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.
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.
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.
I’ve just seen the new pay deal offered by sixth form colleges, and it wasn’t what I expected. The pattern for the last few years is to match school teachers, who have been offered a 2.3% rise in September. The deal for college teachers is 1% in September rising to 2.3% in April.
This will be tricky for the unions in the current climate. With many in the private sector having pay cuts or job cuts and the government briefing the press that the public sector has done well in recent years, few teachers will have the stomach for a fight. But teacher pay has risen below inflation for a while now and has fallen 10% compared with other service sector employees in the last five years.
College funding is rising this year faster than student numbers, and there is money in the coffers to pay the award in full, so expect the unions to make plenty of noise over the next few weeks. Last year’s increase was delayed until the new year due to wrangles between the staff side and the employers — looks like we’ll be waiting a long time for a resolution again.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has long campaigned for a university education completely funded by the state and for a return of the system of grants to cover living expenses, so the announcement of their future funding proposals comes as a bit of a shock.
Wes Streeting, the NUS president, had been under pressure to suggest an alternative to the current system of loans to pay for the fees, which start to be paid back when a graduate passes an earning threshold. He describes the proposals an ‘not a simple graduate tax’, and he is right – it is not simple.
Instead of a flat rate, the NUS plan has a sliding scale of tax, ranging from 0.3% to 3% depending on earnings. Wes says that this is needed to ensure that those who benefit most from their education pay back most.
There is also a system to encourage companies to pay some of the debt for employees.
I think that he has missed the meaning of ‘percent’, in that a single flat rate ensures that those earning more pay more. The sliding scale is a nakedly redistributive tax measure. In the NUS’s words, though, it is ‘progressive’.
The main motivation for the NUS funding suggestions is the pressure from the top research universities to raise the maximum fees charge from 3000 to at least 5000 pounds per year. These universities offer more of the expensive laboratory based courses than the newer institutions and are struggling to fund them. One solution is to recruit even more foreign students, who pay a much larger market rate for their studies, but local students are missing out on places.
Wes Streeting does not want an education market, but with more demand for top courses than places, something has to be done. But why should someone with two Es at A Level, studying an endemanding course at a undistinguished local college pay the same as someone studying Engineering at Cambridge?
A well educated and motivated graduate will benefit from their education, although it is their character and abilities as much as their qualifications that determines their level of career success. With the existing income tax system the Treasure already shares in the success of the best and most employable graduates. If you earn more then you pay more tax.
What is the reason for a punitive graduate tax that seeks to milk those deemed to have a privileged education, who will already be paying a higher rate of tax than others?
Coming from student political hacks, one might suggest it is just the standard class envy of the jealous young socialist. A detail from the NUS proposals that supports this guess is the limit on paying for the cost of your education if you can afford it. Wealthy families who would be happy to completely fund a course will be prevented from paying more than a small percentage, since it is these graduates who will be paying way over the odds for twenty years and funding those on lightweight courses who will never be taxed enough to cover the cost of their education.
It is nice to see the NUS abandoning one of its cherished policies, but this proposal offers more light on the proposers than on future university funding structures.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has voted to scupper the SAT exams for eleven-year-olds this year, but it won’t produce the renaissance in teaching they expect.
It is the teaching union silly season, and time for their AGMs. There is normally a flurry of embarrassing quotes from representatives that are quickly ignored, but this week a substantial motion has been passed by the largest union, the NUT. They have decided to ballot members for industrial action to disrupt the national assessment of seven- and eleven-year-olds (Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs), taking advantage of the recent collapse of the Key Stage 3 assessments and the dithering of the government minister Ed Balls.
Teachers generally dislike these assessments as they are unreliable and used for annual teacher appraisals, and now seems like the best chance in years to force a weak government to abandon them.
The massive expansion of national exams over the last decade or so, fed by the movement to modular exams that can be retaken an unlimited number of times at GCSE and A Level, along with the SATs (the National Curriculum Tests at ages 7, 11 and 14), has overloaded the exam boards’ marking systems. There are simply not enough markers in the country to process all the papers. This caused the collapse of the Key Stage 3 exams last year, and has caused this year’s results to be posted later than ever before, and appeals are expected to flood in shortly afterwards due to quality control problems, especially for the English assessments.
I have posted before that these tests have become too ‘high stakes’ to be useful and national standards should be assessed in other ways, but the NUT is not keen on developing a decent assessment system. They just want to be rid of the SATs.
Their real problem, so they say, is that the pressure placed on pupils in the run-up to the tests is too great. Primary school children spend much of Year 6 preparing, practising the tests and taking test questions away to do for homework. Every child is given targets couched in the assessment language (‘I’m now at level 3B for Writing, and I am aiming for a level 4C’ the pupils will repeat) and the school inspectors check that pupils are aware of them.
True, the pressures are ridiculously high, and teaching to the test is so endemic that to suggest anything different to any teacher younger than 40 will get you a confused look. It is also true that the government has set up the system to be like this, despite their protestations of innocence, but the Union is picking on the wrong target deliberately, hoping that no-one will question their members’ complicity in the whole affair.
The teachers have a great deal of freedom in how they manage their classrooms day-to-day. If they do not want to pressure their charges then they should stop talking up the exams all the time. They should stop teaching to the tests and setting questions from previous years’ papers, and they should certainly stop running the government funded ‘Booster Sessions’ – additional revision work for those poor souls deemed to be close enough to the pass level that they can be artificially pushed over the line with some special attention and pressure.
Instead of declaring the tests ‘harmful’ to pupils, the NUT ought to just tell their members to stop squeezing the last drop of exam performance from their classes simply to gain better pass figures for their annual appraisals and a higher league table position for their school. If the teaching unions want teaching to be treated as a profession, then professional behaviour must be encouraged. All the while teachers put ratings ahead of education their motives will be suspect.
If teaching to the test stopped, whether by scrapping the tests or by teachers taking control of their classrooms, then, the unions say, the curriculum will become broader and children will have a better experience. But they are mistaken. Even if the test went, the skills of teachers to plan their own programmes of study have so withered that most teachers would not know what to do with the extra term of teaching. What would they do with no exam to prepare for? How would they know what skills to develop and knowledge to learn if it is not written down in great detail by the government?
‘It’s not in the test!’
When the SATs were first introduced, teachers had some idea of what schooling was for, some philosophy of education. But over the years those teachers have retired and the younger ones have only known teaching for national assessments. Those few who dare to go beyond the minimum entitlement laid down in the National Curriculum, following their pupil interest or their own enthusiasms, have been slapped down by managers with the immortal lines:
‘What are you teaching that for – it’s not in the test!’
The English teaching ‘profession’ has become so de-skilled that if the tests disappeared nothing would really change. If the prison doors were flung open tomorrow, most teachers would be too frightened of the freedom to go out into the daylight, doomed to pace around the same familiar cell.