Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publications, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
When I was a Parliamentary candidate I used to enjoy visiting local schools. I always learned something. Of course academies that time – during the run-up to the 2005 election – were a mere glint in Andrew Adonis’s eye. And on Wednesday, I visited an academy for the first time. It came about following an invitation from one of my LBC listeners who calls in regularly and takes me to task for some of my views on education policy.
It turned out that Alison in Sydenham was also head of the Ebbsfleet Academy, which is just off the M25 near Gravesend. Four years ago, it was a failing school. Those parents who cared about their children’s education didn’t want to send their kids there and the schools exam results were a joke. Only seventeen per cent would get five GCSEs or more.
Then the school became an academy, changed its name, brought in a new head…and the rest, as they say, is history. Last summer, 61 per cent of their pupils got five GCSEs or more. It’s a remarkable turnaround. It’s been done through inspirational leadership, an almost total replacement of the teaching staff, and by imposing rules and discipline. I have never seen such a clean school. Even all the classrooms were tidy.
All the classes I visited were full of eager-to-learn kids with seemingly few discipline problems. Many of the yeargroup classes were split into two – boys in one classroom, girls in another. I was quite surprised to see this, but it’s something that both girls and boys seem to like and think is a good idea.
Virtually all the teachers were under 30, and many recruited from the TeachFirst programme. Going round the school, the head knew the name of every single pupil she encountered, and had words of encouragement for all of them. In one of the breaks I sat down with six or seven pupils who told me about their experiences of how their school had been transformed. It was truly inspirational.
The school is in an area where 42 per cent of the pupils qualify for the pupil premium. Some of them come from very challenging backgrounds. One of the great things Alison Colwell has brought to the school is a real sense of encouraging her pupils to aspire to be better. I asked the seven kids what they wanted to do when they left school. They all gave aspirational answers: law, accountancy, computer technology. Alison later told me that she asked that question to a group of girls when she first arrived at the school. They all wanted to work in nail bars. Nothing wrong with nailbars – but the point was that they had never really considered anything else.
The school is now attracting more and more kids from the local area and is about to start a sixth form. The local community can now be justly proud of it. It just shows how important leadership is for a school. They’ve got the right head teacher at the right time. If this academy is a representative example of the genre, then those schools who are about to convert have nothing to fear. Indeed, they should embrace their future. Change is never easy, but it can be very rewarding, as the Ebbsfleet Academy has discovered.
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I don’t know whether David Cameron’s “bunch of migrants” comment was planned or not. Either way, it was rather crass, and I suspect he now regrets it. Trouble is, he has form, having described “a swarm of migrants” sweeping across Europe not that long ago.
I’m sure many people will say in the comments below that there was nothing wrong at all with his words and it’s a fuss about nothing. I disagree. Too many people see migrants as a faceless, anonymous group. They are dehumanised. We have to remember that regardless of whether they are asylum seekers or refugees, they are human beings who are seeking to better their lives and those of their families.
In their circumstances, you and I would do the same thing. They’re not all seeking to come over here, steal our jobs and rape our women as some newspapers, which ought to know better, try to convince you. A small minority have given the majority a bad reputation.
And don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not advocating allowing in everyone who wants to come here – that would be ridiculous. But when discussing immigration, we need to be very careful of the language we use. End of sermon.
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When I heard the news that Cecil Parkinson had died I was much more emotional about it than I would have expected. Not that he was a close friend: he wasn’t. I met him quite a few times over the years and we had always got on, but his death was yet another sign that the Thatcher era is drawing to a close.
He was one of the most effective proponents of Thatcherism and was a member of that unique group of people who are described as ex-future prime ministers. For a brief period in 1983, Cecil Parkinson was considered Margaret Thatcher’s most likely successor. His resignation over his affair with Sara Keays soon put paid to that.
I have many personal memories of Cecil. I first met him in January 1983 when I attended a reception at Number Ten as Chairman of the University of East Anglia Conservative students. Most of the Cabinet were there: I remember discussing with Cecil Parkinson the number of free running shoes he had been sent after a recent profile had announced to the world that he was a keen runner. He offered me a pair, but it turned out his feet were much smaller than mine!
One of my main memories of running the UEA Tories was a meeting we held in 1985 with Cecil as the guest speaker. He was slowly being rehabilitated after his 1983 resignation and we expected a big crowd in Lecture Theatre 1. Little did I know that when we walked in it was full to overflowing with 900 students.
He got a standing ovation – which I was a little surprised at, as UEA was a very left-wing university in those days. Indeed, his reception was so good that it provoked the socialist workers’ crowd who tried to invade the stage. They failed, due to the skilful work of members of the UEA Rugby Society, so then the eggs started coming in. None of them hit Cecil. They all hit Ann, his wife, and me. My new suit was ruined. Cecil was furious and shouted “which little lefty rat threw that at my wife?” The rest of the audience cheered and turned on the egg throwers who left without further incident. What a great meeting! Cecil loved it!
My next encounters with Cecil came in 1990, when he was Transport Secretary. At that time I was working for a public relations company called Charles Barker. I had been recruited to beef up their lobbying efforts. I truth, I hated it. I was a fish out of water, and left after only three months.
One of my clients was Vauxhall, and they wanted to meet Cecil Parkinson and show off their new electric car. I kept asking them what they wanted from him in terms of policy, but they hadn’t got a clue. All they were interested in was a few pictures of him driving their new product and shaking hands with their chief executive. It was at that point that I knew I could get no satisfaction working as a pimp, because that’s what lobbying really was in those days – matchmaking without consummation.
At the time, I was good friends with Cecil’s SpAd, a redoubtable lady called Elizabeth Buchanan. She had previously worked for Paul Channon and later became a private secretary to the Prince of Wales and Margaret Thatcher.
Anyway, we sat together in an audience in Blackpool (I think) to listen to one of his party conference speeches. Cecil had never been a great platform speaker, and this year was no different. He plodded through his speech, but the audience wasn’t really that interested. At the end, Elizabeth grabbed my arm and whispered: “We must lead a standing ovation”. I dutifully got to my feet and applauded like mad. Unfortunately we were the only two who did. It was mortifyingly embarrassing.
In 2004, he and Ann came up to North Norfolk to speak at a fundraiser for my campaign. He arrived very late, having driven the wrong way down the M11. But he was in fine form.
At one point, many years ago (in 1996, I think) I approached him to ask if he would c-ooperate with a biography I planned to write about him. He thought about it very seriously, but in the end he decided not to because he knew that all anyone would be interested in was the real story of his affair with Sara Keays. It’s a book I would have loved to have written, as I believe his contribution to the Thatcher project has never really been told.
Despite his personal flaws, Cecil Parkinson was a towering political figure. I remain of the view that in different circumstances he could easily have succeeded Margaret Thatcher. Having said that, I am not sure that he would necessarily have been a great Prime Minister. But I will always regard him as one of the nicest people I have met in British politics.