Suffolk Tories in tune with Obama

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has stepped into a maelstrom by taking on the powerful teacher unions in the United States, something which successive governments over here may have contemplated but haven't dared tackle.

Graham Dines

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has stepped into a maelstrom by taking on the powerful teacher unions in the United States, something which successive governments over here may have contemplated but haven't dared tackle.

The President has called for teachers' pay to be tied to students' performance and suggested longer school days - and years - to help America's children compete in the world.

Such educational under achievement has been the plank on which Suffolk county council's controversial decision to scrap middle schools has been built.

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The county has found that parents and teachers are highly conservative when it comes to change and is pushing on with the proposal against local opposition but with the full support of Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the new fangled name for the Ministry of Education.

Patricia O'Brien, the politician responsible for Suffolk's education policy, says there are systemic problems with the middle school system, resulting in the county having “low levels of qualifications and skills in the adult workforce, and has traditionally lost high achieving young people as they leave the county for higher education.

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“Suffolk has been behind in school attainment at age 11 (key stage 2) for many years, and is now beginning to drop behind in GCSEs which has always been the danger of underachievement in the younger years. We are not doing well enough and our regional and national neighbours are doing better, catching us up and outstripping us.

“This means Suffolk young people will be less able to get the higher education places they want, the jobs of their choice, and the careers for their future.”

Historically, educational attainment of the under classes in the United States has been low. Schools serving the social housing projects occupied by blacks, Hispanics and poor whites - and believe me, poverty in the world's richest country is rife, especially in the major cities of Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Detroit, Atlanta and Los Angeles - are ill maintained. Discipline is all but impossible to control.

Under the Bush administration, education of the poor did not rank high on the list of its priorities, despite the “No Child Left Behind” law aimed at closing the achievement gap.

“The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens,” Obama observed at a meeting of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us.”

Obama and Mrs O'Brien may be coming from different political angles, but they are both tackling the same problem - under achievement.

Throughout most businesses, the best and brightest are rewarded through higher pay and bonuses. If the UK is to raise its standards, failing teachers must be weeded out. That was one of the principles behind the Government's league tables of schools, which teacher unions have fought against because no account is taken of social deprivation in school catchment areas.

The big difference between Obama and British politicians is that he is prepared to upset teacher unions, even though his Democratic Party has traditionally been the natural home of teachers.

Obama also wants pupils to spend more time in school, with longer school days, school weeks and school years. Children in South Korea spend a month longer in school every year than do kids in the U.S., where the antiquated school calendar comes from the days when many people farmed and children were needed in the fields.

But dare suggest teachers in the UK have less than a six week summer break - more than most workers have in a whole year - and there'll be uproar! Perhaps teachers should start to appreciate that in a recession from which they are immune - they'll still get pay rises when other industries are sacking staff - parents need to work and can't get the time off to care for their kids during the countless number of school holidays and training days.


THE North-East Essex coastal communities have a history of high unemployment and also have a large elderly population which is dependant on benefits. Douglas Carswell, whose Harwich constituency includes Dovercourt, Frinton, Holland-on-Sea, Clacton and Jaywick, said in the Commons this week that all the job centres in his area had only a dozen or so jobs available, but hundreds of local people were looking for work.

He demanded to know what ministers proposed to do - “rather than just say” - to help people back into work and to stem the rising tide of unemployment in Essex?

James Purnell, the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, said Mr Carswell was right “to say that it is harder for people to find work, which is why from April we will be bringing in extra training for people, helping people to set up companies and introducing recruitment subsidies to persuade employers to take on people who are in danger of becoming long-term unemployed.”

Mr Purnell said the policy would be introduced in April as a result of the �2 billion cash injection opposed by the Tories. “Real help requires real money, and without the money, which his front benchers oppose, that help would not be made available in April.

“He should be lobbying his front benchers and telling them to reverse their policy, because it is the wrong approach - it is the one that they had in the 1980s and 1990s and that failed so miserably.”


LABOUR'S former Harwich MP Ivan Henderson is keeping up the pressure on Mr Carswell over donations to his constituency party from Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd, which is owned by Lord Ashcroft, the millionaire backer of the Conservatives.

Mr Henderson, defeated by Mr Carswell in 2005, has received a letter from the Electoral Commission confirming that it had “commenced an investigation into the circumstances” of the reported donations. “There is a mystery as to why he should be one of Lord Ashcroft's personally chosen few and I hope that the Electoral Commission inquiry will answer this along with many other questions surrounding the legitimacy of such funding.”

Mr Carswell said he was “totally relaxed” about the investigation and accused Mr Henderson of “sour grapes and mischief making.” He said his constituency party had always been up-front about the donations it received and its campaigning was funded overwhelmingly by small donations from local people.

“The former MP asks why Ashcroft has made donations. It's pretty simple. Like most local people, he wants to see the back of this rotten Labour government,” said Mrs Carswell.

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