Gender is irrelevant: It’s how good people are that matters…

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

It was less Night of the Long Knives and more Morning of the Rolling Pins in Downing Street this week as the Prime Minister gave us the first glimpse of the kind of shenanigans we can expect in the countdown to next year’s General Election.

It was thumbs up to women and mothers in David Cameron’s new-look cabinet and thumbs down to white, middle-aged men.

Speaking as one of the latter, I should just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the oft-quoted aim of having more women in senior positions within government.

In fact, you can apply that objective across the entire UK workforce as far as I’m concerned.

Having more women chief executives, directors and managers makes absolute sense. Why wouldn’t we? I can name you half a dozen brilliant female executives working here in North Staffordshire who you’d be proud to have as your boss.

For me, it’s not about gender equality – it’s simple maths: As a society we are clearly missing out on some really talented and capable people if so few women are able to get the top jobs.

Men do not, despite what some of them may think, have a monopoly on good leadership. Neither are they unique in having the best ideas, the highest IQs or the ability to take difficult decisions.

By the same token, hands up if you’ve worked for a bloke who was so inept he couldn’t run a bath? Yes, me too. And hands up how many have worked for similarly poor female managers who think pastoral care is a type of low fat milk?

Am I pleased that the Prime Minister has replaced a bunch of men in suits with a bunch of women in, er… suits?

Well, I suppose before you answer that you have to look at Call me Dave’s reasons for ringing the changes because I’m sure it has very little to do with smashing through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ which prevents women from rising to the top of their profession.

It’s surely no great surprise that Education Secretary Michael Gove has been unseated ahead of the country going to the polls.

He’s so unpopular with the teaching profession because of the reforms he’s implemented in recent years (some of them entirely justified, I might add) that if he was a schoolboy he’d be Billy No Mates up the corner of the classroom with head lice and a penchant for eating his own bogies.

I’m afraid to say that, to my mind, Gove has been cynically sacrificed in the pursuit of votes and to avoid damning soundbites from Labour and the trade unions and nine months of negative headlines from left-leaning newspapers.

In total David Cameron has promoted 10 women in this reshuffle. I don’t know them. They may all be brilliant. Perhaps they are and the PM has only just noticed.

Or perhaps, more likely, Mr Cameron is trying to give his party – which is caricatured as millionaire Eton types who are all friends with bankers and don’t know the price of a Wright’s pie – a softer, more human veneer.

As opposed to the millionaire Labour front-benchers, of course…

Perhaps the thinking is, rather patronisingly, that women will vote for a party with more women. Or that because women still, statistically, do the majority of household chores, look after family finances and provide most of the childcare in the UK then they will have more faith in other women to run the country.

Those who can remember Labour sweeping to power under Tony ‘the Iraq war was entirely justified’ Blair will recall similar excitement in the national press when the ‘Blair babes’ – not my phrase – were unveiled, and more women than ever before were elected to Parliament.

I have to say that this is all just window-dressing to me.

Honestly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s who’s in the cabinet or how many women MPs we have so long as they do a good job.

That, of course, is an entirely separate debate – the answers to which will vary depending on whether you’re sporting a red, yellow or blue rosette come May.

In wishing the women who’ve just been promoted to the cabinet all the best in their new posts I would just caution them not to get too comfortable in their new offices or get carried away with ordering too much branded stationery. After all, 10 months is a long time in politics.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel