8 Progressive Moves of the Coalition Government

I’m not exactly a fan of the last government, but given that I indulge in a lot of Tory-bashing and yet complain about excessive partisanship in British and American politics, I felt this list would be a testing and productive experiment to engage in. It is easy enough to pay lip service to the concept of rising above tribal politics but that depends on being able to evaluate the positions of your opponents on their merits. And in my own case, where I have less common ground with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats than even many in my own party, it can be more difficult.

1.The introduction of same-sex marriage. Few people would have expected it to be a Conservative-led government to be the one to introduce same-sex marriage: indeed David Cameron took a big political risk in forcing the policy past the opposition of the majority of his own backbenchers. But now the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is a practice that has been buried in the history books. It is heartening to see the fight for equal marriage being won even in the more conservative parts of the Western world.

2. Referendum on electoral reform. It is already half-forgotten about, and those who do remember are largely constitutional reformers bitter about it being turned into a vote on Nick Clegg. But after a century of debate coming to nothing- despite New Labour’s supposed commitment to replacing First Past The Post- the people got their first chance in British history to decide how to elect their representatives.

3. The pupil premium. The case for providing extra funding that ‘follows’ state school pupils from disadvantaged background is overwhelming. There is so much evidence that shows such children are more likely to need and benefit from various forms of extra support that schools simply cannot provide without additional resources. I do believe the last government cared about improving educational opportunities for children. It was this vigourous enthusiasm that led to them floating daft ideas like evening classes for pupils on free school meals. (This struck me as punishing children with extra work just for being poor!) Sadly the government chose to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, which has rendered sixth form education nonviable for thousands of those very same students.

4. Universal Free School Meals for under 7s. There were so many obvious benefits to this policy that I outlined in this article at the time.

5. Rationalisation of Stamp Duty. The Chancellor has certainly made his mark on the tax system. One of the few improvements he made was the recent transformation of Stamp Duty that has been needed ever since house prices went crazy in the early 2000s. As well as quietly raising rates on expensive houses acquired by non-UK residents, Osborne did away with the ‘block’ rates. Previously someone buying a £249,999 house would pay 1% duty on the entire value, while a £250,000 house would attract a 3% tax also on the entire value. I am glad to see the back of this absurd structure in favour of income-tax style phased bands. It would be even better to go further and scrap Stamp Duty altogether on the primary residence in favour of imposing Capital Gains Tax. Would that not represent a move from taxing home ownership to taxing unearned rises in house values?

6. Meeting International Development budget target of 0.7% of GDP. It might not be popular, but the desperate poverty that exists in the world doesn’t go away because the nation’s finances need repairing. Our obligation as one of the richest countries in the world to help is not a luxury spending item we can discard, so I applaud the principled position to protect the Department for International Development’s budget from spending cuts.

7. Accepting Parliament’s opposition to intervention in Syria. Although the Prime Minister did not actually have to seek Parliament’s consent for his proposed military actions, he made constitutional history by doing so. It is to his credit that he did so and to Ed Miliband’s credit that he decided to join the opposition to war, thus defeating the government.

8. Cabinet appointments made for the long term. Gone are the days of the Cabinet musical chairs that Blair used to maintain a vice-like grip on his government. Where previously a minister could not be certain of remaining in post for much longer that 6 months, Cameron seemed to prefer stability and allowing ministers time to see their own policies to fruition. Most key people remained in position for four years of the Coalition, while the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary all remained for the full term.

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Religious Segregation Must End

I have no intention of raking over the “Trojan Horse” scheme- the alleged plot by extremist Muslims to take over various state schools in Birmingham. However, international readers may care to read more on the issue here.

Out of the controversy has emerged a broader debate on the role religion should play in any of Britain’s state schools. About one in three of Britain’s state schools are classified as “faith schools”- mostly affiliated with the Catholic or Protestant Churches. A few Muslim schools are beginning to emerge, but they are few and far between.

The influence that the affiliated Church or religious organisation exerts on a school is actually extensive. They are represented on schools’ Board of Governors; they can dictate the Religious Education and Personal, Health and Social Education curricula. Other things which characterise Church schools are the regular Assemblies given by the local vicar (which always seemed reasonably interesting to me, by Assembly standards at least); the frequent hymn singing and the daily prayers.

But most importantly, faith schools impose religion-based admissions criteria. Children from practicing Christian families are placed at the front of the queue for places. Inevitably, this leads to some families suddenly finding God when their child reaches the age of 4 or 11. The moment the vicar confirms to their desired school that the family are committed churchgoers, they suddenly find ‘better’ things to do with their Sunday mornings. Some faith schools are a little more strict. A state-funded Hindu school made headlines by allowing school places only to children of teetotal, vegetarian families.

It is dishonest, but it’s not fair to blame parents for playing the system, if that’s what it takes to secure a decent school place. It is the system of legally-endorsed religious segregation in our schools which is reprehensible. In a 21st century liberal democracy, it is surprising that discrimination against non-Christians is still permitted. Incidentally, it’s also odd that there is still a state-sponsored Church, but I’ll spare you that particular rant. In countries like France and the United States, there is a constitutional separation between the Church and the State, and that is how it should be.

What is to be achieved by separating children according to religion? Surely in Britain’s diverse and meritocratic society, it is sensible for our children to learn to work and interact with other groups as early as possible. Boys and girls; Christians, Muslims and Atheists; rich and poor; white and black: doesn’t history tell us that ghettoising these groups only leads to misunderstanding and conflict? Most religions- and common sense- teach that humanity is better off when we overcome division.

As the Trojan Horse story has shown (with the isolation of British Muslims), children’s understanding of the world can become badly warped if not exposed to other cultures. Schools inspectors have found several cases of teenagers, many born on British soil and who have lived in a British city their entire lives, with no understanding of the country to which they should belong. Many believed that Britain is a predominately Muslim country (in fact 4.8% of British residents identify as Muslims) whilst many others did not know that London was in the UK. These myths could not have been peddled if religious influence was kept out of schools, or if there was a balanced ethnic mix in the schools.

It has been argued that faith schools must be doing something right, or else their opponents wouldn’t make a fuss about the placing of religion at the heart of their admissions criteria. That is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it is a matter of principle. For example, feminists have pressed for the right to attend stuffy Gentleman’s Clubs. That doesn’t mean said Clubs are superior to other organisations. In fact, many wish that these dated, bourgeois institutions died out. However, it rankles that people are excluded from them because of their gender. A similar principle applies to religious segregation.

Secondly, if one in three schools in the country is religious, it is inevitable that there will be many excellent schools under that category, just is there will be some dismal ones. The laws of probability lead to that conclusion.

There is a very strong case for ending religious segregation in our schools, if not abolishing state-funded faith schools altogether.

Stand By Grayson Bruce

North Carolina’s schools seem to have a unique talent for provoking international headlines in response to unacceptable injustices they commit against their students. The scandal of the month is the case of Buncombe County School, which has banned a 9 year-old boy, Grayson Bruce, from bringing his My Little Pony lunchbag to school.

Bruce’s mother had complained to the school after he was bullied by peers for having a “girl’s” bag. The Bruces expected that the school would take appropriate action to tackle the bullying. That might have been wishful thinking given the uselessness of most schools in tackling bullying of any kind. But the Bruces were shocked when the school punished the victim, saying that Bruce was no longer allowed to use the bag as it is “a trigger for bullying”. The school’s approach to narrow, immature thinking is to surrender to it. A useful opportunity to encourage their 9 year-old students not to think within restrictive and crude gender stereotypes has been wasted, which is most disappointing.

For those of you unfamiliar with My Little Pony– as you probably would be unless you have been or know somebody who was, a young girl in the past twenty years or so- it is a franchise of plastic toy ponies and associated cartoons and accessories. It is heavily marketed at females, who are supposedly attracted to pink and purple toy animals with their own fashion accessories. This has not stopped the franchise attracting a loyal following of “bronies”- male fans. Some boys who aren’t that keen on the toy cars and guns society expects them to obsess over, opt instead for a world in which cartoon ponies dance around helping each other, without any element of violence or fossil-fuel consumption.

It makes you wonder if these bronies are onto something.

It is frustrating that young boys breaking from stereotypes as to their supposedly universal interests are still noteworthy. By the 21st century, the world really should have moved on from boys’ toys and girls’ toys. In this case, it is males who are particularly disadvantaged. Society is far less tolerant of boys pursuing “girls'” interests than vice versa. If you don’t agree with me, consider what would have happened if a girl in Grayson Bruce’s class had brought in her Power Rangers (very macho and with bags of violence. Obviously for boys) lunchbag. I would not be reading about it in a national newspaper over 3,000 miles away from the event. If genders do tend to gravitate towards different toys, they should not have others imposed on them. But equally, their choices should not be restricted.

There are literally thousands of research projects showing the consequences of imposing gender roles on our children through gender-specific toys. Most of them can be summarised thus: gender equality will always persist as long as we teach our children that their gender must define their interests and activities. If we are to stop this, we should defend the right of schoolchildren to carry My Little Pony lunchbags if that’s what they want to do.

So I hope Grayson Bruce is vindicated in this public debate. He is right to resist peer pressure to conform to a template he does not fit.

The Demise of BBC 3?

In Britain, we are fortunate to have strong public institutions woven into our culture. Though governments, societal changes and prevailing economic conditions have resulted in their transformation- typically for the worse, in recent years- we still boast some world-class public service organisations. Compare our National Health Service and the BBC to the United States’ Medicare and PBS. There’s no comparison, and in the former case, that’s a consequence of political conditions. In the latter, historical cultural differences between Britain and the US have played the greatest part.

The BBC and PBS both produce high-quality programing as a result of their people-not-profit commitments. Both broadcasters are valuable ad-free islands in the commercialism-saturated world of television. Yet one dominates the decent television and radio services, and the other is a small operator that is drowned out by populist, profitable competitors. The fact that the BBC levies a £142-a-year charge on households with access to live TV broadcasts helps: with a budget above £1 billion, it can afford to run 4 full-time, 2 children’s, and 2 part-time television channels; 8 national radio stations, several dozen local radio stations and one of the largest and most content-rich websites on the Internet. It is the largest news organisation in the country. Or rather, it used to be able to afford all that.

Media barons like Rupert Murdoch are appalled by the scale of the BBC. They have lobbied governments to shrink the BBC to avoid direct competition with commercial broadcasters; to force the sell-off of key stations; or to share License Fee revenue between broadcasters. Unfortunately, they succeeded in forcing an effective reduction in the BBC’s spending power of £200 million.  Let’s be clear: the BBC is widely supported because about 30% of its content is worth having, compared to 5% for commercial TV and radio… and 0.02% for Channel 5. Therefore, any reduction in BBC output is a huge blow to British broadcast media.

So when plans to close BBC Three and move “choice” content onto the BBC’s “on demand” service, iPlayer, were made public yesterday (despite assurances made as late as last October that no channel would close), there was widespread condemnation. The youth-centred channel has a daily audience of 4 million and is seen as key to reaching an age group (16-30 year olds) that is viewing less and less television. Furthermore, the channel has proved invaluable in providing educational content about current affairs, other cultures and science in an accessible way. Programmes like Free Speech and Conspiracy Theory Roadtrip should be recognised for the value they provide. Similarly, edgy satirical comedies such as The Revolution Will Be Televised, whilst clearly not to everyone’s taste, helps encourage political engagement in a very apathetic age group.

Yes, there is some total rubbish on the channel. Yet taking the whole channel online will result in only a small saving on BBC Three’s £90 million budget and will exclude the “digitally excluded”: those who cannot afford or use internet access. Not everybody is on the Internet, and should not be marginalised for that.

And of course, if BBC Three were closed, what would BBC Four be called? We can’t have BBC 1, 2 and 4! That would be hugely untidy.

College funding cut in remarkable own goal

Principals of a group making up a large cross-section of Britain’s 93 sixth-form colleges have declared that cuts to their funding (of over 16% since 2010) has forced them to increase class sizes and even scrap some A-level courses altogether. Sixth-form colleges were excluded from the Conservatives’ protection of schools spending, with the consequence that some £100 million has been slashed from their budgets. Unfortunately, this coincides with £60 million of investment in establishing sixth form free schools. It isn’t surprising that school leaders are portraying the two as interlinked. However, whatever you think of the free schools policy, I’d argue that this is a red hering.

But I think that this is part of a much greater logical inconsistency in policymaking that has existed in Britain since about 1997. Rightly, politicians have sought to provide generously resourced services to young children. New Labour saw that poverty in a child’s formative years tended to trap that person in an inescapable cycle of poor opportunities, social marginalisation and wasted potential. So they showered young families with support such as SureStart childrens’ centres, Child Trust Funds and tax credits. All this support helps, but here lies the problem. That support drops away very swiftly.

A cynic might say that it’s because helping moody, spotty 13 year-olds is not as politically beneficial as rolling out free milk for angelic-look

ing children half that age. Whatever the cause may be, the egalitarian measures that make such a difference to the country’s youth do fall away. Why, for example, did the Coalition introduce universal Free School Meals for infants school pupils, but not their junior or secondary counterparts? Students need to eat lunch no matter how old they are.

Consequently, our children are having their support torn away from them, be it by the falling incomes of their parents or the tapering off of support and opportunities as they get closer to being hurled into the world of employment and independence.

Why take such trouble to build superficial equality in primary school pupils when, come their turning 11, their secondary school and thus exam grades will be heavily influenced by whether their parents can afford a house in the good schools’ catchment area? Why help people attain good GCSE grades when there’s no funding for decent sixth form places as a step to work and university? Why send people to university when there’s a shortage of graduate jobs and those that are available are snapped up by the children of some friends of friends of bosses?

I may be exaggerating slightly, but it’s true that we’ve only taken half-measures to foster social mobility. “Aspiration” can only work if society suppports its realisation from the cradle to the grave.

Where I Agree With Nick… And Where I Don’t

Credit where credit is due. The Liberal Democrats have secured a significant policy change that represents a step towards a political aim that is very important to me. Yesterday, it was announced that every school pupil in Years R-2 (ages 5 to 7 inclusive) will be entitled to entitled to free school meals as of next September. The plan, which will cost £700 million a year (less than 1% of the Eduction budget) and will save families over £400 a year per child, is widely considered to have been accepted by the Tories in exchange for their Married Couples Allowance, a discount in Income Tax which penalises singles, young people and unmarried partners.

The policy has been welcomed by the teaching profession and trade unions, both of which cite studies showing improved wellbeing of and attainment by pupils in areas where universal free school meals were trialled. Pupils in infant school (the Years Reception, 1 and 2 which the change affects) are on average two months more academically developed than the national average. Furthermore, inequality of attainment was reduced, but still not to acceptable levels.

Unsurprisingly, right wingers are bitterly opposed to universal free school meals on fairly predictable grounds. What I wasn’t expecting is disapproval from elements of the left- and I mean the actual centre-left, not the likes of Liam Byrne and the Progress tendency- who have attacked it as a subsidy for the middle class. I’d have thought that anything that would end the enduring stigma around Free School Meals for the poor, reduce education inequality and raise standards for all would be welcomed by any socialist. Some still need to realise that the Welfare State, the hallmark of a civilised society, is not politically sustainable if based primarily on means testing rather than a combination of universality and contributions where appropriate.

In any case, I do have an important criticism of Nick Clegg’s key Conference gift. As with the plastic bag charge and the school uniform supplier advice (notice the emphasis on schoolchildren and their parents’ wallets?), it doesn’t go far enough. As usual, the Coalition is prioritising the very young whist leaving them high and dry when they get older. Setting aside the contradiction of investing more in primary education whilst messing up the HE and employment systems they need it for, there’s the simple issue that pupils will still be charged for their meals over the 10 remaining years of their compulsory education.

I realise that 11 year-olds or- whisper it- teenagers aren’t as photogenic or voter friendly as Reception pupils, but they are just as much in need of nutritious meals at school as anyone else. I’m completely at a loss as to why universality is applied to such an arbitrarily defined age group. A cynic might say that the policy is designed to maximise popularity and minimumise cost… I’d like to think better of our political leaders.

Union Busting in Mexico? Not Exactly

 

Mexico City - Diana Fountain near El Ángel de ...

Mexico has a somewhat tarnished reputation in the eyes of the global public. Americans blame illegal Mexican immigrants for pushing wages down and crime up. Dodgy farming practices in Mexico started the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. But above all, many see Mexico as a nation dominated by drugs cartels and organised criminals that are more powerful than the real government.

Of course, to blame the Mexican people as a whole for these problems would require prejudice to the point of racism. Nevertheless, it is true that Mexico’s attempts to modernise- for good or bad- have faced tremendous opposition from powerful undemocratic interests. The supremacy of the law over criminal syndicates is only being established through bloody conflicts on the scale of a civil war. Fortunately, it is leading to real progress, but at a sluggish pace and a very high human cost.

However, the long path to modernisation is not always as clear cut as the “cops versus robbers” scenario: education reform is currently an issue which has prompted a nationwide teachers’ strike. Legislation (supported by the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution and the conservative National Action Party) to enhance transparency and meritocracy in the teaching profession has been attacked as a massive step towards the privatisation of the education system. Government figures say that existing practices under which trade unions control appointments and posts can be inherited, or even bought and sold by their existing occupants, are limiting standards.

It is rare for a genuinely left-wing movement such as the Party of the Democratic Revolution to be on the opposing side of a unionised profession, which suggests that the Mexican government has a very strong case. Nevertheless, the reaction from the National Teachers Coordinating Committee trade union has been furious. When the reforms were being debated in the federal parliament, teachers stormed the debating chamber and forced MPs to debate in a nearby conference centre instead. And this is to say nothing of the violent aspects of the protests organised by the union in Mexico City. 

Accordingly, most international observers have condemned the protests and the ongoing strike by the NTCC as illegal behaviour done in an unjustifiable cause. How is the teaching profession, or the children who benefit from it, aided by the sale of jobs to unqualified applicants? The protection of corruption was never the purpose of the international trade union movement, and any organisation which seeks to bar the best talent from joining a profession is not fit to describe itself as a trade union. Indeed, groups such as the NTCC are better described as cartels, sapping the health of the country’s education system as the drugs syndicates sap the health of the nation as a whole.

It should be noted that most teachers across Mexico have not taken part in industrial action, and that a minority are welcoming the linking of the quality and performance of staff more directly to career development and pay.

There is little doubt that the bulk of the reforms will be implemented: the most the strikes could achieve is a delay in their implementation and at best some minor concessions on certain points. In light of this, it is perplexing that the NTCC union is so ready to disrupt the schooling of over one million students in order to protest. After all, teachers are famously reluctant to strike for fear of adversely affecting schoolchildren, and in most cases will avoid prolonged school closures. Teaching unions in the UK present a good example of registering a serious protest while avoiding a severe impact on students. Unfortunately, the values of public service and egalitarianism have yet to spread to all corners of Mexico’s public sector.

A Devisive And Regressive Subsidy

 

I am one of the harshest critics of the UK’s Coalition Government. To claim otherwise would require monumental self-deception. However, I do place a good deal of emphasis on viewing my political opponents fairly, and accepting that most people have positive intentions- however misguided I consider them to be.  And as such, I seriously believe that Coalition ministers think their Childcare Tax Credit scheme will help parents. However, I doubt that its introduction a month before the approaching General Election is a coincidence, and the way in which it favours high earners is a coincidence.

Under the scheme, the Government will allow parents to buy childcare vouchers up to the value of £4,800 per child (aged under 12) per year. The government will then top up the balance by 25%, provided both parents are in work and earn no more than £150,000 each. Unsurprisingly, this has provoked wrath from families with stay at home parents, full time carers, and those who are puzzled that the Government have taken cash Child Benefit from households on £50,000 a year only to subsidise childcare for those on up to £300,000 a year. Also, there are justified claims that 20% subsidy for childcare is far too little assistance for those who can only access Minimum Wage jobs, for example.

In Britain we have done a lot to encourage mothers in particular to return to work at ever shorter intervals after they have given birth. It is only right that women should have a free choice as to whether to resume their careers promptly after having a child or to care full time for their young children. However, we are now failing to provide that choice. Instead, through the withdrawal of financial and societal support for stay at home parents of either gender we are now forcing toddlers into full-time childcare regardless of their parents’ wishes. In my view, the state should support parents in either course they should take, and do away with the insulting perception of stay at home mothers as unintelligent and stay at home fathers as ‘unmanly’ as the unenlightened prevailing stereotypes suggest. It is not the role of the government to dictate how parents bring up their children, and yet sadly the Childcare Tax Credit is another step towards this. The obvious question to ask here is: why does a stay at home parent need childcare? That is because it is encouraged for both the wellbeing of parents and children that some part time attendance of nursery takes place before entry to school.

Then there is the unfortunate fact that the Coalition is robbing Peter on £50,000 a year to pay Paul and his wife on a combined £300,000 year. Childcare can take a large bite out of the income of even a middle class household, and such blatant redistribution of money from these people to well-paid City executives is simply unjust and should be challenged. Would it not be simpler and fairer to subsidise childcare- and properly, at more than 20%- at source? I advocate the Norwegian system in which parents are charged a flat rate of about £2 an hour on a pay-as-you-go basis, and offered further means tested subsidy where it is most needed. Local authorities would take over nurseries and after school clubs directly, and remove the often large profit margins which have helped inflate fees so much over recent years. Such a scheme would cost several billions of pounds a year, but the economic benefits of increasing the disposable income of hard up families are vast and would do much to boost economic growth. Is this not a better alternative to a token subsidy that discriminates against large groups of people in this country?

 

Gove Plots Sale of Our Schools

If there was any doubt that our u-turn prone Education Secretary had covert plans to use the roll out of academies and free schools to privatise the last wholly state-owned public service- the schools system- they were quashed yesterday evening with the leaking of explosive Department for Education document. It is understood that Gove wants to turbocharge his academies and free schools programme by allowing banks, hedge funds and specialist consortia to buy out council-run schools and run them as purely commercial entities. Furthermore, privatised schools will be able to secure loans against school buildings, and they will be able to sell ‘ surplus’ land on the edges of their sites to developers. And if that doesn’t sound like a recipe for a capitalist free for all, I don’t know what does.

Needless to say, teaching unions have condemned the secret plans. Strangely, the line has been adopted that commercial operators would be likely to cut corners and deliver a lower quality education. I cannot imagine where they got that idea from(!) The Swedish free schools system, upon which the policies are modeled, was subject to intensive asset stripping by for-profit groups, to the point that one operator has collapsed as Southern Cross (a care home operator which sold its buildings, rented them back, and buckled when increases were higher than expected) did in the UK. Inevitably, playgrounds will be chipped away at when there is little economic benefit to school owners (and the term ‘school owners’ is a very peculiar one to type) to maintain large empty fields. My metaphor is that if you are given £50, then there is little reason not to deposit it in the bank (or building society or credit union). And yet that is what Gove imagines will not happen.

Not only would physical education suffer (I’m still too badly hurt by my experiences of PE to be very concerned by that threat) but expensive, resource-heavy subjects such as the Sciences and Music will be cut back. And as the predictable union-busting, pennypinching and efficiency drives occur, the teaching profession will slowly deteriorate together with student attainment rates. The Government’s ability to correct the situation within the system is limited as it has surrendered most of its controls over schools when academy status is awarded.
Eduction is the key to a thriving society and economy. Despite inhospitable conditions, this country enjoys a large, talented community of teachers and other education professionals. On the whole, we’ve good school buildings. There are problems, particularly with the poor schooling environments in the inner cities, the effect of tiny catchment areas and religious segregation, and above all ridiculous rules which prevent schools properly tackling bad behaviour. But these are not unsolvable, by any means. What would be unsolvable is the problem of a deregulated, privatised and fragmented system of edubusinesses which are allowed to deteriorate and be asset-stripped.

Thank goodness this policy is merely under consideration. But beware it might just reach the statute books, unless the Liberal Democrats stick to their current position on free schools and academies. We’re relying on Nick Clegg.

Thoughts on Positive Discrimination

As traditional mechanisms for promoting social mobility have been dismantled, and (particularly in the United States) racial barriers remained stubbornly firm in some areas, a new means of correcting disadvantage for selected groups. It was termed ‘affirmative action’ by its advocates or by the neutral term ‘positive discrimination’. But where is it actually used?

More than 10 of the UK’s elite Russell Group universities quietly operate a policy of positive discrimination. Entrance requirements (based on A-Level grades) can be lowered from AAA to ABB for students from low-income households. But this is nowhere near as controversial as some US universities, where it has been alleged that some institutions are seen as not worth applying to if you’re white. I can’t comment on that, given I know very little about American higher education. A number of US employers give preference to black job applicants, but not to such a large extent. And again, American society is in some ways very dissimilar from that of Britain. But I would say that we’d have less need for this controversial measure applied to ethnicity, and we’d also be less tolerant of the idea.

When it is job and university prospects that are being altered, those who control that have tremendous influence on the balance of opportunity within an entire generation. That is why extreme care must be taken when an institution decides to intervene. But, in too many cases, the influence of discrimination on applicants’ chances isn’t as transparent or fair as it should be.

A cynic would suggest that I’d be a keen advocate were I not white, male and of middle class appearance. My answer is that this isn’t a matter of self-interest: I am unlikely to be directly affected by positive discrimination, as there is much resistance to the concept in this country. Nor is my standpoint the result of failure to empathise with would-be disadvantaged groups: there are simply few real inequalities of opportunity in education okor careers based purely on ethnicity or gender. Prejudice and disadvantage are serious problems, but admissions tutors and job interviewers are generally not the agents of them. However, the parent who shoulders the burden of childcare is disadvantaged, as are those who grow up in low income households. It is likely that first and second generation immigrants will have lower incomes- such is the nature of migration and immigrants (middle class people have less reason to move abroad)- and it’s true: women are paid less than men for no clear reason. The effect of balancing family life and work, traditionally done more by mothers than fathers, cannot explain the sheer size of the gap.

Females tend to outperform males academically, and this difference is most acute at school. Women are marginally more likely to secure a good university place as a result. So we can see that there’s a point at which women lose out for no justifiable reason. And this brings me to my next point: if women earn themselves slightly better university places and graduate jobs (though not apprenticeships- let’s not forget the 50% who don’t receive higher eduction) then positive discrimination at university stage clearly won’t improve the situation.

There are any number of answers to the problems of gender discrimination and the cycle of financial and social exclusion of the very poor. I don’t know if positive discrimination is one of them, but it seems to be a blunt and crude instrument in its present form.