Friday, 28 June 2013

Eye on the Hill

We don't need no education...
AS the timeless Pink Floyd song goes: "Teachers! Leave those kids alone!" It now turns out some teachers in Northern Ireland have been doing exactly that.

The Assembly Public Accounts Committee has looked at literacy and numeracy - which translates for those with poor literacy and numeracy as reading, writing and doing sums.

Part of the blame, says the committee, can be laid at the door of not sacking poorly performing teachers. At this point please feel free to shout: "I blame the parents...". However, the committee may have a point, with one in six children stepping forward into the brave new world of post-primary school (the Big School) unable to read, write, and count to more than 10 without taking their socks off.

The vast majority of our teachers in Northern Ireland are fantastic and inspirational; which means that the problem may lie a little deeper than a few bad apples at the blackboard.

What the committee did not seem to address is the social demographic, cultural and psycho-social aspects of schools failing children. Is it only the rich but thick experiencing these problems?

Or is it the case that those poorer families; families with generational unemployment and families with parents who have poor literacy and numeracy have children emerging from school as talented in every way except for how to read, write and count?

Minister for edschumakation, John O'Dowd, has already, with the support of executive colleagues started the process of employing newly graduated teachers to tackle the problems of literacy and numeracy; and minister for employment and learning, Dr Stephen Farry, is targeting adults who have problems reading, writing and doing maths.

As these long overdue initiatives are implemented, politicians of all shades, colours and opinions need to take a long hard look at themselves. And ask themselves what they have been doing to prevent the situation becoming so bad that 1 in 6 of our children are being failed.

We are not holding our breath for such introspection, but then again politicians need to be acutely aware that shouting about doing more is not enough; rather they should see what they can and must to do to be part of the solution.

Counting the cost
CHANCELLOR of the Exchequer, George Osborne - or as President Obama prefers to call him 'Jeffrey Osborne’ - has outlined his spending plans for the next few years and woe is us, but the Chancellor is bringing down the axe right across government.

Norn Iron's share of largesse it receives from Whitehall is plummeting by two per cent; which on the face of it doesn't sound like much, but when counting your monies in billions it is a tidy sum to lose.

While we are getting a 'loan', which could amount to £100m for capital and infrastructure projects, there will be less money to go around. Add that to a potential de facto cut in civil and public sector pay rises and the introduction of changes to the welfare system, there can be only one recourse to action.

And that is for Invest NI and enterprise minister Arlene Foster to use their magic to pluck  several thousand highly paid private sector jobs out of thin air. Or as the Executive prefers to call it - the G8 effect.

With our big pitch - apart from all those literate and numerate computer types - being tourism we also learned this week that last year's 'Our Time, Our Place' marketing blitz cost £11m but yet attracted fewer visitors. However, those visitors who did come spent more than those of previous years.

Which all comes down to having a better class of riot. Stick with us here, it will make sense eventually.

Norn Iron has many tourist attractions. It also accustomed to regular bouts of civil disorder (think marching season, flag protests etc).

The tourist, attracted by the prospect of learning more about the Titanic and seeing the geological wonder of the Giant's Causeway, arrives in Norn Iron. They then hear of rioting. Fearing that they may lose their camera and their bearings they decide to dash round the shops, grab some gift shop rubbish and run back to the cruise liner or airport. In this mad headlong rush to avoid civil disorder they will not look at the price but simply will spend, spend, spend to prove to Joe Schmoe from Illinois or Zhang Wei from Shanghai that they survived the riot.

Meanwhile, if all the shops agree to an under the counter cash economy that allows them to accept the higher prices while giving a backhand to the Assembly there will be more for everyone.

But it seems that Mr Osborne's financial gestapo will easily identify any scams we attempt, and will further cut our budget.

However, the irony of course is that rioting and the subsequent cost of policing and clear up actually contributes to the UK's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

If you ever thought you understood economics - perhaps you have an 'A' level or a degree in it - then Norn Iron will disabuse you of the notion that you know anything about anything. What is worrying in this convoluted article and convoluted conclusion is that our finance minister, Sammy Wilson, used to be the deputy chief examiner for 'A' level economics in Norn Iron...

All getting a wee bit tetchy this week
LOOKING back on the past week in politics it could be possible to look cogently at the work undertaken by MLAs. But looking at the headlines tells a different story.

We have had an angry exchange between the DUP's Jimmy Spratt and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt in committee, we have had a former junior minister sprawled across the bonnet of a police land rover and an apparent coup d'état in the chamber (environment minister Alex Attwood saw the first minister and deputy first minister make changes to his Planning Bill that made him decidedly unhappy).

We do not wish to comment on any of these incidents as to the right or wrong of them.

However, we do often ponder, when the boss isn't cracking the whip, whether MLAs ever consider how their actions and utterances play out in the public's minds? Or are they just trying to vote catch?

Either way we hope that the civic conversation Green Party MLA Steven Agnew is hosting to allow public comment at least produces a civil conversation!

In the meantime, on behalf of our clients, we will continue to scan and devour the less covered and less acknowledged work of the Assembly, whether in the chamber or committee.