Sunday, 10 December 2017

Boris as Tory leader? Bring it on!

Most  NS readers will have been as amused as I was when reading the article by the editor-in-chief of what has been described as "the Bible of the banking fraternity", in which Tory MPs were urged "to start getting behind Boris" (Philandering won`t hold Johnson back, 1st December, 2017). William Cash appeared upset that "the new darling" of the Tories, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the "bookies` favourite to be the next Tory leader", and prefers Johnson, because he apparently sees voters as "there to be drawn in, persuaded, teased, entertained and signed up". Is there anything more entertaining than Tories grasping at straws?
   It is difficult to support Cash`s claim that "the left fears Johnson", when the Labour leader`s popularity is based on a view of politics that is so distant from the one held by the foreign secretary. Corbyn`s strong principled beliefs contrast sharply with the opportunist and manipulative career moves of Johnson, and they clearly resonate with young voters, fed up with Tory policies which favour the rich and  big business, whilst imposing austerity measures on the least fortunate.
  If Johnson`s "charisma is the Conservative Party`s greatest electoral asset", it is an acknowledgement of its intellectual bankruptcy, devoid of ideas, bereft of unity and leadership, and guilty of leading the country into a Brexit which increasingly and suspiciously looks like a bonfire of regulations and workers` rights. Voters are fed up of being treated like mugs, and will not forget Johnson`s lies in a hurry. Many, like me, will relish the prospect of him as Tory leader, facing questions from a live audience in the build-up to an election. Bring it on!

Social mobility:as if the Tories cared

The suggestion that the resignation of the entire Social Mobility Commission is a "huge blow" to a prime minister who has "hinged her whole domestic agenda around improving opportunity" has little credibility, simply because of lack supporting evidence (For all May`s talk of meritocracy, she does nothing but reinforce privilege over opportunity,03.12.17). Even the excuses made to deflect blame from Tory governments, such as "deindustrialisation over the last 30 years", and generational wealth gaps, ignore governments` failure to distribute infrastructural investment away from the south-east.
     In education since 2010, governments have not only diverted funds from the state system to aid the creation of free schools, simultaneously threatening the return of grammar schools, they have ended the Education Maintenance Allowance which helped pupils from poorer backgrounds enter sixth forms, and removed coursework elements from external assessments. This is not the work of administrations keen to improve social mobility, especially when accompanied by austerity measures which have increased, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the number of children living in poverty by 400,000 in the last four years.
    The editorial mentioned the advantages gained by pupils at "elite public schools", but omitted to acknowledge the fact that Pre-U examinations have replaced A-levels in many independent schools. The head of Eton admitted to the Commons` select committee on education that seven of his staff are involved in the setting of these examinations, and no doubt the marking too! This becomes even more alarming when allied to the fact that Cambridge Assessment International Education, which runs Pre-U exams, is not a member of the body responsible for examination regulations and inspections, the Joint Council for Qualifications!
    Meg Kneafsey`s article on the "appalling behaviour" at Durham University simply added fuel to the argument for a law limiting the undergraduate intake of each university to 7% from the private sector, in line with national figures (Sneering at miners reflects a deeper malaise in our universities,03.12.17).

Friday, 8 December 2017

Scandal surrounding public schools and Pre-U exams

When news broke last August of an examination cheating scandal at top public schools Eton and Winchester, few in the UK had heard of Pre-U exams. When the details of the cheating were revealed, it became clear that in many independent schools, these examinations are taken instead of A-levels. As if the playing-field wasn`t sufficiently uneven, many of the privately educated are able to get their qualifications for entry to university by taking examinations which most teachers, let alone the public, didn`t know existed.
 Why do so many so-called "elite" independent schools favour Pre-U examinations in the first place? It appears these examinations were created in response to demands from private schools, because, presumably, they were not happy with the A-levels which the vast majority of 6th form students in the country take. Why? On the Pre-U website, Winchester College recommends these examinations, as they "are very liberating for teachers". In what ways? Are the courses and assessment procedures so different? Are the fees for these examinations higher than for "bog-standard" A-levels, and therefore out of the reach of most fund-starved state schools?
   What we do know is that Cambridge Assessment International Education, which is part of Cambridge University, runs the Pre-U exams and appoints the examiners, who just happen, often to be independent school teachers, which explains why there was cheating  this summer. Winchester college was forced to suspend its head of history of art , according to the Guardian (28/08/17), "after allegations he gave students prior information on exam questions". Similarly, the "deputy headmaster of academics" at Eton was forced to leave after questions were allegedly distributed to his students from the economics examination.
 So many unanswered questions, and so many doubts raised about the fairness of the education system, as if it wasn`t skewed enough already in favour of the wealthy. Never mind, here comes our trusted democratic parliamentary system to the rescue.
 Yes, the Commons` select committee on education invited the head of Eton, a director of Ofqual, and the chief executive of Cambridge Assessment International Education (CIE) to answer questions last Tuesday. The Guardian headlined that the Eton head would be "grilled". Excellent! All will be revealed and we will find out the answers to our many queries about these examinations.
    Sadly, however, there was no grilling, not even a mild heating, and watching the recording of events is not recommended. The Eton head admitted that seven of his staff set papers for exams taken by their own pupils pupils, and what also was particularly relevant was that the CIE is not a member of the organisation which is responsible for examination regulations and inspections, the Joint Council for Qualifications. CIE`s chief executive admitted the number of incidents of exam malpractice had risen from 269 in 2013 to 719 this year worldwide, hardly encouraging if we are to believe in the integrity of their exams! Ofqual do not even include the CIE when reporting on malpractice! What no-one mentioned was what happens in the classroom when the teacher knows the exam questions in advance, even if the pupils don`t:; there is so much room for putting more obvious emphasis on certain topics than on the others not being examined.

      What we need to know is how Pre-U examinations are different and why so many independent schools prefer them for their pupils than the A-levels taken by the vast majority of state schools. There must be yet more advantage gained for children attending public school, as if there wasn`t enough already!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Britain and Trump

The UK needs to take a stand over Trump’s approach to Israel

There may be “no one in the White House able to restrain him”, as Robert Fisk says, but that does not mean Britain and her Nato and European allies should be doing nothing.
It is not enough for Boris Johnson to say he was “concerned about reports Trump would recognise Jerusalem as Israel`s capital”. Downright disapproval is needed immediately, then joint communiques from European leaders disassociating themselves from Trump’s idiotic action, and then the return of all American diplomats from their embassies, starting with the one in London. Cancelling Trump`s forthcoming visit to the UK is also an immediate priority.
It is not good enough to wait for Americans to take action themselves against him: Americans wanting to impeach their president need all the support they can get!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Guardian letter on social mobility

Alan Milburn diplomatically attributed the government`s failure to "deliver on the issue" of social mobility to there being "too much focus on Brexit" (Brexit and fairness don`t add up, 04/12/17). One does not, however, need to be left of the "far- centre of an opposition", as Zoe Williams claims, to be finding "May`s equality shtick rather hard to swallow", as her repeated failures to act on any one of her aims regarding "burning injustices" stated in her Downing Street speech lead to an all too obvious conclusion (Never mind social mobility. Poverty is an insult to us all, 04/12/17).
      Williams is right to say that support for the Child Poverty Act was "only skin-deep", but sadly, the same is true of all recent Tory announcements on social improvement. Giving priority to policies of austerity, tax reduction and state-shrinking means everything else becomes mere rhetoric, designed only to win votes. The Social Justice and Mobility Commission was never intended to have the power to initiate change; after all, giving more opportunities to people from working-class backgrounds inevitably means less opportunities for the middle and upper classes. Having the EU around as a scapegoat, deflecting blame from the government for the poverty and minimal opportunities for improvement, came in particularly handy for the dominant faction in government, leaving us, of course, with an ever "worsening problem".

Monday, 4 December 2017

Tax and productivity

Andrew Rawnsley was right to say that "politicians have been slow to come to a subject that has been troubling economists for some time", and the result of their apathy is the current low productivity with its projected growth rate of 1.2% (Life is going to turn very nasty if we can`t solve the growth puzzle, 26.11.17). The five "foundations" of the government are based on, in Rawnsley`s words, "addressing skills shortages and deficient infrastructure", but they, despite what the Business Leader states, are most certainly not "fine as far as they go" (An industrial strategy that puts the whole country on the map is the way to lift UK, 26.11.17). There is a huge omission, and without it, any industrial strategy will flounder.
       It is, of course, reform of the existing tax system, which encourages short-termism and a bonus culture. Far too many CEOs are obscenely rewarded because they have overseen a rise in profits rather than in productivity, and an increase in the dividend paid to shareholders rather than in the amount produced. Raising the highest band of income tax would at least show both the government`s serious intentions in dealing with the productivity problem, and its awareness of where much of the problem lies. A sensible tax structure is needed to encourage CEOs to invest in technology and training rather than to accumulate wealth for themselves and shareholders! More scrutiny of bosses` actions instead of workers` hourly productivity would result in bigger dividends for the country as a whole.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Labour and Brexit

Jonathan Rutherford states a number of obviously incontrovertible points, but just because the country needs "national leadership, political resolve, and a strategy for a better country", does not necessarily lead to the conclusion he favours (Why the left should support Brexit, 24th November, 2017). It is noticeable that he omits any mention of the fact, stressed in the previous week`s Leader, that the country has been "betrayed by mendacious mediocrities such as Mr Johnson", and that the Brexit vote was only in part "a vote for the nation state", as many people voted to leave because it was a way of protesting against duplicitous politicians who had ignored vast swathes of the country for too long (Leader, 17th November, 2017).
       Rutherford wants Britain, apparently, to leave the EU because it "expands the opportunities of financiers, investors and high-skilled professionals", but that only happens because our leading politicians in the last thirty years have encouraged it; few will dispute that they have generally been either far too close to the City and financial institutions, or too easily influenced by  press and media barons. Kenneth Clarke openly admitted the latter recently. How can the greed of the multinational companies like Google and Apple ever be curtailed without European co-operation?
       Far from the public knowing  Labour to be "untrustworthy and not credible", it is Corbyn`s principled approach which has made him so popular. His policies to increase regulation, impose a fair system of taxation, and end the practice of investment being focused on the south-east, will be made far more difficult to achieve without trade with Europe, the inevitable consequence of the botched negotiations currently taking place. Corbyn also is clearly coming to the conclusion that the young people of this country, on whom much of his support relies, relish the opportunities the EU affords them, socially, educationally and economically. For purely political reasons, Corbyn has to oppose the hard Brexit into which the Tories are leading us; for the good of the country he has to consider a second referendum on the "deal" the Tories have in store for us.