Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, is said to have been shortlisted for the role of chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission (or ‘Social Mobility Tsar’). The job pays £350 a day for up to six days’ work a month. Birbalsingh delighted the Conservative Party Conference in 2010 with a speech that emphasised ‘discipline’ and ‘personal responsibility’ and included some snide remarks about grade inflation and political correctness, interspersed with clips of her students playing the steelpans. Music to the Tories’ ears.
When I was at primary school, one of the things they did to keep us occupied was make us perform a strange, tuneless chant about a factory worker named Joe. ‘Hi!’ we would shout. ‘My name’s Joe! And I work in a button fac-tor-ee. One day, my boss came to me and said “Joe! Are you busy?” I said “No!”’ As the chant developed, poor Joe would be given more and more instructions. First it was ‘Push this button with you right hand!’ and we would have to jab our right index fingers rhythmically in the air while continuing to chant. Then it was the left hand, then the right foot, then the left foot, then the head. I don’t remember there being any natural stopping point. It just went on until we made mistakes, forgetting some of the ‘buttons’ or losing our balance and falling over.
On Monday, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party – though not from their seats in the Commons – to form a new ‘Independent Group’ in Parliament. An eighth joined them yesterday, and three Tories today. Few people, arguably including the splitters themselves, have much confidence that the breakaway group can garner significant public support, or achieve any particular objective.
Earlier this year I wrote about the planned changes to mental health provision for students at the University of Essex. The details were murky but the outline was clear enough: yet more cuts and outsourcing. Though seemingly unwilling to give staff and students a clear explanation of what was going to happen, the university was at pains to emphasise one point: that this was to be an ‘expansion’ of counselling provision for students – a 30 per cent expansion, no less.
Amid the poppies, the parades, the TV programmes on military themes, the commemorative art works springing up in towns and villages across the country, Theresa May said last week that she would be laying a wreath at the graves of British soldiers in France on the centenary of the Armistice to commemorate ‘every member of the Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect what we hold so dear’.
By the end of the Labour Party Conference last week, it was clear that something had changed. For once, the media coverage was broadly positive. The same outlets that had played host to endless attempts to derail the party's leftward movement, and to undermine its elected leader, now granted a belated (and qualified) endorsement – if not of Jeremy Corbyn's project, exactly, then at least of its legitimacy and viability as a political force.
Like most of my colleagues, I was until recently unaware of the changes the University of Essex is planning to make to its provision of support for students suffering from mental illness. In general, we hear about such changes only once they are a fait accompli, and are told that it is too late to do anything about them. If we pick up rumours earlier in the process, we are told that it is too early: the idea is still just an idea, still at the ‘consultation’ stage, nothing has been decided yet. Even now, after the story has hit the national press, I have so far been unable to get a full and clear account of the planned changes from university administrators. The outlines, however, are plain enough.
On Sunday, 27 May, supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gathered in the centre of Berlin. Founded in 2013, the AfD has quickly amassed sizeable support. Were an election held today, the party would probably get 14 per cent of the vote. The parallels between the AfD and Ukip – or, rather, Ukip before its sudden, post-Brexit decline – are striking. Like Ukip, the AfD has its roots in nationalist, anti-EU sentiment. It opposes the perceived dominance of Brussels and the bailout of the banks. Like Ukip, it combines social conservatism with more or less explicit xenophobia and racism. Like Ukip, it contains openly fascist elements. And, like Ukip, it draws energy from the sense of abandonment, resentment and despair bred by neoliberalism and austerity.
Until very recently, most of us hadn’t heard of Carillion. Not having heard of a particular company wouldn’t usually be surprising or unsettling. But this is more like not having heard of the people who have been making alterations to your house, building your neighbour’s and – in an odd display of versatility – delivering lunches to your children. Because it turns out that Carillion is – or was, until its sudden but entirely predictable liquidation on Monday – pretty much everywhere. As a result, several projects, including the building of two hospitals, a high-speed railway and a bypass in Aberdeen, now hang in the balance, along with the jobs of around 20,000 UK workers.
It was announced this week that Toby Young will serve on the board of the newly formed Office for Students (OfS), the body that is to help regulate the higher education 'market' in England. Critics have been quick to point out Young's unsuitability for the post. A prominent champion of free schools, Young has little to no experience of the university sector. He does, however, have a record of sneering at the kind of 'ghastly inclusivity' that leads to wheelchair ramps in schools. Ideal, then. But Young's unsuitability for the post is beside the point.