Leave the curriculum alone, and focus on quality of delivery

by Calvin Robinson on February 22, 2019.

Written for Conservative Home on 21st February 2019.

Since I left industry to pursue my vocation in education I’ve been a class teacher, a middle leader, and a member of the senior leadership team for a number of schools around London, and I’ve witnessed the same problems in the majority of them. Most teachers can relate to the common problems facing schools today, and while the Conservative Party has made proficient improvements to the UK’s education system there does at times feel like there’s a considerate disconnect between what goes on in the classroom and the decisions being made in the Department for Education. As a man on the ground, here is my view of what the future of Tory education policy should look like…

Starting with the highest priority, workload. First and foremost we should pledge to make no new changes to the national curriculum for the next parliamentary term. Michael Gove’s more rigorous knowledge-rich curriculum is fantastic, as is Nick Gibb’s synthetic phonics policy, and we’re just now starting to see the pay-off from both. Teachers are getting familiar with the new syllabus, students are starting to reap the rewards, it would be silly to make any changes now and would just create more angst. Better to earn back some trust from the onset.

On that note, we should also be doing everything we can to promote programmes such as Daisy Christodoulou’s No More Marking, which isn’t actually about doing away with marking, but is about marking more effectively by assessing pupils’ work through comparative-judgement. The evidence in support of whole class feedback over marking every piece of work is astonishing and could lighten the workload of so many overburdened class teachers practically instantaneously. There are so many bureaucratic box-ticking exercise like this that could be done away with, regular book looks with counter-productive feedback, individual lesson plans, we need to do our utmost to encourage schools to put an end to box-ticking and empower teachers to be the professionals that they are.

All of this will help with teacher retention, which is another area of concern and clearly related to workload. Here we could do quite well in promoting more ways of keeping the best teachers in the classroom, by opening up more career opportunities and ways to climb the pay scale ladder other than becoming middle management.

On that note, we should most certainly introduce training for middle leaders. Just because someone is fantastic at passing on knowledge to pupils does not mean they make good people managers. This is one of the principal problems with British schools today, and why so many of them can become unpleasant places to work. People are promoted above their level of managerial competence, and that’s not their fault, we’re not offering them sufficient training. It makes the department heads unhappy, in makes those in the department unhappy, and that’s not good for teaching and learning.

After workload and retention, I’d recommend we take a look at recruitment. The DfE has just launched their free recruitment website. This is a brilliant move but needs some heavy promotion to let both school leaders and potential recruits know it’s out there and ready to use. The next step would be to increase starting and unqualified teacher salaries. While teachers can eventually make a decent living, the starting salary is hugely discouraging, particularly if we want to attract more subject experts to enter the field.

We should certainly continue to promote partnerships that encourage career changes into teaching such as Now Teach, Teach First, School Direct etc. One new area of priority though should be to take a look at our current PGCE courses, and judge whether they’re truly fit for purpose. Many are still teaching outdated techniques and debunked theories such as individual learning styles – we should re-address their relevance and focus on evidence-informed practice.

Schools and school leaders need autonomy. It’s high time we trusted professionals to get on with their job, and the Academies programme has been great for both increased autonomy and in cutting bureaucracy. We also need to make it easier for parents and teachers to open Free Schools, especially in areas of deprivation where the community is calling out for good school places. Some of the large MATs are doing an amazing job, but they shouldn’t be allowed to monopolise or overshadow a local community’s drive to open good schools.

As for the curriculum, while I wouldn’t recommend making any changes for the next parliamentary term, there are some improvements we could make around delivery that could ease pressure on schools. Starting with encourage schools to share resources. Year in, year out, teachers are re-inventing the wheel, creating different versions of the same resources to line-up with the curriculum. Successful MATs like Inspiration Trust have already started creating curriculum centres to distribute a uniformly high standard curriculum across their schools and lighten teacher workload, others like Ark have even started selling their resources to other schools. It’d be great to see more of this sharing of best practise. Perhaps this is something that could be tendered out to a charity to setup a national curriculum centre website where schools and teachers can freely share and access high quality resources. Think along the lines of the TES resources website, but with some moderation and a modicum of quality control.

Vocational qualifications still need looking at. I had high hopes for the T-Levels and have been involved in the consultations from the beginning, but interest and commitment really doesn’t seem to be there, which is a huge shame. Not every child needs to go to university – the claim otherwise was one of the biggest lies of the last Labour government. So many young people are leaving university with worthless degrees and are left unable to find a well-paid job. Instead we should further promote apprenticeships, which are proving successful in industry. The Government would also do well to encourage extra-curricular subjects (dance, drama, music) as the arts are just as important as academic subjects for building the whole character.

Of course, I’ve left one of the most important points until last. Behaviour should become the main focus of the next education minister. Poor behaviour is preventing so many young people from being able to achieve a good education. Not necessarily their poor behaviour, but the poor behaviour of pupils around them.

Schools that implement high standards and low tolerance for bad behaviour are often lambasted in the press and face a backlash on social media. This is unacceptable. Schools need the full and proper backing of the Government and associated bodies to implement policies that ensure pupils demonstrate good behaviour for learning, so that every child is able to access the curriculum.

Tom Bennet’s report is a good place to begin. If a good education is the best form of enhancing social mobility, we’re doing young people a disservice by allowing rampant bad behaviour to go unchecked. All the recent hyperbole around exclusions isn’t helpful. Sometimes, unfortunately, one child has to be removed for the safety of the other 1,200 pupils and teachers in the school. It’s not a decision anyone makes lightly, but it’s one we have to trust schools to get on with. All children deserve the best start in life, and that means we have to enable adults to create a safe learning environment for all.

Education
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Fiddling Results by Lowering Grade Thresholds Is Counter-productive

by Calvin Robinson on August 29, 2017.

Written for the Daily Mail on A-Level results day 2017 (Thursday, 17th August 2017):

It has become one of the time-honoured rituals of modern British education.   Every year, the release of A-level results in mid-August is accompanied by images of celebrating teenagers, some leaping for joy as they delight in their success, others tearfully hugging their friends in relief.

This year the celebrations have been given an extra impetus, thanks to a rise in the number for top grades awarded for the first time since 2011.   After a modest decline over the last six years, this summer saw 26.3 per cent of A-level entries receive A or A*, up 0.5 per cent on 2016.  The increase comes even though the syllabus this year was tougher in 13 subjects, following reforms introduced by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who wanted to see more rigour in the system.   Only last week, before the results were announced, there were predictions of chaos and decline.   But these dire warnings never materialized.

But while the government was dialling up the academic rigour, examiners have been dumbing down their marking. While individual pupils can rightly celebrate their results, celebration by the educational establishment must be tempered by the recognition that the exam authorities, by their own admission, have wilfully sought to undermine the drive for greater robustness by lowering pass marks.   Gove tried to take a sword to the culture of low expectations and illusory achievement.    The educational establishment has, once again, blunted his instrument.   As a consequence of this flawed marking policy, we are at risk of ending up with the same old grade inflation, lack of integrity and statistical manipulation that have done so much to discredit the exam regime.

What is extraordinary is that the education chiefs are quite open about its approach.   In a remarkable interview published last weekend, Sally Collier, the head of the exam quango Ofqual, admitted that she had decided to lower grade thresholds in the exact same 13 A-level exams to which the Gove reforms had been applied.    Her aim, she declared, was to avoid a dramatic fall in results, thereby ensuring that the same proportion of pupils – roughly a quarter – would achieve the top grades as they did last year.   Justifying her move, she resorted to the kind of cringing, non-judgemental language that so typifies the progressive mentality.  “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well.  All our kids are brilliant,” she said, adding that “the most important thing for our students is that they get the praise they deserve for having undertaken new courses of study.”

As a teacher myself, I despair of rhetoric like that.   It does pupils no favours at all.   Far from encouraging them, such indiscriminate cheerleading actually undermines their real achievements and diligence.     If everyone has to be told they are “brilliant”, what is the point of hard work?   Sally Collier might think that she is supportive, but she is the opposite as she seeks to perpetuate a discredited system that is crying out for real change.

I love my work, teaching A-level Computer Science.    It is a job that gives me tremendous job satisfaction as I have the chance to pass on my knowledge and equip the next generation for our increasingly hi-tech world.    But I want my pupils to be challenged so that they can show they really understand their subject.    Mollycoddling them with meaningless praise and inflated grades is no way to help them achieve.

It is precisely my belief in academic rigour that led me to support the Government’s reforms.     The old regime was simply not working.    Employers complained that school leavers did not have the skills or attitude for the workplace.    Amid an unrelenting glut of top grades, universities found it hard to identify the most able pupils.     I saw many of the problems for myself.     There was far too much emphasis on coursework, which meant that pupils could have their hands held by their teachers – and sometimes by overzealous parents – as they were guided through the process.     Moreover the modular nature of many courses meant that pupils could often keep resitting a particular test until they passed it.    The entire structure meant that entrants were assessed, not on their real talent and understanding of their subject, but on their ability to jump through a series of arbitrary hoops.

The revamped system has offers greater thoroughness.     In the focus on genuine academic discipline, much of the waffle and softness has disappeared.    I see it in my own subject of computing, which has been turned into a proper science.   That is a key reason why it now appeals to more pupils.    It is telling that, since the subject became harder, the numbers taking it have increased, up by 38 per cent this year.  Gratifyingly, the number of girls on computer science courses have also gone up, by 34 per cent.   That confounds the gender stereotyping of the politically correct brigade who think that girls can only be enticed into areas traditionally dominated by boys by making subjects less tough.     We should not pander to such prejudice.

The greatest service schools can provide is to make high demands of their pupils.   Good grades should be hard to achieve, rewarding talent and diligence, just as getting good university places should be difficult to get.   If both become easy, then they are devalued.      Competition and aspiration are not dirty words.   They are concepts that should be integral to education.    The last thing that pupils need is for our examination system to degenerate into an academic version of those “all must have prizes” sports days that now proliferate in our schools because of a misguided terror of elitism.     Mere participation can now bring its own reward, while I know of schools which hold races for those unable to compete with the best, which ironically seems like its own curious form of humiliation.

Yet this is the degraded world that Sally Collier of Ofqual seems to envisage, with her belief in universal brilliance.      It has become fashionable in education to talk about “excellence for all”.    Excellent teaching for all, yes, but excellent grades? That’s just another indication of warped thinking.   If everyone achieves perfect grades, how do we find the truly outstanding?     Isn’t the very term “excellent” meaningless if everyone is said to have attained that threshold?   In such circumstances, it is nothing more than the benchmark of average.    That is exactly what could happen with qualifications and grades if the education establishment is allowed to prevail.

In her weekend interview Sally Collier said that, in a period of reform, “you would expect grades to fall but we are protecting students.”     Yet she is doing the very opposite of providing protection.   By indulging in her fiddles, she is denigrating their hard work and underming the process of learning.    The Government’s tougher A-levels should be the start of a wholesale reform of the education system: one that stops schools being mere exam factories, that values technical instruction as much as university academia, that actually meets the skill and professional needs of our nation in the face of fierce international competition, and that promotes the reality of success rather than a statistical illusion.

Michael Gove once famously spoke of the “Blob” in education, that politically correct nexus of town halls, managers, trade unions, lecturers, training colleges and media outlets who would do everything possible to thwart reform.    Sadly, Ofqual’s distortions this week reveal that the Blob remains as powerful as ever.

Education
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Let’s Put British Values Back Into British Schools

by Calvin Robinson on March 17, 2017.

Originally published on Conservative Way Forward.

I recently had the honour of visiting a fantastic new Free School in North West London. A school very different to the majority of inner-city state schools today, a school that has rejected the postmodern approach to education, in favour of a more traditional education based on the teacher-lead passing down of knowledge. Upon entering this school, which shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear, my colleagues on the local council and I could clearly hear children practising the National Anthem, something that I cannot say I’ve ever encountered in my many visits to schools throughout the capital.

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During our chat with the Headmistress, we were informed that all students were currently learning the National Anthem in Music lessons, to sing at the start of each school day in a whole school celebration of Britishness. At lunch time that day, we witnessed a member of the Senior Leadership Team congratulating the students on their performance and reminding them that no matter where they come from, whatever race, religion, or creed, they should all be proud to be British. This school consists of a large majority of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, but all seemed equally proud to celebrate their diversity and their Britishness together, as a school community.

Unfortunately, the Headmistress didn’t yet feel comfortable publicising the fact that her school is teaching their students the National Anthem, through fear of a public backlash. What a sorry state we’re in as a nation, when children cannot learn to sing the National Anthem. If not in school, then where should we be learning the anthem of our nation? It seems to me that we’ve reached the point where we’ve become so obsessed with appearing to be tolerant of others, that we have become intolerant of ourselves. We’re afraid of celebrating our own culture.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating British values. Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs are all values we should hold in esteem. Sure, they might not be values that are unique to the United Kingdom, but they are certainly not universal values around the world, not even amongst our closest allies. British values should be celebrated, shared and encouraged.

The Teachers’ Standards, the rules governing the behaviour of all qualified teaching professionals in the UK, is often misquoted as insisting teachers ‘promote British values’. In fact, the Teachers’ Standards merely states that teachers should ‘not undermine fundamental British values’. That’s quite a significant difference, and one that should be corrected. British schools should be at the forefront of protecting and promoting British values to each generation.

Singing the national anthem and flying the Union Flag at school should be a daily routine, as part of a wider PSHE/Citizenship curriculum designed to instil and reinforce British values​. It’s hard to image many schools even flying St George’s cross on St George’s Day these days, through fear of offending. We’re all too happy to wear green on St Patrick’s Day, though. Why is it that left have become so comfortable celebrating everyone else’s culture, but frown upon the mere mention of celebrating the incredibly rich and diverse culture of Great Britain?

Immigrants claiming British citizenship swear an allegiance to the Queen, yet British-born children are left out of that practice. We should be uniting all British citizens under a common Oath of Allegiance, singing the national anthem together and flying the Union Flag. These symbols are a nod to our joint beliefs in freedom of liberty, tolerance, democracy and law. We should never forget that.

Maybe, just maybe, if we stopped worrying about the things that separate us, and started focusing on the many great things that unite us, we’d be in a much better place as a nation.

Education
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Our young people are being indoctrinated towards a left-wing bias

by Calvin Robinson on June 25, 2016.

As published on Conservatives for Liberty

The country is evidently split right now. The results of the referendum were as close as expected, even if didn’t land on the side we’d anticipated. People had plenty of reasons for voting Remain or Leave, and I’m not going to go into them here. But what I find interesting about this referendum is that the division between Leave and Remain voters isn’t just a regional one, there’s a clear age gap involved.

I keep reading the argument that 2/3rds of young people voted Remain, and therefore it is the older generations who are out of touch. Well, as a young person myself I put it to you that the case may actually be the other way around.

Our young people are being indoctrinated to a left-wing mentality from a very young age. Pretty much throughout their entire educational career, young people are being trained into a lefty way of thinking. I’ve seen this first hand on too many occasions and it leaves me constantly concerned. Some of the behaviour I’ve seen from teachers is outright disgusting – a very evident bias not only in their teaching practises, but in the way they present their arguments. I’m not talking about the obvious party political biases of “Labour = Good, Tory = Evil”, although that does happen, but most teachers take a less obvious approach along the lines of tolerance being a good thing, so long as you agree with their way of thinking.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve witnessed teachers engaging in conversations with students about the EU referendum. Instead of encouraging students to keep an open mind, or challenging students’ perceptions, teachers have been encouraging their biases. For instance, in a recent conversation a student mentioned how close the Leave numbers were getting to taking Remain’s lead, based on polls, and a teacher’s response was “I know, it’s quite scary isn’t it”. The teacher and student were in mutual agreement that Britain leaving the EU would be a bad thing. As far as I’m aware, that goes against part two of the Teachers’ Standards.

On the other hand, I have personally been discouraged from even mentioning the EU referendum. On Friday 24th June, when the results were in, I was taken aside by my headteacher and deputy headteacher as I arrived at school and warned not to bring up the topic in front of teachers, as they were all very angry about the situation right now, and warned not to bring up the subject in front of students, as “many of our kids are from Europe”, therefore completely missing the point of the Leave argument, or indeed my argument for voting Leave. At no point have I mentioned that immigration was a bad thing, in fact I have been pro-immigration throughout, much in line with Dan Hannan’s stance. Regardless, this wasn’t a referendum on being a part of Europe, this was about regaining our freedom of democracy and our sovereignty, from the overly-political European Union.

Our country have just made one of the biggest decisions we’ll probably make in a generation. We should be encouraging our students to talk about it, and engage in important political issues. We certainly shouldn’t be censoring one side of the argument, especially when it’s the side that won.

There is an assumption that all Leave voters are racist xenophobes, something I addressed in my recent article, why I am voting to Leave the EU. That is clearly not the case, but what’s concerning is the censorship around any right-wing arguments and the evident bias towards left-wing arguments in schools, thus confirming the left=good, right=bad agenda. There is no balance. It’s perfectly okay to hold left wing opinions in schools, in fact it’s encouraged. And schools will talk about (see: preach) how important tolerance is, but the moment you express an opinion that isn’t in line with their thinking, you’ll see how short lived their tolerance truly is.

I had an email from our Executive Headteacher this morning, that’s the person above our school’s Headteacher, she’s essentially in charge of all schools in the Trust. The email, sent out to all teaching staff across the Trust, included a link to the petition requesting another referendum. Not only is this demonstrating a complete disregard for democracy, but it is once again backing up my argument that schools are so left-leaning that they can’t even acknowledge that in their attempts to be politically correct and unbiased, they are actually doing the complete opposite.

I’m not at all surprised that the majority of young people voted in-line with a left-wing agenda to remain in the un-democratic, or even anti-democratic European Union. Schools have been grooming children towards this decision for years.

Should schools be politically neutral, or should they be made to declare their political allegiances? Surely there should be some system in place to prevent our younger generations from left-wing brainwashing. I know of one teacher who reported a student to Prevent recently, for supporting UKIP. It’s getting ridiculous. “Our way, or no way”.

 

Education
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Why I am voting to leave the European Union

by Calvin Robinson on June 16, 2016.

calvin-robinson-vote-leaveImmigration

Why has it become taboo to talk about Immigration? When did immigration become a naughty word? In this overly politically correct society, you’re more or less automatically deemed as racist for even suggesting the prospect of controlled borders. Equally, you’re classed as xenophobic for wanting to Vote Leave.

Well I want to talk about immigration, and I can imagine some of you cringing. I can promise you I’m not racist, nor am I xenophobic and I think it’s the sign of a healthy democracy that we should be able to talk about these issues without casting such aspersions.

Among the many reasons I am planning to Vote Leave, is to regain control of our borders. Now, that’s not to suggest we should close our borders, but I think we’re big enough and old enough a country to have earned the right to control our own borders.

Net migration to the UK rose to 333,000 last year, according to the Office of National Statistics. Over 55% of that number was from EU countries, that’s a record high and there’s no sign of it stopping any time soon. I’m not going to drone on about the strain on our society, our over-stretched NHS or short supply of housing. You know all of that, and frankly it’s quite glum. Believe it or not, I want to talk about the positive side of immigration, and the benefits of taking back control of our borders.

I’m a school teacher. I trained in Computer Science and that’s what I intended to teach. This year, as well as teaching Computing and ICT, I’ve taught a ridiculous amount of Latin – a subject I never studied a day in my life. I went to a state school in the Midlands, Latin wasn’t on the curriculum where I grew up. But because we simply don’t have the teachers, I’ve had to just get on with it. Why don’t we have the teachers? Teaching is, or was, a respected profession. As the DofE will tell you, we have lots of people training to become teachers, but with our population increasing at a number we can’t sustain, we don’t have enough teachers to manage the number of pupils.

Class sizes are increasing and learning quality is decreasing as a direct result. The UK is now 20th position in the world ranking of education systems. 20th, that’s below most of Asia and half of Europe.

You might ask, if we have such high numbers of immigration, why aren’t teachers in abundance? Because the majority of immigrants entering the UK are low-skilled, entry-level workers. Not only is this bad for British entry-level workers, who can’t compete with the low wages that immigrants from poorer Eastern European states are willing to work for, but it also means that the skilled professionals we want and need to emigrate to the UK can’t.

This doesn’t just apply to teachers of course. While it’s difficult for teachers from say Australia, it’s equally hard for nurses from Canada, software developers from India, you name it, the list goes on. If you’re not from an EU country, you’re pushed to the back of the queue. It’s nothing more than discrimination.

The fact of the matter is, we do need immigration. We need more immigration of skilled professionals, and to do that we have to drop the discriminatory EU policy and create a fairer more open system that is inclusive of everyone, no matter what country they come from, so long as they have the skills we need.

What I’m suggesting isn’t rocket science, nor is it a new idea. I am a direct result of a policy of encouraging immigration to fill gaps where we need the workers. My dad’s side of the family are from the West Indies. They moved over here during the Windrush period, to fill shortages in the labour market. West Indian labourers were invited to live and work in the UK at a time when the help was needed, but the borders didn’t remain open forever. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 62 made it so that if you already had a work permit or your parents or grandparents were born in Britain, you could still emigrate, so families weren’t ripped apart, but the floodgates weren’t left open.

Right now we have shortages of so many professions. We need more teachers, nurses, doctors, so let’s set up a fairer system and encourage them to join us. The only way we can do that, is by leaving the EU.

Sovereignty

Talking about us having control of our own country. Sovereignty is another one of those words that instantly raises eyebrows. And why should it?

When I talk about Britain taking back control, I’m talking about us – as a British people – having a say over who serves us in government. We elect a government based on a manifesto – a selection of promises – and if they fail to accomplish their pledges, we have the option of getting rid of them and replacing them with someone else. It’s a beautiful system. Britain lead the way in democracy, for decades. We’ve fought wars to defend our freedom of democracy, both on a global scale, and civil. It used to be important to us. It ought to be important to us.

That’s why I’m surprised when I hear arguments from the Remain camp that it’s okay for us compromise our sovereignty in order to subscribe to the EU project, because it’s better than not knowing entirely what will happen after we leave. I can’t tell you everything that will happen if we Vote Leave, but I can tell you we will regain control of our country. We will regain the right to create our own laws and govern our own land. Right now the majority of our laws, are created in Brussels, by people we didn’t vote for, and people we cannot remove if we don’t like what they’re doing. It’s okay to say “well the EU has created some really useful legislation” well that might be the case, on occasion, but what happens when the EU create legislation we don’t agree with? Laws that go against the British way of life, what then? We have literally no democratic way of undoing those laws, and we have no way of removing the people creating them. Not only that, but EU law has supremacy over UK law. We signed up to a trade deal and ended up joining a superstate. It’s a coup of the highest proportions, and it all happened in broad daylight, right under our noses.

Again, people will argue the case that giving up our supremacy of law and the right to control our own borders is a just compromise, for trade deals and/or short term financial stability. To that I say they’re short sighted.

My colleague to my left has far more knowledge and experience of trade than I probably ever will, so I will leave it to him to explain in more depth, the ins and outs of why Britain would not only survive, but grow stronger outside of the EU. But even a layman like myself can see that the 5th largest economy in the world, being part of the slowest growing continent (bar Antartica) is a one-sided relationship. And that a project that has taken nearly a decade to forge a trade deal with Canada (that’s still not complete) is not fit to negotiate on our behalf.

The EU has no trade deals with China or India, two of the fastest growing economies on the planet. People accuse the Vote Leave campaign of being isolationist, but it is the EU that is in fact isolationist. We’ve heard arguments that the EU would no longer trade with us if we left the project – what kind of nonsense is that? You honestly mean to tell me that  Audi,  BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen would no longer want to sell their cars to one of their biggest markets? And if the EU really is that spiteful, maybe that explains the lack of deals with China and India, and the amount of time it has taken to even begin to form a deal with Canada. It sounds more like a protection racket to me. Is that something we really want to be a part of? We’re Britain, we stand up for the underdog, it’s what we do. Why are we a part of this bullying, discriminatory system?

Let’s sack them off. Get out of this exclusive, isolationist, walled-garden and join the larger, global marketplace. As Gove said the other evening, “‘rather than be a difficult lodger in a house we didn’t design, let’s be a better neighbour.’”. And as I said earlier, we’re big enough and old enough – I think we can cope! In fact, if we regain our freedom of democracy, supremacy of law and control of our own borders, I think we’ll thrive. So let’s Vote Leave and Take Back Control!

Politics
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