Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Fantasy of Atlanticism: Dilettante on The Student Journals

 The first of two articles examining Britain's relationships with America and the EU, and arguing that our long-term interests are better served by the latter.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Simon Hughes is Wrong: It is state schools, not universities, that are failing disadvantaged children.

 Simon Hughes, in his new role as 'Access Tsar' (I know...) has produced another assault in the integrity of higher education. The proposal is simple: force universities charging over £6,000 under the new fees regime to "tackle the admissions gap" and "take on a fair proportion of state school students." To enforce this, Mr Hughes proposes putting new regulations on university admissions onto the statute book to bring them into line. Such a move against university independence must be strenuously resisted.

 To deal with an obvious point first, what constitutes a "fair" proportion of state school pupils? A meritocrat might suggest that a "fair" proportion is the proportion that can pass the entrance procedures. Not Mr Hughes, however. His conception of a fair proportion, shared by the sort of people who demand all women shortlists and other forms of positive discrimination, is to have university intakes "reflect society" in the number of state-educated pupils they take in.

 There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting the make up of a given group more closely resemble the broader society from which they are drawn (although there is little to suggest it is inherently right), but simply trying to legislate that it be so, regardless of actual levels of attainment by state-educated pupils, demonstrates clearly the terrible temptations laid before the overseers of state education, and their consequences. For the fact that universities are not admitting a representative proportion of state-educated students is not their fault, it is the fault of state schools.

 Let me explain. In a system untouched by political meddling, everyone knows where the goalposts are. Employers know what they want, and universities, colleges and apprenticeships work towards that, or towards academic ideals of their own. Schools know that they have to work towards these standards if they are going to be successful in getting their pupils into higher education. Everyone knows what must be achieved and has no option but to work towards that goal.

 Of course, in a totally private system many people would be disadvantaged by background or circumstance, and this is where state education comes in. The purpose of state education is to ensure that all children, regardless of background or financial circumstance, have the chance to fulfil their academic or vocational potential and achieve the same high standards as more fortunate children.

 However, somewhere along the line, those in charge of state education started to veer off course. Attainment fell, social mobility began to stagnate and the relative advantage of private education began to increase. The reasons for this are the cause of much debate, but in my opinion it was the advent of comprehensive education combined with 'trendy teaching' in the state sector, while the private and what remained of the selective sector retained more traditional, effective teaching methods. The 'why' isn't vital to this piece: that is vital is how those responsible for state education responded once it started to fall behind. Rather than altering their manifestly failing methods, to which many teachers had developed an ideological attachment, it occurred to state educators that their connexion to the state offered an alternative: move the goalposts. This has manifested itself in a couple of ways. 

The first is the concept of 'value-added', whereby the League Table position (or perhaps in future even the grades) of public sector schools dealing with 'disadvantaged' groups such as ethnic minorities and the poor are inflated to represent how well educators think they did as poor or black children. This approach is outlined and criticised effectively in this article over on Spiked!, under the sub-heading "Defensive Over Standards". In short, it represents the idea that a C or worse is to an ethnic minority or poor child as an A is to a 'privileged' child. It allows teachers and schools whose methods are producing woefully sub-standard results to stand back and go "Yes, it isn't brilliant, but given that we only had black children to work with didn't we do well?" 

 It is an utterly abhorrent, borderline bigoted approach to the education of the disadvantaged, whereby the state education sector attempts to duck the difficulties of teaching the disadvantaged by dressing up poor results as good ones. This is a system that places the image of the education providers (schools, teachers and their unions) over the actual results of the consumers (the poor pupils), because saying that a C 'counts as' an A doesn't mean that it makes a child as employable as someone who actually got one. The children receive the same poor grades they used to receive, but the new system makes providers look better.

 This approach runs into problems, however, once the children leave school. Sure, the teachers and school might be patting each other on the back for providing excellent 'value-added' results, but out in the real world employers and universities are looking at a string of poor grades as... well, as a string of poor grades. With state-educated school leavers not coming up to standard, universities draw an increasing proportion of their intake from public schools. This suggests that private schools are providing their students with an education that better prepares them for university. 

 How do state educators respond to this? By acknowledging that their standards are not up to scratch and seeing what lessons they can learn from the private sector? Not on your life. Rather, they move once again to lower the crossbar, courtesy of Simon Hughes' recommendations. Instead of fixing state schools, they simply want to force good universities to take pupils who have not achieved sufficient grades to get in fairly. Cosmetically, this will look like achievement. The government will be able to say that "more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before." Yet these children will not be adequately prepared for rigorous academic courses. As I have written before, simply placing someone into a university does not guarantee that they will succeed. The 'graduate dividend' is not a product of going to university per se, it is a product of getting a good degree in a sought after subject and then getting a high-earning job.

 I wrote at length in the previous article about how those on the left have misunderstood the advantages of Higher Education to the detriment of state pupils, and I won't repeat those arguments here. Yet it is nonetheless true that even if the crossbar into university is lowered (and perhaps we'll see 'value-added' degrees in future), the crossbar for entering good employment - especially in an increasingly competitive, globalised world - will not have shifted, at least not downwards. These children, showered with illusory 'value-added' rewards by a state education establishment unwilling to face up to its failings, will find themselves unready for the brutal realities of the job market. Those who have followed a path of rigorous standards and high achievement will always (rightly) have the advantage. What will Mr Hughes and his ideological bedfellows do then? Another legislative solution, another Equalities Act, to force employers to hire weaker candidates?

 Children who go to private school are 'privileged', but it is not simply a matter of money. Money can buy fine grounds, good teachers, cricket pavilions and sports equipment, but it is not fundamental to academic success. No, the principle advantage enjoyed by a privately educated child is that their teachers cannot cheat. They can't blame their circumstances, they can't lean on the state and regulators to conjure false achievements.  Unlike state schools (although the Gove reforms might change this), private schools know that their survival depends on providing an excellent academic education. They don't indulge the fashionable nonsense that has wrought such havoc on the state sector because, unlike the recipients of state services, the customers of private schools can very easily up sticks and leave.

 Mr Hughes is right to think that the relative dearth of state educated pupils in our finest higher education establishments is a problem, but he has arrived at entirely the wrong solution. If he persists in forcing universities to take substandard pupils, they will not retain their current world-class standing: that standing is entirely connected to their intake procedures. Instead of castigating universities for insisting on excellence, he should turn his fire on a state education system that has failed to insist on it for far too long. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

If Greece wants the Elgin Marbles, let's see if they'll trade for them.

 Just a short one today, about a minor story that vexes me rather.

 The Guardian reports today that David Cameron has rejected a call from Liberal Democrat (of course) MP to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Certainly, this might do something to ease the tempers of the Greek citizenry, although it is hard to see why that is Britain's concern. However, it would only do so by playing to one of the ugliest aspects of modern Greek nationlism: their absurd pretensions to be the sole people with any sort of right to the legacy of Hellenic culture. 

 The main victim of this absurd position is the embattled Republic of Macedonia. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early Nineties, Greece has strenuously opposed any notion of Macedonia being called Macedonia or using a traditional symbol of Macedonia on its flag, using the quite absurd justification that this implies territorial irredentism by Macedonia against the Greek province of the same name. Regardless of the fact that a portion of the old Kingdom of Macedon did lie within modern Macedonian borders, or that the idea that the modern Greek state being a direct and sole successor to a fractious group of city states two and a half millennia ago is absurd, this position worked to further destabilise Macedonia in the early Nineties and today acts as a roadblock to Macedonia's ambitions to join the EU.

From Wikipedia.

 Above is a map of the major Hellenic states following the breakup of the Alexandrian Empire in 323 BC. Look how big it is. Even if we discount the myriad Greek colonies in the Western Mediterranean and the Indo-Greek civilisation beyond the Indus, that map suggests that countries that can claim some connexion to Hellenic culture include: Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and yet more besides. 

 In my opinion, if we do return the Elgin Marbles to Greece we should at least take the opportunity to support the Republic of Macedonia (as the UK thankfully recognises the country) in their bid for normalised relations and EU membership. We might remind them that the original nationalist creators of modern Greece only settled on the 'Hellenic' aspects when the rival camp of 'Byzantinists' were undermined by Ottoman retention of Constantinople. We should make the return of the marbles conditional on Greece' recognition that the Hellenic legacy is one shared by many tens of millions of people in nearly twenty countries throughout the former Hellenic world. 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Will David Cameron be a defining Conservative figure?

 Somebody asked me this question recently during a discussion of Margaret Thatcher, musing over whether the Cameroons will be remembered as the vanguard of a new breed of Conservatism tomorrow the way the early Thatcherites are today. During that conversation I immediately answered the negative - and had I got round to writing this article in a reasonable time, I would probably have stuck with my original title of "Why Cameron will not be a defining Conservative figure." Yet further consideration led me to think I might have answered rashly. So instead of self-assured polemic, this post is now me trying to make up my mind, which is probably less fun to read. Oh well.

 First, let us consider the evidence that supports the idea that Cameron will be remembered as a significant, perhaps defining figure. First and most obviously, there's the coalition. The bold manoeuvre performed by Cameron in pursuing a formal coalition in the aftermath of the 2010 election was one of the things that led many - including me - to believe that he might be the next Thatcher, the man whose vision would guide Conservatism and the country at large for the next quarter-century or more. On top of all the talk of the post-Rose Garden 'realignment' of the Liberal-Conservative axis, you have the sterling work of individual reformers. Michael Gove's schools reform and Ian Duncan Smith's universal benefit system will, if they work, be remembered alongside right-to-buy and privatisation as reforms that transformed the British political and cultural landscape in important ways.

 So too, if the government fights and wins, will be the slaying of the last remaining Trades Union dragons from the public sector. The growth of what The Economist's Bagehot describes as "Gordon Brown's social democratic client state" is probably one of the most intractable problems facing future British governments. Drastic reform of public services is necessary and this will entail defeating the entrenched special interests that dominate them. If Cameron can achieve this, then he'll be remembered as a historically significant Prime Minister.

 Yet there is every sign that he might not achieve these things. In the great tests of his ministry in recent days - liberal justice reforms and NHS reforms - Cameron's instinct has been to retreat. He's compromised Lansley and fed Ken Clarke to the wolves, both of whom were only advancing policies that had already received Number 10 approval. And for all his calling for workers to cross the picket lines during the British Airways dispute during the dying days of the last government, there is no concrete evidence that Cameron has the stomach to take the more combative unions on. In the pursuit of popularity and fearful of not being re-elected, Cameron might squander the opportunity afforded him by the financial crisis to effect necessary and lasting change.

 Even if this does not come to pass and Cameron is remembered as a great Prime Minister it does not - and it is important to make this distinction clear - make him a man of historic significance to the shape of Conservatism. First, it should be remembered that the best reforms being undertaken by his government are the brainchildren of the minister responsible. Whether its Gove on schools, Eric Pickles' localism agenda, Lansley's embattled healthcare reforms or IDS' personal crusade on benefits, these reforms are very much the property of ministers, and can't really be perceived as component parts of some great 'Cameronite' vision. While Lady Thatcher was preceded in her vision too, she took Sir Keith Joseph's message to heart and made it her own in a way that Cameron hasn't really done.

 The message that Cameron has tried to make his own is the 'big society', and that has become an ill-defined embarrassment. Seldom has a policy so key to the personal convictions of a Prime Minister been sold so poorly. It was deployed, completely untested, at the last General Election, and it has not been clearly articulated then or since. This lack of definition creates problems on two fronts: those who might favour it find little to get enthusiastic about, while those suspicious of it find ample fuel for their fears, suspecting that the vague language betrays a cover for ruthless cuts.

 This vagueness stems from Cameron's core problem, and the heart of the reason that he'll never define the party the way Thatcher did: he is still defined by Thatcher himself. Since its earliest days his leadership has been dominated by the need to 'de-toxify' the Conservative brand. Some of this certainly needed doing, and much of it still needs to be done. But the way Cameron has set about it means that he has become too pre-occupied with image, and the short term. He doesn't play to right-wing strengths because he's afraid of appearing, well, right-wing.

 Not only does this lead to things such as defence cuts and legally-enshrined aid commitments, which play well with the Guardian despite being of at best dubious benefit to the nation, but it also means that Cameron lacks the spine to stand firm behind reforms he fears will tarnish his image, such as Lansley's health reforms. It also means he can't properly articulate his vision for the 'big society'. While he is free to stress the upsides - community engagement, personal responsibility, localism etc. - he cannot state in plain language the obvious corollaries: a decline in the size and scope of the state. He sprang the 'big society' so late upon an unsuspecting nation because it isn't something he was confident in proclaiming - certainly not before the crash, when perhaps the truest indication of Cameron's fear of his own party was that he was committing to Labour's own utterly reckless spending commitments.

 Despite the fact that polls demonstrate that this message is popular with voters, Cameron can't clearly talk about the consequences of the big society because it would sound dangerously like the 'individual responsibility' rhetoric of the Eighties. He has not yet worked out how to sound like a 'compassionate Conservative' while cutting the state, and even twenty years after she left office Lady Thatcher's long shadow is making him jump.

 That weakness is why I don't think he'll ever be a defining leader of Conservatism. A defining leader has to be their own person, confident of their convictions and good at advancing their own ideas. Nobody who identifies as an '-ite' of a previous leader, like a Thatcherite, can ever hope to define a party in their own image, but neither can someone with a cringing, subconscious aversion to that leader and their legacy.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Yes to the UK: Dilettante on The Student Journals

I've got another article published over on TSJ, this time setting out in broad strokes why I'm a unionist and why others should be too.