Monday, June 25, 2012

Return of the O' Levels

A leak of the Education's Secretary's plan to scrap GCSEs and replace then with old style O' Levels has attracted the expected amount of criticism. Well there is no life left in GCSEs unfortunately. To save the standard of education they will sooner or later have to go. That's simply because no government is going to stand over the headline of GCSE A*-C pass rates falling to 50%. It now stands at 81%. 7 years ago it was 55%.

Sadly there is no way that better teaching practices and the idea that pupils are working harder than their predecessors is solely or even largely responsible for making those gigantic leaps in improving numbers year on year. Instead we have teaches to exams and perverse competition between the Exam Boards working to increase scores whilst not necessarily increasing comprehension.

The negative effect it is certainly having is in confusing higher education institutions and businesses as to how bright a particular student is.

O' Levels are not the answer. We need a bit more thought than going back to the old system that was deemed to need replacing itself only 25 years ago.

With school leaving age shifting from 16 years old to 18 we have an opportunity to rework education and start competing with the great results that are coming out of other systems like those of Finland and South Korea. For starters we can get rid of this aspiration for smaller class size nonsense. There aren't enough brilliant teachers to go around and they are more important than the class size. I'd rather have my child with a brilliant teacher in a class of 50 than an average teacher in a class of 25.

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The State of British Politics

What's happening in British politics today, in the wake of the local elections held on May 3rd 2012. Labour did well. They didn't shatter expectations but they did well. They had an open goal to aim for with the calamitous budget from George Osborne, Theresa May's lost day, Francis Maude's jerry can gaffe, Vincent Cable's lack of strategy letter, the 500 families Newham council wanted to foist upon Stoke, and then the small matter of Britain re-entering recession.

Ed Miliband thought now would be a good time to revive Malcolm Tucker's "omnishambles" as the buzz word to describe the situation for the government. Blowing his load too soon, in my opinion and that's a brilliant word to being out for a general election. He'll do very well to top it and even now only a month or two later it's lost its edge. And with all that Labour pretty much rode the wave of inertia which punishes governing parties at local elections.

So, what's going on? Well, Labour can't shake off their guilt from landing the country in the situation it's in. Their leadership duo were in it up to their eyeballs which means when they tell us they have the economic remedy any right thinking person doesn't believe them for a second. Alistair Darling was the best person Labour had coming out of government. The idea that Labour want to ride his coattails with the growth in GDP that he oversaw just before the party left power is despicable considering Gordon Brown wanted him out and replaced by Ed Balls.

Besides which there is no way of telling whether Darling was doing everything right or whether he enjoyed a dead cat bounce. Considering the depth of the fall in GDP and the relative stability elsewhere (Greece was bad but nothing like now) there's plenty of room for doubting his perfection.

It can't get much worse for the Tories. The disingenuously named double-dip recession is only expected to be short. So maintaining control of the deficit now and recognisable growth to come ahead of 2015 would mean they are not looking to hand Labour a solid majority. The daily stack up of poor news has abated. The jobs figures for the past 3 months have showed mild improvements. Take the economy back the same way and they'll start having some confidence in themselves again. Though David Cameron's continually questionable choice in company keeps plaguing his leadership. Gary Barlow is the case in point this week.

The Liberal Democrats, well. They just can't get over the tuition fee debacle. They thought they could ride it out but nearly two years on it still overshadows everything they do. Nick Clegg will never regain trust of the voters and so they'll be left with only loyal hardcore support until there's a large scale jettison of the betraying pledgers.

Of course, the two main parties aren't being shifted from their perch yet. However, there is a chance that this country will awaken from its stupor and actually vote someone else in who might do something different. UKIP and the Greens did well. The Green's already have their first MP in Caroline Lucas. Hopefully that's a stepping stone for them rather than a flash in the pan. UKIP need to stop being a one man show with a single policy. Nigel Farage can only spread himself so far. He needs his team to be more visible to capture the public's imagination.And George Galloway of Respect is back in the House with a recent by-election win.

It'll come around eventually...

Jimmy Carr Opens the Book on Tax Morality

A satirical comedian who makes his living out of jokes about bankers bonuses and fat cats has been caught out as a tax dodger. He's going to earn a lot of money, went to his accountant going what do I do with it, and gets told he can legally pay 1% on it with a K2 arrangement.

So who's in the wrong? Jimmy Carr? His accountant? The companies that pay into his company knowing it's bound to be dodging tax as it has a Jersey address? The law makers who allowed this loophole?

Jimmy is taking all the personal flak but there's another 1000+ people abusing the scheme, including folks like the lovely Gary Barlow, who need to share the public wrath. It's not turning out too bad for Mr Carr. He's held his hands up, admitted it's an error in judgement and pulled out of the scheme. The twitterati are certainly largely forgiving of him.

If he earns a similar amount to last year that'll mean he'll pay more income tax in 3 months than the average British worker will pay in their whole 40+ year working life. Does that square things up? What about his charitable giving. Does denying the treasury the choice of where to spend a large chunk of his money cause less upset because he chooses good causes to give some of it to instead?

Individual choices are poor when it comes to the common good. That's why we have a system of laws in the first place. The laws on income are clearly faulty as it doesn't capture all income for liability to income tax. The tax code is amazingly long and wasteful. The amount of human energy and resources that goes into both exploiting and enforcing complicated tax rules is shameful. It needs to be kept simple so morality is off the table and all this effort can be redirected to something more useful. 

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

The End of Free Banking (Again)?

The vague and lengthy declaration that retail and investment banks need to be split at some point in the distant future is going to be announced tomorrow. Desperate cries of horror from the banking lobby will follow as they always do. The most usual horror story designed to bring fear to the masses is the idea that free banking would become a thing of the past.

It's a good threat but one that will only be pulled out as a very last resort. Oddly enough, its coming about would be a sign of victory for the public. Banking most profitable asset is their customer's inertia; The infinite number of "you're more likely to change ... than your bank." There's a reason for that and that's not seeing the bank suck money out of your account. Should they start making it visible, customers will notice and all the efforts banks have been forced to make to smooth the process of transferring current account supplier will begin to haunt them.

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The Electoral Smell of 2007

There's something about the Conservatives recent showing in the polls which makes me think back to 2007 and wonder whether they are thinking whether it's the best time they are going to get to call an election considering the ever diminishing forecasts for the economy.

David Cameron's use of the veto seems to have persuaded the voters that he will stand up for our interests in Europe. They aren't used to that and have been calling for it for a long time. It's never been the most important issue so it's questionable how long this bounce for the Tories will last. In their favour it may bring back the UKIP supporters into the fold.

The Liberal Democrats look to be a shell of a party with their integrity shattered due to not voting against student fees rises. The taint still shows, over a year after the issue passed, indicating it won't go away this parliament and will weigh heavily on them in the next election.

Labour are suffering a real crisis of leadership. Ed Milliband was always a risky prospect. He has 3 factors affecting how he is perceived that he will not ever shift:
  • The support of the unions secured his victory
  • As a key member of Gordon Brown's team he is implicated with the creation of the economic mess
  • The "betrayal" of his brother David
Top that all off with having Ed Balls as his No.2 then you have an unelectable party whose leadership had far too much dealings with the problems in the economy. Now that the most prime ministerial candidate as next leader is invalidated, David Milliband being second best the first time around leaves too many open goals, there is a struggle to find a credible replacement.
If the best they can come up with is Yvette Cooper, her 18 months as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and simply referring to her as Mrs Balls introduces the same problem.

Still, it won't happen yet I feel. The all important constituency boundary changes is the vital advantage that the Conservatives need to remove doubt from the result. If the Labour leadership remains unchanged then October 2013 is the time to look for.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Distractions of Europe

There are some big moving pieces shaping life and thought in Britain today. Prime Minister David Cameron taking the nuclear option to the EU. The governments junior coalition partners poor reaction to it. Though no-one is surprised the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats disagree on Europe. The question is, as the gravitational mass of the Euro crisis increases, can the coalition sideline the issue and still work together?

Some are amazed that Cameron used the veto. It's a threat, you're not really supposed to use it. He couldn't sign a new treaty without an uncomfortable referendum and leaving a large chunk of his backbenchers furious. The public is mostly favourable that, finally, a British leader is willing to stand up to Europe. The protection of the City of London didn't seem the issue to me and if it was I am shocked that we'd otherwise so easily had over sovereignty regarding the national budget.

The EU summit, where the weapon was wielded, went on to produce another plan to fix the eurozone crisis. Sadly, it is there to fix the next crisis and does little if nothing to address the current problems. The politicians have been shielded by the central bankers move on November 30th to bring extra US dollar liquidity into the transatlantic financial system. It's only today that the effect has worn off and the markets have taken a big tumble again.

And as much fun as the geopolitics are, there is outright refusal to address the real problem. The financial system. Richard Koo rightly points out the absurdity of having near zero interest rates and instead of borrowing cheaply, paying down debt is the order of the day. We work to a fractional reserve banking system. That means money paid back is money destroyed. It has to be replaced with fresh borrowing to keep us treading water. And in order to grow it has to be replaced with greater borrowing than what is repaid.

We can't pay down debt and have growth unless existing wealth is put to work. If we're not going to fix this unoptimised system and won't accept a write down on debt then I only see one path to generating the growth that'll turn the economy around. The existing wealth of the elite and cash rich corporations needs to be put to use on new/small enterprise, where innovation will be most significant and the next major companies will be born from.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Teach our kids to code | John Graham-Cumming

Teach our kids to code | John Graham-Cumming

Agree with John's sentiment entirely.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Program or be Programmed

So goes the title of Douglas Rushkoff's book. Unless I missed a turn somewhere, the direction our world is going suggests programming will be a bigger part of our children's lives than it is our own. Jim Anning in his post Kids and Programming argues that we need change.

I left state schooling at the end last century but very little strikes me that things there have progressed as much as they should have. ICT wasn't a real subject them. Yes, the token room and single teacher but there was little more in it than creating basic files and organising folders. In fact the most advanced stuff was the 4 PCs in the graphics room which had Macromedia Fireworks on it.

In the same way that the British struggle with foreign languages it's all too easy to see programming languages following that path.

If we have to start somewhere then if Microsoft Office holds the programs of choice then at least the kids should be taught VBA which enhances it.


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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Biggest Strikes Since 1926 - Why?

The unions have got themselves a bit carried away in their rhetoric of late. Talking up strike action to rival the General Strike of 1926 only prompts people like me to look up how successful that particular campaign was.

What was it about?
Miners workers pay and conditions.

What was the problem?
They were going to get paid less and work more.

Why?
The mining industry in this country was dying on its arse. The easy rich seams were depleted long ago. Extracting the remaining sources was getting increasingly expensive and foreign supplies were becoming ever cheaper.

Why did the strike get so big?
Largely out of sympathy strikes. Subsequently made illegal.

What was the result?
Take a look at our thriving industry now. There's no escaping the inevitable.


And moving on to the present. Lets spot the similarities:

What is it about?
Pensions, mostly.

What is the problem?
Well, they are going to get paid less (by contributing more to their pensions and getting less back than they thought) and work more (extra years per lifetime rather than hours per day).

Why?
Well, the demographics of supporting large pensions are dying on their arse. The days were there were 9 workers to support each pensioner are long gone. We're now looking at closer 3.

Why is the strike getting so big?
As our Chancellor likes to point out we're all in it together. It's a mutual cause that chimes with almost every union.

What will the result be?
Take a look at the private sector. What's unsustainable will not be sustained. Kick and scream about it by all means, but it won't change. Not without a great shift in the demographic layout of the country.

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Greece - Will it Make it to the Long Grass?

The Eurozone leaders are becoming increasingly desperate to see Greece's problems dismissed to the long term. Voluntarily extending maturity on loans by 30 years can only be an option taken by someone facing obliteration if they do not.

The usual answer to being unable to pay debt is default. It's painful, it's ugly but it's necessary. Ever increasing debt gets to the point where you are paying nothing but interest on that debt and never repaying the capital. Greece isn't there yet but with it's bond yield in double digits and its economy in recession that is the trajectory.

Far better to accept the consequence now. Restructure the loans and reform the economy. Greece will learn to balance it's budget as it struggles to find foreign funding for years to come. Spurious lenders get their hands burnt and learn to invest more wisely in future. Something to be said for a balanced portfolio. But at least everyone will know where we stand.

The uncertainty is stopping us for moving on after the world financial crisis.

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