Monday 29 August 2011

Freedon from loacl authority control?

Michael Gove proudly announce over the weekend that 24 "free schools" would open their doors in September "free from local authority control." This statement is highly misleading in two senses.

Firstly it as been pointed out umpteen times that local authorities no longer have much control over any schools. What control they had has been whittled away over many years by governments preaching decentralisation and practising centralisation.What local authorises still do is provide services: for example, facilities for disruptive pupils excluded from mainstream schools, and financial services. A few years ago there was outrage that headteachers had lost millions of pounds by making bad deals on buildings and other contracts. Why should we have been surprised? Headteachers are trained (we hope) to inspire the young: local authorities have lawyers and accountants trained to make contracts.

Above all local authorities plan educational provision in the interests of the entire area. Allowing "free schools" to make "public" provision for tiny enclaves or special interests without regard to the welfare of society as a whose is hardly likely to lead to community cohesion.

Secondly the statement implies that local authorities are or were an obstacle to providing successful eduction. The opposite is the truth. I was fortunate enough to be educated under the great West Riding education authority, lead by the formidable Sir Alec Clegg, many of whose innovations were copied throughout the world. The Leicester education authority introduced middle schools. Although these did not meet with universal support they were copied by many other parts of the country. What is stifling in he heavy hand of central control.

One millstone from which these new schools are "freed" is the national curriculum, probably the most illiberal measure of the last half century, and shamefully supported by Don Foster when Liberal Democrat education spokesman. The answer here is to revert to the system of leaving the curriculum in the hands of the schools, where the professional judgement of teachers will, as argued in the previous post, best devise programmes most appropriate for the pupils in their care.

Saturday 27 August 2011

EBacc nonsense

There have been no posts for the past two weeks as I've been away on holiday. In that time both he "A" level and GCSE results have been published and the media have indulged in their annual orgy as to whether standards are really rising or so called "grade inflation" is making our young people's qualifications not worth the paper on which they're written. The present Education Secretary is encouraging this nonsense by his introduction of the so-called Ebacc into the debate. The Ebacc is a flawed and counter-productive concept for several reasons:

1. His prescription of what constitutes a "good" set of GCSE subjects was introduced after the current cohort of students had made their subject choices. Criticising them and assessing their schools by a new standard of which they had no warning is clearly illogical and unfair.

2. The French baccalauréat, on which the Ebacc pretends to be modelled, is a school leaving examination normally taken around the age of 18 rather than 16 and is a university entrance qualification. The International baccalauréat (Ibacc) is at a similar level.It is either highly misleading or hugely pretentious to give our 16+ examination the same name. (Incidentally, when I was at Port Moresby High School in the 1970s I tried to introduce the Ibacc but it fell to the ground through opposition from both parents and students since it required the study of a foreign language up to 18. Our Papua New Guinean students would have had no problem with this - most were fluent in at least three languages anyway - but the Australian parents and pupils were as insular as we British.)

3. The prescription as to what constitutes a "good" set of subjects is highly personal, highly contentious, and probably subject to fashion. I attended the kind of traditional selective grammar school that seems to be Michael Gove's ideal but would not have gained the Ebacc, and neither would anyone else, since the choice we had to make at 14 was between physics and chemistry or geography and history: one of either wasn't on the time-table.

4. I am sceptical about the division between "essential" and "optional" subjects. Mathematics is generally placed in the first category but, apart from a modest mastery of basic social arithmetic I can't see why generations should be forced to learn to solve quadratic equations and measure the height of a cliff from a boat out at sea using trig ratios if that is not their bent. Until the 1950s the one subject that was regarded as absolutely essential for logical thinking and the mark of a civilised person was Latin(plus Greek as well for earlier generations). Good fun for those who like that sort of thing but now seen to have been sailing under false colours.

5. Although as a teacher of economics I've always been rather doubtful of the value of business studies in schools, I'm not really confident that the division of subjects into "hard" and "soft" is legitimate. "Media Studies" gets a lot of stick but it seems to me that if it is legitimate to study English literature (novels, plays and poems)why should it not be legitimate to study film, radio, television, newspapers and other media. Given the pernicious influence the press has on our politics a rigorous academic evaluation of it seems to me to be highly valuable.

When I trained as a teacher in the 1950s we were taught that, whereas the French eduction minister could dictate exactly what page of the algebra book all French children in "troisième" would be studying at ten o'clock on a Tuesday morning, we in Britain had the superior approach of trusting our schools and teachers to know what is best for their pupils. Surely, rather than misguided and ill-informed dictation from the top, this is the ideal towards which we should be returning.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

My Plan B

Given that it will take a year or two, if not a decade or two, to bring society round to the view that full employment can be achieved by more sharing rather than more growth, and to avoid yet another lost generation (though given the current rioting it may already be too late) here is an an alternative to the present destructive and misguided austerity measures.

Cut government spending by

. Abandoning Trident and its replacement;
. Pulling out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya with all possible speed;
. Replacing the pensioners' free bus pass with a token payment of, say 30p per journey. (The same could apply to the free bus travel for youngsters in London.)
. Discontinuing the pensioners' winter heating allowance.

Increase the governments' (and local authorities')income by:

. Introducing the 50% tax rate at £100 000 rather than £150 000 per year, with proposals to tax households rather than individuals in future;
. Ending the exemption from capital gains tax on increases in the value of "principal private residences." We need to see houses as machines for living in rather than ways of making money.
. At least three higher bands on the council tax so that mansions pay their whack. (This would be an interim measure as we prepare to switch to land taxation.)

Direct the public resource released and gained by:

. Increasing all welfare payments and the retirement pension by, say 10%. This will help alleviate some of the real pain, and the money is likely to be spent in our own economy and thus create demand rather than leak out in a new foreign car or exotic holiday.
. Restore most of the cuts in the public services. HMRC clearly needs more staff to bring in the existing taxes due but uncollected, and current events show we could do with more, not fewer, police. The cuts to the BBC, and especially the World Service, are a particular piece of vandalism.
. Restore most of the cuts to the arts and charities. The arts are not only a jewel of a civilised society but also a nice little foreign currency earner (one of the areas in which Britain really still is a world leader.) The more useful charities, which already form the "Big Society," cannot do their work properly without public funding.
. Lift restrictions on foreign students. Higher education is another area in which Britain is still a world leader and, as well as generating good will towards this county, is another nice little earner.
. Have a house building drive on brown-field sites to create mixed housing areas, both social and private.
. Massive public investment in developing green energy sources and "greening" the infrastructure.

Politics and Economics.

. Discontinue Quantitative Easing. This is an inefficient way of creating demand as the government has no control over how the extra money will be used. So far the banks have used it to shore up their own balance sheets and much of it has gone into assets rather than useful and employment creating enterprises. Even the existing QE is likely to generate unwelcome inflation once the economy recovers.
. Charge the two largely state-owned banks with the duty, not of maiximising the return to shareholders, but of providing long-term investment funds to industry and commerce, especially small and medium sized enterprises, at low rates of interest (on the German model.)
. Stop comparing ourselves with Greece

Saturday 6 August 2011

Markets Rule - Not OK

For centuries, until the Enlightenment I suppose, most societies lived in fear of their gods or god and felt the need to avert disasters by placating them, him, her or it in various bizarre ways.

Today all societies are in thrall to "the markets." This is as irrational as sacrificing a bull, lamb, virgin or whatever in order to produce a good harvest. It is ludicrous that the welfare of millions, in Greece, the US, Europe generally, the developing world, should be put at risk, not by belief in an external force over which we have no control, but by a few greedy and amoral men (and possibly some women) who it is perfectly possible to control if the world's politicians had the guts and integrity to do so.

I am not a money market specialist so do not have a comprehensive solution, but here are two suggestions:

1. A substantial Tobin-type tax on all monetary transactions, not just foreign currency transactions, to make speculation much less profitable and thus calm erratic fluctuations.

2. All purchases to be backed by actual money: that is, an end to borrowing or leverage.

Further, and perhaps more informed, suggestions welcomed.

The world's principal finance ministers need to get together, sink their petty differences and get tough in the interests of ordinary people whose welfare is being sacrificed at the altar of these false gods.

And do we really need to take so much notice, indeed go in fear of, the priests of "the markets", the ratings agencies, whose confidence in, for example, Iceland, was so far off the mark? It is worth asking whether S&P's downgrading of America's creditworthiness is based on sound analysis or an attempt to undermine President Obama, so he becomes subject to the jibe: "The President who lost us our AAA rating," (rather as the Tories used to mock Labour as "The party of devaluation" until they themselves discovered the short term virtues of economic stimulation by what has become depreciation of the currency.)

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Happiness without Growth

While I was on holiday last week figures were published to show that the British economy had grown by only 0.2% in the previous quarter. The news was reported with almost universal lamentation, accompanied, I suspect, by secret relief from the government that the figure wasn't actually negative.

Just as unfettered market forces and monetarism have been the unchallengeable economic creed for the past 30 years, a situation which has led to disaster, so now it it seems universally accepted that the only way to achieve full employment and prosperity, is thorough further economic growth, which will inevitably lead to a greater and more irreversible disaster.

The political right have not hesitated to use the present crisis to implement their ideology of cutting back the state but we on the left are shamefully neglecting the opportunity to propose the alternatives which do not involve the further ravaging of scarce resources, pollution of the environment and the disfunctions which arise from increasing inequality.

We don;t expect people, animals or plants to carry on growing for ever: they reach maturity and stop. Surely it is now time to accept that our economy has reached maturity and explore better ways of sharing its abundant fruits, beyond the wildest dreams of our grandparents, so that "no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity," as my Liberal Democrat membership card has it.

For academic back-up to these idea see Tim Jackson's "Prosperity without Growth" (subtitled "Economics for a finite planet"). Wilkinson and Pickett's "The Spirit Level" (subtitled "Why equality is better for everyone") and the website of the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State economy, CASSE.

I'd like to hear more discussion on these lines at the Liberal Democrat Conference, and less on how we can restore a more benevolent version of the system as before, under which, as an American economist has put it: "The faster we run the behinder we get."

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Scarlet Tape

The removal of people's employment rights etc affects this generation only, but the proposed bonfire of planning regulations will affect our "green and pleasant land" for generations.

Of course, people have to live somewhere and there is a cr need for more and affordable housing, but this does not justify the invasion of green-field sites which, once despoiled by urban sprawl, will take several hundred years, if ever, to recover. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in his excellent article in the Guardian last week:

"There is no "need" to build on green-field sites anywhere in Britain. There is merely a "demand" from those wishing to profit from it. There is now probably more development land left over from manufacture and lying unused in England than ever in history. It is mostly serviced, with infrastructure, housing, schools and a working population to hand. By definition it is more sustainable than virgin countryside. It is there that planning should direct development...For the unprotected countryside to become the latest victim of the credit crunch is tragic..."

And the minister responsible is our own Vince Cable. He should think again, or the desecration of the land will be the longest lasting legacy of this coalition government.

Monday 1 August 2011

Red Tape

I have just spent a delightful week walking on the Gower in South Wales so have picked up only snippets of news. However, I gather that Vince Cable's department is to unleash entrepreneurial spirits by abolishing lots of red tape. That sounds to me rather a forlorn hope, since what budding entrepreneurs need is potential customers, ie demand, rather than fewer regulations which are, in the main, designed to protect employees and customers from inappropriate exploitation. One person's "red tape" is another person's health, safety, security of employment and human dignity.

Nevertheless I recognise that some regulations are a bit daft. Shops should be able to display liqueur chocolates in their windows without fear of turning teenagers into alcoholics, though I suppose parliament will rush to reinstate the age limit for buying Christmas crackers as soon as a toddler chokes on one of the little plastic gadgets.

However, the regulation which requires sellers of television sets to inform the TV Licence people of the name and address of the buyer seems to me to be perfectly sensible. That may sound a bit illiberal, but I am all for measures which make it more difficult for people to avoid paying their dues. On the wider tax collecting front it seems common sense that the government should employ more staff in HMRC in order more effectively to chase up the tax evaders and avoiders, and the payments they simply haven't got round to collecting. If this were tackled with the same enthusiasm as the harassment of alleged "benefits cheats" that really would make a massive dent in the deficit.

A regulation I should like to introduce is the French one of requiring motorists to display a current insurance certificate in their windscreens. We all pay higher premiums because some motorists get away with having no insurance at all.