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Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Sinister Implications of the Prevent Strategy

I must admit that until around six months ago I had never heard of the government's Prevent strategy. Indeed I know of many people outside education, politically well-informed people, who are completely unaware of it. The Preventing Violent Extremism strategy (Prevent) is a £140 million programme run by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), a branch of the Home Office. All schools and the teachers within it are required by law to be aware of it and to abide by it, indeed it is an OFSTED requirement that schools and colleges make every pupil/student aware of it.

Prevent  Strategy Aims

The Prevent strategy aims to stop the radicalisation of children and young people by terrorist groups. While clearly created as a response to Al Qaeda,  Iraq and the rise of IS/Daesh, for understandable reasons it has not been limited to Islamist terrorism but rather encompasses terrorism and political violence in all its forms. The Prevent Strategy is intended to create a narrative where 'vulnerable' young people are seen as being targeted by predatory groups and 'groomed' into extremism via the internet and strategies not dissimilar from those used by paedophiles. This 'radicalisation' narrative carries the implication that there is no valid political motive behind the young person's actions and that they are the victims of grooming and manipulation.

Clearly there are good intentions behind this. Groups like IS/Daesh and those that sympathise with them should not by propagandising in schools and universities and inciting people to violence. There should be no platform for anyone sympathising with the killers of Lee Rigby or wanting to commit terrorist attacks on the public.

The Dangers within the Prevent Strategy

The problem with the Prevent Strategy stem from its vagueness. Far too much is being left to individual institutions and teachers to decide. Because the government cannot simply target Islamist terrorism for fear of being termed 'racist', the net is being cast rather wide in terms of what sources of terrorism are being targeted.  The government suggests 'far right groups', 'eco-terrorists' and 'animal rights protesters' be included as possible sources of terrorism. Oddly there is very little mention of the IRA or UVF. While one would assume that any reasonable person would be able to distinguish between violence and non-violence, this is not being clearly defined in the instructions sent out to schools. Therefore I know of examples where terrorism has been defined as 'acts which break the law'. I'm sorry, but did not Rosa Parks, the Suffragettes and many other political activists sometimes fall foul of the law? Are we to regard Caroline Lucas as a terrorist for getting arrested at an anti-fracking protest?
This may not be the intention behind the Prevent strategy but that is not the point. Giving individual institutions and teachers free reign to put their own definition on what constitutes terrorism or not without crystal clear guidance is dangerous.

The Policing of Freedom of Speech

Teachers are now fully used to having to fill in huge five-page risk assessment forms whenever we take students/pupils out on a trip of visit. However now this also applies to whenever outside speakers come into a school or college. So if a visiting professor comes in to talk to the students about the Crusades you can just imagine the potential avenues of controversy that one could throw up. Outside speakers now have to be vetted by senior managers to assess whether their opinions pose a threat to vulnerable young people. It is a safeguarding issue; young people must be safeguarded against unorthodox opinions. You may have detected a cynical tone here and with good reason. I think we all know that inviting a spokesperson for IS into school to talk about jihad would be unacceptable. So why is there a need to fill in risk assessment forms unless it is to generally police all outside speakers and restrict the spectrum of opinions allowed to be voiced?

British Values

It is also a requirement of the Prevent strategy to teach 'British values'. Again this is vague and the set of values recommended are more universal values such as freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law than anything specifically British. Unfortunately its hard to see how teachers can promote freedom of speech and at the same time report pupils to the police for exercising their freedom of speech. Moreover since government ministers have stated on several occasions that they wish to repeal the Human Rights Act, should I be reporting them to the police?

Teachers as Agents of the State

In 25 years of teaching, this is the first time that I've ever felt like I've been asked to be an agent of the state, spying on the activities of students. Fine if we are at war, and arguably we are. But again, if the target or 'enemy' is not defined in precise terms then we are on the road to McCarthyism.
Furthermore the government power point sent to schools lists possible indicator signs that a pupil/student is being radicalised. These 'signs' included :

- The student starts demanding more attention in class than other students.

- The student has become critical of government policies.

In the case of the former, it is called being a teenager. In the case of the latter it is called having a brain.

Absurd Cases

Many people will have read the story of the 10 year old boy who couldn't spell terraced and was reported to the police by a teacher for writing that he lived in a terrorist house. Expect such cases to increase. I doubt very much if the teacher concerned was particularly thick, rather I suspect that the Prevent strategy has created such a climate of fear in the school concerned that the teacher feared having his/her collar felt by the police if they didn't act. This is the danger.

How Do We Combat Radicalisation?

The radicalisation narrative has been called into question as an explanation for why young people join groups like IS/Daesh. I'm not going to examine the complex arguments here. However even if one accepts that the basic premise of the Prevent strategy to be correct, the manner in which the strategy is being imposed is not only sinister in its implications for freedom of speech but also not likely to have a negligible effect on the problem. Most IS fighters are not from the UK and if this group are to be defeated it will be by military means on the ground combined with finding political solutions to Iraq and Syria's problems. That said I think the vast majority of people would welcome sensible attempts to stop anyone from the UK travelling to Syria to swell their ranks and then coming back here to commit terrorist acts. However the Prevent strategy as it stands is vague, badly thought out and needs reform.

Academies and Free Schools: A Failed Experiment

 INTRODUCTION: THE PRIVATISATION OF EDUCATION

 "Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you education, education, and education." Tony Blair 1996.

 “My next ambition is this: five hundred new free schools, every school an academy, and yes – local authorities running schools a thing of the past.” David Cameron 2015

The education system in the UK has, since New Labour came to power in 1997, been undergoing a revolution which has picked up speed under the Coalition and then Conservative governments. These successive governments have largely dissolved the model of state-owned schools and universities staffed by public-sector employees. Today most children attend schools that are self-governing charitable trusts which are completely independent of local authority control, in other words academies. David Cameron, in 2015, set out the current government's goal that all UK state schools should be converted to academies by 2020. The concept of free education no longer applies at all to universities, with fees of £9000 per year and rising. The influence of unaccountable corporate business is slowly replacing that of local authorities which are accountable to communities and subject to the democratic process.



WHY IS EDUCATION A GREEN ISSUE

Green Party education policy starts out from the principle that education should provide everyone with the knowledge and full range of skills they require to participate fully in society and lead a fulfilled life. The Green Party rejects market driven models of education that see its role only in terms of international economic competitiveness and preparation for work. Clearly education is about more than a narrow utilitarian approach of fitting people into the labour market, important as that is.
It is also about developing young people's interests and abilities, broadening minds, fireing imaginations, creativity and, from a Green perspective, encouraging an appreciation for the natural world and experience with the world of nature.  
In order to achieve this it is clear that schools need to offer as broad a curriculum as possible, meaning one that encompasses the arts, music and drama as well as offering specialised subjects such as Classical Civilisation, Environmental Studies and Archaeology as well as traditional 'core' subjects such as English and Mathematics.
Unfortunately the current direction of travel is leading to the opposite; a narrow utilitarian curriculum framed to serve corporate interests.
Furthermore there is also the issue of social justice. Education is a right and an entitlement and should be free at the point of delivery to people of all ages. Education is social rather than market provision and the Green Party opposes any attempt to privatise state-funded schools or to enable them to become profit-making.

 ACADEMIES AND FREE SCHOOLS

Academy schools are state-funded schools in England which are directly funded by the Department of Education and independent of local authority control. They are self-governing charitable trusts and may receive additional support from personal or corporate sponsors, either financially or in kind. There are two types of academy. Sponsored academies are maintained schools which have been forced by the government to become academies and which have a government-approved sponsor. Converter academies are schools which have themselves chosen to become academies and are not required to have a sponsor, although they may choose to do so. Free Schools are completely private institutions set up from 2011 via the Free School Programme. An academy trust that runs more than one academy is known as an Academy chain.
As of June 2015, there are 4,676 academies open in England. There are hundreds more in the pipeline.The number has grown dramatically under the coalition government, from 203 in May 2010. Now over half of all secondaries in England are academies.

So what is the problem with this?

1) Academies and free schools are not accountable to local people via local councils. They render laughable the government's promise of 'localism' and represent the centralisation of contol over education into the hands of central government.

2) Academy sponsors and free school founders can be corporate businesses and sectarian religious interests. As such the education of children can be in the hands of organisations with a profit motive or religious agenda to push. In Sponsored Academies, the sponsor is able to influence the process of establishing the school, including its curriculum, ethos, specialism and building (if a new one is built). The sponsor also has the power to appoint governors to the academy's governing body.

3) These schools are able to make their own changes to staff pay and conditions ie pay them less and also to employ marginally qualified teachers.

4) These schools are essentially private providers. Currently they are state funded. Currently.....

5) Academies and free schools have more freedom set their own admissions policies and exclude the less able.

6) Academies are costly. A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, the parliamentary select committee responsible for ensuring value for money for the taxpayer, condemned the programme as 'complex and inefficient', leading to more than a billion pounds of overspending. In 2013 the budget for education was cut by 5.7% in real terms. While infrastructure spending was cut by 81% and the non-academy budget for education was cut by 4.31%, the budget for academy schools was increased by a huge 191%.

7) Free schools, which are private institutions, suck funding from state schools. So far more than £1.4 million of capital funding alone has been provided by the taxpayer for businesses to open schools.

THE PERFORMANCE OF ACADEMIES & FREE SCHOOLS


A study carried out for the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2015 compared the attainment of pupils at academy schools with those at maintained schools which had similar characteristics. It found that progress made by students in sponsored and “converter” academies was no greater than that of children at maintained schools.
In 2013 Michael Gove's flagship free school, The Discovery Free School in West Sussex was given Ofsted's lowest rating of 'inadequate' and placed in special measures.  Later that same year the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby hit the headlines due to female teachers being compelled to wear a headscarf while teaching pupils, while lessons were routinely scrapped in favour of prayers, fairy stories were banned for being 'un-Islamic' and girls were made to sit at the back of the classroom.
A third of free schools have been found to 'require improvement' by Ofsted, which is marginally worse than ordinary maintained schools.
Students also face a decrease in time dedicated to lessons such as drama, art, music and physical education.
This picture is one of huge financial cost at the expense of the taxpayer, no convincing increase in standards, religious extremism unchecked and a narrow 'bog-standard' curriculum.


The Green Party would reintegrate both academies and free schools into local authority control, therefore restoring democratic accountability on a local level.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

We Need a New Approach To Housing and Planning



THE HOUSING CRISIS REDEFINED

We hear a lot of talk in the media about the housing crisis and how rising house prices are making it more difficult for first time buyers to get onto the housing market. The media narrative, propagated by the BBC, the right-wing press and liberal Guardian columnists alike, is basically that successive governments have failed to build enough private housing and so demand outstrips supply. The implicit solution within this media narrative is that we must build more private houses, particularly 'starter homes' at so-called 'affordable prices' and that we must build them on green field sites as the extent of the 'crisis' demands it. Then prices will fall and young people will get a nice mortgage at 23 and a nice private home of their own.
Unfortunately this media narrative starts from a completely false premise, that being that building more private houses will reduce house prices. Unfortunately it is counter-intuitive not to swallow this premise, yet in actual fact the very opposite is likely to result. A lack of properties on the market tends to lead to a fall in people moving house, therefore leading to what estate agents call 'stagnation' , meaning houses aren't selling as much and so the prices stabilise or fall.
Building more private houses means that the market will start moving again, people start moving house, demand increases and prices shoot up. Even the provision of more 'starter homes' just encourages increased speculation on the property market, a rush to buy them and rising prices.

The government and large developers want people to swallow this narrative for two reasons. Firstly the current government, as well as many commentators from other parties, have an ideological attachment to the view that home ownership is preferable to providing rented accommodation. When Mrs Thatcher talked of a "property-owning democracy", she implied that those who owned their own homes had an increased stake in society and by implication were somehow more likely to make the 'right' choices at election times. Such attitudes have become embedded within the cross-party political class. Secondly the large development companies would rather build private houses (the bigger the better) to maximise profits and are desperate to get their hands on green field sites in order to avoid the costs involved in cleaning up brownfield sites. Developers and estate agents have no desire to see house prices fall for reasons that should be blatantly obvious. One word: profits.



WHY HOUSING IS A GREEN ISSUE

Housing is a major green issue because the current government, and many within the opposition parties, wish to make it easier for developers to concrete over the countryside with housing estates, not just on the 'green belt' but on our unprotected green spaces. Since 2010, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has created a 'presumption in favour of development' within the planning process. Local councils have housing targets forced on them by central government and must either comply via local plans or they lose the right to block speculative planning applications from developers. Our countryside is under unprecedented threat from housing developers.
However it is also a green issue because of basic social justice. Social housing waiting lists are sky high and many low income people are stuck in bedsits because of a lack of council accommodation. Meanwhile young people are bombarded with propaganda urging them to get on the housing ladder, yet house prices continue to rise, meaning that buying their home is a pipedream. So they stay in a badly regulated and unattractive rental sector where they pay high rent for a privately owned flat which is poorly maintained.


RENTING MUST BE MADE MORE ATTRACTIVE

The only way to convincingly stabilise house prices and to provide those people who simply can't get on the housing ladder with homes is to make renting your home more attractive and to expand the rental sector. By taking a chunk of people out of the housing market and putting them into the rental sector, you reduce demand and house prices stabilise.
Unfortunately successive governments have done little to counter the view that everyone should aspire to buy a home as soon as possible, that renting is for 'losers' or 'chavs' and that getting saddled with a massive mortgage at a very young age is the route to happiness. Private rental accommodation has been allowed to become hugely expensive with sky high rents in towns such as Colchester. There has been way too little regulation of landlords, allowing the minority of landlords who fail to maintain their properties or rent out dangerous homes with faulty wiring, dodgy boilers and so on to get away with it. It is absurd to have a situation where renting a two bedroom flat costs more per month than paying the mortgage on such a property.
Renting can be made more attractive by a combination of tighter regulation and capping of rents in privately rented accommodation. However the easiest way to ensure the provision of low cost, well maintained rental properties is to do the opposite of what every government has tried to do since 1979, namely to build more council homes and to expand the proportion of UK housing that is council accommodation. I can hear the screams of heresy already.



COUNCIL HOUSE PROVISION IN COLCHESTER

Unfortunately the reforms of the current government are making it harder to build more council homes in Colchester. The article above appeared in The Gazette in November of last year. In July, the Chancellor George Osborne set out plans to lower social housing rents by 1% annually from 2016/17 for the next four years. On the surface this sounds great for tenants, however it is duplicitous. It means that Colchester Borough Council will lose £10 million over the next four years and £143 million over the next 30 years as the losses from rent are not being matched with a subsidy from central government. This means a massive cut in the funding needed to build more council houses. Last year the council built 34 council houses in the borough, the first for 20 years. They plan to build a further 12-20, however this could now be under threat.
The article pictured a new development of council homes on an old garages site in Monkwick Road. This is precisely the kind of development that we need; social housing on brownfield sites. It is crazy to be discouraging this while at the same time making it easier to concrete over the countryside with private housing.



THE GOVERNMENT'S HOUSING AND PLANNING BILL: THE END OF SOCIAL HOUSING IN THE UK?

Unfortunately the current government seems determined to make it easier for developers to concrete over our countryside while at the same time destroying the social housing sector. The Housing and Planning Bill is one of the most dangerous and far-reaching pieces of legislation to threaten this country in a long time. Far from addressing the housing crisis, it has been designed to bring about the end of social housing in this country. What will it do:

1) Replace the obligation to build homes for social rent with a duty to build discounted 'starter homes' .Therefore increasing the number of people speculating on the property market and getting that market 'moving' and stimulating price increases.

2) Extend the right to buy to those living in housing association homes without any provision for like-for-like replacement.  Therefore reducing the number of social homes available.

3) Force so-called 'high-income' tenants with a total household income over £30,000 in England (£40,000 in London) to pay higher market rents.

4) Phase out secure tenancies and their succession to children and replace them with 3-5 year tenancies, after which tenants will have to reapply.

5) Grant planning permission in principle for social housing estates to be redeveloped as "brownfield land" . Therefore whole communities can be shifted out and the site bulldozed and redeveloped with greater ease.

The Bill therefore proposes to make renting less attractive and to reduce the number of social homes available. Most dangerously, points 4 and 5 above would make it easier to move out whole communities and redevelop estates as 'luxury apartments' and so on for sale. In London this could increase social cleansing and effectively enable the removal of the poor from an area in order to sell off the site to developers who will then build expensive private accommodation for wealthy incomers.



GREEN SOLUTION'S TO THE HOUSING CRISIS

It is clear that there needs to be a complete change in direction in government housing policy, a greening of UK housing policy. We need innovative ideas in order to protect our countryside from the developers, provide more social housing, improve the rental sector and reduce demand. These could include:

1) Encouraging greater use of the space above shops in town centres for flat provision. A bold new initiative by Worcester Green Party aims to tackle the city’s housing crisis and at the same time ease development pressure on the countryside. The plan is to utilise the many properties above commercial premises that are currently unoccupied - and turn them into homes.
Now the party is calling on Worcester City Council to work with a new cross party group titled Living over the Shop (LOTS) to create an alternative to building more houses on green field sites.
The shortage of all types of accommodation is pushing up the cost of buying and renting a home. And in the absence of rent controls, the only way to reduce the cost of a home is to create millions of new homes across the country. The Green Party nationally is now pushing the Government to tackle the wasted space above many city centre shops.

2) Use brownfield sites which are of low wildlife potential. There are over 66,000 hectares of brownfield sites in England, and around a third of these are in the high-growth areas of greater London, the South East and East. Brownfield redevelopment can not only clean up environmental health hazards and eyesores, but can also be a catalyst for community regeneration, particularly when communities are brought into the consultation process of site identification and restoration. Managed effectively as a sustainable redevelopment scheme, brownfield sites can provide social housing, create opportunities for employment, promote conservation and wildlife, and offer a shared place for play and enjoyment.
YET CURRENTLY: Over 700,000 homes are planned in open countryside while brownfield land lies idle
The Government's recent reforms to planning have made it easier for developers to gain permission to build on open countryside and Green Belt. Already Local Plans propose to build 700,000 homes on precious countryside. We need not sacrifice the countryside when we have brownfield land in our towns and cities that could be regenerated to provide the housing we need.
I would add the caveat that some brownfield sites are ideal as places for nature regeneration. Camley Street Natural Park, near St Pancras in London, springs to mind. We therefore need a balanced approach. However we must reintroduce a clear and consistent ‘brownfield first’ approach in national planning policy.

3) Use the spaces indicated above to build more council homes not private homes. This can be funded and I explain how in my blog post linked below:

http://markgoachergreen.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/how-do-we-pay-for-500000-new-council.html

4) Abolish the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and replace it with one that includes a presumption in favour of no development with regard to greenfield sites.