Saturday, August 25, 2012


There are many decisions this idiot government has made that have affected the lives of the young. The housing benefit cap and the reduction in child tax credits have undermined the stability of children and families; the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme and the sell-off of playing fields have reined in opportunities available to schoolchildren; and the raising of university tuition fees has restricted access to higher education. All of these have impacted on the start in life of countless young people; but the latest stupid move by the government has probably had the most immediate and pernicious effect of all.

This week’s GCSE results have revealed that the exam boards, under instruction from the regulator Ofqual, moved the grade boundaries for students sitting English between the January and May exams, without notifying schools. The result of this is that across the country, there are countless students who scored the same marks in May as their contemporaries did in January, but they have received a lower grade. The most marked effect of this has been on students who were expected to get a C grade and have now been awarded a D grade. Entry to sixth forms and colleges is dependent on at least a C grade in English and Maths. At the school in East Sussex where I teach English there are ten students who have been awarded a D grade when their marks were well within the grade boundary that would have secured a C grade in January. I understand that the position in some other schools across the county is a lot worse; this means that there are hundreds of young people in East Sussex whose immediate next steps in life have been severely affected at a stroke.

This has been done in the name of curbing grade inflation because it is widely accepted that GCSE students cannot continue to improve year after year. But why not? Why cannot success be extended to as many as possible? Because this is the nasty party and for people like Michael Gove equality of opportunity is anathema. And he can plead innocence as much as he likes but there has undoubtedly been government pressure brought to bear; I saw him on the news and he closed his eyes at the point he said he had not instructed Ofqual - sure sign of a lie. Years of improving state education and increasing numbers going to university have to be rolled back by the Tories. As Gore Vidal said, “it is not enough to succeed, others must fail”. Or, in other words, the lower orders must know their place.

Slugging It Out

This year has been the worst year for vegetables since I began growing my own. The persistent rain throughout the early part of the summer had a catastrophic effect on the crops. The result was twofold: many plants struggled to establish themselves and those that did, fell victim to a rampant slug population. The vegetable patch at the end of the garden seemed to be slug-free but at the allotment, it was like a black slug version of Hitchcock’s, The Birds. I have never seen so many big, fat Arionidae.

My usual method, the beer trap, was hopeless. I caught more of the slugs’ predators – the beetle – than I did black or brown slugs. For a very fleeting moment I considered slug pellets, but if you are taking the trouble to grow your own produce it seems pointless to then shower the soil with chemicals. I might as well jog off to Lidl and buy my veg cheap and pesticide-packed. So I tackled the slugs by hand: hunting them down and drowning them. Not able to get on the allotment every single day, however, they won.

The brassicas suffered most: my new large tunnel cloche, constructed from water pipe and a pond net to protect against pigeons and cabbage whites, was pointless. The slugs annihilated cauliflower, kale and cabbage plants before the birds and the butterflies had even noticed them. The slugs also destroyed the courgette crop (although a summer without a glut of courgettes felt strangely liberating) and stripped the potato plants. I do still have a potato crop – although it is a greatly reduced as a result - and beetroot, garlic and sweet corn seem to have escaped unscathed. But so great is the slug population, and so little is there left to feed on, that they are now on the brink of a crisis. Just this week, as I was harvesting the rest of my crops, I found slugs reduced to trying to eat the onion scapes. I enjoyed some petty revenge with the strimmer.

The produce in the garden has been relatively successful. Peas, broad beans and runner beans have been late but eventually abundant. And despite the wet weather, the tomatoes have not fallen to blight and have been heroically prolific. But, apart from gooseberries, soft fruit has been a disaster; I cannot recall a single strawberry managing to ripen in the June monsoon.

Back up at the allotment, I am already looking forward to the next growing season - it cannot possibly be as bad as this year. But if it is, I will be ready with bigger beer traps, a barrier of oyster shell and, my trump card, a pond. Freshly dug with child labour, a liner and a filling of winter rain will help to attract those pond-life predators. Come the spring, I will be slugging it out again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trouble in Paradise

Rushlake Green, a small village to the south-east of Heathfield , has a number of features that make it stand out from other similar places in East Sussex in these days of long distance commuting and second homes. It has a village hall and a pub, the Horse and Groom, things which even the most gentrified villages have managed to hang on to; but it also has – and these are those less typical aspects – a separate village shop and post office. Even more unusually, it has some genuine social housing: a supported scheme of homes for rent for older people right in the middle of the village. And obviously all of these rarities are interdependent; and that’s what makes a real community: people who need and patronise services that meet the demands of those who live there. (In another larger village near me an art and design shop opened; nothing against art and design but it wasn’t quite what car-less people needed to assist them in the daily struggle to access basic services.)

So, Rushlake Green is a real place as well as being delightfully picturesque; but there is trouble in paradise - of course it would be stupid to assume that such a good state of affairs would be allowed to exist unhindered. There was first a threat to the village shop when the owner, whose family had run the business for 90 years, retired in 2008. A campaign to establish a community shop in its place gathered support but eventually new owners came forward and took over the post office and village store as they were. Now, to keep both services viable, the owners want to sell part of the premises as residential accommodation and subsume the post office into the shop; except this is not that straightforward. Post Office Limited has set down a number of requirements that would adversely affect the cost of moving and the ability to provide a service from within the shop.

As a result, there is again a threat to a service that is well-used by both those who depend on it because they are unable to go elsewhere, and those who have mobility but find the service convenient. It is likely that the intransigence of Post Office Limited can be explained by their current pre-privatisation state. In April of this year it became independent of Royal Mail – a nicely self- contained service ripe for a sell-off as a thrusting business with little time for elderly supported housing residents. It is currently unclear how this situation will be resolved but perhaps it is time to dust off those plans for a community shop.