Dear Mr Lerner

Dear Mr Lerner,

I am writing to you for clarification regarding the vacant (ish?) manager’s position at Aston Villa.

I am one of your loyal supporters. Not the sort that vandalises Villa Park to prove how much I love it, but still, a fan. It may have come to your attention that many fans of the club are frankly a bit perturbed by the possibility that Alex McLeish may be our new manager.

I’d like to make it clear to you where I stand. I’m not thrilled at the idea of appointing a manager strongly associated with our arch rivals. But, if said manager had a proven track record in the Premier League, transformed mediocre teams into those in European contention then I would welcome the opportunity to use his talents and deny them to the second team in the city.

But you and I know tht is not the case. He does have a proven track record. Of relegating a team that wasn’t so jaw-droppingly bad that it was an inevitability. Twice.

The evidence leads me to one of two conclusions. Either a) he’s not much cop or b) the players weren’t much cop. If you do feel he is a rough diamond who will dazzle and shame us all, then I can only conclude that you won’t be signing any of the useless players that let such a fine manager down at Birmingham City.

I hope we understand each other.

A fan

PS Frank Rijkaard won the Champions League as a manager, and did well in the European Cup with the Dutch national team. He has said he would take the job if offered. Just saying.

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Richard Dawkins: Faith School Menace

Richard Dawkins: Faith School Menace posed fundamental and, in the light of the government’s latest academy push, timely, questions. Why do we have faith schools? What are faith schools for? Is there an alternative?

A biased summary of the programme, with some added thoughts, for those who missed it.

First – the facts. One third of schools in this country are now faith based. The system was initially established sixty years ago, and at that time the churches (for they were all Chrisitian) provided half the running costs. Part of the deal was that they could teach RE in their own way – (half) the piper, not entirely unreasonably, got to call the tune. I’d be interested to see some research on how many parents believe this is still the arrangement – most I have, completely randomly in a non-representative poll, spoken to, certainly seem to think the religious institution makes a substantial financial contribution so it is only ‘right’ they should have that leniency. But that’s simply not true any more. Faith schools are funded in the same way as other state schools, and even new faith school buildings are up to 90% taxpayer funded. But the old privileges of discrimination on the basis of religion for employment and admissions continues legally, along with the ability to opt out of the National Curriculum for RE and teach in line with religious preferences.

Dawkins raised the issue of the validating of faith schools when Charles Clarke allowed non-Christian faith schools to be established, along with the first wave of academies. Clarke defended the decision initially on the basis of discrimination – if we have Christian schools then it is only right that in modern Britain we have Muslim and Jewish schools too. Dawkins suggested the opposite could have been done – removing the funding to ALL faith schools to level the playing field. Clarke replied that this would effectively lead to the closure of 4000 schools, against voters’ wishes (political suicide).

But of course it wouldn’t. It would only lead to closure if the schools valued their faith status more than their responsibility to educate the children. If they wanted to maintain their funding they would just have to teach National Curriculum based RE and stop discriminating. The assumption was however that this would not be acceptable to . . . who? Parents? Staff? Just asking.

The point was then raised that in a country where 7% of the population attend religious worship on a weekly basis, 36% of children attend faith schools. Does this really represent the population? Of course the answer is no – and Dawkins interviewed parents who recounted their desperate attempts to increase their child’s eligibility to the local church school by converting to Catholicism, attending the church every Sunday for 4 years, being nice to the priest, but buckling when a £5000 sweetener was suggested. This is not remotely unique – my neighbours have done at least parts of this (successfully too – their kid gets free education at the local Catholic school).

And why are non-religious and not-that-religious-really-but-I’m-prepared-to-overlook-that-minor-detail parents fighting to get their kids in to faith schools? Presumably because two thirds of all primaries with 100% scores for SATs are faith ones. It was suggested by Dr Steve Gibbons of the LSE that this is not due to any added value the schools pass on, kids from similar backgrounds and areas at other schools do just as well – but it is the background itself, for example the value those parents put on fighting for their kids’ education, that makes the difference.

So Dawkins went through the motions of being impartial to try and find out what faith schools do offer. No, he didn’t really, only joking. But he did ask the question to others. The Chief Education Officer of the Church of England, Rev Janina Ainsworth, said that faith schools want to impart that faith matters, but more than that, to give some personal experience of faith so that children can make an informed decision. Dawkins countered that this was targeting young children precisely because they are impressionable.

But who really knows what is going on inside faith schools, given that their RE lessons are exempt from Ofsted inspection and many choose to teach areas such as sex education & some citizenship through RE, whereas these would be covered in other parts of the curriculum in a mainstream school. The case was given of a Jewish school which had eight hours of RE over a fortnight – more than any other secular subject. Eight hours! Regulate the RE and you would regulate much of the bias across the currciculum.

Dawkins visited a Muslim school to try and see how the perceived conflict between religion and science could be resolved. I teach them evolution and then tell them the Qu’ran says it’s wrong and they all independently decide, from their own free will, without exception, to agree with me said the science teacher. . . ish. Show me how you answer the question a girl asked re why there are still chimpanzees if we are evolved from them. ‘Errr’ she replied. (22.40 for 1 minute in the programme). I think that most people will have been most alarmed not at the Muslim bias, but at the willful lack of subject knowledge from a so-called subject specialist. It was . . . well . . .  alarming.

Point made, Dawkins moved on to the cultural arguments regarding parents’ rights to bring their children up in line with their own beliefs and community (their community not the broader one) cohesion. To Northern Ireland then, where the Good Friday Agreement kept its hands off education and 95% of children continue to grow up in segregated faith schools. Both Catholic and Protestant education leaders saw this as a good, non-divisive thing. But Donal Flanagan, Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools actually fought back (34.07) – he argued that Dawkins is as guilty of trying to impose his values of children in a secular school encouraging critical thinking, as a Catholic school is of spreading their doctrine – why should only he have the right to choose?

But parents are not prevented from indoctrinating their children. That’s what home, conversations with your children, church/mosque etc, Sunday School is for. The right of the religious to get a public subsidy for their form of indoctrination, and be allowed to discriminate while their at it, is deemed to be special. My choice of school for my kids? Special measures or private. My neighbours? Special measures, private or one of two Catholic state schools in the area.

Removing the rights from parents to choose a religious school is not the same as removing the right to bring up your child in a religious home and community with religious values. And at what point do we say that children matter more than parental choice? Before we get to a parent’s choice to mutilate their children with female circumcision? Cultural, religious parental choice is not always in the best interests of our children or our society.

So Dawkins presented his vision, outlined in greater detail in some of the pre-publicity for this film, regarding his desire to see ALL schools offer an education in critical thinking, questioning, a desire for evidence and reason.

And secularists will have watched, and wondered how Dawkins kept so outwardly calm throughout while they shouted at the TV, And supporters of faith schools will also have shouted at the TV. And the current drive for increased parental choice will continue to deny me a real choice for my children.

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Greatest schmeatest

A totally impartial, skeptical, evidence-based look at which team really is ‘the greatest the world has ever seen’ . . . in England.  

I’ve stood on the terraces (I’m older than I look) and chanted that ‘_____ are the greatest team the world has ever seen’ more times than I care to remember. But the same can be said of pretty much all football fans. The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t all be right.     

So perhaps a skeptical approach is called for to answer this most vibrant and passionate of discourses. I am, for the sake of this discussion, going to assume that when we say the ‘greatest team’ what we actually mean is the ‘greatest club’ – the team question can be answered on the basis of results at any given time but these are ephemeral. I’m looking for something less changeable, less tangible even – something that can’t change just because of a run of poor results.         

Of course, results do matter. With the best will in the world Stalybridge Celtic or Dulwich Hamlet are never going to be serious contenders.      

It's not you.

 Only six clubs have won the top flight in English football five times or more (Manchester Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa and Sunderland). Of those, only Liverpool, Manchester Utd, Arsenal and Villa have won the other main domestic title, the FA Cup, more than five times too. If you want to be picky and include the League Cup, then only Liverpool and Aston Villa have accumulated 5 wins, but Man U will reach that number all too soon. So we can count league wins and cup triumphs, but in five years time the same criteria might lead us to a very different answer, and other teams, specifically Chelsea, will be making the list. It is only one part of the jigsaw.            

It’s not you.

As is club success in Europe. Despite the 5 yr ban from European competition after the Heysel disaster (1986-90) English clubs have a proud record matching that of the clubs of Italy and Spain. And across the full range of European competition many English clubs have garnered glory, including Ipswich, Tottenham and Nottingham Forest. But some not all competitions are created equal.                    

The old European Cup (which only the league winners from each country could enter thus making it a truly elite competition) and    

It won’t be you.

its replacement, the more financially motivated Champions’ League, are THE prestige European competitions. And Liverpool, Man Utd, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa are the only English clubs to have triumphed in one of these competitions. But as I’ve already said, results aren’t everything, and our ‘greatest’ really needs to have a great history too.   

It won't be you.

 The 12 founding clubs of the Football League can all make a great historical claim. Established on the basis of an idea by Aston Villa director William McGregor, the Football League was the first of its kind in the world . 11 of those clubs are still around but not all have experienced stuck around near the top of football’s elite.         

I would suggest longevity counts – as of this season only 2 clubs (Everton with 108 years and Aston Villa, who celebrate their centenary year in the 2010/11 season) have spent a total of 100 yrs in the top flight of English football (Liverpool and Arsenal will get there soon). So while I have some sympathy for clubs such as Notts County and Preston North End so much of their glory comes from a very proud, but very distant, history I think we can safely discount them too.      

The England team's infamous salute

 There is, of course, other history that can bring honour to a club. But this is subjective and often anecdotal. A great example would be the club that, in direct contrast to the England team the previous day, on a club on tour of Germany in 1938, refused to give the Nazi salute. Defying Hitler would rank right up there on the ‘proud history’ list for me, but I accept that most clubs will have their ‘moment’.              

Just as many clubs can proudly claim to have found their way into the wider culture of society. Again – a search for almost any club can produce some fine examples of major national literary figures referring to a particular team. Focusing on some of the teams we have isolated above, Everton are referenced in The Rutles by Roger McGough and Boys from the Black Stuff, we find Philip Larkin and Harold Pinter (in The Dumb Waiter) batting for Villa, and who can forget Scully  trying to get into the Liverpool team?              

I accept this isn’t very helpful in our final judgement just as the notoriously hard to define ‘most passionate’ fans issue can’t be easily quantified. Newcastle fans often claim this prize though I would hazard a guess Sunderland’s fans would disagree. Midlanders resigned to their fate are no less passionate than Scousers or Mancunians used to recent success.                     

And the sheen of the celebrity fan can dazzle in some cases, and bring embarrassment in others. But it must be rare for a club to be in the position, as one is now, of having the heir to the throne, the prime minister and the governor of the Bank of England all among its supporters.              

There are of course many other criteria one could choose, quite legitimately, to justify claims to greatness. An iconic stadium, contributions of players or managers to international squads, perhaps even a progressive role in football’s anti-racism campaigns.

Can any one team claim success against ALL these criteria? Who is the greatest? Which club has a proud, long history, has won England’s top league several times, had FA and league cup success, elite European success and defied Hitler?

There is only club that fulfills all these criteria and more.                     

Aston Villa                       

Truly the greatest.



. . . sorry? Cherry-picking? Moi?         






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RE – we’ve always had it. Can’t imagine Victorian schools without it. And yet it has only been a compulsory part of the curriculum since 1944. It was perceived at the time to provide a unifying force – all Blighty could join together in Christian worship and understanding.

Except Blighty has changed. Yes we are more multicultural but we also live in a more secular society. A BBC poll in  2004 suggested approximately 40% of the UK population considers itself to be non-religious Google for information on atheism and you’ll be presented with a range of possible statistics, but the UK is certainly one of the most non-religious nations.

And yet it is still a compulsory subject taught in all UK state schools. The Government has announced that RE will be included in its curriculum review later this year following on from Ofsted’s recent review of the subject Transforming Religious Education .

But that was a frustrating document in many respects as it ignored what is for me the key question in the debate – should we be teaching RE at all? It’s all very well saying the provision is patchy and unfocused but the unquestioning acceptance of the place of RE in the overcrowded curriculum is, in my opinion, a mistake.

What is the purpose of RE? Ofsted say most children questioned saw value in the subject but that:

  1. Pupils usually saw the value of RE in terms of how it contributed to their understanding of and respect for religious and cultural diversity. They often commented on how it helped them to understand others and contributed to a more harmonious society. Pupils recognised that RE provided a context in which issues related to the ‘spiritual’ were raised. However, it was only when RE was at its most effective that they had genuine opportunities to explore and reflect on the meaning and purpose of their lives and on the more intangible aspects of their experiences.

RE works best in explaining religion – crikey! A context for bunkum spiritual discussion. But that assumes the intrinsic worth of the spiritual.

  1. In the secondary schools, RE generally contributed positively to students’ personal development. However, this tended to focus on the moral, social and cultural aspects of their lives. In about six in 10 of the schools visited, there were few opportunities for students to explore the more spiritual aspects of the subject. For example, they rarely engaged with challenging or evocative material drawn from religious and belief traditions that might stimulate more profound feelings or ideas.

This sounds like a lack of spirituality is intrinsically a bad thing. But if you don’t accept that premise and prefer to ‘ make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values’ (BHA), then you may as well be teaching astrology.

There is always the argument that it helps promote community cohesion and mutual tolerance and respect. Except I have yet to see evidence of this. A multicultural multi-faith school is integrated, respectful and harmonious because of the relationships within it at all levels, not because of the hour spent doing RE alternate terms, unless there is a play rehearsal going on and a trip to the zoo that week. To suggest otherwise is to do a great disservice to what many schools achieve day in day out.

The truth is that children grow up with the religious views of their parents. If those parents are tolerant, the kids will be, if they are Islamophobes or anti-semitic the kids will walk out of RE lessons seeing the differences rather than the similarities, whatever the lesson objective.

But what I find most troubling is that  we hold on to the view that RE is the conduit for our teaching on ethics and morality . . . despite the introduction of PSCHE and citizenship lessons. The implication remains that religion and morality are inextricably linked.

And don’t get me started on the ‘but it’s just nice traditional stories to share with kids’ – I’ve heard that and . . . no, don’t get me started.

I am in favour of talking about religion at school. We need to grow up knowing that people live different lives to us. And religion has had a huge historical and cultural impact on all our lives regardless of our own religious beliefs. The understanding of this is certainly part of a broad and balanced education.  But I would suggest that the impact and nuances are not readily available to, at the very least, primary school children. That’s why it should be there, but as a small part of PSCHE – along with topics on racism, bullying, ethics etc.

Don’t get me wrong, the Ofsted report isn’t all bad – the standardisation of RE teaching should ensure greater clarity of purpose. But best of all it refers to the need to formalise the inclusion of humanism in the teaching of RE (oh the irony!). At the moment it is only if the teacher is aware enough to mention it (often because of their own beliefs) that humanism gets mentioned at all as we take a religion a term, or how different religions peceive a particular theme – in my borough at least there it is quite possible for a child to get right through primary school without the slightest hint of humanism or atheism being mentionned. Many (most?) teachers do not remember to say ‘and some people believe none of this, but believe in science and evidence.’ At secondary level the scrutiny needs to be greater – after all it’s a fairly self-selecting category of teaching – although I could find no figures on what percentage of specialist RE teachers would call themselves atheists, I would suspect it is pretty low.

Religious parents will bring up their children with an understanding of their faith and, if you want to teach your kids religion, be my guest – after all what you do in the privacy of your own home is your business. I just have an issue when you start bringing my kids into it, and you inevitably do when they go in to RE lessons.

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Diane schmiane


Not the comfy chair!

Diana Abbott on This Week  


 This week’s This Week made uncomfortable viewing. Some might say that most weeks’ This Week are, but this week’s This Week was worse than most.    

Diane Abbott was snuggling back up to Michael Portillo in pundit corner having stepped down to fight the Milimen et al for the Labour leadership. The other contenders will get their chance to tolerate Andrew Neil and try and impress against Portillo (never has a man so changed my opinion of him) in due course.  I’m pretty sure Abbott wishes she had turned down the offer of the comfy chair this time.      

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the dubious expenses claim that were the problem but her refusal to talk about her choice of school for her son. In trying to ‘defend’ her decision to go private (not a decision that I feel should automatically be condemned anyway), she explained,    

 ‘West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children.’        

Andrew Neil leapt on this by saying ‘So black mums love their kids more than white mums, do they?’    

Abbott responded with the equivalent of ‘no comment’.    

Thankfully, the usually pretty loathsome, self-congratulatory Neil persisted: ‘Supposing Michael said white mums will go to the wall for their children. Why did you say that? Isn’t it a racist remark?   

Abbott again refused to respond, so Neil gave her a get out clause: ‘Would you like to make it clear that West Indian mums are no better than white mums or Asian mums?’  

 And she screwed it up with – ‘I have nothing to say.’   

Neil sounded almost as surprised as I was when he said ‘You don’t want to do that – you still think West Indian mums are the best?’   

Had she answered with a ‘no of course I don’t, don’t be silly Andrew and stop twisting what I said. I’m just saying West Indian mums are well-known for their fierce and protective loyalty to their children . . . as are many other parents,’ I think she would have been ok.   But she didn’t. She kept on refusing to comment.

And ‘no comment’ is NEVER an acceptable response when you are accused of racism.  There is a believe among some people in the black community that you cannot be racist if you are black. I don’t hold with that. Her refusal to correct the implication that West Indian mums are better than white or Asian, or, again by implication, Chinese, Jewish, African or indeed any other type of mum is offensive. As a member of one of these other minority groups I feel offended by her generalisation. I think it is racism, as racism should always be judged on what is said or done, the act, not the perpetrator. It is, after all,  feasible I could say something racist even if I wore a Kick Racism out of Football t-shirt back in 1990. 

So while I can care a little about the expenses, I have no problem with her wanting the absolute best for her child’s education and think there is nothing more important she could be spending her money on, but I do not respect her racist reasoning.    

Let’s hope next week’s This Week has a partner for Portillo who isn’t as weak as this week’s.  


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‘Interested’ / schminterested

Language. It can be a bit misleading. Sometimes deliberately.

I am interested.

What does that phrase mean? Let’s look at what the Chambers Dictionary I have conveniently to hand has to say about the word ‘interested’.

interested adj 1 showing concern or having an interest 2 personally involved;not impartial or disinterested.

I am interested in genocide. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is something I am actively seeking to pursue at evenings and weekends, but rather that I wish to find out a bit more.

Today the Department of Education published a list of schools who had expressed an interest in applying for academy status.

The names of 1,700 schools that have asked the government about becoming academies was published by the department for education today.

The list is divided into those rated outstanding – who can apply for fast-track academy status that will let them convert by the start of the September term – and all the others who have expressed an interest.

At least let us know what sweeties you'll give us.

Except, my understanding is that this is not quite right. These schools, at least in the majority of cases, have not shown an interest in becoming academies. They have shown an interest in finding out what on earth Mr Gove means when he says they could have academy status. Having spoken to a headteacher from one of the schools listed , it was explained that the government have effectively said ‘do you want to join my club?’

to which the obvious response is ‘what is your club?’

‘Aha – well, you have to say you’re interested  before we’ll tell you . . . . and even then it might take a while as we’re making this up as we go along . . . . a bit.’

The idea that any school will have enough information in the next four weeks of this academic year to then discuss, ensure all criteria are met, put to governors and parents before going back to governors to ratify the desire for academy status seems unlikely as full details have not yet reached schools from the Department for Education. I would suggest that in the time frame available any school that is ready for business as a new academy in September has done so in haste.

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Faith schools / schmaith schools


I was going to write a letter. It was going to be insightful and pointed. It was going to go something like this.

Dear Mr Gove

I have read your statement about how you want to allow parents and interested parties to set up state-funded schools.

I am a teacher at an ‘outstanding’ primary school that I am unable to send my own children to as I live outside the catchment area. My own local schools are either failing, recently failing or faith – which we are neither eligible for nor find desirable. Most of my neighbours with small children have found religion or moved out of the area, whereas we have been pushed towards the private sector.

It is against this background that some like-minded friends and I would like some details on how we could establish a state-funded atheist school. I understand that RE is a compulsory part of the National Curriculum but assume it would be possible to teach it in line with my beliefs (as a faith school would) – namely negatively.

In order to maintain the integrity of the project it would be essential to be able to discriminate on both admissions and employment. Again, the precedent has been set by faith schools.

I look forward to hearing from you with regard to this exciting, forward thinking project.

Yours Sincerely

South of the River

Happy to discuss the evidence

If I’m honest it was going to be written with a little more finesse. But then I thought, “no, behave yourself!” Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to hear the response. But is an atheist school really desirable?

 I have many objections to faith schools – summarised far better than I could do in this article by the British Humanist Association . But I have two chief objections: their legally enshrined right to discriminate in a way that has been deemed to be utterly unacceptable (and therefore made illegal) in the rest of society, and their inherently divisive nature. Any ‘atheist’ school worth the name would have to operate under the same principles and so the reality would be totally counter-productive.

My atheism is based around scepticism – I ask questions and expect evidence-based answers. Within this context atheism is not afraid to stand up and demonstrate its veracity next to a range of belief systems. It doesn’t need to segregate itself out of fear. The aim is not for ‘us’ to win, but for all of us to win – a notion of integrated ‘society’ that isn’t politically or religiously loaded.

So perhaps it is a secular school I’m looking for. Indeed Richard Dawkins answered a question on Mumsnet this week by saying that,

. . . children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists.

But all schools are surely supposed to do that anyway. We call it thinking skills, or by Key Stage 3 Theory of Knowledge – which is even a stand alone unit in the International Baccalaureate that an increasing number of schools are taking on. The ability to question, hypothesise, test, adapt should not be alien concepts in any school or for any age. We do it for science, maths, history – these are seen as core skills in all these subjects and more. But it is not the angle that is taken for RE. There is really no opportunity in a reception child’s RE lesson for them to say ‘but why do some people believe in god?’ My child has asked me that, then came home from school happily singing songs about the ‘baby cheeses’. I find it sad that a secular school could be considered as something outside of the norm – developing life skills that are away from the mainstream – that’s not the way it is supposed to be.

So having said that, it would be nice if the children of atheists weren’t treated as Satanists in Key Stage 1. And yes, I would love an atheist school in my area given my current choice – but I know I would just be becoming part of the problem.

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