In, out, in, out and shake it all about!

Lies, more lies and a referendum

In just over two weeks those of us that care will cast our votes in the referendum. The question; ‘should the UK remain a member of the European Union?’. It is billed as the biggest political question for a generation and, depending on who you believe, the consequences could be immense. Then considering the undoubted importance of this generational moment and the potential seismic shifts it could bring about, it is very worrying that even now many of us have no idea what the actual considerations are. Why is this? Because the one group of people who’s job it is to give us the considered arguments is the same group of people who seem more interested in lying, cheating and generally acting like playground morons than actually doing what they are paid and morally obliged to do.

The last few months in politics has, quite frankly, been nothing short of farcical. Barmy Boris and Dodgy Dave seem to be using their relative campaigns as opportunities to score points rather than thinking about their obligation to the general public to actually discuss both sides of the argument evenly. Claims from David Cameron that an ‘out’ vote could lead to a political and financial apocalypse aren’t worthy of air time. They are apocryphal at best and only the tip of the iceberg in terms of a misleading campaign based on half-truths, supposition and sometimes out and out lies. Whilst the ‘out’ campaign have harmed themselves significantly by not producing actual forecasts of their own and instead relied on winding up the working classes with talk of immigrants left right and centre.

It is no wonder that the general public are largely confused or left indifferent to this big question when the politicians behave in such a pathetic manner. They have an obligation to present a level argument, not to mislead the public for their own ends. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon, so instead lets dispel a few potential myths and then pose the actual question that you need to be aware of on 23rd June. Because, for me at least, the question we’re answering on 23rd of June is not simply should we stay in the EU.


There are risks with any change. That is the nature of change. But with any risk there is also the possibility that the opposite will occur – the possible benefit. The major disservice that has been done so far in both campaigns is a lack of transparency on the potential positives of a Brexit, of which there are many.

The ‘remain’ campaign have produced, from many sources, claims of financial ruin with numbers to back up these claims. Some have even gone as far as putting actual financial costs for each households loss on paper. But it is important that we understand where these have come from. These are forecasts, yes, but what are they based on? Well the reality is they’re based on supposed scenarios that have then been run through a load of calculations. And all of these scenarios have focussed on the worst possible outcomes in every factor. In short, they are a set of predictions for what could go wrong. But none of them take into account what could (and very likely would) go right.

Don’t kid yourself into thinking that just because you’ve only heard the doom and gloom forecasts that they are the only possibilities.  They are produced by a campaign that wants us to stay in the EU and so will paint a grey picture. And those institutions who have also produced forecasts? They are the establishment and so it is in their interests to produce statistics that support the ‘remain’ campaign. But they are all based on supposition and hypothetical scenarios. It is also worth noting that they all have quite an established history of being wrong!

There are just as many independent business who have contradicted these forecasts. British Airways CEO Willie Walsh has previously stated that BA’s own risk analysis suggested they didn’t think they would lose out at all. And that is just one such large company.

And one last point on the risks. Many investment managers have publically stated that they believe not only would it not be a negative, but it could in fact have a long term positive effect on the UK economy. Now who are you going to take more notice of? A bias government, a bunch of institutions who have a history of inaccurate forecasts or investment professionals who are only in the position they are in because they accurately assess risk in the markets on a daily basis and have consistently got it right more often than not?

The point is it is risky, precisely because the answers aren’t clear. But you don’t gain anything if you don’t take risks, and suggesting that the only outcome is negative is not just misleading; it is naïve and plain wrong.

The numbers

So what do we need to know about the numbers? First that they are all models, not fact. So put it out of your mind that anything they are saying is set in stone and fated. It simply isn’t. Here is the reality of the situation;

  • The EU is the largest economic trading area, but largely because the UK (the fifth largest economy in the world) is a part of it (Germany is the fourth largest economy)
  • The EU have to trade with us as well as us with them, so any trade agreement needs to be mutually beneficial. There is simply not a negotiating power imbalance in the EU’s favour here.
  • There is no existing model for non-EU countries negotiating to be part of the single trade agreement that we can compare to (Norway and Switzerland have done this in the past, but their trade levels are a fraction of ours)
  • Europe relies on trade with the UK. There would be political and civil unrest if there was not a good trade agreement put in place. It is simply misleading to suggest the UK would be affected but Europe would not.
  • The three biggest economies in the world (USA, China and Japan) are not members of the EU and yet have very good trade arrangements and flourish.
  • The most significant future market for growth, and one we need to have the ability to negotiate with, is China.

The ‘remain’ campaign’s major criticism of the ‘leave’ campaign is that they haven’t been able to produce a model for what the future would look like. But how can they? The nature of this is that until negotiations start we won’t know what it looks like. But we can be sure that as the fifth biggest economy in the world we do have a huge amount of sway and our economy is very influential and our skills and products sought after. Supply and demand do win out.

So what do we do if we don’t know what the options are? Well we can be assured that other countries fair rather well and so the UK simply isn’t going to disappear into the abyss and be plunged back into the dark ages. Instead we can look at other countries and what they have got. Take Switzerland, a country that isn’t comparable in the scale of trade but does demonstrate some of the options that an arguable less influential country can achieve;

  • They are not in the EU, but are still in Europe, and have a tailored EU deal
  • They have free trade deals with the EU, China and Japan
  • They adopt 0% of the EU rules
  • Have the highest wages in Europe
  • They are the second richest country in the world by nominal GDP per head
  • They are top of the Global Innovation Index

Put simply, there are options and these options can be rather good!

Human rights and work rights

There seems to be a rather odd line of argument that staying in the EU protects workers rights, that we are tied into the human rights act and that the working time directives and other working guidelines will protect the workers. The odd thing about this line of argument is that they suggest leaving the EU will change this.

Let’s get one thing clear. The EU do not have some sort of copyright or patent on laws to protect civil liberties and the rights of people. Anyone using this line of argument as a reason to stay in the EU really shouldn’t be allowed out of the house. It is patronising. If this was the case then the EU would be some sort of garden of Eden and every other country in the world would be a cesspool of depravity, exploitation and suffering.

The idea that leaving the EU would suddenly mean the UK doesn’t retain these rights is ludicrous. These are laws upheld in the UK and they will continue to be. But leaving the EU means that we have the power to add and amend laws to make sure they are suited to our country and not a catch all for every country in the EU. Making laws that suit countries in the east of Europe and forcing the UK to have them means we end up with laws that are out of context with the UK and simply not suited.

Europe and reform

Many of the ‘remain’ camp will say that staying in Europe means that we are “at the table” in terms of negotiating a reform of Europe. The problem with this is that it assumes Europe wants to and believes it needs to reform, for which there is much scepticism. Whilst David Cameron will suggest he achieved great things with his pre-referendum negotiations, a closer look shows that they really haven’t given us much. It is unlikely Europe will reform because there is simply no driving force to do so at the moment.

On the flip side, we do have veto rights on a number of controversial items. But how do we get things changed in Europe when we need the agreement of so many countries, many of whom have conflicting motivations to us? Many of whom benefit greatly from being in an economy where the UK and Germany contribute so much and their own country contributes so little?

Anyone who has tried to chair a committee and actually achieve anything when that committee have a lot of members all of whom have competing motivations will know exactly what the challenge is here. And it doesn’t often change.


So to the big one. Migration is a problem in Europe, due to the free movement agreement. And whilst we have more migrants coming to the UK from outside the EU than within, the amount coming from the EU is increasing and without check.

The key thing to remember is that we do get a huge amount of value from skilled people coming to the UK to live. A vast amount of our doctors are not native to the UK, for example. And I don’t think any right minded person would argue that it is a bad thing for people who actively contribute to society to come to this country. But the problem is that the free movement agreement also means many people can come to the UK who don’t contribute and this puts a strain on many areas of an already strained economy.

It seems logical to be able to control who can come and live in the UK. It seems to me that making sure we welcome those who have skills that can improve our country is a good thing. But we are not a charity. We have a responsibility to make our country the best and most opportunity rich place it can be for all our citizens, especially our young graduates keen to make their mark. Having an open door to people who will come and compete with those already here with the same skills, drive or aptitude doesn’t seem to be a logical way to do that.

Let’s cut to the chase

At the end of the day the arguments can be tossed and turned in all sorts of ways. And it is up to each of us to look at the truth and not just listen to the rhetoric. It is safe to say that you cannot trust the politicians on either side of the argument in to give you a balanced view.

But for me it boils down to a slightly different question. For me this referendum is not about whether the UK should stay in the EU or not. No, instead it is about what the EU is clearly aiming to become and whether we want to be a part of that or not.

Europe is increasingly moving towards a single state. It is very obvious that they have been moving that way for a very long time and at some point in the future it is likely this will become much closer than it is now.

I am proud to be British. I do not consider myself European, I consider myself to be British. I think that the UK is a vibrant place to live and work with many of our skills being the envy of the world. Certainly we are world leaders in digital, where I work, and also in media. So for me the question is ‘do I want to be a citizen of the UK, or of Europe?’ And that is what we should all ask ourselves. Not now, but in the future, which country do we want to live in? The country of the UK, or the country of Europe? Because a vote to stay in the EU is very possibly a vote to one day be a part of a country called Europe.

Is “regular” really the point?

Today the High Court is going to rule on the case of Isle of Wight parent Jon Platt on whether to uphold the £120 fine for taking his kids out of school for a family holiday. I must admit that when I first heard about this case I was inclined to take the side of this man who was taking on the system and apparently winning. I thought his core argument that his kids haven’t had other absences and therefore have attended school “regularly” was a good one, at least on the face of it, and that if nothing else he was bringing to the fore a key problem with the current guidelines – the fact that they don’t really state what they really mean. However, this verging admiration for this man completely faded when I heard him talking on Radio4 this morning and I realised that he was in fact operating from a point of complete pride and ignorance.

In the interview this morning he was asked about his reasons for taking his children out of school in term time, he was asked about his challenge to the fine and he challenged a Headmistress on the arguments from the educational establishment on why this holiday he’d taken his children on was a bad thing. It was unfortunate that the Headmistress they’d chosen really wasn’t very good at defending the position of the education system, as he was easily able to rebuff her with some relatively naive arguments such as saying that he didn’t understand how his children, who now attend a private school, could get a better education even though they attended for 25 days less a year than they would at a state school, or that his children had a 93% attendance rating across the year and surely this was good. Another argument, one which I often think is the tenet of the desperate, was that he (as a parent of the children) surely knew far better than a school or local authority what was better for his own kids. The argument that I find most perplexing is that he wanted to arrange a family holiday where everyone could attend, and by this I mean practically the family goldfish as well. 15 members (including both sets of parents, fiancé, children, parents in law, grandparents) seemed to be attending a holiday to Florida, which Mr Platt said was his aim back in April 2015. Incidentally he did the same thing again in January this year for a family skiing holiday to Lapland.

My problem with this situation is that I can sympathise with both sides. Like Mr Platt, I am a parent who is divorced and so understand that contact with children in this situation can be less easy to arrange and that holidays with the whole family can also be hard to coordinate. However, I am also the governor of an Infant school where my daughter attends and so I have seen first hand what an absence, even for a week, can do to a child’s progress. So what are the main issues here then?

What is regular?

The legislation that exists is worded to say that children should attend school regularly. This is the key part of the case Jon Platt’s is using as his defence, saying that 93% attendance across the school year (which is what he claims his children have) is regular. But this defence, whilst on the surface seems to stand up, misses the key point of the intention of this law. The principle of the law is to try and make sure children attend school every day (pending illness or other unavoidable absence). The headmistress who was interviewed made a particularly big hash of trying to defend this, trying to make out that the point was that children need to be in school everyday so that we know where they are and that they are safe. This was a point easily and rather pointedly defended by Mr Platt with the throwaway question “Are you saying my children aren’t safe when they’re with me?” I can understand his response but it really doesn’t do him any credit.

Neither person got to the nub of the point here and I was very disappointed that a headmistress didn’t do better. Because the main issue here really isn’t about safety, it is about a child missing a large amount of potentially key education. So let’s dispel a few myths here. Firstly 93% attendance is not good. The national average is 95%, so by definition 93% is below average and therefore cannot be good. But further still, at the school I govern at we consider 96% to be the minimum we want to aim for and wouldn’t consider anything below that to be good. And that is across the whole year. But here is the rather more important point to consider. The curriculum is broken down into key areas, modules that are taught over a period of weeks before moving on to the next one. It is rather like walking up a set of stairs. You learn the first module (the first step) and then next you learn the second step, whilst reinforcing the first one (you move up to the second step). If you don’t have a solid knowledge and understand of the preceding steps then you won’t adequately progress. In the analogy, you can’t progress because you have a step missing. Why is this an important point? Because whilst Jon Platt’s children’s attendance was 93% across the year, for the half-term when he took his child on that holiday it would have been somewhere around 83% (and that is if it was only a one week absence), or 67% for a two week absence. Time is the key consideration here, because it is easy to claim regular attendance across a whole year, but when you start looking at the timescales that are actually significant, weeks rather than years, the time it takes to teach and reinforce key educational concepts, then you start to see where problems can occur. Come back to those steps in our analogy again. It only takes a couple of weeks for one of those steps to be badly formed, and then that can have a knock on affect so that the rest of the steps aren’t well formed either. Education is progressive and if you miss a key introduction that can affect a child significantly in the long term.

Some may argue that surely this is only a relevant argument when children are younger, and learning the key early years skills (reading, writing and early maths) and that once a child is older then they can catch up? Well I am an example of this isn’t the case. In year 9 I didn’t do a full week at school due to illness. This coincided with the introduction of complex algebra. I missed the key early sessions in the year and then I found it impossible to catch up. In fact I never did fully and so my grades suffered. And because physics also relied on algebra, I struggled and eventually dropped out of A level physics, simply because I just didn’t have the basis I needed to keep up. The steps in my educational staircase were missing at that level.

Attendance regularly is important, not just across the whole year but across the terms and half-terms. Without this things will be missed and catchup is hard, if not impossible. And distracting staff resources just to catch a child up is also taking away valuable resource for very selfish reasons.

Private education

So that brings us on to his next argument, that he can’t understand how if his children attend for 25 less days a year at a private school than they would at a state school how they could get a better education. We will skim past the point that he is openly admitting that his children’s education is squeezed into less days, so by definition more intense, and yet he still chooses to take them away for a holiday.

The reason private education often gets much better results than state schools is not to do with the amount of days they teach, it is to do with the way they teach and the resources they have available to them. The Headmistress on the Radio4 interview tried, in vain, to suggest that the success of the private school would be partly to do with the demographic attending, to which Mr Platt immediately said naively “it’s non selective”. Who is he kidding? Private schools charge large fees to attend so by definition they are selective. Children are there because their parents can afford to send them there or have chosen to sacrifice a huge amount of other luxuries in life in order to make sure they can go to that school. The parents are either wealthy or very dedicated to good education (or both) and so the children attending will have a very different outlook than the majority of those attending a state school.

But the main consideration for why private schools get better results is actually to do with their resources. Those fees pay for the education, that is how it works. And most private schools have a student / staff ratio that is much lower than state schools. Take the local private school that my daughter attended for a while. They had a maximum class size of 14, with a minimum of three members of staff in the classroom (often four). That means each member of staff is focussing on no more than three pupils at any one time. The time those children get dedicated to them is huge. Compare this to a state school. Often class sizes will be 30 or more, with a teach and maybe two assistants, often only one. The student / staff ratio here means that each member of staff is trying to focus on 10 or more pupils at any one time.The amount of time each student gets in support is very small.

I could go on and on about the massive divide between private and state education, but that would be a whole series of articles in itself. The reality is that comparing the contact days in a private school to those in a state school really isn’t a valid argument. In answer to Jon Platt’s question, the reason private schools can have less days is because they can educate in a much more efficient manner. State schools don’t have this luxury. They don’t have the budgets and they don’t have the cream of the teaching crop either. The pressures are entirely different.

Let’s take the whole family

So what about that family holiday then? Jon wanted to take his whole family with him and I think we can all understand that. I like to be able to take my whole family; my partner, her children and my children. At a stretch, and if it is suitable, we also go on the occasional trip to Devon with my parents or hers. But in Mr Platt’s case it seems that he was trying to get his entire extended family to go. It was a clan invasion of Florida. 15 people in total and that isn’t taking into account the few family members he said couldn’t attend. It is really at this point that I think I started to lose sympathy for Jon. If you want to arrange a holiday where the entire clan attend then it is rather lacking in common sense to try and do it at any other time than the summer, especially if money is apparently not a problem. To have done this twice in less than a calendar year (including his jaunt to Lapland this year) suggests that this isn’t a one off but is actually a habit and a flagrant disregard or respect for education or the rules. I could understand if this was a once in a lifetime trip for everyone, but it would seem in his case that this is something he likes to do a lot.

I know best for my kids

So let’s finish with the weakest argument of all of them, in my humble opinion. I wonder whether Jon would have such a belligerent stance with a doctor treating one of his children for a serious condition as he does with education professionals? Let’s be clear here, whilst Jon is the parent of these children he is not an expert in education or in what it takes to help a child work towards a full education that will mean a successful life, complete with the right attitudes and aptitudes that life will require to succeed.

My experience, simply from being a governor in a state infant school, is that teachers and more importantly the senior teachers, subject leaders, senior management and heads, are very highly trained. They spend a huge amount of time exposed to the latest thoughts in pedagogy and they are, in fact, far more qualified to say what is better for my children’s education than I am. Let’s also not forget that teachers spend far more time around our children than we do and so they probably do know a lot more about their character than we do. It is in our nature, when we are children, to hide things from our parents anyway. So Jon Platt claiming he knows what is best for his children is simply obtuse.

So what?

Education is important. It is not just about children learning things to pass tests. It is about learning about life, about what they like and dislike. It is about learning skills that impact on many areas of their lives and it is about realising that they will need to spend time doing things that they may not enjoy, but they still have to do anyway. It sets them up for life both in their attitudes and in the skills and knowledge. It is our responsibility and moral obligation, as responsible and caring parents, to make sure that we give our children the best start in life. I don’t know what my children will want to do when they’re grown up. But I do know that they rule themselves out of certain things if they don’t have a solid and rounded education. And that is something I don’t want to do. I want all doors to be open. If they want to be astronauts then I want them to have the knowledge to be able to study further in the sciences they need for that. Equally if they want to be a milkman then I want them to have pushed through to attend classes they don’t like, because that sets them up with the attitudes that they will need to cope with getting up before it is light and doing a job that at times seems very unrewarding.

Regular attendance needs to be considered at a teaching level, and not as a marker across a large time period. Did the child attend classes regularly and often on this topic? Did they attend enough to get a proper grasp and understanding of the teaching, which will allow them to progress on to the next level adequately? That is the key question, not ‘were they in the classroom every day?’

What has to change? The law has to change. This law doesn’t educate parents, it gives them a target to attack. Parents need to understand how education works and the law needs to reflect how education works. Scrap the ‘regular’ wording because it is open to interpretation. Instead the law should be that children attend school every day, unless they are ill or otherwise unable to for unforeseen reasons. And how do you actually change people like Jon, someone who works in contractual law and clearly who isn’t intimated by a small fine? Educate them. Give them the chance to see what potential damage they are doing to the potential of their children. And if that doesn’t work, make the fines income related and significant and add extra ramifications, such as a criminal charge. After all, taking these actions can potentially have a drastic affect on a child’s future achievement or options, and that is certainly not in that child’s best interests at all.

And the winner is…

It is award season again. And I, for one, am delighted to see Leonardo Di Caprio has finally been recognised for his work at the OSCARs, amongst others. Whilst the Revenant is a film that is clearly an hour longer than it should be, the acting in it is outstanding and none are better that Leo. He is an actor who has been well overdue for this level of recognition and yet seems to have been overlooked in favour of other more notable character actors. Maybe it is because his early career, with films like The Beach, Titanic and Romeo & Juliet, got him a reputation for being a bit of a pretty boy and this makes it easy to forget Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator and Blood Diamond. You certainly wouldn’t class him as a budding Daniel Day-Lewis in terms of being a character actor, but you cannot deny his portrayals of Howard Hughes and Jordan Belfort (to pick two) are right up there as acting performances.

So it is a pity that in a year where the standard of acting in the nominations was so high that the occasion has been marred by the politics of apparent prejudice. Obviously there is no place in the world for prejudice in any way shape or form and it would be unacceptable to exclude nominations for the OSCARs based on skin colour. But what would also be unacceptable would be to take an approach where you are expected to have some sort of ‘quota’ in each category, rather than simply going on the merit of a performance irrelevant of colour or creed.

I will admin that I have not seen all the films for the nominees (and now winners) of this years awards, but knowing what I do about those people and their performances I don’t believe anyone is questioning their right to have been nominated. It is important to ask the question ‘is the reason for there being few black people nominated a sign of prejudice?’. But it is equally important to ask the question ‘are the best performances nominated?’.

There has been a lot of noise about the lack of African-American representation in the shortlists for this year’s OSCARs. But when I cast my mind back over the last year I struggled to think of many stand out performances that should be nominated. Arguably one that was missing was Will Smith in Concussion, although whether that was as good as the other leading actor nominees is obviously a matter of debate. And we shouldn’t forget that Straight Outta Compton was shortlisted and is a film that historically probably would have been overlooked. Bearing in mind the host of the show was Chris Rock, it seems to me that maybe this year’s OSCARs are not an example of prejudice but are victims of some over critical attacks.

And this really gets to the nub of the issue for me. Because the world should not be about prejudice in any sector. Whether that be women getting paid less than men, people getting more opportunities because they have a particular skin colour, or being marginalised because of their belief or their sexual orientation. For me life has always been about proving your worth through your actions and recognising those who therefore deserve to be recognised. There shouldn’t be any question of colour, race, creed, belief, etc. It should be that you are judged on your successes. And in this year’s OSCARs what I see is a collection of very talented actors and actresses who are being recognised for some outstanding work. I think it is a shame that this has to be given the negative spin that it is prejudice, when in all likeliness it was just that this years performances that deserve this level of credit were undertaken by this group of people. Let’s recognise excellence and celebrate it, rather than trying to justify criticism of it based on factors that are entirely irrelevant and also very unfair.

The Spectre of another bad Bond

As you may have noticed the countdown is now on. We are only a few weeks away from the big day and everyone is getting rather excited. Shops are filled with merchandise, adverts are all over the TV and people can’t stop talking about it. Christmas? No I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about possibly the most anticipated film release for a decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But while plenty of enthusiasts and fanboys are flocking to cinemas on 19th December to get a first glimpse of what will no doubt be a huge spectacle, I am more interested in the most recent addition to another famous film franchise, the latest James Bond film Spectre.

I’ve always been a lover of the James Bond series. I watched them with my dad, as a little boy. I experienced the humour of Connery, the chauvinism of Moore, the vaguely ridiculous but still rather charming Lazenby, the streetwise Dalton and then the gentleman Brosnan. At university I studied film, and even wrote my dissertation on Bond, and when I left university in 2006 Bond returned from a four year hiatus with Daniel Craig and Casino Royale. It is safe to say that Bond has always fascinated me. I love to get immersed in the spectacle of the films but I also enjoy looking at how the films have evolved and how each film mirrors our contemporary society in some way, in almost every facet; the plots, the sets, the villains, the henchmen, the cars, even Bond himself. And as a purist Bond fan, seeing the reinvention of Bond in Casino Royal and then the other Daniel Craig films, was both interesting and largely disappointing.

The Daniel Craig era of James Bond films saw a shift in the approach to our favourite spy. The films felt more like a version of a Jason Bourne film than a James Bond film. The Daniel Craig bond films had to be different and draw a line in the sand. Towards the end of the Brosnan era things had gotten a little silly. The previous outing for Bond, and last for Brosnan, was the rather farcical Die Another Day film, which lost the plot a little with supercharged weapons, laughably unrealistic gadgets and a storyline that was clearly more focussed on getting spectacle into the film than grit and interest. Die Another Day, it is safe to say, probably brought the Bond franchise as close as it has ever come to ending. Certainly many people were suggesting maybe it was time for Bond to retire the Walther PPK and take a well earned beach holiday. So when Daniel Craig burst onto the scene in Casina Royale, in a paired back film that had grit, determination, panache and action abounding, it was a breath of fresh air. It was a modern interpretation with intrigue and plot twists, relying on the complex and in depth script and characters rather than gimmicks to make it a great film. But there was a problem, and one which has persisted in all the Daniel Craig films to date…it just wasn’t quite Bond.

I won’t dwell on the previous films now, I’ll leave that for my book on Bond (which I may write one day). Instead lets look to Spectre, a film that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. To frame this particularly episode in the Bond series and particularly in Craig era, Sam Mendes returns as the Director following Skyfall in 2012 – a massively disappointing Bond film in my opinion. This film features the mysterious organisation Spectre, who have popped up many times over the 53 years Bond has been appearing on our screens, as the villainous  opponents. As the focus for a storyline it is one that has been screaming to be made for sometime and finally it has been done. The film completes a story that they have been developing over the four films since Casino Royale and wraps up a number of plot strands and ties everything together in a neat bundle. Or at least that is the intention.

The major criticisms levelled at Bond since Craig took over are that it is not true to the James Bond we know and love. It has lost the quintessential nature and character of a Bond film and has been dulled down into just another action film – Jason Bond/James Bourne. For fans there are some defining things that set Bond out as different and these things seemed (in part) to be missing:

  • A dry British wit, poking fun at his adversaries and making light of the situation he is in
  • Grotesque / Unique / Freakish henchmen/women
  • A culturally significant super villain
  • Beautiful and desirable Bond girl(s)
  • Gadgets
  • Q, MoneyPenney, M, Felix Leiter
  • A villains superbase / secret lair
  • A race against time
  • A chase (often car chase)
  • Set piece confrontations and fight scenes
  • Above all else, a storyline that is contemporary (although not always entirely believable)

The argument for the new Bond is that it needed to change and modernise otherwise it would fade into nothing and become an unappealing relic of the past. But the problem is in modernising they lost the heart of Bond, and as much as I liked Casino Royale as a film it just didn’t feel like a Bond film. And nor did Quantum of Solace or Skyfall. Great films yes, great spectacles, but not great Bond films. I could spend ages focussing further on the reasons for this, or the criticisms about Bond going back to anti-feminist ways with Skyfall etc etc, but that is not for now.

So we get to Spectre. And with much trepidation I went and saw the film. My trepidation was mainly because Spectre as a concept is up there with the very best Bond plots. To make it badly would be to miss the biggest opportunity in the Bond franchise and with the relatively poor outing that was Skyfall, and hearing some criticism of Spectre generally, I was not convinced the film would be any good. But to my surprise and utter delight, what I watched was Bond back at its best. In fact I would venture so far as to say it lived up to all my expectations. I would even go so far to say that it surpasses most other Bond films. It is excellent (with a couple of caveats).

But why? Why is this film so good where arguably all of the previous Daniel Craig Bond’s have failed to hit the mark? Well without giving any spoilers – quite simply because it has reintroduced every one of the facets of Bond that we have come to know and love. The film re-establishes Bond as the witty character that pokes fun at his situation. It re-establishes the working dynamic between him and his surrounding contributors (MoneyPenney, Q and M). It puts Bond back in the environments we want to see him in; real cities and locations. More significantly though it has a storyline that is contemporary and that we can all relate to, which is being enacted by villains that are characterised in the Bond way; they are outlandish, bigger better and stronger than the norm, they are sinister and believable in the power they establish and wield and intimidating in their menace. Where the previous films have been almost comic book in their characterisation, these characters return to the principles that created henchmen like Jaws, OddJob and Rosa Klebb and super villains like Dr No, Scaramanga and Ernst Stavro Blowfeld. And the story is as complex and involved as you would expect from the best Bond films, rather than the sometimes paper-thin stories such as that of Skyfall – which frankly could have been from any Bond / Bourne / Mission Impossible film, to name but a few. But maybe it was necessary to have those rather soft films before. Without giving anything away, Spectre draws upon all of those three previous films and makes you suddenly realise what was actually going on there, which in some ways goes against the Bond principle of standalone films with standalone story lines, but is something that actually I don’t mind.

For me Spectre finally delivered on the promise we have know Daniel Craig has as a modern Bond. It stayed true to the modern elements he brings to the character; a daredevil action man, more solemn and detached than those who came before him. A somewhat lonely and unfulfilled / lost individual searching for answers for his inner demons. But what they have finally done is wrap that up with the wider James Bond surround that we expect. The film has huge and spectacular set piece action sequences, subtle and realistic gadgets, great car chases, a seemingly unstoppable and freakish henchman, a sinister super villain who has a classic villain superbase, a plot that twist and turns and keeps you riveted a beautiful Bond girl and a dashing MoneyPenney, a clever and resourceful but rather despairing Q and a dynamic and demanding, but ultimately supportive M. It even has a race against the clock with an actual timer and of course, some great interplay and intense staring between Bond and his arch enemy. In short it has everything you would expect, want and need from a Bond film.

Any down sides? Well a couple. There is one strand to the storyline which is unnecessary in my view. It reveals an existing relationship between Bond and the villain that borders on the cheesy and the film would have worked quite happily without it. It works with it as well but the consequence of the extra complexity is a film that is 30mins too long and left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. But I can accept that for all of the positives. So in answer to all the critics, this time I think they’ve done it. This Bond is not just a great film, it is one of the great Bond films.

So where does this leave us? Sam Mendes ends his association with Bond at this point. This also presents a convenient opportunity for Daniel Craig to hand over the reins to another actor. He’s already said that the role is very physically demanding on him but he is contracted for one more film. The other consideration is that he has been Bond for 10 years. A lot has changed in that time and the one thing we do know about the man who inhabits that role is that he has to be current. He has to be a Bond for the people of that time. Is Craig’s time done or can his dynamic Bond live on for another couple of year? Will he retire the Aston and the PPK or will he continue? That is a story for another day. Only time will tell, all we know is that Bond will return…and I can’t wait!

Of Lemmings & Lions

One of the things I have most enjoyed in my career is the focus I’ve had on changing cultures and business processes for the better. It is something that I actually find immensely interesting and the challenge that I most relish. I’ve also been able to do this outside of work as well, be it working as a governor with the local school or just helping some of the organisations in hobbies that I like.

Principally the focus is always about improving. This could be making something more efficient, reducing stress, recognising that something needs to be done differently in order to better achieve what it needs to or removing single points of failure. The angle I always try to come from is looking at what is happening, looking at what the outcomes are, what they should be and if there is a way that can be better achieved. And a lot of the time this is about looking at what other places and people are doing, those places that excel, and seeing what it is that they are doing differently to succeed. Identifying these things and then putting them in place in your own environment can achieve great things. One of the key things about improving is that you learn from those that do it better, and from those that do it worse – i.e. you try to eliminate problems that other people are having. But whilst learning from others is key, copying them can be fatal.

Over the years I’ve seen people try and fail to improve because they are simply copying what other successful places are doing, without really understanding why they are doing it. And because they haven’t actually understood what is trying to be achieved and only put the process in place, rather robotically, they don’t have the ability to assess and innovate properly. This has lead me to coin the phrase “Lemmings vs Lions” and it is quite a good way of describing how you will succeed or fail in the world of business change.

Lemmings are well known as relatively pointless small rodent creatures that throw themselves off of cliffs in the arctic tundra, or as small green haired blue creatures in the eighties / nineties computer game – I prefer the latter. Either way they tend to follow the crowd. They copy each other and the end result is usually being splatted on the floor. They don’t innovate they just do what they have always done and this results, ultimately, in not improving their chances much. Lions however are quite a different thing altogether. They grow prides that will share their experiences, teach their young to hunt and then let the young off into the wilderness to form their own prides. These prides of lions need to adapt constantly to their changes environment and they have to make decisions about what they will do to survive. Each pride is similar but at the same time different in the way they do things. It is the reason they are an apex predator.

So in business transformation are you going to be a lemming or a lion? If you are a lemming then you will copy a process without really looking at what it is for, and you may initially get success but over time it will either plateau or possible end in failure because as the environment changes you won’t. Or you can be a lion, constantly looking for the advantage and adapting to your environment. You’ll implement something that succeeds because it is adapted for the environment. In business transformation or cultural change this is the key. By all means learn from others, it is the only way to innovate, but make sure you take the essence and embed it into your own culture, in a way that will work. If you do this then you will be likely to find success.

I want my apple to be technically savvy

A lot of people seem to be getting all bent out of shape at the prospect of technology replacing humans, or in some cases the fear that they will not just replace us but repress us. Whilst Stephen Hawking is predicting that AI (artificial intelligence) is the biggest long term threat to humankind, many people are more concerned about the more immediate threat to manual and lower skilled jobs. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons, the first being that the idea technology is only just about to replace humans is rather behind the times, and secondly because some of my recent experiences as a consumer make me scream for something more automated as the human run ones were infuriating.

I recently attended a conference called ‘Agile on the Beach’. It was a very enjoyable couple of days surrounded by peers and colleagues from the world of IT (and other sectors) discussing the approaches, benefits and culture of the agile way of working. One of the keynote speakers, Dave Farley (a pioneer of continuous delivery), discussed his three laws and one of them was rather apt…”People are rubbish”. What he meant by this is not that people are incapable, but that by our nature we make mistakes, we overlook things, we are infallible. It is true. In recent years Moore’s Law has allowed technology and software to progress to a point where the world is a drastically different place to where it was only ten years ago. We have replaced a secretary who opened the post and replied to correspondence with an iPhone and auto-messaging. We have replaced people on a construction line with automated machines. We have replaced health & safety officers with failsafe software. The list goes on and on. And that is somewhat the point. The idea that technology is going to start replacing people is old hat, because it has been going on pretty much since the beginning of time. We aren’t in some position where suddenly this is going to happen, it is just the natural evolution of society and technology. A good example is that a large proportion of us now use self-service checkouts at the supermarket, where we would have previously had a person sat at the checkout swiping our items for us. This has been going on ever since we invested industry. Once upon a time we used to row our ships, but then we invented steam engines. We hauled massive stones with hundreds of stoneage men, until we invented boats and realised we could roll them along on logs. At each step of our technological evolution we have replaced people with technology and in each case the people have moved on to new roles. So I don’t think we are yet at the point where we are all going to become obsolete.

But one of the things that did surprise me not so long ago was the lack of an automated experience at Apple. I recently had to go to the Apple store to have the screen replaced on my iPhone. I booked the appointment online and that experience was completely self-serve and automated. So what was then surprising is arriving at the Apple store, the mecca of trend setting and sleek experiences in technology to find it all rather backward. Having not been to an Apple store before I made my way to the ‘Genius Bar’ and sat on a stool awaiting someone to ‘check me in’. There wasn’t any guidance around to tell me the process so I waited for a staff member to help me. And I waited…and waited…and waited.

During my ten minute wait, for that is what it ended up being, I noticed at least half a dozen members of staff just stood by the shelves of products. This perplexed me as I am still unsure exactly what purpose they served. At one point I did see one of them talk to a customer browsing one of the products but after a short chat that I wasn’t privvy to the staff member resumed her security guard like stance and re-found her bored expression. At the same time no less than four separate members of staff wondered by me, determinedly ignored my attempts to grab their attention and generally seemed determined to prove that whilst they were apparently geniuses they were also rather dim!

Eventually I got the message that I wasn’t going to get any proactive help from the staff at Apple and so sought out someone who finally helped me check in and so my problem was dealt with. But as I then wondered around the shopping mall for an hour, waiting for my phone to be repaired and dwelling on the experience I’d just had I realised how counterintuitive it was. Why on earth does the biggest technology company in the world have an experience that is so uncoordinated and relying on people who are quite clearly letting down the side? Certainly my opinion of Apple employees was diminished to the point where I am almost entirely convinced they don’t really care about the customers at all. And that really isn’t great for a company that prides itself on providing the best user experience. With the technology they have at their disposal surely the experience at an Apple store should go more like this…

I turn up to the store and immediately make my way to one of the iCheck terminals. The bluetooth technology means that the terminal instantly picks up the signal from my iPhone and welcomes me, asking if I’d like to checkin. It guides me through a few quick screens and then tells me that I have been checked in and that they aren’t quite ready for me yet but a message will be sent to my phone at the correct time and that I can browse in the meantime. As I browse around the other products they have on offer I am able to select a complimentary beverage from the iDrink machine. As I’m fiddling with one of the latest gadgets my phone starts to buzz in my pocket. I take it out and a message is telling me to make my way to the Genius bar to a specific stool. As I get there a member of staff is waiting to take the device from me and already knows exactly what the problem is. They inform me that the phone will be ready in an hour and hand me a little device that will alert me when it is ready to collect.

This is just a snippet into how technology could make my experience better. Going to the Apple store was a frustrating experience. It was uncoordinated, awkward and I felt unloved as a customer, but the experience I have just described would make me feel very well looked after indeed. So what is the moral of this blog? Well there are a couple…the first is don’t fear technology is going to replace us because often it actually improves our lives, and history has taught us that it doesn’t replace us, there are just different jobs that we then take. And the second? Well the second moral of this blog is that Apple should employ me to transform their in store experience!

Google Is Your Friend?

Richard Branson founded a tremendously successful brand in Virgin, based primarily on the principle that he looked after his employees, his employees looked after the customers, the customers looked after the profits and the profits looked after the share holders. It is a simple principal and one that works. If your staff are happy then they will do a good job, which in turn means your customers get a good service. So on and so, the company does well. So why is it then that so many big brands these days seem to be neglecting the most basic of customer needs?

Today it was announced that EE are going to be fined one million pounds for poor customer service. Well about time. I have moaned before about the appalling state of the usability on their online self service portal. It was one of the many reasons that I moved away from the provider when my mobile came up for renewal last year. But it isn’t just EE. The monopoly holding telecomm providing BT are well overdue for a massive fine. They seem to have developed a reputation for appalling customer service and seem to rely on their infrastructure monopoly to see them through. I know countless people who have been left with no service for weeks, to be offered compensation to the amount of £1.50. Is that really how you treat a treasured customer? But BT have been doing it for years. Let me share my own experience of BT with you, which is the sole reason I wouldn’t even let them come and clean out my toilet, let alone provide me with any services. Following a series of incorrect bills and service outages, where I had to make calls on my mobile, I finally managed to speak to a manager. He assured me they would refund all of the costs I had incurred. I took this very helpful mans name and a call reference and then waited for the remuneration I had been promised. And of course it didn’t arrive. What did happen was when I phones up to query it I was told that no such person existed and that wasn’t a valid call reference! The threat of legal action on the back of this fraud was enough to ensure my contract was cancelled, leaving my account in £2.61 credit. They have been merrily writing to tell me this every month for six years now. I wonder how much that has cost them?

This one little example of not just rock bottom, but non-existent customer service, shows not only a lack of engagement with the concept that making your customer happy is actually good for your business, but also shows an astounding lack of respect for the customer as well. As a result I will never use the company again. I won’t even start about the BT engineer who was trespassing on my property a couple of months ago, and when I asked him why he told me to “fuck off!”. That is top quality staffing in a fully branded BT Openreach uniform. Top marks all round.

But customer service is not just about the person on the end of the phone. And for every example of a tragic customer service team there is an example of a very helpful and pleasant team. But that is not the be all and end all of customer service. We now live in a world where self service online is a massive part of how we engage with our chosen providers. In fact in some cases that will be on the only way we ever engage with them. So the question is, why do so many of them make it so hard for us?

There is a common saying “Google is your friend”. And of course it is. We can go to an incredibly simple interface – a single search box – but in what we want to know about and we will get back results. Often before we’ve even finished typing! What is not to love about that? So why is it that, when they have proven that they can develop such simple and clever things, do they insist on the rest of their products being so damn difficult to use? A bone of contention I have with online services is when they have been built in a way where it is almost impossible to find how to do something. And when you mercifully do find some instructions on how to do it they refer to the previous version. It is beyond frustrating. Don’t get me started on PayPal, who represent a an example of some of the worst online experience I have ever found. But back to Google. Take the simple act of setting up a Google Places account. Trying to find where to manage the wallet settings, or where to shut down the account (I realise it is not in their interests to help you do this) is almost impossible. And considering the prompt to do this came from an email from them, you’d expect a link in the email taking you directly to the right place. But no, that is apparently too hard for the company who have developed the most complex search algorithms in the world to handle. It seems that the concept that smart people have no common sense is indeed alive and well at Google. In this case Google is definitely not my friend. It’s my annoying little friend that won’t do anything I’m asking of it!!

I have spent the majority of my career being concerned with trying to make an experience as intuitive and simple as possible. Whether that be a business process, an interface or a video. The general principle of simple is best works. And making it easy and simple for people to do everything also works. Even if the customer wants to close their account with you, make it as easy as possible to do this. Because at the end of the day they will remember that and may come back. If you make it almost impossible for them to do it then their last memory will be knowing that they were justified in leaving such an awful brand. Instead make their last memory a delightful one, because they will leave with that good memory and then when they are looking for a supplier again they may just come back. At the end of the day, not many people leave a supplier because they are happy with their experience. Plenty though can tell you why they would never use a particular supplier ever again!