Sunday 22 August 2021


 I suspect that Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party's current leader, will not be pleased by Tony Blair's belligerent entry into the debate on the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  It is a stark reminder that it was the Labour Party, with Blair obsequiously  coat-tailing of the American President, that got us involved in this debacle in the first place.

In response to the devastating attacks on the US on 11th September 2001 President Bush declared a "war on terror" and chose Afghanistan as the enemy.  Tony Blair dutifully supported the move, but it was the wrong move.  

The attack on the Twin Towers was an horrendous, evil, terrifying and criminal act, and that is how it should have been countered:  by police action.  

The police  could have been international, preferably directed by the UN, probably armed, preferably involving participants from the countries surrounding Afghanistan (where the terrorists might have been hiding).  The US contingent could have played a leading role, but with international authority.

Such a  police investigation would first of all try to track down the criminals responsible for the atrocity, along with others "aiding and abetting" the crime (which may or may not have involved the then government of Afghanistan, the Taliban) and, having identified them, brought them to trial and justice.

Instead the "war" has cost the lives of over 100 000  Afghanistan civilians,  including countless children, 70 000 members of the Afghanistan security forces, almost 2 500 US soldiers (and 2 000 injured) and almost 500 UK soldiers. (For precise details see here.)  

And the Taliban are now in as strong, if not stronger, position than they were in 2001.

 The much maligned Jeremy Corbyn failed to follow Blair's lead and voted against our participation in  the War. I suspect all the Tory MPs voted for it.  I'm not sure about the Liberal Democrats.  Whether we did or not, we learned our lesson and Liberal Democrat MPs, under Charles Kennedy's leadership, unanimously voted against our participation in the Iraq war which followed two years later, and with similar disastrous consequences.

It is sad that in neither conflict did the British army cover themselves in glory.  We went in claiming to be the "best little army in the world," but had to be rescued by the Americans from both Basra (Iraq) and Helmand (Afghanistan.)  For a meticulously detailed account see Simon Akam's excellent book, "The Changing of the Guard."

The speed of the Taliban's recapture of the country has apparently taken everyone  by surprise. So what is the real value of our much vaunted "intelligence" services.  Or were they just not listened to?

The Afghan Army is accused of cowardice for caving in so easily, but it seems to me they have acted very sensibly.  The almost universal  predictions before the event were that the Taliban would retake control of the country in about 90 days.  So, if the Taliban were  expected to win anyway, why should the Afghani soldiers shed their blood in a doomed attempt simply to delay them.  Much more sensible to pack up and go home.

President Biden's ordering of a somewhat abrupt  departure is curious.  He is an exceptionally experienced politician and it is hard to understand why he should precipitate chaos.  Maybe he felt that to sanction a slower and more orderly departure would simply lead, as so often before, to "just one more heave" to achieve nation-wide pacification.  

Better to quit quickly and decisively.    I look forward to the judgement of history.

In the meantime what can civilised countries do?  

For one thing, answer the telephone.  

For another, welcome unconditionally all Afghan and others involved to settle on our shores.  Yes, we shall get a few bad eggs but bureaucratic delays to sort out the deserving from the undeserving would simply add to the misery we have helped to create.

For the future we must develop the concept of an international police force to deal with future atrocities, and end the the assumption that  the rich and powerful can lumber around the world to impose their will, however affronted they may feel.

Post script (added 24th August).

It is  well worth reading this article written by Labour MP Zarah Sultana:

Wednesday 11 August 2021

The "A" level bonanza

This morning's revelation that 44.3% of candidates have achieved A* or A grade passes in this year's Advanced Level examinations is almost bound to provoke a serious re-asesment of this school leaving examination, normally taken at the age of 18+ (but many mature students also take it: there is no age limit. I obtained my "B" in French when well into my 60s. )

I predict a re-assessment, not to belittle the performance of this year's candidates: given the problems created by the Covid lockdowns, school shutdowns and lack of face-to- face stimulus it seems something of a miracle that they've learned anything at all.

Well done, "yoof" of 2021, and well done the teachers, who i believe have done all this assessment for no extra pay, although the examination boards still charged the "full whack" per candidate.

However, this level of "top quality" bears no relationship to the significance of obtaining such  a high grade in earlier years.

The current system of General Certificate of Education at Ordinary (O) level, normally taken at age16+, and Advanced (A) level two years later,  was introduced in 1951. In those high-and-far-off times the majority of pupils, including many very able ones, had left school by the age  of 16 and, of those who remained to take the examination, barely 10% would receive a Grade A pass.  Two passes at the lowest grade, E, were sufficient to "Matriculate" or qualify to enter university.

 Thus those with three or four Grade A passes (A*s were not introduced until quite recently) were the potential Nobel Prize winners and Regius Professors at Oxbridge.  This was because for most of the first 50 years or so the examination results were "norm referenced" and forced to conform to a variation of a  "Normal Distribution" in which only a small percentage revived the highest grades, the bulk gained the middle grades and the tail failed or maybe scraped through with an E. There were minor adjustments each year to account for the perceived minor variations  in difficulty of the examinations in each subject from year to year.

In the past 30 years (maybe more) there has been greater emphasis on "criterion referencing":  what exactly can the candidate do?  Solve quadratic equations, predict chemical reactions, write accurately and lucidly in German, as well as hearing it and speaking it,   analyse Jane Austen intelligently, understand Modern Monetary Theory (MMT - I don't)?

  If the candidate can do it she/he gets full marks.  

This, combined with the modern developments in teaching and learning aids and communications,(10 minutes on Google rather than hours in the library to ascertain facts, Duolingo for leaning languages, even pictures in the text books) have led to a massive increase in levels of performance.

It is and always  was a myth to suppose that examining or assessment is a highly rigorous, consistent and accurate process.    We assume that candidate x who received a C in Chemistry is as good at Chemistry as  y who received a C in French is a good at French  and z who got a C in Music.    But has that any validity?  

And clearly we can no longer assume that the candidate  who received a modest C in Economics way back in the 70s is inferior  to one  who had her or his A* confirmed this  morning.

One of our problems is that we place too much reliance on the significance of this one "end of school" examination.  We expect it to show three things:

  • that the candidate has reached a certain level of competence in the subject;
  • that the candidate has the capacity (or not) for further study in the subject;
  • that the candidate is (or isn't)  methodical, hard working, capable of meeting deadlines  and altogether a highly reliable person.

The collapse of the comparably and even relevance of high "A" level grades gives us a good opportunity to assess these qualities, and perhaps others (likelihood of wining the "X" factor, getting on to "Love Island" or becoming a responsible parent or even prime minister) separately.

Post script (added 13t August)

My friend and former colleague David Pennycuick has Emailed to add:

It is not only academic standards which are important.  The education system needs to do much more for those who have practical rather than academic skills, for example by encouraging apprenticeships with the intention of relieving the shortages of skilled tradesmen (for example plumbers and electricians).

Further consideration needs to be given to the gulf between the private and state sectors. There are now few if any state schools able to compete with the best private schools. Certainly the charitable status of private schools needs to be reviewed, although of course major closures of these schools would put considerable pressure on the state system in terms of the number of pupils to be accommodated.  But closing Eton might reduce the risk of having future Prime Ministers as bad as Johnson.

 I couldn't agree more.

Thursday 5 August 2021

NHS GC knocked off its perch

 It is ironic that our National Health Service, within weeks of being honoured by the award of the George Cross for its sterling work during the pandemic, should be downgraded from 1st to 4th place in the pecking order of developed countries'  health services.  

The UK is now in  fourth place, ousted from the first by Norway, the Netherlands and Australia in that order.

The deterioration of the NHS is just one example of the general deterioration of public services in the UK, particularly over the last 11 years of Conservative rule as a result of  their ideal of lower taxation, a smaller state, public austerity and the silly mantra of "doing more with less," allied to the dogmatic belief that publicly provided goods and services are generally  expensive, wasteful and inefficient, while private sector provision  is lean, efficient and effective.

If anything should dispel this nonsense once and for all it is the experience of unfettered "free marketeering" in the efforts to combat the Covid pandemic: the expensive PPE procurement  via favoured friends and ineffective test and trace system compared  with the superbly efficient vaccination distribution provided by the public sector.

When the ideologically focused but unnecessary regime of public austerity was implemented  by the Tories  from  2010 the NHS was supposed to be protected from the cuts.    However, given the obvious consequences of the increasing longevity of the population (full disclosure: I am a happy beneficent and hope to be costing the NHS above the odds for years yet to come) and the development  of increasingly expensive  treatments, it does not take a super-brain to realise that the health service (not to mention the care service) needs financing above inflation in order even to stand still.

In spite of boastful announcements from the government about apparently vast lump sums this has not in fact been received.  The NHS has experienced cuts and thus did not have the spare capacity to continue dealing  with routine treatments when inundated with Covid cases.

(Again full disclosure: I had to wait 16 months for a routine procedure which would normally have been performed within about three weeks, and I feel jolly lucky to have had it and not still be waiting.)

I have quoted these figures before but they bear repeating.

From pages 223/4 of John Kampfner's "Why the Germans do it Better"* (Atlantic Books 2020)

At the start of the pandemic:

  • Germany had 8.2 hospital beds per 1000 population, France 7.2, the UK 2.7
  • Germany had 28 000 intensive care unit beds, the UK 4 100
  • Germany had 4.1 doctors per 1 000 people, the EU average was 3.5  and the UK's 2.8
  • Germany had 13.1 nurses per 1 000 population, the UK 8.2.

The problems of underfunding are not limited to health care.  Social care has already been mentioned.  Our schools, playgrounds, public parks, child-care services, street maintenance  and nearly all local government services are stripped to the bone.

 Our failure to contribute only peanuts to the healthcare services, particularly in regard to vaccination, of the rest of the world is shameful.  I have no means of confirming  this, but I was told that  when the G7 met for their discussions in Cornwall earlier this year  there were more people vaccinated against Covid in Cornwall itself than in the whole of Africa.

 We cannot have a modern functioning  civilised country with the services everyone, and not just  those who can afford to "go private" deserve, without paying for it.  

And we need political parties bold enough to say so.

*  Kampfner's book is very appropriately subtitled: "Notes from a Grown Up Country."  It sounds condescending I know, but I truly believe that the UK electorate needs to grow up and stop being taken in by the false prospectuses of  boastful politicians interested only in their own advancement.