Tag Archives: education

The Great Faith School Swindle

The Phantom Laurence points me to this excellent article by Francis Beckett about faith schools.

In a weird cosmic juxtaposition last night (which, were I of lesser intelligence I might attribute to a Higher Power), after watching Munich on DVD I found myself watching the tail end of Jonathan Sacks’ BBC programme about Rosh Hashanah.

It was basically propaganda about the need for faith schools, in which he visited a Jewish school in Birmingham which accepts pupils from all denominations. All very nice and fluffy, except that this is the exact same Chief Rabbi who said the following about government proposals to ensure that at least 25% of pupils in a faith school must come from a different religion or no religion at all:

“A measure this fundamental, undertaken at such speed without adequate consultation with the parties affected, is bad legislation, bad government and bad governance. It was created in haste and will be regretted at leisure.”

As Beckett acknowledges, Sacks’ intervention – along with the Catholic church’s – proved successful.

So, here we have a man lauding the power of faith schools to bring people together, while actively fighting legislation that would actually mean it happened. On a programme about a religious festival; some would call that politicisation. And he uses license fee payers’ money to indulge in this wanton hypocrisy. Doncha just love it?

Ah! That delicate frisson of A-level result lesbionics!

I’ve just realised that its taken me until 4pm on A-level results day before seeing my first A-level result blonde (on the front cover of the Evening Standard).

A quick skip around the news websites:

  • The BBC has four multi-ethnic girls jumping for joy. Only one of them, however, might be blonde (hard to tell). Cliche rating: 4/5.
  • The Times opts for a classic: two cute blondes. Shame they aren’t hugging, but you can’t have everything. As an afterthought it gives you an alternative picture of some boys, but in case your heterosexuality is challenged by this, click again and you find a picture of a cute girl running, wearing a t-shirt that highlights her breasts. Cliche rating: 5/5.
  • The Telegraph keeps it simple: blondes; hugging; smiles; waving paper. For England and St George! Cliche rating: 5/5.
  • The Guardian relies on the same levitating multi-ethnic girls as the BBC, and then only temporarily on the front page. It’ll probably be gone by the time you read this. Bloody commies. I bet that girl in the headscarf has got an A-level in bomb-making. Or something. Cliche rating: 4/5.
  • The Independent have two girls looking pensively at their results. There isn’t even the merest hint that they may have snogged once (on the other hand, that may be why they look so uncomfortable). Weird. At least they’re girls. Cliche rating: 3/5.
  • The Sun: Mickey Mouse breasts girl again. Cliche rating: 4/5.
  • The Mirror: a black girl. Hard to say if she’s laughing or crying. She doesn’t even have highlights. Cliche rating: 3/5.
  • The Daily Mail has a picture of boys! Disgusting! Paul Dacre is a national disgrace! Children will be corrupted. Cliche rating: 2/5.
  • Fortunately, the Daily Express saves the day with Mickey Mouse breasts (again!) AND… wait for it… TWINS! HUGGING! Result!!! Cliche rating: 5/5.

They really ought to officially designate today as Groundhog Day. Here’s to doing it all again in twelve months time.

The demographics of Um?

I meant to blog about the Centre for Um discussion paper on demographic change by Alasdair Murray a couple of months ago, but I ended up getting distracted. As part of my general post-holiday catch-up, I thought I’d get my comments off my chest now, but as it was a while since I read the paper, I’m a little rusty.

On specifics, I don’t quibble with a lot of what the paper is saying. It is surely correct to point out the problems of simplistically emphasising how the aging population will lead to more elderly dependents on the economy without looking at how other dependents (the young, the economically inactive) effect the economy at the same time. I don’t think any liberals question the need to scrap the fixed retirement age of 65 (socialists are another matter – I seem to recall Labour activists queuing up to denounce this at their last autumn conference). I agree also with the need to bring more young people into the labour market – a stark contrast with Labour’s obsession with giving 50% of the population a (potentially worthless) university degree and raising the school leaving age to 18. There certainly should be an emphasis on skilling young people, but that should be done in the workplace, not in pseudo-universities (on which point, can I recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft‘s article on the subject last week: “Those who insist that expanding higher education is virtuous in itself never stop to say why this should be so. And they never explain why it should be better to be a third-rate media studies graduate than a first-rate carpenter.”).

It is the wider arguments of the paper that trouble me. First of all, the bland claim that “pessimistic predictions about Europe’s demographic future overstate the problem in most countries and ignore the potential to adapt.” That is half true, but how are we to adapt if we ignore the pessimistic predictions? Alasdair Murray points out that a number of countries have already dealt with the “pensions time bomb” in their policies, but this has to be at least partially because of the scare reports that have been dribbling out over the past 20 years and more. This doesn’t prove them wrong: it proves their worth.

More irritatingly, I can’t go along with his bald assertion that inter-generational conflict isn’t worth bothering with. He bases this on two lines of argument: that there is little evidence of an emerging conflict, and that young people are better educated, richer and have higher rates of employment than their parents.

The first argument is just plain daft; it’s the Nelson defence (“I see no ships”). To start with, it depends where you look and what you’re looking at. What’s more, the fact that there is little tension now is not to say that there won’t be tension in the future.

The second argument misses the point that it isn’t incomes that we are quibbling about, but assets. Those subsidised right-to-buy homes people bought in the 80s simply do not exist. Greater earning potential is one thing, but if the economy drives people into habitual debt – thousands just to get “credit rating”, tens of thousands on graduation, hundreds of thousands of mortgage debt – that leaves very little at the end to build a nest egg. I’ll come onto the underlying assumption in the paper that population growth is an unalloyed good in a moment, but assuming that is the case for a moment, it is surprising that he appears to have missed the growing evidence that one of the main reasons that people are starting families later in life now is because they struggle to afford the housing; indeed housing is barely mentioned either in the paper as a whole, or in the section on inter-generational conflict.

Worst of all, he parrots that old canard about wealth cascading down the generations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this: that’s the problem. Because people don’t, as a general rule, spread their wealth evenly to the younger generation: unsurprisingly they favour their children. This entrenches privilege, deepens the divide between rich and poor and, by putting wealth in the hands of ever fewer families and individuals, is a potentially catastrophic cause of social immobility. No-one is questioning that the millionaire couple who profited from the buy-to-let boom will eventually hand their assets over to their children; what we’re questioning is whether they should be the beneficiaries and what economic impact it will have further down the line.

The biggest single omission however is that this paper does not mention the environment, climate change and the management of natural resources. At all. I’m amazed that you can even write a paper on demographics without mentioning these things. A dry debate about immigration is one thing, but what do we do if Bangladesh goes underwater and Africa becomes an arid dustbowl? Where do the people go? What if they decide to come here? Cheery forecasts about pensions is one thing, but what about peak oil? Europe’s stagnating population is one thing, but global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 (it seems like only yesterday when we reached the 6 bn mark – now we’re at 6.6 bn).

You may argue that all these big questions go beyond a simple paper on the economics of European demographics; I accept that they would have lead to a substantially different paper. What I do seriously question however is how the paper can assume that population growth is a good thing that policy makers should aim for. The paper does not oppose pro-natal policies, just the practicalities of the more crude of these (such as Germany’s tax system). Instead, it recommends policies that “best create the conditions where fertility rates might rise by removing structural obstacles to female labour market participation”.

I’m not in favour of radical anti-natal policies such as China’s one child policy, let alone anything more draconian. Nor do I believe in putting obstacles in the way of “female labour market participation” with a view to reducing fertility rates. I do however feel that population growth and environmental sustainability are heading for a full on collision, that one will have to give way to the other and that if the species is to survive in the long term, it had better be the latter. How do we develop genuinely liberal anti-natal policies? And if those policies are successful, won’t they exacerbate the problems associated with an aging population (if fertility rates dropped significantly, the average age would increase quite rapidly)?

In short, while he has some good points, Alasdair Murray’s pamphlet is exactly the wrong paper at the wrong time. It sets out to deal with a problem which, from the outset, it asserts has already been solved, and fails to answer the important questions relating to demographics that we need to be answering in the 21st century.

Charley Junior’s School Days

I’ve just come across this public information film from 1949 (or try here) about the post-war education reforms. With hindsight, I’m a bit ambivalent about the politics, but the sentiment is touching, and the quality of the animation is breath-taking.

Remember: this is a public information film. I was looking for a different one involving a certain Charley.

UPDATE: I’m trawling through the Public Information Film National Archive – it’s fantastic!

Surplus School Places

More grist to the School Voucher debate mill:

The number of surplus school places in England has risen to 758,000 – the highest level since 1998.

This is the equivalent of more than 2,000 average-sized primary and 250 secondary schools lying empty.

Later on it states that 12% of Primary School places and 7% of Secondary School places are vacant, while some education authorities such as Birmingham have up to 25% vacancies.

How would vouchers change this? Surplus spaces aren’t necessarily a bad thing. There is always surplus in any system (and when there isn’t… look what happened during the fuel crisis in 2000) and any system which maximises ‘choice’ has to factor in a certain amount of redundancy. Once again, I suspect it largely depends on what level you set the voucher. But what does the panel think?

School vouchers: the new Tory approach

It would appear that my post on Tuesday about school vouchers was timely. The second in Direct Democracy’s series of Localist Papers is on precisely this topic.

I haven’t read the pamphlet yet, but my knee-jerk reaction is indeed negative. On first reading their proposals sounded like the Monty Python right for men to have babies. Allowing people to claim the cost of education from their local authority to spend however they choose, rather than a wholesale voucher system, does indeed sound like a simple exercise to subsidise public schools while offering everyone else almost nothing. New independent schools would struggle to get started under such a system.

The analogy to the right to buy scheme is unfortunate: while I don’t have a problem with the ‘right to buy’ the Tory scheme was actually a ‘right to subsidy’ and a ‘prohibition for local authorities to reinvest in housing stock,’ the socially regressive consequences of which we are now suffering from in terms of a dramatic plunge in social mobility and racial tensions caused by a lack of social housing. So much for localism.

I can’t help but think that if you’re going to introduce such a system you should introduce it wholesale. The piecemeal approach will simply cause more pain over a longer period of time. Nevertheless, I need to read the whole paper. Another one to add to the list.

School vouchers: convince me

Here’s the thing. I like the simplicity of school vouchers, they appeal to my sense that policy is at its best when it is simple. Events over recent weeks have got me thinking about how we sort out the mess that is school admissions, and they seem to have a lot going for them.

However, that isn’t to say that I don’t have concerns about the system, and I’m not sold yet. Worse, the attitude of most school voucher supporters have is that anyone who doesn’t already support them is either an idiot, an unreconstructed socialist or most likely both. At the risk of exposing my inner-moron, here are my concerns. Can people convince me?

Sweden is always being cited as a socially-progressive country which has made a success out of vouchers. There are two problems with this model however. For comparisons with Sweden to work, any UK voucher system would have to give parents the same purchasing power as Swedish parents. How much is the Swedish voucher in UK money, and how does it compare with the existing spending on each child in the UK? How much extra would the UK have to spend in order to have a similar system? This is particularly significant in rural areas as the size of the voucher would be directly related to the minimum viable size of a school. Set it too low, and all talk of competition and choice will be irrelevant.

Secondly, Sweden would appear to be an overwhelmingly white, Christian country. I’ve been there, and while walking through the streets isn’t anything like as strange an experience as Finland (where seemingly everyone is white), it doesn’t appear to be a country with the same multi-cultural experience that we have. How then would a voucher system work in a country where we already already have mass voluntary segregation in our inner-city schools? Wouldn’t the voucher system simply make this worse? Would you accept some kind of quota system to moderate this? Or is segregation a price worth paying?

Related to that point is how religious schools will be helped by the voucher system. We already have Vardy Schools out there teaching science in permanent ‘quotation marks’ and trying to slip in creationism wherever they can, and there are plenty of religions scrabbling to get their hands on public money. Supporters of the voucher system appear to accept that it will open the floodgates for this sort of thing. This happens in Sweden, but the secular consensus seems to have taken hold much more strongly there than here (due again in part to it being less multicultural). What is the argument for leaving children so much at the mercy of their parent’s belief system? What are the benefits, and how do they outweigh the problems?

As I said above, I want to believe. In 2005, I blogged about how I feared that a truly free market on education might lead to gigantism, but I’m not so convinced now as I can see why people would be distrustful of McSchools (like the scary one being build in Peterborough). But I remain concerned about how such a system would work in the UK in practice. Either way, we should be debating this rather more than the staid one about grammar schools, and we certainly need a better answer to academies, particularly now that Cameron has decided that his response should be little more than “me too!” Seriously though: convince me.

Is Cameron actually leading the Conservative Party?

I’m really starting to wonder. Readers might recall earlier in the year that I pointed out that Cameron could not command majority Tory support for their manifesto commitment for a substantially elected House of Lords and failed to persuade them to back his stance on the Sexual Orientation Regulations. This week, we find party’s MPs running riot over the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, and going bonkers over David Willets repudiation of Grammar Schools.

Most bizarrely of all, Cameron has chosen to take a firm line on the latter, but go all soggy and wet over the former. He might not have deliberately set out to make the showdown on Grammars a “clause 4 moment” but he isn’t backing down. Nor should he: neither Willets nor Cameron are arguing for anything that is particularly distinctive from views of the Blessed Milk Snatcher and the fact the Tories are so ready to go to war over such a totemic change is ludicrous.

In terms of Freedom of Information, he has firmed his position up to the extent that he is now, cautiously, suggesting that he wouldn’t vote for the Maclean Bill and that he “will act to stop the bill in its current form in the House of Lords,” (my emphasis), but he has given himself enough wriggle room to fit an aircraft carrier inside.

All this despite the fact that the Lib Dems and pretty much all of the media are roasting his ass on the fire on the subject. Why won’t he simply stand up to Maclean and slap the more reactionary elements of his party down?

The answer is, it seems, his Parliamentary Party would just laugh at him. Those cynics among us who always thought this “change to win” guff was empty rhetoric are finding new evidence that the Tories are still the same old reactionary, swivel eyed loons on a nearly daily basis. Cameron’s great achievement of the last 18 months has been to distract the public’s attention from this, not to introduce meaningful change.

It all bodes pretty ill for these disparate policy reviews that are now just weeks from being published. I don’t believe that the edifice that Cameron has constructed can survive many more weeks like this one before coming crashing down, and I’m not at all clear what he can do to prevent it. Will the Conservative Party pull themselves back from the brink and, at the 11th hour, sign up en masse to Cameronism? The portents don’t look good.

Scotland decides, er, what?

Okay, I admit: the Scottish results have got me stumped.

It was the list results that did it. My expectation was, and the polls appeared to back me up, that the Greens were on course to get about the same share of the vote that they had before. Instead, they were wiped out. The Tories were down on list seats as well. So, of course, were the Lib Dems. What stopped the Lib Dems from making no losses was a whopping 4% dip in the West of Scotland, which apparently cost us an MSP.

Why was this? It was already being mooted that the new ballot paper design would harm the smaller parties as people might think they had to vote for “Alex Salmond” AND “SNP” rather than split their ticket. This may well have been a large factor, and the Greens (and other) may need to reconsider their strategy of only fielding list candidates. But in an election with 100,000 spoilt papers, one can’t help but suspect that they were robbed.

The final scores on the doors at least means that the Lib Dems have been spared one particularly nasty decision: the combined SNP/Lib Dem vote is 3 short of a majority. Even if the Greens threw their lot in, that would mean a majority of 1, which isn’t exactly a delicious prospect. Adding Margo Macdonald to the mix might help, but her price would no doubt be pretty high. I could be proven wrong, but I can’t see Nicol Stephen wanting to join such a precarious executive. That doesn’t however mean the SNP wouldn’t be able to negotiate a multi-option referendum, which if they want an independence vote is pretty much their only option now.

I can’t see them getting a majority in favour of Local Income Tax either, unless they come up with some kind of compromise. Imaginative municipal finance reformers might want to consider a package that includes the localisation of a proportion of the existing income tax combined with a land value tax to keep the Greens happy. But maybe that is me disappearing into a Georgist Wonderland.

I suspect the promise to scrap the Graduate Endowment has rather more chance of getting through, which is a shame because I happen to think the Scots don’t know when they are onto a good thing here.

In short, compared to what was widely predicted, it is Labour that seem to come out as the unlikely winners of the Scottish election. Going from 50 seats to 46 is nothing in the grand scheme of things. They can now spend 4 years in opposition making life as difficult for Salmond as possible. Either way, every single decision made by the Scottish Executive will be subject to a degree of scrutiny that we are simply not used to in the UK. That can only be a good thing.