Johann Hari – The Milli Vanilli of journalism

Girl you know it’s true…or maybe it isn’t

Toby Young used to be annoying for a living. These days, with Young returned from New York, he proves as adept at annoying people as ever, the lefties hate the free school he has helped set up in west London. As a wise man once said to me, the left loves diversity in everything except thought.

I’m glad to see that Toby Young shares not just my views on free schools but my dislike for the dreadful Johann Hari, a man so consistently wrong and with such vehemence that you can only conclude it’s not ignorance but dishonesty.

So I was pleased to see Young trumpeting on his blog today just what a cheeky and unprofessional little blighter Hari is. He’s been rumbled passing off collections of quotes from books as interviews with those books’ authors.

Hari spoke out to defend himself

“When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech. (I know I write much more clearly than I speak – whenever I read a transcript of what I’ve said, or it always seems less clear and more clotted. I think we’ve all had that sensation in one form or another).

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech”

I rather liked Elizabeth Flock of the Washington Post’s take on that

“Let’s say you once interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. for a story, but he wasn’t all that articulate about his hopes for racial reconciliation. So you decided to just quote his “I have a dream” line in the story and pretend he told it to you. That’s fine, right?”

Johann Hari is the Milli Vanilli of journalism.*

* Note to Hari, this comes from a comment on Toby Young’s blog post

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Dumb Britain

“Every schoolboy knows how William the Conqueror slipped on the beach at Pevensey and defeated Harold at Hastings. Every schoolboy knows, or thinks he does, how Julius Caesar defeated the mighty British chieftan Cassivellaunus and thus subdued the country”

– AH Burne, 1952

How many British schoolboys in 2011 even know who any of the four people mentioned in the above quote were?

Labour’s listening exercise has told them that Britain’s a conservative country

Is there anybody out there?

In the wake of its defeat at last years election Labour did what modern political parties do and launched a ‘listening exercise’. This week it made its first report and the comrades didn’t like what they heard.

Paul Richards, a self described “a part-time shadow cabinet factotum” whatever that is, reported on Labourlist that British opinion was:

“tough on crime (and to hell with the causes), a preference for money to be spent in the UK’s roads and schools before those of India or Nigeria, a crackdown on benefit cheats and lazy arses who don’t want to work, and a strong desire to see the NHS and school system work properly. Add in a little mild xenophobia towards the continental Europeans and a visceral loathing of MPs and bankers”

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The Great Debate – University of London colleges would benefit from privatisation

The argument against privatized universities usually runs as follows; education is a right and, as such, should be paid for by the taxpayer.

Whether education is a ‘right’ is a question worthy of a discussion in itself. The Bill of Rights of 1689 lists, among other rights, freedom of speech and freedom from royal interference in Parliamentary elections. More succinctly the Declaration of Independence of the United States listed just three rights in 1776, those to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Since then we’ve had a couple of centuries of capitalism, the greatest method of increasing living standards ever devised by humanity. As our ability to produce goods and services has grown, thanks to capitalism, ‘rights’ of access to these goods and services have proliferated.

But even if education is a right it still does not automatically follow that this means it should be provided by the state and paid for by the taxpayer.

Few would disagree that people have a right to food and clothing yet only the most lunatic left wingers would argue that these should be provided by the state. Communist China tried just this with clothing and 1 billion people got identical jim jams.

The clamour for the state (read taxpayers) to provide the food and clothing we each have a right to is dulled because the free market private sector does a very good job of providing them. Between 1982 and 2005, according to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage of income spent by the average family on food fell from 21% to 16% while the cost of clothes fell by 2.6% per year between 1998 and 2008. Indeed, some now argue the free market does too good a job. The problem facing the less well off in the UK is not malnutrition but obesity.

So we see that free markets in the private sector lead to lower prices and greater variety. But, for some mysterious reason, it is argued that higher education will be different, that price will rise and people will not be able to afford the education they have a right to.

This equity argument for taxpayer funding falls apart almost immediately. Under the current state system a child of professional parents has a 72% chance of going to university. A child of unskilled parents has just a 13% chance. Given that graduates will earn, on average, more than non graduates over their working lives the taxpayer funding of universities is simply a subsidy for the children of the well off to earn even more. Increasing private provision, making these kids pay more for their own education, would leave more resources free for the children of the less well off.

The comparative lack of access to higher education for children of the less well off is caused by factors, such as lack of access to good quality secondary education, which are already in place before they start filling in the UCAS form. There is no reason to think that this existing problem will be exacerbated by private university education. Indeed, looking at how private markets work in providing other rights like food and clothing and how higher education works in the US, with it web of scholarships and bursaries, that it may free up more resources to help the less well off. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if the kids of the middle class continue to defend their subsidy and call it social justice.

(Printed in London Student, 08/11/10)

Why the Labour government is crap


(Written in response to something pro Labour)

Ill be voting Conservative (no shock there). And Ill be doing it on policies, not half baked second hand opinion masquerading as original thought like ‘Oh, theyre a bunch of toffs’. Flip this silly inverted snobbery round; would you say “I wont vote for her, shes only a grocers daughter!”

Were also reminded about Thatchers “decimating” of industry. Well, decimating means (coming from the Latin ‘deci’) a decline of one tenth. In fact, under Thatcher, UK manufacturing fell from 25.8% of the economy to 22.5%; indeed, decimation.

But lets take a look at this Labour government. In 1997 manufacturing accounted for 20% of our economy. By 2007 that had fallen to 12.4%. The Romans never came up with a word for that.

Labour have been an utter economic disaster for this country. Between 2002 and 2007, before a single bank needed bailing out, Labour were running budget deficits. Lest we forget, the economy was growing at the time (based on borrowing). Unemployment was low. Tax receipts were rising. Yet Gordon Brown still managed to spend more than he had coming in.

So, when the storm hit, we were buggered. Someone once described a recession as being like when the tide goes out and you find out who’s been swimming naked. We were well and truly in the bollocky buff.

And we are nowhere near out of the woods. True, the economy has returned to weak growth, but if you throw £175 billion of borrowed cash at a problem youre bound to have an effect. But what effect? Despite the ludicrous assertion above that Labour have “reduce(d) the number of unemployed and (got) people back in to work” we actually have more people unemployed than at any time since the hated Thatcher. We have a rate of economic inactivity which is higher than its ever been before.

Trouble is that you cant go on doing this and you need to stop. If you dont and you keep borrowing then you will see your interest rates go up. Put simply, the Conservatives can deal with this looming meltdown, Labour cant.

And lets not forget the disastrous role the Labour government had in bringing about this recession. In 2003 we switched the inflation target for the Bank of England from the RPI measure (which includes housing costs) to the CPI measure (which doesnt). If wed stuck with the RPI wed have had interest rates go up sooner and choke off the bubble before it reached the stratosphere. Theres alot further to fall from up there.

The economic story of this government can be simply told. They inherited, from the Conservatives in 1997, the best economic climate since before the First World War. They will leave them, in 2010, with the worst economic climate since World War Two.

We are told that Labour “are becoming tougher on immigration”. Phew, well, it only took them 13 years! But this points system only applies to those coming from outside the EU. If you are worried about Poles taking jobs then this points system wont make a blind bit of difference.

We were told about Labour’s shiny new school buildings. Bravo. Sadly the teaching that goes on in them has got worse. The Programme for International Student Assessment compares students from a range of countries. In 2000 the UK ranked 7th in reading, 8th in maths and 4th in science. By 2008 we had slumped to 17th in reading, 24th in maths and 14th in science.

I will agree with vote Conservative “if you want to pay less tax and National Insurance”. Of course, if you want to keep paying high taxes to bail out bankers, then vote Labour by all means.

Which brings us to the NI increase. Why, with unemployment high, do Labour want to put a tax on jobs? They put a tax on fags and cider because they want people to consume less fags and cider. They put a tax on jobs, however, and dont expect employers to consume less labour.

Vote Labour if you want 42 day detention and ID cards. Vote Labour if you want more dodgy wars. Vote Labour if you want more lies about European referendums. Vote Labour if you want a bloated, unproductive public sector to strangle the economy. Vote Labour to see a continuation of mean politics, with attack dogs being turned on everyone from a Conservative MP’s wife to Joanna Lumley and a survivor of the Paddington rail crash. Vote Labour if you want a CCTV camera in every home. Vote Labour if you want five more years of Gordon Brown.

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.