Thursday, February 14, 2013

A spanner in the works

Different: that's my main assessment of the new IPA from Trouble Brewing, Sabotage. It's the Kildare-based brewery's third regular beer and they launched it a fortnight ago in Against the Grain, serving both cask and keg versions to the shower of freeloaders who showed up, alongside the respected members of the totally legitimate electronic media. Head brewer Paul is doing the honours on the right there and you can see the results below. At 5.5% ABV it's that little bit stronger than the nearest rival O'Hara's IPA and in a different bracket to the rest of Ireland's hop-forward craft pale ales.

However, where O'Hara's has opted for bold and tart American hops to mask its strength, Sabotage is altogether mellower and fruitier, eschewing citrus for more of a soft peach and mandarin sensation, the summery juiciness I've come to associate with Galaxy hops in particular.

The orange grove aroma is much more apparent in the cask edition (left, foreground), though I think the one we were served on the night suffered a little murkiness having not been left to settle fully. The clear keg version hasn't by any means had all the hops stripped from it, but it's not quite the same 3D experience.

But the oddest most striking thing about Sabotage is the weight: a massively full body laden with unfermented sugars. It unbalances the hops a little but makes for a very filling pint.

I suspect we'll be seeing that balance somewhat restored in the next batch of Sabotage, but that's on the other side of a brewery move. Meanwhile, give this a go if you fancy something out of the ordinary.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Strike to stop PRP - how can we afford not to?

You’ve already lost out through below-inflation pay increases …
You’re about to lose again when pension costs go up again in April …
But, from September, Gove’s performance-pay robbery would mean that
schools have the power to block annual pay progression - not just on UPS but on the mainscale. Being held back for just one year could cost you £10,000, but, as the chart above shows, if you’re blocked two or three times you could be losing a whole lot more!

PERFORMANCE-PAY:  Leaving teachers worse-off
If Gove gets away with his performance-pay plans, your income could soon depend on arbitrary judgements about your lessons or on pupil progress scores that can depend on so many factors outside your control. If your school is facing a tight budget or if you don’t get on with your management, expect the worst.

PERFORMANCE-PAY:  Leaving schools worse-off
‘Payment-by-results’ will set teacher against teacher, cutting across the teamwork that good schools rely upon. It will divide and demoralise, forcing teachers into ‘teaching-to-the-test’ instead of making sure that children enjoy their learning.  Just like in the NHS, a target-driven culture will undermine good education.

PERFORMANCE-PAY:  Leaving privatisers better-off
A secret memo leaked by the Independent confirms Gove’s plans to make “All academies and free schools … free to become profit-making for the first time.” If big business wants to make a profit out of schools, it needs to cut the main budget heading - the salary bill. Performance-pay is there to help these privatisers. 

… how can we afford not to ?

Knock-out stout

In the black corner, the champ -- brewed since the 1780s at the Barclay Perkins brewery in Southwark, surviving the merger with Courage and now, following nearly twenty years on hiatus, revived under the stewardship of Wells & Young of Luton: the original of the species, Courage Imperial Russian Stout!

And in the other black corner, the contender -- from darkest Yorkshire, representing the entirety of progressive British craft brewing, sporting the modernist typography of the Soviet Ewe-nion: Black Sheep Imperial Russian Stout!

At the weigh-in, the champ had a few points on the sheep: 10% ABV vs. 8.5%. To keep things fair the bout was fought blindfolded. Seconds out; round 1!

No real head on either beer when poured, though what little foam there was showed much darker on the Courage. This extra density came through in the mouthfeel too, with the Black Sheep thinner and fizzier than the beautifully full and rounded Courage. Looks like this might not be much of a fight.

Black Sheep put in a good showing in the aroma, lots of lovely sweet treacle and molasses against Courage's rather bitter liquorice offering. But the knock-out punch is delivered in the flavour: Black Sheep drops its guard with an autolytic tang, producing a kind of unpleasant sour coffee effect, while the Courage avoids any big risky manoeuvers, instead going for a subtle dark smooth caramel with just a mild metallic hop tang. Deft, gracious, and the unanimous winner for the judges.

For its mix of heavyweight brawn and classically traditional flavours I don't know whether to match it against Guinness Foreign Extra or Brooklyn Black Chocolate in the next bout.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Strike to stop performance-pay - and help stop privatisation too

From the Dec 8 LANAC PowerPoint - download from

This morning's news of a 'secret memo' revealing the "full extent of Michael Gove's plans to revolutionise education" will come as no real surprise to teacher trade unionists.  However, this timely reminder that Gove's real agenda is for full privatisation of academies, allowing big business to make profits out of school budgets, is a key message that also needs to be publicised as part of our campaign against performance-pay.

As we have said from the very start, Gove's performance-pay plans are about cutting costs to help his privatising friends. If big business wants to make a profit out of schools, it needs to cut the main budget heading - the salary bill.

So Gove's performance-pay proposals are another step along the route towards school privatisation - with the added bonus that he hopes PRP will divide the workforce and undermine collective trade union action too. 

The NUT needs to make clear to parents how the PRP campaign and anti-academy campaigns are so closely linked. A strike against PRP is also a strike to help stop privatisation - both part of a battle to defend education.

The Mid-Staffs hospital scandal is also a stark reminder of what can happen to public services when they are dominated by targets. That same culture is already gripping education - and PRP will make it even worse.

But time is running short to stop Gove's pay proposals becoming implemented.  Agreement across London Region NUT for a demonstration against Gove on Wednesday March 13 is a good way of mobilising for national strike action - but when will that national action be called?
March 13 could, and should, have been the first day for a national strike - but that was narrowly rejected at the last meeting of the NUT Executive. 

Rather than retreat again, the next National Executive meeting on February 28th needs to correct its mistake and call a first day of national strike on Wednesday March 20. That should be followed by further national action early next term. Calling a two-day strike on April 30 and May 1st - May Day - would show teachers and Gove that we are serious about stopping these disastrous PRP plans.

That's why Warwickshire NUT and Liverpool NUT have added their names to the list of London Associations who are not only building for the March 13 demonstration but who are also building for a Lobby of the NUT Executive on February 27th as well.

Those Lobbyists will be trying to get the message across to National Executive members that we need to announce our plan of national strike action as soon as possible - and starting this term - so that teachers can start to budget ahead for loss of pay and so that Local NUT Associations can spread publicity and build hardship funds and so schools can alert parents and students, especially those preparing for exams.

We're battling for the future of education - we can't afford to hesitate any longer!

News of Gove's academy plan can be read via this link:

... and in further bad news for Gove, with evidence that the bullying culture that is gripping education starts at the very top, a Guardian article alleges that Gove may have misled Parliament over a bullying complaint at the Department of Education:

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A rare occurrence

Hooray for freebies! This collection arrived courtesy of Molson Coors Ireland who seem to be on a bit of a PR drive at the moment, hot on the heels of their recent acquisition of the Irish microbrewing veteran Franciscan Well down in Cork. No Rebel Red in the bundle, however. Instead there was a bottle of Sharp's Doom Bar: a dull brown bitter which even from the cask I've never been a fan of, and which isn't in any way helped by the clear glass bottle. Also a bottle each of rightly acknowledged classic English IPA Worthington's White Shield and the newer blonde ale Red Shield: a worthy sibling. A bottle of P2 imperial stout would have closed off this set from the William Worthington Brewery in Burton nicely, but moochers can't be choosers.

And then the ones that really interested me: three brand extensions from the company's American faux-craft line, Blue Moon. The styles are varied -- a pale ale, an amber ale and an abbey beer -- yet the strengths are pretty uniform at around 5½% ABV.

I opened the Belgian-Style Pale Ale first, a beer known elsewhere as Pale Moon. I notice the unpleasantness a few years ago with the Confederation of Belgian Breweries hasn't prevented them describing this as a "Belgian Pale Ale" elsewhere on the label, despite it never having been near the low countries in its life. Corporate shenanigans aside, how does it taste? Well, not of very much. It's far more of a dark amber than would be normal for a pale ale, and there's a weight which comes with that: a slightly sugary malt thing, though without any of the caramel or toffee depth that one might expect. On top of this there's a mild fruity tang which I think owes more to the orange peel and hibiscus they've inexplicably thrown in here than the Cascade hops they also claim. The label adds further that wheat has been included, making the whole thing a sort of hybrid of standard Blue Moon and pale ale. Odd that it doesn't have more going on in it then, but it's not unpleasant either. Anyone looking for an American-style pale ale, or something in the Taras Boulba genre, will be sorely disappointed.

I was hoping for something a bit more interesting from Blue Moon Spiced Amber Ale. This is a few grades darker: a beautiful chestnut red and lighter in texture than the Pale Ale. Complex it isn't, but it's certainly interesting. The one flavour that jumps out is the cinnamon, toasted grain and brown sugar of Christmas cookies, not in any way sickly or artificial, but smooth and pleasantly warming. This is one of two Blue Moon winter seasonals and is perfectly, seasonally winterish.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale. This poured quite a pale, clear red and completely headless, despite lots of interfering fizz. Unsurprisingly it's sweet and caramelly but this isn't given any fruity depth by any Belgian yeast flavours, which makes it a non-runner as an abbey beer. Overall it's just too thin and one-dimensional to be worth anyone's time, especially since it'll likely be sharing shelf space and price brackets with several world-class Belgian dubbels.

Generally speaking, Molson Coors's attempt to twist their passable orangey wheat beer into different styles is not something that's in the drinker's interest, even when he's getting the bottles for nothing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

EBacc - Gove forced to retreat !

Breaking news from:

"Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, will announce a major climbdown over his controversial plans to scrap GCSEs in favour of a new English Baccalaureate. In a surprise statement in the Commons, Mr Gove will reveal that he is abandoning plans to introduce the new qualification in 2015".

"GCSEs will remain, although they will be reformed in an attempt to restore confidence in them as an internationally respected qualification"

"The U-turn represents a political defeat for a minister seen by some Tory MPs as a potential successor to David Cameron".

This is an important setback for Gove and his plans to wreck education - now we must press ahead with strike action to force him back on performance-pay too !

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lewisham teachers call for strike action this term

By a unanimous vote, NUT members at last night's Lewisham NUT's General Meeting voted to call on the NUT National Executive to urgently call strike action, starting on March 20th.

The new poster from the National Union stating that "Michael Gove must understand that unless his onslaught ... stops, then strike action was inevitable" was seen as a step forward. However, that strike action needed to be called without further delay!

The text of the motion that was agreed was drafted during the discussion so that points could be added by the members present to make sure it fully reflected the views of the meeting.

This is what was unanimously agreed to be sent to the NUT National Executive:

1. This meeting is very angry that the NUT National Executive has failed to call strike action to oppose the most serious attack on our pay, terms and conditions of service that has occurred in the lifetime of current NUT members.

2. This meeting is very angry that the NUT National Executive has failed to show strong and decisive leadership in organising a strong campaign with the will to win to oppose the attack on our pay, terms and conditions of service.

3. This meeting calls on the NUT National Executive to organise strike action, commencing on 20th March 2013.

4. This meeting is very unhappy with the paucity of briefing materials that have been circulated to members by the NUT Communications Department concerning the threatened changes to pay and conditions of service and the timetable of that legislation.

5. This Association fully supports the Lobby of the Executive on February 27th and the Lobby of the Department of Education on March 13th

Monday, February 4, 2013


I smelled a bit of a rat when I first encountered the Einstök range up north. Icelandic beer, in the supermarket, with an English language label? It screams inauthenticity (a difficult word to scream, in fairness). But it's only sort-of inauthentic: the beers are actually brewed in Iceland, albeit under contract at a large industrial brewery. The brand itself is American-owned and the beers are barely available in Iceland: they're certainly not typical of the place.

Missing the seasonal Doppelbock, I got three from the range and the first I opened was Einstök White Ale, brewed with coriander and orange peel. So, a witbier then. Well, not really. They've got some lovely juicy citrus fruit and a hint of the herbal spice, but it's totally clear: a wan yellow-gold. And I think the spicing you get from suspended witbier yeast is an important part of making this sort of beer worth drinking. But witbier isn't a style to get precious over: it's intended as quaffable summery refreshment and that's exactly what you get with this. Drinking closer to the source, Icelandic blogger Haukur had similar thoughts, though his beer was properly hazy.

Next I tried the Einstök Pale Ale. At 5.6% ABV and a deep orange colour, this started me thinking immediately of English-style IPA. It has a bit of the marmalade too, but not nearly enough hops. In fact, it's a bit sticky, with more burnt sugar than fruit or bitterness. The bottle had been sitting about for a few months so I may have missed the best of the hop flavour and aroma, but it's hard to believe they disappeared leaving so little trace. I'm not about to run out for a fresh one anyway.

Dessert in this puffin-free Icelandic feast is the Toasted Porter, 6% ABV and quite thick with it, forming a long-lasting ivory head over a black body tinged with red at the edges. The aroma certainly lives up to the "Toasted" moniker, exuding an intense burnt roasty dryness. It's not all toast in the flavour, however, and there's a generous dose of dark chocolate and coffee to lighten the load. Not to add weight to this particular style argument, but this porter reminds me more of many an English mild, what with the roast, and then a vaguely fruity finish suggesting damsons and plum jam.

Icelandic dark mild: could be a winner.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Serially and cereally

Session logoSession time again. February's host is Montana Beer Finder and the topic is "How We Love Beer". Well this shouldn't be too hard. Specifically, Ryan's Valentine's-inspired theme asks for the little things we do that show our affection for beer. Or the big things.

I'll leave aside the nearly eight years of scribbling tasting notes here and the beer consumers' organisation I help manage, and say on a more personal level that I express my love for beer by usually having a different beer to the beer I just had. In fact, I almost don't have a go-to beer, and when I revisit old favourites they're generally beers I haven't tasted in several years. My first call, everywhere, is for the one I've not tried before. The new experience, the thrill of an unfamiliar brewery, especially one that lots of other people are talking about. Adding a new famous beer to my tick list gives me social ammunition to fire when beer is being talked about. Yes, I'm a beer bore, but beer loves me all the same.

So it was with a frisson of excitement that I heard the new one from Galway Bay brewery had landed in Dublin. Its real name is Buried At Sea but it was travelling under an assumed identity, introducing itself as "Galway Bay Chocolate Stout" when we made our rendez-vous at The Black Sheep.

It's billed as a milk chocolate stout so I was expecting something thick and sweet and creamy but it's not in that vein at all. Instead we have a 6% ABV thumper very much along the lines of Carlow's wonderful Leann Folláin: heavy with dark malts and a generous dose of dry roast at the end. It hides the chocolate coquettishly, revealing it gradually as the pint slips down. Not overly sweet, it's a kind of a crumbly, flakey effect. This is the sort of stout to enjoy as you disappear under a waterfall in a rowing boat.

Only the satisfying weight of the beer stops it from being a wham-bam down-the-hatch sinker. Take it slow and don't think about other beers as you're doing it. It'll know.

Beer: whatever the colour, whatever the weight; no matter how it smells or tastes, I have time for it all. Form an orderly queue.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Time is running short - call national strike action!

The article below is from the latest Classroom Teacher bulletin. A copy can be downloaded from:

UNLESS WE TAKE NATIONAL STRIKE ACTION SOON, Gove will have won his ‘war’ on teachers without teaching unions even having put up a serious fight. Teachers face losing thousands of pounds from our pay, and from our career-average pensions, as cash-strapped schools refuse teachers pay-rises. Demoralisation will get even worse as managers pick-and-choose who gets what, and impose even harsher demands and targets on us.  

Keep up the pressure on the Executive
Time is running dangerously short to force Gove back. That’s why the NUT National Executive’s decision NOT to call a first day of national strike action on 13 March will have been a disappointment to many teachers. But the narrow margin of the vote – with 20 votes in favour and just 22 against – shows that the pressure from classroom teachers IS having an effect. It’s now vital that, in every region of the country, NUT members apply even more pressure on their Executive members to vote for the urgent campaign of strike action that we need. That same pressure also needs to be applied inside the NASUWT too.


“The time to sit back has to end”
The official NUT press release following the National Executive meeting rightly stated that “Michael Gove must understand that unless this onslaught against teachers’ pay, pensions and working conditions stops then strike action is inevitable. Teachers do not take strike action lightly but when the profession is being torn apart by a Government whose reforms have little to do with standards, or evidence, then the time to sit back has to end”. That’s true but, for now, teachers are still being told to sit back!”. The February NUT Executive MUST call action!  

National action needs to to start THIS term
A programme of national action really needs to start before Easter. Action at the end of the summer term alone will surely be too late to force Gove into retreating from his damaging threats, or, at the very least, into making some concessions to teaching unions. By then, the legislation will have already been agreed by Parliament. Governing Bodies will already be meeting to discuss how to implement the plans for September. By then, some schools will be deciding which teachers will receive a 1% annual increase, and who will receive nothing at all. Some will start to make pay decisions based on THIS year’s appraisal targets – blocking pay progression for teachers from September 2013. If we’re not careful, teachers will have concluded that the battle’s over before it’s really started !

Follow action in March with further strikes 
Teachers are practical people. It will be tough to lose pay on strike days but, if we can force Gove back, we’ll save so much more! But, a one-day ‘protest’ strike won’t be enough; we need an ongoing programme of action. At school meetings, Reps’ Briefings, and NUT Conference, teachers will want to debate what, when and ‘how often?’ At the 300-strong London NUT Briefing, there was a lot of applause given to reps who proposed escalating from an initial one-day action to a further 48-hour strike next term. Whatever is agreed, teachers need to start preparing now by putting away some cash to pay for the strikes to come and building hardship funds to help those who can’t do so.

Teachers will support action - if unions give a lead
The London NUT Briefing voted unanimously for national strike action. Last year’s legal ballot - and subsequent internal surveys - have also backed national action. Of course, the mood isn’t even across all schools and all regions; that’s inevitable. But we have no shortage of arguments to give to both teachers and parents to explain why Gove, in general, and PRP, in particular, has to be opposed. It’s high time unions started getting those arguments out to their members and building for action!  

How long can we wait for the NASUWT?
By that narrow majority, the NUT Executive voted to delay calling action and to wait to see if further discussions with the NASUWT could produce a joint plan of action. But how much longer can the NUT wait? And are the NASUWT prepared to sanction more than just a one-day protest? If the NASUWT won’t act quickly enough, then the NUT will have to act without them to start with - just as happened in June 2011 over pensions. If the NUT calls action on March 20, then it’s very likely that, as in 2011, it can co-ordinate with PCS members taking national action too.

NUT Executive meets again on February 28
Time is now dangerously short, but pressure from below has been having an effect. Further pressure can make sure that the next NUT National Executive meeting on February 28 finally calls national action. The future of education, and of union organisation, is at stake. Gove is out to wreck education and rip apart our national pay and conditions. But the stakes are too high to get downhearted by the continued delays. NUT members, reps and Local Associations must demand that a serious programme of action is called before it is too late.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New tricks from the old guard

It had been many years since I tasted any beer from  3 Fonteinen. Once upon a time it was one of the top lambic houses in Belgium and then in 2009 disaster struck when a faulty thermostat destroyed about a year's worth of stock. And unlike most beers, with lambic you can't simply throw together a replacement batch and have it on sale in a few weeks. The company became a blendery, though plans have been hatched to start distilling and brewing once again.

Recently, the missus brought a bottle of 3 Fonteinen Doesjel back from Brussels. This is a blend of 1, 2 and 3-year old lambic and I'm guessing it dates from the post-catastrophe era. It's 6% ABV and a lovely orange-gold colour. The first surprise is in the aroma: sour, of course, but there's a distinct and intriguing sweetness too. On tasting this unfolds into a juicy, pithy jaffa flavour backed by a mild, short-lived, tang of sour funkiness. An odd combination for an old lambic and one that left me feeling something was missing. I expected bigger sourness and perhaps some old wood. Instead, the fruit flavours put me in mind of Cantillon's Iris, except it's nowhere near as good as Cantillon's Iris. Disappointing, in short.

From one first-string gueuzerie to another. You wouldn't have thought one of the most po-faced and serious of the lambic breweries might produce something as frivilous as this garishly-labelled beer. Yet here it is: Framboise Girardin. Proper grown-up lambic, with raspberries.

From the half champagne bottle it looks gorgeous, a crystalline blood red. The aroma is pure raspberry: sweet without a hint of sourness. Nothing sugary when you taste it, though. The raspberry is still present in a big way, but it's the dry crispness of raspberry seeds. You can just about tell there's a sour beer underneath -- a bit of an acid burn in the nostrils and the faintest catch at the back of the palate -- but otherwise it's all about the raspberries, while avoiding any trace of sugary sickliness. It's the sort of beer that reminds me why people thought of putting fruit in lambic in the first place, and makes me wonder why more of them aren't better at achieving this kind of balance.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lobby the NUT Executive on February 27

At a General Meeting held last night, described by Betty Joseph, the NUT Executive member present, as "very angry indeed", Hackney NUT became the fourth London NUT Association, so far, to back the call for a Lobby of the NUT Executive on Wednesday, February 27th - the evening before the full National Executive meets again to discuss the action we will be taking to stop Gove's Performance Pay plans. 

To download a copy of the leaflet, go to the Lewisham NUT website,

Monday, January 28, 2013

Can't see the sap for the trees

The claim on the back to be brewed with "a glimmer of Canadian maple" is a bit of an enigmatic one. I can't help thinking that the word "syrup" got cut from the copy at the last minute. As is, Holt's of Manchester leave it up to us to decide whether it's twigs, bark or something else in their Maplemoon "mystical maple ale".

It looks lovely: a deep clear amber. The aroma is less impressive, vaguely sticky smelling dark malt and a significant carbonic bite, made even more disappointing by the promise of Cascade on the label. Fortunately it's not overly sweet, sticky, heavy or fizzy on tasting, but it's not much else either. The flavour is a short-lived one-dimensional mix of biscuit and dark fruit -- think garibaldis or similar -- and there's nothing as exotic as maple syrup, or Cascade hops for that matter.

Perfectly drinkable, then, but not as interesting as Holt's would like you to think.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

London NUT members call for action

It needed to be an important event to pull a trade unionist away from Lewisham this weekend - but I left over 20,000 others to march to defend our hospital!

Young and old march to save the NHS in Lewisham
However, as an NUT Executive member facing a critical moment in our campaign to stop Gove's plans to rip apart our national pay scales, I had to be in Stoke Rochford for the NUT's London weekend, which gathered together around 70 local officers and reps to debate how to build the Union and its campaigns.

The original agenda of the weekend, now an annual event, was focused on how to strengthen our organisation of the 50,000-plus NUT members in the Union's strongest region. Important plans were developed to train and consolidate school reps, to make links to support Local Associations across the capital, to pursue Union recognition in Academies, to publicise the damage being caused by Tory education policies - including the free school plans of Mayor Johnson - and more. However, all of these discussions was understandably overshadowed by the debate around the PRP campaign - and the regrettable failure of the Executive to vote for strike action on March 13.

All six London NUT Executive members had voted for that March 13 action but strong criticism was voiced by many reps at the decision, by a small majority of the National Executive, to continue to delay setting a first date for national strike action. Other reps were less sure as to how their members would respond to the news from the Executive - but were left with a lot of food for thought to discuss back in their Local Associations.

Some reps were critical of the lack of information that was being circulated to members to explain Gove's attacks. Many took copies of the materials that had been produced and circulated by Lewisham NUT ( posted on the Lewisham NUT website: ).  

These Lewisham materials included a model leaflet for parents. Plans were proposed for joint days of action where we circulate materials to the public of London - both at the school-gates and in our local shopping areas.

A few reps were hopeful that the NASUWT would agree to joint action and our campaign could then be put back on track. However, I warned that a joint one-day strike late in the summer term could too easily be seen by teachers as 'too little, too late'. If we were to show teachers that we were seriously seeking to force Gove back, it was vital to take action THIS term. 

I called on London Associations to back the call for the National Executive meeting on February 28th to call a national strike on Budget Day, March 20th, hopefully co-ordinating with the PCS union who may also take national action on the day.

This was backed by several other Local Association officers. For example, Kash Mallick from Redbridge, making clear that he had no affiliation to any party or 'bloc' within the Union, angrily questioned why the National Executive couldn't see that all these plans for Union organisation would be ripped to shreds if teachers were divided and beaten down by performance-pay.

London teachers are obviously not alone in expressing this anger. A report posted on the LANAC website ( ) confirms that NUT reps at the Regional briefing in Leeds on Saturday voted unanimously to ask the National Executive to overturn their decision and call a national strike on March 20.

In discussions with me, some questioned whether I could seriously expect the Executive to vote for action on March 20 when they had just voted down action on March 13 ? However, I explained that pressure from classroom teachers was already having an effect, and we had to keep up that pressure between now and the next Executive. We had no choice but to demand that the Union enacts the campaign that was needed to defend pay, conditions and education - before it was too late.

To help keep up that pressure, Lewisham NUT are calling for support for a Lobby of the NUT Executive, meeting outside NUT HQ in Hamilton House, WC1H 9BD, on Wednesday February 27th at 5pm. 

'Outstanding' teachers speak:

Tim Woodcock, Greenwich NUT Secretary, read out some comments from his colleagues that reveal the low morale of teachers - before Gove's plans make things even worse:

"If your card is marked they will find fault with your lessons. This is not fair but I have seen it happen. We would not treat children with such a lack of respect".

"I love teaching and the pupils are great. I am prepared to work hard but I no longer have a life outside school. I cannot see how I can do this much longer. I have been a teacher for four years".

"I used to walk into every class in my department most days to talk to teachers and the pupils, check how they were doing. I have stopped because it is seriously affecting my relationship with teachers who are constantly worried they are being mentored or judged. Yet all of their lessons are good or outstanding"

"I do not know what outstanding means anymore; it does not mean to innovate, because to innovate you need to take risks. I can no longer take risks because I need to follow the OFSTED criteria".

... and finally,

"I wanted to be a teacher all my life. I am leaving at the end of term. I have no job!"

.. and before any critics wonder if these are teachers that are just 'not up to the job', Tim pointed out, these quotes all come from teachers deemed to be 'outstanding' ...   

Friday, January 25, 2013

Act before disappointment washes away determination

I was in a Lewisham school all day today to support NUT members going through a restructuring. One of them, Alanna, before discussing her own individual position, wanted me to know that she had sent a letter to the NUT Executive on Wednesday to call on us to support strike action.

The letter's copied below. It's not in the language of an 'activist' - Alanna isn't one. She's just a typically dedicated teacher expecting her Union to give a lead to defend education.

On hearing the news from yesterday's NUT Executive, Alanna is a deeply disappointed teacher. 

Time is running very short to mount a serious fight against Gove and his PRP plans - if we leave it much longer, that disappointment will wash away teachers' determination to defend education. No more delays - we have to take action!

" I was taught to teach by many wonderful and brilliant people. All were different and from many walks of life, from old to young; teacher to learner. I chose to become a teacher myself because I wanted to inspire and encourage young people to utilise or even exceed their potential.

The jaded and overwhelmed youth of South East London often, on their own, cannot see past the ends of their noses. The moment is magical when eyes open to appreciate and understand the world that surrounds them. The essential approach to achieving this moment is that this inspiration and motivation is delivered from a relaxed and secure educator who is able to themselves be inspired.

I strongly believe, because of pressures and regimes placed upon our educators of today, these wonderful and brilliant people are often too preoccupied with stress, feelings of insecurity and thoughts of an unstable future to be able to focus upon their priorities as educators.

Therefore, I offer my whole-hearted support for the continuing action against the damaging, uneducated and poorly thought-out whims that this Government spews.

We must continue the fight for our educators. After all, this is the fight for our learners too ".

Thursday, January 24, 2013

NUT Executive narrowly votes against strike action in March

This report will meet with considerable disappointment – and not a little anger – from NUT members waiting to hear the outcome of the discussions at today’s National Executive. Regrettably, and after a long debate, the Executive voted narrowly against a proposal to call a first day of national strike action, to oppose Gove’s plans to impose performance-related pay, on Wednesday March 13.

Keep up the pressure  on the Executive !

The 300 London teachers that packed into the vibrant meeting in the same Mander Hall at NUT Headquarters just a few days ago would have been taken aback by some of the pessimism permeating some of the speeches opposing the call for action this term. However, the narrow margin of the vote – with 20 votes in favour and just 22 against – shows that the pressure from classroom teachers IS having an effect. Rather than getting downhearted, it’s now time to apply even more pressure on National Executive members to vote for the campaign of strike action that we need.

The official NUT press release following the meeting rightly states that “Michael Gove must understand that unless this onslaught against teachers’ pay, pensions and working conditions stops then strike action is inevitable. Teachers do not take strike action lightly but when the profession is being torn apart by a Government whose reforms have little to do with standards, or evidence, then the time to sit back has to end”. Unfortunately, teachers may well say after today, “but we’re still being told to sit back!”.

Go for March 13 - or delay once again?

The timing of action was at the centre of today’s debate. Those of us supporting a national strike on March 13, which would have allowed the NUT to take action as part of the European TUC’s day of international action against austerity, tried to explain why we had to start action THIS term. After all, December’s NUT Executive had voted unanimously to build for strike action in this spring term!

Action at the end of the summer term alone will be too late to force Gove into retreating from his damaging threats, or, at the very least, into making some concessions to teaching unions. By then, the final legislation will have already been agreed by Parliament. Governing Bodies will already be meeting to discuss how to implement the plans for September. 

By then, some schools, as NEOST, the employers’ organisation have mooted, will be deciding which teachers will receive a 1% annual increase, and which will receive nothing at all. NEOST also makes clear that they think Gove may insist that governors start to make pay decisions based on THIS year’s appraisal targets – blocking pay progression for teachers from September 2013. If we’re not careful, teachers will have concluded that the battle’s over before it’s really started!

How long can we wait for the NASUWT?

Another point of difference was around how much longer we could wait for the NASUWT to confirm that they would be prepared to take national strike action alongside us. Max Hyde, proposing the unsuccessful objection, with Heather McKenzie from Hertfordshire seconding, argued that we couldn’t delay further when we still had no firm commitment from the NASUWT. After all, as Max’s proposal stated, our membership surveys suggest that NUT members were – give or take a few percentage points - as ready to act alone as with the NASUWT. However, by that narrow majority, the Executive voted to wait to see what further discussions could bring and, as the NUT press release states, “We expect to make further announcements on our next course of action next month.”

Regrettably, that means that, for now, another opportunity has been lost to build the kind of pressure that could still force Gove to retreat.
Mandy Hudson, the Executive member elected from the Disabled Member Constituency, pointed out that "it's true that getting the NUT and NASUWT out together would mean 9 out of every 10 teachers on strike, but, right now, we've got 0 / 10 teachers taking action!". As Ian Leaver from Leicester asked, “what are the reps’ briefings over the next few weeks going to be for? They should be used to mobilise for action, not just canvass opinion”. 

Time for the Executive to give a lead

The final main issue in the debate was that judgement about member ‘opinion’. All of the six London Executive members, reflecting the mood of that London rally, voted for the March action. Others, including some elected from the ‘Left’ in the CDFU group, struck a far more pessimistic tone, arguing that there was little mood for action. Jerry Glazier, from the ‘Broadly Speaking’ group argued that we must prepare for a long battle with strikes up to the general election. But, as I countered, this sounded like some kind of ‘political strike’ to support the Labour Party (and what difference will Twigg really make?). Teachers aren’t making those kind of political calculations, they want to know what’s going to happen to their pay and conditions by this September!

The evidence from the internal surveys and from most members’ meetings simply doesn’t justify this pessimism. Of course, the mood isn’t even across all schools and all regions; that’s inevitable. But, as I argued, a serious leadership should be confident that, in six weeks, we could build a strong national strike in March. We had no shortage of arguments to give to both teachers and parents to explain why Gove, in general, and PRP, in particular, had to be opposed. Instead of further delay, we had to go out and make those arguments and build action in March! 

As after December’s Executive, the conclusion NUT members need to draw from today’s debate is that, if the Executive haven’t got the confidence to give a lead to NUT members, then NUT members will have to give confidence to the NUT Executive to give that lead and call national action!

Time is dangerously short - pile pressure on the NUT Executive before we meet again on Feb 28

Time is now dangerously short, but pressure from below has been having an effect. Further pressure can make sure that the next NUT National Executive meeting on February 28th finally calls national action. That action could still start this term, perhaps even on the same day that the PCS are considering taking national action if their ballot is successful, around March 20th. Today’s close vote will also send a signal to the NASUWT that they cannot continue to prevaricate either and that, unless they want to haemorrhage support, they must also come out in support of national strike action.

The future of education, and of trade union organisation, is at stake. Gove is out to wreck education and rip apart our national pay and conditions. Today’s vote is a setback. Time is running short. But the stakes are too high to get downhearted. NUT members, reps and Local Associations - supported by LANAC, the Local Associations National Action Campaign, must pile on the pressure on their Executive members, particularly on those who voted against action in March today, and demand that a serious programme of action is called before it is too late. 

UPDATE: A London NUT member has created an online petition calling on the Executive to vote for action. You can sign via:

Canal hopping

One of the things that makes Amsterdam a great place for drinking beer is its compactness. Time it right and you can do a very efficient pub crawl through the western city centre with minimal walking between top quality beers. I had a couple of days of bimbling on my last visit so didn't hit all of what follows in one session. But if I had, it would have looked like this:

Starting off at the top of the town and In De Wildeman, the charmingly down-at-heel hostelry famed for the variety of its beer offerings. Left Hand's Stranger was a new one on me: a decent fist of an American pale ale, being quite heavy and possessing a solid, toffeeish malt backbone. The flavour begins with a firm bitter smack, then introduces some lovely oily orange notes. It's a beer with a big flavour, but deftly balanced. For something a bit more outré, there was Sauer Power, a Germano-American collaboration between Freigeist and Jester King. It's the cloudy gold of a witbier and mixes in some quite acrid smoke with saisonish yeast spice and a mouth-watering, tongue-pinching sourness. Interesting up to a point, but the aftertaste leaves a burnt plastic residue which spoiled the experiment for me.

Another round? All right then. The missus opted for Samaranth 12, a very strong dark one by Urthel. This wears its 11.5% ABV right up front, with heady boozy vapours winding seductively out of it. The flavour has a little of the sweet honey of Irish whiskey and even sweeter amaretti biscuits. It's smooth and amazingly not overly hot, but one glass is plenty. More or less randomly, I chose Troubadour Westkust, a 9.2% ABV black IPA. Wow. The nose is pure Fry's Turkish Delight, starting with milk chocolate then adding floral rosewater. It tasted very porterish to me, with coffee and cocoa dominating the flavour and the hops adding a pot pourri element without any real bitterness. Not really the sort of thing I'd expect under the black IPA flag, but as a beer it's flawless.

And with that we leave In De Wildeman, though not before downloading On Tapp in De Wildeman, its wonderful smartphone app, for future vicarious drinking. I'd love more pubs to have something like this.

Southwards we go, feeling a little guilty for passing Café Belgique and trying not to get drawn in by the siren song of De Bierkoning. Just on the far side of Dam Square we reach Beer Temple. I'm keeping to style and order a Mikkeller Sort Gul, a black IPA, this time with a mere 7.5% ABV. No doubt about the hops here: it's danker than a rasta's basement, crammed with funky, oily, herbal flavours and smells. I couldn't decide if I could taste any dry roast or chocolate in it: maybe there was a trace of it, or maybe it was an illusion caused by the colour. Regardless, this is very much a hop-forward beer and gorgeous to boot.

Perfect Crime is one of a growing number of odd transatlantic brewing arrangements being a joint venture by the people behind Evil Twin and Stillwater -- themselves odd transatlantic brewing arrangements in their own right. The beers are brewed in Belgium and on tap at Beer Temple was Smoking Gun, an imperial stout. It's a little on the light side for the style and not all that strongly flavoured, with just some dry smokiness contrasting with pleasant sweet floral flavours. Decent, but there's something wrong when the beer's pedigree is more complex than its taste. There was much more happening in Dark Horse's Double Crooked tree, an innocent pale amber ale that's hiding over 13% ABV. The aroma is wonderful: intensely sweet and citric like dry-hopped cough mixture. There's a tangy sharpness in the flavour at first, but it mellows out into a smooth, manadrin-laced sipper. It's just as well the measures tend to be small in Beer Temple or we'd be here all night. Let's get moving.

A couple of blocks further down and one street over, we reach Gollem. It's packed, but there's just room for us to squeeze in on the mezzanine. A quick headcount reveals that "packed" in Gollem's case means 27 people. From the modest but well-chosen tap line-up one particular beer leaps out at me: St. Feuillien's Black Saison, brewed in collaboration with Green Flash of San Diego. It's a crazy concoction with the typical peppery nose of a good saison but then a bizarre herb garden of a flavour profile, full of sweet and floral botanicals: menthol, eucalyptus, caraway seeds and other flavours I've forgotten the names of but are more often found in nordic aquavit than low countries beer. Strange, but quite wonderful in its own way. Appropriate for Gollem, then.

A U-turn across Singel brings us onto Herengracht and we follow the canal north, counting down the house numbers from the 200s until we reach the magic 90: home of Café Arendsnest and the place where all my Amsterdam pub crawls seem to end. Habitually, I scan the tap list for anything unfamiliar from De Molen. Dol & Dwaas? That'll do. It's an odd orange-red colour with a bit of a haze but doesn't have much to say for itself, really: a bit of smoke and a little hoppy funk, but nothing especially distinctive. A much more interesting smoked experience came from SNAB's Roock, a black beer which mixes fig and plum notes with salty seaweed and iodine. Delicious and thoroughly defiant of style rules and categories.

Phew. Anyone fancy a coffee? There's Emelisse Espressostout: it's 10% ABV and nicely sweet and unctuous, but the coffee does little other than add a dryness to it. I need a bigger jolt than that. Rooie Dop's Daily Grind provides just the hit needed. First there's that faintly sweaty smell of strong hot coffee and a major hit of freshly ground coffee flavour on tasting. There's the dry roast finish again, though here I think it's the beer's underlying stout nature peeking through; the same goes for the heavy texture. Mostly, however, Daily Grind is all about the coffee, as a coffee stout should be, in my opinion.

And we're done! Time to leave the beer specialists behind and drift back into normality. A nightcap, you say? Well OK. The pubs where the normal people drink have a few winter seasonals in from the bigger brewers. Brand, for instance, have Sylvester: red and sweet, though not in a warming toffee way, but rather a disappointing fake-fruit bubblegum thing plus a bit of nasty brown apple. I'd pass if I were you. De Koninck are offering Winter Koninck and that's much more like it: a lovely warming Christmas cake nose and lots of dubbelish dark fruits. A chewy, warming finish to the session.

Until next time, Amsterdam.