Hello! I’m Michael. (That’s about as coherent as it’s going to get.)

This blog comprises whatever I happen to throw at it. I’ve divided this stuff loosely into Work (anything that is vaguely related to the job I do) and Me (anything that isn’t). Have fun, if you can.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday: what Christmas is all about

27 November, 2015

Yay! It’s Black Friday! I can buy all the stuff I can’t really afford and impress my nearest and dearest with fabulous Christmas presents. Giving has never felt so good.

Image by Kimmo Räisänen on Flickr
Image by Kimmo Räisänen on Flickr

I’ve been building up to this all week, following up on all the emails offering me ‘Black Friday Week’ deals that I simply couldn’t resist. My darling friends will finally love me when they receive their bright yellow Moleskine in a pink carry-case, the waterproof HD camera, the fridge, the new car and enough Tesco Christmas lights to frighten all the cats in south Birmingham.

It’s great, because I could never afford such presents otherwise. In the past, I’ve always felt like a lesser human-being for not being able to give people the latest branded must-haves; now, I can prove that I really care, that I’m prepared to fight my fellow citizens to the death to bag a bargain for my loved ones.

And it means I’ll have money left over for Cyber Monday! I think I’ll treat myself to a Meccanoid robot to keep me company when I ‘work from home’ (in front of my new 48-inch Samsung 4k telly). And I’ll do it without having to fight anybody at all, other than helpdesk operators grateful for the opportunity to occupy themselves with server crashes and payment problems. Goodness! With all these bargains, I’ll still have a little change for the pre-Christmas sales, the Boxing Day sales, the New Year sales, the mid-season sales and some Easter eggs!

But wait, what’s this? Giving Tuesday? ‘After the sales of Black Friday and the online shopping boom on Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday is an opportunity to come together to show the world why it’s good to give.’ Surely that’s what Black Friday is all about! An opportunity to give better presents than I would have done otherwise. But I suppose the poor and needy shouldn’t be left out; I’ll chuck a little their way, if I’ve anything left by Tuesday. After all, it is Christmas.

Want to stop crime in schools before it starts? Send in the lawyers

25 September, 2015
I wrote this for work. It was published first on Citizenship Foundation blog.

The UK Government’s response to reports that crime rates are rising in schools is to talk in terms of tougher policing and greater protection. ‘Crime and violent behaviour have no place in our schools,’ said a spokesperson.

Students and Lawyers discussing the Law at Burlington Danes Academy

‘We have put teachers back in charge of the classroom,’ they said. ‘They can search pupils without consent, confiscate prohibited items and use reasonable force to remove disruptive pupils from the classroom when necessary.

‘We know many good schools already work with the police and other organisations to educate pupils and protect them from harm and involvement in crime.’

Which is all very well, but seems a little inadequate – and arguably unhelpful.

For a start, beginning from a standpoint that kids are probably criminals that need protecting from each other is likely to alienate the kids and, well, turn them into criminals; that is, people who don’t follow society’s rules because they’re imposed and appear arbitrary, and feel they have no stake in them.

It’s a shame the Government’s reaction is to see pupils as the problem, rather than as people that benefit from education about the law: what it is, why it’s there, how it gets there, how it affects people and why society criminilises certain behaviours. It’s a double shame because this Government wrote a citizenship curriculum that is supposed to do that.

So, businesses are stepping in. More than 40 law firms, in-house legal teams and chambers put their staff into schools as part of our Lawyers in Schools programme. Big companies like Addleshaw Goddard, Olswang, Barclays, Verizon, JP Morgan, Mitsubushi and BBC Worldwide work with groups of school students to connect them to the legal framework that governs their lives.

Of course, it’s not just altruistic: businesses are keen on Lawyers in Schools because it connects them with communities, offers pro bono opportunities and breaks down barriers between young people and the legal profession. But they also like it because they see a positive change in attitudes towards the law and, as a result, towards other people.

So, if you want to help schools reconnect young people with society, send in your lawyers.

It’s International Day of Democracy, so let’s teach everyone to milk goats

15 September, 2015
I wrote this for work. It was published first on Citizenship Foundation blog.

Today is International Day of Democracy. All over the world, bigwigs are discussing why public participation in democracy matters. It would seem reckless, would it not, to encourage public participation without also offering us every possible opportunity to appreciate what we’re getting involved in?

Goat photo by Natesh Ramasamy [Flickr; CC BY 2.0])

‘A goat is like Parliament or the justice system: unpredictable, more complex than one might expect and close enough to kick you.’ (Image by Natesh Ramasamy [Flickr; CC BY 2.0])

When I was little, I milked a goat. It was on a farm where visitors were encouraged to try it out for themselves. The farmer told me how to work the udders and where to aim. But he didn’t tell me the stupid creature would move without warning and kick the bucket of milk all over the floor; nor that the onlookers would laugh at me for it. But it didn’t matter: I was in a safe environment and no-one was going to cry over the spilt milk. And if I’d a sudden impulse to go into full-scale goats-milk production – why, I’d have had some invaluable experience behind me.

I’m not saying democracy is like a goat, that would be silly. No, democracy is more like the bucket of milk: attempt to fill it without understanding how the goat works and practising first, and the whole thing could come crashing down around your ears (or, in this case, ankles). (The goat, of course, is more like Parliament or the justice system: unpredictable, more complex than one might expect, and close enough to kick you – or lick you, for that matter.)

Suppose I had not visited that farm but that I had dived headfirst into the global milk supply business. Would it have been enough for me to spend a little time at a desk in front of a blackboard (this was the nineteen seventies), looking at diagrams and naming parts? I suspect not; I suspect my enterprise would have been very short-lived.

And while a healthy global goats-milk market is great and all, I reckon a healthy society is probably greater. So I’m a bit bothered that the UK Government has stripped the new key-stage 3 and 4 citizenship curriculum of any meaningful practice (it’s now mainly about learning facts rather than preparing young people for practical civic engagement).

And the GCSE! Before, a good chunk of its assessment was of practical application, outside in the community, away from the artificial conditions of the examination hall. But the new citizenship GCSE, for teaching from next year, has none of that. Zero. The whole thing will be assessed through a written examination of what the students can remember – or of what they think the assessor wants to hear.

Of course, there’s an argument that the last thing we want to do is give people a glimpse of reality and tell them they have now enough experience to change it; that, actually, we should leave such important stuff to the professionals and out of the school classroom. We wouldn’t attempt open heart surgery from an interactive tutorial on the internet (I hope), we would take the patient to a hospital; so why is it a good idea to encourage young people to meddle in civic life after just a little exposure to it?

Because, unlike surgeons, no young person in the UK chooses to be a citizen – they are one whether they (or we) like it or not – so a little practice is a lot better than none at all.

And because our political leaders want us to take more responsibility in these days of austerity. It would seem somewhat unfair of them to expect us to do what we’ve never done before without a certain amount of training.

So why does the Government fail consistently to promote its citizenship curriculum? Citizenship is the one place in the mandatory school landscape where issues such as British values and extremism – topics the Government is keen for schools to address – already have a natural home.

And, when run well, it’s a safe and nurturing home – one where the occupants are enabled to develop their critical thinking and explore issues from all sides – and not a reactionary one where issues are like eggshells and views become polarised: or, worse, uniformly ignorant.

Yet its status in schools has been undermined in recent years by the absence of government endorsement, even now that schools are expected to tackle the thorny, societal issues of British values and extremism.

(If you want further proof of our Government’s lack of interest in its citizenship curriculum, you need look no further than the current excitement around human rights. ‘Human rights’ is there already, firmly and squarely in the citizenship curriculum (the citizenship curriculum, I might add, that was written and prescribed by this very Government), yet the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, seems to have forgotten that and ploughed ahead with her own pet programme of human rights lessons.)

So, on this International Day of Democracy, let’s raise a cheer for citizenship education. Because it deserves it. And because at least we have it; without it, we would be even further from belonging to a citenzry that feels part of the process.

Remember, if you want people to milk goats successfully themselves, you must first teach them how to do it.