Thursday, 28 February 2013

Trade unionists gather council support to ban blacklisting firms

Published in the Big Issue in the North magazine 25 Feb-2 March 2013. 

A blacklisted building worker from Ilkley has received the support of his council leader in his battle to have firms involved in the practice banned from securing council contracts.

Electrician Sandy McPherson is one of at least 201 construction workers known to have either lived or worked in Yorkshire and Humberside whose names appear on the Consulting Association  (CA) database of 3,213 workers used by 44 building companies to vet potential new recruits over the last four decades. The companies include Carillion, Balfour Beatty and Sir Robert McAlpine. In January the latter two admitted, to MPs at a select committee hearing, using the CA services to vet workers on Olympic sites.


Many of the workers on the CA database were “not recommended for employment.” According to the GMB trade union fewer than one in ten are aware they are listed and none have been compensated. McPherson’s file with the CA stated: ‘Subject joined company (Haden Young) on February 18 1980, he is a shop steward and very active undercover.’ He was subsequently sacked won £600 compensation for unfair dismissal.

McPherson’s details were revealed after the Information Commissioner’s Office closed down CA in 2009 and its owner, Ian Kerr, was found guilty of breaching the Data Protection Act. McPherson believes his subsequent inability in the mid-1980s to find work on the larger London building sites, where as a result of trade union activities the pay and conditions are traditionally better, could have been a consequence of his CA listing. McPherson subsequently moved north in 1992 and as he approaches retirement he is still working as a self-employed electrician.

In December councillors in Hull unanimously voted to remove blacklisting firms from its list of council contractors. McPherson’s Unite union branch then asked Bradford, Wakefield, Leeds, Calderdale and Kirklees councils requesting them to follow suit. Leeds City Council has just awarded Carillion a £10 million contract to strengthen and repair the A58 Woodhouse Tunnel in the centre of Leeds and all five councils have contracts with companies that used CA.


McPherson is a resident of Bradford Council, where the Labour council leader Dave Green has written to him saying: “We are currently looking at adding to our procurement requirement protocols that would address your concerns. I find it totally unjustifiable that firms that have carried out illegal blacklisting or have broken other laws relating to employment or health and safety should be able to bid for public sector contracts with impunity.”

A “delighted” McPherson hopes the other four councils written to will now respond positively. He is also pleased that Liverpool City Council has passed a motion calling on construction firms seeking major contracts locally to affirm they would never again use blacklists to stop people getting work. Around 150 people from Merseyside were listed on the CA files.

A national Blacklist Support Group (BSG), which was established three years ago, has won the support of Labour Party for a public inquiry into blacklisting. However Business Secretary Vince Cable, who is opposed, said:  “If it is actually going on, it is a serious matter and it needs investigation. I, of course, will want to see it properly investigated, but we want some evidence.”
The BSG is pursuing a case through the High Court for compensation for blacklisted workers.

Friday, 15 February 2013

New laws to help hunted hunters?

Nobody likes birds of prey being persecuted. Now, following Scotland’s introduction last year of legislation making landowners responsible for actions by their employees, including gamekeepers, the RSPB has submitted a response to the Law Commission’s review of wildlife law in England and Wales which includes strong support for the introduction of a similar criminal vicarious liability law.

The Scottish Parliament took action following a number of high profile cases where golden eagles had been poisoned. Between 1989 and 2011, the RSPB calculated, at least, 50 of these iconic birds had been shot or poisoned. The majority of deaths occurred in the central, northern and southern Highlands, where driven grouse shooting is far more commercially viable than in other regions of the country. 

Over the border, grouse shooting is also driving the hen harrier, one of England’s best-known birds of prey, towards extinction. Ornithologists have long enjoyed the sky dancing courtship displays by the male, a beautiful pearly grey with distinctive black wingtips and smaller than the rich brown coloured female with a distinctive white rump.

Yet with less than 10 pairs breeding annually its future remains uncertain. That’s despite “a 2011 report by the JNCC estimating that England’s uplands and moorlands could support 323 pairs” reports Jude Lane, the RSPB’s project officer on the United Utilities’ Forest of Bowland 24,000 acre estate near Clitheroe. On this the RSPB, the water company and their upland hill farming and grouse shooting tenants have collaborated to protect the hen harrier since 1982. 

Hen harriers have bred on the estate in varying numbers since they returned to Bowland in the late 60s. “In 2011 there were seven nesting attempts, of which four were successful and 12 birds were reared,” explains Jude.

But the 2012 breeding season turned out to be disastrous for the hen harrier, with no nesting attempts in the Forest of Bowland and only one successful nest in all of England. It was also marred by one of the twelve young that fledged the previous year being found dead on a grouse moor in North Yorkshire after the satellite tracker she was fitted with indicated something was wrong. Detailed forensic analysis concluded she had been shot.

Bowland Forest, once a royal hunting ground, is an area of deep valleys and barren gritstone fells. Its blanket bog and heather moorland habitat is perfect not only for hen harriers but also the Red Grouse. The latter are specially reared for shooting. Bags of between eighty and two hundred a day are offered for those who can afford to pay from £160 to £1,500.  

The Duke of Westminster’s 19,000-acre Abbeystead estate in Bowland Forest holds the record for a single days shoot, when 2929 grouse were shot on August 12 1915. Today, the estate organises around 30 shoots annually and visitors are helped get there by road signs depicting a hen harrier. Not that anyone would see any such bird on the Duke’s land, even though the habitat is no different to that of the nearby United Utilities estate. On Dartmoor and Exmoor in southwest England it’s a similar story, plenty of grouse but few hen harriers. 

Landowners deny killing hen harriers and the British association for shooting and conservation has promised to expel any of its members found guilty of doing so. Proving that has been the case isn’t easy. It was the RSPB’s work that helped establish wildlife crime (police) officer’s posts and they have long campaigned for more. Yet even those appointed “usually do it part-time, with cases at the edge of their desk,” says Bob Elliot, head of investigations at the RSPB, which is the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe with over one million members and 17,600 volunteers. 

As such the majority of the reported incidents - totalling 202 in 2011 - of illegal shooting, trapping and nest destruction of birds of prey are the result of initial reports from members of the organisation. Two-thirds originated in England and a quarter in Scotland. The RSPB believes the number of unreported incidents is likely to be considerably higher.

Prosecutions are relatively rare. In 2011 there were only 42 individual cases totalling 152 charges, with 137 proven. Just 13 people went to prison.  Elliot wants prosecutions to drop but “only if people change their behaviour such that we see rare species re-occupying spaces they should be in.” 

The wildlife and natural environment (Scotland) act 2011 came into operation in Scotland on January 1st last year. Elliot has seen it force a review of practices at some shooting locations, with land owners and managers required to show they did not know about a wildlife bird crime and took all reasonable steps and due diligence to prevent it. New snaring provisions mean operators are required to successfully complete a training course. Snares now require fitting with an ID tag and number. 

Elliot also reports that there has been a dramatic drop in poisoning figures in Scotland in 2012 and he hopes the new legislation is the reason for this.  As a result, whilst the RSPB is neutral on shooting, Elliot believes, “with these beautiful birds continuing to be killed it is time for the UK government to follow Scotland and adopt similar legislation.”  

Meanwhile, with the hen harrier on the brink of extinction, Elliot is also desperate to see the government implement an emergency recovery plan.  

“Birds of prey such as the Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Red Kite, Goshawk, White-tailed eagle are stunning species and part of our natural heritage. They have existed for thousands of years and have as much right as ourselves to exist” says Jude Lane.  

The Law Commission is due to report its findings from the public consultation to Defra in Spring, with the intention to publish a final report with recommendations and draft bill by mid-2014. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Unite scientist challenges UN claims that there is little new agricultural land

Charlie Clutterbuck, who is an executive committee member on the Unite  Agricultural Workers National Committee, is mapping the Ribble and Calder Valleys in Lancashire and Yorkshire to highlight how the land there could be used to grow more food by prioritising fruit and vegetables.  

Clutterbuck aims to challenge government and United Nations reports that claim there is little new land worldwide for agriculture and that therefore farmers must raise yields on existing land without damaging the environment. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations calls this process “sustainable intensification” but critics say that is a contradiction in terms that can’t be achieved.

Clutterbuck, a former adviser on securing food supplies to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee agreed there is no additional land for wheat or rape production in the UK. But he said: “There is land, much of it uncultivated and classed as waste, that could be – even helped by climate change – turned from grass to fruit and vegetable production.

“Victorian gardeners once grew pineapples in Cheshire, so change is possible. Scientific research should be directed towards strategies that seek to improve access to locally produced foods, which will also increase social cohesion between urban and rural dwellers.” 

Clutterbuck envisages grazing or pasture land for livestock and brownfield sites would be turned over to fruit and vegetables. The Ribble and Calder valleys are mainly used for grazing. Upland moorland would become forests with clearings for growing everything from herbs to strawberries. 

Clutterbuck has welcomed plans by the new owners of a 20-acre Yorkshire farm near Todmorden. Monica Murtagh and David Templeman are planting over 11,00 trees on sharply undulating land at Warland Farm. The joint project with not-for-profit re-forestation group Treesresponsibility could help combat the flash flooding that has hit Calder valley Towns such as Todmorden and Hebden Bridge. Trees soak up as much as 30 per cent of water and help bind together the soil to help prevent erosion and landslips. 

Coppice woodlands were once common in the UK, but today there is just 21,583 hectares of actively managed coppice.  The UK, with just 12% of land under woodland cover currently lags well behind the rest of Europe, where the average is 36%. 

The wood at Warland Farm will belong to the landowners. They intend using some for fuel and selling some of the rest. 

Wood will also be used in the woodwork shop currently under construction in one of the large barns. “People with traditional skills will be able to practice and pass on their skills, while also manufacturing products for sale,” said Murtagh. 

Templeman added: “Alongside tall apple, cherry, pear and hazelnut fruit trees that are nitrogen fixers, forest clearings will be used to grow gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, herbs like thyme and sage, quince currants and common vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. The major benefit of a  forest garden is that it consists of perennial plants and once they are settled the plants grow and bear more crops as the years pass. There’s less work as there’s no replanting, little tilling of the soil and no pulling out of dead plants. 

The biggest work of a forest garden lies in its design. If we get that right then the harvesting of the food is the biggest job. 
“We think we can grow food for 20 local families, who in return will contribute their time and labour.” 30 people have just attended an open day for those who might want to get involved. 

Clutterbuck said: “It would be great to see people follow David and Monica’s example. The land may be difficult to work but it is capable of producing food and habitation. There is a broad range of biological possibilities and that is the fun of gardening. Those farmers who currently get EU agricultural payments for just having land should be encouraged to grow fruit and vegetables, whilst public land could be utilised in a similar fashion to the Incredible Edible local food growing schemes on wasteland at Todmorden.” 

Clutterbuck has already mapped out 11 potentially useful local sites and more will follow. At Chorley, he has discovered there used to be 40 orchards; at Saltaire he has discovered allotments on many former brownfield sites; near Burnley land used for sheep is identified as once having grown oats or rye.

At Ilkley on Wheatley Lane he speculates whether part of the recreation ground next to Tesco could be used to grow vegetables for the store. “I’d hope to make the results widely available and if people would like to help they should go to my Look At The Land website,” said Clutterbuck.

A report written for the UK government’s Department for Business echoes the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations call for higher yields on existing land.

The UK currently imports 40 per cent of its food. Prices have risen and some products are in short supply because of the bad weather over the summer. Meanwhile, the emergence of vast middle classes in China and India has increased competition for food-producing land.

For more see Charlie’s site at:-

Food workers strike action leaves good taste

Strike action by 1,400 Unite members at the 2 Sisters Food Group in the West Midlands has won an inflationary busting wage rise, paid time off for workers injured at work and major concessions on holidays and car parking charges.

It’s a remarkable achievement that shows the benefits of workers sticking together within Britain’s biggest union. Now the struggle is on to ensure workers are properly represented at one of the UK’s largest food suppliers.

The chicken meat processing company has grown considerably in recent years after acquiring Fox’s Biscuits, Matthew Walker Christmas Puddings, Holland’s Pies, Goodfella’s pizzas and cake manufacturers Brookes Avana. With 35 manufacturing sites in the UK and Ireland, six in Holland and one in Poland the company employs around 18,000 people with annual sales now exceeding £2.3 billion.

Advertising on their website the company states: ‘Our business philosophy puts the customer at the heart of everything……in order to deliver a product of the highest quality and integrity. We strive to achieve this through a motivated and well trained workforce.’

Such warm words were not though working out in practice with pay rates of just £6.22 for many workers across four sites in Smethwick and Wolverhampton. Industrial accidents – especially from knife injuries to hands - were a major problem, temperatures at work were often cold, bullying and malicious allegations against staff was rife and 2 Sisters were even proposing charging £10 a week to park in the work’s car park.

With many workers having originally hailed from the Indian sub-continent or Eastern Europe the refusal by the company to grant extended holiday leave to visit relatives was also a bone of contention. Agency staff was also being forced to stand outside factories on a daily basis in the hope that production managers would come out and select them for work.

With under half the workforce unionised, Unite officials began extensively working last summer with newly elected stewards and convenors in taking up cases individually important to different shifts, sites and nationalities. Stewards gave up many hours of their own time to persuade their fellow workers to join Unite.

“We were here there and everywhere, taking up cases and telling everyone we would stand up for them and that by joining the union we could pressurise management into agreeing improvements in pay and working conditions for all” explains works convenor Raghvinder Pooni, who today has the backing of 32 shop stewards including his deputy convenor, Daoud Khan. Stewards are elected across the four sites by the 80% plus of workers that are now Unite members.

This combined strength meant in August 2012, when 2 Sisters management offered in return for proposed changes in working practices a derisory pay rise and no concessions on a list of legitimate complaints, that 15-minute protests were organised outside factories at shift change over periods between 2pm and 2.30pm. 

Unite regional officer Des Quinn had stressed, “members anger at their treatment should not be ignored.” When management chose to do just that, a secret ballot drew 98.5% in favour of strikes.

Friday December 14, the first day in which workers withdrew their labour, was an unexpectedly happy one for Daoud Khan, who rushed from the birth of his fifth child to join hundreds of noisy, well-behaved pickets whose actions made the regional news and television. (*) Workers from other local workplaces and trade unions joined strikers, whilst many in the local community were supportive. “I think everyone was very proud of their efforts in standing up for our needs and rights,” says Daoud.

A company approach to resolve the dispute led to the calling off of a second strike  date as negotiations got underway. 

“Pay went up by 28 pence an hour (4.6%) and if we can resolve issues around childcare and travel arrangements then it should be possible to agree changes in working practices that will make further increases in pay. We want all workers to be on a living wage. This includes agency staff, who management have agreed will now be hired by human resources, who will also examine allegations of bullying and intimidation,” says Des Quinn. 

“They have scrapped the car parking charges and agreed to longer holiday breaks as well as paid sick leave for workers who can demonstrate they were injured at work. We still have work to do before agreeing everything, but negotiations with management are ongoing,” says Raghvinder.

As convenor and deputy convenor, Raghvinder and Daoud, currently have facility paid time away from their knife and hygiene supervisor posts only for appeals and disciplinary hearings. Des Quinn believes this is “not sufficient.” He is seeking from 2 Sisters management additional facility time so that Unite’s hundreds of members can be assured in the future of enjoying a more secure, safe working environment with even better pay. 

Well done to everyone at 2 Sisters. 

Union video’s

Unite also produced its own youtube video on the strike. 

Unite began making short news videos to try and combat the bias against trade unions in the mainstream media and ensure the union presented a balanced portrait to the outside world.

These short-films are used to put the worker and union’s point of view across. When used correctly and in conjunction with social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, it can be a relatively quick way of keeping those involved in a campaign or dispute up-to-date with the latest developments in a form that is easy to digest.

As part of Unite’s developing social media and e-comms strategy, the union is hoping to increase the use of videos to keep members informed. This can range from how Unite is supporting its members, disputes, marches and rallies, but it is also a great vehicle to drive members as to what they can do to support the union.

More kids to be killed in agriculture?

Despite the absence of positive comments to its consultation the HSE has moved closer to scrapping an effective tool in preventing serious injuries and deaths to children from agriculture. 

The approved code of practice (ACOP) on Preventing accidents to children in agriculture was first written in 1988. Since when the numbers of children killed each year has fallen from six to just two with serious accidents down from 25 to 12. 

Unite was keen to retain the code and submitted a well-researched considered response to the HSE’s recent consultation on proposals to scrap it. 

The union was in a minority, with 62% respondents agreeing with the proposal. Not that they presented any positive proposals for doing so. At the HSE Board meeting in December a report on the ‘positive impacts of proposal identified’ identified “few comments from respondents.” At best a number had indicated support for “reviewing the other HSE publications that provide guidance on child safety on agriculture.” 

This less than ringing endorsement has sadly not stopped the HSE Board – which now contains Howard Shiplee, an executive director at the construction company Laing O’Rourke, one of the companies named by Unite and other unions in a major UK safety blacklisting scandal of trade union safety reps – agreeing to bring forward a paper formally proposing the withdrawal of the ACOP on child safety.

It’s enough to make you weep, which is just what an increasing number of parents, brothers and sisters will be doing in the not too distant future.

No wonder the Unite national health and safety adviser Susan Murray admits to being “dismayed” and continues to argue: “it would be safer to update the ACOP to take account of legislative changes and relaunch it as part of a new farm safety campaign, coupled with a programme of proactive enforcement by the HSE. I hope, even at this late stage the government will listen to reason.” 

REWRITING HISTORY: Holocaust Revisionism Today: Book review

REWRITING HISTORY: Holocaust Revisionism Today is an ebook from the civil rights campaign group, HOPE NOT HATE. 

The Holocaust was the state sponsored-mass murder during World War II of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party. (Nazi Party)  Approximately two-thirds of the Jews who then resided in Europe were confined in overcrowded ghettos before being transported by freight train to extermination camps and systematically killed in gas chambers. Other racial and political opponents were also amongst those killed. Disabled people also suffered heavy losses.  

The original Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves who employed innocuous language referring to ‘evacuation’ and ‘special treatment.’ Desperate efforts were made by the Nazis to cover up their crimes in the last few months of the war, gas chambers being hurriedly dynamited, camps abandoned and records burnt. 

Unable however to destroy all the evidence - and leaving behind some survivors of the camps - meant that post-war attempts to whitewash the monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime inevitably came up against historical reality. This has necessitated a shift in emphasis, especially after David Irving, Britain’s foremost Holocaust denier, lost his libel action against an American academic, Professor Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, in 2000. In parts of Europe, denial of the Holocaust is a crime and prosecutions have  reduced the capacity of many leading activists to function.

This has seen Holocaust deniers shift their attention to the Middle East, mounting attempts to utilise the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict to reach out to some Muslim countries on the basis of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Palestinians it is argued are the real victims of the Nazi Party, as without the Holocaust there would be no be state of Israel and no conflict in the Middle East. 

The book provides many examples of leading figures in Middle Eastern politics providing support for Holocaust Revisionists, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who in 2005 said: “They have fabricated a legend, under the name Massacre of the Jews.” In December 2006 Iran sponsored a ‘Review of the Holocaust’ conference that attracted anti semites from across the globe. Those present heard David Duke, the former Ku Klux Khan leader, give a keynote speech. A contingent from Britain attended, including Lady Michele Renouf, who in the past has shared a platform with BNP leader Nick Griffin.

Griffin, who was elected in 2009 as a Euro MP for North West England, is one of 40  people - including six from Britain - profiled in REWRITING HISTORY. In 1998 Griffin was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred after his remarks included him saying: “the extermination tale that six million Jews were gassed is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda.” 

Others associated with the BNP have also denied the Holocaust. Simon Sheppard was a former organiser for the fascists in Hull and in 2008 he mailed Tales of the Holohoax to the Blackpool Reform Synagogue. Sheppard was the front man for a range of extremist groups and had hosted websites such as Redwatch, which targets political opponents for attacks by posting their postal details on-line. 

In 2009, Sheppard was jailed for three years and ten months for inciting racial hatred via a foreign website.

REWRITING HISTORY: Holocaust revisionism today can be downloaded free in PDF and EPUB format

Land management skills courses available in Cumbria

‘Work the View' land management skills 

Friends of the Lake District is a registered charity who are responding to a current shortage in land management skills by providing training opportunities for people in Cumbria who are currently, or intending to work in the farming, food or forestry sectors.

In 2012, over 350 people participated in the ‘Work the View’ training project covering a range of topics including hay meadows, orchards, carbon habitat management, field boundaries and ponds. The training on the latter includes why - either for reducing water run-off or improving wildlife habitat -  and how to create one, maintenance and what grants are available for projects. There is also skills based training in such as trailer handling, hedgelaying and dry stone walling. There is a charge of just £10 per course. 

Over 500 training days were delivered to people of all ages n 2012. John and Judith Rogers Rogers, from Bowness on Solway, came to the orchard management event at Redhills in Penrith. They said: “Many thanks for inviting us to your course. We learned so much from it and now feel more confident to tackle our own damson orchard. We also enjoyed the exchange of information from other participants too.”

For more information please contact the Project Officer, Carol Douglas: or phone 01539 720788 or go to

Friends of the Lake District was founded in 1934 to conserve the landscape and natural beauty of Cumbria and the Lake District. It played a crucial role in the campaign for the Lake District to be designated as a national park during the 1930s and 1940s. National Parks were created as part of the Labour Party’s post war reconstruction.

The ‘Work the View’ project is part of Rural Skills Cumbria, funded by Defra through the Rural Development Programme for England and managed by the LEADER Local Action Groups.

Gangmasters Licensing Authority continues to prove its worth

The government’s deregulatory charge that is rolling back many decades of bitterly won, intelligently constructed essential laws and regulations has – thankfully – not included scrapping the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.  (GLA)

The GLA survived last year’s Red Tape Challenge but has been asked by the government to look at reducing ‘burdens on compliant operators’ and removing from its scope, activities and sectors described as ‘low risk’ such as apprenticeships, forestry, cleaning contractors, land agents and voluntary workers. Labour is monitoring developments to help ensure the GLA’s effectiveness is maintained and Oxfam remains keen to extend the GLA remit into construction, care and hospitality sectors where the charity’s investigations have led them to declare the “situation is worse” than in areas covered by the GLA.

Following the Morecambe Bay tragedy in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned on February 5 2004, the GLA was introduced by a Labour government, with strong cross-party support in 2006. Since when gangmasters – a generic term to cover any individual whose primary purpose is to organise the supply of labour to employers – have had to register with the GLA if their work is in the agricultural, horticultural, shellfish gathering and associated processing and packing industries.

The organisation had a number of successes last year. In May Peter Lackey, who had organised people harvesting shellfish in the Dee estuary was found guilty of acting as a gangmaster without a licence. He was fined £3,700 and electronically tagged. In June, Romanian Vitalie Cacicovschi was sentenced to 200 hours of unpaid work as a community payback order after he was found guilty of trading as an unlicensed gangmaster on the Isle of Skye.

In November the GLA successfully challenged a ‘pay by day’ scheme operated by FS Commercial Ltd (FSC) that was found to be contrary to PAYE and national insurance legislation. FSC were found to be failing to declare significant amounts of Employers’ national insurance contributions.  The fee charged to workers as part of the scheme was found to drop wages below the national minimum wage. FSC were not granted a licence to operate.

In the same month, Christopher Blakeney and Marden Management Ltd pleaded guilty to supplying workers to around 500 UK farms despite operating without a licence. The Guardian newspaper had reported in 2010 how Filipino workers had been charged significant sums by Blakeney when they found jobs in the UK through his Philippines recruitment agency. Workers reported excessive hours of work; few rest breaks and having little to eat.

Labour’s shadow minister for food and farming, Huw Iranca-Davies, MP for Ogmore, Wales welcomes “the removal of licenses and the prosecution of rogue gangmasters involved in criminal gangmasters, as well as the issuing of hundreds of warning notices to protect the most vulnerable workers.

It is good that the GLA survived but this is still a worrying time for the organisation and for anyone concerned with worker exploitation; no measures should hamper the effectiveness of the GLA in tacking worker exploitation.” 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A narrow road - English Baccalaureate

This piece, taken from this week's Big Issue in the North magazine, shows why it was right that Michael Gove has abandoned one of his pet projects......

A head teacher fears government plans to narrow the education examination system by ignoring creative and vocational subjects will result in falling attendance levels in schools. 

Tony Gavin has been in charge for ten years at Laurence Jackson, a specialist sports school of over 1,300 pupils in Guisborough, North Yorkshire.

Gavin has raised GCSE pass levels at the school and from 286 pupils who left last summer just three are not in education, employment or training.  He is now worried that reforms announced by education secretary Michael Gove will pressurise pupils to do subjects they are not interested in and will lead to some of them abandoning their studies.

Gove told Parliament last year that: “Record increases in GCSE performance have failed to prevent UK schools falling down international education league tables…as a result, employers fear students lack the skills for the modern workplace and the knowledge for advanced study.  We believe it is time for the race to the bottom to end.”

Higher levels 

A new system of English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC) will replace GCSE’s in six subjects – maths, English, sciences, a language and history or geography.

The new qualifications in English, sciences and maths will start in two years time and will exclude coursework assessment in favour of a single three-hour examination. Pupils will need to achieve higher levels beyond those currently required to achieve a grade c pass level at GCSE. GCSE’s in other subjects would remain, at least in the short term. Gove anticipates many pupils will need to re-sit EBC examinations when they are aged 17 or 18.

A consultation period on the changes ended last December. Requests for an extended, improved consultation have been made by many organisations, including the Musicians Union and the Writers’ Guild. They feel EBCs ‘ignore creative and vocational subjects……and fail to recognise that culture, the arts and education do in fact contribute greatly to the economy. 

Creative industries

They point out that creative industries provide 6% of Britain’s GDP, £16 billion in exports, and employ at least 2 million people.

Gavin shares these concerns. “ Schools will inevitably narrow their subject focus towards the EBCs,” he said. “Fifteen years ago in primary schools the focus was switched to literacy and numeracy and this considerably narrowed the curriculum.

“Schools like ours that provide a balanced curriculum will be teaching subjects that are going to be devalued. Yet I would estimate over a third of pupils at an average school cannot contend with simply an academic curriculum.

“We have worked hard in raising attendance levels amongst young people who have the greatest difficulties with academic qualifications. 

“We try and achieve a balance between academic, creative and vocational studies. Because we do sports courses then many youngsters have gone into decent leisure industry jobs. 

“I would like to do more art, music and IT - especially as the computer games industry is so big - but that may prove impossible. You cannot force children to attend school and I fear the numbers not doing so will increase under these proposals.”

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Long walk to justice - Sheila Coleman joins Unite

It’s only now, nearly 24 years on from the Hillsborough tragedy that the victims’s families can truly being to mourn for their loved ones. And much of that is thanks to the courageous fight by campaign groups, including the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC).

Now seasoned campaigner and HJC spokesperson Sheila Coleman has been appointed by Unite to be their new North West community co-ordinator. Community membership, at just 50p a week, gives anyone not in paid work a chance to join the union. 

Sheila joined Unite Coleman after speaking to the Liverpool CASA branch earlier last year because,  “ I felt the political climate is right for this type of trade union, as the demarcation between the employed and the unemployed is no longer so clear, and far too many people are out of work end effectively left without a voice.”

Being voiceless was was also the case in 1989 for Liverpool supporters, who found themselves being blamed for a tragedy in which 96 of them lost their lives at the home of Sheffield Wednesday during the  FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest.

Sheila, a life-long Liverpool fan, was determined not,  “to allow Hillsborough to go down in history as a disaster caused by drunken ticketless Liverpool fans.” She attended many of the subsequent inquests and co-wrote the first critical report into the avoidable tragedy that resulted from a breakdown in police control. Although they often had “no news to talk about,” she and HJC members, families and survivors met every Monday for over two decades.

Numerous setbacks failed to prevent the ongoing campaign for justice and in September 2012 the Hillsborough Independent Panel - established by the previous Labour government to ensure the full story was finally told – confirmed much that HJC had been saying for decades.

The panel’s findings included that many junior police officers had their statements doctored to remove criticism of police operations. The cover up extended to police trying to blame Liverpool fans; and shamefully that 41 of the 96 who died could perhaps have survived if the police and ambulance service had responded more effectively.

David Cameron offered an apology and the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions are now conducting the biggest ever investigation into police behaviour in the UK. This will take many years. Sheila says the HJC will continue as: “the cover up has shaken the nation and it goes to the heart of society if we can’t trust the police as an institution. We must keep up the pressure for everybody’s sake.”  

In November, Sheila Coleman received, on behalf of the HJC, the ‘Long Walk’ award at Liberty’s Human Rights Awards. Shared jointly with the Hillsborough Family Support Group and Hope for Hillsborough, the award was presented “for unwavering dedication to seeking justice for the 96 victims, their families and the survivors of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.”

Sheila was: “delighted that our campaign was honoured with an award from fellow campaigners.” She now hopes to persuade many more people to become campaigners in their local communities by joining Unite, saying: “Saving a library, keeping the NHS public or fighting workfare requires collective organisation and campaigning. The advantage of being a community branch member is that you have union support behind you and this increases your bargaining power.”