Fernie used to come to our primary school every year. He was a magician, of sorts. Though he was a bit unsettling. He travelled around parts of the north-east of Northern Ireland visiting schools, in all seasons, on his beat-up motorbike. He tied his whole magic show to that bike, Punch and Judy set. He’d show up in his heavy black oilskin coat sporting a gelled-down combover, looking like a mixture of Max Wall and the grim reaper. His act was passable, I think. He also always seemed on the edge of annoyance, which is not ideal for a children’s entertainer.
One thing he was good at was misdirection. He’d be talking away, and up would pop a rabbit from his box. He’d never see it – no matter how much we told him. Every year he’d come, and that rabbit would pop up and distract us. Every year.
And that is what I thought of when Rishi Sunak’s maths at 18 policy was floated. I thought of a long-gone travelling kid’s magician. Because in the grip of this most convulsive period in a generation, when everything is teetering on the edge of collapse, the nation’s leader, silent for a few weeks, appears and, rather than addressing pressure points of mounting crises, tries to make us look at a rabbit popping out of a box.
Encouraging better numerical literacy is not a bad idea, but it was so vague, so empty of anything resembling detail, that it was as useful as steam in an envelope. If Rishi Sunak really wanted to make that element of maths a driving policy commitment, then explain the what and the how it’d be paid for. By all means usher in more practical fiscal and financial teaching, but also let headteachers know where extra funding would come from. And why stop there? I really like poetry. I think everybody should read more and talk about it more. I think it’d make things better. I have no evidence for this, but like Sunak with maths policy, I just believe it. So, let’s have more poetry. Knee-jerk policy planning governed by the personal interests of senior politicians is one of the reasons so many of the departments of state are in the mess they find themselves.
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The problem with politics by misdirection is that the big issue sits unresolved. The NHS is clearly the biggest and most pressing issue of the moment. The crisis requires practical solutions, not soundbite promises. And they’re just not there, at least not from the top down. The issue of jobs and the workforce dwindling has not been dealt with either. Just days before Rishi Sunak refused to show his working out for his maths solution, it was announced he was withdrawing a Liz Truss pledge to up the financial help families were to be given for childcare. The growing and crippling cost of childcare is a barrier to many people, mostly women, returning full-time to work. Surely investment to help them would pay dividends quickly. Besides all else it’s very unfair to make young families, struggling to find their way, shell out the equivalent of another monthly mortgage so they can juggle childcare and work.
And the thorny issue of allowing asylum seekers to work has not been tackled either. It’s easier to say we’ll turn back the boats than say, let’s think about this practically, change the whole asylum system and help those who need workers at the same time. Just when the country needs the government to be brave and consider some radical progressive thinking, they’re focused on box ticking. It will help nobody, really.