Vir Cantium

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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Why Is The Education Establishment Obsessed with Equality over Quality?

It’s secondary school admissions time, and over the weekend the Torygraph reported on the growing practice of allocating school places either by lottery or “fair banding”. Now while I wouldn’t disagree with the complaints of social engineering or damage to house values, the fact is that however loudly the middle classes moan about it, the educational establishment will remain unmoved – even encouraged. Yet those hit hardest are not the middle classes but pupils, and disadvantaged pupils at that.

The piece includes a quote from a head teacher which I think pretty well sums up the view of said establishment:

“Fair banding ensures we have a completely comprehensive intake with children of all abilities and from all ethnic backgrounds. We reflect the full range of society.

“We have an excellent and completely multicultural school. It is genuinely comprehensive.”

There’s your problem. No explanation of why a comprehensive and engineered ‘all ethnicity’ intake is a good thing in terms of the individual pupil’s education. It’s all about the veneer of equality, which seems to be an end in itself. No questioning of why schools should be proud of being a ‘jack of all trades’ rather than seeking to provide a high quality education tailored to every pupil, which a comprehensive will always have a handicap in trying to provide.

The problem with selection by lottery or banding is that it fails to address the root issues and instead tries to keep on life support the comatose body of the comprehensive education system. It rates equality over quality.

Jennie Varley, the vice-chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, said: “This is a form of social engineering.
“It seems wrong to decide the fate of children on the roll of a dice. It means that children might end up with the wrong education which can have a damaging impact on their lives.

It’s certainly not fair that a pupils future should be decided by the roll of a dice. Indeed it is arguably far less fair than the hated 11+ or the more common system – the untended consequence of the comprehensive experiment – of selection by mortgage.

The case of fair banding is even more bizarre. It is selection by academic ability, but with out any useful end purpose – at least in the context, or to the benefit of, the pupil. It serves only the blind pursuit of Equality.

Instead of following the dogma of equality for all, we should focus on quality for all. Rather than thinly spreading the pupils from the bad schools across the whole system where they are less noticeable, concentrate on improving the bad schools; as Varley said, “The Government should be focusing instead on improving the standards of all schools.” Quite.

Alternatively, one could follow the establishment thinking: selection by lottery will work to return education to the practical end result of Sixties-style comprehensive education – having every school tend towards a level somewhere just below average. It will happen thus: average (or failing) school gets a decent head; results start to improve; school’s reputation rises; middle class parents, with their horrendously irritating values of aspiration and hard work and their children so indoctrinated, move closer to the school; such pupils further drive up results. Then, myopic Leftists started wailing at the lack of diversity in the intake and mess about with the admissions, results start to decline and so the virtuous circle inverts.

Meanwhile, the universities are then expected to rig their own admissions criteria. In the words of the chairman of independent school heads on Monday:

Trying to force universities to repair, let alone make up for, the problems of 18 years of upbringing and education is certainly not the answer …. It is approaching the issue from the wrong end and is like asking an engineer to improve the design of an aircraft after the plane has already crashed.”

(Alternatively a bad school introduces banding. Are they looking for a quick fix, or being obsessed with the social make-up of the school rather than the quality of education it’s providing, which might just hint at the real reason for the school’s problems?)

Of course there is no perfect solution. Surely, though, some schools could be allowed to run a system of selection that doesn’t hinge on the value of the parents’ house or pure luck …. Maybe some schools, whether under the academy or free school model, could select those pupils whose particular aptitude that school is best at exploiting? Some of these schools could, say, select on academic ability, regardless of social class, ethnicity or cultural bent. How could any true egalitarian object?


The Swedes Get It On The TV Licence Fee (Sort Of)

My regular reader will be unsurprised that I read the following news item with particular interest, given my many and sometimes coherent thoughts on the subject of the TV Licence Fee (formerly known as “the unique way the BBC is funded”):

TV licence system under review
The system of TV licensing to fund British public TV and radio broadcasting could be discontinued after 2013, after a majority of members of parliament expressed support for a new model.

Yes, of course, I’ve fiddled with the text. It’s Sweden’s TV licence fee being possibly read the last rites, but one can dream.

A BBC Radio outside broadcast van

How long before the wheels come off the BBC Tax? (Too long)

Or, in this case, suffer a severe case of deja-vu:

The TV licence system does not take into account when, if or how viewers use any of the channels or services which are funded by it.

Despite the fee being paid by nine of ten Swedes, it has become controversial with some questioning why they should pay for something they don’t use.

The development of web-TV services and the changing habits of viewers has further generated discussion over how the system is designed….

Being Sweden, of course, the next option being talked up is to fund the state broadcaster from general taxation in some form, though one incarnation of this at least has been rejected before.

Some may think it is better than the “current system [whereby] anyone with a television receiver are required by law to pay a radio and TV charge. The fee, … for 2011 is 2,076 kronor ($320)”.

This would actually be a small step backward, just as proposals to top-slice the licence fee here were flawed (and especially any idea to replace our TV tax with funding direct from government).

Critics argue that a direct tax funding would undermine the independence of public service broadcasting.

Indeed, though the same argument could be levelled at any form of coercive financing that relies on the government or parliament to support it. It’s all state funding, whether it is handed directly to the recipient or the recipient relies on the state for the right to collect.

Other alternatives under consideration are reported to be a separate tax levy along the lines of the burial charge collected on annual taxes.

I have no idea what the “burial charge” is, but a tax is a tax is a tax. Whether it’s the BBC or the Swedish broadcasters, in a free country there should be no place, or need, for a broadcaster which is in hock to the State.

How to Solve That Barclays Tax Issue

Barclays on Queen Street, Morley, West Yorkshire

A Branch of Barclays Bank. Spawn of the devil, apparently.

So yesterday various indignant people who are not regular readers of the Telegraph were rather chuffed that they had closed a number of branches of a private business that had, in their opinion, not paid enough corporation tax. Strangely though, as far as anyone can tell, no tax inspectors took part and the action was not sanctioned by HM Revenue and Customs.

These non-core customers of the soap industry were very upset at the news that Barclays Bank had only paid 1% of its profits in corporation tax. Apparently the bank had used an evil slippery tax loophole whereby they had set some losses against tax. Yes, the same principle that allows any business to gain tax relief for years in which business is poor, or where they’ve taken the government up on their incentives to invest in equipment, or on the extended loss relief rules introduced when the recession was looming.

In fact, and predictably (on both counts), the Grauniad have made a number of other errors in compiling their figures, and the actual reasons behind the apparently low figure are more complex. We are indebted to others such as Christie for taking chargeable time out to summarise these.

Yet of course, the protesters are hardly motivated by esoteric arguments informed by the pages of Tolley’s. It’s an evil bank*, so anything short of publicly flogging the girl behind the counter is fair game. I mean, these people have such a tenuous grasp of business, the economy and the public finances, that they actually believe the banks were to blame for Gordon Brown notching up over £1 trillion in public debt.

Anyway, there is a simple solution to this whole messy problem. It will ensure that no corporation will be able to fiddle their taxes, legally or otherwise, and so the protesters can go and do something constructive for society find another excuse to cause criminal damage and avoid growing up.

It is this: abolish corporation tax. After all, all corporate profits will eventually end up in the hands of individual taxpayers, trusts, pension funds, etc, where they will receive an appropriate tax treatment. It may be in the form of salaries, dividends, other forms of debt servicing, etc, but all such income is taxed, so why have the complication of siphoning off some of the tax earlier in the process when a massive simplification could be achieved by scrapping the corporate tax framework? Then think what it would do for the UK’s attractiveness to foreign investment.

I’ve not looked at the detailed figures, of course, but it must be possible to adjust the personal tax rules to make the changes revenue-neutral to the Treasury (and that’s without considering the Laffer curve effects on future revenues). For example, without corporation tax, the implied tax credit that is carried by dividends will finally become redundant. One could envisage dividends being taxed at the marginal rate of tax of the recipient, as they used to be. One would imagine that the additional tax incurred would be negated by the higher dividend rates being paid as a result of higher distributable profits.

Not that I can be sure without any detailed analysis being carried out, but in that respect the idea is still some stages ahead of the economically and financially myopic activism of the ukuncut mob. They will naturally be horrified that someone could suggest that ‘big business’ be given such a tax break. Need I point out however, that any business, regardless of size, is ultimately a collection of people earning a living? That by definition they must be doing something that is contributing to the economy and thus society? Perhaps some of the ukuncut acivists should try it sometime.

* As opposed to nice fluffy banks like the Co-op, who paid a whopping … err… 1.9% (h/t Christie again).

Human Rights Law Module 1: Fail

A parliament in a democratic country disagrees with a bunch of unelected judges. This, apparently, is the behaviour of a military dictatorship.

Only dictators defy European rights law, judge tells Britain
Europe’s most senior judge faced fierce criticism last night after suggesting that Britain would resemble a 1960s Greek dictatorship if it denied prisoners the vote and ignored human rights rulings.

From a failed law student, or reality-challenged ukuncut protester, you could dismiss this sort of idiocy. However, a qualified and experienced judge really ought to know the difference between a military junta and the one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies, don’t you think?

At least he doesn’t have to pass judgement on matters of human righ … oh.

Only dictators defy European rights law, judge tells Britain

Europe’s most senior judge faced fierce criticism last night after suggesting that Britain would resemble a 1960s Greek dictatorship if it denied prisoners the vote and ignored human rights rulings.

Move Along EU Lot, Nothing To See Here

Michel Barnier

Michel Barnier: If it wasn't for those pesky auditors....

I know, it’s hard to believe that a story about auditing didn’t lead the news last Thursday, but in case you missed it:

LONDON, Feb 10 (Reuters) – Auditing firms in the European Union face more competition and curbs on their activities to restore their “tarnished” image, the bloc’s financial services chief said on Thursday.

“One can no longer say ‘move on, there is nothing to see’ on audit issues,” EU Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier told a webstreamed hearing on auditing in Brussels.

Policymakers also ask why auditors gave banks a clean bill of health when many of them had to be rescued by taxpayers as the financial crisis unfolded.

Ernst & Young is being probed in Britain and pursued in the U.S. courts over its role in signing off on the accounts of Lehman Brothers, the U.S. bank that collapsed in September 2008, sparking a near meltdown in the global financial system.

Of course, we do expect auditors to report where they have concerns. Equally important is doing something about those concerns. So what should people have done if the auditors of the failed and struggling banks had blown the whistle? Perhaps they could have been led by the EU’s own example, highlighted by George Osborne this week.

The British Government has put the Commission “on notice” that the accounts, which have not been signed off by auditors for 16 years because of apparent inconsistencies, are unacceptable.

16 years of qualified/unsigned accounts? As M. Barnier might put it, “move on, nothing to see”.

The Underpaid Prime Minister?

Prime Minister David Cameron

Cameron ... because he's worth it?

Today sees another story about local authority chief executive pay and the ubiquitous comparison with the Prime Minister’s salary – the benchmark by which everyone’s remuneration is to be measured these days in the public sector, and sometimes beyond.

Almost half of councils paid their chief executives more than the £142,500 salary that David Cameron received in 2010.

At least 26 chief executives earned more than £200,000 in 2009-10, while 1,000 council officials were paid more than £100,000.

I know that in Bromley in my own fair county the chief executive has taken flak himself for his £185k salary, though today’s survey does put that figure into context; the likes of Wandsworth’s (pbut) chief exec. are on around £300,000, for heading up a borough with a smaller population than Bromley but receiving considerably more central government grant.

Now for the (probably very) minority view. In comparing such figures, why do we fixate on the PM? Surely what this tells us is that it’s the PM who is underpaid? (Granted, of course, that we’re ignoring the benefits in kind: the job-related accommodation, etc.) I must say that I thought this even when Gordon Brown was still care-taking, though sadly I didn’t blog about it so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Seriously, though, Cameron has the power (albeit it delegated from Her Majesty, as are all his powers) to send the country to war. He has his finger on the nuclear button. In some respects he has more freedom of action as head of government (at least in practice) than the U.S. President. It is a true 24*7(*365) job. A Chief Executive, on the other hand, cannot go further than the ruling administration will allow.

Which brings us to another key distinction that gets overlooked: a council Chief Executive is the ‘Head of Paid Service’ – that is, he/she is the ultimate line manager for all the Council’s staff. The politicians make the overarching decisions, but he puts them into practice. So the parallel in central government is not the Prime Minister but the Cabinet Secretary – the head of the civil service. Gus O’Donnell (for it is he) earns somewhere north of £235,000. No, that doesn’t mean that he or anyone else on the public purse is immune from scrutiny of their remuneration package, but in a rational debate you must surely start by comparing like with like.