Letters to the Press

Before I got into blogging, I regularly wrote to the press – usually The Times or Guardian – to give them the full benefit of my wisdom.  Well, I say full benefit, but that’s not how it works in reality.  If you aren’t a member of the great and good, a long letter stands little chance of publication: what you have to do is make it short and pithy, preferably with a humorous twist.  And remember, it has to be related to a story or column in the paper itself: you can’t start of a new topic.  Quite a few of my letters have been published – I think I got into the Times, Guardian and Independent (on separate days) all in one triumphant week.  The rumour that you get into Who’s Who if you get three letters in The Times doesn’t seem to be true.  Maybe it works on hit-rate: most of my letters haven’t been published, and even when they are, the editing can be annoying.  So, more for my own satisfaction than anyone else’s, I thought I’d create a store of past letters.  It is a sort of frozen blog – views from the past.  Here goes:

Sunday Times 24th March 2019

The current Parliamentary impasse has revealed a grave weakness in our political system- namely the inability of a constitutional monarchy to resolve a historic deadlock.  It is hard to believe that the heads of state in other countries – especially those with non-executive Presidents – would not have taken decisive action to knock heads together. An elected President would have the authority a hereditary monarchy lacks, and a personal mandate to neutralise the idea that there is a unanimous ‘will of the people’ for a tendentious policy.

Sunday Times 30th July 2012 Private enterprise solves everything

I notice today’s Times contains advice to privatise defence procurement because it is unsuccessful, and the Royal Mint, because it is so successful.  Are we dealing with politics here, or theology ?


Sunday Times 20th June 2012 Private enterprise continues to solve everything

I think Dominic Lawson will find that British Leyland was a private sector company that had to be rescued with public money.  It was later sold back to the private sector, where it failed again, with the directors getting a substantial rake-off for their failures.  Only an idiot – or a neo-liberal – could see this as an argument for the joys of competition and market based solutions.


Times 25th May 2012 – Oh, dear: a columnist says inequality is in the genes

The problem with the genetic explanation of inequality (Philip Collins, 25 May) lies in the proportions. Genes certainly have a role in determining matters like height and intelligence.  A professional basketball player is about 50% taller than someone with restricted growth; someone with learning difficulties has an IQ maybe half that of a genius.  Yet chief executives now earn about 140 times more than ordinary workers: difficult to attribute this to DNA.


Times 13th May 2012 – after columnists criticized European election results (published)

Matthew Parris and Daniel Finkelstein’s views on the French and Greek election results reminds one of Brecht’s comment after the East Germans rose against the communist regime in 1953: “the people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts.   Would it not be easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect another ?”.

Times 9th May 2012 – Wandering into statistics

Are the male drivers who all think their abilities are above average any more ridiculous than the education ministers who demand that no school should have examination results that are below average ?


Times 26th April 2012 – After Editorial that says we must keep cutting to please the banks (published)

Isn’t it odd that, when the House of Lords reform debate asks whether unelected people should have a voice in running the country, you argue that our economic policy must be determined by the bond markets ?

Times 23rd April 2012 (published) – Public reaction to austerity (published)

I wonder whether readers made a connection between the two stories that dominated your front page today – the demand for further cuts in government spending in the UK, and the imminent defeat of the conservative President of France.  It may be beginning to dawn on voters across Europe that continued austerity will imperil the decencies of our society – disability benefits, libraries and sports centres, pensions, adequate policing, further and higher education.  And it does do without the promised economic benefits. We bump along with minimal growth; Spain slips into recession; Latvia, the poster boy of austerity, remains 15% below its 2007 GDP.


It was always curious that a recession that stemmed much more from the abuses of capitalism than any public sector over-spending led to right-wing governments.  Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back as voters seek a new economic policy, that favours growth and jobs.


Times 5th  March 2012 – It doesn’t add up


Is the government that worries about Britain’s standards of numeracy (Times, Friday) any relation to the one that claims (Times, Saturday) to have increased a 90% tax return rate by 15 % ?


Times 29th March 2012 How to manage political donations


We do not need more transparency in party donations, but more obscurity. All donations should be paid via a third party – the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards perhaps – and passed on as an anonymous gift to the desired party. That way, individuals and organisations can enjoy the freedom to support the causes they favour without any suspicion of buying influence.


Times 21st February 2012 –  Academies and ‘incredible’ – two bête noires in one letter !


I am glad that Stephen Twigg described the success of academies as ‘incredible’.  Contrasting the inconclusiveness of research findings on the topic with the claims of academy enthusiasts, it is a rare example of a politician using the word in its proper sense.


Times 21st December 2011


Recent Celebrity editions of University Challenge have revealed middle aged intellectuals who cannot name the Prime Minister at the time of the 1929 Great Crash, but think Delft is in Northern Ireland and Herschel worked in the twentieth century.  Might this make Michael Gove pause in his campaign to take the education system back to the 1950s ?



Times 30th November 2011 – wealth creation


What is the origin of the curious idea that activity in the private sector is wealth creating, and that of the public sector isn’t ?  Do we really think that a surgeon who replaces a hip in an NHS hospital in the morning is parasitic, but when he does the same procedure in a private clinic he is productive ?  That the privately owned Buckingham University creates wealth, but Cambridge doesn’t ?  That parcel delivery is useful unless the Post Office does it ?


An industry should be valued according to what it does, not who owns it.  The key is adding value: a healthy patient, a literate child, a crime free town, clean air, a reduction in road journey time are examples of public sector output.  The tobacco industry, gambling, advertising, and much stock exchange activity are less so – and sometimes provable reduce wealth in our society.



Times 7th October 2011 – How Canada escaped the recession (published)

There is another reason for Canada’s financial health apart from budgetary policy (Philip Collins, 5th October).  It is a country that refused to deregulate the finance sector, and insisted on adequate reserve ratios for its banks.  The result, as John Lanchester pointed out in his book “Whoops !”, was that it was ‘the only one of the G8 countries not to have a bank bailout, and not to go into recession’.  It has enjoyed an economic growth rate twice that of the USA.  This should be borne in mind when the banks’ PR machine tells us that any attempt to moderate their pay or conduct will damage the real economy.

Times 5th July 2011 – fair trade ?

I have noticed, whilst travelling in Europe, that German police drive BMWs, Swedish police drive Volvos, French police drive Peugeots, Italian police drive Fiats, and Spanish police drive SEATs.  Did they all follow EU procurement policies ?


Times May 2011 – an exchange of letters with advocates of selection (published)

(13th May) Matthew Smith’s letter (May 12) ascribes the success of private schools to selection, and asks for more of it.  Can he explain what provision will be made for those – the majority of the population – who are not selected for his brand of excellence ?  I presume the plan is to send them to schools which are, in the words of Michael Duane, “good enough for other people’s children”.  This presents a problem.  The evidence (from, for example, the National Foundation for Educational Research) is that pupils in this group have poorer staying on rates and lower attainment in areas which retain selection than their equivalents in more integrated systems.  A modern technical society cannot prosper if it writes off half its population.

(The Times then got the regulation letters saying that those who did not get into the selective grammar schools could be sent to technical institutions as they would be good with their hands)

(18th May) Mr. Lack might be faced with a dilemma if humanity were indeed divided between those with academic skills and those who are technically adroit (Letters 17 May).  Who will he choose to land a jumbo-jet, play a piano sonata or remove a brain tumour – the clever but clumsy, or the deft but dim ?

Times 1st May 2011 Royalty

Now that the celebrations for the royal wedding have passed, it may be time for more sober considerations of the monarchy, in the light of modern life-spans.  The modern aristocrat, with excellent medical care and decent genetic luck, will live to his or her nineties.  This locks Britain permanently into a position where the Head of State does not take up this demanding and significant constitutional appointment until their late sixties or early seventies: Prince William cannot anticipate becoming King until 2040 or so.  There are many roles that we look for the Duke to fill, but perhaps “the people’s pensioner” is not one of them.


Times 7th April 2011 – French TV (published)

The creative crisis of French television (Times, April 7th) becomes very obvious on the days when the only programme worth watching is L’Inspecteur Barnaby.


Telegraph 2nd April 2011 – friends pray for the recovery of a journalist’s sick child


Becky Pugh (article, 2nd April) wonders whether it was the power of prayer or the skill of doctors that saved the life of her child.  She can find out relatively simply, by contrasting the fate of children in the third world who only have prayer against those in modern secular countries that rely on medical expertise.  Alternatively, she could look at the calendar to check that she is writing in the twenty-first century rather than the Middle Ages.

Sunday Times 20th March 2011 – Bragg oversells the Bible

The King James Bible is indeed a major influence on our language and literature, but Melvyn Bragg is surely wrong to say it influenced Shakespeare.  By the time it was published in 1611, Shakespeare had completed all his plays except a couple of late and minor collaborations.


Sunday Times February 2011 – the mess of sports coverage on TV (published)

I tuned in to the Six Nations Rugby at the weekend.  At the top left of the screen was a large match clock, and a banner showing the score.  At the top right was a banner telling me to press the red button for a choice of commentary.  At the bottom was a text box giving statistics of the play and biographical details of the players.  Around the pitch was a flashing advertising billboard: on the pitch was a bank logo.  Somewhere amongst and behind all this graphic input some blokes seemed to be playing rugby.

Times 15th February 2011 – the cost of private education (published)

I was interested in the comment of the headmaster of Brighton College that “Britain does not need to spend more on schools”.  His own school charges £18,000 per annum – about three times as much as a state school costs – and tops this up with compulsory charges for careers guidance (£161) and membership of the old boys’ association (£360).  Additional fees are chargeable for dyslexia support (£1,000 per term) and support for non-English speakers (£1,150 per term), both delivered free within state schools.  Bus travel and music lessons are charged on top.


If money is really unimportant in securing quality, perhaps parents of Brighton College students may look forward to a 66% reduction in their fees.


Times 12th February 2011 – Jamie Oliver’s school

Jamie Oliver’s search for the perfect school (Times 12th February) is another example of what we may call Gove’s Fallacies – that every school can be made excellent, and every student failure is due to poor teaching.  The first is utopian nonsense, and the second observably false.   What is needed is a strong second chance system – not just for those failed by poor schools, but also those who, whether for family reasons or simple teenage idiocy, did not take their opportunities at good schools first time round.  The assertion that “youngsters only get one chance”, used to justify every madcap educational reform, is untrue. The list of second chancers is long and distinguished.  It includes Stephen Fry, John Prescott, Colin Firth and … yes … Jamie Oliver.

Times 1st February 2011 – Labour’s economic legacy

I am glad that John Spellar (letters, 1st February) challenged the myth that Conservatives leave a buoyant economy to Labour, and Labour leave a poisonous legacy to the Tories.  James Callaghan recounts in his memoirs that when he took over as Chancellor in 1964 he received a visit from his Conservative predecessor Reginald Maudling to apologise for the mess he had left.  Edward Heath entered Downing Street six years later with a budget surplus from Labour’s Roy Jenkins; four years later he was kicked out, having bought a mini-boom that raised the money supply by more than 20% in a single year.  The truth is that both parties have a chequered economic history: they generally, as Churchill said in another context, do the right thing when all other possibilities are exhausted.

Times 9th December 2010 – A Times columnist explains why the market must rule everything

Daniel Finklestein’s article on Florida’s insurance market was a witty restatement of the conventional market economist’s view that a product will be over-consumed if it is under-priced.  The problem comes when education or health-care is slotted into such an analysis as just another commodity, for it leads to the conclusion that a nation can be too well-educated, or over-deliver appendicitis operations.  Do we really think that ?

Times 3rd December 2010 – blaming the weather on local government

Regrettably, I missed your readers’ rant about the inability of the public sector to beat the weather because you could not make any copies of “The Times” available in Sheffield yesterday or the day before.


Times 7th November 2010 – evidence based policy ? Hmmm

How sad to see that Education Ministers have taken just a few months to decide that they are the right people to decide the correct approach for teaching reading (Sunday Times 7th November).   No Health minister would dream of telling doctors the right way to remove an appendix; no Transport minister would think of instructing civil engineers about motorway foundations.  Why is it that education is felt to be a field where fashion and ideology are more important than evidence and expertise?

What we need is a body to distance education from interference, and able to supply – to head-teachers, college principals and governors as well as Ministers – rigorous and up-to-date knowledge of what works.  In the field of health care, we have a Chief Medical Officer, and – in NICE – a body to comment on the effectiveness and value for money of competing approaches.  Even in an age disdainful of quangos, there would be great benefits from a similar post and commission for education.

Times 3rd November 2010 – after some brainless letters about the French lacking courage (published)

Do the humourists who generate the witticisms about French military incompetence (Times, 3rd November) ever wonder why – despite the victories at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt that form the staple of TV history programmes – we no longer rule France ?  Perhaps the Battles of Pontvallain, Patay, Gerbevoy, La Rochelle, Bauge, Formigny, and Castillon – which have, for some inexplicable reason, been missed off our history syllabus – might form part of the explanation.

Times 21st October 2010 Understanding what productivity means (er, not)

Camilla Cavendish bemoans falling productivity in the public sector.  Will she come out, therefore, and say she believes fewer nurses per ward, larger social work caseloads, fewer fire stations and bigger primary school classes – all measures of higher productivity – are a sign of improving services ?


Times 11th July 2010 – Michael Gove praised for accepting the blame for the BSF cock-up

Martin Ivens’ (Sunday Times 11th July) suggestion that Michael Gove was gallantly accepting the blame for the mistakes of others in the school building farrago is wrong.  Gove is a senior manager (Minister) who chose to enter an important meeting (the House of Commons, for goodness sake) with papers full of unchecked information which he had received just 40 minutes beforehand.  This is plainly bad practice.  His announcement could have taken place a week later, and been based on carefully verified information.  There was no real urgency except ministerial hubris.  If the governing body of a school or college fails to circulate accurate final papers a week before meetings, it is strongly and rightly marked down by Ofsted.  Why should we accept lower standards from the Secretary of State for Education ?

Times 6th July 2010 on anti-strike legislation (published)

Your editorial (Times 5th July) expresses alarm about the damage caused by strikes, quoting 27m lost working days in 1979.  Yet this amount – a record fifty times greater than the current position, established at a time of social conflict when strikes were much easier to call – totalled less than one working day per person.   The damage to the economy is actually trifling.  Productive losses due to sick leave are ten times greater, and those due to poor management or organisation probably much more.

The right of working people to organise is rightly regarded as an important component of a democratic system.  It should not be put at hazard because governments have mismanaged their finances, or out of irritation at a disrupted holiday flight.

Economist 5th July 2010 – the extraordinary adoration of Hayek

Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would lead to the increasing poverty of the working class.  In fact, market economies created great increases in living standards, and Marx was discredited.  Friedrich Hayek (Economist June 24th) believed that social democracy would lead to a loss of liberty; in fact, citizens have never had more freedom and choice of lifestyle and opinions.  Yet Hayek is regarded as a guru.

Have I missed something ?

Times 18th April 2010 – the effectiveness of coalition

Are we really so sure that tough decisions will only be taken if the election results in a clear majority for a single party ?   That hasn’t been true in the Baltic states – where coalition governments have rapidly got on top of economic events.  Coalition governments in France and Germany are being asked to help Greece out of the mess created within its two-party system.  Remember too that the British government that implemented the fiercest cuts in public spending – probably too fierce – was the 1931 National coalition.  You can even argue that it will be easier for a government to take unpopular decisions if no single party will be left to shoulder the blame.


It may be that a minority government, or a loose ‘pact’, would be bad for the country.  But that is a point about dysfunctional behaviour by political parties – who refuse to share power with anyone else despite lacking a majority of the popular vote for sixty years – not about election outcomes.


Times 3rd December 2009 – How to improve school productivity


Wednesday’s article on school budgets headlined “extra billions fail to raise school standards” featured a diagram which showed results and attendance are now 35% better than in 1996.  The extra spending plainly has raised standards.  It is true that productivity (that is, output per unit of input) has not risen – but that’s a different thing.  If we have smaller class sizes and better paid teachers productivity falls – just as it does in the NHS when we have more nurses on a ward.


There are ways to improve productivity and value-for-money in schools.  They include pooling 16/18 work into sixth form colleges, and not opening any more schools – whether ‘free schools’ or ‘academies’ – where the age group is falling.  However, politicians find it easier to talk of tough decisions and the need for cuts than actually do anything



Times 12th August 2009 – encouraging politicians to go on holiday


There can sometimes be great benefits to society when politicians go on holiday.  Democracy in Portugal owes a great deal to the deck chair that collapsed and gave fascist dictator Antonio Salazar a brain haemorrhage.



Sunday Times 20 July 2009 (published)

I am no great advocate for tax breaks for private schools (exactly what public purpose is achieved by increasing social inequality ?) but cannot for the life of me see how taking the best and brightest students from comprehensive schools is going to help improve the state system.

Economist 25th April 2009 (published)

It says much for your integrity that you included in your article advocating more choice and competition in education (“Out the window” 25th April 2009) a reference to the latest piece of research revealing (like most previous studies) that there is no evidence that such a policy raises standards.  What choice and competition actually does is increase social  differentiation between schools.  Schools seek entrants who will raise their raw league table scores, and parents compete to get into the institutions that have been most successful in that endeavour.  The international evidence tells us that the most effective policy in raising standards is the rather boring long-term one of raising the quality of teaching and learning.  Where this has been tried in the UK – as in the Success For All initiative in further education – it raised pass rates and retention spectacularly, before it was abandoned for another dose of choice and competition.

Times 20th October 2008 on digital cinema

Digital cinema technology may well reduce costs and limit piracy (Times 20th October), but a few years ago I attended a conference in the USA that suggested a further reason film producers prefer it to celluloid.  If trial audiences don’t like the plot or characters of the film, it is apparently relatively simple to upload a revised version.  Stand by for the revenge of King Lear and the escape of Sydney Carton ?

Times 26th February 2008 – controlling the internet

On Monday, you published Stephen Pollard’s column telling us it was quite impractical to control the internet for – e.g.- copyright theft.  On Tuesday, you published the news that the Pakistani government had immediately taken down a web-site that was critical of Islam.


Which story is wrong ?


Times 14th January 2008 – an article attacking Government attempts to improve school guidance

The government is absolutely right to require schools to give disinterested advice to young people on their educational options (front page story today).  I am currently undertaking research on post-16 choices, and there is plainly a problem when school budgets (and head teacher salaries) gain from retaining as many students as possible, whatever their needs.  I interviewed one former deputy head who was instructed to put prospectuses of other institutions in the bin.  Another interview, with the Principal of a beacon college, revealed that their course leaflet was presented in loose leaf format, as schools inevitably ripped out any reference to rival provision.  A third interview with an expert in vocational education revealed the markedly lower proportion of students from 11/18 schools that progress into apprenticeships, compared with those leaving 11/16 schools.


The proposed legislation is not a shabby attempt to push diplomas.  Young people deserve honest guidance as to the alternatives, guidance that recognizes there is a wide range of choice, and that moving into the academic sixth form of their current school may not be the best of them.


Guardian 28th November 2007 – the Inspectorate redefines ‘satisfactory’


After recent reports about the management of party political funding, data security, the banking system, post-war Iraq, rail prices, hospital bugs, population statistics, defence equipment, equity funds, and animal laboratories, one might have hoped that the Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert (Education Guardian 27th November) might have praised schools and colleges for being satisfactory.  But for those working in education, satisfactory is apparently not, er, satisfactory.

Ms Gilbert may be one of the twits in press and politics who yearn for vision and passion, and demand transformation and excellence.  Out here in the real world, the rest of us know that ordinary competence goes a long way.

Telegraph 23rd September 2007 – Public school access to HE (again)

If Martin Stephen (Telegraph, 22nd September) is really a member of the elite he advocates, he will know what a “straw man” argument is – and, I hope, realise that he is creating one.  No-one is suggesting that we should send less able candidates to top universities: what the Sutton Trust research suggests is that those universities are currently recruiting less able candidates from favoured schools, as against brighter kids from other institutions.  This is not elitism, it is snobbery.

Times 2nd September 2007 – Class prejudice works two ways

Matthew Parris’s article about class prejudice (“Times” 1st September) was absolutely right.  Another example he could have quoted is the press excoriation of John Prescott as having “Two Jags”.  There can have been few Tory cabinet ministers between 1951 and 1997 who did not privately own a comfortable saloon in addition to their ministerial limousine: what they lacked, of course, was a Yorkshire accent.


Times 18th June 2007 How the Middle East conflict is viewed

I wondered how long it would be before we were told that a situation in which one Palestinian group attacked another Palestinian group with weapons made in the former Soviet bloc and smuggled via Egypt was the fault of the USA and Israel.


Times 15th July 2006 – the baccalaureate

I was amused to see Chris Woodhead’s enthusiasm for the baccalaureate as a safeguard against slipping “A” level standards.  Of course, the main reason we don’t have a baccalaureate system in England – and why the Tomlinson proposals were mangled – was the resistance towards any reform of “A” levels by the very educational conservatives that Mr Woodhead represents.   And here’s an ironic footnote: the day after his column was published, the front page of Le Figaro reported that the rising success rate of the French bac was causing suspicions that the government was massaging the results to let more students pass.

Economist 29th January 2006 – opposing free schools

Your editorial gets it wrong.  Those opposed to the Blair school reforms are not against good schools – but against schools faking improvement by cherry-picking entrants.  The country needs improved educational results for all, not squeezing those who are successful into one place, making a minority of schools look good whilst destabilising the rest.

Those who doubt the effects of giving schools greater ability to select on ‘aptitude’ need look no further than what happens at age 16, where UK schools currently do enjoy the ability to select.   They choose sixth form entrants on academic success: the bottom half are, with a few honourable exceptions, discarded.  The Blair reforms would transfer these policies – policies that have left England with one of the worst staying-on rates in Europe – down to 11 year olds.

Times Educational Supplement, 12th December 2005

I wonder if David Sherlock can explain why (TES December 9th) the Adult Learning Inspectorate can take the credit for rising success on apprenticeships but is not involved in worsening standards in adult literacy ?  Good game, this inspection lark.  If things get better, it shows your effectiveness.  If they don’t, we plainly need more inspection.

Economist 12th June 2005 – Project management

I’m sure I won’t be the only one to point out that you’ve got the stages of project management all wrong (‘Overdue and over budget’, Economist 11th June).  Those with experience in the field generally agree that the sequence goes as follows.  First, there is enthusiasm; then realisation; followed by disillusion, panic, the search for the guilty and the punishment of the blameless.  Finally (after the amendment of the evaluation report) comes the congratulation of the non-participants.


Telegraph 20th March 2005 – Ooops, it’s “Tax Freedom Day” again

Oh dear.  The Adam Smith Institute comes up (again) with a letter about how many days you have been ‘working for the tax-collectors’ before getting any money for yourself.

This is the purest tosh.  Of course politicians differ about what proportion of the GNP should be devoted to public spending.  But whatever the chosen level, we are not (to quote your heading) ‘working for Brown’ when we pay taxes.  What we are doing is buying education, libraries, social security, art galleries, health care, pension contributions, buses, roads and so on.  These are items we have democratically chosen to pay for collectively.  Some of them – clean air, defence, law and order – we couldn’t buy on an individual basis even if we wanted to.

You wouldn’t dream of saying we have to work two weeks for the oil companies, three months for the Halifax, six weeks for Tesco or a week for McDonalds.  So why present public spending in such a negative and tendentious way ?

Guardian 9th December 2004 – Examining Bodies

David Pardy’s letter last week was right to criticise the bureaucracy of the QCA, and to doubt whether its proposed reforms will come to much – but he was hopelessly wrong to argue for the status quo.   Britain is far behind its major industrial competitors in the level of vocational skills in the workforce, and a major reason is the appalling hotchpotch of qualifications.  The awarding bodies he supports are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Generally, other countries choose one of two systems.  One approach – as in France, for example – the qualifications are diplomas of the state: well-recognised, coherent, low in cost.  The other way forward – as in the American colleges – is to allow a college which has passed its inspection to issue its own diplomas: flexible, responsive, unbureaucratic.

Only in the UK do we see a vast range of costly and cumbersome bodies between the state and the providers.  It costs the average college £250,000 – enough to employ ten teachers, or double the size of the library, or buy 200 internet ready computers – for a job they are quite able to do themselves.  Alongside the cost comes the bureaucracy – entry forms and dates, registration fees, internal and external verifiers, assessors – generally passed on to the provider.  Specifications are issued late, results often difficult to chase down.  The whole landscape is a mess.  Because no-one can stand up to the awarding bodies, we have ‘frameworks’ in place of a national system.

People understand that schools award GCSEs and “A” levels.  They know universities award degrees.  But who knows what is going on amid 20,000 vocational qualifications.  We will not solve our skills problem until someone asks why no other country has this flummery, and finds the courage to sweep away a historical nonsense.

Economist 12th July 2004 – does increasing government spending raise quality ?

You ask for evidence that increased public spending pays off in better services.  There is an instructive example in England’s further education colleges.  Throughout the nineties they were saddled with government requirements for an ‘efficiency gain’ each year.  Vocational training may be important, but doesn’t carry the political punch of university vice-chancellors and school parents.  Result: quality problems, financial instability and industrial relations chaos.  Then the decision was taken to repair some of the real terms cuts. With new resources fed in, audited success rates have risen (wait for it) by more than 20 per cent in four years.

An austere inspection regime and clearer goals helped: but it couldn’t have been done under the old ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’ regime.

Telegraph 8th June 2004 – a new use for telephone boxes

I received a mobile phone call yesterday when walking through a noisy shopping street in the rain.  Needing to find somewhere to continue an important business conversation, I found a tall red cubicle nearby that proved ideal – dry, quiet, just big enough for one person and equipped with a small writing surface.  But ironically it had a phone already installed.  If this wasteful duplication could be eliminated, we might be able to erect more of such useful facilities.

Times March 26th 2004 – “They’re only terrorists because they have no alternative” (published)

Mr Turner (letters 26th March) is half right in saying that people turn to terrorism when all else has failed.  However, this misses the point.  The thing that distinguishes terrorism from other forms of political discourse is not despair – God knows, we have enough of that in the world – but assertion: the determination to impose its will on their fellow citizens when persuasion has failed.  Most people in Iraq want a peaceful democracy.  A clear majority in Northern Ireland votes to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Most Basques wish to remain part of Spain.  Few Japanese support charismatic cults that poison their fellow-citizens.

The terrorist always has an alternative.  It is to let other people live the life they want.

Times 20th October 2003 – Hypocrisy on HE access. Again.

I was interested in Tom Utley’s article on Saturday bemoaning the uselessness of  an academic education for coping with real life, and urging greater attention to training in vocational skills.  Is he by any chance related to the Tom Utley who objected so strongly earlier this year to the prospect of some working class oik taking his son’s place at Oxbridge ?

Times 3rd June 2001 – when things don’t say what you think they say

Irwin Stelzer (Times, June 1st) is right to worry that America is scaring its friends away – but he is wrong to call Joseph Stiglitz a ‘globalisation critic’.  Stiglitz’s book “Globalization and Its Discontents” acknowledges that “globalisation has helped hundreds of millions of people attain better standards of living” and he is clear that, if discontent with globalisation grows, “it will be a tragedy for all of us, especially the billions who might otherwise have benefited”.

Stiglitz’s criticism is of the US dominated international governmental agencies – the IMF and the WTO – whose short-sighted and doctrinaire policies have actually impeded international trade and development.  It would be a pity if his best-seller joins the list of books (one thinks of “Rise of the Meritocracy” and “Small Is Beautiful”) which don’t say what most people think they say.


Sunday Times 18th February 2001 on public schools and Oxbridge

Those extraordinary letters from public school apologists keep coming.  The facts are that fee paying schools educate about 6% of our children and take 45% of the places at Oxford and Cambridge.  When they then complain that they are suffering discrimination, the question is not “what school were they at ?”, but “which planet are they on ?”.

Independent 11th February 2001 – a solution to the teacher shortage

There is a simple answer to the shortage of teachers, which is to return Ofsted inspectors to the classroom for a couple of years.  The most obvious advantage of this measure is that it makes sure youngsters have a teacher in front of them for their lessons – which some feel to be a more important contributor to educational quality than league tables and reports.  But this is not the only benefit. My plan would release into the school system a cadre of experienced professionals who know the secrets of good teaching and learning.  It would save expensive salary supplements to persuade teachers to move to London.  And it would provide an opportunity, after the Woodhead years, to rebuild the relationship between day-to-day  teachers and those charged with judging them.

In a couple of years the government’s initiatives will bring forward extra entrants to the profession which will allow the inspectorate to return to their former jobs – if, that is, they could be persuaded to.


Independent January 2000 – newspapers should report news, not predict the future (badly)

So, despite the predictions, there were no real computer problems on Millennium night.  And the FPA tell us that the number of 14 year old mothers is actually 90% fewer than the figure in press reports.  It turns out that Viagra has made hardly any impact on the NHS drug bill.  The Dome did not jam the roads of South London.  Nor has the minimum wage created the promised 2m unemployed.  Ending duty-free concessions left airports unchanged.

Can we now look for newspapers to return to reporting news rather than engendering folk panics ?


Independent 28th August 1998 – joining a single currency

Those opposed to entering the EMU – including many of your correspondents – make much play of the ‘permanence’ of the decision.  Yet we all know of countries who have decided to leave common currency areas and create their own monetary unit: Ireland and Australia have done so in relatively recent history.  The sky did not appear to fall in.

Joining EMU may be a good or bad idea, but it plainly isn’t irrevocable.


Independent 1st April 1995 (published)

The Weasel (Independent Magazine, 1st April) was right to point out the difficulty of distinguishing between new Government policies and April Fool hoaxes.  It was best put by a Derbyshire head-teacher, who said that she responds to the latest initiative by moving “straight from incredulity to implementation: I no longer have the energy for the indignation in between”.