Tuesday, 28 April 2009

A fairer future

Yes, we are to have a fairer future, Ms Harman (Leader of the House of Commons) has so ordained. If you want to read in more detail here's a document:

A Fairer Future

This legislation is attempting to do a number of things, one of which is to bring together a number of other Acts relating to discrimination such that all the relevant legislation is in one place. Which is fine. However it also seeks to do some more novel things, amongst these are the use of public procurement to improve equality and the power of Ministers to require employers to publish so-called "pay gender gap" reports.

The use of public procurement to improve equality is an interesting concept. Here is one description of how it could be done:

"A local council is commissioning a significant building project, in the context of a large social regeneration scheme, in an area where women are particularly affected by disadvantage.This requires work from plumbers, carpenters and plasterers, trades in which women are under-represented nationally.The contract for this work could include a condition that the contractor runs a positive action programme to train women in these skills."
It's the last sentence that really gets me, the root to greater equality is by running "positive action programmes" to train disadvantaged women in plumbing and carpentry. What is a positive action programme anyway and how does it relate to training? Is training better if it's positive action training?

Note that this paragraph includes a hidden assumption that lies at the heart of much of this Government policy, that is if raw numbers show a disparity then inequality must be the cause. I think few would doubt that there are more male plumbers than female, but does this mean that women are under-represented in these trades? Could, just could, it mean that relatively few women want to become plumbers in the first place..?

In an interview Ms Harman has also said:

"All other things being equal, if there are two companies bidding for a contract and one has a much better equality record, then it would be down to the procuring authority to choose that one."

But if you read the documents, it is claimed that promoting equality is good for business, so the company with the better equality record should be superior to the other bidding company anyway, in which case the situation described will not arise.

The Fairer Future document is also fond of the word "trump", for example:
"Social class still holds a powerful grip over people’s lives: class trumps ability..."
and
"... class trumps gender when it comes to life expectancy."
But it seems a clear consequence of this legislation that equality policy is likely to trump other more mundane things such as value for money and quality of work, but then when has this Government ever been interested in such things when it spends the public's money.

The Gender Pay Gap is another classic case of using statistics to mislead. In the section "Why we need the Equality Bill", the first cited reason is: "Despite progress since 1997 to reduce the gender pay gap, women still earn, on average, 22.6% less per hour than men."

This figure on its own is just completely meaningless, it takes no account of demographics and makes no reference to the concept of equal pay for equal work, which is actually what the pay gap is supposed to be about. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Government takes the power to order employers to publish their gender pay and equality reports only for them to show that there isn't much of a pay gap after all!

Some musings #1

#1 implies subsequent #2's etc. Time will tell...

What is art? A tough one to start with really, but here are some thoughts:

If Damien Hirst fixes a bathroom cabinet to the wall, it's art. If I do that, it's DIY. Similarly Tracey Emin's (in)famous bed is art, whereas mine is just where I sleep, unmade or not. The only conclusion of this is either that art is something done by an artist (but then what is an artist) or art is something on display in an art gallery. Sadly both of those definitions are circular, so no help really.

Abstract art, well this may be easier to define: "if the best experts in the world can't work out which way up it's supposed to be, then it's abstract."

The scientific method: Aristotle said that heavier things fall faster than lighter ones, everyone assumed this was the case until someone bothered to try it out. Nowadays scientists are more sceptical, but the problem with some theories is that there is no practical way of testing them, string theory being an example.

However modern science is more subtle than "it's true until proven otherwise". For starters you don't get as far as "it's true" until you've done some sort of experimental verification to show that it is at least true in certain circumstances, never mind being true generally.

Then there are laws which are really axioms, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics being a good example. And there is also the difference between theory and theorem: theorems are in fact true, we know this because they come with definitive proofs. Theories on the other hand can rarely be proven, at most they are shown to be true within the limits of experimentation and measurement.

Finally one thing we do know to be true, because it is a theorem, is that proof and truth are separate concepts. An assertion may be true, but can also be un-provable. Therefore is it is quite incorrect to say that if you can't prove it, it cannot be true. There are so many people who have a public stage of one sort or another who need to understand this.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Satisfactory is..?

"Satisfactory is not good enough." This is a direct quite from Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for (amongst other things) Education, on today's Today programme (0733 item). On the other hand we have:
satisfactory a. causing satisfaction (to), meeting expectation or need, good enough, adequate. (OED)
In other words, the man Balls doesn't understand the language he speaks, which is scary considering his role.

Further on in the interview he says 75% of schools are good or outstanding, so the remaining 25% are either satisfactory or worse. How can this be the case? Surely satisfactory is the median rating, but here we have more than half rated better than the median, which is contradictory.

Of course this isn't surprising, grade inflation is widespread in the current education system, and this is exactly what we have here. If schools rated satisfactory are actually not satisfactory at all, then the grade has clearly been inflated, so the problem is with the assessment process.

So why isn't the Secretary of State coming on air to say how he is sorting this out? Well the obvious answer to that is that he doesn't understand the concept of grade inflation, he clearly can't recognise it even when his own words directly imply it. And the worrying thing about that, is that it further means Balls is never going to sort out the bigger problem of grade inflation in the exam system.