Sunday, March 30, 2008

The facts that shatter British Labour's big immigration myth

By ANTHONY BROWNE (Author of Retreat of Reason. Review here)

There is a traditional pattern to any discussion about immigration. First, the Government and its supporters in the (often taxpayer-funded) immigration lobby declare various reasons the public should support their policies. Otherwise we would face a serious shortage of workers, economic growth would stagnate, there would be fewer people in the workforce to help pay the country's pension bill, the NHS would collapse or that the country would suffer without the enriching force of multi-culturalism.

These arguments are then unquestioningly trumpeted by the BBC and by much of the rest of the Press which instinctively wants to support mass immigration on the basis it is the morally decent thing to do. But then someone suddenly points to holes in the arguments, often in cold, factual ways. These critics inevitably get pilloried. In my case, when I started pointing out some of the downsides of immigration, I was denounced by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett in the Commons for "bordering on fascism."

In an earlier generation, Ray Honeyford, the Bradford headmaster, was hounded out of his job for declaring that children who are born and grow up in England should speak English. Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migrationwatch, has been regularly demonised for the counterarguments he has put forward. But the beauty about truth is that, in the end, it will out. Ultimately, it is realised that mass immigration's critics have many valid points, and ministers are forced to change their tune (of course, rarely with any public admission that they were wrong). And so the same government that promoted multiculturalism and attacked its critics is now having to admit that multiculturalism was wrong. In the same way, a government that once insisted the NHS would collapse without foreign workers is now having to impose curbs on foreign medical staff. And the very immigration lobbyists who previously denounced those who said people living in Britain should speak English now concede that they should for their own (and society's) good.

And so is the case with that final defence for mass immigration - the argument that it benefits the British economy. The trouble is that the claim that our economic boom was based on mass immigration (rather than a credit bubble) seems a little thin now that our economy is collapsing with immigration still at record levels. The belief that we needed Eastern Europeans to fill 600,000 vacancies in our employment market seems a tad stretched given that a million or more Eastern Europeans have come - and we still have 600,000 vacancies. The argument that we are desperately short of workers looks faintly ridiculous now that we are all increasingly aware that there are more than 5 million people of working age out of work and living on benefits - and there have been for the past ten years.

The Government's final justification was that immigration is a major boost to economic output - pumping the economy by 6 billion pounds a year. This figure is parroted so often that it has become received wisdom. But unfortunately, the argument is utterly misleading. Ignore the very serious questions about how the 6 billion figure was arrived at, and take it at its face value. The real problem is that while immigration does boost the overall size of the economy (more people working means more output), it also boosts the population. And what people really care about is not how big the economy is but how well off they are - their standard of living and quality of life.

In short, what matters is not the total Gross Domestic Product, but the GDP per capita. This is the mind-numbingly obvious flaw in the Government's argument. Although a growing population means more output it also means more people to consume that output. Almost all the resultant increase in GDP goes to the immigrants themselves (which is why they come to the UK in the first place). In fact, using the Government's own figures, the effect of immigration on GDP per capita is minimal 28p a week. That too is an average figure --while the affluent who employ immigrants tend to benefit, the poor who compete with them lose out.

When Sir Andrew Green first pointed out the 28p a week figure, he was, of course, pilloried. But, although his claims are about to be confirmed by the House of Lords committee, it is probably too soon for ministers to admit the folly of their beloved 6 billion argument. But as the truth slowly emerges, it can only be a matter of time before the Government finally abandons its policies of encouraging mass immigration to this already crowded island. Only then can we expect the level of immigration to be lowered.


"Women's studies" dies in Britain

Women's studies, which came to prominence in the wake of the 1960s feminist movement, is to vanish from British universities as an undergraduate degree this summer. Dwindling interest in the subject means that the final 12 students will graduate with a BA in women's studies from London's Metropolitan University in July.

Universities offering the course, devised as the second wave of the women's rights movement peaked, attracted students in their hundreds during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the mood on campuses has changed. Students, it seems, no longer want to immerse themselves in the sisterhood's struggle for equality or the finer points of feminist history.

The disappearance of a course that women academics fought so long and hard to have taught in universities has divided opinion on what this means for feminism. Is it irrelevant in today's world or has the quest for equality hit the mainstream? The course's critics argue that women's studies became its own worst enemy, remaining trapped in the feminist movement of the 1970s while women and society moved on. "Feminist scholarship has become predictable, tiresome and dreary, and most young women avoid it like the plague," said Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for public policy research in Washington and author of Who Stole Feminism? "British and American societies are no longer patriarchal and oppressive 'male hegemonies'. But most women's studies departments are predicated on the assumption that women in the West are under siege. What nonsense."

Others believe young women have shied away from studying feminist theory because they would rather opt for degrees that more obviously lead to jobs, especially since the introduction of tuition fees. "[Taking] women's studies as a separate course may not feel as relevant to women who go to university to help them enter the job market," said Jean Edelstein, an author and journalist. "As the feminist movement has become increasingly associated with extreme thoughts, women who may have previously been interested in women's studies may be deterred by these overtones."

Anyone ruing the degree's demise can take heart: many gender and equality issues are now dealt with by mainstream courses, from sociology and law to history and English. And many universities, including Oxford, still offer the course to postgraduates. Mary Evans, visiting fellow at the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, said: "This final closure does not signal the end of an era: feminist ideas and literature are as lively as ever, but the institutional framework in which they are taught has changed." Ms Edelstein added: "Feminist critique should be studied by everyone. If integration into more mainstream courses means more people looking at gender theory and increases the number of people who are aware of the issues, then that is a good thing."

But Dr Irene Gedalof, who has led the London Metropolitan University women's studies course for the past 10 years, defended the discipline. "The women's movement is less visible now and many of its gains are taken for granted, which fuels the perception there is no longer a need for women's studies. But while other disciplines now 'deal' with gender issues we still need a dedicated focus by academics. Despite the gains women have made, this is just as relevant in today's world," she said, blaming the course's downfall on universities' collective failure to promote the discipline.

Given that graduate courses in women's studies are thriving in many countries, such as India and Iran, the decision to stop the course here has surprised many. Baroness Haleh Afshar, professor in politics and women's studies at the University of York, said: "In the past quarter of a century, women's studies scholars have been at the forefront of new and powerful work that has placed women at the centre but has also had echoes right across academia. In particular, it is important to note the pioneering work of Sue Lees, which began at the Metropolitan and still has a long way to go. I am desolate to see that the university has decided to close it."


Class size isn't everything

Why teachers may be wrong about this class issue

"Strike threat over class sizes" is a familiar Easter headline as the teachers' unions hold their annual conferences. This year was no exception, with the National Union of Teachers demanding legislation to set a maximum limit of 20 pupils per class and delegates describing large state-school classes as a "national scandal". Their indignation acquired an extra edge when Jim Knight, the schools minister, told another union conference that classes could work well with as many as 70 pupils, provided there are sufficient teachers' assistants around.

Unfortunately for the NUT, research provides little evidence in favour of small classes. The best that can be said is that they lead to significant gains in academic test scores for pupils in the very early years of schooling, particularly if they are disadvantaged. But among children in Year 3 and upwards, class size has no measurable effect on literacy and numeracy levels. These results emerge from large-scale American studies as well as a current project at the London University Institute of Education.

The usual explanation - that schools put the less able and less well-behaved children in smaller classes - is exploded by the most recent research, which takes account of such factors as prior attainment and home background.

It is all monstrously counter-intuitive. All over the world, politicians promise smaller classes as a token of their commitment to education. Despite their outstanding past results in subjects such as maths, east Asian countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have policies to reduce class sizes. Here, parents pay thousands of pounds to fee-charging schools, where primary-age classes have 10.7 pupils on average, against 26.2 in the state sector. Given that teachers' salaries account for the lion's share of any school's costs, parents are being overcharged, if the research is correct, by something like 100 per cent. Can everybody be mad? It is surely common sense that children in small classes, whatever their age, ability and background, will get more of the teacher's attention and therefore learn more.

In fact, research proves at least part of the common sense. The latest findings from the Institute of Education project, presented to the American Educational Research Association this month, found that the larger the class, the less the pupils concentrated on their work (or engaged in "on-task behaviour", to use the jargon). This was particularly true of low attainers in secondary schools who, in a class of 30, spent twice as much time off-task as they did in a class of 15. However, class size had no effect at all on medium and high attainers in secondary school. And for children older than six, the research remains clear: the effects of small classes on test scores are nil, zero, zilch.

How do we explain it? The "progressive" lobby in education would argue that teachers do not sufficiently adapt their teaching to take advantage of small classes. They may, for example, still spend most of their time addressing the class as a whole and fail to use the greater opportunities to give individual attention. They may even use less small-group work because the class as a whole is easier to control. The "traditionalists" would argue that, on the contrary, teachers adapt their methods too much. Given a small class, they drop whole-class teaching, which, regardless of numbers, is the most effective method of instruction.

Another possibility is that, leaving aside the first year or so of primary school, the academic benefits of small classes kick in only when the pupil numbers drop well below 20, and perhaps below 15, as they do in the fee-charging sector. Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education, argues that most teachers can't do anything in a class of 20 that they couldn't do in a class of 26. The individual attention they can give to children is still limited. The difference to the Treasury, however, is enormous, because the class of 20 entails an increase in teacher costs of more than 25 per cent. There are, Wiliam argues, more cost-effective ways of using public money.

To my surprise, I find myself in sympathy with Jim Knight. He is not the first minister to suggest that, with the growth of computer-aided learning and the advent of teachers' assistants, it is absurd to talk of "class size" at all. Margaret Hodge, then chairing the Commons education select committee, put forward a similar argument in the New Statesman ten years ago. There may be some occasions, in secondary schools at any rate, when children manage perfectly well in groups of 75; others where they should get half an hour of individual tuition.

Small classes serve as a convenient slogan for unions and politicians, because they are easily understood and accepted by the public as self-evidently a good thing. It is time we moved beyond them and thought more creatively about how we use educational resources.


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