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.