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Linking MP Pay to Public Sector

Parliament is in another frenzy as IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, has had its 10% pay rise for MPs bitterly rejected by many of the future recipients before they voted to accept it in full.

IPSA says that it isn’t as good an offer as it looks since the golden goodbyes are being scrapped, fiddling expenses will become more difficult and the fantastic pensions are being trimmed a little. Sir Ian, the head of IPSA, says

In making this decision we are very aware of the strongly held views of many members of the public and by some MPs themselves.We have listened to those views.
We have made an important change to the way in which pay will be adjusted annually.
Over the last Parliament, MPs’ pay increased by 2%, compared to 5% in the public sector and 10% in the whole economy. It is right that we make this one-off increase and then formally link MPs’ pay to public sector pay.

Read More…

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YouGov Distorts its Latest Election Poll to Get Headlines

With the longest British election campaign in full swing, the pollsters are getting more attention than usual. It is disappointing, then, to see a major polling company falling into bad statistical habits.

Certainty

YouGov has conducted a poll of 1800 people that reverses the Conservative lead of a few days ago, which itself reversed Labour’s lead from the previous poll. You might think that the random seeming changes in results separated by only a few days might, indeed, be random sampling errors, but YouGov is happy to imply otherwise with its headline “Labour Lead at 4%”. That headline has been repeated, without any caveats, by The Sunday Times with a banner headline of “Labour races into 4-point lead after Miliband’s TV success”. But it isn’t true. Read More…

Ofsted Fails to Reach a Grade B in Statistics

Michael Wilshaw’s Ofsted has made a fool of itself yet again as it publishes a report which says more about its naive approach to statistics than it does about the progress of the most able students.

Very Disappointed

Ofsted is not happy. Its 2013 report on the progress of those students who achieved level 5 in their Key Stage 2 exams made some recommendations. Apparently, Ofsted were unhappy then that less than a quarter of those achieving the highest level in Maths and English went on to achieve a B grade or above in their GCSEs, and two years later nothing has improved.

Notwithstanding that expecting that two years is enough time to see improvements when the children involved had been through twelve years of education already, is it a reasonable complaint? Read More…

Wilshaw’s Annual Report Reminds Us of Ofsted Weaknesses

It is the season of heart-warming warming tradition, joy, pre-Christmas sales and crass householders generating enough global warming for a whole town with their shameless lighting displays. So what better way is there to prepare for the holidays than unwrapping the education sector’s annual ticking-off, as Michael Wilshaw issues his Annual Report on Schools?

Wilshaw, forever fighting the urge to tell us how he single-handedly turned his Hackney school into an outstanding beacon of excellence by recruiting middle class students from out of town, this year ripped in to schools with little sixth-forms. Apparently, students attending small school sixth forms “achieve considerably poorer results than those in larger sixth forms”.

Very Small Sixth Forms

Wilshaw said: Read More…

The BMA’s Attack on Smokers with Made-Up ‘Evidence’

The British Medical Association, the Physicians’ trade union, has called for a ban on smoking in private cars, to add to the 2007 restriction on smoking in enclosed ‘public’ places. Their reason is that such a ban is a small price to pay to reduce the exposure of minors carried as passengers. Apparently, the level of toxins detectable in a smoker’s car is 23 times that found in pre-2007 smoky pubs. The Evening Standard published a piece supporting the proposed ban, deciding that “Demanding that people stop driving in a self-generated cloud of poisonous gas doesn’t seem a big ask.”

But it does seem a ‘big ask’.

For objections to this illiberal proposal, the first has to be the good word of the BMA itself, which campaigned heavily before the 2007 ban. It’s representatives sent out to TV and radio stations laughed pompously at the objectors warnings of the slippery slope such a ban would put the UK on: it was only to protect innocent pub-goers, they said, who had no choice in what they breathed in when exerxising their alcohol imbibing rights. Don’t they deserve to be protected?

That alcohol was by far the most hazardous part of a Friday night seemed to have been considered unimportant when smoking was coming to be seen as antisocial and presented an easy target of opportunity.

 The law banning smoking in public places also overlooked that most of the affected locations were, in fact, privately owned, and no person was obliged to visit a smoking pub or restaurant.

For the Children

It turns out that the ridiculed ‘slippery slope’ argiment was spot on, and campaigners are now openly pushing towards an outdoor ban and wispering about the move into homes. Of course, it will be phrased as if a ban was ‘for the children’, but you can be sure it will be a blanket ban that is demanded, as is the case for the current BMA proposal, for ease of enforcement.

Or just because smoker-persocutors are the new witch-finders and are bolstered by the political momentum to go for the criminalisation of tobacco, openly and without embarrassment.

Although I am, a lifelong non-smoker who has benefitted from smoke-free pubs and offices, I have fundamental objections to the BMA’s demand:

First is the liberty one. It is no business of doctors, in my mind, to stop me doing risky things if the risk to others is small. I am not prevented from climbing mountains, paragliding, skating on icy lakes, driving a car at high speeds (with passengers), and drinking alcohol. The BMA has not yet suggested banning these activities, but since they have a habit of sliding down the slippery slope, I am willing to draw the line at banning smoking.

Fake Figures

The second objection is the ’23 times more toxic than the smoky pub’ figure that is being quoted withoud attribution. The Today program speaker explained that this was the case even when no smoking was actually happening since the ‘toxins’ soaked the inside of the car. Is this serious? Just what was measured? And did it really equate to 23 times more hazardous than a pub atmosphere? It seems remarkably suspicious, and the BMA today withdrew its claim (See the Factcheck site for a debunking of this media myth, with sources.)

The argument for a wholesale ban on in-car smoking is a practical one: that it will be easier to enforce ‘for the children’ if everyone was banned.  This will include people without children, and people who will never carry children in their cars. In a spirit of tolerance, only dangerous activities should be prohibited – anything else is just illiberal. Why ban people from smoking in their own car just to make enforcement easier? (Foreign laws against smoking in cars only forbid smoking with a child in the car.) It will clearly result in the bulk of prosecutions being of drivers of cars with no children, since they are the ones who will most disagree with such a law.

Slippery Slope

The final criticism is made with the slippery-slope argument. Usually a poor excuse for logic, the current debate has used the existing ban on smoking in work vehicles and public spaces as justification. One can easily imagine a future when the argument move on to be that the only place a child can breathe smoke is in the home, so that it is a dangerous loophole that should be closed.

Intolerance breeds intolerance by emboldening the nannys that build on victory after victory, incrementally moving us from the traditional character of the country, where a free person can partake of anything not specifically banned, to the continental tradition where you can only do what is specifically prescribed, with everything else forbidden. 

The BMA took a fake fact about smoking with children in the car and made it into an attack on all smokers. Anyone who values the freedom to choose what risks to take for themselves will be wise to protest this move – if this moves onto the statute book, the nanny campaigners will not stop there in their programme to save us from ourselves.

Sharp Drop in Uni Applications

UCAS, the body which handles applications for university places, has released 2011 figures. The headline, reported throughout the press, is that applications this year are down by over 12% on last year. The increase in fees, payable after graduation by a form of additional income tax, is being blamed for the drop.

Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns has weighed in, saying that the preliminary data should act as a “harsh wake-up call”.

Toni Pearce, of the National Union of Students, blames the government:
“The confusion caused by the government’s botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university.”
The Guardian misrepresents the data to suggest class differences:

Monday’s figures are just too stark to ignore. When the number of applicants from outside the UK is included, the fall is 9% — greater than it has been for at least six years. The figures show this decline in applicants comes from the pool of students most likely to be badly-off.

Everyone, it seems, thinks that university numbers should be on a one-way escalator to steadily greater proportions of our youngsters studying for degrees and that any drop is, by definition, a bad thing.

Everyone, it seems then, is wrong.

The figures, of course, do not indicate a collapse in student confidence. Although 12% seems a large drop, it should be understood in the context of dramatic rises in recent years, not least last year when many students put off a gap year to apply early. This artificially inflated 2010 figures by taking from what would have been this year’s applicants. Even with the fall, we are still only just below the 2009 rate, with a smaller pool of applicantants. (There has been a 6% drop in 17-year-olds over the last four years of increasing applications and two more years of falls — expect the same stories next year!)

The Real Issue

What the headline writers have failed to address is whether a growing number of graduates is really a good idea. The advantages are supposed to be that the UK needs more graduates for all the new graduate jobs that are being produced in the economy, and that there will be fewer jobs for lower skilled people.
Does the economy need more highly skilled workers? Yes, naturally. Highly skilled people have always been in demand throughout history. But there is a sleight of hand going on here. The problem is that the term graduate is not now synonymous with skilled, and graduate jobs do not often require high levels of skills. Twenty years ago, if you were an employer looking for a reasonably bright, trainable youngster, you advertised for someone with A-levels or good O-levels. Now that anyone who can hold a pen through sixth-form college is encouraged to start a degree, not having a degree is a serious hindrance.

Not because of the skills you did not pick up, but because employers will wonder why you weren’t up to a degree when all and sundry can graduate now.

Reaching Their Limits

When we have students maxing out at GCSE grade C going on to be awarded A-levels and then degrees, you might just wonder what it is they are learning at university. If the top three GCSE grades were beyond them, just what level was the intellectual challenge of the degree? Before you start to panic about the quality of our engineers, doctors and scientists, you can’t get on one of the technical degrees without very good grades: C’s won’t cut the mustard. But having a degree, by itself, is no guarantee of superior skill levels, with many course instructors unable to lift the academic standard to a suitable level without having most of their students failing and dropping out.
For many people, GCSE or A-level is their academic limit. Unfortunately, many of these teenagers are being mislead into thinking that by investing in an expensive three-year course their careers will be appropriately enhanced.

The evidence is against them though, as some school-leavers are starting to realise.

The country does need more skilled workers, but not more low-skilled workers with degree certificates and unrealistic expectations. The solution is not more accessible (read ‘easier’) degrees, but investment in Primary and Secondary education, with higher technical graduate salaries to persuade those bright enough to tackle the harder subjects,
or else encourage talented people from overseas to boost our ailing manufacturing economy.

This brouhaha will blow over soon, regardless. The hugely increased fees charged by middling universities will not last long, as students will expect value for money. Fees will fall to match the desirability or career benefit of the course and student numbers will drop, returning hard working students to the productive economy where they are needed.