A Journal of the Plague Year

Enter the Nightingale University Programme, stage left.

World Class Higher Education

They really are the gift that keeps on giving. If you thought a nadir of some sort had been reached with the Dominic Cummings jolly to Barnard Castle, the Tories have shown, week by week, that they are genuinely world leaders in arse -from-elbow confusion. And that’s genuinely world leaders as opposed to Boris Johnson-type world leaders (ie embarrassingly feeble).

Each day of the Great Exam Grade Debacle, has sent the collective jaw ever further nearer the floor. It doesn’t seem possible that even vaguely sentient human beings could get things quite as badly wrong as this. And yet still their supporters plead mitigation. Katherine Birbalsingh says she feels sorry for Gavin Williamson. Her compassion does her some credit, if not her judgement. She’s joined by Toby Gobfull of Brylcreem Young, Michael Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, who just the other day told us she too feels sorry for Johnson, saying that the stress and exhaustion of worrying day and night is bound to generate bad decisions. Nobody has ever been that worried before, judging by the tsunami of bad decisions we’ve been submerged under. And, really, Johnson’s only worry is can he get another holiday in before people start dying in their droves again in the autumn. The only person in the entire country who must be feeling rather chipper about all of this is Chris Failing Grayling, who suddenly doesn’t stand out from his peers as being a complete knob. He is surrounded by complete knobs. There is a veritable Bullingdon club of knobs whichever way he looks. He has never felt so at home. He has heard on the QT, that he has been lined up to replace Private Pike at Education, because it needs a safe pair of hands. Relatively.

Separated at birth….

But now, Gavin has other fish to fry. On the back of his frankly brilliant wheeze to save the nation’s  children, by going with CAGs (how on earth did little Gav think of that one all by himself?) he has another problem to deal with. Universities now have to accommodate thousands of extra students, and there is no chance whatsoever that having clambered out of one trench of excrement, Gavin is going to dive into another by not allowing any of the Great Northern Unwashed to go to a university of their choice. (Rumour has it that Johnson was genuinely surprised, when Dom told him, that anyone from a northern town went to university anywhere. The last time he saw an oik from the north at university, it was warming his toilet seat, for a small fee and a roasting at the common room fireplace.)

Taking back control, one gaffe at a time…

Although Johnson finds it tiresome, he has been told time and time again that he has got to make an effort to be nice to the Oiks, despite their body odour and skin disease. And so he will give his imperial assent to the Great Education Plan. To accommodate the additional working class hordes, he has given the green light to the building of a new generation of “Nightingale Universities”. Because he got a lot of praise for his “Nightingale hospitals” even though no-one was ever treated in one. He said he was going to build them and build them he did. Hurrah!  So it stands to reason that the same thing will work for University capacity. They’ll convert all of the empty shopping centres around the country – John Lewis, IKEA on out of town sites etc – and they will be staffed by (and this is the bit that Cummings is really pleased about) by all the new graduates who can’t get a job for love nor money. Graduate unemployment solved at a stroke. It’s just like Dom keeps saying, you just have to be prepared to think outside of the box and go for eccentrics, mavericks and loons.

And to make it as unsinkable as The Titanic, the new Nightingale Universities will be run by their new Chief Executive, Dido Noseintrough, fresh from her triumphs at TalkTalk and Track and Trace (motto: No infected individual knowingly informed), with fat contracts awarded, without tender, of course, to Tory chums in IT and Construction. And next year, when the dust has settled, a few discreet titles in the honours list. Taking back control to be World Leaders in corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

It’s clear to me that Johnson, Cummings, Gove et al have read my novel, “Zero Tolerance” and have taken it for an instruction manual. In that, the Education Secretary, Marcus Grovelle, solves the problem of Social Care, spending on the armed forces, school funding, graduate unemployment and teacher recruitment, with a brilliant solution. And I thought I was writing satire!

I’m going to publish the relevant chapter to whet your appetite for more. Coming soon!

Brexit – I blame the teachers

The pause in Brexit proceedings ushers in a period of reflection, before we all take a deep breath and go again. Although, I have to confess to being one of those Brexit nerds for whom the pause is agony, like the gaps in between Game of Thrones seasons. Just before the Easter holiday, I found myself getting annoyed when not only did Brexit not occupy the first twenty minutes of the main news bulletins, but that, horror of horrors, it wasn’t even first item. I’m afraid my habit has got an iron grip of me. The six o’clock followed by Channel 4 news (a personal favourite of mine this and so refreshing after the right wing bias of the BBC. Although one does live in permanent fear of Jon Snow keeling over live on air. He does appear to be gabbling and getting a lot of his words wrong these days. Retire Jon! You’ve done your bit. Now you can sit back and just tweet like the rest of us. Obviously, the money’s not what you’re used to, but that’s getting old for you.) Then a gap that is filled by News 24,  Parliament Live, Twitter, and the Internet until Newsnight and the joy that is Emily Maitliss. Since the general election I’ve watched Newsnight religiously, partly in the hope (shameful, I know) that Paul Mason and Iain Dale will actually come to blows. He’s a big lad, though, Iain Dale. Then a gentle wind down to sleep with BBC News 24 before being woken at 6 am by The Today programme.

And this obsessive consumption of news programmes has left me with few certainties, except these: 1. European politicians, when interviewed, are notable for many things, but in particular, their effortless command of English. Can you imagine David Davies back at the start of the negotiations, conducting a meeting in French or German? No wonder he only went over there for about forty minutes in total. They also appear to be thoughtful and intelligent. Adults, in short, compared to the embarrassment that are our shower. They have a detailed grasp of the issues, they are well-briefed and endlessly patient with our amateurish efforts. It’s been clear to everyone for some time, and I suspect, to them almost immediately, that there is no Plan B, and barely even a Plan A, apart from Theresa May Maybotting for England until time finally runs out. When highly educated members of the British establishment think Foreign Languages consists of speaking English louder, it’s no wonder that the vast majority of the population don’t think its worth bothering. We really must get to grips with our failure to teach Languages with any degree of success. And I don’t mean to smear the heroic MFL teachers battling against all the odds in our schools to challenge indifference and outright hostility to foreign languages and foreign cultures. This is a cultural mountain to climb, not just a schools’ problem.

2. Nearly every TV news programme seems obliged to show its commitment to the will of the people by having some dreadful Vox pop, which always appeared to be dominated by Brexiteers, who don’t appear to know their arse from their elbow. And that’s a fully paid up member of the metropolitan elite talking there, or so the conventional wisdom goes. The vox pop is either a panel of ”ordinary folk”, often a revisit of some group of lost souls who went through the same nonsense in the run up to the Referendum, or it’s random punters in the street who are button-holed for their reaction to a decontextualized question, the answer to which is clearly engineered to be dangerously dim and populist. These little snapshots of uninformed prejudice never seem to bear any relation to what the polls are telling us. The rise in people wanting a second referendum or who have changed their mind, that many polls have indicated in the last few months, seem to have been conducted somewhere else in the space-time continuum, if these vox pops are to be relied upon. But then again, polls are notoriously unreliable. Or, in the case of Boris Johnson, don’t actually exist. Still that story this week at least had the merit of confirming what we’ve all suspected anyway, that The Telegraph just makes stuff up. What’s breathtaking, even in these post -truth days, is their casual admission that it doesn’t matter if one of their “Star” columnists lies. According to them, Johnson was “entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions”. Or lie, in other words.

Just one example of a ridiculously loaded question arriving at the required result, was the recent poll where shedloads of people mysteriously said they’d like to have a “Strong leader”. That would be instead of a really weak and weedy leader, presumably. Amazing. It’s like giving people the choice of having a cup of coffee that tastes strongly of urine or a cup of really nice coffee. “Yes, I’ll have the piss coffee thanks.” No, I don’t think so.

These are just some of the nuggets of public opinion the vox pops have treated us to in the last few months:

“I hate the French. I’ve always hated the French”

“I thought when I voted out in 2016 that we’d just be out like the next day.”

“Why can’t they just get on with it?”

“The bloody politicians are just going against the will of the people. They are all traitors.”

“They’re talking about the European elections now. Ordinary people like us don’t know how any of that works. What have the European elections got to do with us?”

“We’re British. We’ll get through it. We used to have an Empire.”

Apologies for any inaccurate paraphrasing, but you get my drift. In my darkest moments, stuff like this awakens my hidden, dormant inner-fascist and I begin to think that participation in democracy should be contingent on the possession of at least two A levels, or equivalents. Even a BTEC would do. And then, after I’ve calmed down, that turns into a lament for the state of political education in the UK. Why are we so ignorant about our most basic political institutions and structures? Why don’t people know, with any degree of certainty, what the parties stand for, who they represent, their history? And without knowing that, is it any wonder that people vote in the same way as many people choose their horse in the Grand National. The name sounds good. Nice colours on the jockey’s silks. Democracy, it seems to me, is far too important to leave to chance like this.

We must include political education as a statutory part of the curriculum that applies to all schools, public and private, academy and local authority. It’s had a token presence in PSHE programmes, but that is just not good enough. And that’s not to demean the efforts of PSHE teachers over the years, many of whom do a great job. But too often it’s a task left to form tutors as an afterthought, and, as a result, it carries the very clear message that this stuff doesn’t really matter. It’s not important. But it does matter. And it’s not just important, it’s crucial to our commitment to an informed and active citizenry.

And so, there, I’ve done it. I’ve done what every charlatan Government minister does when there is a catastrophic failure of Government. I’ve blamed the teachers. This Brexit mess is all their fault. But don’t worry. By blaming the teachers, I have, brilliantly, identified the sure -fire solution, the strategy that is always used when the whingeing teachers are at fault. More Academies. So, how does that work, you ask? Dunno, it just does. Where’s the evidence, you childishly persist? Errr… there isn’t any. Phew! Brexit sorted.