The Lilies of the Field

Cheap at half the price

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” – Matthew, 6:28

A friend of mine was recently given a grant of £50,000 by her employer towards buying a flat costing £130,000. Good on her you might think, until you realize that, as an employee of the public sector, this money came from the taxpayer, you and me, many of whom are unable to afford houses for ourselves.

The money is given as a grant to what are known as ‘Key Workers’, those whose work is deemed so vital to the public wellbeing that they have to be given housing subsidies at public expense to be attracted to an area. Given their generous pensions and holidays it might not be unfair for the taxpayer to ask just how much of an incentive public sector employees need to work in an area and whether the heavy cost is worth it. When the scheme was launched, John Prescott said “High house prices often drive them (key workers) away from the neighbourhoods where they work”, but this is the case for everybody everywhere. The arguments against the key worker housing grant fall into practical, moral and economic categories.

The practical argument rests on the idea that key workers need to be close to their employment. True, nurses and social workers may have to be on call, or may have to work shifts. But the same applies to security guards, bar staff and the traders who work at places like New Covent Garden market. A bar worker in a pub will kick out the last drinkers at 11:20 and probably wont have cleaned up until close to midnight, is it fair that they should be expected to bear the burden of late night travel while a key worker is paid up to £50,000 to avoid the inconvenience? The traders at New Covent Garden lead an almost nocturnal existence yet no one is throwing money at them to buy them a house by Battersea Bridge.

This leads on to the moral argument, namely, is it fair that someone, somewhere, should be deciding whose jobs are more important than others? It doesn’t matter so much, the argument goes, if a fruit sales man from New Covent Garden is put off by the journey into work because society can afford to lose him more than the pediatric nurse who doesn’t fancy the grueling trip from Barking to the Royal Free in Hampstead. Indeed, very few of us would deny that nurses perform a more immediately useful service than a bar worker, and these are the terms in which the debate is usually conducted.

But lets look at some of the other beneficiaries of this generosity with our money. In Bromley (maximum grant £50,000), key workers include Speech and Language Therapists, Social Workers, Educational Psychologists, Occupational Therapists and Probation Staff. West Sussex (maximum grant also £50,000) defines key workers as including qualified Occupational Therapists, Rehabilitation Officers for the visually impaired and Speech and Language therapists. In Basingstoke, the list of those deemed so necessary to the public well being includes Rehabilitation Officers for the visually impaired, Speech and Language Therapists, Local Authority Planners, Educational Psychologists, Occupational Therapists and qualified Social Workers.

This leads us to the economic argument. According to John Prescott, who launched this scheme, key workers “are critical to thriving, sustainable communities”. I wouldn’t deny that this is true of nurses, fire fighters and the Police, but it is also true of the halal butcher, the paper shop owner, the accountant, the estate agent, the publishers assistant, the electrician…as I walk down Walthamstow High Street it is the market traders selling clothes, toys and food, the café owners selling fried breakfasts and tea and coffee, and the 24 hour internet cafes full of homesick immigrants who create the wealth and the activity, the employment and opportunity and, lets be right, the tax base, that supports Prescott’s “thriving, sustainable communities”. Next to these the contributions of Speech and Language Therapists, Local Authority Planners and Rehabilitation Officers for the visually impaired look pretty thin.

It’s a question of wealth, who creates it and who spends it. The Local Authority Planner may, in actual fact, do a very important job which has positive effects for all in the community. Social Workers undoubtedly do good work as may the Probation Officers. But they do not create any wealth, they only spend it. Without the private sector, made up of the market traders who are unable to afford a mortgage and the secretary I know who faces a two hour commute each way, there would be no public sector at all. No nurses, no firemen and no Police. They do not, for the most part, create wealth, they spend it and wealth has to be created before it can be spent. Ask yourself, who are the real key workers?

NBThe Starter Home Initiative, launched in April 2004, is expected to cost the taxpayer £5 billion. Think about that when youre struggling to keep up your mortgage repayments.

The Rulers and the Ruled

They went to a Comprehensive

There is an old Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk beams down to some planet and finds a society divided between people who live in gleaming cities in the clouds and those below, the Troglytes, who live beneath the ground and work in the mines that power the city. Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis, made in 1927, tells a similar story of a society divided between two groups; Thinkers, who rule, and Workers who, well, work. In HG Wells’ The Time Machine, the Time Traveler visits earth in the future where the Eloi live above ground and the Morlocks live below it. Three stories with a common theme; the Rulers and the Ruled.

This may look like the stuff of science fiction, stories of blatant injustice and good versus evil, but I would argue that Britain today is congealing into two separate nations, those who rule and those who are ruled.

A study carried out by the Sutton Trust has found that “54% of the top 100 newspaper editors, columnists, broadcasters and executives were educated privately, despite fee-paying schools catering for 7% of the school population”. Furthermore, “That figure has increased from 49% in 1986, when the research was last carried out”. This bears out the findings of the LSE report into social mobility which I referred to in the previous entry. As Sir Peter Lampl says, “This is another example of the predominance of those who are privately educated in influential positions in society”. The educational elevator has stalled leaving those at the bottom stuck where they are while those at the top pass on national leadership in an almost hereditary manner.

As such it will come as no surprise to note that man of the people “Call me Dave” Cameron (Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford) is the son of Stockbroker, Ian Donald Cameron, and Mary Fleur, daughter of Sir William Malcolm Mount, 2nd Baronet. His friend George Osborne (St Paul’s School and Magdalen College, Oxford), the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, is the son of Sir Peter George Osborne, founder of Osborne and Little, the leading fabric and wallpaper designers. Such toffery should only be expected of the party of Alec Douglas Home and Anthony Eden but even the horny handed sons of toil who run the Labour party have a head start in life. Tony Blair (Fettes College and St John’s College, Oxford) is the son of a Law lecturer at the prestigious Durham University and his former partner in crime, Peter Mandelson (County Grammar School and St Catherine’s College, Oxford), is the grandson of Baron Morrison of Lambeth, former Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the House of Commons and Foreign Secretary. The Sutton Trust concluded that “Nearly a third of MPs and almost two thirds of members of the House of Lords were educated privately, compared to 7% in the wider population” and that “27% of the Commons and 42% of the Lords were educated at Oxford or Cambridge universities”.

This web runs right through the elite of British leadership. Whilst working as a TV producer, Mandy met John Birt (St Mary’s College and St Catherine’s College Oxford where he got a third in Engineering) who went on the become Director General of the BBC and was rewarded with a Life Peerage in the House of Lords when stepped down in 1999. One of Birt’s friends from his early TV career was Peter Jay (Dragon School and Oxford University and son of former Labour MP Baron Jay of Battersea – Winchester College and New College, Oxford) who married Margaret Callaghan (Blackheath High School and Somerville College, Oxford – now Baroness Jay of Paddington). Margaret was daughter of future Labour leader James Callaghan who made Peter Jay the ambassador to the United States even though his qualifications amounted to 10 years as The Times economics editor. Are you still with me?

More prosaic examples abound. The journalist Alan Coren (Wadham College, Oxford) seems to spawn TV presenters at will, his daughter Victoria having recently hosted a show about the English language and his son Giles frequently appearing as a newspaper columnist/film critic/restaurant critic (both junior Coren’s having graduated from Oxford). Terry Yorath and Kenny Dalglish, both ex international footballers, have generously donated their daughters to the noble cause of sports broadcasting. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson (Westminster and Christ Church College, Oxford), has given the country the ‘domestic goddess’, daughter Nigella, and son Dominic, former editor of The Spectator and Sunday Telegraph. The radical black activist, columnist and TV presenter Darcus Howe has seen his daughter, Tamara Howe, become a director of production for London Weekend Television.

There is another, more sinister vision of a divided society. In the novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley described a world in which people were divided from birth into castes, allotted their role in society. Bred in test tubes, those selected to be Alphas are educated and engineered to be physically superior, designated to rule. They rule over the Gammas, Delta and Epsilons, who are fed alcohol whilst in the test tube so as stunt their mental growth and leave them happy with the lt society’s rulers and builders have allotted them.

I believe we have seen that in this country. The education which could keep the population turning over, the social mobility which we have seen declining, has been destroyed. It was destroyed by people who had been bought the very best education money could buy. It may well have been done for supposedly good reasons, ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ perhaps, but the end result has been to entrench the social and economic elite (which was responsible for the death of education on the first place) in its position. On the Labour side, the Oxford educated Anthony Crosland promised the end of the grammar schools back in the 1960’s. Today, his fellow Oxford alumnus, “Call me Dave” Cameron has said “absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system”. With so much expensively educated cross party opposition to the restoration of the engine of social mobility, ie grammar schools, what chance do the children of the less well off have?

Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift… Educashun part 2

“I got five A* grades, sweet”

Last week I looked at the mess that is modern British education, the mess that sees children from state schools emerging into the job market after 11 years unable to read or write. Even among university applicants, the cream of the educational crop, standards of literacy and numeracy have fallen dramatically.

Of course a disaster on this scale has effects and these are overwhelmingly felt by the less well off as they lack the financial resources to rescue their children from the Comprehensive system and get them into fee paying schools. To get the good jobs which would enable them to move up the economic ladder, the children of the less well off need education but they are not getting it. As such, they are stuck in the same level into which they were born. A report by the London School of Economics found that, of eight rich countries surveyed, Britain and the US had the lowest social mobility and that, whereas in the US social mobility had remained stable, in Britain it had actually declined.

If this social stratification is the effect of rotten state education what can be done about it? The most unconvincing but most often heard solution is to ‘spend more money’. Since 1994-1995 education spending has risen from 3.3% of GDP to 5.6% in 2005-2006. As we have seen, it looks as though much of this has been wasted.

What is needed is a radical change of the system itself. The LSE report claimed that the decrease is social mobility was “in part due to the strong and increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment”. With the Comprehensive system of doling out school places according to where you live this will always be the case. Another LSE report found that moving an average house from the catchment area of a bad primary school to the catchment area of a good one would increase its value by 34% and for secondary schools the rise is a still pretty steep 19%. Poor kids can’t get into good schools because they can’t afford to live near them. The LSE report warns that if you are less well off “you will not be able to afford the house that gets your kids access to the best state school”. We have selection in our schools and it selection based on wealth.

In an effort to restore the social mobility that we must have if we are going to consider ourselves a just society, it is worth looking at the system we had back when poor kids could get on and do well. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the grammar school. The way a grammar school worked was to offer bright children, whatever their economic background, a quality education. Their aptitude would be determined by sitting the 11+ exam with those that passed it going to grammar school and those that didn’t going to a Secondary Modern. Instead of selection by wealth, as we have now, we had selection by ability and the consequences, in terms of social mobility, are there to see.

There are many who argue against selection at all, this is the basis of the whole Comprehensive system, but selection is part of life. There is a very good reason that John Terry plays at centre back for England instead of me; he was selected because he is a better footballer. If there was no selection then every adult male would become a Premiership footballer. Many say that 11 is too young an age to select which child should go where, but is the age of 16 or 18 any less arbitrary? By that time bright children have been exposed to disruptive influences and been taught at a slower rate for another five years.

So how would grammar schools work today? Admissions policy would be altered so that entry to a school would be based not on which house your parents could afford but on how smart the child is. This would require the reintroduction of some sort of 11+ exam. The children who scored too low to get into the best school would go to the second best and so on. But would this mean that they were being thrown on the educational scrapheap? No, because if good schools have the opportunity to expand and take over other schools there would be an incentive on those lower down the pecking order to shape up. Investment in these schools would be evenly spread along the social spectrum because the raw material of infant intelligence itself is also evenly spread.

One common objection put forward to academic selection is that poor children will be doomed to fail against rich the children. The inference here is pretty clear and pretty condescending to the less well off, namely that poor kids are inherently thick which I don’t believe. It is also suggested that middle class homes are more conducive to learning than working class homes. Speaking from experience I can honestly say that very few middle class houses have bookshelves groaning under the weight of Proust, Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.

It is also claimed that middle class children have an unfair advantage because their parents are ‘pushy’. However, I know of no reason why less well off parents should be any less ‘pushy’. This is demonstrated by the impressive academic performance of ethnic minority pupils who often come from less well of families and areas.

In short, to give children from less privileged backgrounds the chance to improve their lot in life, to achieve real social justice, we need to move away from selection by parents income towards selection by innate ability. Only then will we be able to stop the class society congealing into the caste society.

NB When he was Education Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Labour government between 1965 and 1967, Anthony Crosland famously said “if there’s one thing I do, I will smash every fucking grammar school in the country”.

Crosland, the man who ended the grammar schools, had himself attended the prestigious Highgate School (termly fees between £3,430 and £4,035) and Trinity College, Oxford.

Educashun, Educashun, Educashun innit?

“Sorry Braithwaite, Im on strike”
In the Guardian this week, Philip Beadle came out with a priceless line; “The issue with importing the views of the private sector is not so much with the structures they might implement, but with the fact that they know nothing about our core business – teaching”. Bearing in mind the fact that our teachers have succeeded in turning out a generation of illiterates, you would have thought that they would be desperate for all the help they can get.

According to a working group chaired by Sir Claus Moser in 1998, the adult rate of functional illiteracy in Britain is a staggering 20%, that is 1 in 5 adults who cant read or write after 11 years of state schooling. For numeracy the report claims that “Some researchers suggest that nearly half of all adults in Britain have numeracy skills below the level expected of an 11 year old”. Science teaching is as bad. According to one report “both school students and science graduates have a considerably lower age-specific average science attainment than did the smaller and more elite cohort of thirty-plus years ago”. Likewise, history is a total washout. When I was at school we were taught about World War One, then Indian Independence, then how the Romans built roads, a bit about the Industrial Revolution, a little bit of the Vietnam War…there was no idea of history of a constant flow which has brought us to how the world is today.

You might think that such underperformance would result in radical structural reform, sackings or pay cuts, certainly that would be the case in any private sector enterprise. But no, teachers have been awarded pay rises and seen their generous pension arrangements left untouched. The average teacher earns £26,460 after five years while the national average is just £22,411.

How is it that the providers of such an obviously useless service manage to get away with it? More than that, how come they are rewarded for it? Well, on the surface the results look impressive. In 2005, no fewer than 97.8% of students who sat GCSE exams passed with 61.2% of them getting grades A* to C. A level results the same year saw the 23rd consecutive increase to a whopping 96.2%.

However, there is very good reason to believe that these children are not passing exams because they have been schooled particularly well but because the exams themselves have become so much easier. According to a report released in 2005, some candidates who got an A grade at A level would only have been awarded a C or D as recently as 1988. A science GCSE is now a multiple choice test and GCSE examiners are told not to mark a paper down “solely because of the existence of an error”. A survey by the Russell Group carried out in 2004 found that “A survey of 100 academics…found that 90 of them believed that an A grade at A-level was worth less than it was 10 years ago.” When presented with the three propositions that A-Level standards were falling, modular A-Levels were easier to pass and examination papers are less demanding, one teacher respondedthat “As an A-Level teacher of some 16 years experience, I have to give a resounding Yes to each and every one of these hypotheses”. Faith in the rigour of exams and the worth of the qualification has been so badly shaken that, according to the report by Reform quoted above, 43% of 18-24 year olds think exams have got easier to pass.

Not surprisingly those who benefit from being so well rewarded for doing such a bad job are reluctant to see the gravy train hit the buffers. Take a look at Tony Blair’s pretty modest education reforms. Not only are teaching unions opposed but so are the Labour backbenchers who owe so much of their support to unions such as the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Head Teachers. Blocking every type of reform, these unions must be some of the most reactionary forces outside of Saudi Arabia. And it is the ill educated children who suffer.

This is not to lay the blame at the door of the rank and file teachers. They may well strike to get more money from the taxpayer and preserve their generous pensions but who wouldn’t in their situation? The syllabus wasn’t degraded by teachers but by ‘educationalists’ who believed that teaching was somehow oppressive to pupils and various socialist tinged governments who do not like the idea of failure. The fact that schools are such violent and anti social places was, again, not down to teachers but the parents who cannot bring their children up and the same socialist tinged governments who didn’t think that crime was something to be punished but ‘understood’ and ‘empathised’ with.

The blame for the abject failure of state education lies at the door of the government and teaching unions and their symbiotic relationship. Unions bank roll the Labour party and so, in government, Labour will do little to anger them. If it tries to enact necessary reforms, as we have seen recently, the unions will call in their support and scare enough Labour MPs into rebelling. By this simple mechanism any real reform of state education is still born and it is the children of the poor who suffer, the children whose parents can’t afford to send their children to public schools unlike the expensively educated offspring of the Labour elite.