At last, an invigorating argument against equality of outcome

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The argument about access to higher education is marvellously misguided.

The argument about access to higher education is marvellously misguided.

It's quite a relief to me, to find that out. I've been crushed by arguments about fairness; I've had no answer to the logic of equality and equity. I hate it when that happens.

Only 25 per cent of students from poor backgrounds go to university. The unanswerable moral question has been: do you really think that poor people are less intelligent than rich ones? If intelligence is distributed randomly (let's not argue about it) then it is unfair that the rich get to university in greater proportion than the poor. Surely? And what can one say to that?

Here's one answer. The rich aren't more intelligent – however, they are much better qualified. Students from higher social backgrounds are less likely to be among the seven million illiterates the state education system has – unforgivably – produced. It's no wonder children born into "less advantaged families still see a university place as being beyond their reach, whatever their ability" because the culture in comprehensive schools doesn't produce the academic achievement levels to match the old grammar schools.

It is a great social crime that able working-class children don't get to university, but it's the fault of the administrative class, the political class, the Tony Crosland and Margaret Thatcher class, not universities.

Why should it be the responsibility of universities to take people who can't read properly, write properly or learn properly? Why should places of higher education have to start with a process of lower education? As A-levels have been debauched so degrees have been devalued by the same process. The politicians' answer is to debauch and devalue further and faster.

My new mentors point out: "The Government itself states that qualified children from manual backgrounds are just as likely to go to university as their peers from better-off families. The difference is that far fewer children from poorer backgrounds achieve good A-levels since they are more likely to attend poor schools. The solution to the problem is higher standards in secondary schools." This is an invigorating piece of argumentation. You'll find that if you are pro-affirmative action, pro-Access Regulator, pro-social engineering, you'll be getting a little hot under the collar, just as I was before finding an agreeable defence for my position.

My mentors are a research group called Reform, and they are – or should be – the intellectual engine of the Conservative Party. They publish items on their website headed: "Lower taxes are consistent with higher health spending."

They show how tax cuts are not incompatible with improved public services. Whether or not you agree with this, you will be interested to know that there is more intellectual energy, more dash, more vigour in Reform than anything seen on the Tory front bench. In an age of conformity, of conventional wisdom, of suffocating pieties, the group is a breath of fresh air.

They've got a conference coming up (try www.reformbritain.com). It is to be addressed by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson – two New Zealand politicians I know quite well and thoroughly admire. That's not a phrase I write often in reference to politics. If they didn't invent all this stuff they discovered it, and have, with varying degrees of success, tried to put it into practice.

Baldly, if I can use such a loaded word, the future of the Conservative Party is dependent on the success of Reform and its ideas.

If the modernisers – the group most actively opposed to Reform – get their way, their party will go into the next general election promising (or at least condoning) higher taxes. Labour will go into the same election announcing its package of tax cuts and Conservative support will, as if by magic, evaporate. After a third consecutive catastrophic defeat the question must be asked, will the party survive?

NHS struggles on in sickness as in health

My other health friend tells me why there will be no improvement in the services in his area despite Gordon Brown's billions. Of course I should be grieving over this, but you know how vindictive, mean-spirited and low-minded columnists can be. You don't? Forget what I said.

There is some news from the health sector that has grieved me so much I can hardly bear to pass it on. It is a fact that so undermines our faith in collective action that any decent person would cover it up.

The budget for my friend's bit of the Nash is £450m; they are looking forward to a promised 10 per cent increase in funding. Unfortunately, the prospect of this bounty has caused such relief and relaxation among managers, professionals and suppliers that anyone who is able to has jacked up their prices. Inflation in this particular health area is running at 9 per cent. So, all but a few million of the new money will disappear into the sand – the remainder of the increase will go on general incompetence, fraud, settling cases out of court, sending patients to Frankfurt for operations, paying off whistleblowers, publishing poetry anthologies to remotivate the downtrodden staff and hiring ever more accomplished statisticians to make everything look better than it is.

The statistics are already showing a great improvement. Fewer operations are cancelled (note Sunday reports of managers calmly falsifying their figures) and there must have been a massive increase in the number of beds available (chairs have just been statistically redefined; they are now called "beds"). Waiting times in A&E will also look very much better, too – they make you wait in the ambulance until you can be seen, after which they push your trolley into a corridor where they've put up a sign: Ward 10.

Beds are chairs, trolleys are beds, corridors are wards. Soon they will find a way to redefine sickness as health and their success will be complete.

The world of work ­ it's all down to experience

Young people will be sent out on work experience missions two days a week to "rip down the artificial divide between the world of education and the world of work". Of all government initiatives this will be the most onerous for employers, young people being what they are.

When we were launching the children's version of The Independent all those years ago, we had a lot of work experience children coming through the organisation to help (it was the only way we had of getting the paper out on budget). The child labour was quite good, but management intensive. You had to control their drinking for one thing and for another you had to explain to them what to do all the time.

Etonians were easily the worst, followed by Etonians who had been to Oxbridge.

The only way of teaching these elevated creatures was to reduce their self-esteem by a factor of 10. This wasn't as easy as it sounds; Etonians are unusually resilient. I remember Nick Coleridge's remark: "When I find out where someone went to school and it wasn't Eton, I think 'Oh how interesting, I wonder why not?'" No, you had to take out all the stuff their school had put in because they couldn't hear you otherwise. They couldn't learn anything because they didn't listen. Never truer was it said of anyone "the opposite of talking isn't listening, it's waiting". Brutal de-schooling was the only way of getting through to them. And we had to start from very low down the workplace skills agenda. "When a phone is ringing beside you, what do you do? No! You pick it up. And what do you say? No! This is what you say. Not that, this."

Young writers would argue quite a lot, if you let them, up to deadline even, about why they had constructed an article in a certain way. They had written that this Nicaraguan had won the election when that Nicaraguan had. But there were reasons for it. And they wanted to tell you what they were. One of them used to sit down at a keyboard saying: "Right! I'm now going to write the most brilliant article that's ever been written on this subject!" He was put on silence for two weeks, with his brilliant first in history. It was the making of him.

It's true that work was an education for these young people, but it was nothing like the world of education they'd come from. It had some similarity to the world of education a generation before. And it worked terrifically well. A dozen of our child labourers went on to jobs on national dailies. Of our alumni we have one or two columnists, two best-selling authors, and a big gun in information technology. If we hadn't erected a barrier between the world of education and the world of work – and made them climb over it – I can't believe they'd have been half as successful.

Comments