No longer the anti-business Secretary?

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cableProposals to reform business tribunals have been put forward today by Vince Cable. If passed, these changes will certainly be a step in the right direction, but not enough to ensure that the private sector is free to lead the economic recovery, which is vital to shake off the mammoth national debt and overcome the structural deficit.

The proposals include an extension of the qualifying period for unfair dismissals from one to two years, fees for bringing a claim to lessen vexatious litigation, and the creation of a compulsory mediation stage with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) to screen out unnecessary cases.

Although never pleasant for the person being laid off, easing regulations allowing companies to sack their workers with greater ease, will lead to better outcomes. This is to allow the “churn” of employment vital to modern dynamic economy. Sir Richard Lambert, the former CBI Director-General, defended the “churn” in his final speech earlier this week: “in the past 12 months, there have been over 600,000 lay-offs – and yet aggregate employment has risen by around 250,000.” Quite right. If the government is going to take an interest in employment matters, it shouldn’t be concerned with the number of people losing their jobs, but with the aggregate. And the best way to get the government can get this churn is through low taxes and deregulation.

Yet the Business Secretary is still just tinkering at the edges when what we need is need a bonfire of bureaucracy. Sir Richard Lambert’s in the aforementioned speech he suggests a few places to start. I would add his extensive list the need to scrap the minimum wage or at least get freeze it while the Low Pay Commission (LPC) marching orders.

In the medium to long term though, this government or the next must get a handle on the regulations imposed by the terms of our membership of European Union. If this country is not to be dragged in to Europe’s stagnant condition, a government will need to renegotiate our membership so that it precludes the European Commission’s and the European Court of Justice’s involvement in employment and social policy and law. Without this, there is little that any Business Secretary can do.

What’s wrong with liberty?

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Is there any trouble with liberty? According to Christopher Beam there is. In New York magazine he has a decent crack at the philosophical nut of libertarianism, but comes up well short. The question the article asks is “do we want to live in their world?” ‘Their’ being libertarians. His answer is not only that we don’t, but that we are not likely to. He might be right on both counts, but not for the reasons expressed.

The meat of his argument appears to be that libertarianism takes things too far, but his understanding of the scholarship is weak. Bucketfuls of libertarian ink have been spilled on monetary reform, but in a paragraph devoted to this subject, he mentions only a gold standard. His conclusion is that this is “a policy that most economists agree would lead to economic meltdown”. Firstly, a return to a gold standard is not the only game in town, but more importantly since when was it a good idea to listen to most economists?

For Mr Beam, “There’s always tension between freedom and fairness. We want less government regulation, but not when it means firms can hire cheap child labor.” This is a false dichotomy, and not only because fairness is a completely subjective term. It is the fruits of capitalism that have allowed the postponement of work to become a norm for the children of the developed world. While in the developing world, prohibiting children from working often forces them into criminality and prostitution. Most people working on the ground know this and work around it accordingly.

A central criticism Mr Beam throws at libertarians is they need to bend their principles. In fact, libertarians have been working at the dirty coalface of politics and policy for years, inventing and promoting incrementalist policies that often don’t adhere to the full picture of their personal ideals. It is indeed a tough balance between principal and political power, but libertarians have never been afraid to trade in a little bit of the former for the latter. Perhaps, on occasion too much. But to suggest that the movement has been snooty towards politics is just plain wrong. The two most recognisable figures in the libertarian pantheon,  Hayek and Friedman, were not afraid to get their hands dirty when the need arose.

Mr Beam is not entirely uninformed about the key figures and pressures in the libertarian movement. However, he is remarkably ignorant of the ideas and policy successes. To be fair, anyone would find it hard to satisfactorily bring down a political philosophy in a couple of thousand words, especially one that is mostly right.

A balanced education

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According to Sir Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, England’s education system is in danger of making pupils unhappy by pursuing exam success at all costs. His gripe is with the potential of certain schemes, such as school breakfast clubs and initiatives to make school meals healthier, being dropped as part of the package of cuts to public spending.

His criticism does make sense. If school budgets are cut, there will be less room around the edges to do the warm and fluffy things that could indeed making students happier. However, Sir Paul Ennals’ conclusion is largely inadequate. Rather than calling on government not to cut various schemes, this issue has to be seen in the larger perspectives of deficit and reform.

All sectors of public sector activity need to be cut. Although some items of spending have better claims to being saved than others (arts vs. cancer sufferers is a no-brainer), there should be no sacred cows. Education has areas in which savings can be made. In tough times most parents prioritise reading and counting over breakfast clubs and healthy meals.

Beyond the unpleasantness of cuts, reforms should continue to be the focus of Gove and all that he surveys. To put it bluntly, state schools need to function as any service industry, responding to the will of its customers. In the case of schooling, the customers are the parents. Despite the extension of academies and the hesitant free schools agenda, their local supermarket is still more accountable than their local state school.

The more government steps back from education, the more room there will be for the side orders that lead to a more balanced education. This could be along the lines of Anthony Seldon’s happiness philosophy or something else entirely. On the whole Independent schools manage to have a more balanced approach to educating children than state schools, so there is no reason why a voucher-based deregulated state system couldn’t compete, if that’s what parents want.

Pisa or Babel?

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babelPeter Wilby writes a broadly convincing argument in TES against taking the Pisa results too seriously. As the former editor of the New Statesman suggests, comparisons can be misleading. A few potential sampling errors are pointed to, some more convincing than others, but whatever the merit of each, overall his thesis is persuasive. For anyone familiar with the fallibilities of the sciences, none of this should come as too much of a surprise.

Mr Wilby is hoist by his own petard, though. After much sound reasoning he ends by using the Pisa results to attack the US and neoliberalism. Quite why he does this after everything written before is surprising to say the least. I think as a rule one should try not to contradict oneself in the same article, while contradictions between articles should always be forgiven. After all, people have been known to change their minds.

Yet Mr Wilby’s point stands. With headlines and policy cobbled together from some tentative results, it would have been much better if these tests had not received so much attention, or perhaps not taken place at all. Like so much public policy, education has lurched from one failed silver bullet to the next. Today it is teachers’ qualifications, while yesterday it was class sizes. The behemoth of the state is tying itself in a knot, leaving no room for innovation. That governments still have such a uniform model of education within its borders is a sign of how stilted things are – Pisa is a sign of how far we have to go.

Rather than rely on the tentative, much better to build upon surer ground. There can be no doubting that the private sector does stuff better and cheaper than government run and regulated stuff – therefore, in education we should keep government to an absolute minimum, only interfering when we can be as certain as we can be that we are not making things worse.

The road to freedom

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There is likely no book on the market that better sums up the state of the British education system than Chris Woodhead’s A Desolation of Learning. It opens with a damning tsunami of proof on the dumbing down of exams and ends with a thoughtful conclusion entitled The Road to Freedom (a nod to an essay by Iris Murdoch, not Hayek). Everything in between is just as good.

Written prior to the transfer of power from Balls to Gove, the critique of both is still relevant to the current debate. Take his references to Oakeshott for example. Despite Gove’s unreserved and worthy personal intellectualism, the government nevertheless often defines education policy as an economic public good instead of intellectual private good that happens to result in unforeseen public benefits. The distinction is important because the former has been used to justify increasing government interference for social and economic ends impacting unduly upon the role of the educator and those to be educated.

Every person I speak to involved in education policy is asking themselves the same question right now – when will Gove come out and confirm or deny whether free schools can be run for profit? Woodhead addresses this issue straight on this book and offers a robust defence of for-profit schools for the delivery of education (and is not afraid to support them over the charitable model). On this he writes: "where there is no profit motive there is no incentive to expand capacity. It is more congenial to avoid risks and challenges of expansion and instead to channel ever-increasing surpluses into ever more elaborate facilities, which entrench the elite nature of the institution. Surpluses, which could achieve high returns on investment if re-invested in capacity creation, are used to build state of the art, five star facilities for the tiny minority of pupils whose parents can afford the highest fees. It is hard to think of An ownership system less likely to expand capacity and widen access." So true.

Reflecting upon education policy since the book, I think Woodhead strikes the right tone. There are of course things to congratulate Gove for, and leaks about this week’s white paper suggest that there will be more to celebrate. An overhaul of teacher training looks to be unashamedly radical and positive. But still we are right to want more because the success needs to be undeniable and universal. And as James Tooley of Newcastle University states in TES, "The problem with the free-school policy is that, ultimately, the schools are not accountable to the parents, but to their paymaster, the Government."

Woodhead and Tooley are both right. Gove needs to allow for-profit free schools. Once free to choose, future governments will not be able to to wrestle power back from the people, as they will be up against one interest group they cannot ignore: parents.