Category Archives: Sheffield

Pizza and policy: education

Sheffield Green Party last night had its first every “pizza and policy” evening at the Union St Coworking space.

It was a pleasantly sociable discussion – we’re going to hold them about monthly – but some real gems emerged from the discussion.

A few quotes:

“We have to go back to education that helps to develop whole human beings.”

“We need much more education open to everyone, of every age.”

“The only educational institution I’ve every enjoyed is the University of the Third Age.”

“Abolishing Ofsted would greatly cut teachers’ workload.”

And the saddest quote, from a current teacher: “I am under so much pressure now that I wasn’t four years ago.”


Climate change: the people of Sheffield understand we need system change and reduced inequality

I very much enjoyed last week hearing a report of the preliminary findings of the INTERSECTION University of Sheffield Faculty of Social Sciences research programme, on which I was invited to respond.

It surveyed people on their views on climate change, particularly as related to intergenerational justice, is Sheffield, and also in cities in Uganda and China.

This session focused on the Sheffield results. Respondents, in my view rightly, did not blame older generations for climate change, pointing out that the science was not clear enough, or sufficiently promulgated, for people to have known the impact of their actions. They said that governments and industry were chiefly responsible for sustainable practices. “Some blame pliticians and business leaders for policy failure, corruption and lack of foresight.”

The researchers indicated disappointment that, beyond recycling, most people were not explicitly changing their personal behaviour to tackle climate change. We didn’t have an analysis of the respondents’ socio-economic status, but assuming it was broadly representative, that’s not unreasonable.

Most people get, at least on an instinctive level, that they through small personal action aren’t going to make a significant difference.

In there is the understanding that we need transformational system change to tackle climate change.

There was indeed a hint that the need for system change was evident to respondents. When asked who they blamed for climate change “the rich” came high on the list – at sixty three per cent, and respondents also thought that the rich would be among those most impacted.

There’s an understanding the reasons why economic and environmental justice are inextricably linked – those who will have to most cut their consumption are those consuming the most, broadly the rich.

It was good to hear strong support for the plastic bag charge and microbead ban.  There was strong desire for similar measures – good news for proposals for a charge on disposable coffee cups.

In the international work, it was interesting to hear how theatre in Uganda was helping to spread the word about the damage done by deforestation and promoting alternative more climate-friendly fuels – a reminder of the importance of the arts in social change. (Yes the arts that our government is consistently downgrading in our education system.

In the small group discussion after the presentations, we discussed how fear makes people consume, and how empowered people are less likely to consume. So much of our current consumption is a product of insecurity and fear.

Image from the Visual Minutes record of the Global Greens Congress in Liverpool last week.

Disaster: Eight per cent cut in school funding

Tonight parents, at least one grandparent, teachers, school support staff, further education lecturers and politicians gathered in Sheffield to discuss how to respond to the massive cuts being faced by Sheffield schools.

What cuts, you might say? I’ve only heard about the new so-called “fair funding formula” – and we know London school will suffer that, but the government is just rebalancing over-funding there, so they tell us.

Well you don’t have to believe the teachers’ unions or political commentators, for no lesser authority than the National Audit Office has concluded that schools will have to make £3 billion in cuts by 2019-2010, amounting to a an 8% cut in real-terms funding.

In Sheffield, it is primary schools that are being worst hit in immediate terms by the “fair funding formula” – although of course those pupils will soon be secondary pupils – and their schools will have to scramble, and use resources, to make up for gaps.

To find out how every school in Sheffield (and around the country) is affected, this website has the full details.

While loss of staff is mostly being expressed in terms of numbers of teachers, in reality each class has to have a teacher, so it is support staff that are being hit first – teaching assistants in particular. We heard tonight that a “slash and burn” of staff is already underway, with union representatives struggling to cope with the numbers. Support particularly for students with Special Educational Needs and those for whom English is an additional language are likely to particularly suffer.

The cuts are being used to push even further the disastrous Conservative agenda of academisation of schools – a policy that absorbs even more precious funds through a hidden privatisation that sees schools forced to purchase services previously supplied through local authorities from expensive for-profit firms, and removed from local democratic control.

More, they are interacting with other Tory education policies that aim to suppress creative subjects in favour of a narrow mix of academic subjects. Choice of subjects is being lost to cuts, and the arts subjects essential to life – and our future economic prospects – are being dropped.

Schools are being forced to become exam factories.  As one contributor tonight said, the Tory aim is to ensure most pupils are educated to obediently follow instructions and not question.

But there’s going to be resistance – there was a strong determination tonight to get together different groups and organisations to ensure parents know what’s going on. And for me, one focus must be to ensure pupils know about the issue and have the chance to get campaigning.

There’s a very political generation of teens now – and they can be a powerful force of opposition.

Tonight I took a moment to read a pamphlet about the Chartists in Sheffield. It reported Isaac Ironside saying at Sheffield’s first Chartist meeting,1838 that the movement must campaign for good schools for children.

The campaign continues.

P.S. Chesterfield is ahead of us on this: they have a delightfully titled “Only Fools Would Cut Schools” event on April 1

Congratulations Freedom Riders: Keep up the Good Fight!

Enjoyed a lovely rally at lunchtime today, joining the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders at Sheffield station to celebrate their third birthday – and their victories.

The campaign began when free train travel for elderly and disabled people was removed in South Yorkshire, despite it continuing in London and many other parts of the country.

Here’s a report of one of their protests from 2014  – some of the police involved are today facing disciplinary action.

But today was in large part a celebration – complete with cake, for the Riders have won considerable victories – the restoration of free travel for disabled people, and half-priced fares for the elderly.

They’re not resting on their laurels however, and were in fine voice, both chant and song, demanding the restoration of free travel.

I was delighted to speak at the rally, and urged them the Freedom Riders that when they win their direct cause, they should continue to campaign – for railways run for public good, not private profit in particular. (This on the day that we learned a Chinese company – effectively an arm of the Chinese government – has been granted part ownership of a UK franchise).

There was also a speaker from Keep Our NHS Public – a reminder that this is part of a broader struggle, against the disastrous model of privatisation of public services that’s shovelling public money into private hands, cutting the pay and condition of workers and the quality of services.

And a great reminder from one speaker that campaigners need to stick together. She writing urged those present not to downplay other’s campaigns but to acknowledge that everyone does what they can, on issues that touch and move them.

More information

Defending democracy

Last night, I was delighted to be invited by the Crick Centre for the Understanding of Politics to respond to an outline by Professor Stephen Brennan of his book Against Democracy (some of the key points of which are summarised in this article).

I characterised my response as being one of “blunt Australianess” – a stereotype from my origins that I probably sometimes live up to.

I argued that this book is built on three fallacies:

  1. That we currently have democracy, particularly in the UK (where we have a government that has the support of 24% of eligible voters) and the US (where 3 million more people voted for Hillary than Trump). Saying our current systems in two countries don’t work doesn’t tell us about democracy.
  1. That voting/running for office comprises entire and complete democratic engagement. The anti-fracking campaigners currently walking between Yorkshire and Lancashire, to bring support to the campaigners devoting their lives to stopping the practice are doing politics, just as the people at a workshop at the University yesterday discussing how to intervene if they see discriminatory behaviour are doing politics. The personal is political is an old feminist slogan, but it is also a reality.
  1. That “experts” can decide complex questions that include politics, economics, sociology, science, psychology, better than people whose lives are influenced by it. I want a doctor to decide whether I need an antibiotic and what antibiotic that should be. Deciding how to tackle child poverty or climate change is not something anyone is expert in in the round.

Whatever other argument you want to make, democracy is better than the alternatives. The most democratic societies in the world – the Scandinavian countries – are also broadly considered the most successful societies. I’d suggest you could create an index for genuine democracy – citizen engagement in decisionmaking, localism, proportionality of elections versus successful societies and the correlation would be very close. Finland has what’s generally agreed to be the best education in the world – and not every citizen is an expert on education.

A society in which experts decide for us would be a society of not agents, but of automatums. Professor Brennan suggests we might be creating art, or tending gardens or caring for children – without politics in those things, they’d be very dull matters indeed. I’d suggest pretty well all art is political. You might suggest that “chocolate box” scenes of pretty cottages isn’t – but in its own way that’s highly political.

Levels of knowledge about politics in the UK and US are generally low – that’s an indictment of our education systems and lack of democracy. Go to Scotland in an election and referendum campaign and knock on doors and you’ll find voters know a lot – particularly since the independence vote, when people knew their vote matters, and engaged their attention accordingly.

Understanding Eritrea, and the UK’s response to its people

Thanks to the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, which this week organised an event at the University of Sheffield where former BBC editor Martin Plaut spoke about the current situation in Eritrea and how we reached this point, based on his recent book.

He began with a reminder of the long British involvement in the area – the 1868 invasion of Ethiopia, an interference in the affairs of the region that has continued – the Eritreans having won their 30-year struggle for independence despite at various time Russian and US support for the Ethiopians against them, and the fact that Eritreans were outnumbered by Ethiopians some 30 to 1 at the start of the conflict.

He explained how the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains on a knife edge, after a border war in 1998-2000, despite the apparently related history of the EPLF (Eritrea People’s Liberation Front) ruling in Asmara and the Tigrain People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) being the dominant political force in  Addis Ababa. (In short – differing strategies, differing allegiances – Third World Marxism versus Albanian Maoism, and differing views of their comparative status.)

Martin attributed conditions in Eritrea now as a result of a belief that the country is in a permanent state of a war of survival, with people subjected to indefinite national service under abusive, even torturous, conditions, with women grossly abused, men sent down the mines. Not only has there been no election since independence, but the ruling EPLP has not had a party congress since 1993, and in 2001 conditions have been those of, in Martin’s terms, “absolute lockdown”.

He spoke about the existence of “Department Zero Three” – an official organ for spreading smears and propaganda against anyone who wants to toe the party line, of the “Two Per Cent tax“, levied on Eritrean outside the country who needs to get anything done inside it, and of the refusal of President  Isaias Afwerki to acknowledge a famine now hitting the country following the 2015 El Nino event. Half of all children are stunted, but international agencies have not been allowed access to assess the situation or provide assistance.

In this context, I asked Martin’s view of UK policy towards Eritrea. His response was blunt, and what I expected. He described UK policy towards Eritrea, and indeed other states, as being “to stop refugees coming from Africa at all costs”. What it should be, he said, was to acknowledge the clear and obvious human rights abuses occurring, to use pressure to try to reduce or stop them, and to acknowledge the need of Eritreans who do escape the country for asylum.

Of course that’s very much not what our government is doing, indeed it changed the country guidance in way that saw the rate of initial acceptances of refugee applications fell from 85% to 60%. However, 87% of those refusals were overturned on appeal – but with the people concerned in the meantime suffering greatly. And children in Calais who might have been offered refuge, were refused.

Also: this event was one more opportunity to highlight the fact that Britain has a policy of indefinite immigration detention, the only Western state that has. SYMAAG is joining a protest next Saturday at Morton Hall detention centre calling for the closure of such centres- a bus is going from Sheffield.

Well done Friends of the Earth for getting the air pollution message out

Today the Guardian reported that despite all of the publicity, most Britons are still unaware of the poor quality of the air that they breathe.

That’s one reason why it is great that Friends of the Earth is encouraging members and supporters to install simple tubes that measure the level of nitrogen dioxide in the air in their communities in a citizen science project that will spread awareness and knowledge.

There are quite a few up around Sheffield, some at sites like Hillsborough Corner (below) where you might expect poor quality air, others in parts of the city generally thought of us “cleaner”, although some of those might shock local residents when the results come in.

Building awareness of the issue is one reason by Sheffield Green Party is running the Let Sheffield Breathe campaign. It includes a petition calling on the council to adopt a new air pollution strategy. (It adopted one in 2012, which aimed to cut pollution levels in the city to below European levels, which failed, and since then there’s not been a coordinated attempt to take action.

It is also disappointing that when five cities (Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton) were chosen to be Clean Air Zones (with associated funding), Sheffield was not among them – we must lobby hard to be added to the list.

National demonstration supports Lancashire anti-fracking campaign

On Saturday I crossed the ancient boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire, one of many people who came from around the country to support the ongoing campaign to prevent planned fracking at Preston New Road.

More than 700 people gathered at the site, and the signs and messages made two key points.

First, that the people of Lancashire, in the form of their elected county council, said “no” to fracking. I was outside the council chamber as that hearing went on, and you could hear the strain in the councillors’ voices (the hearing was broadcast to the crowd), with huge pressure being applied by David Cameron and George Osborne showing fervent support for the frackers, but the councillors instead listened to their voters. Then London overturned that decision.

The second key message was that there is an obvious, far better alternative – investment in renewable energy and energy conservation.

It was great to catch up with Tina Rothery, one of the longtime stalwarts of the anti-fracking campaign.

She was wearing her “Nana’s” apron – and it is grandmothers (and some “honorary” grandmothers among whom I’m proud to number myself) who are at the forefront of this campaign. One had this simple message:

But I liked this simple placard, which got across a lot in three words. The frackers proclaim that their industry will create jobs, what they don’t account for is the jobs that will be lost in other industries if they are allowed to go ahead – or the alternative (and far greater in number and quality jobs) that could be created with renewable energy and energy conservation.

Coming up next: The No Fracking Way walk, which will be carrying some soil from near the fracking site in Kirby Misperton to Preston New Rd. As organiser Clrr Andrew Cooper said: “As soil from Yorkshire is deposited at the fracking site in Lancashire we’ll emphasise that the assault on the environment at one site is an assault on us all.” (I’m planning on joining the final day.)

Longterm failure to invest has left the North’s rail infrastructure in a parlous state

The Yorkshire Posts’s interview with Chris Grayling, “I absolutely understand the need for Yorkshire transport investment” could not have been more apt, published on the day the Thinktank IPPR North published a report demonstrating that more than half of UK spending on transport networks is in London.

Current planned London spending is £1,943/person. In Yorkshire and Humber that figure is £190.

This is not just a question of “what is being built at the time”, as Mr Grayling claimed. It is long term under-investment that’s left our rail system in a parlous state, with, as the author of this report points out, it taking longer to get from Liverpool to Hull than it does from London to Paris.

And the slashing of rural and local bus services has left many people unable to travel at all, or forced on to congested, polluted roads when public transport would be a better option.

HS2 is only going to worsen the situation, focusing money, people and resources even more on London.

What’s needed is to abandon that expensive white elephant and make a coherent, cohesive, full plan for travel in Northern England, then invest to deliver it.

That’s something that needs to be done in the North. We know we can’t trust London, either to get it right, or to deliver the cash.

People power in action – Santander backs down under Renters Rising pressure

Yesterday I joined the Sheffield group of Renters Rising, on what was to have been a protest march.

Instead, it was a celebration.

The object of the event was the giant multinational bank Santander, which it had been found had a clause in its “buy to rent” mortgages saying that borrowers had to maximise the rent they were attracting for the property as a condition of the loan. That’s the bank doing its utmost to push already unaffordable rents even higher.

The plan was to have protests focused on Santander around the nation to highlight this.

But a couple of days after this was announced, Santander backed down, saying they would remove the clause from future mortgages.

So we enjoyed a celebration – and a reminder of the possibilities of people power!

(It was a demonstration that placards can take many forms, including cardboard box “houses”…)