Tom Richmond: An answer to prayer for some radical thinking

THE Archbishop of York gave a very forceful riposte to those who criticised his decision to edit a series of essays about Britain’s future wellbeing as a pre-election rebuke of the coaltion’s social policies.

“This book is not an attack on the Government or the Opposition,” said Dr John Sentamu at the official launch of the thought-provoking On Rock Or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future.

“The book is a challenge to everyone about the underlying questions for those contemplating the responsibilities of government at this time.

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“The challenge the book poses to politicians of all parties is to express clearly the foundations on which their policies rest and thus to hold out a clear vision – a vision of the virtue of hope – for the development of our country.”

If only the main parties were so enlightened. Dr Sentamu’s point is illustrated by the contribution made by the former education minister Andrew Adonis who oversaw Labour’s academy programme. His contribution, I guarantee you, is far more ambitious than the positions adopted thus far by the main parties. He is perturbed, and rightly so, that only 60 per cent of 16-year-olds are leaving school with adequate GCSE qualifications and recent progress does not go far enough.

“The challenge is to transform out ‘60 per cent school system’ into a 90 per cent system’. That is, a system where nine in every 10 young people leave school with five good GCSEs including English and maths. And it needs to be achieved as soon as possible,” stresses Lord Adonis.

I dare any election candidate to disagree with the proposition – especially in Yorkshire where too many of the county’s schools and LEAs have been allowed to languish at the foot of national league tables for too long.

On this basis alone, Dr Sentamu’s book has performed an invaluable service in exposing the paucity of ambition on one of the important social policies of all.

What is also intriguing is how Lord Adonis would meet his own target, and that is through the rolling out of the “London Challenge” which has seen exam results in the capital transformed by the pairing of high-performing secondary schools with those institutions towards the bottom of the class.

This turnaround is significant because London is far more ethnically diverse than Yorkshire and because of four factors identified by the peer – clear and consistent leadership from Department for Education advisers; support programmes managed by credible individuals; identifying the needs of each school and in particular the management team; robust systems to track the progress of pupils and early intervention for those at risk of under-achieving.

Again, I dare anyone to disagree with this. Yet, because the Tories and Labour continue to lambast each other, there is little policy continuity and no chance of a consensus on the long-term future of the NHS and schools – even though Dr Sentamu has been leading calls for these spheres to be free from party politics.

More’s the pity – I am certain I am not alone in thinking in that the yah-boo style of politics is proving detrimental to pupils and NHS patients alike.

BY all accounts Yorkshire and England batsman Joe Root is a likable lad but he showed his immaturity this week by backing calls for cricket umpires to brandish yellow and red cards if players stray out of line. I hope Root seeks the counsel of Yorkshire’s very own Harold ‘Dickie’ Bird who would say that such sanctions are unnecessary if players honoured cricket’s finest traditions. Root should take note – his chippy character means he would be one of the favourites to be the first player to be stumped by the very disciplinary process that he now advocates.

MONDAY’S sitting of the House of Commons began at 2.30pm and ended precisely three hours and nine minutes later at 5.39pm at the culmination of a debate on the future of Millhouse Green Post Office that was led by Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith.

Three points emerge from this. First, such a short session plays into the hands of those who believe MPs are not sufficiently diligent. Second, it is further evidence that the Fixed Term Parliament Act should be repealed on the day the May 7 election is called. Third, it suggests politicians are not concerned about the rural economy and the plight of dairy farmers.

Former Speaker Betty Boothroyd concurs – she said at the launch of the Archbishop of York’s aforementioned book that Monday’s Commons session was an “insult” to the electorate and that David Cameron and Nick Clegg stand “in contempt of Parliament” for ignoring warnings that she, and others, issued in March 2011 about the dangers of five-year terms running out of steam.

She is not happy and says it will be a “travesty” if the next Parliament is hamstrung by a law that was introduced solely to offer protection to the Lib Dems when they entered government in 2010.

As such, it makes Commons leader William Hague even more misguided for refusing to accede to a request on January 15 for an emergency debate on the dairy industry’s future, in spite of consenting to urgent questions on the terrorism in Nigeria. As MP for rural Richmond for just over 25 years, he should have known better and I am not alone in believing that his complacency has left a very sour taste.

IF you want more first-hand evidence about why national politicians continue to be held in such low regard, watch Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, flounce out of a live interview with Sky News’s Dermot Murnaghan.

Umunna, supposedly one of Labour’s better operators, was asked – quite reasonably – for his reaction to the tone of the letter sent by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, to 1,100 imams appealing for their help to combat extremism, and the hostile response that it provoked from the Muslim Council of Britain.

Asked if he wanted time to consider the matter, Mr Umunna replied: “I think you’re being a bit ridiculous now...I was asked to come and speak about David Cameron’s speech on the economy.”

It says everything about politics – the main protagonists are so pre-occupied with ridiculing their opponents, and toeing their party’s own line, that they’ve lost the capacity for original thought.

Now then Mr Umunna. As a politician who likes to be portrayed as Britain’s Barack Obama, please return to the original question and tell us what more you would do to combat extremism?