Monday, November 12, 2007

Degraded British High School qualifications

The reputation of A levels has been dealt a blow after the head of an exam board expressed doubts about their value. Simon Lebus, group chief executive of the Cambridge Assessment board, part of Cambridge University, said that examiners, regulators and politicians had all been wrong in failing to address declining public confidence in "A-level currency". Mr Lebus said that it was "hard not to be troubled" by research showing a decline in standards in A-level maths and science. "There is no doubt that confidence in the value of the A-level currency has suffered over recent years," he said.

In a lecture to the exams regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), he said: "We all, the QCA, the awarding bodies, politicians and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, in its various guises, have been remiss in not being readier to debate the impact of changes in A level, perhaps not least because operating within a culture where there has been an expectation of consistently improving levels of attainment, we may not have felt a need to do so." The A-level pass rate has risen for 25 successive years, reaching 96.9 per cent this year, with nearly one in ten candidates achieving three A grades.

The Government and examination boards have emphasised that improvements to A-level standards are the result of better teaching and learning, even though opinion polls have shown that nearly half the public believe that A levels have become easier. Defenders of A levels also point out that the examination has in effect changed from a university entrance examination to a school-leaving certificate for 18-year-olds.

But Mr Lebus said that the education establishment should no longer simply "take refuge" in the technical arguments. He cited research from Dr Robert Coe, of Durham University, showing that A-level results for pupils of the same ability improved by two grades between 1988 and 2006. He also referred to Sir Peter Williams, appointed in July to review the teaching of maths in primary schools, who has said that the A-level "gold standard" had been declining for a "long period of time".

Mr Lebus was speaking as the Government embarks on a consultation over plans to hand full independence to the part of the QCA responsible for regulating exams and monitoring standards. In September Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, suggested that this would reassure parents, pupils, universities and employers that exam standards were being maintained. To counter complaints about A-level grade inflation the Government is to introduce an A* grade for the 2010 exams, which will be awarded to students who achieve 90 per cent and above.

Mr Lebus said that it would be possible to monitor standards through a national script archive that would store a representative sample of answers given by A-level students every year.


Fifteen myths about Britain's housing crisis

Government slothfulness, combined with the green lobby's snobbery towards the masses and their 'ugly houses', is the cause of Britain's shocking homes shortfall

Too few new homes are being built in Britain to meet a combination of rising demand and the need to replace crumbling existing housing stock. The consequences are astronomical house prices and a generation struggling to afford any kind of a home. Anti-development campaigners and government policy are holding back the house-building programme so desperately needed. Here, James Heartfield, author of Let's Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years, tackles the many myths about Britain's housing crisis.

1) The government is concreting over the countryside

When polled, people think that around one half of Britain is built up, one half countryside (1). That number is wildly off-target. The real number is one-tenth built up, nine-tenths not. There is no threat to the countryside. Just imagine for one moment, you could double - yes double - the number of homes in Britain, and still the countryside would cover four times as much land as the towns and cities. Of course, there is no need to double the number of homes. I estimate that we need another five million, which is to say about 20 to 25 per cent more homes than we have now. In fact, less than one per cent of land goes to homes every 50 years (2).

2) The `green belt' is being worn away

Between 1979 and 1993, the green belt - the undeveloped area surrounding cities - doubled in size. Since 1997 it has grown by 64,000 acres. Today, the green belt covers around 13 per cent of England. Far from shrinking, the land area that is protected, including green belts, national forests, areas of special scientific interest and so on, is expanding decade by decade as more and more farmland is retired from use. If just a small proportion of this land were earmarked for development, then we could have enough homes for everyone.

3) Britain is overcrowded

There are more people per acre in Britain than in America, Africa and Australia, but less than in Holland or Belgium. Britain, though, is by no means overcrowded. Its cities are getting a little denser than they used to be, because of the policy that stops us building new homes in the countryside. In absolute terms, we have plenty of space. What people generally mean when they say that Britain is overcrowded is that they feel distaste towards the kind of people they see around them.

4) Too many homes are being built

The number of homes being built is at an historic low - its lowest since the Second World War. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) disputes this fact, saying that more have been built since construction reached its absolute lowest in 2001. But the small increase in new homes being built still leaves us way below the levels of previous decades. House completions in the UK have fallen from over 400,000 per year in the late Sixties to well under 200,000 per year in the current decade. It is not enough.

5) More homes are being built, now that the government has acted

Top-down hectoring did whip up some new building, but this small increase has not been maintained. In the year to June, completions were only up by two per cent, but more alarmingly, new starts are down by eight per cent (3). The trouble with the government proposals in this area is that they generally create more barriers to development, even when they say they are liberalising.

6) Enough homes are being built

Almost every report gets this wrong, because they fail to take into account the fact that houses have to come down, as well as being built. It is no good counting the new builds and thinking that they are a running total. Over time, even the best-built homes must come down. The CPRE assumes that in England, with a housing stock of 21million, just one million homes will be demolished every 40 years. At that rate, it would take 840 years to replace Britain's housing stock. Does anyone really believe that all the houses built today will stand for 840 years? (4) It would be more realistic to assume that houses would stand for 100 years, in which case in England alone we need to build 210,000 homes just to replace the existing stock, before considering the additional demand. In fact, completions in England have not been higher than 167,000 in the past 10 years.

7) We can build houses to last

The CPRE says it does not matter that Britain's housing stock is the oldest in Europe: it just reflects the fact that Britain industrialised earlier. But the reason that Britain's housing stock is ageing is because it is not being replaced. We are sweating dilapidated housing. Not demolishing older homes is the way that the shortfall in new homes being built is absorbed. But every year that we fail to build enough houses to retire the old ones, the housing stock gets more run down, damp and dangerous.

8) We don't need any more homes

Instead of predict-and-supply, say greens like Mark Lynas, we need to restrict the demand on new homes. `Addressing this doesn't mean forced sterilisations or a Chinese-style, one-child policy', writes Lynas, having clearly thought about `Plan B', `but it does mean giving incentives for people to have smaller families and addressing rising levels of immigration' (5). Well, Lynas might want to join the anti-immigrant British National Party, but there is no need to. There is plenty of land to build on, without making a dent in the countryside, and there are plenty of people to do the building. The only barrier is the one that his friends in the CPRE lobbied to have put in place, the green belt.

9) We can build our new homes on `brownfield' land

Under the advice of Richard Rogers' Urban Taskforce, the government committed itself to building most homes on land that has already been developed and is now derelict, `brownfield' as opposed to `greenfield' development. Now, in London and other major cities, homes are being crammed into every available space that falls vacant. The BBC reports `garden grabbing': `a rash of flats and new houses replacing gardens in high-price areas.' (6) Shame-faced at their own role in this reinvention of Victorian overcrowding, the CPRE has amended its support for `brownfield development', but still thinks this can be done without overcrowding (7).

10) Urban regeneration is the answer

Britain is overwhelmingly a suburban country. Most people live in the suburbs. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, supports those campaigning to save the countryside from sprawl. That is because he wants to keep London densely populated to increase both his political and revenue base. To achieve that he has forced through lots of gardenless, dormitory-style flats, some unfortunately signposted as `key-worker housing'. And though newer immigrants naturally need to keep close to job prospects, Livingstone cannot prevent the `counter-urban cascade' of people leaving London for the suburbs. While five per cent of England's population live in rural areas and nine per cent live in the `urban core', 43 per cent live in the suburbs and another 23 per cent live in suburban/urban areas.

11) More social housing is the answer

A few people have looked at the shortfall in new homes and concluded that the decline is due to less council housing. That is not quite true. In the mid-Eighties, the private sector took up the slack, and in the Sixties, both boomed. It should not matter whether homes are public sector or private, but there is good reason to distrust the call for more social housing. Those who call for more council housing do so because they want to keep control over people, and do not trust them to make their own choices about where to buy. The green lobby supports council housing in the same way that the gentry supported almshouses for the poor - to keep them securely locked up, away from the toffs' country houses.

12) New homes are ugly

Even very intelligent people fall for this line. Considering just how big Cultural Studies is in our universities, you might have thought that somebody would have learned its basic lesson: most so-called aesthetic judgements are nothing but class snobbery dressed up as `taste'. Nearly every single house in Britain is a box. Much-prized Georgian terraces are boxes. Anti-growth campaigners like to show slides of urban developments from the skies, to make us all look like ants - but who lives in the skies? When people say that new homes are ugly, what they mean, but cannot bring themselves to say, is that they think of the people in them as being ugly.

13) Ireland's new homes are especially ugly

Ireland's recent building boom is often cited as an example of what can go wrong. Those Irishmen's homes are ugly, people say. What they mean is: `Wasn't it cute when the Irish lived in little cottages with peat roofs, instead of those hateful McMansions?' Why don't they knock on a door and tell the person inside that his house is ugly, and see how they get on?

14) The CPRE campaigns to protect rural England

In a radio debate, Shaun Spiers of the CPRE challenged me. Surely, he asked, I would not want to see the New Forest developed? The New Forest was once thickly developed with Saxon homes, until William the Conqueror burnt them out, demanding the New Forest for his deer park. The wide-open spaces of the British countryside are the barren desert left after our forebears were ethnically cleansed from the land by the aristocracy. It is the aristocracy that still takes most of the seats on the CPRE council. The real purpose of the CPRE is to put limits on people's aspirations, a function they see in the planning laws: a core function of the planning system is to serve the long-term public interest by preventing the fulfilment of our wants as individuals (8).

15) We need to look after the environment

Of course we do, but the CPRE and other green campaigners have forgotten who the environment is for. They look after empty spaces, beetles and rare birds, but treat people as cattle to be herded into overcrowded sheds. The British countryside is not under threat, but housebuilding is. The grotesque shortage of homes for people to live in shows what happens when you leave the greens in charge of just one area of policymaking. Imagine what would happen if they were allowed to have their way with energy, food, transport and medicine.


A censored immigration debate in Britain

Enoch Powell was not right about immigration. But it is wrong to hound out a Conservative candidate for suggesting that he was. Whatever the parties think about immigration, honesty is the best policy and free speech the way to protect a free society. Which is why, as an old libertarian Marxist who supports open borders, I disagree with the attempt to close down the debate.

Nigel Hastilow, Conservative candidate in a Midlands marginal, wrote in a newspaper in Wolverhampton (where Powell was MP when he made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968) that most local people think immigration is our biggest problem, and that “Enoch was right” to say mass immigration would change Britain “irrevocably”.

Last week David Cameron said he wanted a “grown-up debate” about the need to restrict immigration. This week Gordon Brown will announce plans to restrict immigration. Yet everybody agreed that Mr Hastilow must resign for using incorrect words to make the same point. This seems less like a grown-up debate than an all-party attitude of Not in Front of the Children ? and for children, read citizens.

The complaints were not about Mr Hastilow criticising immigration, but the “unwise”, “insensitive” language he used to do so. Speaking for many, George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, said that candidates of all parties “have to exercise great caution in the language they use about immigration”. By contrast, Mr Cameron was praised by Trevor Phillips, the anti-racism tsar, for the “deracialised” tone of his call to reduce immigrant numbers.

This is a tiff about etiquette, not a debate about immigration. It is apparently fine to talk about the alleged problem in coded terms ? the “demographic challenge” or “carbon footprint” ? but not to offer blunt arguments about the supposed cultural impact of immigrants. Why do our leaders insist on this etiquette? Because they think we kiddies are so unstable and ignorant that we might start a pogrom if we get a glimpse of Enoch's shroud?

If politicians had the courage to trust people's intelligence and start a truly grown-up discussion, they might be surprised by the response. Immigration has re-emerged as a focus for public insecurities. But there is no prospect of the sort of racist backlash seen in Powell's day. It is unlikely that Mr Hastilow planned to contest Halesowen & Rowley Regis, as the Tories did successfully in Smethwick in 1964, on the unofficial slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”

Unlike Messrs Powell, Brown, Cameron and Hastilow, I don't believe that immigration is to blame for social problems. But if our leaders imagine that a Not in Front of the Children policy can defuse the issue then, to paraphrase Powell, we must be mad, literally mad.


Britain's far-Leftist Minister of State: "Foreign Office officials have turned on Lord Malloch-Brown, their minister, describing him as a "liability" for the government. Malloch-Brown, a former United Nations official brought into government by Gordon Brown, has fallen out with some diplomats who have dubbed him "Bollock-Brown" for his off-message views. The minister has clashed with David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and caused embarrassment for Brown before the prime minister's trip to Washington by saying that Britain and America would no longer be "joined at the hip". Malloch-Brown is said to have been reprimanded by Miliband for suggesting the British government was about to open talks with Hamas and Hezbollah, the Islamic militant groups, and was forced to "clarify" his remarks in the House of Lords, which irritated Labour Friends of Israel, the campaign group."

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