D J Taylor: Those academics, they don't like it up 'em

The latest plan for getting more poor pupils into university fails on many counts. But, don't panic! I've got an idea
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The Independent Online

In the end it was possible to feel rather sorry for Dr Neil Stringer, senior research associate at the AQA Centre for Education Research and Policy, and author of a controversial proposal to rank all A-level students according to the schools they attend, thereby allowing universities to discriminate against children from private establishments.

Dr Stringer, you imagine, meant well, and yet in the furore that followed even his natural allies seemed to desert him. Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the plan as "a step too far", while the man from the Sutton Trust maintained that contextual information about children's backgrounds was all very well, but the biggest challenge was "encouraging children actually to apply when they had the grades".

It was reminiscent of the moment in Kingsley Amis's Memoirs in which the novelist John Braine, having mounted a robust defence of slavery, proved himself too extreme even for Amis's legendarily right-wing mother-in-law. But the real point about Dr Stringer's intervention is not his determination to get children from poor homes into good universities – this is to be applauded – but some of the assumptions about state education that lurk beneath it.

In particular, the idea that pupils at "weak schools" should get bonus points to compensate them, while those at "elite schools" could be penalised by comparison, has two ominous implications. The first is that an educational qualification is not worth having, because it can be overhauled by social and ideological factors beyond the examinee's control. The second is that teenagers are the victims of a two- or even three-tier state educational system. A cynic might wonder whether the state system hasn't had enough time, and been given enough resources, to put its house in order, and that the best way to improve "weak schools" is to get the private sector involved in running them.

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The other person who deserved our sympathy last week was Ed Miliband: not necessarily for the stream of polls that declared him weak, anodyne, unelectable and so forth, but for the insults flung his way after some not terribly incendiary remarks about the responsibilities of business. In his conference speech, Mr Miliband swore to rein in excessive pay in the higher echelons of industry and break up cartels that drive up prices. There were also some brisk comments about "asset-strippers" and "the fast-buck culture of the past 30 years".

You might have thought, from the near-apocalyptic response, that he was advocating mass-nationalisation and 80 per cent tax rates rather than indulging in a little gentle chiding. Lord Jones, a former head of the CBI and Gordon Brown's trade minister, called the speech "a kick in the teeth for the only sector that generates wealth, that pays the taxes and creates the jobs this country needs". Even the former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, weighed in with a plaintive: "If I build in a city centre, am I good for investing or bad for speculating? Businesses are there to make money."

No doubt they are. But Labour politicians, it might be argued, are there to point out to businesses one or two of their social obligations and to suggest, while doing it, that many of the evils of the post-Thatcher years are the result of successive governments allowing "business" to do pretty much as it liked while damning the consequences. After all, if messrs Brown and Blair had not spent so much time glad-handing the boardrooms of EC2, we should probably not be in the mess we are now. As for Lord Jones, a fair translation of his remarks might be "as we pay for everything we can do what we bloody well like".

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Although the obituaries of David Croft offered lavish accounts of the half-dozen television sitcoms to which he put his name, there was general agreement that the greatest was Dad's Army. In bringing this to the small screen, Croft and his script-writing henchman Jimmy Perry brought off three highly unusual feats. First, despite an essentially comic premise, they managed to strike a note of realism. My father, who joined what was then called the Local Defence Volunteers, reckoned that the personalities on display in the Walmington-on-Sea platoon (gnarled veteran of the Sudan, gauche teenage bank-clerk etc) paralleled that of his own unit.

Second, they realised that at the heart of nearly all comedy lies a character who is trying desperately – as does the Napoleonic Captain Mainwaring – to see his life in almost mythical terms. Third, they appreciated that British society turns not so much on an obsession with class as a fixation on status. There was a wonderful moment in which John Le Mesurier's character, who had recently been elevated to the title of "The Honourable Arthur Wilson", remarks that he has just been for lunch at the golf club. "The golf club!" Mainwaring explodes. "I've been trying to get in there for years." "Well" his subordinate languidly ripostes, "I believe they're awfully particular." Entire novels booked to decipher the British social system have not gone further than this.

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The word "techno-fascism" (here defined as "an administrative fiat, enabled by technology, advertised as benefiting the consumer but in fact devised to suit the organisation with whom the consumer deals") has not entered the dictionaries, but examples of it seem to crop up from one week to the next. Last week's came when a piece of paper fluttered out of my VAT return informing me that as from spring 2012 the filing of returns online would be compulsory. Small businesses who don't possess email are instructed to seek help at the local library or business centre.

From the point of view of utility, this is a good idea. What irks is the autocratic attitude, the idea that the state dictates and the citizen falls into line. All this contrasts with the adverts for TV licensing, which offer a range of payment alternatives under the slogan "Whatever's easier for you". HMRC's first principle is, clearly, "Whatever's easiest for us".

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