks of legal work experience. Unpaid, of course, as such work experience always is. These two weeks not only set me on my career trajectory, but then made it easier for me to find my first job in law. During my gruelling interviews to become a trainee solicitor, I remember citing my work experience as evidence that I understood the profession.

Today, routinely I help my friends and family with their legal problems. No question. Like me, most of my friends and family are “middle class”. Candidly, in the past, I was more likely to sanction a work experience placement if I knew the family.

But let me confess: over the years, I have joined in the pillorying of Old Etonians – particularly the Bullingdon Club boys – for using their upper class connections to further their interests. Even recently, Reckless Boris appointed yet another “Buller” to – believe it or not – take a seat on the Whitehall sleaze watchdog. And let’s not forget Matt Hancock, who appointed his “friend” from Oxford as a non-executive at his department. They soon got to know each other better.

Writing in The Times, Matthew Syed notes:

“The American data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that the son of a president is 1.4 million times more likely to become president than an average American. He also shows that the sons of governors have a 6,000 times greater chance of reaching high office, and the sons of senators have an 8,500 times greater chance.”

Such statistics will be similar in the UK. Locally, my former colleague, Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East, is the nephew of former local MP, Colin Burgon. More famously, in the next constituency – in Leeds Central – we find Hilary Benn MP, son of Tony Benn. Tony Blair’s father stood for the Conservatives, although usually most Labour MPs are drawn from unions – another club of sorts.

Witnessing the building work carried out on our house, it is clear that tradespeople, on the whole, have their own code of honour, able to call on each other whenever they need to. I envy it. Just as when I give free legal advice to friends or family, or when Reckless Boris appoints another mate, tradespeople often go to who they know; whom they trust; who is any good.

In the same Times piece, Syed also notes that the world’s greatest sport – football – is immune from nepotism. Billions play it, because all you need is a football and two jumpers for goalposts. Very few barriers to entry. In football, family ties mean almost nothing: you need ability to succeed. Connections won’t get you far. Unquestionably, the quality of football improves each season. No Premier League Winner in the 1990s would make a Premier League-winning team in the 2020s.

Whilst I am sure that we would all like to live in a more meritocratic world – a world which is mercifully becoming more meritocratic – it would pay us all dividends to consider how we use our own networks to get on, and to help “our own” to get on. The Etonians of this world are just doing what the rest of us do. The only difference being is that they usually control the levers of power. Our GP friend checked up on me – to my advantage – because we live in the same leafy suburbs. I live in a leafy suburb, thanks in large part to the advantages bestowed upon me from childhood. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with such opportunities being passed down the generations– that I should have rejected our friend’s generosity, due to an acknowledgement of historic injustices – but it is right that I realise that most people cannot call upon a friendly GP on a Friday evening.

Turning to our “clan” is what we have always done as a species. In football, we can see a brighter future, where all our talents are deployed to the benefit of the collective; a nirvana to aspire to. In the meantime, next time I contemplate decrying Reckless Boris, I shall first consider my own hypocrisies.