BBC BLOGS - Today: Evan Davis

Archives for June 2008

Exam memories

Evan Davis | 10:39 UK time, Monday, 30 June 2008

Education and health were the important topics today in one form or another.

Hearing our items on the 11-plus brought back memories, as I'm sure it does for many others of my age or older.

Although I remember almost nothing about the actual tests (I was too paralysed by concentration to retain anything) I do remember the general 11-plus experience: being very nervous about it for months beforehand, failing to pass the written exam outright, and then receiving an interview for those who were borderline. That interview got me through to a grammar school that subsequently merged with a secondary modern to become a comp three years later.

An important point comes out of this. Abolishing the 11-plus (in most parts of the country) didn't make education across the whole country equal of course. There was and remains a "postcode lottery" by which the area you live in has a major bearing on what standard of education you receive.

So one lesson from the history of the 11-plus is that getting uniform high quality provision is a challenge for a national service.

Reminiscing on that brings me to another great post-war institution - the NHS on its 60th birthday. It is striving with the same issues of uniformity, equality and national control that affect education, with or without an 11 plus.

We talked to the health secretary Alan Johnston today, who's announcing a set of plans for the NHS in England.

Among his priorities is to make the service more local and personal, and to bring more uniform prescribing.

I tried to tease out the possible inconsistencies in these directions with him. It's not easy if the public want services determined locally but they also want an end to postcode lotteries. It's hard to have both.

Interestingly, the more difficult question for Mr Johnston was on his attempt to make the service not more local, but more personal.

For many patients with a bit of money, by far the best and cheapest way to offer a personal service would be to to allow them to buy drugs unavailable on the NHS with their own money. At the moment, they can do that often only by sacrificing their entitlement to other treatment on the NHS during the same treatment episode.

The idea that people can go hang-gliding, break a leg and get free NHS treatment but if they go and take a cancer drug prescribed by a private doctor, they are excluded from the service, is one that is hard to explain.

Mr Johnston was evidently torn in his answer today, between the modern desire that the NHS should be flexible and responsive to what heterogeneous individual patients need; and the ancient value of the NHS that money should not buy you better care lest we end up with a two tier service.

The best Mr Johnston could say about that issue now is that it is being looked at.

The decision we end up with on top-up treatments is perhaps more important long term, than any of those being announced today. It has even been described as potentially heralding the end of the NHS by one group, well-disposed to the idea.

The upside - it costs nothing, improves choice for some patients without harming others. The downside - it does introduce two-tiers.

Of course, some say the abolition of the 11-plus did that for schools years ago - it allows the rich to buy a better state education by buying a house in the right area.

The Irish Problem

Evan Davis | 15:23 UK time, Monday, 16 June 2008

I enjoyed speaking to the Irish minister for European affairs, Dick Roche, this morning. He was sharing a microphone with our excellent Europe editor Mark Mardell in Luxembourg where EU foreign ministers are meeting.

First, Mark went through some of the options facing the EU:

a) The classic option is to ask Ireland to vote again, after some token amendment has been made to the treaty (but not enough of an amendment to undermine the ratification already achieved in any other country).

b) The brutal one is to proceed with ratification and ignore the Irish, who can choose to catch up later or leave altogether.

c) The easy one is to do nothing and to live with the status quo. Drop Lisbon.

Paraphrasing from my understanding of Mark's views published elsewhere, he appears to think the status quo option is more possible than the EU has hitherto wanted to admit.

After all, he points out, the EU has achieved quite a lot in recent years, proving that you don't have to change the constitution to get it to work.

It is however Mr Roche's views we were most interested in. Alas, I'm not sure we got any views. He was understandably reluctant to rule out or rule in anything.

In doing so, he leaves the door open for a second referendum - which might horrify some of his compatriots - but at least he doesn't seem very keen on the idea.

Unfortunately, there was no other idea on which he sounded keen either.

For him, it must be an altogether embarrassing meeting. What do you say to your colleagues on such an occasion?

Anyway, reflecting on the interview with Dick Roche, a wholly different thought occurred to me.

Ireland has gone down in the British press as a heroic nation (David battling the EU Goliath). But I want you to do a thought experiment.

Imagine for a moment that we separated our views of how we should treat the Irish from our particular view of the Lisbon treaty.

How would we expect Ireland to be treated if, for example, all the countries of the EU had finally agreed a new treaty that restored some national powers lost to the EU, curbed the Commission and reformed the CAP? And that only Ireland opposed it after a referendum.

Do you think the British would be saying we should give in on this, and just allow Europe to go unreformed?

I rather doubt it.

I think the eurosceptic press would take the view that 495m citizens should not be derailed by a few million Irish voters.

My only point is that most people's views of the Irish vote and the proper EU response to it are entirely governed by their view of the Lisbon treaty itself, not by their adherence to any high principle that small countries have a democratic right to veto things.

And my guess is that if Europe was really keen on this treaty, it could and would ignore Ireland. At an extreme push, if the 26 countries wanted to they could collectively overcome the Irish veto by each leaving the EU (a right that I think that we all have) and then joining a new EU that was modelled on the lines of the Lisbon treaty.

The problem for Europe is not the Irish vote on its own.

It is that the rest of Europe is not keen enough on this treaty to overcome the relatively small impediment represented by the vote. And many parts of Europe - probably including the UK - are on the side of the Irish anyway.

With such half-hearted support, the treaty is not likely to get very far.

Which means that you should avoid giving Ireland all the credit or all the blame if the treaty dies.

A sunny day out in Folkestone

Evan Davis | 11:46 UK time, Friday, 13 June 2008

It's good for presenters to get out of the office. We don't always have the time or inclination to do so but when offered the chance to spend a sunny day in Folkestone I jumped at it.

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Like so many of our fading seaside towns, Folkestone wants to re-invent itself. And like so many of them, it has decided to use art as a tool for regeneration.

So, it's holding a triennial arts festival. The event starts this weekend. You can find details here.

Evan with a gigantic seagullI had an early taste - you can see bits of that in the accompanying photos.

But I was as much interested in the question of whether art can generate economic results for a town, as in the art itself.

Can you really make people materially richer by building a sculpture or holding a festival? Enough towns seem to think so -- several of them in east Kent - Whitstable and Margate are trying it too. Can they all succeed?

I doubt it. Art can help a town by attracting a certain Bohemian population that adds life to the bars, character to the streets and a buzz to the name. Employers may then follow.

But art can't do much if every town does it. There aren't enough Bohemians. And there can never be an off-the-shelf formula for making a place distinctive.

Evan wanders in a disused train stationHowever, Folkestone itself will probably succeed better than other places. It has a secret weapon. It is not the art, it's the man Roger de Haan who is making it happen.

He is perhaps the first British oligarch that I have met (and I mean oligarch in the best possible sense of the word). He made lots of money with Saga, based in the town. And he's now trying to restore Folkestone's glory. He's investing tens of millions in not just the art, but into the new city academy school and soon the harbour and parts of the town centre that he has bought.

In his business career, De Haan saw a value in the old and made a mint with Saga. And now, he's seen the value in what looks like an old and decaying town - and has invested in that.

I know of no other examples of this kind of private sector municipal redevelopment. The best contribution the council can make is not to stand in the way of the man doing a job that might otherwise be theirs.

Evan interviews Roger de HaanWhich brings me back to the art. To make itself look hip, a town needs to be associated with the avant-garde. Folkestone has succeeded in that. It has top names, producing works relevant to Folkestone itself.

But the average age in Folkestone is high. Will an injection of cash, business clout and Turner prize winners really change the image?

If you do go to Folkestone by the way, you'll find a Tracy Emin bronze piece on the railway station. Look carefully for it as you get off the train, it's a tiny sculpture of a baby's teddy bear. (Part of a series scattered all over the place, of small childrens' items. A statement about the high rate of teen pregancies I believe).

I guess it will be a measure of the town's success in regenerating itself, if it hasn't been carried off by someone before the Triennial closes.

Early starts

Evan Davis | 07:00 UK time, Saturday, 7 June 2008

I rarely come away from presenting the Today programme without some sense of regret. There is always some question that I should have asked, or some point that I should have made.

This is annoying but not surprising. Perfection is hard to achieve in a three hour live programme.

And it's even harder to achieve that before breakfast time. Even though disciplined sleeping habits and the adrenalin of live radio ensures that we are very awake while on duty, there is evidence of a phenomenon called circadian desynchronosis which causes one's brain to function slowly at those times of day when it thinks it should be asleep, regardless how wide awake the body is.

In fact, after a perilous near-disaster by a China Airlines flight in 1985, it's recognised as a potential danger on aeroplanes piloted by jet-lagged crews.

So, given the circumstances I don't beat myself up about imperfections in presentation. I simply remain grateful that the consequences of our mistakes are relatively small compared to those of some other professions.

But that doesn't change the fact that I come out of the programme with a little more to say about the issues we've discussed, than I have managed to say on air.

At nine a.m. I also find myself glancing at the Today programme inbox, to see whether any listeners shared my view of my mistakes.

It thus makes ample sense to jot down some thoughts on the programme, just after it has gone out. I can let those of you who are interested know "what on earth it was that I was thinking or not thinking at some point in the programme".

That's what this blog will do (clearly a slightly different premise to my old blog). It won't be every day by any means, and it won't be comprehensive.

But think of it as a second chance to straighten out thoughts that were mangled on air. Or to follow-up things that were said on the programme, with a few comments and interpretations that didn't get an outing.

We'll see how it goes.

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