Saturday, 28 March 2009


Or rather male-preference primogeniture, for that is the system used in the UK to determine the line of succession to the throne; anyway seems it's one of the things on Gordon Brown's mind at the moment. Not the imminent G20 conference, nor the state of the economy, the threat of deflation (or Islamic terrorism), the unprecedented size of the national debt or the fact that for the first time since New Labour came to power an auction of UK gilts was under-subscribed or even the worst fall in quarterly GDP since 1980. Nope, none of those things have priority, it's the possibility that at some point in the future Prince William's eldest child might be a girl that's the thing to be worried about! Does anyone else suspect this is something of a diversionary measure? Well yes, lots of people are saying just that, but that's no reason not to join in.

Of course you can argue that male preference primogeniture discriminates against women, and "the government is against all forms of discrimination", but this is where it starts to go wrong. The basic idea is to replace the male preference system with absolute primogeniture, that is the throne passes to the eldest child regardless of sex. So instead of sex discrimination, lets have age discrimination instead! This is why it looks like a measure designed to get the awfulness of the Brown premiership off the front pages for a bit, its a typical un-thought-through policy. If discrimination is the issue, then don't discriminate.

To use an analogy: imagine it isn't the throne, it's the position of CEO of a large and wealthy corporation. To appoint a new CEO the shareholders/board generally invite applicants and/or consider potential candidates, carry out an assessment then make a choice. Imagine instead that they have primogeniture like rules that lay out who the next CEO has to be, and for the sake of the analogy these rules state that the role has to go to the eldest male applicant. Actually the analogy makes more sense (as appointing the eldest applicant is clearly nonsense) if the rule is that it has to go to the first male applicant to apply - the analogy still works as it retains the element of timing. So, we have to appoint the first bloke who gets his CV through the door!

Now the female applicants all cry foul, saying this is discriminatory. OK we reply, you're right, it is, lets do what Gordon Brown proposes and replace the "first male applicant" rule with a "first applicant" rule. Fantastic, we no longer discriminate on grounds of sex, but if anything we've made the process more stupid not less; we certainly haven't made it more sensible by removing the element of sexual discrimination. And this is the thing, if you're against all forms of discrimination then replacing one with another is contradictory if not hypocritical.

The point of rules of inheritance is that otherwise someone actually has to make a decision. In many cases this is fine, but in the matter of thrones it has lead to wars in the past, so a clear set of rules is by no means a bad thing. You might argue that discriminatory rules can never be a good thing, but any such rule has to be discriminatory by its very nature and basing discrimination on age is no better than discrimination based on sex. So whats the alternative?

Well clearly one alternative would be to abolish the monarchy, but then you have the even worse position of a politician becoming head of state. Is there another way, well yes: an elective monarchy. It's still discriminatory, but now we discriminate on grounds of merit, and that can't be a bad thing surely.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A levels

There is no doubt that more pupils pass more A levels than they used to and more pupils get higher grades. The Government insists this is indicative of an increase in standards, whereas everyone else says its due to A levels getting easier. One of the reasons the Government insists on flying in the face of widespread opinion is that they have pumped a lot of cash into the state system in the last 10 years or so. They need to be able to point to a measurable improvement of some sort to avoid the charge of having wasted all that money.

The latest reported figures show that 30.3% of fee-paying pupils gained three or more A grades compared to 7.6% in comprehensives. Ten years ago the figures were 16.9% in independent schools against 4.7% in comprehensives. The telling point is not so much that there is a gap but that it has widened and widened considerably. Furthermore these figures don't reflect other research that suggests that the "harder", more rigorous subjects, which are more widely taken by independent school pupils, are also marked more harshly, that is if one adjusted for this then the relative performance in the independent sector is even better than the headline number indicates.

So how can this have happened? Perhaps the independent sector has increased their budgets even more quickly than has the state sector. Actually, no; since around 1998/99 the Government has been increasing "school based expenditure" by up to 7% a year. This figure excludes the costs of various centrally provided services eg school buses, the costs of local authority admin and particularly the costs of financing capital expenditure, thus the true increase is likely to be higher. In parallel private school fees have also been increasing, for example fees rose by 43% in the five years to 2006 which is an average yearly increase of 7.7%. When one bears in mind that private school fees necessarily include an element that is used to finance capital expenditure, the lesson is not the bare numbers themselves, but that increases in the private sector are roughly the same as in the state sector. In other words the independent sector is investing at broadly the same rate as the state sector. Given that the independent sector started from a much higher base (in terms of A level results), they ought to be into diminishing returns, but instead the opposite is happening. So the widening gap in performance can't be down to greater increases in funding in one sector.

Perhaps the gap is about the absolute level of funding, not just the relative increases in the past few years. Here one has to admit that independent schools have at least twice as much money as do state schools, but this factor is pretty much stable given that both sectors have been increasing funding at roughly the same rate. Again the killer fact is that the independent sector is increasing funding from a much higher base, yet it seems to be the state sector that is suffering from diminishing returns, not the higher spending independent sector.

Perhaps its not so much down to money, but general Government policy ie policy other than budget increases - curriculum changes etc. Here there are broadly 2 options, the independent sector either implements Government policy, or it does not. If you assume that across the board the independent sector has implemented every Government policy and initiative that the state sector has, then you'd have to say that the independent sector has done a better job. But who actually thinks that the independent sector implements Government policy? The harsher truth is that the independent sector is accelerating away from the state sector partly because it is not implementing Government policy. Or put another way, Government policy is holding back state schools.

What else could it be? You often hear the Government saying that pupils and teachers are working harder nowadays, hence the improvement in results. Is this the case? Was everyone over 30 lazy when they were at school? Again, if this is the cause of better results, or even contributory, then the conclusion must be that fee paying pupils are working even harder than their state educated peers. Working harder as well as doing more sport, playing more music, performing more drama etc.

The uncomfortable truth is that whatever the Government has done in state schools, the independent sector has either done it better or recognised it as detrimental and avoided doing it all. All the additional money that has been pumped into the state sector has either been wasted or any benefit it might have had has been nullified by policy.

Finally, does this say anything about the A level itself? In an absolute sense things have clearly moved forwards, but in a relative sense the state sector is actually going backwards. Concentrating on the absolute measure is misleading as it is the relative measure that is the better one as it removes any effect of "goal post shifting" - if the posts have moved at all, they've moved equally for both sectors, so by comparing the 2 we remove the effect. The trouble now is that by one measure things are improving, but by the truer measure things are actually getting worse. If the goal posts have not moved, then worsening education ought to show a drop in achievement, but we don't observe this. Thus achievement must be being inflated, and the means by which this is done is to make A levels easier.

This in itself only explains the contradiction, it doesn't explain why the independent sector shows the greater improvement. The reason for this can only be that the independent sector is better able to take advantage of the easier exams. The important, but ironic, conclusion we draw from that is that if you want to close the gap between state and independent sector, you need to make A levels harder!

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Is Parliament representative?

One of the most commonly heard sayings in political commentary is that, "... there aren't enough women in Parliament." Of course this begs the immediate question, what would be the right number? But that actually trivialises the underlying issue. It isn't about numbers it's about how Parliament should represent the people.

To address this, the first question that should be asked is, what are MPs? What are they..? Well they are legislators. From this simple fact should flow all manner of deductions about the make-up of Parliament, but the main one ought to be that Members of Parliament should be the best legislators what we have available. In practice the route to the House of Commons is by election, and therefore you can't just choose the best legislators (interestingly an appointed House of Lords does allow you to do this); however it would be a good aspiration to be able to say that MPs are at least drawn from the best legislators available.

On this basis we can then consider the proportion of women that there should be in the House of Commons, but we must first consider this question: "is there any evidence that women are better legislators than men?" If there is such evidence then it is absolutely clear that there are not enough female MPs. However I have neither seen nor heard of any such evidence; one's quality as a legislator clearly varies but there is no evidence that sex is a determinant factor. So the right answer to "how many woman MPs should there be?" is that there is no right answer, or rather that all answers are right. So long as MPs are good at legislating then it does not matter if they are male or female.

This brings us onto the wider question of the nature of representative democracy. In our current system each MP represents his or her constituency, where this is a geographically defined portion of the United Kingdom; crucially MPs are representatives and not delegates. Note that this definition does not allow for Parliament as a whole to be representative of the population as a whole. Nevertheless people observe that there are comparatively few women in the House of Commons and they therefore state that this makes Parliament un-representative. Unfortunately this analysis is wrong, because it ignores the constitution, and wrong-headed because it would lead to a ridiculous conclusion.

If we assume for the moment that Parliament as a whole should reflect the population as a whole (and here we see the first mistake, representing the population is one thing, reflecting the population is another), then clearly there should be many more female MPs; but the requirement is to reflect the population as a whole, not just the sex of the population. Therefore there should be a proportionate number of Muslims, Hindus, Jews; a proportionate number of homosexual men and a proportionate number of lesbians too. If Parliament is to "represent" the people in this way then it needs to be the people in microcosm: there should be a certain number of MPs under 30, a proportion over 60; most MPs should be English (and not just from English constituencies); and so on and so on.

The problem is that if this is your goal, your intent and desire, then you cannot pick and choose the aspects that are represented. So my question to those who propose this model, and therefore have an idea of how many women there should be in Parliament, is this: how many MPs should be stupid? Or perhaps more kindly, how many MPs should be of less than average intelligence (and I'm not equating this description with stupidity)? The answer to that is roughly half, and if you don't understand why, then you're probably one of them.