So, I'm a few weeks into my new job, and while it's been exhausting it's also given me chance to develop some new ideas, think a lot, do some decent writing and meet lots of new people. I'm writing this, though, because I found an article about 'welfare chauvinism' and 'welfare populism' (de Koster et al, 2012) which helped crystallise some previous thoughts about diversity and the welfare state.
A lot has been said about the sustainability of Western European style welfare states in the face of diversity. Robert Putnam argued that ethnic diversity in a neighbourhood reduces social trust in general, and drawing on this David Goodhart famously (as in commentators were calling it the Goodhart debate) said that the solidarity needed for support for the welfare state is predicated on the people who receive any benefits being 'like' those who are paying in their taxes. Hence diversity is in opposition to solidarity and so greater migration to the UK will, according to Goodhart, reduce support for welfare. As one research proposal puts it, 'support for welfare policies in Europe may be eroded by a growing perception that these principally benefit new immigrant minorities, who are disliked and perceived to be undeserving' (see Rob Ford's Welfare State Under Strain proje ct).
This, of course, raises the question of why
any particular people are seen as undeserving. If we are to accept the theories of Goodhart and others, then the reason for dislike and perception of 'undeserving' is because 'they' are not like 'us' with regards to skin colour or culture. This is what 'diversity' refers to in these debates, but it seems to me to be a somewhat ridiculous definition: people can be different in all sorts of ways, and there's no need to accept that this form of diversity is the biggest driver. While there might be some people who think that an ethno-national kith and kin relationship is the only factor when it comes to who to to help, the evidence suggests a much more complex story which may underpin the simpler version. Indeed, the current British debate over skivers and strivers (another simplification into them and us) cuts the population along different lines and points to the fact that the more important 'diversity' is to be found in people's relationship to the welfare state.
As is often the case, the academic interest in this topic has as its problem the question of why people vote for the far right, or have lost faith in mainstream politics. An interesting approach comes from de Koster et al.'s 2012 paper examining the influences of 'welfare chauvinism' and 'welfare populism' on decisions to vote for 'new right populist' parties, that is Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV). For them 'welfare chauvinism' means 'strong support for economic redistribution with resistance toward distributing welfare services to immigrants '. 'Welfare populism', on the other hand, is the argument that the welfare state 'provides well-paid and comfortable jobs for self-interested civil servants who cater to a class of ‘welfare scroungers’ that freeload on the hard work of the ‘common man’ (de Koster et al. 2012: 6): support for egalitarianism/welfare is combined with the idea that the current arrangements are open to abuse by 'wrong 'uns'1
. Give that the Party for Freedom use both arguments, the question to be asked is whether people support them for the former reason, the latter or both. What they find is that it is 'welfare populism' that underlies support for the PVV.
If we think about this in the context of a more general lack of support for the welfare state, we should ask whether it is the diversity of ethnicity that is important, or other diversities for which ethnicity is sometimes a proxy/sublimation. In my own work I've done a lot of interviews with working-class white people that fits the de Koster argument perfectly. When explaining the demise of a council estate or neighbourhood it's not ethnic minorities qua
ethnic minorities that are the problem, but a whole host of categories that are problematic for particular reasons. In the estate I did my research on, the problems included drug dealers and associated buyers (disorder), the long-term unemployed (noise, image of area), asylum seekers (bored and hanging around), Londoners (shipped in but not mixing). These arguments were used against white and BME people at the same time as defending some ethnic minority people as they are fitting in and behaving correctly.
If we are to think of diversity as being about more than just ethnicity you can see how a lot has changed since the beginning of the welfare state. Back in the 40s and 50s people move around less, there was work for all that could work (and there was less self-employment), the vast majority of people were renting. Most people in an area would have had a relatively similar life pattern when it comes to our relationship with the state: for example... born in an NHS hospital, go to local school, leave school for job, married, live with in-laws, rent house, have kids, work, retire, get ill, die. But now, as Doug Stanhope says of US breakfasts, we have choices... lots go to university, some migrate, some buy/some rent, some don't have children, some go private for education and health. And some people are constrained too: there aren't enough jobs, social housing and so on.
Within this diversity there's a whole host of issues that can cause resentment. If you are renting and become unemployed you can get housing benefit, but not if you have a mortgage. All those people who've decided not to have kids don't get to receive any child benefit. If you go to work abroad you can come back and claim JSA even though you haven't paid in any tax or NI. If you are in housing need and the local authority can't house you (because there aren't enough social housing places) they will end up using private landlords, sometimes in nicer areas than the council houses. And, most importantly, if you failed at school or don't 'fit in' then it might be next to impossible to get a job: in an era of full employment this was very rare, but now we have millions of spare people there will always be some at the bottom of the pile who just can't get any work, no matter how low-skilled it is. It is in this diversity we can see a lack of support for welfare... people without children asking why they should pay tax so that others get child benefit, people with mortgages asking why their tax pays for others' rent, people with private health care asking why they pay for the NHS, people in PAYE asking why they pay more tax than those who have set up as self-employed, and so on.
Each of these diversities can be mapped onto ethnic, national or religious diversities such that the resentment is racialised. For example, the BME population is, in most places, younger so more likely to have children, and poorer. Therefore, if social housing allocations are based on need then BME people will be more likely to get assistance. Therefore these other diversities can be used to problematise ethnic or religious diversities.
What we rarely ask, then, is whether the attitudes discussed by Goodhart et al. have their root in a more racist/xenophobic mindset, or a dislike of particular types of people that has since become framed in terms of race and nation. When people say they are 'not racist but...', they may well not be racist at heart but have racist stereotypes (immigrant=scrounger) that leads to 'immigrants shouldn't be able to claim benefits', and this is an important distinction. The answer to such questions should guide both how we think about society (are the British racist? Or intolerant of those who do not contribute?) and respond, and how we change the welfare state. Instead of framing the debate as all relating to racism and immigration, we should examine the vastly more complicated workings of society, state and welfare, in order to find more just and transparently just ways of doing things. 1
The term 'welfare populism' means something very different in the developing world where there is no welfare state. There it means appealing to the poor by arguing for a welfare system!
It's been a while since I added anything here… I've been busy. However, I was writing a piece on gay marriage and this article
by Father Timothy Radcliffe caught my eye, and prompted a short note on difference.
He makes a mistake when he says that 'tolerance means, literally, to engage with other people who are different'. Tolerance doesn't require an engagement at all but is the opposite of intolerance, that is allowing others to be different as opposed to wanting to stop them being different. Furthermore, the argument that modern liberal society says "we shall tolerate you as long as you pretend to be just like us" isn't true all or even most of the time. Most of the post-2001 critiques of multiculturalism have been along the lines that we have tolerated (that is, not been interested in) vast degrees of difference and this has led to social divides. However, that's not my issue here, as the question of tolerance will run throughout the piece on gay marriage.
What's interesting here is how he defines difference: 'how he or she is unlike me, in their faith, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation'. For me this gets to the heart of why the author just doesn't 'get it' as there are many people for whom these just are not relevant, but also show where other divides can be found in society that may be just as deleterious. I'd like to argue that what people consider to be an important difference says more about them or their conditions of life than it does about the existence of fundamental, necessary or inevitable divides.
However, in most of my own life and work I have been in places where faith/ethnicity/sexual orientation have been irrelevant, unimportant and not always explicitly articulated (and I don't mean because people feel a need to keep stuff hidden but because it's not at the centre of identity). However, the other identities which contribute to bringing people together may themselves be divisive.
For a long time I worked for a second-hand record shop chain. The staff were a mix of graduates and non-graduates, musicians and enthusiasts. They were from all around the world, lots of different 'ethnicities'. Some were gay, some straight. I presume some were religious but I'd guess that the vast majority weren't: it just wasn't relevant. Perhaps people kept their religion quiet, but I don't think many would have been freaked out by it. Indeed, spreading outwards across friends and acquaintances the same thing was true… most of us hung out with other people into the various music scenes.
In my research work I've found this time and time again with young people. Groups of teenagers and 20-somethings that are multi-ethnic and/or include people across sexualities, with no hint of racism or homophobia. Sometimes it might look like they are using the language of intolerance, but this can be the joking appropriation of what they see as the mainstream. Again, music is often at the heart of things: what defines the insider/outsider is whether they are 'in the know'. Youth cultures from the 50s onwards have often (not always) decreased the salience of faith/ethnicity/sexual orientation as what makes difference, bringing in new forms of difference.
While I'm out of youth culture, I'm still in a 'community' where these forms of difference are unimportant. I know that some of the people I spend time with are religious but we mostly don't talk about it. There are people from all around the world, and a few are gay. What brings us together are other identities – football, parenthood, jobs in academia. I don't talk to my atheist-with-Jewish-background friends about Jewishness, or my gay friends about being gay, my religious friends about believing. I don't assume that it's an absolute centre to their identity, I don't think they are representatives of a particular 'group'… there are other things to talk about instead. They are part of my 'groups' (i.e. academics/parents/footballers) and we talk about that.
And there's the rub. I largely stick to my groups too (except when doing fieldwork), and can see how I'll get to a point where I don't understand how people can live without thinking sociologically, without football, without music, or without spending time at kids' parties ;-)
Thus the reason that the priest just doesn't get it is because most of the time he's with other people like him. He's embedded in religion and even those non-religious people he talks to will see religion as a key part of identity (it's the current standard narrative). And he's less aware of those people who just don't see it as important.
A similar process is behind all the community cohesion debates: it wasn't religious difference that caused any Asian Muslim/white working class divides in Bradford, but once people are part of such a divide it becomes the divide that people define themselves by and there can then be conflict based on such identity. But we should remember that conflict can be based on any identity: those youth culture divides I mentioned aren't always peaceful. At one point it was the mods and rockers that were at war.
One of the most fascinating things about the Newsnight debacle of recent days was the fact that the complainant (Lord McAlpine) was never named by Newsnight. A case of, at the very least, mistaken identity that had already been corrected in 1998 (Guardian, 10/11/12
) became a re-sparked rumour. Even though those who made the piece knew that Steve Messham had named McAlpine, and should have checked the story, they didn't name him (perhaps due to the lack of evidence or risk that something else was wrong). But the story came out all the same.
It appears that twitter was the mechanism for the name being revealed, and then the internet in general added a whole load of extra texture. I'm still not entirely sure how the name was added to the story. Ian Overton of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed the name to Michael Crick, and the next day trailed the Newsnight story on twitter (without the name). Crick phoned McAlpine who apparently said he would issue a libel writ, and Crick tweeted this, again naming no names.
In the Guardian's story on McAlpine looking to see who to sue for libel, media lawyers argue:
'the BBC could be successfully sued for libel if McAlpine can prove that Newsnight aired enough material for some viewers to "reasonably infer" that he was the unnamed politician.
Steve Kuncewicz, a lawyer specialising in media and social networks, said: "If the BBC has said something that doesn't name him directly, but allows people to put two and two together, then there would be a risk in that.'
I was watching Newsnight and couldn't work out who they were talking about. However, some people worked out the name from the previous stories, presumably through a web search, and they named McAlpine on twitter. And this is where the workings of the internet come into play to make sure we all knew… At this point if you were to look at twitter's trending list, or search for tweets on Newsnight, you would have found a name. If you went to google and typed in Newsnight paedophile, the rest would be filled in without typing. (' Funny that when I type "Lord Macal" into google, autocomplete brings up "Lord MacAlpine paedo". ' talkboard entry posted in the afternoon before the Newsnight broadcast). People were then being directed to blogs and conspiracy theory sites as the real news had created a gap that they wanted to fill. And then it became even more silly, with Philip Schofield downloading one of the lists (presumably from a conspiracy theory site) and presenting it to the Prime Minister.
This is, of course, a problem not restricted to this story. The workings of Google, twitter and so on, are guiding people to particular versions of the facts. As Google's autocomplete 'predicts and displays search queries based on other users' search activities and the contents of web pages indexed by Google' it may introduce a path dependency: if two words are searched for together many times, then the autocomplete will suggest the combination to others, and so the search can become even more common.
At the same time, much of the information on the web is unverified and/or undated. While we can say that people ought to know the difference between a genuine news site and a talk board, some of the news sites can also sow misinformation. Notwithstanding the fact that some newspapers have different levels of sticking to the truth, it's also the case that stories stay online permanently and one doesn't need to go to a library to check old copies. Indeed, if they're not dated or the date's not obvious it may even look like today's news.
A great example of this came when I found a talkboard with mention of a riot in Stoke. This was a couple of years back, and the poster had quoted the Daily Mail about the riot, said to be yesterday, and then argued that all the media except the Mail were not reporting it in order to stop any people going to cause more trouble. The usual arguments about 'PC gone mad' were there – if it was white people rioting it would be on the BBC – and then other people had responded with similar.
However, there was no riot that weekend. Presumably, someone searched Google for 'Asian Youth Stoke' and got this Daily Mail story
at the top, with no date and so thought it had happened yesterday. In fact it was news from 2001.
The question needs to be asked: does the democratisation of information, and the combined effects of google searches, twitter trends, undated and unverified information help us better get to the truth? Or do the biases of path dependencies and people looking for the information that they want to find mean that truth is less likely to rise to the top?
The Queen / Abu Hamza story threw up lots of good examples of the hype and nonsense that predominates in discussions of terrorism and extremism. Lots of the Guardian below-the-line (and above to be fair) discussion was around the constitutional issue of the queen raising it with Blunkett as Home Secretary but this is a red herring. She’s entitled to mention it like anyone else meeting him.
The real constitutional issue can be seen in the question of what the queen thought about Abu Hamza, what she thought should be done, and what was able to be done if sticking to the correct process in a liberal democracy. And much of this hangs on assumptions about what constitutes terrorism, what was actually going on at Finsbury Park mosque, and also on assumptions about what the state did or didn’t do. On the latter point those opposed to the approach used would have said it was all in the name of political correctness (gone mad), in which he was allowed to carry on being a terrorist because we didn’t want to offend Muslims.
So, to what the Queen apparently said:
‘Frank Gardner said the monarch personally told him she was aghast that Abu Hamza could not be arrested during the period when he regularly aired vehemently anti-British views as imam of Finsbury Park mosque in north London.’
Now I feel it’s important to point out that ‘vehemently anti-British views’ were and remain legal.
‘Gardner said of Abu Hamza's former activities that there was a sense MI5 had been too slow to realise how dangerous he was in radicalising other people. Gardner continued: "Actually, I can tell you that the Queen was pretty upset that there was no way to arrest him. She couldn't understand – surely there had been some law that he had broken? In the end, sure enough, there was. He was eventually convicted and sentenced for seven years for soliciting murder and racial hatred." ’
And this is the point. Abu Hamza is written up as a convicted terrorist, but in reality 10 of his 11 convictions are not for terrorism, with the other a conviction for possessing documents. This is because extremists like him often try to stay within the law, and this is why many of the new terror offences were created. Radicalisation is ill-defined and it’s hard to prove incitement to hatred or murder, unless there are specific perpetrators and victims being incited. This is why standing on a street corner and saying ‘down with the West’, or ‘British Soldiers Go to Hell’ (an al-Muhajiroun slogan), poppy burning and so on doesn’t necessarily break laws.
It is true that the security services let him carry on with inflammatory sermons when they thought that the only jihadist actions that would be inspired were overseas. Apparently the security services told him:
"You have freedom of speech. You don't have anything to worry about as long as we don't see blood on the streets."
Furthermore, this kind of speech wouldn’t have been illegal until 2000 anyway.
And it’s in 2000 where the story gets interesting. The new Terrorism Act, the first of many, increased the range of actions that could be prosecuted. After 9/11 there was obviously a new fear that Islamist terrorists might attack in the UK, as opposed to elsewhere. It only took a few months from then for Abu Hamza to be suspended from his job and then kicked out of the mosque. He then spent just over a year preaching on the street outside Finsbury Park mosque, when he was arrested. He’s been inside ever since.
So, regardless of what the Queen or anyone else thought about the possibility of locking him up for just being anti-British, it looks like the security services did the right thing. When he wasn’t breaking the law they watched him, and used him as an informant: ‘MI5 saw the mosque as a "honeypot", and were prepared to let Hamza operate and monitor which extremists came, and also collect Hamza's information.’. Yes, he may have got people to pledge allegiance to Bin Laden, but translating that to a terrorist conviction would be difficult. When it was felt that his actions could lead to harm, they looked to see what they could arrest him for. This isn’t a narrative that fits with the ‘government let him do what he wanted so as not to upset Muslims’ argument. That argument doesn’t stack up anyhow: wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, changing lots of laws, outlawing Islamist groups, accusing the Muslim Council of Britain of not helping… none of this looks like the acts of a government afraid of upsetting Muslims.
If there was evidence that groups in Finsbury Park mosque or Abu Hamza and friends were actively plotting terrorist attacks in the UK then I’ve absolutely no doubt that the security services would have stepped in. The problem we have in the UK now is that people believe that Abu Hamza was plotting, they believe that terrorists are everywhere, and that they are being allowed to go about their business unimpeded.
Amusingly, the below-the-line discussion of the case showed how some people believe in the truth of some things that never happened, or have poor memories of when they did. One poster suggested that Abu Hamza incited murder on a weekly basis while the police did nothing except prevent ‘EDL members from attacking him’. Given that the EDL wasn’t formed until 5 years after his arrest, the poster is either getting the EDL and the National Front mixed up, or thinks that Abu Hamza was allowed to do his street preaching for far longer than is true.
The best, though, was the poster who got off topic and mentioned Anjem Choudary and al-Muhajiroun. The argument was sound: if someone breaks the law then prosecute them, and the media shouldn’t put the minority extremists on TV just to cause controversy. But as part of this argument he/she asked: ‘his followers went to Wootton Bassett to protest, how many of them were there? Not [more] than a few hundred.’
But the Wootton Bassett protest never happened. It was talked about, but it did not occur. We are in such thrall to the fear of extremism that there is no need for actual extremist acts. Just rumours that they might occur is enough to make us angry.
It’s argued that terrorists win when people change their ways of life in fear of terrorism. Implicit in the Queen's question was the idea that we should be able to lock up people who are vocally anti-British, whether or not that is against the law. Laws have been changed to give us the most extensive anti-terrorism legislation in the world, some of which has been overturned as it did not have the necessary checks and balances. Public opinion (including the Queen) sometimes seems to suggest that we need to suspend the rule of law: that's the last thing we need.
The current, and of course annual, debate about the examination system, rumbles on. Conservatives (with a small c) are arguing that better results mean a decline in standards, and others say that it’s because teaching and learning have improved. The apparent change in the grade boundaries for GCSE English has raised the question of norm referencing versus criterion referencing, but the wider debate is also about questioning the purpose of exams too, with a particular obsession about university entry. However, the answers to these two questions don’t have to be related. For what it’s worth, I believe that keeping standards the same over time is important (for reasons that aren’t discussed much) and that widening participation to higher education doesn’t need standards to change, and I also have a method that would keep standards and couldn’t be ‘gamed’.
Peter Wilby* in the Guardian seems to argue that the proportion of passes goes up because we are allowing more people to go to university: ‘Gove should understand that exams are rationing devices. Success rates depend not on objective measures of performance but on the availability of the rationed goods: university places and positions in elite professional occupations. Fifty years ago, when barely 6% went to university, fewer than half the entrants to A-level were awarded passes. Now, with higher education available to 36%, the pass rate from a far larger pool of candidates is close to 100%, and more than 25% get A grades.’ (Guardian, 26 August 2012)
Now he’s absolutely right that one purpose of exams is to determine access to higher education. Indeed, this is also true for access to the jobs market. However, I would change the word rationing to sorting. For employers and universities the exam results are an indicator of ability (not fully reliable, mind) and thus can be used alongside other indicators to put the individual applicants in some kind of order, from best to worst. If an institution has ten places or one post, it can take the top ten or top one applicant to fill the vacancy. Occasionally organisations might not recruit if they have no suitable applicants, but this is comparatively rare. The more prestigious courses, universities, and employers get too many qualified applicants and have to choose the best from them.
For simplicity, I’ll use the example of university entry and divide the institutions into three levels: the reality works the same but with more complexity. Let’s say that the top universities have 20,000 places, the middle universities have 50,000 places, and the bottom have 300,000 and when the results come out we find that 20,000 potential students have ABB and above, 50,000 have CCC to BBB, and 250,000 have less than CCC. Any changes in the numbers of A-levels taken or the success rate (whether real or due to grade inflation) result in adaptation by the universities. So if 40,000 students are going to get ABB, then the top universities change their criteria to AAA to get the best 20,000. The middle and bottom universities follow suit so that the best candidates go to the best courses and the worst to the worst. Conversely, if a university has the ability to expand it can take more candidates from lower down the pecking order, and the universities below it lose their best candidates and gain some from below their normal range. This is why it is best described as sorting
What’s important to note is that, for the purpose of university entrance, overall increases in ability or grade inflation are irrelevant. The sort more or less accurately puts the best candidates in the best courses and so on, all the way to the bottom: whether we have changes in grades or not, the Russell group institutions or Oxbridge get the best candidates, and so on. Conversely, the growth in participation in HE doesn’t need changes to A-level standards, it just needs institutions to change their entry requirements to ensure they get the best candidates they can.
That said, the GCSE English story has a different complexion because of the status of the ‘C at GCSE’ as being some kind of mystical threshold. There are reports of 16 year-olds unable to get into college because they got a D. Now if it was only about sorting, then the colleges would find they had spare places and would offer them to those with Ds (who would have got in last year with a C): this would be the rational response. However, the setting of arbitrary criteria for winning or losing a college place, or considering someone literate or not, means that any movement in standards is especially unfair.
This, of course, is where we need to understand the two ways to maintain standards. Andrew Rawnsley described the events in the Guardian:'What appears to have happened is that the exam boards suddenly panicked when they saw that there would be an unexpected rise in the top grade pass rate. So they steeply raised the grade boundaries at the last minute. As a result, many students who would have been rewarded with that vital C had they taken the exam in January have instead been stamped with a D.' (Guardian, 26 August 2012)
This implies that the exam boards had started with criterion referencing – ‘test[ing] with accuracy achievement measured against a carefully selected set of criteria’ – that allows results to be compared over time. However, this referencing is hard to do and when it appeared to increase the pass rate again, raising fears that standards are slipping, they fell back on norm referencing - (keeping the quota of grades the same). And because the whole numbers used in marking can’t be divided into fractions, the pass mark is moved from 70 to 71, say, this resulted in a fall in the pass rate. Furthermore, the fact that it was done last minute, with a change in the pass mark from January 2012, means that those losing out have every right to have it overturned, even if they didn’t actually deserve the C when compared to past years.
However, the discussion of norm v. criterion referencing is helpful for understanding why it is useful to keep standards stable. Norm referencing assumes that the ability or achievement of entrants stays broadly similar year to year. Each year we give the top X% of entrants an A, setting the pass mark accordingly. This might mean easier sorting (see above) as universities could just keep their entrance requirements the same, but then they would need to change them if they were increasing places or competing with new establishments. However, the downside is that we don’t know if improvements to education make for a better educated society. More people might be literate, but the pass rate would stay the same. Moreover, we wouldn’t know if Joe, who got an A in 1992, was any more or less literate than Jim, who got an A in 2002.
Criterion referencing means setting out a list of criteria to be reached for a particular mark and keeping it stable over time. This is how the US SAT is supposed to work**, where a number is given and there is ‘no failing score... each college or institution sets their own score standards for admission or awards’. If entrants were better taught, or cleverer, overall then the average mark goes up. Not only does this help employers, who may need to compare people who took exams in different years, it is of most help to educators and their managers, who might know whether education has improved and why. It would also be good for candidates who would be encouraged by the knowledge that only their ability matters for the result, as opposed to where they are in the pecking order (this will still be true for job and HE applications, but that’s life) and that no-one can say the exams are easier.
However, criterion referencing is difficult, and this is why it’s open to accusations of getting easier. How, given the changing question styles, topics, and so on, can we say that a mark of X in a given exam is the same as a mark of X 20 years before, especially if there are rumours of political interference.
I have a solution to this that also allows us to keep the idea of grades, that draws on the combined experience of all the teachers that do the examining, and it came to me about 20 years ago when I was doing some work for the various exam boards***. I thought that the small committees that decide on grade boundaries (see here
for the current arrangements) weren’t best placed to do it: as they are just a handful of people they can easily be swayed from any standard by accident or design (see Cambridge Assessment, Zones of Uncertainty
), and because the meetings are closed they aren’t seen to be impartial either. Instead, I had the idea that all the examiners (essentially teachers in the summer break) could decide on the boundaries collectively, and because they don’t see the overall picture they cannot decide based on any norms other than their own. It would require each examiner to give a mark and a grade, such that if a maths paper had a maximum mark-scheme score of, say 80, the examiner would use their professional judgement to say whether the 45 script was typical of an A, B, C etc. By combining all the examiners opinions we could get a collective opinion as to where the grade boundaries ought to be. What a particular grade looked like would be the decision of 100s of examiners, all voting according to their long-term experience of teaching and examining. The beauty of this is that any drift in standards would necessarily be extremely slow, and there is no way that politicians or managers could influence the system.
*The more important point of the article was that access to the best universities and jobs remains something that is easier if you are already part of the elite as parents buy good education and so on. This was true before and still true after an expansion of HE, through this sorting mechanism, and mere expansion couldn’t make society more egalitarian. Getting more people to have AAA at A-level, or more people into university doesn’t mean that more people can become barristers, and the mass of AAAs or graduates can be discriminated between by other criteria.
** the SAT methods and scoring schemes have been changed on various occasions in the past.
***It was 22 years ago when I got my GCSE results, 20 since my A-levels. Around this time I also did some work for the exam system and did more after university too. As a child I used to get paid a few pence per script to check the addition – my mum was a school teacher who earned extra cash in the summer doing the marking. I also worked for UCLES as a young adult
I’ve just watched the BBC3 show Is Football Racist
. I recommend it… it will be on iPlayer until 29th July here
(). Clarke Carlisle does a good job of exploring the issues – it’s not just about John Terry or Twitter, but has a bit of history and also asks about the unrepresentative nature of football crowds and club managers and the games hierarchy. Notable speakers included Jermaine Jenas, who was very sensible by saying that a lot has been done to tackle racism, but there’s more to do (I also found out about the charity in Nottingham he has set up), Brendan Batson saying similar, and a piece with the Punjabi Wolves (http://www.punjabiwolves.com/
). I was a little sad to be reminded that David Baddiel is a Chelsea fan: I continue to hope he's a gooner, but never mind.
However, it was only really Ava Vidal who mentioned one of the important but usually ignored facts about racism in a football context, that racism is present in wider society too. Now this truism should guide us to the questions we ask and how we ask them. Instead of the question ‘Is football racist?’ – some tweeters noted that football can’t be racist, but it’s fans, management, governing bodies, other institutions and so on – we should ask a set of questions which may help us learn how to make the world a better place.
My questions would start with: ‘Is the ecosystem of football any more or less racist than other sports, or even other comparable institutions?’ or ‘… more or less racist than the society around it?’ These are important questions for two reasons, one addressing knowledge of racism and another addressing how that knowledge is presented. One thing that really annoys me about the Racism in Football narrative is that it suggests that football has a problem that doesn’t appear elsewhere. Starting from this narrative means people don’t research or discuss racism elsewhere: perhaps rugby or swimming is more racist than football and we don’t know because no-one has bothered to ask the question. And if this is invisible, then the fact that we talk of racism in football but not elsewhere perpetuates the idea that football is more racist than other sports. For what it’s worth I think that racism in football is probably less of a problem than in wider society (see below).
While the answer to ‘Is Football Racist?’ is yes, if it is less racist than society more widely we should say that this is a good thing. This doesn’t mean resting on our laurels, for we can still say, as Jenas did, that racism is still a problem. However, if we’re in the business of comparisons we can talk about them, and this has real effects. Take the issue of BME fans or managers. If we use the simple construction ‘football is racist’, I can understand why BME fans might be put off going to games. But what if it turns out that the risk of racism is lower in a crowd of 30,000 football fans than being in the company of 30,000 similar people for 90 minutes outside the context of football. That, I hope, would be an encouragement. Similarly, the number of black managers is
low, but it may also be a better result than the corporate world. In 2005, only 27 of 1130 FTSE100 boardroom posts were held by BME people, and 21 of those were based elsewhere – presumably the India Director or whatever – so leaving 6. I imagine that these companies don’t have as high a percentage of BME employees as football, but it still remains that if you’re a black retiring footballer and wanting to climb a career ladder, you’d may be better staying put than joining the corporate world. That said, I don’t know of any black board members in football either!
Other important questions, sort of raised but not fully explored in the programme, would focus on the efficacy of the campaigns against racism in football and elsewhere. Indeed, another thing to say to BME fans would be that racism in football is not as bad as it was in the 70s and 80s: it was pointed out (can’t remember who by) that people still think of the far-right and hooligans – ‘still tarred with that’ – and so are put off going. However, this has
changed, and I believe that the Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card campaigns have helped this to happen: but we need BME fans to know that they can go to the game without fear. Society is also less racist than it was then – young people are more likely to be comfortable with diversity, and the older generations are dying off – and we should also be asking ourselves how these campaigns have had an impact on wider society.
My own theory is that football is leading the way in dealing with racism, has moved with society but probably gone further due to the campaigns and the visibility of BME footballers, and that this visibility will have helped make Britain as a whole less racist. That doesn’t mean that all is rosy, though, and like Jenas said, we’ll never be completely free of racism, but neither should we say that football is the source of racism or that it’s more problematic than everything else. This then is the dilemma: all the work to tackle racism in football, including the prosecutions of Terry and the Muamba tweeter, needs to be done and continued, but raising the issue also gives society the impression that football is racist
On Sunday I came across references to an academic/think tank paper that generated headlines like ‘Jail DOES reduce crime’ (The Sun
) and ‘Longer prison terms really do cut crime, study shows’ (The Guardian
). The research paper was published on Monday, and so unlike some social research stories in the media, we can actually go back to the original paper and see whether the politicised claims made bear any relation to the actual research.
However, my first thought was ‘so what?’ It would be astonishing if longer prison terms didn’t cut crime: after all, the more people are in prison at any one time, the fewer are out with the opportunity to commit crime. This would be true whether or not the people inside have been convicted of crime, and we also don’t know which prisoners would ‘go straight’ or not. Keeping people in prison for longer reduces crime, but keeping specific people inside may have the same effect. That’s also true when thinking about any deterrent effect: longer sentences might deter some but not others.
Indeed, although this story is used to say Ken Clarke is wrong, this would only really be the case if he’d argues that increasing sentences (or policing, for that matter) didn’t reduce crime. What he actually said was that increasing sentences has less impact on crime than the economy. So when the Guardian says that the research disagrees with Clarke, they put it thus: ‘The findings tend to support the thrust of policies followed by the last Labour government, which increased funding to the police and concentrated on the roughly 100,000 persistent offenders responsible for a high proportion of crime. This approach increased the prison population, but it also led to reductions in overall levels of crime. By contrast, the current justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, often questions the relationship between criminal justice policy and the level of crime and suggests that economic factors may be just as, if not more, important.’ (The Guardian)
Amazingly, the research that Civitas commissioned (Bandyopadhyay, 2012
) actually agrees with Clarke. For three of the four crimes studied, real earnings have a greater effect than sentencing or detection by police.
Furthermore, as usual in academic papers, there are lots of caveats that don’t end up in the newspaper versions. These include: ‘For some convicted robbers, a longer sentence acts as additional incapacitation and a potential deterrence from future crime. For others, being incarcerated for longer tends to reinforce, rather than reduce, criminal behaviour. For those offenders, an alternative disposal to custody might be more appropriate for reducing crime. In other words, an across-the-board increase in sentence length will not be optimal.’
‘… prison can have very different effects on different offenders. This suggests that an optimal policy will target repeat and serious offenders for long sentences while using alternatives to custody for other offenders.’
This is hardly the total endorsement of increasing sentences that the papers seem to have seen in or repeated from the Civitas press releases.
At this point, though, I’d like to take the author of the original paper to task. He’s an economist, but strangely didn’t think about the costs of any increase in policing or sentences for any given effect. And one of the most important costs is implicit in these caveats. We may know that we can decrease the number of burglaries by increasing sentences, but we don’t know whose sentences to increase. A deterrent effect on criminals-to-be might work with a couple of high profile long sentences, or publication of higher averages. The deterrent or incapacitation of prisoners due to be released may be overkill: half of the prisoners kept inside might not have reoffended anyway but we don’t know which. Like any punishment, one cost to society is the punishment of people we wouldn't want to punish - the false positives - and here there may be needless harm done to a person because we didn't know that they were in the 'unlikely to re-offend' category.
But the most glaring omission is the financial cost, surely of interest to an economist. Is any proposal worth it for the reduction in crime? Using the figures in his paper we find that increasing burglary sentences by a third would reduce burglaries by an estimated 21,000. But this is from 963,700, a huge number… your chances of being burgled will fall by a couple of percent. And the cost to society? I think there are about 5000 burglars in prison at any one time, so they’d do an extra 25000 months of prison time, a cost of about £83million, not including the cost of new prisons. So each burglary saved would cost the taxpayer £4000. Is it worth it, given that the average burglary claim is £1400?
Surely the question to ask is whether this £83million is money well spent. We could reduce burglary by 21,000 or employ 4,000 nurses. Indeed, the existence of these 4,000 nurses might increase health which might then reduce crime, who knows. Everything has costs, there are no magic bullets, and governments should choose policies on the basis of costs as well as benefits. At the same time, it would be helpful if newspapers didn’t reduce everything to the binaries of either it works or doesn’t, it’s caused by this or it isn’t: real life is complex, with multiple causes, multiple and unseen effects.
So... I'm in the process of migrating my academic web presence, email and so on to this domain, and so it's a good time to think about my previous blogging experience. For a few years I wrote under the name radiator, every two weeks or so, with a focus on the way the media misrepresented social science.
When I got to the writing up stages of my PhD I stopped writing for this, but there was another reason I was put off. As I imagine many bloggers do, I was keeping an eye on the statistics of those who were visiting, thinking about what they were reading, and how they had found it. I was somewhat disheartened by the fact that a good 70% of my visitors were all arriving at one page, that asked the question 'are there ghettos in the UK?' I was making the point that the arguments of those who said yes and no were based on different units of analysis. At the time I argued that there were some concentrations of populations that could lead to mutual distrust, and disagreed with the arguments that there was no problem. Now I'd argue differently, as I believe a) it's the direction of travel that is most important, and Ludi Simpson is right that these concentrations are reducing, and b) the problems associated were exaggerated by the media, such that places where people of different backgrounds were mostly getting on were being painted as hotbeds of conflict.
However, what I found through analysis of those visiting the blog is that there seems to be a section of the public that believes in the ghettoisation thesis, goes looking for evidence to back it up, and almost wishes it to be true. Most of my readers were googling 'are there ghettos in the UK?', 'where are the ghettos?', 'UK ghettos', 'Somali ghetto' and so on: and the trickle of people reaching the site now are still searching with the same terms. Few people found me by looking up 'average earnings' or 'knife crime statistics', so I began to wonder whether my own contribution would perpetuate pre-existent biases, as posts that fitted with 'common sense' got more hits than those against the grain. But I'm ready to write again, so I'll see how it pans out.