Monday, 16 August 2010

A Trickle of Relief

As I type, Pakistan is experiencing its worst flooding in 80 years. Over 1,600 people have already been killed, and anywhere between 14 and 20 million people (over a tenth of the population) are affected; that's more than the infamous Haiti earthquake of early 2010. An area the size of Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium combined - over a fifth of Pakistan's land mass - is flooded. There are fears of a "second wave" of deaths, due to infected water; the first case of cholera has already been confirmed. But the pain doesn't stop there: monsoon season lasts until the first week of September, so the forces of nature could still have a massive impact on many more millions of lives.

Above: An image of an area ravaged by the Pakistan floods. Image courtesy of Oxfam.

The Pakistan government has said that it needs $459million dollars for urgent assistance. As of today - nearly 3 weeks since the deadly deluge of rain on the country - less than a third of this aid has been supplied. Relief has been supplied painfully slowly, and the floods are clearly being underestimated by the world's leading governing bodies. The European Community Humanitarian aid Office (ECHO), responsible for Europe's disaster aid, has donated a paltry €10million (£8.2million) to the cause. Not only does this add up to just 50c-71c per person (41p-58p), it also pales in comparison to the €930million (£762million) donated to causes in 2009.

There's a lot of numbers there, but what is clear is that not enough is being done to support these fellow human beings in this horrific natural disaster. It is human nature, however, to forget previous crises once they have fallen out of the media spotlight. For that reason, I decided to take a look at some of the newer statistics from the Haiti earthquake from 2010, to see what life is like for them after the initial rush of sympathy.

My findings astounded me, and triggered me to write this. I looked into how international governments were supporting what is the poorest country in Western civilisation. In total, $5.3billion USD was pledged to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission - that's £3.4billion GBP. Of that, less than two percent has been delivered to the fund. In fact, only Brazil, Estonia, Australia, and Norway have given any money at all. The global powerhouse that is the United States of America, that pledged over $1billion, has not handed over a penny.

Now, I'm not going to claim that only four countries helped Haiti; many countries supplied food, soldiers, helicopters and the like. It is also likely that they donated the money through other means. To me, a country so devastated by a tragedy of this magnitude not receiving promised funds is a travesty of human nature.

It was at this point that the cynic came rushing out of me, perhaps coinciding with Tony Blair donating the proceeds from his book to the British Legion (something which, to me, is an easy way of getting out of saying sorry - but I digress). I asked myself: how much do we listen to what our government says, and how much of it is simply empty words? We are all far too quick to forget and our governments are all too keen to pick up on this and use it to their advantage.

The simplest way of getting aid to countries in need, such as Pakistan, is to do it yourself. Create a sponsored event, volunteer at places like a Red Cross charity shop, or even just do a good old fashioned round up of cash from colleagues, be you a student or an active worker. I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this: I was part of a three-man team that helped to raise over £4,000 for the Haiti disaster.

This still leaves an underlying question. Why do we have to do this ourselves? With all that tax going to our government, why are they not giving the money they have supposedly set aside? For some, the reason might be something like the global economic crisis, or getting stuck in administration.

But for the cynic, the skeptic, the pessimist inside you, ask yourself: are we simply the victim of clever publicity stunts by the people that rule over us?


Monday, 2 August 2010

Sutton Grammar School Ltd.

The Academies Act 2010 was one of the first bills passed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Essentially, it is an extension to the academies established by Tony Blair's Labour party at the turn of the millennium in the Learning and Skills Act 2000. An academy is free from the control of the local government, whilst still being funded by the Department for Education. This means that an academy has control of staff wages, and money currently spent by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) on their behalf. Private "sponsors" are also permitted to invest in an academy. All of this is designed to give schools more money, with more ways to spend it.

These sponsors are, for me, what make academies interesting. In return for investing 10% of the capital cost (or £2million, whichever is smaller), the sponsor - either an individual or a group - gets to decide the direction of the academy. Fancy the academy to specialise in performing arts? The sponsor can sort that. In fact, they can choose to admit 10% of their students on the basis that they excel in the school's specialism. Got someone that you want to be a governor? The sponsor can appoint them. Want to change from a grammar school to a non-selective school? The sponsor will deal with that.

In Labour's tenure, academies were designed to bring "qualities of success" to poorly performing schools. In this new coalition government, however, they have invited every school in the country to become an academy. Schools rated "Outstanding" by Ofsted can get their application fast-tracked, meaning the first new batch of academies could be instated before the new school year.

Sutton Grammar School was part of the 70% of Outstanding schools to "declare their interest" in getting academy status. Grammar schools, however, are under particular danger from the Academies Act. Currently, a parental ballot is needed if a grammar school wishes to change its status to non-selective. If a grammar school becomes an academy, there is a legal loophole which means that the sponsor could potentially make it a comprehensive school without this ballot.

This scares me. In my opinion, grammar schools are vital in ensuring a fair society. It would not be right for some of the most accomplished young minds to be denied their chance to a faster, more challenging education to compliment their intelligence due to mere wealth. Call me a cynic, but for me, this is a move towards the privatisation of the education system. I'm all for academies for the underachieving schools, because in their case, something needs to change. Academies are often found to get GCSE results improving twice as fast as state schools. But at Sutton Grammar, we're fine. We had a whole sports hall funded by our PTA, and get nearly 100% A*-C grades at GCSE. From what I can see, most of the money that we will be able to spend will have to be spent on the things that our LEA buy for us anyway. As nice as it would be to have freedom from the curriculum, we will still be taking the same old GCSEs, and so will have to stay close to the current one anyway: for me, the benefits of becoming an academy are negligible compared to the risks.

So, what do I think should change in the Academies Act? Two things: first, it should allow academies more freedom in GCSE alternatives, such as the IGCSE, or vocational qualifications. Secondly, the legal loophole regarding grammar schools must be removed, or clarified, at the very least.

Sutton Grammar are currently "consulting the community" on becoming an academy. All emails to must be in before the third of September and include your address under the Freedom of Information Act.

I know I'll be emailing them, and I urge you to do the same.