Archive for July, 2009

Simon Caulkin bids farewell 4.

July 24, 2009

A letter from the founder and Chair of Human Capital Forum,  Philip Whiteley, to the letters pages of totalpolitics, sums up how many readers of The Observer feel about the enforced departure of Simon Caulkin’s management column from the pages of the paper’s business section.

The decision by The Observer to drop the Simon Caulkin column on management is probably the worst decision I have witnessed in more than 20 years in publishing. It raises serious worries about the quality and depth of debate in our media.

Second only to Vince Cable, he has been the most consistent and intelligent commentator on the contributory factors that lay behind the credit crisis. The Observer’s appalling decision reveals two unfortunate prejudices at the heart of media and politics. Firstly, the assumption that issues of governance and management are minor or fringe issues; secondly that quality newspapers have to court celebrities and drop informed comment in order to stay viable.

Turning to the first matter, while economics correspondents like Robert Peston are feted and given prime slots, they are only ever reporting on the effects of economic decisions made by institutions and individuals. Simon Caulkin analysed the core underlying ideology that causes economic events. This is far more important for understanding how to prevent a repeat of the crisis that we are living through. The mechanistic modelling, treatment of people as resources, obsession with the short-term, and management by targets in the public sector are all symptoms of the sick ideology that has driven management culture, which Simon brilliantly dissected. This is not a left-right issue: the ideology appals many conservative Board members and school-masters, as well as the trade union activist.

Secondly, to what extent are we losing a quality press in this country? When I see the likes of Frank Skinner and David Mitchell given prime spots, I wonder: would The Observer of the 1940s have replaced George Orwell with Tommy Trinder? And how would that have helped, exactly?

I co-ordinated the signatures for a joint letter of protest to The Observer about the decision. Over a weekend, I received 60 vehement voices of support.

If anyone wishes to join the campaign for proper coverage of management, and to arrest the decline of formerly quality newspapers, please contact me on

Philip Whiteley
Chair of the Human Capital Forum London

It seems to me that no amount of huffing and puffing from readers is likely to arrest the decline of newspapers. The best and brightest are slowly beginning to realise that newspaper as we know it is in decline and that if as writers they intend to become professional commentators, they will find ways other than through newspapers of bringing their work to the attention of the public.


Balls and the Sats fiasco.

July 23, 2009

Nothing in this report comes as a surprise to those who believe that this government has long had a penchant for micromanaging things it knows little about. What may surprise just a little is lengths to which it is prepared to go to ensure that what it believes to be right is done – in other words,  how far it will go to impose its will on those who probably know better .

 Ed Balls‘s interference increased the likelihood of the collapse of the Sats system, according to MPs in the first report to officially accuse the schools secretary of playing a significant role in the fiasco.

His department micromanaged the system and prevented the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) from reforming the tests, the report says. But ministers later claimed that they had not been involved and could not be blamed when the tests failed.

The parliamentary committee responsible for schools said Balls and his ministers knew of the problems earlier than has been acknowledged and established a testing system on a scale that made it vulnerable to failure every year. The marking of Sats – taken by 1.2 million children in England – collapsed last year under the auspices of the American firm ETS, which had its contract terminated.

An independent inquiry commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the exams watchdog Ofqual, led by Lord Sutherland, said ETS was ultimately responsible, but heaped blame on the QCA for failing to prevent the escalation of the problems. Balls subsequently scrapped all tests for 14-year-olds and science papers for 11-year-olds.

Ken Boston, the then chief executive of the QCA, had his offer of resignation refused and was eventually fired after Sutherland reported last December. Boston accused Balls of being more involved than had been acknowledged and “sexing up” evidence against him when he appeared before the select committee in April. The report largely backs his version of events.

Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the children, schools and families select committee, said: “The whole process got muddled because there wasn’t a clear line of responsibility. This led to a situation where this [the QCA] was clearly not an independent organisation.

“It’s too easy for Ed Balls and Jim Knight [the then schools minister] to say ‘It wasn’t me, guv, it’s an independent body’. QCA wasn’t independent. If someone is looking over the QCA’s shoulder all the time watching and observing them, even if it’s informally, quietly, beneath the radar, you can’t claim it’s independent.

“Ed Balls and Jim Knight were ultimately responsible for the quality of these bodies. In a system of ministerial responsibility, Ed and his ministerial team can’t escape totally.”

I don’t suppose for one moment that this will make any difference to what either Mr. Balls or his cronies  think or do in future.

Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 3

July 19, 2009

In the latest issue of Standpoint, in an article he wrote while the suggestion that he might be willing to put himself forward for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, Clive James seems to be insisting he was not interested in the post.

 The suggestion that he was interested

… started happening a few days before the election, when I was being interviewed, nominally about my latest collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, a book I mention here because it wasn’t mentioned in the interview even once. My interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, was charming, so when she asked me a question I did the thing I always do when asked a question by a charming woman. I opened my mouth to its full extent and put my foot in it up to the knee. The question was about the Oxford Poetry Professorship election debacle. “Would I like the job?” (Those might not have been her exact words, but that was the main thrust.) My answer (and these are far fewer than my exact words, but this is the thread) was: “I would love it, but not if I had to run in an election.” She used only the first bit — that I would love to have the job — and the Guardian editors flagged it as “Clive James throws his hat in the ring”. 

In reality, Clive James had already made it clear that he would rather throw himself off a cliff. But the thing had been said, the Australian papers had the story next day, a Spanish paper, bizarrely, had the story the day after that, and within a week my supposed candidature in the postponed election was being discussed, with at least two pundits in the British broadsheet weekend press allowing that I might not be a bad choice, in the absence of William McGonagall, E. J. Thribb or Baldur von von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who wrote a terza rima encomium to Adolf Hitler.

But a Robert McCrum – a declared supporter of James for the post – shrewdly observes in today’s edition of The Observer, James has not gone so far as to rule himself out categorically.

And I do indeed find the Oxford Poetry Professorship just about the most attractive cup of its kind in existence. I would imagine that any poet who has spent his or her lifetime at the craft can only feel the same. The botched election might have made it a poisoned chalice, but what a chalice it is. You have only to think of the string of poets since the Second World War — Day Lewis, Auden, Graves, Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Heaney, Fenton, Muldoon — and think of how much you would have liked to hear them speak, summing up their knowledge, opening up whole fields of interest with the merest aside.

Having set out a very persuasive set of reasons for saying why the present system for choosing people for the post no longer works, and never really worked, James suggests that occupant should “agreed on by a panel of people whose chief concern is poetry, and who rank poets by their achievement and vocational wisdom”

How this board of experts should be constituted is beyond me. But before he was ever Oxford Professor, Seamus Heaney was a visiting professor at Harvard, an office to which he was not elected, but appointed, to the vast benefit of both Harvard and himself. So Harvard must know how to make a board system work. For the Oxford post, drafting all the surviving holders might not be a bad start, and then you could add in some critics and literary editors who know what they are talking about. Who those might be would itself be a matter of expert choice, so I can already see that there could be a welter of in-fighting and no clear course to a workable result. But we can be sure that the current system no longer works at all. Another election along the lines of the one we have just had will be a kamikaze convention, and we might as well have Ant and Dec presiding over the phone-in.

I myself have a a gut feeling that James himself would like to think he had a chance of being chosen by the kind of board he proposes, if not for his “achievement”, which he’s always had the good gracke to be modest about, the certainly for his “vocational wisdom” which I suspect he sees no good reason to be modest about.

Labour and damning statistics.

July 16, 2009

There was a terrific article by Jenni Russell in the 14h of July edition of The Guardian in which she examined why measuring-by-statistic-mad new Labour are still failing to understand why the electorate are ungrateful, even when all the statistics show that it’s spending on schools and the hearth service is higher than it ever was, its commitment to economic regeneration demonstrably serious, its commitment to reducing crime figures unquestionable.  

The conversations I have had recently with senior civil servants, advisers and Labour ministers have often had a plaintive tone. Why, these people want to know, aren’t the electorate more grateful for what’s been done for them? Where’s the political reward for all the money spent on schools and hospitals and economic regeneration? Why doesn’t the country appreciate the fall in crime figures? How could voters be flirting with the cost-cutting Conservatives, when Labour’s statistics show that spending money produces measurable and improved results?

These sound like the right questions, but they aren’t. What the questioners really mean is not “Where did we go wrong?” but “What’s wrong with all of you?” And what’s wrong with us is that we’re not the automatons New Labour thought we were. We’re not remote and dispassionate observers of our society, making cool calculations about its success or failure on the basis of government-generated numbers. We’re complicated, vulnerable, emotional creatures, and we live with the consequences of official decision-making every day of our lives. What matters to us aren’t the figures we’re fed, or the targets that get hit, but what the experience feels like to us. Yet that part of the process has been almost completely neglected in official eyes….

As one reads this article, one realises that big lesson that Labour did not was the lesson Simon Caulkin was, but is no longer,  preaching Sunday after Sunday in his column for The Guardian‘s sister paper, The Observer, and that is that Labour has, since it came to power, insisted on using the wrong measures.

 It thought it was being modern and innovative by treating the country as if it were a business, where all outcomes could be measured by putting money in and getting targets out. It made the false assumption that building a school or a sports complex was automatically an investment, just as it would be if the government were in the business of mechanising chicken factories or building car plants. It thought it could close police stations or post offices in the name of cost-cutting, with as little effect as if it were Coffee Republic shutting down some unprofitable shops. It didn’t stop to remember that the business of all public services is dealing with the needs of people, and that those are never just mechanical, but social and emotional too.

Governments cannot afford to take a business’s narrow and mechanistic view of people’s requirements, because it’s not just a collection of service providers. A government’s wider duty is to frame and structure the society in which we live. Rebuilding society was one of Labour’s explicit aims, in contrast to Mrs Thatcher’s infamous reference to there being no such thing. Yet our encounters with the state are profoundly important in shaping our culture, and every time we run up against the wooden indifference, public lies or robotic responses of officialdom we shrink into ourselves, and the bonds between all of us are weakened a little more.

Labour thought that what we prized above all else was economic efficiency. Clumsily, it tried to give it to us and, even when the evidence showed it wasn’t delivering, it went on attempting to give us statistics instead. But the priorities were wrong. What we all prize in our encounters with others is a sense of our value. We are social animals, alarmed by the uncertain world in which we live, with a profound need to be recognised, respected and responded to. We want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter. It is the deepest human need, and yet this government has been oblivious to it.

When it wonders why we’re not grateful to it, the answer’s really simple. It’s the experience, stupid.

Yes indeed we do “want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter”, and as an adjunct to that we want our newspapers and periodicals to employ and retain people who will articulate those wants in forceful ways. What we do not want is influential newspapers to rid themselves of our most eloquent spokespersons at the very moment we need them most in the way that The Observer rid itself of Simon Caulkin

A graceful exit for the Jaguar?

July 14, 2009

The new Jaguar XJ was launched at the Saatchi gallery last week. I know that, what with everything working against there being a future for the  “gas guzzling”, air-polluting monster that is a Jaguar, it is hardly the right thing to say, but, as someone who has directly and indirectly been involved with Jaguar for over three and a half decades,  I was rather pleased to read that The Observer‘s astute design critic Stephen Bayley considers the new car a triumph of the designer’s art. It’s a swan, although maybe a dying one.

We may have exhausted the idea of beauty. Certainly, artists never use the word. Instead (Ian) Callum has opted for drama, presence and visual interest. The XJ is a big and imposing, even dramatic, shape. Bravely, Callum has resisted copying any of Jaguar’s well-known styling cues, preferring a reinterpretation of the essential idea of an elegant, large car with a pleasing mix of feline poise and masculine substance. It sits low and stands wide: special attention was given to creating a roof line of striking visual elegance (involving a small compromise in headroom which Giles Taylor, one of Callum’s helpmeets, told me that grim Ford executives would never have allowed). Surfaces are boldly sculpted and details limited, but when they occur … dramatic. Look at those rear lights.

It will take years to decide if it is beautiful but it is certainly very interesting. I left Saatchi, saw a new Bentley and thought how very two-dimensional and undistinguished it looked in comparison.

Maybe Callum has borrowed a little from Jean-Pierre-Ploué’s work at Citroën, but, let’s admit, the XK120 was inspired by a prewar BMW and the E-Type by the Alfa-Romeo Disco Volante. Then great artists don’t borrow, they steal.

But is it the “optimum expression of steel” as an old Jaguar designer, Geoff Lawson, said of the E-Type? No, it’s the optimum expression of aluminium and 50% recycled materials. Cars reflect their decades. The 60s got lust and liberation. We get sustainability and … the prospect of redemption.

Jaguar XJ

The Return to Logos and Mythos.

July 13, 2009

In an article published in today’s edition of The Guardian,  the author of The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, Karen Armstrong, distilling the arguments she makes in her recently published The Case for God, suggests that religious people,  rather than talking whether or not they believe in a set of doctrines “which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data” should learn – or, more precisely, relearn – that ” religion is something you do, and that you cannot understand the truths of faith unless you are committed to a transformative way of life that takes you beyond the prism of selfishness”

 Hers is in essence a clarion call to religious people to subsume the dichotomy of logos and mythos that existed in before Newton and Descartes and their successors subjected religion to scientific scrutiny  “and scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth”

 In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience……

Above all, myth was a programme of action. When a mythical narrative was symbolically re-enacted, it brought to light within the practitioner something “true” about human life and the way our humanity worked, even if its insights, like those of art, could not be proven rationally. If you did not act upon it, it would remain as incomprehensible and abstract – like the rules of a board game, which seem impossibly convoluted, dull and meaningless until you start to play.

 The problem I have with this line of reasoning is that it’s very difficult to see why one mythos, in a world in which so many competing mythii in what is now close proximity, would be preferable to another.

Simon Caulkin bids farewell…..3

July 9, 2009

I don’t suppose that the great and the good at The Observer – yes, I’m talking about editor John Mulholland and co. – are going to be all that pleased that it was the man from The Torygraph who was able to report rather that the Government was now abandoning its long held belief in target culture, a culture that Simon Caulkin, the man they unceremoniously dumped a few weeks ago, had long and persuasively agued was fundamentally flawed from its inception.  

Today, the Government will publish a policy document that will say – wait for it – that the target culture that has suffocated initiative for 12 years is to be abandoned because it is unlikely to deliver the reforms that the Labour Party wants to see. Instead, the various parts of the public sector that deliver services directly to us as taxpayers, such as the police, doctors and teachers, will be allowed to make more of their own judgments based on what is needed locally. Gordon Brown will announce the new approach in a document laughably entitled Building Britain’s Future, together with a draft legislative programme for the next session of Parliament….

For myself I find it hard to believe that the man – John Mulholland again – who can put his name to a letter like this is too concerned about Caulkin’s value as a writer.

Thank you for your letter and I must apologise for the delay in responding.

Simon Caulkin is a tremendous writer and his column has added enormouslyto our understanding of British business and management. For these to lose the column was not taken lightly. It followed much discussion and only after exploring many different options did we reluctantly conclude that we had to take this course of action.

As you will doubtlessly appreciate, this was just one of a host of difficult decisions we have had to make in order to reduce costs across the newspapers at Guardian News and Media.

Newspapers and media groups are experiencing the most difficult trading conditions imaginable. Not only are we suffering, like everyone else, from the catastrophic fallout from the credit crunch in terms of severely reduced advertising revenues but, additionally, our industry is under structural assault from digital media which is causing enormous disruption to our business models.

In these circumstances, we are having to make extremely difficult decisions many of which have caused real anguish as we seek to cut costs. I do hope that Simon can continue to have a relationship with the paper and that we can continue to publish his writing from time to time. Should the economic climate change, then perhaps we can revisit the issue.

Thank you for taking the trouble to write and I completely understand your sense of loss but hope you can appreciate the dilemmas we are facing.

Yours sincerely
John Mulholland
The Observer

Discovering Ailish Tynan.

July 8, 2009

In October last year, when I was writing about the soprano Babrara  Kilduff, I posted an excerpt from Mozart’s  Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by way of illustrating of how good a singer Ms. Kilduff is.

Today I have just discovered the delights of the Irish-born soprano Ailish Tynan, and as a way of illustrating just how good she is, I am putting a link to the Papageno and Papagena duet, sung by Tynan and Simon Keenlyside, in Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s 2003 production of that very same opera.

Headteacher and his bonus 4.

July 7, 2009

The last time I mentioned this subject was  in middle of May when I noted that Sir Alan Davies, head of Copland Community College, north London, who was being asked by The Guardian why he had suspended three members of staff after they revealed his £80,000 bonus on top of a £100,000 salary was himself among a number of people suspended pending inquiries into the school’s financial management.

In today’s Education section of The Guardian there is a profile of Hank Roberts, the geography teacher and union activist who blew the whistle on Davies.

The part which deals with Roberts went about exposing Davies is instructive.  

The legislation encourages whistleblowers to go to the authorities, not to the press and the public. But his years of union activity, Roberts says, have taught him that “left to themselves, the authorities will cover these things up”. So he went to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conference at Easter and announced Davies’s bonuses from the platform, which gave rise to stories in the national press.

“I knew Alan Davies would find it hard to face me at the first staff meeting of the following term,” he says. “But I had made it very hard for him to suspend me.”

Instead, Davies did the last thing Roberts expected. The Friday before the school term began, Davies suspended him for something else.

A letter had been sent opposing trust school status from the three union representatives at the school. Roberts’s wife, Jean, dispatched the letter without knowing that it had not yet been seen by one of the three, the ATL representative. This, says Roberts, was a genuine error, and made little difference because the ATL representative agreed with the letter, which was in line with her union’s policy. But Davies suspended Roberts, and two other union reps.

Roberts’s main worry was that the authorities might not act fast enough. So he sent off a second dossier containing more allegations, which are now being investigated, together with a letter explaining his fears:

“You may already know that I have … been suspended on a trumped-up charge. I know that long-term this simple act of retribution and victimisation will be exposed. However, in the meantime, the very governors who authorised, and the headteacher who accepted, these unlawful bonuses may dismiss me. Protection of whistleblowers should be such that they are protected against trumped-up charges and disciplinary action taken on that basis.”


Very soon, Davies was suspended, along with his deputy, Richard Evans, and the school bursar, Columbus Udokoro.

Philip O’Hear, principal of Capital City academy, has now become acting head, spending four days a week at Copland.

The day after Davies was suspended, Roberts was given permission by O’Hear to go into the school for a union meeting. Roberts can still feel the glow of the reception he got that day. He is emotional as he tells me: “It was astounding, teachers and pupils standing and cheering. That was a good moment.” The next day, at a meeting with O’Hear, all charges against Roberts were dropped.

Roberts has long been a union activist and has never been afraid to stand up to authority. A fierce opponent of academies, last year he was among protesters who camped out on the site of a proposed academy in Brent to stop the construction work. But he accepts that not everyone is a born activist or whistleblower. To any teacher faced with a decision about challenging the powers that be, his advice is: “If they have evidence, they should blow the whistle, that’s the right and proper thing to do. Under the legislation, if they do it in good faith, they are protected. There is also extra protection for union representatives, and they should keep their union informed.”

Right now, Roberts is pleased with himself. He hopes the investigation will lead to real questions being asked about what he calls the “bonus culture” in schools. Also, he believes good will come of it at Copland. “One year’s bonus for Sir Alan is equivalent to the textbook budget, and the school is very dilapidated.”

He hopes he has made school privatisation harder to justify, for in a trust school or an academy it would have been almost impossible to stop the Copland bonuses.

Perhaps, says Roberts, we will start to focus on classroom teachers. “No one ever said: I did well in life because the head managed the school well. They talk of inspirational teachers. These are the people who change lives.”

This reader cannot help but feel that Roberts was probably lucky to be vindicated in the long run, but can’t help but wonder just how many in similar situations as he found himself – or, more accurately, put himself – are quite so lucky.

Clive James’s big ego.

July 4, 2009

An anonymous writer for the Irish Independent, concluding his or her review, Clive James’ The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 (Picador, Stg£15.99) says that “we’ll forgive the ego and celebrate instead the insights and the elegance of one of the great prose writers of the age”.

It’s more or less what many of us have been doing for the last three or four decades.