Wednesday, 21 December 2016

How the banality of terror closed my heart to the Berlin Christmas market attack

I have a confession. When I heard the first news of the lorry ploughing into the Berlin Christmas market on Monday night, I had almost no reaction. I barely looked up from dinner. Oh dear, I thought, another one of those terrorists driving an out of control lorry into a jolly festive scene.
Was it in London? No. Proceed as normal then.
At the time it was nine dead and around 50 injured, again this barely registered. Well, at least it’s not as bad as Nice, a little jaded voice in my head said.
Was it time to declare on Twitter that “Ich bin Berlin”?
And as the horrible news has filled the media over the past few days I have found I lack interest. The commentary, the outrage, the Merkel-bashing, the Merkel-loving, the endless blogs about tolerance and stories about the dangers of shopping for gingerbread.
We were not warned that going in search of a glass bauble could end in violent death, one radio programme screeched.
Yes, I fear that this sort of outrageous serial murder has become so banal that I have almost started to ignore it. My emotions are completely blunted by the ubiquity of violence – and the western outrage that follows.
Clearly, distance makes a huge difference. We tend to feel a disaster more strongly if  it is close by, obviously. But I wonder now how close something would now have to be to elicit a strong emotional reaction.
A terrorist incident in central London would prick up my ears – I would worry about friends, family and colleagues possibly caught up in it. What about in the centre of my local town? Or in the local park? Or at the end of my street?
I am starting to feel about a terror attack in Germany as I usually do about a car bomb in Iraq. Oh. That is very bad. Now what shall we have for tea?
Terror has become the new normal and I don’t like it.
Perhaps the only thing that suggests I have not lost all feeling is my reaction to the reporting from Aleppo. Seeing grieving children howling, little ones covered in rubble and dust looking as lost and confused as it is possible to be, leaves me feeling utterly helpless.
Perhaps I have not lost my heart after all.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

This blog post is definitely not about Theresa May's brown leather trousers

At this juncture, readers of Barker’s Broken Britain would probably expect me to write something about Theresa May’s brown leather trousers. It has occurred to me that I could almost certainly find something witty and subversive to add to the gigantic tidalwave of online babble around the slippery Amanda Wakeley pantaloons.

With my educational expertise I could probably add some amusing commentary on Nicky Morgan’s sneers (prompted by journalists, I may add...the comments weren’t unsolicited). Or I could lay into the hypocrisy of carrying your own pricey handbag while questioning how well the designer trews would go down “in Loughborough market”.

I could also take a nice dig at May’s joint chief of staff Fiona Hill, who has not come off as a very nice lady at all in this farrago.

But I am categorically not going to be writing about this outrageous silliness. It would be playing into the hands of the male media chiefs who would like nothing more than to see all of womankind tear itself to pieces in a huge catfight, a la Sheffield Townswomen’s Guild’s re-enactment of Pearl Harbour [Monty Python fans click here].

The advertising space they would sell watching us writhe around hitting each other with our designer bags would be immense. Because handbags are what every woman carries, right? It really is all we have to defend ourselves. They are stuffed full of lipsticks and tampons and scary shit like that. And that's all we really care about, obviously.

Much as my journo’s mind finds the whole story magnificently fun and distracting, it also despair-inducing. That the media should reduce Theresa May’s premiership to nothing but a bitchy fight over a pair of trousers is so 1980s. And then for that bitchy fight to be reduced down into some kind of outward evidence of May’s “control freakery” is even worse. Accusing strong female leaders of being controlling is almost as clich├ęd as saying they “don’t have enough experience” when first appointed.

And it’s not the first time the Prime Minister has inadvertently been at the centre of one of these newspaper-induced catfights. Remember the Andrea Leadsom comment that having children – unlike May – would make her a better prime minister as she had a “very real stake” in the future of the country? How Fleet Street adored that gaffe (again, prompted by journalists in an interview – she didn’t just start slagging off childless women on Twitter after a few drinks).

So, that is why I definitely won’t be writing about this. Absolutely none of it.

You won’t hear a word from me about the ridiculous trousers, or Nicky Morgan’s lack of intellect or loyalty or Fiona Hill’s evil text messages.

Nope. Nothing to read here.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Why faith schools' fairy dust and 'British values' will not heal a divided society

In the several years I spent reporting on RE and faith schools, there was one word that irritated me far more than any other. It wasn’t “God” (a fine woman) or “praying” (why not?) or even that mysterious phrase “broadly Christian worship”. It was “ethos”. Those in faith-based education are often keen to refer to this whenever they are called to justify their existence – and suggest that the education they offer is, essentially, superior to schools without that faith.
“Parents love the ‘ethos’ of the school”, a Catholic school headteacher told me. And, attempting to appear inclusive, added “even Muslims want to come here because they share that ethos”.
What ethos exactly is that? I would wonder. Daily prayers? Self discipline? Selflessness? Giving £100 to Shelter at Christmas? Insisting that families prove their adherence to a certain religion in the event of over-subscription? They speak as if faith schools add an extra layer of special fairy dust, as if they are the choice of a superior form of human. Their product, they are essentially suggesting, is better to that of other schools. It’s all about the “ethos”. The undertone is that secular schools are bereft of a moral compass, lack direction, discipline or a sense of purpose.
And parents, it seems, have embraced the brand – many faith schools are extremely successful and popular, with the sharp-elbowed going to great lengths to prove they deserve admission. The middle classes, in particular, target them like Boden-sponsored missiles and house prices in their area rise accordingly. The schools flourish as a result. Was it God or the John Lewis account that did it?
Research by the Education Policy Institute this week suggests that faith schools take a higher-than-average proportion of pupils with good test results at the end of primary school. Over all, they also educate fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs. It all seems a little at odds with what one might call…the ethos, even if it is not the fault of the schools themselves.
All this comes as the government is preparing to lift the cap on the proportion of pupils any new schools can admit on the grounds of faith alone (currently 50 per cent). This move will allow the Catholics to take on new academies – as bishops have so far insisted they cannot run schools if there is a chance they would have to turn away a Catholic child.
Faith free schools – such as the new all-girls Muslim school near me (non-Muslims welcome!) have proved popular with parents, but they are bad for society and instil pupils with a strong sense of their difference, rather than belonging to a wider picture.
Combined with plans for increased levels of selection-by-ability in the system and the majority of schools becoming academies, we are heading for a destructive mix of isolationism and increased inequality.
Dame Louise Casey's report on the integration of minorities this morning said that Britain is an increasingly segregated society - and suggested more teaching of "British values" in schools to iron this out. But schools already do this...and it is nothing more than a sticking plaster for a school system that is becoming more and more divided and fragmented.
Faith schools –whatever religion they promote - may be “good” and provide a great education to many thousands of children but secular schools can work just as well. Schools run on religious grounds - despite their claims of ethnic diversity - can only deepen the divisions in our society. It is the opposite of what a good education system should attempt to do.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Is it time to learn to love Donald Trump?

So, there we are. The little ‘first woman president’ fantasy was not to be. As I suspected three posts back, it was foolish to expect something fabulous to happen.

Instead, we have the complete opposite – a randy old sexist businessman in the oval office married to a former glamour model. Ouch. It’s like Berlusconi all over again but far worse.
It is all rather depressing, especially for us ‘liberal elites’ as we tie ourselves in knots tapping away at our blogs unpicking this apparent disaster.

Meanwhile, on the streets, there is anger – and fear – that Mr Trump will unravel Obama’s achievements for minorities and the poor and seek the persecution of immigrants.

It’s true, those of us who opposed Trump must get all of this off our chests and go through a mourning process for what might have been.
But soon – unless there is a dramatic assassination or impeachment – we are going to have to start to get used to Trump in office. Our politicians are going to have to make friends with him. Making friends with your enemies can be the best way to control them.

Now, the more outraged and principled among us may insist that we must reject him, and continue to rage against the prospect of his presidency. But in doing that – we reject the democratic process. And as far as I know, the election wasn’t rigged.

I’m somewhat in agreement with Boris Johnson (I don’t say that too often) that indulging in a ‘whinge-o-rama’ is not going to get us anywhere (that guy really should get a newspaper column…)

Sure, we need to get over the shock horror of waking up last Wednesday with the prospect of the unthinkable having happened. But we need to drink some wine and then move on.

It might be hard, but we must find something to love in Trump…he must have an upside apart from all that cash. As I stare at a picture of him across my desk, I try to imagine that maybe, quietly at home on a Sunday, he’s a lovely guy who praises his wife’s cooking and offers to clean out the cat litter tray. If I squint hard enough, he looks sort of like a kindly uncle with a silly haircut.
Perhaps we should also give him the benefit of the doubt on the racist and sexist pronouncements: maybe he has a form of Tourette’s and his podium-blatherings have no connection to his actual thoughts.

Even though these declarations obviously appeal to the racists and sexists, perhaps they won’t amount to a great deal more than hot air and those voters will be bitterly disappointed.
We can always pray that the forces of democracy will unseat Trump soon. But in the meantime, let’s just try to imagine him in his slippers, putting up a shelf in the lounge of his mansion, worrying about what compelled him to say “build a wall”.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Efforts to widen girls' horizons should not devalue 'women's work'

Yet more evidence has emerged this week that children’s job aspirations are determined by their gender from an extremely young age. Girls, it seems would still much rather be an air hostess than a pilot, and only a tiny minority of boys are interested in playing at being a beautician.
The study may have come as no surprise to the majority of parents and those working with young children. Despite huge in-roads being made in gender equality on paper, we still see our little girls pushing prams around in nurses outfits and boys dressing as Bob the Builder. Many a feminist mum has eschewed pink for their daughter and bought them Meccano sets, only to find them asking to play teaparties with their dollies.
After birthing two machine-gun obsessed boys, even the raging feminist in me can't resist an inner hoot of delight as my little girl brings me a slice of wooden Battenberg cake on a plastic plate. At last, I've given birth to someone who understands me. I thank her but try not to reward her unduly for her servitude.
Obviously, like most people, I don’t believe people’s choices in life should be determined by their gender. Of course I encourage moves to ensure all children get a chance to see good role models, of all genders, in all the professions there are.
However, I do find something rather unsettling in the commentary that emerges following these kind of pieces of research. This ‘girls must be encouraged to take science and maths subjects’ refrain bothers me – not because I don’t agree with it – but because it implies somehow that the choices girls are currently making are in some way ‘wrong’.
For example, the message given out is that to choose to be a beautician or a carer or a nursery nurse is ‘failing oneself’.
It is as if traditional “women’s work” has no value and any girl worth her salt would steer well clear of it. This is madness, of course, because where would we all be without these professions? After all, who blow dries Theresa May’s hair, cares for David Cameron’s kids and looks after our elderly relatives so we can hang on to our livelihoods?
For the brave, intelligent and motivated, these jobs do have career paths too, God knows the country is in need of some good nursery managers. One of the big problems is that the brave, intelligent and motivated steer clear of them because of the poor status and remuneration that comes with them.
The only real thing ‘wrong’ with these jobs is that they are terrifically under-valued by society and under-paid…because they are traditionally female tasks.
Anyone who has left their child at a nursery knows the immense value of committed, intelligent, well-educated nursery nurses and early years teachers. You don't have to be able to spell to work here, but it helps.
It would be great too if something could be done to encourage young men into these roles, without feeling they were compromising their masculinity (remember Kindergarten Cop?). Boys, too, feel equally restricted in their choices, but I doubt there are many programmes to encourage them into ‘girly’ professions. There should be, as it is the only way things are ever going to change.
If all we do is constantly ram home the message that traditionally ‘men’s jobs’ are ‘good’ and girls should aspire to them, all we do is devalue traditionally female work even more.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Hillary and Me: Why it really does matter that the next president of the United States is a woman

Pic: Gage Skidmore

‘And yes, she happens to be a woman’ said Michelle Obama after trumpeting  Hillary Clinton’s presidential CV in Winston-Salem, North Carolina last week.
I know what she meant…she’s brilliant by any standards, her gender does not come into things.
But at the same time, I am certain that it does, and it must. Any commentator who complains that Hillary has played the “female card” too much, or that journalists place too much emphasis on this “first female president of the United States" stuff is wrong.
We have not yet reached the utopian dream of gender being an irrelevance and the glass ceiling being made of low fat cream cheese. So if she wins the election in a week’s time this will be a huge, momentous thing for womankind and the world.
I will cry tears of joy if she is elected and I no doubt will erect a small shrine in her honour in a corner of the lounge.
Feminist champagne corks - or, more realistically, Prosecco corks - will be popping in my kitchen as they will in many others.
Many would celebrate simply because of the man she isn’t – Donald Trump. But I will be leaping around the streets of East London wrapped in a star spangled banner because there is a living, breathing female human leading the free world.
And yet it seems  foolish to even start to fantasise about the possibility of a Hillary win. Today, it seems like a beautiful dew-covered cobweb that could be destroyed with the swish of a stick (possibly wielded by the FBI). The polls, unfortunately, are not looking very encouraging at all.
Mrs Clinton has endured a steady stream of misogyny on the path to the White House. The descriptions of her as ‘weak’, because she had a cold, or ‘lacking warmth’ or “power hungry” would not be levelled against a man.
What presidential candidate could not be described as ‘power hungry’? Do you have any idea how hungry you have to be survive the campaign trail?
Importantly – since most of us will never meet Hillary if she becomes president – it is the symbolism of a Clinton presidency that will matter for many. You can be the most incredible First Lady in history, but no matter what you say or do, you are still an appendage.
My mixed-race son was born just days before Barack Obama was elected to the White House in 2008. He has spent the first eight years of his life absorbing countless images, TV speeches and conversations about a black man in charge of the world.
Now, as my little daughter turns two, I want her see that a woman can do the same.
She will learn that people who wear dresses (and natty trouser suits) can make big decisions. She will see that mums can run more than the PTA and grandmas can survive pneumonia on the campaign trail. Wow. It puts my role modelling (going to work a bit, doing a lot of household chores) to shame.
Of course, we already have Theresa May. When she was first appointed home secretary in 2010, I recall at least two male colleagues sucking their teeth and saying something about “lack of experience”. And they weren’t talking about her suitability for her additional role as minister for women and equalities.
Well, she’s experienced now and has made it to prime minister. And while I don’t agree with much of what she says, I can’t wait to see her on the White House lawn with Hillary.