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Archive for the ‘Education and young people’ Category

Monday
Feb 23,2009

Over the last year or so I have become increasingly exasperated by the failure of the Labour Group Leadership on Waltham Forest Council to respond effectively to the widening concerns about how Neighbourhood Renewal Fund monies have been used in the Borough.

In February of last year, I asked a series of Parliamentary Questions about the concerns that were being raised: firstly about the use of money by EduAction who were at that time running the Borough’s education service, then to what extent Government Offices properly monitor the use of Neighbourhood Renewal Funds (checking the outcomes claimed) and whether the Government was satisfied with the work done by Dr Foster Intelligence for Waltham Forest (using central government monies), and finally about whether the Government Office for London was happy that money intended for five wards with high deprivation had been spent elsewhere.

These questions related to information passed to me from local residents that suggested that outcomes relating to non-existent children had been claimed in respect of the Youth at Risk programme, that £47,000 had been paid for a health needs assessment of the area that had not been reclaimed despite the organisation that provided the assessment acknowledging that the work concerned was inadequate and broke its own standards for accuracy, and that money had been diverted away from the areas targetted towards other pet projects.  The answers I received suggested that there was no formal process by which Government Offices checked whether the outcomes claimed for particular projects funded by them as the individual local authorities were the accountable bodies for the expenditure.  The Government Office confined itself to monitoring the progress of the local authority as a whole towards theoverall targets set.

I followed this up with a long series of requests to the Council under the Freedom of Information Act, as did local residents and others.  Eventually, the Council was goaded into action and published some of the findings of its own internal auditors and commissioned external reviews of some of its processes. 

These raised even more concerns – such as, the £6,000 received by one external contractor although £66,000 had been paid to him according to the documentation in the accounts.  Significantly, one of the external inquiries found that the documents about how individual decisions on payment of specific grants were made, by whom and the purpose for which the grants had been made were missing in a large number of cases.

In respect of a number of these issues, local residents have asked the police to investigate.

Now, the Council’s new Chief Executive has proposed a further and broader inquiry that will look at ALL of the Council’s procurement processes.  As the local newspaper says:

Documents reveal a systemic failure within the council to correctly allocate, administer and monitor Neighbourhood Renewal Fund spending since 2004.

A police investigation is currently conducted into allegations that EduAction, the company which used to manage education in the borough, used NRF money to boost profits.

The Better Neighbourhood Initiative (BNI) was launched in an attempt to target NRF more effectively, but it later emerged that many BNI contracts, totalling millions of pounds, did not follow rules to prevent fraud.

Throughout the developing scandal, the leadership of the Labour Group in Waltham Forest seems to have been hoping that the problem would simply go away.  Initially, they declared themselves confident that all decisions had been properly taken.  They resisted further investigations – so much so, that the traditional questions of “What did they know and when did they know it?” started to be asked.

At one stage, I received a phone message from one of them, noting that I was asking all these questions and inviting me to “resolve it within the Party”.  I am afraid there are wider public interest questions at stake here and these matters need to be seen to be resolved openly and transparently.

Now they have an opportunity: the Chief Executive has proposed a further inquiry (I assume this is not intended as another delaying tactic), so when they discuss his recommendation tomorrow night, they should acknowledge that things have gone seriously wrong, commit themselves to being totally open about who was responsible, and put in place all the necessary steps to restore public confidence.  Nothing less will be sufficient.

Thursday
Feb 12,2009

My debate on social networking has just ended. 

In my opening speech, I set the context by citing the OFCOM research that found that virtually all (99%) of children and young people aged 8 to 17 use the internet.  In 2005 the average time spent on line by children was 7.1 hours per week.  By 2007, this had almost doubled to 13.8 hours per week.  And virtually half (49%) of those aged 8 to 17 have set up their own profile on a social networking site.

 

My thesis was that social networking and video sharing sites, online games, iPods and internet-enabled mobile phones are now an integral part of youth culture.  While many adults worry that their offspring are wasting precious hours online, children and young people themselves see online media as the means to extend friendships, explore interests, experiment with self-expression and develop their knowledge and skills.

 

However, in the same way that young children are taught how to cross the road and at the same time safety features are built into cars and traffic laws regulate unsafe driving, we need to make sure that our children and young people are protected when they make their way on the internet.

 

As we know, there are real perils for the unwary.  Children and young people have been the victims of sexual predators as a result of the information they have revealed about themselves on social networking sites; there are increasing problems of cyber-bullying; security weaknesses on sites have led to serious privacy infringements; and young people have discovered the hard way that the permanence of information posted in public cyber-space may not only be embarrassing in later life but may also mean that employment offers (or university places) are not forthcoming.

 

I went on to argue that:

 

·     Children throughout their education should be taught digital citizenship so that they can both make the most of the internet but also recognise and deal with any dangers they may encounter.  As most parents acknowledge that their children are more internet literate than they are, there should also be a serious effort in parallel to help parents (and indeed all adults) to keep up with the rapid development of the internet and social digital media.

 

·     At the same time, privacy laws ought to be strengthened with an age-related component, specifically giving enhanced protection to the data relating to or provided by children and young people.  The US Children Online Privacy Protection Act, whilst not perfect, provides a model that has required a number of US-based companies operating on the internet to improve their standards significantly.

 

·     There should also be higher expectations on those responsible for social networking sites – particularly those aimed at children or where there are a significant number of users who are children and young people.  These higher expectations should include:

o        Prominent and clear safety information, warning about potential dangers;

o        Simple systems for reporting abuse or inappropriate/threatening behaviour with appropriate links to the police and law enforcement;

o        Increased numbers of suitably-vetted moderators patrolling areas of sites frequented by young people;

o        User-friendly systems enabling people to ignore and erase unwanted comments and to erase permanently their own profiles; and

o    Increased server security to prevent hacking and unauthorised access to personal information.

 

·     Finally, there should be urgent work undertaken by internet and technology companies to find and agree a simple, efficient and cost-effective means of achieving age-verification on the internet, so as to prevent under-age people accessing inappropriate sites and older people passing themselves off as under-18.

 

In addition, other peers made a range of interesting points. 

There was a notable contribution from Baroness Susan Greenfield approaching the topic from the stand-point of neuro-physiology. 

Baroness Doreen Massey told the House about the Bill she is introducing on internet age verification and the Minister replying, Lord Bill Brett, almost gave a commitment on behalf of the Government to support it – although when I pressed him on it he entered the most enormous health warning about what he had said.  Nevertheless, it was clear that there was a lot of support in the House for the principle of such legislation.

Thursday
Feb 12,2009

The debate I have initiated on social networking is this afternoon and I have received a number of briefing/lobbying papers from different companies and organisations about the subject. Nothing improper in that. Some of the material has been helpful and interesting. Some of it less so.

One company – I won’t name them (they know who they are) – had the cack-brained idea to send their submission by registered post to me both at the House of Lords and at home. I got the Lords copy yesterday and read it – moderately interesting. I get home last night to find one of those ‘Sorry you were out’ cards from the Royal Mail saying they had a letter that needed signing for at the Sorting Office. So this morning I made a 45 minute detour to pick it up only to find it was another copy of the letter I read yesterday.
Question: is this more or less likely to make me favourably disposed to what they’re saying?

Monday
Feb 2,2009

I have been successful in the ballot to obtain a two and a half hour debate on the adequacy of the safeguards protecting children and young people using social networking sites on the internet.

The debate will be on the afternoon of Thursday 12th February 2009 and appears on the order paper as:

Lord Harris of Haringey to call attention to the growth in the use of social networking internet sites by children and the adequacy of safeguards to protect their privacy and interests; and to move for papers.

The process was that at the beginning of the session I tabled my debate proposal and waited to see whether it would be successful in the ballot: in fact, I gather it was fourth in the ballot for 12th February but those winning the top two slots couldn’t manage the date.

I have been interested in the issue for some time and I hope the debate will cover the extent to which children and young people are encouraged to post personal information on social networking sites to an extent that damages not only their personal security but also their future job prospects.  Nearly 50% of those aged 8 to 17 living in this country are – according to OFCOM – members of an online network community.  Often the warnings given to those signing on for the first time are inadequate.  The Home Office has issued guidance to social network providers but the guidance is not mandatory and has little effect on sites run from outside the UK.

Friday
Jan 9,2009

Last night was the annual dinner presided over by the Lord Mayor of London for the Governing Bodies of London.  The Lord Mayor is not, of course, Boris Johnson, who is the elected Mayor for all of London (not just the square mile administered by the Corporation of London).  This dinner packed several hundred of the capital’s politicians and administrators into an intimate dining room in the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence.

The occasion importantly provides a platform for the elected Mayor to set out his views on the state of London and there was a bravura performance by Mayor Johnson, responding to a sober speech from the Lord Mayor on what is needed for London to survive the economic situation.  Essential the message was “times are tough” but “we are going to get through it”.  The package humorously presented (I suspect the audience would have been disappointed if Mayor Johnson’s style had been as straitlaced as the Lord Mayor’s) essentially boiled down to avoiding the over-regulation of bankers, some apprenticeships in tunnelling (building a “cloaca maxima” under the Thames), the new Routemaster (restoring every Londoner’s inalienable right to injure themselves jumping on and off a moving bus), the rent-a-cycle scheme (even if it’s wrong, we’re still going to do it), and a freeze on the Mayor’s precept on London Council Tax.

It was entertaining stuff, but on the day when the Bank of England had cut interest rates to their lowest level since the Bank was established in 1694 it all felt a bit light on substance.

Mayor Johnson was in many ways upstaged by Merrick Cockell, the Chair of London Councils (the umbrella body for the London Boroughs, which was known as the Association of London Government when I chaired it).  His speech set out what the Boroughs are and will do to help Londoners ride out the economic downturn and set out how the Boroughs, the Greater London Authority and central government should work together to deliver the most effective policies to enable London – the economic driver of the UK economy – to emerge stronger at the end of the current period and so best deliver a kick-start to the rest of the UK.

Merrick Cockell also got the best laugh of the evening, comparing the  GLA and London Councils with (among other things) Rod Hull and Emu with Mayor Johnson cast in the role of Emu

Strangely, Mayor Johnson referred to a couple of London Assembly members by name in his speech.  He highlighted the referral by Len Duvall of remarks made by the Mayor to the Standards Board (if the Conservatives are so confident that the issue is now going to go away following the decision to set up a “timely and proportionate” inquiry why mention it?) and he also made some remarks about how nice the Mansion House was and the sort of building appropriate for the style and status of an Assembly Member like Caroline Pidgeon – now what did he mean by singling her out?

The most shocking thing about Mayor Johnson’s performance was, however, his attitude to London itself.  He rightly said that 200 years ago London was the greatest city in the world.  Apparently, now, however, it is only “one of the greatest cities in the world” – can’t we expect a more upbeat attitude from our elected Mayor?

Sunday
Jan 4,2009

In his New Year interview with The Observer today, Gordon Brown talks about creating 100,000 jobs by a programme of public works, focused on school repairs, new rail links, hospital projects, investment in eco-friendly projects and the broadband infrastructure.

This is all eminently sensible, but should really be on a much greater scale. The 100,000 jobs presumably equates to the £3 billion of public investment included in last month’s PBR statement. I argued then that the balance was wrong with too great an emphasis on boosting consumer spending by cutting VAT.
Nothing that has happened since alters my view.
Yes, there has been a splurge of High Street buying – mainly of imported goods (this will no doubt help maintain world employment levels, but won’t do a lot in the UK and will further push down the value of the £ against the € and the $). Interestingly, elsewhere in The Observer, the excellent Bill Keegan (delightfully appointed a CBE in the New Year honours) points out that much of this High Street spending may have been overseas visitors capitalising on the low exchange rate.
Instead, we should be treating the economic situation as an opportunity to invest in the UK’s long-term future. The Government should set a series of infrastructure objectives to be achieved over the next four or five years and put in place the resources and mechanisms for these objectives to be met. For example, local councils could be tasked to achieve better insulation and energy efficiency in the housing stock in their areas, a major programme to further improve school buildings and health care facilities should be instituted, every home, every school and every NHS facility should be cabled and enabled to have high speed broadband access with public wi-fi access in every town centre etc..
The opportunity should be taken to improve skills and equip young people (and indeed any adult) with the training needed to achieve their aspirations in the modern world.
No doubt this is ambitious, but – as Barack Obama has preached about ‘The Audacity of Hope’ – perhaps in the UK a Labour Government should dare to put that hope into practice.

Saturday
Dec 27,2008

I have just finished reading Ben Goldacre’s book, ‘Bad Science’. Much of the book will be familiar to assiduous readers of his regular column in ‘The Guardian’ each Saturday, but even for them it is worth having all the arguments in a fuller form with the detailed references cited.
Ben Goldacre should be essential reading for all ‘opinion formers’ and indeed, given the prevalence in the media of misrepresentation of scientific stories and of pseudo-science masquerading as fact, we would all benefit from the crash course that Goldacre offers.

The book takes the reader through what constitutes a good scientific experiment and a meaningful clinical trial and then looks at how various widely-reported issues measure up. Along the way ear candles, the Brain Gym (shamefully promoted – with the connivance of the Department of Children, Schools and Families – throughout the school system), homeopathy, and most commercial nutritionism are systematically debunked. This leads into a discussion on the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry’s products are promoted and concludes with the way in which the media hyped up a manufactured scare about the MMR vaccine.

So why are people so taken in by pseudo-science, by health scares and health fads? I suspect, while the media should take a large chunk of the blame, the real reason is that as a society we have been collectively undervaluing science and technology for several decades. Not enough is done in schools to promote not only the wonder and excitement of science, but also a basic understanding of scientific principles and method. Perhaps as a first step Ed Balls and senior officials at the DCSF should have as their New Year Resolution to read ‘Bad Science’ and figure out how to include its central message in the National Curriculum.

Friday
Nov 21,2008

The Royal Society of Arts last night staged a panel discussion, sponsored by Vodafone, on “Young People and Technology: opportunities and pitfalls in a virtual world”.  The event, chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones, the technology correspondent of BBC News, was rather disappointing, mainly because the discussion meandered around a number of themes without really focusing debate on any of them.

First and foremost, the panel was criticised for not having any young people on it.  Two other main themes emerged – both interesting but not really related to each other.  One was about the alleged pernicious effect of ICT on the quality of teaching.  With Phil Beadle arguing that £100 billion (actually the figures he used, even if accurate, only came to £1 billion) spent on providing inter-active whiteboards in every classroom was not only wasted but, in fact, has led to teachers tied to formal presentations at the front of the classroom and staying up all night to hone their Powerpoint presentations rather than interacting freely and naturally with their pupils.  He also said too often pupils are told to do work on computers to shut them up rather than to teach them.  I have some sympathy with this view, but that doesn’t mean that for some purposes some of the time new ICT tools can’t help communicate material effectively to children in the classroom.  So this strand of the discussion produced some interesting rants but failed to illuminate the more interesting question about whether a society where children spend so long on computer games and interacting by text or via social networking sites will produce adults who cannot interact with each other in more traditional ways.

The other major strand of discussion was about bullying by text or via the internet.  There is no doubt that this is becoming a serious issue – several suicides or attempted suicides stemming from this were mentioned.  However, “traditional” bullying can also have dreadful consequences for those bullied.  So is it a new or inherently different phenomenon?  The key difference, of course, is that it doesn’t end when the victim gets home and shuts the front door – the messages can still be received and there is no safe haven.  However, apart from everyone taking this much more seriously, little was offered as to what works in combating it.