Tag Archives: education

Why don’t I know more women in technology? [Ada Lovelace Day]

A few months ago I signed the Ada Lovelace pledge. Then, I realised I couldn’t think of anyone to write about.

10 weeks later, and with an hour before the end of the day, and I’m still struggling. As a Lib Dem of course, I might observe that many of the party’s e-innovators – Mary Reid, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson (who despite an antipathy towards blogging has been an early adopter of everything from podcasts through to twitter – not to mention www.scraptuitionfees.com Back In The Day), have been women. But I’m not really interested in writing a piece of party propaganda.

To be fair on myself, I struggle to think of anyone “in technology” – male or female. I could name you lots of people “in social media” but I’m not entirely sure that’s quite the same thing.

Interestingly though, when I was a child I DID know lots of women in technology. My dad ran an apprentice school for the Ministry of Defence and much of my early years were spent in the Aquila Civil Service Sports and Social Club, where my parents helped run the bar and film society. I was surrounded by women in technology – both staff and apprentices. My dad would always say that one of the best feeder schools for him was the nearby girls school, Bullers Wood (years later I would go onto make friends with and have my heart broken by lots of Bullers girls – so much more interesting than the sappy Newstead girls).

When Thatcher decided to shut these apprentice schools down and make polytechnics into “universities” I can’t help but wonder if we lost something in the process. By making engineering an academic subject, have the less academic girls had their options limited to hairdressing and shop work? And can science and engineering compete with languages and English literature for the academically-minded girls? Apprenticeships used to exist as a means of escape for a lot of young people (male and female) who couldn’t bear the idea of spending another day in school. Now everything seems either school- or college-like. As such we are now talking about bringing back proper apprenticeships (as opposed to “new” apprenticeships). But unless we are prepared to pay for actual, proper apprentice schools (as opposed to schemes running out of FE colleges), will it actually cater for the evident gap in the market?

I’m totally rambling on a subject I am distinctly inexpert on. But I do wonder if, at a time when we are likely to see massive unemployment rear its ugly head once more, the time for such schools may have come again.

Finally, a brief word to the WISE – that’s Women In Science, Engineering (and Construction). WISE is a campaign aimed at promoting science and engineering to girls of school age. I am particularly endebted to them because I often use a freebie canvass bag from one of their conferences for hauling my boardgames across town. Check them out!

More on faith schools

Following my piece on Sunday, I’ve written another article on faith schools over on Comment is Free:

It is a shame that the supporters of faith schools lack the faith that their ethos could survive a few children of atheists running around the playground. Ultimately, society as a whole is the weaker for indulging their insecurity.

Why do faith school supporters want them to be so awful?

I have to admit to coming out of the Lib Dem debate on 5-19 education feeling somewhat perplexed. After a complicated series of four amendments wrangling over the same bunch of lines, what the party has come up with seemed to be little more than a state commissioned figleaf scheme. Let me explain.

The motion as originally worded (negotiated on the Federal Policy Committee by, among others, Evan Harris MP) allowed faith schools but banned selection on the basis of faith. The amendment which was passed replaced this with the following commitment:

Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.

As I snarked on the way out of the auditorium, what this amounts to is faith schools being free to discriminate, but will have their funding withdrawn if they discriminate.

In fact, however, it’s actually worse. Never mind the abstract debate, for me the acid test is the couple I know whose humanist wedding I attended who currently attend their local church every Sunday (along with their Orthodox Jewish neighbours) in order to ensure that their children are let into the local primary school. What would this motion, as amended, do about this closely observed hypocrisy? Absolutely nothing. My friends could stop going to church, not be able to send their children to the local school, be able to demonstrate the school is non-inclusive and have the school’s funding scrapped (in so doing, harming the education of lots of other children). Or they can keep quiet, go to church and act as a figleaf for the school’s “inclusive” policy when the inspection comes. Stick your head above the parapet, and you might be able to claim revenge eventually. But it is in your child’s interest to keep your head down and be a part of the lie.

What is most crazy about all this is that many of the best faith schools out there don’t have exclusive selection policies; ending discrimination on the basis of faith only affects a hardcore. Yet speaker after speaker in the debate claimed that the motion unamended was an attempt to scrap faith schools by the backdoor. It was a grotesque libel perpetuated by, among others, Vince Cable and Tim Farron. What did they hope to achieve by making such ridiculous claims?

I strongly agree that schools need an ethos, and a religious one is better than none at all. A total ban on faith schools while broadening the range of organisations which can help run schools would mean that the National Secular Society and even Microsoft could sponsor a school while the Quakers could not. There are much worse organisations than religions that could end up running English schools under this policy.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly hearing religious people out there banging on about the Golden Rule these days, that “heart” common to all religions which we are to believe makes them vital and moral things. Yet when you go along with all that, and merely ask for the ethic of reciprocity to extend to, well, everyone, all that nice, woolly tolerance suddenly vanishes. Suddenly asking them to not discriminate is an unacceptable position. Suddenly, far from the Golden Rule, the core of religion they want to preserve is the right to shut people out. And they dress this neat little package of discrimination up in talk about the need for “inclusiveness.”

It is no wonder that the supporters of the second amendment, which called for all faith schools to be phased out, are not prepared to take them at their word. The movers of this amendment repeatedly raised the issue of homophobia in schools and how difficult it is to grow up as a homosexual in a faith school, yet this issue wasn’t addressed. Rather than deal with this fearsomely important point, in an act of supreme irony the movers of the amendment were branded extemists.

As I’ve said before, I would rather ally with a liberal person of faith than an illiberal atheist. But liberals don’t condone intolerance. The message I got from the supporters of faith schools on Saturday was that intolerance is an integral part of religion without which faith schools would not be worthy of the name. Keep saying nutty things like that and I’ll join the barricades alongside Laurence Boyce.

Bad Faith Awards: it’s like being asked to choose between my children!

How on Earth is anyone supposed to be able to pick a winner amongst this set on bozos shortlisted in the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards?

It makes you realise quite what a year it has been on the culture wars front. Personally, on reflection, I’ve gone for the governors of St Monica’s School, Prestwich for the simple reason that their decision to deny their pupils access to the cervical cancer vaccination is so transparently mysogynist and so physically harmful that it deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting.

But New Humanist really ought to consider using a different voting system. As it stands, the high profile nominees are leading by miles while the others simply aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. Do we really need Sarah Palin to win? The good people of the USA have already found her wanting. What does it achieve letting her win, or for that matter someone like Ann Coulter who is just begging for the publicity? And wouldn’t it be better using a system which would better establish the consensus candidate?

Frankly, they should be doing a death match (or, to be more pretentious, the Condorcet method). Fundamentally, it is a shame humanists aren’t using a system which encourages deliberation rather than simple knee-jerk reaction. That’s for the other lot.

University placement? Don’t we have people for that?

Frank Furedi, who I have always considered to be the sensible wing of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has attacked the decision by universities to allow students seeking placement to appoint proxies (usually parents):

Frank Furedi, social commentator and professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says that controlling parents are “destroying the distinction between school and higher education”.

“All universities now have to take the parent factor into account. On university open days you can see more parents attending than children,” says Professor Furedi.

He says there have been cases of parents who arrive expecting to attend their children’s university interviews.

Professor Furedi says that he tells parents that they have to leave, but there are other academics who “accept that this will be a family discussion”.

“There is a powerful sense of infantilism, where parents can’t let go.”

Frankly, when it comes to “destroying the distinction between school and higher education,” I think the boat left decades ago. Ever since the Thatcher government’s educational reforms which abolished Polytechnics and curtailed government funded apprenticeships due to a combination of parents wanting Little Johnny to go to university and the CBI not having a clue about what it really wants, we have been headed down this road. If you treat university as a system of prestige, you are inevitably going to end up with parental interference.

What I’m more interested in is what happens next. If we can now appoint agents, how long will it be before people start paying people to act as agents? We find this for everything else in life, from buying property through to getting jobs. And won’t it be easier for the universities to deal with agencies which have tens of thousands of people on their books, rather than sole traders? How long will it be before we start seeing this?

Of course, what that means is that we will see yet another barrier between talented people from poor backgrounds and decent university places. Mummy and daddy might be able to afford your university agent if you live in a leafy Kensington suburb, but they are less likely to have the readies necessary if you live on a crummy housing estate.

We should be more worried about this than direct parental interference. The solution is a more level playing field in which university applications take place after people already know their A-level (and/or equivalents).

Tory calls to make maths “chic” badly miss the point

The value of mathematics cover (composite)Reform is an interesting think tank. They claim to be non-partisan and solely interested in the neutral pursuit of “a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity” yet in reality have a tendency to favour reforms which involve a reduced role for the state and are not at all surprisingly firmly on the Conservative end of the spectrum. Their token Labour and Lib Dem sponsors, Frank Field and Jeremy Browne respectively, do little to confound their reputation for having a rightward inclination.

All of which makes their latest publication all the more perplexing. I’ve read the press release and executive summary of The Value of Mathematics (PDF) and it seems a little confused. I’m not an educationalist and am not qualified to answer their criticisms of how maths is taught in school. What I can say is that with the best will in the world, Gordon Brown can hardly be blamed for it. So why all the smirking innuendo about “Gordian knots”? The legend of the Gordian Knot is not famed for is association with mathematics as far as I know (although I am grateful to wikipedia for leading me to this article, which hardly undermines my point), nor is mathematics teaching a particularly intractable problem. And is Alexander’s solution – effectively smash and grab – sound like the sort of solution that is really needed? Alexander didn’t cut the knot in order to make people free; he did it to rule the fucking world! The closer you look at it, the worse a metaphor it turns out to be.

Perhaps if Reform was more interested in Phrygia than Prada they would have appreciated this, but clearly knowledge isn’t actually something they have much time for, as this quote from Elizabeth Truss reveals:

“In today’s Britain it is acceptable to say that you can’t do maths, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn’t read. We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic.”

This quote highlights two conceptual fallacies within this report. The first is to equate the lack of people taking mathematics to an advanced level with innumeracy. Getting less than a C in GCSE maths doesn’t make you innumerate and more than getting less than a C in English makes you illiterate. It is a crucial distinction if the problem you purport to be identifying is a lack of scientists, engineers and statisticians rather than the poor quality of supermarket cashiers.

If the problem is the latter, and in fairness it should be pointed out that the report does briefly reflect on this (albeit it only to the extent that it quotes one of those surveys where businesses get the chance to whinge with no actual empirical data to back it up) then you have to take a number of remedial steps. That lead to the sort of policies Labour came out with in the late nineties. Fundamentally, it is a primary education issue more than it is a secondary education issue. Improving maths GCSE is a bit of an irrelevance in this respect.

That isn’t the problem that the report is mainly concerned with however, and it is highly doubtful that the UK would be a happier, more prosperous place if every person in the street could do complex algebra. Indeed, it could be argued that we would be better off if fewer people were doing maths at Key Stage 4. If there is a problem, it appears to lie in the fact that people who are good at maths are not fulfilling their potential and that there is a general cultural problem where intelligence is undervalued in a society obsessed with image and bling.

This leads me directly to the other conceptual problem. What’s all this guff about transforming maths from “geek” to “chic” (the report repeats this phrase throughout)? My favourite line in the report has to be this:

The many people who enjoy Sudoku, logic problems and computer games highlight the considerable potential interest in mathematics.

No it doesn’t. At all. Whether the two are linked is another matter, but interest in computer games has risen at an inverse proportion to interest in mathematics. Neither them, nor Sudoku and other logic problems are about maths at all, any more than crosswords and cinema are about English literature. None of them are “chic” – all of them are “geek” – yet they’re still popular. Doesn’t that suggest they just aren’t getting it?

Will our problems really be solved if only they talked about Pythagorean equations in Sex and the City with the same enthusiasm that they talk about handbags? Maths has always been “geek” and always will. Trying to fool kids into thinking it is somehow hip and happening isn’t going to solve anything. The problem isn’t Stephen Hawking and the solution most definitely isn’t Victoria Beckham.

Chic is the problem; in a world which celebrates superficiality and shallowness any vocation which requires a bit of brain power is going to struggle. Maybe if people like Elizabeth Truss, a Cameroon A-lister, weren’t so down on “geek”, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

I’m sorry to bang home the point, but it does suggest an inherent confusion. You simply cannot with one hand dismiss attempts to make maths “relevant” while calling for it to be made “chic” with the other. To do so is utterly fatuous.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if, despite this being one of the paper’s main conclusions, they actually spelt out how this would be achieved. On substance however, the only thing the paper is willing to say about how to make maths “chic” is to have more “rigour” and more things like the UK Maths Challenge. They call for less state control while simultaneously demanding that the government “steps in” to halt the “current inexorable drift” towards modularising maths GCSE. All of this sounds like more state control to me, not less.

This is the other problem with the paper; in calling for less state control, it lacks the courage of its convictions. Outside of the Department for Children, Schools and Families I don’t think anyone fails to recognise that “teaching to the test” is doing anything but harm. But at the same time, they can’t help having a pop at “the misguided trend towards ‘progressive’ teaching.” But you can’t have it both ways. It wasn’t Thatcher who insisted on “progressive” maths teaching in the early 80s, it was the teaching profession. It is my experience that in areas such as the national curriculum, politicians tend to defer authority to civil servants and “experts” with remarkable consistency regardless of political ideology. It is those “progressive” experts who seem to be behind the “inexorable drift” that they are so opposed to. And if we are all to be much freer in choosing which schools our kids go to, a great many of us are likely to opt for ones with “progressive” attitudes.

The answer to that, surely, is that enabling greater experimentation will mean that best practice can evolve organically. No-one should be under any illusions however that giving teachers more power over their own jobs, and parents’ more power over where to send their kids to school is going to magically result in better teaching automatically. Nor are parents or even teachers going to put the interests of the national economy at their top priority. Many parents will pick schools on the basis of what religious ethos (or lack thereof) they adhere to. Many will opt for ultra-progressive education methods such as Summerhill‘s. China does a great job at hothousing mathematicians, yet somehow I suspect Reform would have issues with their education system.

There’s actually very little in this report which is about less control; merely bad teaching. That’s fine, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t conflate the one with the other. Liberalising education is a big, radical step. Pretending that doing so will lead to all schools adopting the same teaching methods is a fantasy. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Yet this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Conservatives equate less state control with a rejection of “progressive” education and the problem they identify stemmed from the Thatcher and Major administration. Both these facts cast significant doubt over whether Tories really do get liberalisation.

Government certainly must share some of the blame, but it is important not to ignore the wider social pressures. Learning has always been uncool and it is foolish to pretend you can somehow make it so. A celebrity and vanity-obsessed culture is always going to under-value science and mathematics and any look at maths teaching in this country needs to reflect on that. Yet of course it is those cultural values that Cameron, and Blair before him, has capitalised on. After the London elections we now know what a real electoral force those values can be. So it is hardly surprising that a Cameroon report of this type is going to present those trends as a solution rather than a problem, no matter how foolish this appears to be.

The Clegg era starts here

Notwithstanding my gripe on Thursday, Nick Clegg has had a very good week. He started by putting the finishing touches to his front bench, made a series of appointments regarding reforming party structures (about which I must get around to blogging about it detail at some point), made a well-judged debut at PMQs and has now made a major speech on public services reform.

This is the speech I didn’t get during the leadership election but nonetheless voted for, so I’m delighted my gamble seems to have paid off. Linda Jack’s point that he spelled out his approach in an SMF seminar in December misses the point: he spent the election campaign downplaying all this stuff when so many of us were urging him to be bold. Making a token speech to the SMF, towards the end of the campaign and with no fanfare is the oratorical equivalent of putting planning proposals, to quote Douglas Adams, “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard‘.”

So much for the past and back to today’s speech. I’m happy with it because it moves us forward, not in some symbolic “break with the past” way that some of the headbangers in the party might like but through clear-headed liberal analysis about what is wrong with public services in the UK and how they work elsewhere. There is a clear continuity with the approach the party has always had and the direction it has been traveling in.

It is a very politically calculated speech, and I mean this in a good way. He’s correct to say that the Orange Book was correct to call for the marrying of social and economic liberalism. What no doubt would have been more boring to say was that notwithstanding the question of how you get the balance right there is virtually no-one in the party who would disagree with that sentiment (a point about which most political commentators seem unaware): he could equally have said the same about the “social liberals'” answer to the Orange Book, Reinventing the State.

Some sections in it, such as his call to scrap F and G GCSE grades, probably won’t transform society, but they represent a move away from an “everyone shall have prizes” approach to education and towards clearer delineation between pass and fail. This is symbolism, but in a meaningful way.

Possibly the most important passage of the speech can be summed up in a few lines:

I stand for these simple principles:

The state must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis.

The state must intervene to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals.

And the state must oversee core standards and entitlements.

But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off in providing an array of top-class schools and hospitals.

At first it sounds very motherhood and apple pie, but in practice this is a real challenge for political parties of whatever hue to live up to. Clegg singles out Brown’s approach for failing to live up to these core principles, but the same could be said of Cameron, such as his proposal for a “Tsar of all the MRSAs.”

It will be a key test of the Lib Dems in the future to see if they can live up to these principles or are tempted to jump on this interference bandwagon. The biggest challenge is what exactly is meant by “core standards and entitlements”. You could argue that the National Curriculum does that; Labour certainly do. The National Curriculum is a “minimum standard” that has grown and grown over the past two decades, driven by political expediency. One person’s minimum standard is another person’s nanny-state interference. Literacy? Some educationalists argue you shouldn’t even start to formally teach reading until the age of seven. Sex education?

How do you stop minimum safety nets from transforming into straitjackets over time? And who sets those minimum standards: national or local government? My suspicion is that we need to better spell out what checks and balances need to be put in place for such a system to work in practice, but that is for another time.

His model for Free Schools will also need careful crafting. Over the New Year period, Clegg caused some controversy by endorsing the role faith schools have to play as “engines of integration” in The Jewish News. I commented a few months ago about the hypocrisy of Jonathan Sacks making the same point while opposing any measures which would stop faith schools from being able to choose their own pupils. If Clegg wants to ban selection completely, which also means taking on the handful of local authorities which still have grammar schools, he will have to also take on the faith lobby which he has been courting.

Orthodox Judaism isn’t the real issue here anyway. I’m sure the Vardy Foundation will have very little problem with banning selection if what they’re getting in exchange is even greater freedom to teach creationism. I’m sure the Scientologists Applied Scholastics are similarly licking their lips. And these problems are relatively simple in urban areas where there is a great enough population density to mean that parents have a wide choice of schools to choose from; in rural areas the economics works very differently.

It isn’t all one way of course; under this proposal there is nothing in principle to prevent a group of parents setting up their own school and effectively starving the local brainwashing academy of minds (so long as they can find enough support). If it is an open enough system for L. Ron Hubbard’s supporters, it is certainly an open enough system for fans of Richard Dawkins. The challenge for this proposal (which emphatically is not a fatal one) is how we combat liberalism’s greatest enemy: monopolistic power.

The health proposals are less problematic for me. The idea of allowing patients to go private after a waiting time period has expired is a sensible middle way between the Tory’s old policy of voucher system which would simply have undermined the NHS by allowing the wealthiest to take the money and run, and Labour’s target culture.

Overall then, this is an excellent start for the Clegg era. It is the most thoughtful speech given by a party leader since Ashdown departed these shores for Valinor. I think he needs to slightly change his mode of attack on Cameron, with whom he is so frequently compared. He needs to emphasise that while Cameron adopts similar rhetoric, even if he is being sincere he can never deliver while he is at the mercy of a mulish party which only allows him to lead when it feels like it.

The key fight to pick with Cameron, which to Clegg’s credit he seems to have identified as well, is over school selection. The more Clegg challenges Cameron to support a system which emphasises parental choice over school selection, the more the swivel eyed loons in the Tories will go nuts and start banging on about grammar schools. The fact that Cameron has already buckled under the pressure once suggests this will be a fun fight to watch.

The important point is, Clegg’s speech today is one that Cameron could never afford to make. That is what annoyed me so much about the “senior official’s” interview in the Guardian on Thursday. Our strength, ultimately, is our unity. The Tories’ fatal, potentially election losing flaw is their internal division. It makes no sense to talk up disunity within the party when it prevents us from exposing our opponents’.

Finally, this has been a good speech about challenging what he calls “inherited disadvantage”. That’s fine but ultimately if you want to truly tackle social mobility you need to tackle inherited advantage as well. As Clegg has set up a social mobility commission, he can’t afford to leave it too long before starting to address that.

Nick Clegg: It’s beat up an activist day!

Oh dear, oh dear, and he was doing so well:

Nick Clegg will unveil plans to end state interference in schools this week as he moves to bury the Liberal Democrats’ traditional approach to public services.

In his first keynote speech since becoming party leader, Clegg will challenge many of the party’s supporters in teaching and local government by issuing proposals which will “effectively take schools out of state control”, according to one official.

David Laws, the Lib Dems’ schools spokesman, paved the way for changes to the party’s approach at its annual conference in September, pledging to inject more choice into the system by making it easier for parents and community groups to set up new schools. The plans won the backing of the conference, although some activists and MPs are uneasy about the approach – which chimes with many of the policies proposed by the Conservatives.

I’m not opposed to “effectively” (weasel word) taking “schools out of state control”. Indeed, it’s just possibly I might actually be happy going further than what Clegg has to say on Saturday; he’s certainly already ruled out school vouchers, something I have in the past said I’m open minded about. Indeed, the party is totally up for taking schools out of state control, if by state you mean central government; always has been. The devil however is always in the detail.

What annoys me is that we’re back to activist-bashing again, and less than a month into Clegg’s leadership. It’s an old leadership tactic: make yourself look bold and radical by portraying your own party as awkward and out of touch. The worst thing is, it is with reference to a policy that has already been passed by party conference.

Do I have to remind Team Clegg of these results? Clearly I do:

  • Nick Clegg: 20,988
  • Chris Huhne: 20,477

Nick Clegg had a chance to spell out his vision for public service reform during his leadership election campaign; he bottled it. By all accounts he should have won an easy victory; he failed. If he wants to make the case now, that’s fine, but he doesn’t have a mandate and the price he has to pay for only just failing to pluck disaster from the jaws of victory is that he has to treat the intelligence of the party membership with a modicum of respect. Spinning before making a major policy speech that we aren’t going to like what he’s going to say is pathetic, counter-productive and yaaaawn! so like his predecessors.

Spinning that he plans to copy the Conservatives is equally foolish; apart from making it sound like he will utter little more than a “me too!” this is the party of the National Curriculum and standardised national testing we’re talking about, remember?

Chris Huhne: time to get serious

I really have veered a lot in my views in this leadership election. I’m not used to this phenomenon of genuinely not having made my mind up about something – it’s giddy stuff!

So it was that while my default position at the beginning of the campaign was that I’d be voting for Clegg, by the middle of last week I was more or less in the Huhne camp. But now I’m starting to move back to the centre again.

The reason is this row about school vouchers. First of all, as I’ve already said, I simply don’t accept the arguments put forward in Chris Huhne’s manifesto that a voucher system would be bad in all cases. If he’d limited his argument to opposing health insurance, he’d have been on safer ground: his arguments about the inherent bureaucracy of such systems are stronger (in my view).

But secondly, that ought to all be irrelevant because if Chris Huhne is truly committed to local control then he ought to accept that different Liberal Democrat council groups might come to wildly varying conclusions based on their local circumstances. I can see, for example, how a school voucher system could work very well indeed in inner London. I’m not wedded to the idea but I can see none of the disadvantages that I would foresee if the same system were introduced in a rural area.

Thirdly, the implication that Nick Clegg has a secret agenda for introducing school vouchers simply doesn’t hold water for me. It appears to be based on a Rachel Sylvester interview in the Telegraph where the simplest, most Occam’s Razor proof explanation is that she simply chose what she wanted to hear. I’ve noticed that one of Clegg’s unique characteristics is that he manages to convince Tories that he is one of them. Last night on 18 Doughty Street Iain Dale and Timothy Barnes were both utterly convinced that Clegg was a conviction Tory, while seconds later being equally convinced that Clegg was about to uncritically support Labour’s “illiberal” proposed homophobic hatred legislation. It doesn’t appear to be rational, more a kind of Derren Brown style mind trick.

(Side point: Barnes and Dale were waxing lyrical about how the Tories were going to oppose this while the Lib Dems would support it. I would merely point you to when it was debated in the Commons last month. Nick Herbert essentially welcomed it notwithstanding concerns about free speech, but it was both Evan Harris and David Heath who dealt with the freedom of speech issue in depth. Lib Dems 1, Tories 0 – sorry chaps)

Back on topic, one of my biggest complaints about Nick Clegg is that he has been playing for safety and that it may cause him and the party trouble in the long run if he then decides to start proposing major changes after he gets elected. To be precise, he won’t be able to and will merely have lots of acrimonious rows that get nowhere if he tries. So I can hardly then worry about a secret plot of his to introduce school vouchers as policy by the back door when he has now stated for the record on several occasions.

And then there’s this article summarising a pamphlet by Direct Democracy about introducing school vouchers. What is significant about this pamphlet is that Direct Democracy are very much on the right of the Conservative Party and they don’t think the argument for school vouchers is winnable in the short term. If they think that, then why on earth would Nick Clegg be so foolhardy as to position himself to their right?

In short, the school vouchers debate is complete puff. I’m annoyed at Chris Huhne for making such an issue of it for what appears to be cheap political capital. And though it saddens me to admit it, I’ve seen him make too much cheap political capital in this campaign so far. The Trident debate went on for two long weeks and also alienated me. The constant references to “not being another Cameron” (which admittedly Clegg can’t entirely absolve himself of blame for) grate; why no attacks on Brown in this campaign?

It is one thing for Huhne to overreach himself occasionally, but it is beginning to look like design rather than accident. His challenge in this campaign as the underdog is to make the political weather. But too much of this comes across as too divisive, too cheap and generating far more heat than light.

Huhne’s manifesto pegged him out to be the strategist, yet he’s the one that has been fighting a tactical campaign. I may be desperately uninspired by Clegg’s campaign, but at least it has an internal logic to it. Being able to maintain a steady course under fire is not in itself a bad thing, even if it is unclear which direction you are going.

I still rate Huhne as the candidate best able to articulate what the Liberal Democrats are for. Clegg continues to fail to inspire me and has been oversold as the “great communicator”. But he is at least now starting to come up with messages of his own. Some I agree with. Some I think are utterly ridiculous. But he’s setting the agenda now. It’s time that Chris Huhne, who has a whole manifesto to keep relaunching bits of over the coming weeks, followed suit.

Age concern – the Liberal Democrats and generational equity

I wrote this article in Summer 2006 for Liberalism – something to shout about, published by Graham Watson MEP and edited by Simon Titley. I’m taking the liberty of republishing it here, but if you want to read the other articles – by Graham, Simon, Ros Scott, Jonathan Calder and Simon Bryceson, follow the above link for an order form.

Any article on this topic will inevitably date quickly, so please bear that in mind. In particular, “Hands off our future” is a reference to an abortive attempt of mine to set up a campaign website on the topic which in the end I didn’t have the time to keep going.

Demographic change is creating a dangerous situation, one where younger generations are suffering increasing economic injustice. A system of ‘neo-feudalism’ will emerge unless radical steps are taken. Do the Liberal Democrats have the courage to campaign for justice – or will they miss the boat?

There’s no easy way to put this, and I can almost hear the shrieks of outrage as I type, but young people are being expected to shoulder too much of the UK economy while older people are getting away with shouldering too little.

That isn’t to say that pensioner poverty doesn’t exist, nor is it to deny that some young people are extremely wealthy. As in any discussion on economics, we are talking in generalities here. It is however to say that, as well as being unfair, it is having a deleterious effect on our economy and stands to reinforce class barriers and social immobility at a time when we are flattering ourselves that such things have been relegated to our past.

Young people are hit by a sextuple whammy of costs that older people do not have to worry about to the same extent. These are: graduate debt, credit, saving for the future, environmental taxation, income-based taxes and housing costs. We should take a moment to consider each one in turn:

The problems
Housing costs
The owner-occupier dream of the Thatcherite 1980s is coming to an end. Only 20% of 20-24 year olds are homeowners, compared with 34% in 1994. First-time buyers now make up only 38% of total buyers1.

Why is this? Simply enough, house prices have got out of control. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government2, the average house price across the UK is now £190,051; in London it is £279,418. Median earnings meanwhile are £22,412 (less than one-eighth of the average house price) across the UK and £28,912 in London (less than one-ninth of the average London house price)3. According to Nationwide, the median home loan is now worth 3.21 times the incomes of those buying the property, compared with just 2.39 in 19944. That of course means that half of new loans are being lent at even higher multiples. According to the Halifax5, public sector workers cannot afford average priced homes in 65% of towns, compared with just 24% five years ago. Mortgage repayments typically now use up 42% of take home income.

Unsurprisingly, 40% of first-time buyers now get parental help6. For many more people however, the solution is to simply rent. There again, the options available to people 20 years ago simply do not exist. The right-to-buy policies of the 1980s, which got so many people onto the housing ladder (earning many of them small fortunes in the process), were unsustainable as they depended on selling council housing that was not replaced.

One other option is buy-to-let: buy a house in a more affordable area than the one you live in and use the income from that as security. This in turn of course helps bloat the housing market even further, pricing even more first-time-buyers out of the market.

Ultimately, all of this must be unsustainable, although the bubble is still looking fairly robust at the moment. If the housing market does crash however, it is again young people who will predominantly suffer.

The obvious solution to all this is to build more affordable homes. Yet that has been official government policy for years now and little progress is being made. We cannot escape the fact that, under the current system, property developers have very little interest in building large numbers of affordable homes.

Graduate debt
People graduating from university this year owe an average of £13,500, according to the Association of Investment Trust Companies (AITC)7. As with many of these figures, it needs to be emphasised that this is an average: graduates from wealthy families typically have far less debt to repay, while poorer graduates will have significantly more. This figure also does not take into account variable top-up tuition fees, introduced this year: at a stroke, such fees will increase debt for graduates from the top universities by £9,000 to £12,000.

Liberal Democrat policy is to scrap tuition fees. This has been very popular, but it should be remembered that students from the poorest backgrounds don’t pay fees anyway while students running up average debts and paying full tuition fees would still end up graduating with £10,000 hanging over their heads.

One argument used to justify the increased burden that individuals themselves pay is that graduates earn more; the Dearing Report8 claimed that graduates would, on average, earn £400,000 more over their lifetime. Yet, as higher education has expanded, so the worth of each individual degree has fallen. The University of Swansea estimates9 that the ‘value’ of a degree for a male arts graduate is now just £22,000. Yet with degrees now a minimum requirement for so many jobs these days, non-graduates find themselves severely disadvantaged regardless of their ability.

71% of young people (aged 18-29) have an overdraft facility and one-in-five are permanently overdrawn10. 18.7% of all bankrupts were aged 18-29 in 2004/5, compared with just 7.8% in 2001/2.

There is a temptation to dismiss these figures as simply young people spending irresponsibly, yet that is to ignore how credit has been promoted quite as fiercely as it has been over the past couple of decades. It is also to ignore the fact that banks will tend to refuse lower interest loans to customers with little credit history while being quite happy to give them credit cards. Borrowing is treated as a rite of passage that young people are expected to go through and, whether individuals struggle or not, banks are guaranteed a profit.

To his enormous credit, Vince Cable MP has been making a noise11 about the problems associated with unsustainable levels of debt for some time now. The party should pay him more attention.

Saving for old age
Young people are now expected to save for their own old age in a way that their parents’ generation never need worry about. Final salary pension schemes are a thing of the past. The Turner proposals12, largely accepted by the government, offer some hope for the future, but there is no escaping the fact that, for them to work, people must contribute more out of their own salaries.

Yet as the importance of saving for the future has increased, in fact the opposite has happened. According to Pensions Minister James Purnell in July 200613, the number of young people saving for a pension has fallen from one-in-three to one-in-four since 2000. Purnell was quick to pin the blame on young people themselves for their “live fast, die poor” lifestyles. Can we really simply dismiss this trend as shortsightedness, or are young people simply expected to cope with debt? This is a vital question for politicians to answer if they hope to make opt-out stakeholder pensions – one of the lynchpins behind the government’s new pensions strategy – a success. If it is financial pressures that are putting young people off from taking out second pensions, there is a real risk that a disproportionate number will opt-out under the new scheme.

Income-based taxes
There is no denying that income taxes fell significantly during the 1980s and 1990s. I mention them here because it needs to be emphasised that this form of taxation is paid predominantly by economically active middle-income earners: the rich avoid them while the poor and economically inactive pay very little.

In the recent past, income taxes have begun to creep up again, under the guise of national insurance contributions. Liberal Democrat policy in 2005 would have added an additional 4p in the pound due to the introduction of a local income tax.

Climate change and resource taxation
It is now largely accepted that the human race is responsible for global warming and climate change. Because of inaction in the past and little scope of major improvements in at least the short term, significant climate change is also now regarded as all but an inevitability. Mean temperatures are expected to increase by two degrees Celsius by 205014. Today’s young people, their children and their grandchildren will be paying the price in the future.

Today’s young people, however, are also expected to pay the price now; environmental taxes will either creep up if the timidity of the current government continues, or significantly increase if a more environmentally responsible government takes control. Either way, today’s young people will be expected to bear the brunt, on top of everything else, in a way that their parents’ generation was never expected to.

The future – neo-feudalism?
What no-one should be blind to here is that these factors do not affect all young people equally. Families with assets are able to help their children out by subsidising student costs, housing and ultimately by passing on an inheritance. They help out in other ways too. A recent report from the Sutton Trust15 found that 54% of top journalists went to public school, up from 49% in 1986. Similar statistics can be found for the legal profession and other white-collar jobs.

One factor driving this is that, as more and more people have degrees, employers are increasingly dependent on other ways of assessing candidates. A simple mechanism used by a lot of employers is to offer internships and most young people who take up unpaid work experience in this way are dependent on their families to see them through. Thus the expansion of higher education seems to be doing little to improve opportunities for young people from poor backgrounds; indeed, it could actually be entrenching privilege.

There are other ways as well in which the ‘haves’ can consolidate their position. The subsidised loans available to students may be intended to help poorer students feed and house themselves at university, but increasingly they are used by wealthier families as an investment: invest the money in an ISA and pocket the difference. Inheritance tax, properly managed, is effectively voluntary, with wealth handed down the generations long before the aging relative dies – and the bigger the estate, the greater the likelihood that families will have made such provision.

The important question we should be asking ourselves is, where is this taking us? I have dubbed the (avoidable) nightmare scenario ‘neo-feudalism’. Through a combination of some talent, some hard work and a large amount of luck, some families are consolidating their position at the expense of other families. The current fad for buy-to-let could be the tip of the iceberg: there is every reason to believe that the people who play the system well will increase their property portfolios over time, pricing ever more people out of the property market in turn.

For the new underclass, the future is bleak, with the rising middle-class operating an effective closed shop in a way that would make the most militant shop steward baulk. Meanwhile, the children within these ‘landed’ families will be trapped in a cycle of dependency. These mini-Princes of Wales will be forced to wait impatiently for their inheritances to come through, conflicted by love for their parents and the desire for freedom and independence. Entrepreneurship, creativity and hard work will be stifled by an economy dominated by class and privilege.

Policy solutions
Higher education policy
The Liberal Democrats’ policy to scrap tuition fees has served the party well, but there are at least two major reasons for reviewing it.

A principled reason is that it doesn’t actually help the poorest. We may well wish to argue that students from lower middle class backgrounds can ill-afford the tuition fees they are forced to pay under the present system, but it is highly doubtful that scrapping fees will see a massive influx of students from the poorest backgrounds.

The pragmatic reason is that tuition fees have been with us for seven years now. Hundreds of thousands of young people have already paid them, and there is an increasing danger that this policy will decline in popularity as young people and their families increasingly ask themselves “well, we had to pay fees, so why shouldn’t they?”

One equitable solution to this would be to offer tax relief on student debt repayments. The full amount may not be affordable, but a significant proportion would not only amount to the same thing as paying full tuition costs, but would benefit all graduates.

Going further, we could replace our existing spending commitment to scrap fees with a return to the means-tested maintenance grant. This would target our funding at those least able to pay.

It is unlikely to amount to much while the massive expansion of higher education continues however, and this leads me to consider an even more radical proposal. Why not remove the universal state subsidy on university tuition altogether, replacing it with means-tested cover for both tuition and maintenance? This more targeted approach would enable us to help students most in need, while giving the market a greater role in determining demand for higher education.

There are bound to be howls of protest regarding this proposal and I have to admit I am not fully convinced of it myself: how would we preserve liberal arts departments for instance? How can the market determine how many medievalists the country to fund? I am merely throwing these ideas in to provoke a discussion I believe the party desperately needs to be having.

The bottom line for me is that, at the next general election, we need to have much more to say to both graduates and the poorest students. With the party committed to keeping spending commitments down to a minimum, this cannot be done without significantly changing our existing policy of tuition fees.

Just as we are sometimes guilty of portraying our policy of tuition fees as a social justice issue when the poorest are unaffected, so the same is true with our policy to replace council tax with a local income tax. The claim is frequently made that it would benefit the poorest, and specifically pensioners. Yet the poorest are entitled to Council Tax Benefit and are thus exempt.
We aren’t, to be fair, alone in this. Help the Aged’s website16 claims that an elderly couple with just £182 per week income “could end up paying the same level of Council Tax as their neighbours, a young and wealthy couple with an income of tens of thousands”. Yet if you look elsewhere on this website, it helpfully explains that an elderly person on that level of income is exempt from the tax. A curious game of deception is at hand here, and unfortunately the Lib Dems bear much responsibility for it.

The real problem with our existing policy is that it represents a massive tax cut for the owners of some of the most valuable properties in the country, while shifting the entire burden of taxation onto economically active young people. This makes no economic sense at all and will help to increase property prices still further, enriching the wealthy and pricing even more people out of the housing market.

We are frequently told that this policy is important because it helps old people who may have large wealth, but have little income. In fact, asset rich, cash poor pensioners form a tiny minority. In his submission17 to the Tax Commission report, Prof Iain McLean cited research from Warwick University, which shows that just 1.2%-2% of the population fits into this category. There are other ways to ensure that this small group does not unduly suffer without introducing a system that would unfairly penalise others.

The signs coming from the party’s Tax Commission unfortunately sound remarkably confused. By the time you read this essay, its final report18 will have been published but, at the time of writing, it looks as if it will be a strange mix, calling for national income taxes on the one hand while introducing even higher local income taxes on the other. This strange, hybrid ‘pushmepullyou’ is unlikely to please anyone and is likely to confuse seriously both journalists and the general public.

So what’s the solution? Simply put, our new taxation policies have a property tax-shaped hole in them. We should fill it with our historical commitment to introduce a system of land value taxation. This would encourage greater efficiency of land, lower property prices, and discourage second home ownership and buy-to-lets. Safeguards could be introduced to ensure that old people would not be taxed out of their homes, such as a system whereby people could voluntarily choose to defer tax payments until after they realise the asset.

Funding the future
Britain is appalling at squandering its assets. North Sea oil, now rapidly drying up, has been used as a cash cow by successive chancellors for the past 30 years, with Gordon Brown using it to fund spending commitments last winter. Yet once this natural resource is gone, it’s gone.
Other countries have a more enlightened view. Since 1995, Norway has invested its North Sea oil receipts into its National Petroleum Fund (recently renamed the National Pension Fund)19. This fund, worth 1.48 trillion Kroner (about £125 billion or €185 billion) in 2006 and administered by the Central Bank, is designed to ensure that this short-term windfall is enjoyed by future generations.

Alaska operates a similar scheme called the Permanent Fund20. Though much smaller – $32 billion (about £17 billion or €25 billion) at the end of 2005 – the fund is enough to pay out a dividend to Alaskan residents of around $1,000 per capita per year.

It is mostly too late to put Britain’s North Sea oil receipts into a similar fund, but as climate change is taken more seriously, this could be a useful way to handle receipts from environmental taxation.

Using environmental taxes to fund general expenditure is problematic at best, particularly at high levels, because if they are successful we can find ourselves with a shortfall. Climate change is likely to make the twenty-first century a very unstable period. Establishing a fund in this way would help give future generations a helping hand.

Getting our message across
One major objection to the party shifting its policy more towards young people is that older people vote in greater numbers and should therefore be our main target. I would repeat that I am not calling for us to ignore old people in elections, and strongly support our policy positions on a Citizens’ Pension and increasing the basic rate.

But, despite the fact that we all but stuffed their mouths with gold coins in the last election, old people did not generally vote for us. This is partly because of tribal loyalty, and partly because of a perception of the party brands – indeed, where we do well amongst older voters it is because they recognise our strengths as community campaigners. By contrast, younger people flocked to us in the last general election, despite us having very little to offer them. We have a real opportunity here not simply to capitalise on the votes of under-40s but to create lifelong Liberal Democrat supporters.

For such a campaign to work, however, it cannot simply be conducted by the occasional press release. At the moment, the media is largely unaware of this issue, normally reporting rises in property prices as an unequivocally good thing. For us to make an impact on this issue, our frontbench team must be seen championing it. It should get mentioned in every speech Ming Campbell makes between now and polling day.

The good news about a campaign aimed specifically at young people is that much of our target audience is web-savvy. What’s more, the people whom these issues affect are getting increasingly organised – see websites such as housepricecrash.co.uk, pricedout.org.uk and Hands Off Our Future. It is clear from reading the forums on sites such as these that there is a real sense of injustice out there and that people are crying out for a political party to take these issues on. If we miss this opportunity now, we may find ourselves paying the price in the future.

1 BBC (2006). How hard is it to afford a house? BBC News Online, 6 July; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5145090.stm
2 UK Department for Communities and Local Government (2006). House Price Index – May 2006 (DCLG Statistical Release 2006/0051). Press release, 10 July; www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1002882&PressNoticeID=2197
3 Bachelor, L. & Flanagan, B. (2005). On average, you can’t afford it. Observer, 4 December; http://money.guardian.co.uk/houseprices/story/0,1456,1658132,00.html
4 BBC (2006). ibid.
5 Halifax plc (2006). Halifax Key Worker Housing Review. Press release, 29 July; www.hbosplc.com/economy/includes/KeyWorkerAffordability(UK).doc
6 BBC (2006). ibid.
7 AITC (2006). Press release, 9 August; www.aitc.co.uk/press_centre/default.asp?id=5439
8 The National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education (1997). www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/
9 O’Leary, N. & Sloane, P. (2005). The Changing Wage Return to an Undergraduate Education. IZA Discussion Paper No. 1549. http://ssrn.com/abstract=702781
10 Credit Action (2006). Debt statistics. www.creditaction.org.uk/debtstats.htm
11 Cable, V. (2006). Press release, 23 July; www.libdems.org.uk/news/young-peoples-debt-spiralling-out-of-control-cable.html
12 The Pensions Commission (2005). Second report. www.pensionscommission.org.uk
13 Purnell, J. (2006). Speech, 12 July; www.dwp.gov.uk/aboutus/2006/12-07-06.asp
14 UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2001). Literature review of the implications of climate change for species, habitats and the wider UK countryside. www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-countryside/ewd/rrrpac/lreview/06.htm
15 The Sutton Trust (2006). The Educational Background of Leading Journalists. www.suttontrust.com/reports/Journalists-backgrounds-final-report.pdf
16 Help the Aged (2006). www.helptheaged.org.uk/en-gb/Campaigns/PensionsAndBenefits/CouncilTax/
17 McLean, I. (2006). www.libdemsalter.org.uk/archives/000078.php
18 Liberal Democrats (2006). Fairer, Simpler, Greener. Policy paper 75. www.libdems.org.uk/media/documents/policies/PP75%20Fairer%20Simpler%20Greener.pdf
19 Wikipedia (2006). The Government Pension Fund of Norway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Government_Pension_Fund_of_Norway
20 Wikipedia (2006). Alaska Permanent Fund. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Permanent_Fund