I have been pondering inequality lately and the challenges we have as a society in giving our young people the same chance in life.
Every study says that these inequalities are built in at an incredibly early age and despite years of effort to do something about them we, as a society, still have to accept that where you are born and who you are born to has a major impact on the opportunities you will get in life. These inequalities are reflected through school and in the grades and qualifications that students from different backgrounds are able to access.
So, what is to be done?
I have one idea – and whilst I recognise that this may cause some readers to choke on their morning cornflakes I hope that you will keep reading to the end where I genuinely believe that the compromise I propose is something we as a society should consider.
My proposal is to do move away from purely absolute exam grades and add to them some relative grading.
To explain further:
At the moment all exams are marked and the grade boundaries set by the exam board. Regardless of who you are the mark you receive in your exam will be the only determinant of the grade you get. This means that the results of Gareth in Morden are directly comparable with the results of Glen in Westminster.
This method is obviously ‘fair’. Everyone is treated the same regardless of background, schooling or even age and there is an impartial judgement of the individuals ability provided by the examination.
However, my argument is that in many ways this isn’t really ‘fair’.
If you’re a kid who goes to a bad school with a terrible English teacher then it is likely that your English result will be worse than if you went to a good school and had a great English teacher. Likewise, if you come from a family living in temporary accommodation or an overcrowded property you are less likely to perform well in the ‘impartial’ exam than someone in a permanent house with their own bedroom.
An alternative would be to recognise this and to provide relative grades, reflecting not everything about your background but at least recognising that schools and the students studying at them are very different to each other.
So, if your exam has 5 grades, A-E (yes, I know this is touchingly old-fashioned but it’s easier maths!) then instead of there being a defined pass mark the grades would be handed out as follows:
Top 20% in your school get an A, the next 20% get a B and so on with the bottom 20% getting an E.
In this model exam grades are not giving potential employers an absolute sense of your ability but a relative sense of how you performed in that exam against your direct contemporaries.
Whilst we pretend that exams are tests of absolute knowledge at the age of 16 in many cases they are as much about testing potential for work and for college and university. I genuinely don’t believe that children from the best backgrounds are inherently cleverer than those from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet exam grades would seem to suggest that is the case. As such, perhaps knowing the relative ability of someone is far more useful to a potential employer or as a measure of their potential when they reach the next stage of education.
This would also prevent the exam system from being a means of protecting the position of the middle-classes. Exams can be gamed and those with the money, top schools and ability to support their children can ensure even an average student gets good grades - an opportunity not available for all.
Obviously, if we were to introduce relative exam grades on their own this would be a policy with significant downsides:
1) Whilst exams are bad signifiers, in that they don’t do a perfect job of identifying the talent and potential of people, they are good at preparing people for further education and often employment. There is a risk that people coming into our universities would require a lot more work to succeed there if all they had achieved was relative success. Likewise, industry often talks of the lack of skills from young people leaving school. This could make it worse by giving people grades that aren’t linked to absolute skills and instead to potential.
2) Parents would seek to game the system – having middle class flight towards the roughest neighbourhoods in the UK just so they can top the class is probably not the worst thing in the world but if this exam system was imposed people would exit the system and look for an alternative – perhaps an international qualification to bridge the gap.
3) Schools would lose a key measure of success and it would become more difficult to measure the achievement of teachers – if every school received 20% As the exam league table would have a lot less meaning.
These downsides are real and are the reason I would never actually propose relative grading on it's own. However, with a slight adjustment I believe relative marking could work really well and be acceptable to all. The wrinkle is as follows:
I would keep the current exam results but mandate a second relative score to accompany it.
Thus, every exam would come with two scores written together, the first the absolute grade and the second the relative grade. For example, a student could receive a:
AA (Top 20% score on the exam, top 20% in the school)
AC (Top 20% score on the exam, middle 20% in the school)
CA (Middle 20% score on the exam, top 20% in the school)
These grades would tell us far more about an individual than the current grades do and with more information comes more chances for people to use those grades when recruiting and thinking about who goes to university or college or is employed. Some would choose only to recruit on absolute terms and that would be fine but some employers would be interested in the relative score as well and they would have that information and be able to use it as they chose.
Even the fiercest opponents of relativism or dumbing down might find it difficult to argue that providing more information is not helpful when judging our young people, especially when this information is directly related to their life chances.
I imagine many people won't like my grading plan, and I recognise it is far from the full answer to equality of opportunity but any small adjustment that we can introduce that would help ameliorate the inherent disadvantage many children face by dint of birth should be tried.
I’d love to hear what people think of it.
A few years ago I was delivering some training with a colleague who told a little anecdote about a parks officer he had met who opened the parks in his patch in a random order – zigzagging across the Borough and taking over an hour to open them all.
My colleague asked him why he did it that way and didn’t just start at one end of the borough and work his way to other end. The parks officer didn’t really know but told my colleague that this was the way he had been trained to do it. Further investigation found that the officer’s predecessor as parks officer had children and used to combine opening the parks with the school run and thus did it that way to suit him.
This story came back to me during the last week as I was thinking and tweeting a little about housing and particularly this country’s green belt policy.
In 1935 when the Greater London Regional Planning Committee proposed the creation of a green belt they did so: ‘to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space’.
A worthy aim from the 1930s has morphed into a policy which, at least in London, preserves a green space that is twice the size of the city itself and is far from providing a ‘reserve of public open spaces and recreational areas’. In some areas the green belt stretches out 35 miles across and protects basically the whole of Hertfordshire.
Anyone setting up a new city would not seriously think that the green belt in London is sensible policy making. Even if we accept that all of the objectives of the policy are still correct, and I’m almost certain they aren’t, the policy itself does not meet the needs. Let’s look at them in turn:
1) Preventing urban sprawl
A belt of a mile or two across would manage this and you certainly wouldn’t require one 35 miles across to do so.
2) Providing recreational spaces
The greenbelt is miles away from where most people live and large chunks of it are not used for recreation or public open space but instead used for farming. Indeed, a third of London’s green belt is used for high-intensity farming which is far from the ideal pictured in the 1930s. A sensible policy would be to focus on protecting parks and open spaces within the cities or near the towns rather than an arbitrary big chunk of green space around the city that no one can actually use.
Likewise, we should be protecting farming land but as the country with the third lowest building density in the EU there is plenty of space for farming around the country and it doesn’t really need the green belt to protect it.
3) Preserve rural England
This is where the policy gets particularly ridiculous. Houses will have to be built somewhere so not letting them be built in a big arbitrary belt around a city is simply going to push them elsewhere and be built on other parts of the countryside. Protecting greenbelt just pushes the problem around rather than ameliorating it.
What makes this historical policy worse is the unintended, and extremely negative, consequences of it. Our green belt policy has led to insufficient housing in and around our cities and thus in turn rising house prices, an escalating housing benefit bill and has helped consign people to poverty.
If there was any other Government policy which was contributing so significantly to making a negative impact on the lives of its residents it would have been dealt with years ago. The fact that it hasn’t is a failure of epic proportions – I’ll leave a discussion of exactly why this has happened for another day.
Far more importantly, you may wonder what we should do instead.
We don’t have to abolish the green belt in its entirety – the political interest in protecting arbitrary NIMBY policies will never fade – but we can make some small changes to it to improve our housing situation and to design a policy that is far more appropriate for the country as it is now, rather than as it was 40 or 80 years ago.
The Adam Smith Institute (http://www.adamsmith.org/research/reports/the-green-noose/) have predicted that allowing building on green belt land that is 1 mile from a train station only would allow for 1 million more homes to be built around London. (It is worth thinking for a moment about a policy so ill-conceived that you cannot build on land that is within ten minutes’ walk of a train station – stations being a service which primary function is to take people to and from work. If you can’t build homes there then your policy really is bad).
At the same time the Government could carry out a fundamental review of the green belt and once they have resized it down to a few miles or so across introduce new rules for any building that takes place on land previous allocated as green belt. This could include the guarantee of gardens for all developments, protected parks, meadows and other open spaces for every area and a maximum density for each development. Each one could be negotiated locally but with an explicit expectation that the point is to provide high quality housing for people to live in.
A policy like this would protect the spirit of the green belt policy but without the historical, illogical and arbitrary position that the current policy has left us with.
It’s a funny thing, change and loss. Sometimes (as the song says) you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, whilst at other times change can be met with more relief than a cold beer at the end of a long, hot summers day. It’s between these two points that emotions swing when the DCLG career of Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is reflected upon.
Just a few short days after the Conservative party won a small majority in Parliament, David Cameron set about completing his grand reshuffle of seats and positions great and powerful. Among these was the announcement that Eric Pickles would be moved away from his position (be)heading the Department for Communities and Local Government to be replaced by Greg Clark, former Minister for Universities, Science and Cities. And you know what? I’m not sure where I stand on Uncle Eric’s legacy.
Over the years, many – this blog included – have given E-Pic a fair degree of criticism for some of his more outlandish behaviours and obsessions. I am not sure I will ever quite understand his fixation on flying flags and bunting. He has been a constant and vocal advocate on flag-flyers behalf, encouraging flags to be flown from council buildings high and low (with double points no doubt awarded if in the process you flew the flag of some long forgotten historical version of a local authority).
And then there are the bins. Mr Pickles over the years basically declared war on bin collection on a less-frequent-than-weekly basis, aiming to “tackle the ghastly gauntlet of bin blighted streets and driveways.” Never mind that councils are having to be creative to collect bins at all within their much reduced budgets, he wanted to see them under pressure to maintain or even improve on levels of service that the overwhelming yet silent majority of service users had no problem at all with. And don’t get him started – EVER – on local council funded newspapers (an area I won’t go into for fear of causing an internal WLLG Towers debate once more...).
And it wasn’t only the little, petty things (throw in parking charges for good measure too) which blot his copybook. During his time at the helm it did not for one second feel like he ever had our back, that he was on our side. It’s difficult to remain hopeful for the future when the person theoretically at the top of the local government decision making pile does nothing but publicly and privately berate your work and belittle your efforts, demanding ever more and condemning progress as not good enough.
Eric regularly singled out individual councils for harsh criticism, rightly or wrongly, and never missed an opportunity to score political points at the expense of other hard working councils who had the ‘misfortune’ to be run by someone wearing a different colour tie than him. That he was such a persuasive orator and garnered such a high public profile meant that his undeniably negative public views of the sector bled out to the wider public, who were led to believe that all local government staff were sitting on their backsides, doing very little for massive paycheques and wasting fortunes of tax payer’s money.
Perhaps this was why he was so ever-eager to give it away to his colleagues. As a friend recently said, the impression was that at Cabinet meetings when George Osborne said "ok, we need to make another couple of billion....any ideas?", whilst everyone else looked down and shuffled their papers, E-Pic could barely wait to offer up another slice from the local government pie. Not only was there no fight to protect his service, there was active enthusiasm to trim, trim and trim once more.
Nobody can accuse him of not living by his own values. Under his stewardship the DCLG budget itself was slashed significantly, so much so that they were able to move in with the Home Office as they simply didn’t need all that much space for themselves. While he couldn’t get other departments to quite take his approach to austerity as seriously as he did, that didn’t stop him practicing what he preached at every opportunity.
And the financial impact doesn’t stop there. Mr Pickles was vital in the process of reducing and removing the amount of ring-fencing around budgets, giving local authorities a far greater degree of financial flexibility than they had before. That some councils may have abused this in various ways large and small is an issue for them to sort out, and that even these budgets have since been further reduced can at best be described as unfortunate, but at the time it was the right thing to do and a brave thing to do.
Braver still was his decision to abolish one of the most powerful bodies in the world of local government during the previous decade – the Audit Commission. This major QUANGO required huge amounts of data collation, analysis and presentation, powering whole departments of statisticians across the country but not really with the purpose of service improvement in mind, more service reporting. Again, this freed up councils to attack local problems with local solutions rather than reinforcing a one-solution-fits-all-philosophy that was arguably in place at the time. All this reporting was replaced by a massively reduced set of performance indicators to report on and the hope that an army of armchair auditors would spring up to take their place (admittedly we’re still waiting for this army to by fully recruited and armed for battle).
He did however start at the very least pushing to supply this army with ammunition, forcing councils to up their game somewhat when it came to open data and releasing hitherto hidden datasets to the rigours of public scrutiny. Of course there were and are issues around data quality and context, but if nothing else it undoubtedly led to councils reducing the number of highly paid jobs at the top in the face of this increased public scrutiny (and with no small amount of help from the Tax Payers Alliance). Whether this saw cuts to unnecessary spending or it instead removed a huge amount of senior experience from the ranks when it was needed the most is as always up for debate, but it certainly had an effect.
The fact was though that he gave councils the ability to make these decisions for themselves. Taking aside points about flags, bin collections, parking charges and prayers at meetings (an area for another post on another day, I assure you...) he ushered in the Localism Act, and through it the general power of competence. After years of being told what to do, how to do it and what evidence to collect to prove it had been done, he simply gave councils free rein and released them to the wild. They were better able and empowered to give things ago than many thought possible and perhaps sensible, and some (though not nearly enough) took advantage of this to really push their local interests forward.
Leading on from this was devolution and the power ceded to cities through City Deals. City areas were better able to push for bespoke deals with central government, with the aim of redressing the perceived imbalance between the almighty powerhouse of London and regions outside of the M25. Yes, a lot more could have been done, but it was a move in the right direction.
If there’s one thing I wish had felt different throughout that entire, turbulent stint it would be the relationship he had with local government. Just once you wanted to hear him say publicly that while the sector would of course need to do more, that actually they were doing great things and people should lay off from criticising for a bit. Perhaps if he had been seen to defend anywhere near as much as attack his charges his words and intentions may have fallen on more sympathetic ears. This isn’t some form of demand for acceptance like a teenager to their distant parent, more a professional acknowledgement that local government was leading the way in so many areas and should be seen as the leaders they were and are.
Pickles said at the start of his reign that he felt much could be cut from local government budgets without services to the average person being severely affected, and certainly for those not deemed vulnerable that is indeed the case. A few streetlights get switched off, perhaps some libraries have closed down but in general for the majority of the population the local world hasn’t collapsed. Maybe he had something of a point after all. I only wish he hadn’t used it like a rapier to repeatedly stab at those trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Many years ago I watched an excellent road trip documentary where Stephen Fry (one of my heroes) drove across the US in a black cab. Along the way he shared a probably apocryphal quote from Oscar Wilde (one of his heroes) about scale and impact; “the immensity of some things, like the Empire State building, can only truly be appreciated from a distance”.
The intent was I believe to say that some things, when viewed up close, seem as ordinary as the next and nothing to remark upon. However, the addition of distance allows those grand works to rise above their lesser brethren and stand proud for all to see.
Perhaps in future years we will look back at Uncle Eric and appreciate that, love him or loathe him as a person, he pushed the sector to change when it needed to change the most. Perhaps not. But at least he made an impact, one way or another.
Eric Pickles; well played sir, well played.