Education in the UK

I have been in and out of education for several decades since my first teaching job, both delivering it and receiving more of it. In that time, I have taught or presented to almost every age group between 7 and 70. It has left me still passionate about the transformative power of good education for others and a great lover of learning myself.

During these past decades the intrinsic value of acquiring knowledge has gone down a little, though the thrill of being around people who really know what they are talking about has not changed. A good education in the widest sense helps you think and communicate more clearly and, however far you go with it, it can help you ask better questions. It can help us become more employable, and more humble, accountable and responsible. Christianity has ploughed a huge amount into education in the past, and it still does.

At worst, some who shine like stars while in the educational system conspicuously fail to do so in the wider world. A good educational background can become yet another reason to look down on others. Those who do not prosper from their education can feel ruined rather than set up for life, and the transferable skills that education imparts can be used for some seriously wrong ends.

I have become convinced that many who are interested in UK education fail to rate sufficiently the role of parents in the process. If a school does well or badly on national measures of attainment, all too little attention is given to the role of the parents in that. I suggest, therefore, that a key to raising educational standards is to ask what can practicably be done better to harness the support of the parents, for example in helping them to provide a reliable location at home for their children to do homework. Early interventions and involvement are needed with some parents, before their child even reaches primary school age, if these parents’ negative attitudes to education are not to be passed on to yet another generation.

Where the primary role of parents in their child’s education is ignored, as in the Welsh and Scottish Government’s expressed intentions to outlaw smacking, many parents will be led to abdicate all the more from their own role and, instead, will in time burden the state yet more with responsibility for the shortcomings of their child’s upbringing.

The 100 most deprived districts in the country are a key to – or a continuing liability – to the future of the nation. The schools in these districts are fundamentally important as places of change. While they already qualify for extra funding on some measures, there is no extra funding in place for instance for a school that is vandalised on a nightly basis. The ‘low tide’ in this nation can be that bad.

The cycle of deprivation in the highly deprived districts is deeply complicated and it is all too easy to give useless help to a school. However, that does not negate the value of MPs, County Councillors and civil servants talking at some length to the headteachers and governors of schools in these districts to identify their unique needs and some possible specific extra areas of support. That could result in some specific provision for a breakfast club (half-starved children don’t learn much) or money to buy a team kit so that a sports team could go and take part in matches. One capable fundraiser appointed per city for these schools could enable governors and other volunteers to enlist help well beyond statutory sources.

Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) is a key area of the curriculum because of the relational fault lines in British society, resulting in an estimated 6 million British people not knowing the names of any of their neighbours (Aviva survey, 2017), as many as 7.7m people living alone (according to the Office for National Statistics), and loneliness being a major problem in British society. The attention that should have been given to this very important area of weakness has been recently dissipated on transgender issues that seem set to promote yet more relational confusion and emphasis on difference. I have written more about transgender issues in my previous blog on ‘Health and the NHS’.

Meanwhile, Ofsted has widened its role from being an inspectorate and upholder of educational standards to being an instrument of coercion. A team typically arrives with almost no notice, however inconvenient that may be to those visited, and can then go on to make or break the future of a school and the careers of individual teachers in the process. One or more of the Ofsted team may have no relevant teaching experience in the scale or other special nature of the school being inspected (e.g. most notably in some Jewish schools, resulting in some serious unprofessional clumsiness occurring in the interviewing of children), and giving clear evidence that the inspectors responsible were operating out of their professional depth. The potential to appeal successfully against any judgments made as a result of an Ofsted inspection – not just the mere facts observed – are largely absent.

Under the circumstances of little notice being given before an inspection, schools feel obliged to prepare for Ofsted expectations. Certain phrases are known to please them while others can bring them down ‘all over you’.

Given that Ofsted comes across as robustly resistant to external criticism, the Department for Education and Skills needs to reform how Ofsted operates so that wider respect for its methods and ratings can be restored. I will write about ‘British values’ in my next blog.

School-based state education could reasonably be seen as a higher priority in the country than it is. If it was so now, there would be a stronger clamour for more funding, as is heard almost daily about the NHS. School budgets are under great pressure everywhere. The minimum qualifications needed for teacher registration could also be raised, as a reflection of the perceived importance of the teachers’ role. Of course, in the end, the best teachers are not necessarily those with the best qualifications.

Our most highly ranked universities are very well regarded internationally, though there is a less praiseworthy tail at the other end of the university rankings with levels of financial risk and retention rates that seem unresolved. UK universities generally have recently received a bad press on such issues as vice-chancellors’ pay, contact hours with students, free speech, and lecturing staff pensions. Inaction, or just plain slowness over the past years, on some of these matters is surely the reason why the Government has created the Office for Students. Despite the complexity of UK laws and practice, it is almost shocking that our politicians should be championing the concept of free speech more loudly than our universities.

There is another threat occurring to the exercise of free speech, which is the indisciplined and demeaning rudeness towards others that has been seen from a minority of academics and politicians. Those who show it are carelessly inviting audiences to conclude that the time has come for more controls on what is now allowed as part of free speech.

It is paramount that Universities UK finds a more pro-active and authoritative common voice, without resistance from some Vice-Chancellors on the basis of university autonomy.

Since the UK is among the market leaders of Education both in universities and in private education too – if judged by who and how many come to the UK to study – some fresh steps can be taken to preserve that position, rather than it being taken at all for granted.

Health and the NHS

I decided many weeks ago that my next blog entry would be on health and the NHS, as this topic remains so close to the heart of the UK’s concerns. From the perspective of this ‘Change of the tide’ blog, it is noteworthy that much teaching about improving one’s personal health went hand in hand with the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, the main focus of recent press reports and public preoccupation has been on getting yet more money for the NHS rather than looking deeper at what it does with the very large budget it already receives.

I don’t recommend this as a method of gleaning evidence first-hand, but my own health has been so badly affected recently that I composed this blog in hospital, where I was for four weeks. I felt like an undercover reporter and was able to have numerous revealing conversations with staff, patients and their visitors, besides being on the receiving end of substantial treatment myself.

I must start with some great praise for NHS front-line staff. A large majority of them are very good at their job, very hard-working, reflective and a pleasure to be around. The work they do is far more meaningful, satisfying and rewarding than the national news might suggest. The NHS is a world-class health system. Unsurprisingly, there are some things about it that are definitely not world-class, for example the very unrelational powers of bed managers which makes it possible for staff to decouple a patient from his or her ward at will (it happened to me after just a few days in hospital) – and even in the middle of the night. More broadly, I propose that world-class medical standards (and not so much our own over-rehearsed NHS history) should be the main key for benchmarking the NHS and improving it further.

The primary problem of the NHS, in my opinion, is that it functions in silos. Once a patient has successfully landed in one of these – such as a typical hospital ward – nearly every staff member in contact with that patient does a fantastic job. However, if the patient’s needs crosses to other silos, then there can quickly be a clash of priorities to the detriment of the patient’s care.

For example, I was put into hospital to expedite appointments with other specialists. Having got me that far, a junior doctor assigned to me explained that he had to build my case well enough to persuade those specialists to fit me in, as if I might not be sufficiently deserving of their attention. The antidote to this silo mentality is to ‘put the patient first’ at all times, to apply that principle rigorously, evaluate how well it is happening, recognise those who do it best and hold accountable those individuals and units that repeatedly fail to achieve it according to recurring patient feedback. I was given the opportunity to complete a very short written evaluation on leaving the hospital, but the printed wording of it was too bland to elicit effectively any principle concerns of departing patients.

One of the most concerning silos of them all in the NHS is the pharmaceutical industry, whereby NHS pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies have deeply embedded power to sell products and services in increasing quantities. It is not as though the hospital pharmacy is even efficient: the ward staff can order up medication that can take 48 hours to reach its destination upstairs, with no tracking procedure to show what is happening in the meantime. One of the less publicised hindrances to releasing hospital beds concerns the delays caused by the pharmacy in assembling what a departing patient needs to take home. I could have left several hours earlier but for the inefficiency in that part of the departure process, and I had already witnessed the same happening to other patients.

I have found that most doctors I have talked to on the subject are embarrassingly ignorant of dietary matters, as their training and emphasis revolves far more around prescribing medication than asking the patient to consider more natural remedies (e.g. discussing, not just noting, what the patient is eating and then helping to steer his or her diet accordingly). A standard 10-minute GP appointment also gives too little time to get to the roots of mental health problems, so a fresh prescription is an easy option for getting the patient out of the door on time.

My own particular case involved a situation where the head of pharmacy blocked for about 17 days the ‘tertiary’ course of treatment that the specialist doctors wanted to give me. That blocked a bed in the meantime and left me in considerable pain, just because of protocol requirements that oblige the patient to ‘fail’ first at two other courses of treatment. Surely, medical teams should always have the ultimate say about treatments, not a pharmacist who goes nowhere near the patient.

The most principled pharmacist is not a neutral agent when it comes to budgetary matters or as an enforcer of medical standards. Sales of drugs to the NHS went up by 20% between 2010/2011 and 2016/2017, reaching £17bn (according to The Health Foundation). Within those same years, the rate of increase of costs in hospitals was double that in primary care. One notable price hike in that time was for Tamoxifen, the widely used breast cancer drug, which went up from 10p to £1.21 per tablet (BBC, ‘Cancer drug price rise costing NHS millions’, 29.01.2017). This represents a major place in NHS budgets where the financial tail is wagging the dog. Some level of savings could make possible higher wages for nurses and healthcare assistants.

Another area with great scope for savings is the NHS internal market, which costs an estimated £4.7bn annually to administer (Centre for Health and the Public Interest, July 2017). Although I am not against internal markets on principle, an NHS patient has very little opportunity to function as a customer. I experienced no such role while in hospital. The internal market is an elite and expensive system to go on using any longer.

Another key area for attention is nurse training and recruitment. Overstated language requirements have now made it very difficult for a competent foreign nurse to get a job in the UK. I write this as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, with much experience of teaching for the IELTS language test involved. The requirement of minimum scores of 7.0 in all four sections of this generalised test is too high. Some educated British people, capable of being good nurses, would not reach that score.

Meanwhile, British student nurses have to pay £30,000 to study and qualify in the UK, even though they move during their course from one unpaid placement to another. Student nursing fees should go down corresponding to their valuable contribution on these placements, and the pre-degree training needs to become less full of essays and theory. The four-year nursing apprenticeship, already being piloted, seems a much better option than a degree for many British citizens.

Last of all, I need to mention the disturbingly costly time bomb that is being put under NHS mental health services by the scam that says it is possible to change gender personally just by announcing it to be so. With no disrespect to those with transgender leanings and characteristics, this unscientific and unsustainable idea ignores the rigorous medical criteria for gender dysphoria.

It seems to me that this is the biggest deceit being taken seriously by government since the South Sea Bubble that peaked in 1720. In that scenario, ministers, including the Prime Minister, ended up losing their jobs as the scale of the deceit that they had permitted produced its own destructive consequences. I don’t think the government can afford that level of political collapse to occur as the emptiness of a self-identified gender policy starts leading to legal cases.

Our GPs remain under huge strain. I suggest that every A&E should have a 24-hour GP practice attached to it, so that all cases that are not accidents or emergencies are immediately sent ‘next door’. GPs in general need more support than they are already getting. I propose that this can best be done by encouraging their steady merger into larger practices, without a corresponding loss of geographical reach, in a way that is comparable with what is happening with solicitors’ practices.

My international connections have allowed me to ask people from other nations what is the best aspect of their health system. A group of high-level health administrators from Denmark replied to me without hesitation, “We work together”. A citizen of Finland replied “the baby box”, which is a well-composed starter kit that a mother is sent home with after giving birth in a Finnish hospital (e.g. the box itself can be used as an initial cradle). The Infant Mortality Rate in Finland is nearly half that in the UK. Spanish and Portuguese nursing staff have unanimously replied to me, “the quality of our nurse training”. We have much we can rapidly learn from other nations in this kind of way.

I think that we can yet have much hope about the NHS, but only if its managers are prepared to make some daring improvements quickly. At its lower levels the NHS is providing some fantastic patient care. In the upper levels of management, over-concentration on just some financial constraints has obscured other factors that could enable the system to do considerably more within its current resources.

I will write about the related topic of public health in due course. I plan my next blog to be about education.

Anticipating a change of the tide

Slide1
Low tide at Freshwater, Isle of Wight, photograph from Unsplash.com

These are very uncertain and changing times in the UK. I have found that metaphors help to facilitate the exchange of ideas for anyone who likes to think visually or relationally, which leads me here to suggest we are at a spiritual low tide at this moment. That does not stop the tide going out even further in the short term, but it helps explain why we find ourselves staring at so much unattractive estuarine mud just now.

While I admire the work of people like politicians and economists, I don’t think it is at all fair to view our national predicament as simply an economic problem or to expect these people alone to get us out of this mess.

In our case, though, things are not automatically going to get better in the nation. Tides are not directed by a human hand, even if some channelling can be done. I suggest we greatly need God’s help and perspectives as well. If we seek and find it successfully as a nation, it is likely to be called a revival. That at the very least, involves serious, sustained and heartfelt prayer.

This ‘change of tide’ metaphor is not entirely original on my part. I would like to acknowledge all the thought and attention given to this same subject by Terry Virgo, the founder of Newfrontiers, which is a family of more than 1500 churches spread across more than 70 nations. Terry wrote the book The Tide is turning, published by New Wine Press in 2006. He has just recently used the tide metaphor again, in an article entitled ‘Whatever happened to the promised revival?’ in the November 2017 edition of Christianity magazine. This leaves him in no way responsible for what I might write or say on the same subject.

This blog follows two guest blogs on Think Theology that I wrote before and after this year’s UK General Election. In the months ahead, I plan to explore what a change in the spiritual tide in the UK might look like, as seen primarily from a Christian perspective but no doubt informed helpfully by others too. I hope it will also serve some useful purposes for our friends, compatriots and well-wishers in other countries, who care more about us than many of us in the UK seem to realise.

The traumatic Grenfell Tower fire shook many in the country and indeed many people in other countries too. Our hearts still go out to those who have lost others in that tragedy and homes and treasured belongings. There remains much to be learned from this multifaceted episode.

I have gone on being struck by the parallels between the Grenfell Tower disaster and the Titanic disaster. The Titanic was a very lengthy object, the longest moving human object ever made until its launch (269.1m). It was said it couldn’t sink, due to its separation into watertight compartments. It was apparently also thought that Grenfell Tower (67.3m) could not catch fire as a whole: its compartmental design and concrete structure made that impossible. Tragically, the supposedly unsinkable ship sank and the supposedly inflammable building went up in flames. Both disasters prompted a government enquiry. The Titanic enquiry did much to improve safety at sea and, hopefully, the current enquiry will do much to help improve safety for those living or working in tall buildings.

However, there was apparently not so much reflection following the Titanic disaster about the implicit rebuff it gave to pride in human advancement. The world stumbled into a devastating world war just two years later, as if nothing had been learned about the awesome destructive capacity of where misplaced confidence in modern technology could lead. I rather like modern technology myself, but godless pride in ourselves, our systems and our achievements can easily get us stumbling – if we are not careful – on a pathway to disaster.

I suggest that the Grenfell Tower disaster should mark an end of some previously cherished assumptions. Perhaps most importantly, it gives notice to Post-modernism, of which Grenfell Tower was a classic Brutalist example. I started reading ‘Architecture and Fine Arts’ at the University of Cambridge in the year before the building’s construction stated. After a first-term lecture series from our Course Director, including ‘The historical fallacy’ (asserting that contemporary architecture has nothing to do with history) and ‘The aesthetic fallacy’ (asserting that contemporary architecture has nothing to do with beauty), I regretfully concluded that I did not fit in there. I left the course after just that one term.

In all its unrelational design and original concrete ugliness, Grenfell Tower was the product of a view of the world, not just an architectural style, that has now all too brutally been shown to have had its day. I plan to elaborate on Post-modernism at some point in the coming year. Meanwhile, I hope this will give some cause for reflection and discussion.

The Unpoliticised Voter in Action

First published as a Guest Post on Think Theology on Friday 16 June 2017

The UK General Election has defied many of our expectations, and the electorate has now spoken in terms that are difficult for anyone to respond to. I’m not keen on the idea of a hung parliament, especially with difficult negotiations on Brexit lying up ahead. However, the immediate prospect of the people of Northern Ireland or Scotland voting to leave the United Kingdom has receded, for very different reasons. It also means that parliamentarians at Westminster will be obliged to talk and listen to each other rather more. This could lead to a Brexit deal that is better for the UK’s ongoing relationship with the European Union than seemed possible before the Election.

Following my list of some underlying major issues in my pre-Election blog, I felt rightly corrected in feedback received from readers for not having mentioned the needs of creation that can be found in the UK’s islands and overseas territories. In the Hustings that I chaired, all five parliamentary candidates united in championing the needs of the environment, which was a heartening boost locally on this same theme.

Some of the worst violence in British Election history brought campaigning to a halt twice. According to data in media reports, a total of 29 people were killed and 164 injured. It has tragically confirmed that the country has a complex problem, both for those who are not Muslims and for those who are. Use of a selective list of so-called British values, that is intended to counter radicalised thinking of any hue, is insufficient to counter such a strong spiritual problem.

While a list of values by definition addresses what is important to those who have composed it, a values-based approach to countering radicalisation is liable to catch in its net many people who are innocent of violent extremism. With no trace of irony evident in the entries revealed, a search in this past week of the Green Party’s website yielded 1,100 results for some delighted use of the word ‘radical’.

Somewhere around four years ago, I thought up an ‘interest in politics’ triangle which helps to explain an added dimension in operation in democratic nations. There used to be a one-dimensional world of politics, as described in the media at least, with ‘left’ at one end and ‘right’ at the other. Tony Blair came to power in the UK, for instance, by successfully identifying the need to occupy thoroughly the middle of that spectrum. Now, you can be a centre party trying to occupy the wide-open middle area of the line and still not pick up more than 7% of the votes, as the Liberal Democrats have just shown.

The single-dimensional political spectrum that we grew up with is now more complicated by having become more like a triangle. People of the political left and right are still there – at least they and much of the media seem to think so – but there is now an important top corner in the triangle that can be called ‘none’. That corner refers to potential voters who have no interest in politics at all.

While disinterest in party politics goes back a very long way, the battling politicians have steadily created over the past twenty years or so an increasing number of alienated voters who are neither very left nor very right – and who do not very readily trust those politicians who, having been in government, are already established as household names.

Politicians and their parties who can appeal to the alienated middle of the triangle have done well, at least for a time. That is where UKIP under Nigel Farage found their votes. It is where relative outsiders like Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron won enough votes to help them get elected. While the people in the middle section tend not to think of themselves as unchangeably left or right, they can turn out and vote and help sway elections if they feel some politician is talking their language.

Meanwhile, much of the political class continues its Punch and Judy act along the bottom line of the triangle, as though that it is the only political world there is, at times sneering at or baffled by ‘populists’ who for some inexplicable reason appeal to the masses. The relatively unpoliticised voters at the centre of the triangle can be rather horrified by this continuing show but are the key to the coming elections, until some third dimension develops that makes the scene yet more complicated.

Prelude to the Brexit Election

First published as a Guest Post on Think Theology on Tuesday 23 May 2017

This election is surely going to be remembered as the Brexit Election. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Theresa May manages to get that landslide majority that she wants for the EU negotiations already underway.

There is the drumbeat of possible independence from the United Kingdom as a whole, not only in Scotland but also in Northern Ireland.

While the EU Referendum was followed by resignations of the leaders of the Conservatives and UKIP, the future of the Labour Party and of UKIP now seem at stake over the election results and how those results are then interpreted.

The careers of many Westminster politicians and parliamentary candidates ride on the tide of how voter opinions are functioning en masse. Especially for those MPs defending relatively small majorities, this is a special time to give account for what they have achieved in just two years.

Maybe all too buried beneath the rhetoric of much campaigning and party politics at the moment, the following topics deserve some substantial discussion in my opinion:

• Increasing debt in the economy. The UK national debt is getting worse, not better. That is the total amount of money borrowed by the British Government at any given time. It currently costs about 5% of tax income just to help service this debt.
• Education. Problems of identity for teenagers have been building for some decades, but these have now become even more acute due to the latest addition of gender identity questions. The situation seems set to get even worse.
• Health. The prescription of anti-depressant drugs in the UK has risen hugely, a 93% increase between 2005 and 2015 (extrapolated from figures given by James Meikle in The Guardian on the 5th July 2016). Individuals needing such help deserve more of our attention. There has been little interest shown so far in identifying what relational and lifestyle choices and factors have contributed to this vast increase.
• Artificial Intelligence. AI is helping to produce a new kind of revolution that will have many positives but will also deprive many of their existing jobs.
• Elections. We have a big proportion of adults in the nation who are too unengaged to vote. When someone comes along trying to appeal to them, this individual is cynically labelled as a populist. Serious work needs to be done to engage the large number of unengaged people. Otherwise, we also may end up reflecting the despair of other prominent nations that have voted into office an outsider, with the attendant risks for ourselves and the world that that entails.

Most of us are not standing for any parliamentary election at this moment. However, I wonder how it would be if God turned to us and asked us to give an exact account of how we have personally contributed to the spiritual health of our nation over the past two years. In the UK, I suggest that the church is doing very well in some separate pockets but not so brilliantly in its collective effect.

It is very important for us to exercise our influence by voting, even though Christian support is happily not all concentrated inside one political party. Beyond the General Election, we have much work to do in helping to change our society, at all levels of politics. There is plenty of opportunity for our engagement in that, without our contribution just being characterised by protest.