From primary schools to the economy, end-of-year reasons to be cheerful

There is a political virtue we have practised – patience in the face of adversity

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The Independent Online

Here is my New Year’s resolution for 2015: to stop being excessively critical of the way things turn out in this country. To not be complacent either, just balanced. For the low opinion of our leading politicians, widely held as it is, can easily generate undue pessimism.

In describing what has been good recently, I start with politics because the Scottish referendum campaign was the practice of British democracy at its best. It was helped by the simplicity of the question – stay or go? It was all the better for not being a conventional tussle between political parties. And the new digital technologies were used in such a way that voters found themselves debating with each other as much as listening to the campaign leaders. Turnout was a marvellous 84.6 per cent of those eligible to vote.

British politics is remarkably uncorrupt in comparison with many other democracies so here is what may be an exception that proves the rule. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, announced last month that he intended to appoint a team of commissioners to oversee the running of Tower Hamlets Council in London for the next three years after allegations that public funds were misappropriated under the directly elected mayor.

There is another political virtue we have practised in the past two or three years – patience in the face of adversity. By this I mean that substantial cuts in public services have been met with scarcely any protest – only a few demonstrations. One reason may be that an important public service upon which many families depend, has actually improved. Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools, revealed earlier this month that 82 per cent of primary schools are now “good”.

This means that nearly 700,000 more pupils are now in good or outstanding primary schools than was the case in 2012. He added that the quality of leadership in primary schools has improved; teaching is focused on getting the basics right; good attendance and behaviour are the norm; and the gap between children from low-income families and other pupils has narrowed.

Another reason for people’s patience is that local authorities seem to handle reductions in spending with sensitivity. In October, Simon Henig, the Labour leader of Durham County Council since 2008, was quoted in a newspaper as saying: “Cuts have become a way of life now. We’re getting used to it. The budget is getting smaller and smaller – it is hard. People will lose services they have used for many years, and that’s not easy. But there is pragmatism – people get it… and we’re very good at implementing cuts… there has been less of a backlash than I would have expected.

“In 2011, after the first £60m was cut, we thought life was going to end in 2014, and now we know life continues. Once the cuts are made, people move on. Is that acceptance? Is it just weariness?”

Or is it that the British economy has at the same time proved capable of creating new jobs on a scale unmatched in many European countries, except Germany, and comparable to the American performance? This growth has had remarkable consequences. There have been big falls in the proportion of young adults who are not in full-time education or employment. The employment rate among lone parents with dependent children is at its highest ever level. Meanwhile, the number of children in workless households has continued to fall to an all-time low. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission called this “astonishing”.

We know that many of these new jobs are poorly paid. Indeed the British economist Guy Standing has even defined a new social class, the “precariat”. This comprises such categories as temporary and part-time workers, sub-contracted labour, call-centre employees and interns. But as I am somebody who would rather stack supermarket shelves than not work, I cannot bring myself to disapprove of this as much as perhaps I should.

Now, suddenly, we also have the unexpected boon of low rates of inflation. These work like a tax cut and raise everybody’s spending power – and even members of the precariat benefit. On Tuesday it was reported that in November inflation fell to its lowest level – an annual one per cent – for more than 12 years.

This wasn’t caused solely by the collapse in oil prices. Food prices recorded their biggest fall since June 2002. Then today came the news that for the first time in six years the growth in earnings has exceeded inflation. In the August-to-October period, average earnings, excluding bonuses, were up 1.6 per cent from a year earlier.

As well as big things that are going well, I add two advances in education. The Coalition’s notorious increase in tuition fees has not had the dire consequences that were predicted. Student numbers are at a record high and there has even been an increase in the numbers of young people being admitted from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Then there are the remarkable results from a Young Offender Institution at Hindley, near Wigan. As the Mail on Sunday remarked, teenagers behind bars are getting a better education than thousands of pupils in ordinary schools.

Its English and maths scores were above the national average and the inspectors rated its standards of behaviour as “very good’. The Ofsted report added that the quality of some teaching was “outstanding”, with teachers having “high aspirations” for their charges while poor behaviour was “isolated”. My guess is that the young criminals who have benefited from what seems to have been a very good education while they have been locked up will be far less likely to reoffend in  the future than those who have not had this advantage.

Finally, building on the success of the food bank movement, this week Britain’s first “community supermarket” opened in Lambeth, south London. It allows hundreds of struggling families to buy surplus food donated by shops, including Marks & Spencer and Ocado, at 70 per cent discount – with 20 more planned across the country. The Independent reported that the store would work on a membership basis, with 750 members who must live locally and be on income support. They must also enrol on a tailored professional development programme – called The Success Plan – that aims to improve their confidence and help them find jobs.

So “cheer up”, I tell myself, many  good things are happening.  We can survive anything, even a  general election.

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