“Specialise ! Let no tired bad idea evade your eyes !”*

Yet again we are hearing proposals for the establishment of specialist vocational colleges: we’ve heard this under a range of education ministers, of both parties and over several decades.  This sounds sensible: the UK has many skills shortages, and specialist institutions seem to work in other areas like medicine.  Why not establish a Voxbridge that will develop the excellence in technical skills that we need?  Well, because the idea is neither practicable nor sensible. The reasons are:

  • We do not need a few superb electricians/builders/social care/IT technicians. We need lots of them, good and competent, all over the country.  They have been provided in the past by several hundred further and technical education colleges – the ones who have suffered the deepest education cuts in the past decade. It’s not an elite issue.
  • No-one is quite sure what is meant by specialisation. Does it mean a college that does just one subject – (eg) electrical installation – and nothing else ? Wouldn’t that be impractical ?  Would it do that subject at all levels, from elementary to post-degree ?  Outside four or five major conurbations, the volumes would not be there to support such a college, unless we moved students from all over the region to halls of residence, which would be very expensive, impractical for adults who form the bulk of the workforce (and require grants and bursaries denied to all other students).  
  • Specialist colleges in the past proved more expensive than general colleges, and were kept alive by a funding fudge factor; despite that, some had to be rescued by merger with a larger neighbour.  How long will the Treasury smile on the extra expense ?
  • Is it proposed to establish an elite institution in every vocational area, from hairdressing to horticulture ?  Really ?  Will Scarborough send its apprentice hairdressers to Bradford ?
  • Existing FE colleges already have specialist departments. They may be general colleges, but not all have every vocational area, because (eg) catering, building or engineering require critical student numbers and expensive equipment.  Skills like motorcycle engineering, dental technology, carpet technology, musical instrument repair, are already specialised departments in general FE. 
  • Even beyond that, there is a sense in which within general FE colleges, the actual provision is specialised now. The plastering lecturer teaches nothing but plastering, the drama teacher just drama.  Some departments are very large, occupying separate buildings.  Why would a 400 FTE student specialist college be better than a 600 FTE department in a general college ?
  • There have been a number of similar initiatives, and all have failed.  University technical schools lie empty, Colleges of Vocational Excellence provide just a badge on the boardroom wall.  In any case, the students could only come from existing providers: what legal provision could shut down an existing autonomous college’s engineering or IT department, and insist on student transfer ?
  • Some specialist colleges exist, and some are excellent; I remember being very impressed by Leeds College of Building.  Broadly, however, the research I have seen shows no general correlation between the breadth of a college curriculum and student success. DfES researchers, Strategic Area Reviews and Ofsted have looked and found nothing.  Indeed, (eg) when I worked in this area, art departments in general FE colleges got better Ofsted grades than those in specialist art colleges.  We actually don’t know.  “Specialization is an under-researched area in the UK, and much of the material is too old to be of use” said a survey. I once read every inspection report in England’s colleges, and the very best were the tertiary colleges that met the widest range of local need.
  • Many FE colleges started as specialist colleges – of mining, textiles, engineering, construction and so forth.  They broadened their curriculum to stay solvent, spreading costs more widely, avoid the effect of recession on (eg) building enrolments, represent the changing technical world and to improve the student mix and learning environment.  As noted above, many colleges have merged simply to stay alive.
  • Careers services and adult advice centres have been hollowed out under this government.  How would students find their way to Voxbridge ?  And it may come as a surprise to policy makers that adults do not retrain to do their existing job better: they retrain to do a better job, or a different job.  The idea that adults with family responsibilities in the midst of a cost of living crisis will take on substantial loans in order to do their existing job better for no more money only has to be stated to be shown to be fanciful

In summary, then, specialism is an idea that has often been enthused over but rarely thought through.  Colonel Ghadaffy thought it was a great idea for Libyan secondary schools: on a visit to Libya, I spoke to an official who despaired that the only secondary school within fifty miles for his daughter, who wanted to be an engineer, was a languages school.  Its very definition is not clear, and it looks like turning out an expensive flop, if ever delivered: which it won’t be.  In my view, the debate reflects two general problems with UK education policy

  • Agnosticism – even boredom – about the effectiveness of local structures – whether, overall, one system is better than another.  There is an obsession with the performance of individual institutions (‘academies’, ‘beacon schools’, ‘failing schools’, ‘coasting colleges’ and all that) but little interest in the effectiveness of the service offered to local people as a whole.  How many local people get skills, qualifications, jobs ?  Who gets adults back into retraining ?  Who achieves best with the young cohort that don’t go to university ?  We don’t know what’s the best structure (though we have some pretty good clues and – plot spoiler – it isn’t bloody grammar schools), but even if we did, we could do nothing about it because no-one is in charge. Have you ever tried to explain our educational ‘system’ to a foreigner ?

  • The desire to bring research and evidence to support of prejudices rather than to illuminate the scene.  This applies particularly to commissioned research, but also to alleged lessons from overseas – what is known as ‘policy tourism’. The Tories’ Technical and Vocational Education initiative (TVEI) came from a visit by Lord Young to a few schools in Israel.  New Labour’s Individual Learning Accounts copied a bright idea in a small Canadian province. There was much excitement about a tough New York school that gets its kids into Harvard and Yale – but (it was discovered) only after kicking out volumes of weaker students.

Oh, and there’s a third problem.  Using the vocational education system for endless innovations, changes and reforms whilst the traditional academic sixth form remains essentially as it was in the 1950s. Which will continue for as long as MP’s kids go nowhere near the college system that provides for the majority of post 16 education in this country.

*apologies to Tom Lehrer

Looking back and forward

I haven’t been blogging much recently.  There are a number of reasons for this. One is the attraction of Twitter – putting one’s views in a short, easy format, and getting the immediate support of, oooh, six readers.  Another is the feeling that much of what needs to be said falls into John Cleese’s category of “Master’s Degree in the bleedin’ obvious”:

  • (Guess which week this was written !!)  Liz Truss isn’t up to it.  She is helping a disease that infected us from America and Australia – the idea that political success is made by seeking out enemies and demonising them, by splitting the country into mutually hostile factions and sects, rather than bringing people together and  improving life for the many.

  • The growth the UK economy needs will not be delivered by any of the measures advocated by the current government. What is needed is greater private sector investment, better public infrastructure, improved management and an emphasis on lifelong education and training.  We are getting none of them, and there is no evidence that tax cuts/free ports/cutting red-tape (whatever that means) will help in the slightest.

  • People in rubber dinghies in the Channel are not illegal immigrants. They become so only when a proper evaluation has been conducted.  As it is, 60% or so pass the government’s own assessment of their case.

  • We are an unequal society, and those of us wanting to see fewer children hungry or adults cold are not Venezuelan revolutionaries seeking the King’s head on a spike.  Hardly anyone wants absolute equality, but 99% of us would benefit from greater equality than we have at the moment. There’s respectable evidence that it is good for the economy – see “The Spirit Level”.

  • Explaining where the money came from to build stately homes (something, actually, that has always fascinated me) is not “woke nonsense”. It’s our history.

  • Grammar schools don’t raise standards, and there is no need for any emphasis on more academic sixth forms (least of all, helped by private schools seeking to improve their reputation). If any, we need fewer.

You know all of that. If you didn’t, there are better people than me to explain them all. 

No doubt I’ll leap back in now and again, but I thought what I’ll do now is reflect on my own record on this blog. It’s been going for more than ten years, and some items have been brought forward from (can’t work out whether this sounds good, or bad) the last century.  I’m pretty happy with most of it.  In the modern cant, I’ve got the big calls right, and (preen, preen) most of the small ones.  I’ll happily defend everything I’ve written on education policy, economics (bloody Laffer curve, bloody balanced budgets), inequality, growth and productivity, history (I might do some more work on the misuse of WW2 in British politics), and so on.  Plain that Conservative governments have been, overall, bad for the country, and austerity particularly.  I didn’t expect Brexit to be quite the disaster it’s turned out to be, but that was because I couldn’t believe it would be quite so badly implemented: nevertheless, I voted remain, and become fiercer about this as time passes.  I saw through Corbyn.   I’ve regularly written on bogus quotations, and there are others rallying to that cause: not earth-shattering, but (as Orwell did say) political language matters.  I remain pro-Israel – a Zionist moron, as a Twitter correspondent described me – though the actions of the current leaders of that country can make it hard.

Where have I gone wrong ?  Looking back, there’s a 2014 item about the toppling of the pro-Russian Ukraine president that I thought was undemocratic, and would lead to trouble.  Not sure how that sits now: it reads a bit more like realpolitik rather than prescience. 

Further back in my life, I opposed joining the EEC in the 1974, talked at various meetings, wrote articles from what would today be called a Lexit perspective.  I still think I was right about not joining the Eurozone – saw it coming, explained why it was a mistake – but broadly, partnership with Europe has proved a good idea.  The idea that membership was ill advised because it would prevent a progressive British government introducing radical reforms was followed by ten years of Thatcher.  And look what’s happened now we’ve tried a different path.  I was a sceptic about the power of the internet, and pooh-poohed the idea that a substantial part of our purchases would be made on line: Amazon was making big losses, and wouldn’t last long.  That change in our habits came later than predicted, but it happened, and the owners made fortunes.  I thought budget airlines were a bad idea that would end in smoking crashes as companies cut maintenance costs: now I lament Ryanair no longer flying to Dinard.  Can’t remember last time I flew on a mainstream airline.  I couldn’t see the point of gay marriage until a friend had to buy back half his London flat when his partner died.  Going back a long way, in the 1970s I thought publishing school and college inspection reports was a dreadful idea: can’t remember why. On the other hand, I can claim some long term and slightly unpopular wins. I’ve always been in favour of nuclear power, for example. Can’t see how we can save the planet without it. And history reveals that I was right to to be sceptical about the simplicities of the Vietnam War and Cuba. A conflict we were told was a peasant uprising ended with troops from a one party state riding into Saigon on tanks: Cuba probably imprisons as many dissidents now as Batista every did, even if the government is now an inefficient tyranny rather than a corrupt one.

Of course, there’s a difference between value judgements and facts.  You can say Britain is more or less unequal than another country – that can be confirmed by data – but saying you’re in favour of, or against more equality is a matter of preference.  The boundary can be blurred (the idea that inequality improves economic growth is discredited) but it’s a view.  You can say you think people should keep more of their income rather than pay additional taxes, and that’s a respectable philosophical view.  What you can’t say is cutting taxes increases the government take, because it just doesn’t.  You can prefer ski holidays to hot holidays, but you can’t say there is more snow in summer.  That may be a silly example, but we have people who want to avoid vaccination because they feel they have the right to determine medical interventions (OK) but that doesn’t mean they are correct in asserting that Bill Gates is trying to insert computer chips in your blood.

The thing to look for is people who accept inconvenient facts.  You can say that Brexit is important for national autonomy.  What you can’t say is that Brexit will improve our economy or overseas trade.  Another sign of honesty is having unmatching views.  The curious thing is how many current political views are accepted in overlapping clusters.  People who deny the effectiveness of vaccines are likely to be pro-Brexit. People who want lower taxes will say grammar schools help raise standards.  People who want more nationalisation are pro-Palestinian. There is no connection between these pairs of views.  In some cases, cluster views are contradictory.  I suspect most “pro-life” Americans are in favour of the death penalty, which is odd.  These pairs seem evidence that political views are a signal of position, rather than a developed and evidenced stance.

How much is enough ?

I sometimes use this site to review books – not so much to deal with their merits or faults as much as to put down my own reflections on a topic. Writing like this helps to clarify one’s own mind. This is a blog I haven’t finalised, but I wanted to get it out and work on it as thoughts come to me.

Anyway I’ve recently finished reading a book I had planned to tackle some time ago (which is why a rearrangement of my bookshelves revealed I’d bought it twice) – “How Much Is Enough ?” by Robert and Edward Skidelsky.  Robert Skidelsky is the author of a three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, and this book, first published in 2012, follows on from an essay the great man wrote in 1930 – “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”.

Keynes asked a question that is so important that it amazes me that it has hardly been asked or addressed at all, except as a spin-off or environmental concerns.  In his essay, he looked at the pace of economic growth, and asked what would the standard of living be like in a hundred years’ time – which is to say, round about now.  He estimated that (by compound interest) advanced industrial countries would produce four times as much in goods and services per head as they did as he wrote.  They would, therefore, be four times as prosperous as they were in the 1920s, which led to the question that forms the book’s title – how much is enough ?  Do we need to, should we, keep growing ?

We know the environmental reasons to ask this question.  It is not just the old question posed by the Club Of Rome forty years ago, about the limits to growth as a result of exhausting our physical resources.  Hardly anyone worries today about running out of oil or metals.  If anything, protestors aim to stop more oil drills or quarries – look at current debates about North Sea drilling or coal mines in Cumbria.  It is climate change that is the worry today, the knowledge (I won’t dignify idiocy by calling it a theory or an idea) that human activity will add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and push the temperature of the earth to dangerous levels. Beside that, the oceans of plastic and rivers of sewage are lesser order problems.

But the environmental cost of growth wasn’t actually the driver behind Keynes’ thoughts.  He wanted to cut back the drudgery of work.  In his day, for most people, labour was an unpleasant thing to be avoided[1].  For an economist, labour had a disutility (as against wealth & products, which had utility): it was an unpleasant chore.  For most occupations, one hundred years ago, that was surely right.  Going down a pit, or into a textile mill, a steelworks or cutting the endless furrows of a ploughman – they were disagreeable and demanding.  There still many jobs like this – not as many, perhaps, as politicians pretend when they talk of ‘hard-working families’, but enough.  In economic theory, wages were the price of labour disutility – they were what employers had to offer to bribe people to supply effort.

I’m not sure that is still as true as it was, though.  In the days of coming artificial intelligence, the debate is also about sharing out work.  People miss work, and whilst for many that will be about the income work supplied, that isn’t the only thing.  There’s a reason why the first question people ask when they meet is usually “what do you do ?” (and they don’t mean baking sourdough bread or walking the dog): someone’s occupation helps tell you who they are, and for them it gives identity.  My experience of the Sheffield steel closures was that, whilst those jobs were hot and demanding, and dangerous, they also gave companionship and meaning to a life, purpose to activity.  The whisper of this idea cuts through our language sometimes. “The devil makes work for idle hands” we’re told, supporting Samuel Smiles’ belief that “it is idleness that is the curse of men – not labour. Idleness eats the heart out of men, as of nations, and consumes them as rust does iron”.  “There are few ways a man can be more innocently employed as in making money” Samuel Johnson tells us.  At the far end of this idea, we hear Noel Coward telling us that ‘work is more fun than fun’. Truer, of course, when sipping cocktails with Gertrude Lawrence at a dress rehearsal than a morning shift at Tesco, but you know what he means. Those Downing Street politicos who, we’re told, worked so hard in the Covid lockdown couldn’t tear themselves away to go home.

So, topic one: is work such a bad thing we must rein in production to free people from it ?  I suspect this will vary according to your work experience.  There is certainly no need for the madness we hear about in merchant banks, where young employees work till late at night at an extraordinary level of intensity. What, one asks, would happen if they didn’t ?  Not much bad, I think: I suspect the issue is competition. If they didn’t work at that intensity, some other venture capitalist or hedge fund will close the deal they want.  Ditto making ‘fulfilment centre’ employees run round like scared cats, with limits on toilet and break times.  There’s even an argument that we have replaced the automatised jobs with unnecessary time wasting occupations – “Bullshit Jobs” – that serve no real purpose at all.

But, topic two: could we afford to ?  Don’t we need a constantly expanding GNP in order to secure better living standards for the poor ?  The answer is a resounding no.  We have enough already to meet all needs: we have achieved the growth that Keynes foresaw.   Here’s a footnote from Michael J Sandel’s “The Tyranny Of Merit”:

In the United States most of the economic growth since 1980 has gone to the top 10 per cent, whose income has grown 121 per cent; almost none went to the bottom half of the population, whose average income in 2014 was about the same as it was in real terms in 1980. (Ch 3, note 31).

The fact that those who support our present system have done so well from growth in the last decade without the majority of people gaining anything at all – that suggests that the assertion that we need growth to help the poor is hypocrisy.  One can see the attractions to the rich of an argument that says “if we have growth, you can have a decent life without me having to contribute at all” – the idea of the same slice of a bigger pie.  But we’ve had that for decades, and it hasn’t helped.  At its worst, it’s devil take the hindmost, and if you’re poor it’s your own fault.

Galbraith wrote “The Affluent Society” in the 1950s, arguing that there was enough for all and what was needed was a rebalancing of our output, making our world cleaner, fairer and more attractive, particularly arguing for better public provision. It’s striking to remember that he compared US public provision with Europe, when in all the years since he wrote, the American market model has become more dominant. Hard to see why. National income per head has, I guess, doubled since then by the wonders of compound interest. Some of the activities of middle class people – decluttering their lives, choosing artisan goods rather than mass produced – suggests we’re not on the breadline.

This, remember, after weak economic performance for a decade. The fact that this – and the associated productivity glacier – has not excited as much public comment as imperial measures and floating immigrants suggests that people don’t actually know when the GNP is growing or not. They know, certainly, when they’re having a hard time, but is that due to the overall; level of output, or to social and political factors. Children don’t hunger or poor people shiver because we are a poor country; those are choices we have made.

Not that there is massive public pressure for growth. Of course people want a good local library, sure, an effective hospital, modern car or decent school. But they might already have these things – remember that GNP is not a calculation of our wealth, it only counts what we produce in a year. On the other hand, there is relentless pressure from the corporate sector seeking endless expansion. The role of advertising and marketing aims at little else (though some is, of course, competitive – as in the burger wars). Does any Chief Executive say what we’ve got as turnover is OK ? I’d like to ask if there is there a record of anyone successfully living that way or running a company. There is, or course, plenty of evidence of companies coming a cropper trying to endlessly expand – M&S in USA, others buying subsidiaries that turn out to be worth little. And such fruitless expansion is often funded on borrowing that later comes back to cripple the company. We can only eat so many pizzas, wear so many trousers. We must remember that many of the actions that have been taken to boost the economy – marketising our public services, selling sub-prime mortgages, outsourcing and offshoring – have contributed to economic crashes.

Oh, and one last thing.  Keynes was exercised by the miserable selfishness behind capitalism.  Keynes thought that the reason we needed to have profit incentives and cost cutting, an economy that was driven by selfishness and treated humans as mere assets, was because at the moment those actions were what was needed to increase income to a level that would assure everyone of a decent living standard.  You’ll remember Adam Smith telling us that the butcher and baker did not provide us with food out of their sense of humanity, but to make a profit.  For the moment, selfishness makes the economic wheels go round. That was why we had to act, in his words, as if fair was foul and foul was fair.  He himself speculated in shares, products and foreign currency, but because that was necessary to fund his life and the institutions and people he loved.  He personally found the ethic of capitalism distasteful.  If his predictions were right – that in his grandchildren’s lifetime there would be abundance that meant we could leave that shabbiness behind – and I believe that we do – then why not move to a way of being that does not constantly penny-pinch, that does not complain we have to close libraries, weaken pension provision and pollute the environment because we don’t have the money to do better ?

[1] The idea that work was something to be avoided, that it stopped us from doing important things like appreciating the arts or developing friendships, was not new.  William Morris had come at it from a socialist angle in 1890, in his “News From Nowhere”.   He also looked to a world where products were made by happy crafts people, and not by grimy mass production.  (He made his own fortune from frighteningly expensive craft goods)  To a degree we’ve got there already, with our sourdough bread and farmers’ markets, but it’s hard to see a world of hand-knitted computers or artisan central heating. I’d argue that a zero growth society needs more efficiency, not less.

Newly discovered compassion

There is an irritating trend I’ve noticed recently, which is that right wingers, exploitative companies and their associated commentators and PR people have discovered compassion for the poor. A number of examples have recently surfaced: a sample

  • We must not label food accurately, or enforce decent standards of animal welfare, as these would drive up food prices. This would penalise poor people, as they spend a higher portion of their income on food, and are currently struggling with food price inflation.
  • Green policies that aim to preserve our environment must be abandoned lest they put additional costs onto fuel bills.  We are assured that the group wanting this is small, but remember Brexit. Especially as the appalling Nigel Farage has decided it is his next Crusade – it’s “power not poverty” he wants, for the benefit of the poor, of course.

  • We must continue to allow private schools to claim charitable tax breaks, because this keeps their costs down. Any measure to change this concession would penalise normal hardworking families who are already scrimping to pay school fees to secure a decent education for their children.
  • The BBC licence is a big expense for poor families, and we must restrain any inflationary increase to ease the burden on pensioners and the working poor.
  • Any attempt to claim money from energy companies currently making substantial profits would only be passed on to consumers – and would be a particular burden for those with low incomes. Hitting the profits of such companies would hurt investment in them, driving down the value of pensions and savings.
  • Asking people in large houses to pay more in property tax would penalise retired people who are asset rich but income poor.  Widows would be forced to sell the family home in which they have raised their children and enjoyed family life over many years.
  • The reason we must oppose railway strikes is because they harm the very low paid and hard-working people the labour movement has always said it is working for.
  • Even, stunningly, that we mustn’t have too tight a squeeze on Russian oligarchs because economic collapse will make life more difficult for poor people in Russia.
  • Why mustn’t we have an on-line sales tax. Ah, I think you’re beginning to twig. Because it would hurt the poorest. Of course it will.

Now, a number of points can be made here.  The hypocrisy of removing green policies – where many measures would help the poor – was exposed in a  recent article in the Guardian by George Monbiot.  Fees for major private schools are currently equal to, or above, the mean household income in this country.  They are not paid by average families scrimping on their Netflix subscription or economising on breakfast avocados.  The proposed rise in BBC resources would have cost the average family less than one hundredth of one per cent of their household costs: compared with food or fuel, irrelevant, but useful in reducing rivalry to private media tycoons and truth seeking to failing governments.  Money made by energy companies is way above what they were expecting, and come not from hard work or new discoveries but the windfall result of geopolitical factors and poor government planning. If a windfall tax reduced their profits to what was expected at the beginning of the financial year, the share price and contribution to pension funds would be exactly as expected.  The Guardian recently put this argument well. As for property taxes – we in Britain have a low rate compared with (say) the USA, pensioners are no longer the poorest section of the population (least of all, pensioners in big houses), and many retired people consider downsizing. And the care that Russian billionaires show to the poor is legendary, and not in a good way.

There’s a sense, though, in which this is all irrelevant.  The conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway comes to mind: “The rich are different to us, Ernest” – “Yes, Scott, they have more money”.  The poor are different to us – they have less money. A government which was really concerned about their living standards would not help them with nit-picking policy changes that in reality favour the rich, but ensure that poor people had more money. Government would adapt the tax and social system so that it didn’t work against low income families, and support measures that placed the heaviest burdens on those most equipped to pay.  If they don’t do that, we know the newly discovered compassion is empty and hypocritical nonsense.

Historical footnote: T’was ever thus. I recently watched a TV documentary about the building of the first canal in England – the Bridgewater Canal that linked the mines of the Duke of Bridgewater in Worsley to Manchester. This created a new and efficient link between the textile industry and the coal it needed. His Grace needed Parliamentary permission to purchase the land, and his pitch to MPs was that he was building the canal in order to lower the prices of coal and clothes for the poor. Such compassion, such public spirit. And making him the richest man in England was, I guess, just a happy by-product.

Another historical example of inverse compassion. Opposition to smoke control measures in Victorian England, because they would drive away manufacturers and thus create unemployment. Ho hum.

“If you like it so much …”

A brief note and a puzzle. When left wing or progressive people say that they prefer the arrangements in another country (or even that they dislike arrangements in the UK) they are often challenged by right-wingers “if you like it so much, why don’t you go and live there ?”.

Two points. Firstly, the complete illogicality of the idea.  I want UK trains to be better, its taxation system to be fairer, its rivers clean, its supermarkets full and its GP lists to be smaller: pretty uncontroversial stuff, I would guess.  How can those goals be better achieved if I were to move to Spain, or France, Denmark, or Portugal ?

Secondly, why is this form or political jousting only one way ?  No one says to a right winger – “if you like a market driven health service, why don’t you move to the USA ?” (or, “if you want an economy with few regulations where the rich pay little tax, why don’t you move to Haiti ?”).

I have a theory. It is that the example of other countries successfully tackling issues which our government is bungling  takes away the usual right wing excuse for poor service and unfair policy – that it is inevitable, that it is how the world has to work these days (as Thatcher would have it, “there is no alternative”).  It also removes the ‘slippery slope’ argument – if you want to end tax evasion, you must like Venezuela, and look what’s happening there.  And, of course, it prevents the necessity of actually thinking about how things can be done better.

Footnote: I write the above as a white person, talking about political differences. I am fully aware that black Britons are regularly told to go somewhere else, but that is different (and worse). We know why that is and where that remark comes from.


I’ve just finished “Empireland”, Sathnam Sanghera’s book about the way Britain’s imperial past has influenced how we think and act.  It’s an important read, I think – not too long, written in a bright and unfussy style.  It’s not a history of the British Empire – there is a bucket of those, and I remember reading Jan Morris’s Pax Britannia trilogy many years ago.  At the time it was thought to be a radical enough assessment, but Sanghera thinks Morris let the old beast off pretty easy.  She was actually more critical than Niall Ferguson, whose story – astonishingly less than twenty years old – was reviewed as “unfolding the Empire story with all its glories and miseries”.  I remember reading that and thinking it was a poor historical compensation to be rated as better than the Belgians.  Sanghera’s own book is actually about the effect of imperialism on Britain and the British, and is all the more important coming at a time when culture warriors of both sides are using the memory of Empire as fuel for their fires.

This blog is not a review of the book (it’s good – buy it and read it) as much as an account of how it made me feel, and the thoughts it brought to mind in a 76 year old retired white bloke.  I was born in 1945, long after the days of swagger, but nevertheless a time when the view of Empire was pretty uncritical.  The main discussion of slavery was about how gallant protestors led by Wilberforce had led to its abolition, and how the Royal Navy had enforced the ban on slave trading.  The previous 200 years of profitable human trafficking was hardly mentioned.  Ruling India, it seemed, was in order to end cruel religious practices and to build fine railways; the fortunes made, the oppression and racism, the massacres, famines and uprisings were left unexamined.  Throughout the world, it seemed, local people had reason to be grateful for the stability and justice delivered by the local district commissioner, by Biggles, or Sanders of the River.  Even in the 1950s, when no-one defended the Opium Wars, other imperial adventures were ignored or defended.  Curious names of roads in nearby suburbs – like Ulundi Rd near my school – commemorated colonial battles.  And I remember thinking, as a schoolboy, on the basis of press reports, how awful were Mau Mau insurgents. Why, they drank special drinks as they took oaths of loyalty, the villains.  Just like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, I later thought.

Sanghera’s book could not ignore the effect of imperialism on the local populations, of course.  I think I knew as much of that as the average Brit anyway.  My own reflection was on the effect of empire on the colonial power, and its population.  He gives examples of homecoming colonials transferring their bullying and sadism to their behaviour in Britain.  There’s evidence of that, sure, but by 1963 there were few nabobs coming back from the colonies, and the memsahibs were living in reduced circumstances in a room in Hastings.  Yet the smell of empire lingered in a different way.  Not from plundered wealth.  As far as I know, no-one in my family took part in or benefitted from slavery or the colonies.  What little family history I know shows poor working class people, miners and mill girls, certainly not as exploited as enslaved West Indian plantation workers or Indian weavers, but that’s a pretty low bar. 

Sanghera quotes his old school song, which made me reflect on mine from a grammar school in Greenwich.  It wasn’t all militarism – there is a bit about how Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare worked locally, and the work of the astronomers at the Observatory.  “We were born in days of passion, we were reared in days of pride, that gave the seas to England and continents beside”. There’s much of the same in the verses that follow – like the National Anthem, it goes on a bit – and when we are asked what we can give to England, the answer is “ourselves we give to England”.  The school’s houses might have been named for Nelson, Rodney, Wolfe and Drake, but nevertheless, dissonance with the world we were facing was stark.  I went to school in the 50s and 60s, an age ago, but this stuff was around alongside the Beatles first LP. The school had to ban CND badges. You may say that the song and the houses are just slightly interesting historical stuff, and you’d be right. The past is indeed a foreign country. But it infected and coloured how we saw the world and our role in it.  There was no sense that our role might be helping fellow citizens, working to end world poverty or boosting our nation’s feeble economic performance. In the knowledge that the Empire was dead, we were left, as Dean Acheson might have said, without a role.

A couple of random thoughts. I referred above to a historian who said that, of all the European powers, the British Empire was probably the best one to be a subject of.  Certainly the German reign in South West Africa (modern Namibia) was disgraced by genocide – but then so was the British rule in Tasmania.  The Belgian rule in the Congo was particularly barbaric, as was revealed by Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost.  I’m even less of an expert on Italian rule, or Dutch or French.  But let’s go beyond the argument that “if we hadn’t done it, someone else would” – which was probably true of Canada and India, for example, but maybe not South Africa. What would have happened if there had been no imperial presence – would it have been so much better for (eg) Indian farmers or African traders to be paying rents and obeying laws of local rulers ?  We know that they would not have been model social democracies[1], and that there have been massacres and oppression in post-colonial countries, but is there a particular level or infamy and insult in being ruled by foreigners ?

My other unfocussed thought, as I hinted above, is to ask, as to what extent the European working class – the weaver in Holland, the miner in Wales, the peasant in France – benefitted from imperial adventures ?  I would guess the answer is ‘hardly at all’; and I don’t think the ones dragged, Kiplingesque, into the armed forces were an exception[2].  The stately homes built across Britain’s countryside on the proceeds of Indian plunder must have been pleasant for the homecoming nabobs, but had little benefit for my ancestors.  I come back to a point I’ve made in other blogs – that one cannot be ashamed of an act one did not commit (or, unprotesting, benefit from), nor proud of an achievement you took no part in.  The American humourist George Carlin made this point about those who were “proud to be American”. Much of the nonsensical defences of the empire you read at present, especially in response to Satnam Sanghera’s book, is just that – defensive – when there’s no need for most people to be defensive.  Africans, and Caribbean people, India and native Australasians were treated badly by the same rulers who put children in factories, oversaw the Irish Famine and the Peterloo Massacre.  Maybe – unlike the colonies – over here we haven’t been able to expel them from their positions of power yet.

Establishing the truth about our empire is an important part of the job of creating a more just, informed society, but not the whole job.  Every respectable historian and reader of goodwill knows it was a history of racism, dominance and plunder – in the words of Orwell (who should know) ‘an evil thing – just as every right wing nationalist and sentimentalist will deny it, or look the other way, or have some version of “what about the railways?”.  I’m not convinced that restitution or compensation is the issue either.  This isn’t to deny that well organised overseas aid programmes are important or that the return of important artefacts from our museums should be done as soon as a safe home is found for them.  A common understanding of our history, and acknowledgement of the shameful nature of much of it, and a knowledge of its clear link to current racism are important in order inform purposeful equal opportunity work in our society, to an adult conversation about the changes needed in (eg) the legal system, or the national curriculum, or migration policy. As with most things, the question is “what do we do now ?”. Mr Sanghera’s book will help provide a starting point, as our actions need to be set in a common understanding of decency and truth, of our shared responsibilities and strengths, that must illuminate our lives. But that depends on morality as much as history, and is not limited to race.

Controversial bit follows.  How to build the consensus that will support the new, decent society ?  Wits often point out the right way not to.  I’m reminded of Bill Maher’s analysis of the earnestness of many current films: “if you’re wondering who is the bad guy in this movie, the answer is, it’s you”.  I don’t think we make progress, or win people over, with some of the current guilt-trip stuff. The “white privilege” narrative is likely to be counter-productive – not because it makes people uncomfortable but because it’s not true.  An example.  I have not been subject to an unjustified stop in my car by police, which I know happens because I have worked with black colleagues who have.  But it isn’t that I enjoyed a privilege (dictionary – “a special right or advantage”) by not being harassed: I’ve been treated how everyone should be treated.  Just as my Lanarkshire mill girl great grandma wasn’t responsible for the Amritsar Massacre, today’s white homeless people aren’t benefitting from institutional racism – a bizarre claim revealed in this Spectator article.  Sweeping nonsense like that enables real problems and guilt to be avoided, and prevents any alliance for progress.  It’s important to get all decent people onside in building a better society, and we won’t get them onboard by telling them that they are the problem.   

None of which takes away from Mr Sanghera’s book – in fact, it’s a plus that he can create dialogues in the head of the reader, asking how to move forward.  I couldn’t see any factual errors (was there a bit about driving on the right ? Oh, well), and he was scrupulous on areas that interest me, such as the extent to which the wealth earned by slavers and imperialists benefitted the UK economy.  And there are lots of “ooh, I didn’t know that” moments.  As I said at the beginning, buy it and read it.

[1]  A visit to the British Museum exhibition on the Aztecs would cure anyone of the idea that native cultures were inherently more moral than imperial ones.

[2] An admission here for Mr Sanghera. I have an ancestor who was decorated for his gallantry in the Sikh Wars: he was a 14 year old drummer boy who stayed at his post in the heat of battle, and whose medals were donated to the Royal Artillery Museum.

The new normal evening class

During lockdown many people had ambitions to start new projects – getting fit, learning a skill, growing vegetables, supporting or starting local community initiatives.  Now that we seem to be moving blinking into the daylight of a post-Covid world, newspapers have been full of columnists saying how they have been successful or unsuccessful in this.  On the positive side, there’s a lot more sourdough bread out there than ever before.  On the other hand, though, much of the news has been bad.  The cheeky chappy has gained a stone; the sassy ladette has not knitted a single scarf; the solemn politico who meant to learn Portuguese hasn’t got beyond ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.

But I have been more successful.  Truth to tell, my breadmaking was only just adequate, but otherwise, well. I got an exercise bike and now manage to do 30 minutes a day without some supermodel lookalike screaming at me. I was also able (despite an inflation that increased the price by more than £100 whilst I was on line) to buy an electric folding bike that fits in the car boot.  But the topic of today’s missive is my Zoom class.  I enrolled at the City Lit for basic German – 6.00 till 7.30 every Wednesday.  I’ve not missed a class, and am looking forward to using my new skills on an unsuspecting German, Swiss or Austrian as soon as lockdown ends.  The point of this blog is to ask – why should we go back to traditional evening classes ?

If you haven’t done a Zoom class, here are the plusses:

  • You don’t have to attend for enrolment.  No queues, no forms, no draughty halls or photocopied direction signs. No looking for the room, no queues for coffee break.
  • No need to commute and park in a city centre, or use public transport followed by a walk in the dark (which is an issue for women and those with a motor disability).  I think this makes attendance easier.  I haven’t missed a class, despite bad weather one night and feeling off colour on another.
  • Class members come from all over the country and beyond. My class is mostly Londoners, but there is a lawyer from Brighton and an American businesswoman from Paris. I live in Sheffield. Widening the market like this has several benefits. It’s easier to form a class for a minority subject (important when the economics of adult education means you need to recruit a viable class size), or, on the other hand, duplicate popular options. Plus, I’ll be able to continue my class when away from home – say, in our French house.
  • All class members can be involved in discussion or question and answer work.  There’s less chance of the dominant member.  Break-out groups can be set up in an instant. I know these can happen in a conventional evening class, but it’s more difficult. And no furniture needs moving !
  • The teacher can create a chat room, jotting down comments and corrections as the class progresses.  Next week’s work can be posted on screen: I run off the lesson plan a day ahead to go over the work. Our class is linked to a lively course book, which helps.
  • The regularity of the class makes participation more disciplined than simple ‘distance learning’.  This could be a disadvantage in some settings (when I taught evening classes in Middlesbrough, many of my group were on shifts and had to miss some classes), but I found it a plus.  I have to turn up 6.00 Wednesday or miss the class. 

I posted a tweet to this effect, and whilst some agreed, there was some dissent. There was some of the predictable invocation of the wonders of teacher presence (as far as I know, there’s not a lot of research confirmation of this, certainly not in simple classes of information-transmission).  I was told ‘face-to-face’ education had great benefits, which ignored the fact that Zooming is as face-to-face as you can be. I’d be interested in research on student retention in Zoom classes, to see how drop-out compares with conventional part-time studies and fully distance learning.

More weighty dissent came from those who said that this sort of learning would not involve disadvantaged or underrepresented learners.  I think that’s true.  I’m not saying we should abolish outreach or access programmes, where those who missed out at school can gain confidence and ambitions.  Friendships formed in those programmes can last a lifetime.  However, most learning is not like this.  People, even those who are ‘well-qualified’, will need to return to study again and again. Let’s keep the adult outreach going – it’s been cruelly cut in recent years – but think of how the Zoom class can replace much conventional academic part-time classes. Access and outreach should aim at giving new learners the confidence to use the new learning.

There are some footnotes, of course.  I had one week when the contact details needed to be updated: any digital learning needs good technical support (which, after a frustrating 45 minutes, I got).  Students will need decent tackle: my wife has an ESOL learner who has to use her smart phone for classes because local organisations haven’t been able to get a laptop to her.  Zooming is not going to be the right way to teach practical skills – my stepson teaches electrical engineering apprentices, and they’ve struggled in lockdown.  But even if it doesn’t work for plumbing, dance or pottery, it will work for languages, law and economics.  Overall, I’ve found it stimulating, effective, and motivating.  So would the columnists who’ve had a year but can’t find a way to improve their French or understand maths better.

Evening classes are in decline – mostly due to cuts in government funding (my course costs more than going to the cinema each week). But they offer great opportunities for busy people to increase their skills and widen their interests. This is good for individuals and (with our productivity so much lower than our economic rivals) could be good for the country. And if our further education colleges don’t grab the advantages of the new evening class, then someone else will – with fewer principles and higher costs.

(Footnote – as I write the government is announcing new policies for adult education. Led by employers (like the failed TECs), based on complex rules about entitlement and loans (like the failed ISAs). Why can’t they just subsidise colleges to offer low fee courses ?)

Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag

Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman speaks about zombie economics – beliefs that he thought were dead, but rise like the monster from the Black Lagoon, undead, near the end of the film.  I’ve written about a couple of them myself in this blog – the idea that if the government cuts tax rates, it will increase its receipts as people work harder and earn more money (Laffing All The Way), or the notion that we solve our skills shortages by making students do what ministers want, not what they want (The Right Course).  Now, we have the King and Queen of zombie economics, the assurance that we (or our children) will have to pay off the current excessive level of National Debt, and so we must raise taxes and cut government expenditure.  I even heard it at a recent adult education class, from a sensible and bright fellow student, which is what motivated me to write this.

It’s a popular belief, of course, because on the surface it seems straightforward.  You can despair at the idiocy of conspiracy theorists, sigh at Brexiteers, curl a lip at climate deniers.  But not so much National Debt worriers.  Some call the theory “Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag”, as it stretches a comparison with domestic spending which appears to be, well, just common sense.  Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC speaks of the national credit card being ‘maxed out’. There are still prudent, civic minded people who leave a legacy to the government to reduce the national debt. And, while few are as public spirited, many share the ambition to cut the debt. During the 2015 UK General Election, an audience member on “Question Time” was keen to reveal his unique understanding of economics to an MP critical of austerity. The audience clapped as the gentleman confided that he virtuously stops spending and leaves his local pub when he has no more money to buy beer.  As I noted at the time – my blog of May 2015 – people nodded wisely, without asking

  • “do you have an impeccable credit record going back to 1694 ?”
  • “can you issue money whenever required ?”
  • “is your alcoholic spending so high that when you reduce it, it causes unemployment ?”

    and, crucially
  • “Is your extra pint important to society ?  Will your decision mean we have fewer nurses in hospitals, fewer police officers on the streets, worse public transport, reduced flood defences, inadequate vehicles for the army and cuts in welfare benefits ?”

Taking these objections one by one. 

Credit record: the National Debt is the sum of government borrowing over the years, minus whatever has been repaid. It does not have to be paid back.  We have had one for more than three hundred years, and we have never had to pay it back.  There are, of course, interest payments to pay, and allowing those to rise too high would be unwise, taking tax money that might be better spent on improving public services.  But at the moment, that isn’t the case: in fact, interest rates are low, and have been for a decade.  Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics at Kings College London and by no means a wild man, said the cost of the extra borrowing was small enough to be considered ‘a rounding error’ (Prospect magazine, October 2020).  Rates are being slashed right now, to the extent that a recent call for funds by government actually led to negative interest rates.  Indeed, Simon Nixon of the Times revealed that UK government interest payments fell by £25 billion this year (24th December 2020) even as the National Debt “soared” (good old austeritarian word, that) to 100% of GNP.

Remember, too, that the National Debt is the total owed to those who lend to the government.  The public perception is that it’s money we owe to foreigners, who will send around heavily built bruisers to get the money back (as in some loathsome C5 documentary, where debtors sob as their washer and TV are carried out of the door).  In fact, three-quarters of those holding the National Debt are UK citizens and companies: sometimes it’s actually the Bank Of England itself.  It’s in the form of bonds and bills held by savers.  If you own Premium Bonds, contribute to or receive money from a pension fund, you own a bit of the National Debt.  If it’s a government debit, it must logically be a private credit: if we are passing on a debt to our children, we are also passing on a lot of valuable assets – not just bonds and certificates, but roads, schools, hospitals, houses.  And currently many savers are looking for somewhere to put their savings. The fact is that savings have ‘soared’ in the pandemic: if anything, we have an excess of savings, and are happy to dump them with the government. The idea that this is somehow ‘crowding out’ private investment (a beloved fallacy of the Thatcher years) simply isn’t true. Firms don’t want to expand in a slump, and when they do, with profitable opportunities, they have no problem finding lenders. There are multi-billion dollar venture capital funds being set up with no clear sector or project, just to seek investment opportunities wherever they occur. Where money is forced on banks or large corporates by quantitative easing they look around and then use it to buy back their own shares.

In passing, an amusing tweak : when the government pays out interest on the National Debt to a UK taxpayer, they usually get some money back in income tax. Those with big balances of savings are often high tax payers, so as much as 40% of the interest comes straight back to the public purse.

Second point from Mr Know All from Question Time: money issuance.  It is true that much of the funding following the 2008 credit crunch and the 2020 pandemic has effectively come from money creation – dressed up as ‘quantitative easing’ as the government gives the central bank money to buy its bonds. The usual objection here is to say “I can’t issue money, sure. But if the government pays its debts by printing money, that will lead to inflation”.  This belief has withstood the trillions of pounds and dollars issued as ‘monetary easing’ to rescue the economy from the effects of 2008 Credit Crunch.  That did not cause inflation.  The Japanese government has run a deficit for years, and not suffered inflation or collapse in business confidence.  The billions issued to support the economy and society during the Covid 19 crisis won’t either.  On a minor point, the dine-out deal actually reduced inflation.  In the longer term, the causes of inflation are complex, but it is one issue that modern central banks and governments seem to have under control. Briefly, if more money was issued when the economy was booming, and there was full employment, prices would nudge upwards, but that isn’t the situation when Governments use the National Debt to support things during a recession.  Prices actually fell after the 1929 Crash: there was plenty of room for new spending, and no pressure on wages.  Same in 2008, same now.

Those interested in understanding where money comes from might wish to look into MMT (modern monetary theory), or they might not.  MMT enthusiasts say that government spending is not funded by taxes: spending comes first and creates the income that generates tax revenues.  Well, maybe.  The book you need to read is Stephanie Kelton’s “The Deficit Myth”.  What we can agree is that the process of actually finding money – whether from bond sales or money creation – is not currently a problem.

I said earlier that it might be prudent to ensure that interest payments do not get out of hand in the longer term, so resources can be targeted at genuine social goals.  The Economist looked at the topic of ‘how much public debt is too much’ in a brief talk you can catch here.  

The third question I asked of our saloon bar Socrates was about the economic effect of cutting back on spending in a slump.  The idea that this would help anyone is simply the opposite of the truth.  If you feel it’s important to reduce the National Debt, than the best way is to have a prosperous economy with a booming tax take.  That’s how a National Debt proportionately much higher than the current one was reduced in the post-war period (with the additional help, it must be admitted, of a handy bit of inflation).  Reducing government spending and raising taxes during a recession works against this.  Cutting spending in a slump actually makes things worse, and postpones recovery: the great economist Keynes argued this after the 1929 slump – no-one listened – and then revealed his analysis in “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” in 1936.  Cutting welfare, 1930s style, or raising taxes (as some nutters are currently recommending) would make things worse – like, as Simon Wren-Lewis observed, complaining the fire engine saving your home is using too much water.  Measures like that would also (ironically) make it more difficult to balance the budget, for only a recovery can do that: leaving in place the rising welfare payments and reduced tax income that apparently increase the deficit actually helps the recovery – economists call them ‘automatic stabilisers’.  And as the economy grows back, the real size of the national debt – measured as a proportion of our national income – falls.  It was 250% of our income in 1945, and fell steadily to 30% by 2003.  It’s now 100% – still, though, a lower proportion of income than many people’s mortgages. 

That’s why Osborne’s austerity was not only unpleasant to the poor, its treadmill delayed the recovery in government finances two years later than predicted, and at the cost, according to the Financial Times, of higher waiting times in hospital, reduced local authority services, worse prison performance and much else. The way that austerity impacted most severely on public capital investment – better transport, housing, newer schools, IT links – caused additional damage that hampered growth. Extraordinarily, the Euro zone did the same, and Italy actually went into negative investment (i.e. it let public assets go to waste during the recession).

And then, lastly, the social effects of cutting back on spending on our public services.  It wasn’t necessary to cut them in 2010, despite what the press and every faux serious commentator on TV said, but the coalition government did so with a will, talking as if the crisis of 2007/8 was due to over-high levels of public spending: the theory, as Alexei Sayle unforgettably put it, that the crisis was caused by having too many libraries in Wolverhampton.  The effect was bad.  We are learning now how damaging it was to reduce spending on health preparations. We are finding also that crime is rising.  Ministers cut technical education by 40%, and then bewail skills shortages.  Hospital waiting lists lengthen.  In big cities, young families can’t find decent housing. Poverty has been increased by pitiless reductions in welfare payments, already amongst the lowest in Europe.  Ministers needed the advice of a 22 year old footballer to face the obscenity of child hunger in the world’s sixth richest country. 

None of this is radical or new. The Treasury civil servants who impose this nonsense were all expensively educated at posh universities where economics lecturers will have told them that government budgets automatically go into deficit in a slump, and the correct policy objective is to go with that. Here’s a blog from Simon Wren-Lewis, a proper Prof, saying the exact same thing. Where does this nonsense come from ? There are conspiracy theorists who say its a deliberate right wing conspiracy to shrink the state and kill the old. There was a time when I wouldn’t have believed that, but …

Anyway, what now ?  As the economy recovers, the deficit will decline and disappear.  There may then be space to reduce the national debt with increasing tax revenues and reduced welfare needs, but for the moment I can’t see the point of that.  There’s a good debate on this between Jonathan Portes and Bill Mitchell in the Prospect article I spoke of earlier. They disagree about whether tax rises will be needed in the future, but are agreed to add them on now would be madness. A similarly sensible explanation by Ben Ch is here -just five minutes and nice graphics. We have a pandemic that will destroy jobs in many industries, and who knows what Brexit will do. Columnists in posh papers tell us the Chancellor must not use public funds to support ‘jobs that are gone forever’, as if no-one will go to a department store, bar, football match, hotel or a restaurant when this is all over. It’s not a bad idea to plan for the future, to have generous training schemes for new government environmental initiatives, for example. But that doesn’t work against keeping demand high wherever we can. And even before the current crisis, we had problems that only a buoyant public purse can cure. Poverty is still endemic in Britain, and ambitious plans are needed to level up the economy, boost technology and infrastructure, reskill the unemployed and move to a decarbonised economy.  Let’s solve the crisis, and worry about the finances later.

Cads and bounders

Governments over the world have taken vigorous action to support companies against the damage caused by the Covid19 lock-down. UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised to do “whatever it takes”, laying out a mix of tax breaks, employee subsidies (‘furloughing’) as well as grants and loans to business: the Guardian[1] reported the Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimate that the total cost will exceed £100bn, with furloughing alone coming to £60bn[2]. It’s now thought to be up to £200bn. These actions have received broad support from across the political spectrum, but there is controversy about some of the recipients.

TaxWatch UK has analysed the Bank of England’s list of 53 beneficiaries of business loans, and found that 13 companies – receiving 29% of the money – had links to offshore tax havens (including Chanel in the Cayman Islands or Wizzair in Jersey), or sweetheart locations like the Netherlands (where tractor manufacturer JCB is registered). JCB paid family shareholders a dividend of £75m in 2018[3]. The BBC reports that Tottenham Hotspur have secured a low interest loan of £175m, despite being owned by billionaire tax exile Joe Lewis[4].

The Times[5] reported that two of the biggest beneficiaries of Covid emergency funding paid no UK tax at all.  CNH, which owns the Iveco lorry firm, borrowed £600m; the giant German chemicals group BASF claimed £1bn. Both companies claimed credits from the taxpayer in recent years, rather than paying in.  Another claimant, Baker Hughes, is a subsidiary of General Electric which is contesting an HMRC claim of £1bn tax fraud. “The disclosures have raised questions over why overseas corporations and wealthy individuals have been given what is effectively state aid”[6].

All of which refers back to my March post – yes, that long ago – which said we shouldn’t give help to misbehaving companies.  This preserves my reputation as the Cassandra of the blogosphere – the one who gives good advice that is never listened to. Bit like my consultancy career …

[1]  Guardian 30 April 2020 [2] Financial Times 4 June 2020 [3] Times 5 June 2020 [4]  https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/52924157  [5] Times 6 June 2020 p45 [6] Times 5 June 2020 p31

Thoughts about incorporation


This is a post for specialists – those interested in the organisation of technical and further education colleges in England.  These colleges were separated from local government in 1993, and granted legal independence.  Now, 27 years later, the government is proposing to renationalise them.  A journalist rang me to get my views, as an old codger in this field, and published a thoughtful article in FE Week magazine.  Before we talked, I did some homework, and here are my notes.  I was Principal of two colleges – Parson Cross College in Sheffield (1988-92) and then Lambeth College in London (1992-2002) – and previously worked in colleges up and down the country.  My first college (Kidderminster) was the national leader in carpet weaving; my last (Lambeth) in dental technology, with all manner of wonders in between.  I worked at colleges that trained make-up artists for Granada tv, that won the Worshipful Company of Plaisterers annual prize. Both my daughters qualified through FE. I’m not just an FE nerd, I’m an FE enthusiast.

The 1988 Education Reform Act had established Local Management of Schools (LMS) and of colleges, which was a precursor to incorporation in the increase in autonomy for institutions. It seemed to me to neatly combine local management with democratic control.  When I went to London in 1992, I found that, unlike the rest of the country, they hadn’t undergone LMS/C (it was felt to be too much on top of the abolition of the ILEA) and the difference in management style was painful.  I think the examples of bizarre and silly LEA interventions given in the Guardian’s article of 2008 refers to this time, not the ERA years that preceded incorporation.  An example – I can remember when, after the Wapping printers’ strike,  our college library was forbidden to stock Rupert Murdoch titles.

Further education had been off the government radar for years – known always as “the Cinderella service”, and it’s interesting to consider why.  FE hacks would say “because MPs’ kids never go to FE”, but it may be as simple as being a sector they and civil servants didn’t understand. One researcher puts forward the interesting idea that most of industry had survived with labour that had been unskilled and the interest in FE came from a realisation that foreign competition was now at a much more sophisticated level (see German apprenticeship system). I think that’s an exaggeration – there had been reports since Victorian days about the way foreigners were catching us up, and Mechanics Institutes had been going since the 1830s – but no doubt the alarm bells rang louder in the 70s & 80s.

What happened

The 1988 Education Reform Act, as we’ve seen,  had considerably increased the autonomy of colleges (and schools, of course).  Then came the publication in May 1991 of “Education & Training for the 21st Century” by the (John Major) Conservative government, which transformed into the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, which stipulated

  • Polytechnics would become universities with their own degree conferring powers (previously they’d depended on a quango called the CNAA). This ended the ‘binary system’ – polys & universities – established by Antony Crosland in 1965.  I had also, by coincidence, been present at his Woolwich speech, so was there at the establishment and demolition of the binary system.
  • Further education colleges[1] would gain legal independence as ‘corporations’ independent from local authorities. They would be run by their governing bodies.
  • Colleges took responsibility for their own strategic planning – recruitment and marketing, premises, procurement, staffing, budgets and financial strength. On the latter, one salty FEFC officer said that “incorporation without bankruptcy was like religion without hell”.
  • Funding of the new sector in each country would be administered by a Further Education Funding Council (FEFC(E) – based in Coventry).
  • The FEFC was not a planning body, just a funding body. Each college had to conclude a funding agreement, specifying its output targets for the coming year; it was penalised if it fell short.  However, it did establish an inspectorate which published reports on each college every four years.
  • A common funding system replaced lots of different LEA models, often based on historic cost (i.e. you got what you had last year plus inflation minus the cuts). As a result of LEA differences, the sector comprised of colleges with sharply different unit costs that the FEFC set about levelling under a process of ‘convergence’. You may imagine which college Principals thought this was a good idea, and which did not[2].  A league table of costs and achievement was published (bad taste !).
  • There was to be a strong incentive for growth in student numbers, but these were allocated by the FEFC at a lower cost than before, thus driving down unit costs.
  • Apprenticeship funding remained with the Training & Enterprise Councils, employer led bodies that were merged with the FEFC to make a Learning and Skills Council under the Blair government.

Why did it happen ?

There’s quite a good debate in the House of Lords launching the second reading in 1992 here, with government aims and opposition reservations. It’s striking to read such a calm and intelligent debate. Maybe it’s because it’s the Lords, maybe just how politics was back then. The context was Thatcherite – distrust of local government as politicised bunglers, feeling that independent institutions would do better freed of bureaucratic fetters and driven to meet market/consumer need by competitive forces[3].  John Major held a reception for college Principals and Governors in the QE2 Conference Centre, getting up on his soap box to ask us all “Isn’t it great to be free ?”.  Overt arguments were

  • Build on the success of the polytechnics, which had expanded student numbers and reduced costs after removal from LEA control
  • Moving on from Baker’s Education Reform Act of 1988 to the next step of college autonomy
  • Need to increase participation in post 16 education. It had grown from 41% in 1980 to 60% in 1991, but plainly needed to go farther. This would be achieved by “powerful financial incentives to recruit additional students” (HoL debate)
  • Need for more skills to meet labour market and student demand (not always the same thing !). There had been moves in this direction already in response to a number of reports on skills shortages and the UK shortage of qualified technicians – TVEI in schools, the TECs to run employer based courses. Indeed, the chapter in Lord Young[4]’s autobiography telling of their introduction is titled of “A Dawn Raid On Education”.
  • Desire to raise quality, and introduce a new qualification framework. The White Paper was big on this, wanting to establish broad 16+ diplomas, a broader GNVQ, and full coverage of industry by the NVQ system. Like most such attempts it was a mess, and still is 38 years on. Think of T levels and cry. The power of the awarding bodies still remains, a system that I think no other advanced nation has chosen.
  • Cynical footnote – incorporation was also extremely convenient after the Poll Tax debacle, with central government keen to get lumps of spending off local government books (and local ratepayer bills). Baroness Blackstone makes this point in the Lords debate.

The results

Difficult to always separate out factors from a number of directions – for example, the coming of academies, the growth of the new universities and (latterly) the malign influence of austerity, which hit FE particularly hard (harder, I think, than any other sector of education). My views:

  • There was substantial increase in managerial autonomy, and this was on the whole a good thing (it’s rather exaggerated in the FE Week “Twenty Years celebrating incorporation” sheet, in my view, which depicts incorporation a bit like VE Day). But efficiency and flexibility improved sharply, and you only had to visit college premises to see the step change.  A management training programme was launched, and Principals had to pass their exams, much like senior police officers or football managers. Improved management information yielded information on (eg) wastage that could identify problems and target action.. I favoured strong links with local government, but much of what was said about it was true,
  • A major change came in staffing, where the power of unions was dramatically reduced. I had five strikes during my first year at Lambeth, often called just to show me who was in charge.  Until incorporation, staff contracts were enshrined (the word is not too strong) in what was called The Silver Book, which laid down inflexible staffing levels and grades. The colleges were told by the DfE to issue new and more flexible contracts – indeed, it became a condition of funding – which led to abrasive industrial relations. One year, I believe, FE was the largest source of days lost to strikes in England. The scars still lie deep, especially as the gig economy with poorly paid and insecure part-time teaching has come to FE.
  • Student volumes increased in response to the funding incentives. Some of this was iffy – for example, buying in extra students from private trainers under franchising arrangements, but much wasn’t. However, the race for volumes caused great difficulties for some colleges.
  • Quality increased sharply, particularly with the coming of a Labour government less committed to reducing unit cost and more into opportunity and progression. David Blunkett made a pact with the sector – he would deliver the funding as long as the colleges could deliver the outcomes.  His junior minister Margaret Hodge was pretty fierce about this, using the failure and drop-out rates in the sector to illustrate the unsatisfactory chances of success. The CEO of the FEFC – John Harwood – chimed in with a controversial interview on radio to the same effect.  It wasn’t comfortable, but success rates improved markedly, partly as a result of the ‘Success For All’ initiative which engaged the sector with good practice, staff training and lively learning materials. Inspection was also a push factor, as were league tables (though they could be subject to methodological objections).
  • One of the main improvements was in student services. Student surveys entered the FE world. Marketing presented the colleges with smart publicity and lively corporate images.  The Kennedy Report encouraged the sector to better meet the needs of disadvantaged learners.
  • The FEFC administered the system efficiently, if a little officiously, with a stream of Circulars specifying how student information was to be collected and how plans were to be submitted, which funds were available if you submitted successful bids for modest projects.  Some Principals had their own views on how much ‘freedom’ this represented.  The CEO, Sir William Stubbs is still around, as is his successor Sir David Melville (who’s on Twitter).
  • The withering of local collaboration was an undoubted negative. The 1992 analogy with polytechnics was false – they were national institutions, whereas colleges had grown to meet local need.  Tertiary systems – where colleges offered comprehensive post 16 opportunities, mixing academic, vocational and adult learners in a way that improved guidance and reduced costs – fell apart as schools opened sixth forms and LEAs separated their adult services. Schools often denied their pupils knowledge of 16+ alternatives, until eventually the Dept had to insist it was included in inspection reports.
  • I don’t think the employer links or in-demand skills were fostered as was hoped at the start of incorporation, for a whole raft of reasons. One of which was the funding system – if you could get more cash by expanding FEFC/LSC funded programmes, why market employer funded work ? The other fact is – brutally – students are attracted to occupations that pay well, not some patriotic idea that the nation needs engineers not hairdressers.

[1] Including sixth form colleges, which was curious, as these were effectively the sixth forms of local 11-16 schools. Rumour/anecdote has it that the Minister was asked if all colleges, including 6fc, would become independent, and he said “Yes, all of them” to the obvious chagrin of accompanying civil servants.

[2] The well-funded colleges included some that were simply inefficient, but also those working for generous Labour authorities in tough urban environments. Measures aimed at trimming the former often hit the latter

[3] It was part of the New Public Management idea – arm’s length bodies, tasked with clear goals, transparent funding etc.

[4] Lord Young was a former businessman who Thatcher valued for his can-do attitude.  He launched YTS at the height of 80s youth unemployment, for example.  “Others bring me problems, David brings me solutions” she once famously said.