The Plastic Hippo

December 9, 2010

Sharing the pain

Filed under: Education,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 12:20 am

Quite how a secretive private company that regularly and systematically abuses children in its supposed care is allowed to run Walsall schools and children’s services is beyond the comprehension of this particular numbskull hippo. But be of good cheer, our supine council leaders are on the verge of fighting back.

The budget setting process for Walsall is under weigh and the draft proposals have been presented to Cabinet. The nautical term “under weigh” is relevant given the weight of the anchor that must be lifted if the good ship Walsall is to make any progress in the treacherous seas of Cameron and Clegg`s Britain. The very final statement in the “Working Smarter – Saving Description” (Appendix 3 item 17 for those interested) states:

“Negotiate reduction in cost of education services contract with Serco.”

If approved, this would “save” the council seven and a half million pounds over the next three years. Blimey, that’s good news. Or is it?

The contract is worth £345million to Serco over 12 years and was signed in the days before corporate greed brought the planet to its knees. Walsall council, clearly incapable of providing even the most basic of public services, was happy to outsource the difficult task of providing a decent education and happily handed over the keys to the school minibus to the operators of child detention centres. The actual deal remains a closely guarded secret but our civic representatives continue to claim that the Serco contract offers value for money. If cabinet actually believe that, they are deluded.

Since taking over education, Serco have overseen a planned reduction in the schools estate. Two major secondary schools, Shelfield and Darlaston were abandoned and left the control of the local authority to become Academies against the wishes of parents, staff and children. The closure of a third school, Sneyd, is being accelerated with cost being cited as the reason. Serco justifies walking away from schools by blaming poor standards, inadequate teaching and weak leadership and rather than supporting expensive lost causes, allows standards and results to deteriorate to the point where intervention and closure are the only options to protect profit margins. If that were not enough, standards and achievement have become worse under the stewardship of Serco and school buildings have been neglected to the point of dereliction. Value for money?

Rumours are beginning to circulate that at least two, probably three and even a possible five secondary schools are about to be sacrificed on the alter of Serco profitability. If previous tactics are to be repeated, watch for an “unofficial” leaked announcement, probably on the last day term of the possibility of a school, or schools, being closed down to make way for yet another privately run Academy. This ruse is designed to flatten the morale of staff and encourage parents to panic. Then will come talk of falling numbers of students and a school being not financially viable. Then an intervention to replace the headteacher and governing body, the announcement of an unidentified Academy sponsor and then a formal notice to close the school. A “consultation” will take place, the results of which will be ignored and then Serco will be able to dump another profit sapping liability.

Easy, seven and a half million “saved” and 6,000 kids abandoned.

Serco, as a global parasite, have made their position perfectly clear in the maelstrom of coalition slash and burn ideology. In October, the Serco Group finance director wrote a threatening letter to 193 of his biggest suppliers demanding that they, and not Serco, pay for the consequences of government cuts. Not just in the future, but also backdated. Andrew Jenner, who 12 months earlier made an extra £1million over and above his vast salary by selling some of his Serco share options, wrote:

“I am asking you to offer us a rebate of 2.5 per cent (exclusive of VAT) on Serco`s full-year spend with you for the 2010 calendar year in the form of a credit note. Like the Government, we are looking to determine who our real partners are that we can rely upon. Your response will no doubt indicate your commitment to our partnership but will also be something I will seriously consider in our working relationship as Serco continues to grow.”

In other words, you take the pain or you get no more work. In the first half of 2010, Serco`s profits rose by 21.6 per cent and the recently announced £650million contract to empty bins in Sandwell will clearly benefit Mr Jenner with further share options.

Once upon a time, about two months ago according to Secretary of State Michael Gove, Academy status was only available to those schools judged to be “outstanding” by Ofsted. Now, in desperation, Academy status is being forced on schools that have been failed by corporate sharks like Serco who, to use an overworked cliché, are not fit for purpose. Dedicated teachers are having their professional reputations ruined and families desperate for a semblance of adequate education service are being frustrated by a headlong rush to a divisive, cynical and deliberate crushing of hope and ambition. Deficit reduction is a smokescreen to cover a return to an education system intended to keep the lower orders in their place. Increasing university tuition fees, the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future and the withdrawal of EMA are not emergency measures to keep us out of the poor house. Instead, they are part of a political ideology designed to achieve the very opposite and deny quality education for all but the privileged wealthy.

What is clear is that the seven and a half million in “savings and efficiencies” that is being asked for will not be allowed to impact on shareholder dividends or the salaries of various managers and assistant managers currently destroying Walsall education in the name of Serco. Instead, the already poor strategic management of schools will get worse and the many dedicated Serco employees who actually know what the inside of a classroom looks like will find themselves out of a job. Achievement will go down the plug hole, schools will fall apart and the real losers will be the students.

Forget for the moment the almighty betrayal of the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees. That pledge was made when they didn`t really expect to be anywhere near power. Remember instead one of their first pronoucements just days after selling out to Cameron. They pledged to end child detention.

Colnbrook and Yarl`s Wood are still detaining children, are still physically, emotionally and racially abusing children and are still run by Serco.

Serco know how to share the pain.

December 6, 2010

Oh little town of Tesco

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 12:46 am

How still we see thee lie. A new star is added to the bright firmament of the Walsall retail experience. It can only be a matter of time before De Beers, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel and Fortnum & Mason are beating a path to open premises in Walsall and will fight to secure a prime position near the ring road. Until then, Tesco have pride of place.

The demolition of the old Walsall College building to make way for the latest Tesco pleasure dome began in January and here we are in December with it about to open well ahead of schedule. Construction methods have certainly improved since 1902 when it took three years to build the Council House and decisions taken inside that older, more august building has made life a lot easier for Tesco to cash in on Christmas.

As the coalition government continue to make policy on the hoof, not least on tuition fees but more recently on urban planning processes, next week the communities secretary Eric Pickles will present a white paper on “decentralisation and localism” which will, to all intents and purposes, do away with the need for planning permission from local authorities. Eric is a heaven sent triple threat hosanna for satire. He is fat, he is stupid and he has a silly name. However, combined with a no hope council and a voracious corporate globe eater, the threat turns into a palpable danger.

Devoid of any ideas, our leaders in Walsall seem to think that we will shop ourselves out of oncoming penury so BOGOF, own-brand superstores are the final solution to regeneration. Another aircraft hanger palace of consumerism is born offering three for two on gold frankincense and myrrh and the sacrifice of a once thriving town centre. Councillor Adrian Andrew is not the Messiah, he is a very naughty boy.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) advises the government on design and development control and does not seem very happy at a recent shift in policy to bring monolithic out-of-town hypermarkets into already suffering town and city centres. Indeed Richard Simmonds, Chief Executive of CABE, said that “many schemes are simply repeating old out-of-town proposals – typically big, plain buildings in a large car park, which are unsuitable for town centres”. He adds that such developments become “a liability rather than an asset to the community”.

In particular, CABE has criticised Tesco for “weak” designs that will “adversely affect how a place looks and feels and whether it will thrive in the long term” and goes on to say that “short-term economic gain will not compensate for the loss of local character and ability to change and adapt easily”. It gets worse. Tesco and the other major players now want to build mixed-use developments combining a Temple of Mammon with housing, schools and even parks others than those designated for cars and shopping trolleys. Thank you, baby Jesus.

The hippo will undoubtedly waddle along to the new Tesco superstore that is being touted as the saviour of our town and will probably partake in the recently introduced lasagne sandwich and fish finger `n` ketchup sandwich and the excellent automated check outs where one waits ten minutes for an operative to arrive to scan the slave labour sugar snap peas and Zimbabwe corn. With Tesco carrier bags bulging with oven chips and cheap cider he will return to Hatherton Lake thankful that Tesco has opened in time for the festivities.

One hopes that the store does not suffer the calamity that befell a similar Tesco super-mega-hyper outlet in north Lincolnshire on Friday afternoon. In a town that dare not mention its name on the internet for fear of language filters and spam (it begins with S and ends in Thorpe), the roof of a Tesco hypermarket collapsed under the weight of snow.

Let us hope it did not crush the nativity tableau or the charity tin shakers or, more importantly, Tesco profits.

December 3, 2010

Three lions

Filed under: Sport — theplastichippo @ 11:42 pm

It is not coming home. It was never going to come home. It has gone forever. Even the corrupt 22 man FIFA committee realised that inviting England to host the football World Cup in 2018 would be a disaster. The grovelling of our three lions, Beckham, Cameron and Prince William, was a waste of time. In these strange days, economics rather than passion drives football and for many, vodka is preferable to Bovril.

The England bid was strong, but slick PR was no match for the need for FIFA to expand its market into uncharted territories. Russia, with one of the most corrupt governments on earth, is ripe with craggy babushkas longing to admire the thighs of Lionel Messi as they gather around televisions in humble yourts on barren, snow blasted steppes. In Qatar, a nation with about the same population as greater Birmingham and comprising of 90 per cent sand and 10 per cent oil, fans of camel racing and public stonings will flock to newly built stadia to watch football played in temperatures above 100 degrees refreshed by sweet, mint tea as alcohol will not be available. Given this overwhelming advantage, the three lions had no chance of influencing Sepp Blatter and the rest of the money grabbing crooks on the FIFA committee. FIFA, you see, hates England.

FIFA hates England for a number of reasons. England, being the nation that invented the game and then formalised the rules, is irksome to Herr Blatter and his greedy chums. We should also not forget that Henry II banned football in the 12th century because of its serious threat to life and limb and later the young Richard II continued the ban into the 14th century because it distracted his army from training and killing foreigners. In those early days of the beautiful game, footballs were the heads of rebellious Scots and Welshmen as celebrated in the now forgotten missing verse in the national anthem written during the Jacobite rebellion.

More important is the clout wielded by premiership club football. FIFA resent the commercial power of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and even the diminished brand that was once Liverpool. They hate the fact that child labourers, after a long day manufacturing tacky English football merchandise in far eastern sweat shops, rush to televisions showing a nil nil draw between Newcastle and Fulham. A quick look at the team sheet of the big clubs reveals that few players are natives of Moss Side, Hammersmith, Islington or Toxteth and are managed, and owned, by gentleman who impress by having English as a second language, including Sir Alex Ferguson. Football has not come home, it is beamed by satellite.

The England bid was also hampered by the bidding team itself. Giving designer handbags to the wives of FIFA committee members was not a clever tactic especially when Lord Triesman, then chairman of the Football Association, was forced to resign after suggesting that referees and, of all people, FIFA, were susceptible to bribery. Then, of course, there was the media. The Sunday Times produced evidence of corruption at the highest level of FIFA and the BBC aired a Panorama programme on the eve of the vote pointing out that FIFA executives are as bent as a nine bob note. So, if we ignore the world class stadia, the passion, the financial ability, the transport and accommodation infrastructure and the prospect of welcoming the world to Milton Keynes, the bid failed because of the British media who obsessed over corruption. In Russia, journalists who question the Mafia run state tend to be murdered and in Qatar?…well.

David Cameron spent most of week in Zurich lobbying the 22 gravy trainers only returning briefly to London to face PMQs as Clegg was mercifully protected and spared from the indignity of ridicule. Cameron deserves credit for his commitment in attempting to persuade the troughing 22 of the merits of the England bid. However, his government has cut funding to sport in schools and any child wishing to play football for England in 2018 will be the size and shape of Sepp Blatter by then.

Prince William proved that the English (possibly German) monarchy has little influence when it comes to corporate sponsorship of multinational companies wishing to break into new markets. Coca Cola and Nike need to shift product on the steppes and in the desert. David Beckham is married to a celebrity.

England won just two votes and one of them came from England. The humiliation endured by having a woeful national team is now matched with a woeful administration. Fielding the three lions has only damaged their own reputations and has to be seen as an own goal.

They think it’s all over…it is now.

December 1, 2010

Cable tied

Filed under: Education,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 11:03 am

Image credit: Edison

According to Wikileaks, the Obama administration consider David Cameron as a “lightweight”, Gordon Brown as “unstable” and that the Governor of the Bank of England thinks George Osbourne “lacked depth”. Apart from stating the bleeding obvious, one wonders if Wikileaks will publish leaked cables from US embassies regarding Business Secretary Vince Cable.

The US State Department and the British government shriek that the leaked cables put “thousands of lives in danger”. Presumably the US State Department and the coalition government resent this threat to their monopoly in putting thousands of lives in danger and the obvious perils of open, honest and accountable politics. The ticker tape machines from Washington to Willenhall will no doubt be clattering away after the stumbling, bizarre, tongue-tied and downright vacuous performance that Vince gave from the despatch box during the tuition fees debate in the commons.

The day did not start well for Vince. He told the BBC that he might have to abstain in a vote on the opposition day motion to reverse the increases in student tuition fees and the cut in the university teaching grant. Vincent has a few problems here. Firstly, he is the proposer of the policy, and, just seven months ago, he and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the rest of the Liberal Democrats fiercely opposed any increase in tuition fees and vowed to remove them completely over a six year period. They even signed a photo opportunity pledge in a cynical attempt to woo the student vote.

On the day that thousands of young people took to the streets to again voice their anger in cities across the country, Vince had the chance to explain himself. Sadly, the former lecturer at the London School of Economics, like his party leader before him at Deputy PMQs, refused to answer straight questions. Instead, he embarked on the now familiar voyage of avoidance, meaningless statistics and the incessant, erroneous mantra of inherited deficit. His entire speech was devoted to what the previous government might, or might not, or would, or would not do if they were still in power. No sense, no style and certainly no substance to his vindictive, ideological and disastrous proposals which are not about deficit reduction but are about keeping universities as the domain of the privileged.

His lacklustre speech was accompanied by the usual braying of “hear hear” from the Tory front-bench public schoolboy millionaires. At one point, the mouth of David Willets was open so wide for so long that he appeared to be suffering an attack of sleep apnoea. Willets, Minister for Universities and Science and an old boy of King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Christ Church, Oxford, joined in with the coalition school song that praises barbarism in education justified by the failure of yesterday’s politicians. He may even have been tempted to offer a rendition of his old King Edward’s school song:

“Forward where the scrimmage thickens, never stop to rub your shin;
Cowards count the kicks and ha`pence, only care to save their skin.
Often times defeat is splendid, victory may still be shame;
Luck is good, the prize is pleasant but the glory’s in the game.”

Forward where the knocks are hardest, some to failure, some to fame;
Never mind the cheers or hooting, keep your head and play the game.”

Vince Cable has decided to join the millionaire elite and deny a place at university to any student without daddies money to fund it. As Business Secretary, he has remained silent on the £6billion owed in unpaid tax by Vodafone or the £285million owed by Sir Philip Green. Apart from owning Topshop and paying himself £1billion a year, Green advises the coalition government on “efficiency”. As Cable, Clegg and Cameron make it easier for the mega wealthy to avoid tax, the money owed by Vodafone and Green alone could provide full funding for free university tuition with lots to spare to fund the rest of education.

Throughout the tuition fees debate, the few remaining Liberal Democrats in the Liberal Democratic Parliamentary Party squirmed uncomfortably on the green leather benches as Cable ignored the abandonment of principle, the breaking of a pledge and the destruction of the aspirations of a generation. The boorish hoots of party tribalism drowned out the few voices calling for reason and fairness. All this took place as children led the Metropolitan Police a merry dance around the streets leading to Parliament Square.

The selective amnesia and collective snow blindness now favoured by the Liberal Democrats seems to be catching on at local level. Our own usually sensible Liberal Democrat leader in Walsall, Councillor Ian Shires, seems to have adopted the “what if” line of defence now that his national party have sold out to the Conservatives. Still opposing tuition fees, he asks students to question Labour policy before criticising Liberal Democrats. Students tend not to be stupid and some might even realise that the Labour Party is no longer in government. The Conservatives are now the government, supported by the likes of Clegg and Cable who have been duped into becoming the targets of anger over ideological cuts that are a million miles away from Liberalism. The logic employed by Councillor Shires would suggest that when Willenhall roads go ungritted and bins unemptied, we should comfort ourselves by blaming Clement Atlee.

The Conservatives won the vote and few Liberal Democrats abstained. In doing so, the party that came third in the general election just committed electoral suicide. Wikileaks will leak the cable in due course.

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