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If you have a 6 year old daughter you’ll get this

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This Gove Grand Conspiracy

Michael Gove is not universally popular.  Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon.  This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings.  Oh yes he is.

Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan.   The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets.  They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies.  This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose.    The evidence is out there.  Join-the-dots.  The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate.  The man must be stopped.  Right?

Oh come on.  Get a grip.   Gove is no puppet-master.  Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders.  But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight.  Take the playing-fields storm.  Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’?     Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20.  Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie.  It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.

I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring  and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play.  This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense.  Don’t forget  Academies enter exactly the same exams.   Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables.  If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny.  Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver.  That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.

Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves.  It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track.  Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January.  I took mine over 20 years ago.   Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.

That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine  issue in the way students  had their expectations managed.  And the students themselves are blameless in that.  Had the change not  come ‘in year’ and  been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided.   Conspiracy? No.  Cock-up?  A little bit.  British policy development  was ever thus.

I’m no blind Gove fan-boy.  I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong.  It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now.  The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow.   Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them!  As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.

A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of  praising success.  Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time.   There are  schools out  there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge.  You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%.   They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves.  This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it.  And that is no bad thing.

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Ken’s Taxing Problem

Imagine a Tory-boy type, essentially a freelancer, justifying his limited company tax arrangements to a journalist:  “I am in exactly the same position as everybody else who has a small business. I mean, I get loads of money, all from different sources, and I give it to an accountant and they manage it,” Ah, the Vodafone defence.

The journalist probes, how is income taken and taxed?  Words are very carefully chosen;  “You pay corporation tax. If you then take out spending yourself, you have to pay more.”  For clarity our sharp-suited, silver-tongued entrepreneur emphasises that he pays “the normal rate of tax on the money I take out for myself”.

That ‘take out spending yourself’ line may be a cute way for our man to own-up he takes income in dividends rather than salary.   The ‘tax’ difference of doing this is actually pretty marginal, but you do save a chunk of change on National Insurance (there’s a nice table on that here). This company set-up also allows you to drip-feed your money out years after it is actually earned keeping yourself in the lower-tax-bands.

The folk who get most wound up by these things – UK Uncut, Guardian columnists and people who tent-squat at cathedrals would be foaming at the mouth at all this word-play.  Instinctively, some keywords above would trigger their Pavlovian attack dogs to bark about ‘ethics’, ‘tax dodging’ and how if we just stopped this kind of thing the ‘deficit would disappear’.   This anger would morph into apoplexy if David Cameron then dismissed concerns with a blithe statement that our man “has paid every pound of tax he is required to by law.”

You’ll have guessed that in real life these quotes are not from some ‘Tory boy’ and David Cameron.  They are of course, word for word, Ken Livingstone and Ed Milliband.  (Sources here and here).

In the playground of that little part of cyber-space filled with political bores this spat has caused a curious role-reversal.  The usual suspects are offering Ken, if not full support, then at least a frustrated, restrained, benefit-of-the-doubt understanding.  Meanwhile, the Boris camp are wetting themselves with a full-on cry of ‘Tax Dodger’!  You just need to read some Guido or Andrew Gilligan to get the gist.

The people who yell loudest about the ethics of taking accounting advice usually moan; “I can’t afford a flash accountant.  I pay every penny of my tax”.   What they tend to mean is that all their tax affairs are simple and done through PAYE by their employer and they haven’t actually a clue if they have paid every penny or not, nor if their employer is using clever tax reduction strategies on their behalf.  Do you have a salary sacrifice mechanism in your pension contributions?  Yes?  You tax dodger.  It comes as a shock if their employer gets it wrong and it turns out they haven’t, as they thought, paid every penny of income tax at all.  Several million people found this out to their cost last year when they got unwelcome letters from HMRC.

For small business owners, (like Ken?), it is very easy to get in the same situation through no malevolent intent.  Most of us have accountants not just because we can afford them, nor because we’re desperate to find loop-holes to save a quid or two.  It’s rather because we cannot afford not to.

Once your turnover crosses a certain level and you employ someone the complexity of the UK tax system is crushing.   Without an accountant you end up dedicating hours a week to trying to get the PAYE and VAT right, in fear of inevitable fines if you get it even slightly wrong.  That’s before you can even begin to think about getting your annual return in good order.  In my first year I tried to go without an accountant.  It was a year too long.  When I took the plunge and got one the first conversation we had was the same that 99% of people,  probably including Ken, have;  “Listen, I want to pay every penny of tax I owe, but I don’t want to pay any more. I don’t want you doing anything out of the ordinary on my behalf.  I just want to get money from the business in the most sensible way.”

And it will be that set of instructions that has got Ken in this mess, and it’s why on this one point at least I have sympathy for him.  His accountants have set him up in ‘a sensible way’.  Yet by following their honest advice he may now still find himself inadvertently on the wrong side of the tax-man.   No dodgy intent is required.   It’s just that our tax system is all so wonderfully complex it catches out even the accounting folk whose lives are dedicated to navigating it.  Is the money Ken pays his wife reasonable for the type of work she does?  Did the donation he declared to the Electoral Commission (an in-kind donation of around £19k) get declared in his accounts?  If so, was it treated as a deductible or non-deductible expense?  And so on.  He’s paid a professional to get the administration of these things right.  They may not have.   And there my sympathy for Ken ends.

It’s as inconvenient for him as the rest of us that if his accountants have messed up he is liable– you can delegate responsibility for managing your tax affairs, but you cannot delegate your accountability for them.

There are two charges being aimed at Ken:  hypocrite and tax dodger. ‘Hypocrite’ is a home-run.   For me the ‘tax dodger’ charge has got mixed and confused.  Half the people shouting it (like me) do so with knowing irony, their point is if Tory Boy was set up like Ken then ‘tax dodger’ is what Ken would say.  The other half seem to be shouting it with literal application, they genuinely think that Ken’s crossed the avoidance/evasion line.  I think the latter is over-reach, but whether ironic or literal, neither shout is going to be helpful to his Mayoral campaign.

Whether you call it tax dodging or avoidance or tax planning or mitigation it all only exists because our system is too complex.  The simpler our tax code, the less scope for ‘avoidance’, the easier to be clear what is ‘evasion’ and the less work for the accountants.  What is not to like about shooting for all that?   And whoever would have dreamed that it could be Ken Livingstone who could, albeit inadvertently, best make that very Conservative point?

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The Seven Billion Itch

So then, some point this week the people who guess these things reckon the planet will pass the 7 billion people mark.
The debate sparked is predictable.  On the one hand you have folk  who really, really fret. “Too many people, too few resources”.  Their rants will variously make mention of global warming, deforestation, fresh water limitations, the inefficiencies of farming meat over the energy returns from arable crop yields, you’ll often hear the words ‘peak oil’ and increasingly, though it isn’t really linked, ‘the collapse of capitalism’.  Yada, yada, yada.  Most of all you will hear the word ‘sustainability’.

On the other side you have folk who roll their eyes at this laundry list of angst.  They point out the doom mongers have been wrongly banging on about “too many people, too few resources” since even before Malthus wrote his ‘scientific proof’ we passed that tipping point 200 years ago.  Malthus was spectacularly wrong because he underestimated his fellow man’s ingenuity and innovation. Breakthroughs in agricultural techniques blew out his calculations on crop yields, just as breakthroughs in GM will blow out the calculations of his modern successors. ‘Progressives’ in the literal sense of the word, rather than the hijacked political version, believe that technological advance will continue to provide answers to the problems we encounter, and acknowledge that at the same time those solutions create whole new issues for the next generation.  Thats ok. That’s the cycle.  It was ever thus.  It’s why we no longer fret about how to spear dinner and instead fret about the weather and iPhone battery life. Yada, yada, yada.

The debate has morphed into a battle of ideas on the natural human condition between two schools of thought:  one pessimistic the other optimistic.  The trouble with these ideological battles is that they tend to polarise those who engage to the extremes.  If you’re a natural pessimist you get lumped with the loons who would have a ‘year zero’ and retreat to Amish or North Korean lifestyles yelling ‘stop’ at history and frowning at human breeding.   On the other hand if you’re an optimist, like me, and engage on the debate you quickly get lumped with the loons who would open-cast mine the pristine Antarctic if there was a quick buck in it.

Big issues need clear heads.  There are a number of reasons not to panic about the level of population.  Not least of which is that the evidence suggests once a society gets to a certain level of development, the rate of childbirth per woman falls bellow two. Once you reach that number you will see the population fall over the span of a natural lifetime.   Japan is already there.  Britain, France, Italy and the US would be there if you took immigration out of the analysis (2009 ONS stats showed the average UK-born woman has 1.84 children, while women living here who were born abroad have about 2.5 children).   Put simply, when they reach a certain standard of living, healthcare provision and opportunity people choose to have fewer kids without government intervention.   It strikes me that the best way to stabilise and lower the population is therefore to help under-developed nations develop.  It is development that brings that standard of living, healthcare provision and opportunity.  That means a firm commitment to global trade and an outright rejection of protectionism.

At the same time, we shouldn’t mock the word ‘sustainability’.  Natural resources are indeed finite.  Eventually, over the long-term course of history, the doom mongers will be right and man-kind will destroy itself with a generous helping hand from nature. We have an obligation to our children to make sure we’re not hurrying that day along.  So the development we strive for does indeed need to be ‘sustainable’.  We just need to be very careful that we’re not held hostage to the word ‘sustainable’ by pedlars of bad science.   Over-zealously embracing this weeks trendy ‘sustainabilty’ thinking will slow development, delay our goal of population reduction and be harmful to the life outcomes of billions of people.  Not paying regard where there is sound science could end the life chances of our entire species.  That’s quite a balance to navigate.  As I said earlier, big issues need clear heads – I’m never sure when I follow these big environmental debates that the usual spokespeople on either side of the debate have ‘clear heads’.  That leaves us all with an obligation to take an interest in these issues and nudge our policy makers to approach these big questions based not on lobby pressure, but upon clear-headed reason.

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Who Hi-jacked the Word ‘Poverty’?

So, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies 2.9 million children in the UK will live in ‘Poverty’ by the end of this Parliament (up from 2.2 million at the start).  That means  22.2% of  the whole child population in the UK.  Really? I’ve bitched about the use of the word ‘poverty’ before. Here we go again.

To be crystal clear my rant is not about the methodology applied, policy points, conclusions of the report and certainly not a  pop at the authors.  It is a sobering read.  Nobody will take any comfort from the raw data presented.  Every reader will gain a greater sense of urgency to address our economic weakness. I have a wife and 2 kids. I would not want to try to live on a total family income of £347 per week after tax is taken and any benefits added.  My rant is entirely about language.  Language matters.  Particularly when it informs political debate.  And so we get to the language of ‘poverty’.

Since at least the early 1990s NGOs, Academics and ‘think-tanks’ have been using various flavours of the concept of ‘relative poverty’ for these types of reports.   For example, the definition the IFS use today:  “An individual is considered to be in relative poverty if it lives in a household whose income is below 60% of the median in that year”.   If you just pause and think about that you realise  that it’s not a measure of ability to buy essential stuff – it’s a measure of the income distribution gap.   By that model everyone in the UK could get a pay-rise, prices could go down, and you could still see ‘poverty’ go up.   Conversely you could theoretically reduce everyone’s wage to 50p a day, with rising prices, and poverty would be deemed defeated.  Does that sound right to you?

Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution – I can’t help but think that such subtle manipulation of common language cheapens the word ‘poverty’ and by widening the net draws attention away from those millions in the world (including the many thousands in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. There is an important national debate to be had about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is far too wide – however to hijack the language of ‘poverty’ seems a cheap way to point-score in that debate.

My language gripe isn’t new and the academics always point out that there is a distinction between ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty that us common muckers are slow to get.  To be fair, report footnotes usually do clarify that they are using a ‘relative poverty’ measure and authors will say it is beyond their control if news editors don’t draw the nuance to the reader’s attention (though the editor isn’t helped  if they make the definition hard to find in their press release and are banking on ‘churnalism’ reportage of their work to further their agendas!).

Anyway, the concept of ‘absolute poverty’  is what a non-academic would  imagine is meant in ordinary language if the word did not have the ‘relative’ or ‘absolute’ qualifier. By example the World Bank used to use the metric of an income of  $1.25USD or less per day as their global ‘absolute poverty’ marker.

The freaky thing about today’s report is that it breaks the trend by tracking both ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty and here’s the scoop:  In 2015 more UK Children will apparently be living in ‘absolute’ poverty than ‘relative’ poverty! (see note 8 at this link).  Again, if you stop and think about that it sounds nuts and counter-intuitive and raises all sorts of questions.  Safe to say they are not using the World Bank metric here.  So what calculation are they using for ‘absolute poverty’ to get such a quirk?  Well, it turns out their definition is: “[a person who]  lives in a household whose real-terms income is below 60% of the 2010–11 median”.   Come again?  We define our ‘absolute poverty ‘ metric by a ‘relative poverty’ frozen snapshot from the past?   What clowns came up with that one?   Well – it isn’t the IFS.

Actually, it turns out the clowns who came up with that one are our MPs.   The definitions that the IFS are using are the ones that are defined in the UK Child Poverty Act of 2010.  It’s there in the Act’s definitions.  There is no party political point here – this Act had all party agreement.    The legally binding target for the Government is to get absolute poverty as defined in the act down to less than 5%.  They are projecting for 24.4% by 2020!  Talk about a government making a rod for its back.   The whole Act is a political device to compel a focus on narrowing the income gap ahead of prioritising generating more wealth.   The two are not mutually exclusive, and many will think that focus on the former is no bad thing – but the point is that it effectively shuts down our ability to have a healthy debate about the relative merits of  a priority choice.

That’ s why language matters.  Deciding exactly where to draw the poverty line was always going to be subjective – but once drawn and enshrined in law any attempt to query it  creates the impression you are ‘in favour of child poverty’ – much as if you query quirky  provisions of the Human Rights Act you are ‘against Human Rights’.  That invites intellectual dishonesty and stifles the quality of our political debate.

My personal obsession with the word ‘poverty’ aside, we should still  heed the report itself rather than just react to the headlines.  The last paragraph of the summary:

“The Government might consider whether it would be more productive to set realistic targets for child poverty, along with concrete suggestions for reaching them, verified with a quantitative modelling exercise such as this one. The authors also suggest that the Government consider how best to adjust the absolute poverty line over time to reflect changes in the cost of living faced by poor households.”

Quite.

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Amy Winehouse: We shouldn’t celebrate. We should mourn.

Is ‘iconicise’ a word? I can imagine the Collins concise grandly defining “a post-mortem process whereby the image of the deceased undergoes the transition from sustained tabloid ridicule into a figure of deep popular cultural import.”  Don’t look it up.    It won’t say that.   It just should.

It’s a sorry national boast that nobody else can’ iconicise’ like us Brits.  Think Diana.  Think Jade.  Pity Amy.

The script wrote itself and all the actors compliantly played their roles:  This time it was a rock-and-roll star – talented, but tortured by her demons. The press – well, at least the redtops and glossy mags – first shifted years of copy by trading on her tragic real-life soap opera.  When the inevitable end came, as always, there has to be one last frenzied orgy of schadenfreude.  None of the tragic final details will be too insignificant to be passed up by Fleet Street’s ‘finest’ for our eager consumption.  It’s been ever thus,  “all the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude” even back when Elton was a lad.

The fans know their role too.  That need for the spontaneous vigil.  The teddy bears on railings, the flowers, the candles, heartfelt messages scrawled on tear-stained cards.  Oh, and bottles of Malibu and packets of fags, obviously.

This ‘impromptu shrine’ stage then kick-starts the metamorphosis.  In a blink, the recent object of ridicule is romanticised, often by the biggest pushers of the earlier ridicule.  With premature death the good become ‘saints’, the talented elevate to ‘genius’.  There will be tribute records or back-catalogue rereleases and they will fly in the charts.  T-shirts will be worn by A-level students in 20 years time, just as this year’s crop of sixth-formers can be seen occasionally sporting a Cobain top.   And people will bang on about the immortal ’27’ club.   The iconicising will be complete.

I have a theory that our media ‘iconicise’ to assuage their guilt.  We let them, and buy into it, to assuage ours.  Let’s be frank, for the tabloids and glossies the tragic demise of Winehouse over the last few years has been a source of popular entertainment.  The coverage of her recent gig in Serbia was pitched in most news outlets much as Victorians may have reported on the curious bearded lady at the touring circus.   Yes, there was the mock hint of sympathy – but not quite enough sympathy to choose not to fill column inches giving her the focus.

I know I sound like a cold cynic.   I’m not.   I never met her, nor knew her.  I know only from the limited bits of her work  I have heard she had genuine talent, but as to whether she was smart, or without the make-up attractive, or funny, or bitchy or whatever else from the human condition pick-and-mix I have no idea.   What I do know is that the pictures of her father Mitch with that raw, almost hopeless, emptiness in his eyes will resonate with anyone who has ever had ‘the phonecall’ or ‘the knock-on-the-door’ .  I know from those photos that Amy was a human being who was loved.  I know that when the family release a statement describing themselves as ‘bereft’  it isn’t spin or an easy  soundbite.   It is just the gut-wrenching way it is.

And I hate that that as we let icons become cemented through this media theatre, we almost celebrate the flaws ahead of the talent.  We reinforce the idea that drink,  drugs and addiction are just an inevitable part of rock-and-roll.  They are not.   This is a tragic loss of life.  There is nothing to celebrate.  Nothing to glamourize.   We shouldn’t iconicise Amy.   Instead, we should mourn for her.

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A Glimpse Inside the Red Head of Rebekah Brooks

My first post for Dale & Co:  link here to the original.  Posted here for archive purposes.

There’s one doing the rounds on Twitter that recalls David Brent gathering his staff for the good news and bad news.  ” The bad news is a lot of you are going to be redundant.  The good news is I still have a great job”.  Flash forward a decade, swap Gervais for Brooks, shift to the NOTW newsroom and you’ve got the gist of what went on yesterday.

Anyone reasonably bright who has followed the UK media for any length of time will have grown a little radar that just knows when the tipping point has been reached and there’s no way back  for someone in the press’s sights.  This little radar has been bleeping solidly for at least three days.  There will be no other outcome than Brooks being toast.  It isn’t ‘if’, it is ‘when’.

And yet again, we see this strange paradox where one of the very people trumpeted as the most media savvy in the land seems to be lacking this basic radar and hangs on too long.   Think Mandelson, Campbell and Coulson by way of examples.  Now add Brooks.

I can only think that in all these cases they are so drunk on fancying themselves as Masters-of-the-Universe they believe they are somehow immune to the dark powers they made their living unleashing.  Like the lion-master at the circus who gets cocky with his own beast before a gory end.

Spare me this ‘she has offered her resignation and we refused’ nonsense.  Her delay has already dragged a whole staff of blameless people down with her.  If she cares about News International she should know that it is in their best remaining interests for her to walk regardless of anything James Murdoch should say.

Even if her drivers are entirely boxed around her own self-interest another lesson obvious to the rest of us mortals is that the quicker you jump the quicker the way back.   The best example on her career path that there can be a life, of sorts, after this would be Piers Morgan.

Hang on, Piers Morgan?  ….  no wonder she isn’t shifting.

 

 

 

 

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