Free Schools – Liberty or Libertarian?

Today (20th October), Nick Clegg stood aside from Michael Gove (and David Laws) in seeking to ensure that teachers in Free Schools are properly trained (to QTS standards), that there is an educational centre based on the national curriculum and that all students should have access to good meals at school.

The basic trend of this government is to free up schools from the central doctrines of Local authority rules and requirements whilst ensuring that they remain financed by the centre. This is one aspect of Michael Gove’s belief in free “choice” – which is commendable in principle but hits at least three snags: people in communities do not want to have a variety of bad choices; there are too many issues at stake for lay-people (no matter how capable and well-meaning) to adequately assess all the issues before making a choice;   choice requires a real sense of competition and access to that competitive environment and a real market.

There is in England a Brave New World of Education where the division is between the alpha model of private education, the beta model of good state schools and the epsilon model of all the rest. The advent of Free Schools is meant to blow away the model so that where problems exist in a location, excellence is developed through the ability of the market and hard-working people – untrammeled by centralist doctrine. Supporters of this market-notion state that the disasters of the Bradford Free School – Al-Madinah – show that the market works – that bad schools will be outed and forced to improve or close.

Choice in Education

The ability to choose rests upon an assumption that those with a choice will receive their preferred choice.  In a parliamentary report from 2010, it was estimated that 85% of those in the secondary school state system received their first choice, but this obscured the much lower rate in cities.

Of course, choice is only as good as what is offered and this is critical. Real choice would enable those choosing to be able to select the right school that will enable the student to gain real value and advantage in his / her education. That means the provision of a school of a good standard. Choice in many areas obscures the fact that those making the choice have to select the “best on offer” – all may be well below the required standard that they would “choose” if they had the chance.

This is why there are efforts to raise standards across the board in the hope that all will, eventually, have a choice that contains better schools – those of a sufficiently high standard to satisfy all the requirements.

In this feverish search for choice and raised standards (and we all welcome a considered drive to improve), choice has been thrust forward as a key reason behind Free Schools.

Freedom from Local Authorities

With the advent of Academies, schools (especially secondary state schools) are progressively moving out of the local authority sphere of influence. Cut-backs in the latter mean that their central education capabilities have been curtailed and the drive for a more centralized control by the Ministry of Education continues – while purporting to be a drive for more local control by each school.

For many schools, this freedom is positive. Local authorities are hugely variable in capability, ingenuity and innovation – as well as funding. This meant that, in many areas, schools were held back and can now progress untrammeled by local authority (often “political”) involvement.

However, this freedom also means that Academies, while having to adhere to national Admission rules, do not have to co-ordinate admissions with the local authority. The impact of this is yet to be determined.

Progressive Freedom

Academies have substantial powers over teacher pay and curriculum in many areas but Free Schools (based mainly on local demand requirements in a range of areas – including Faith) are not beholden to the national curriculum nor the requirement to select teachers based on existing training norms. In addition, the debate about local “need” may also strain credulity. Faith schools, for example, are the first in line on this basis but the desire of those to provide faith schools may not be in line with those locally who may oppose this. Unlike planning permission, the process is more about the desire of those in favour than reaching a local conclusion based on what makes sense for the local community as a whole. The school as a local community hub (so important with the demise of the Church) is now forgotten in the search for market results.

Nick Clegg’s intervention may not go far enough and seems to typify those who find fault with the Gove vision. That vision is about freedom and choice but is not sufficiently strong in its understanding of what is needed in the local community. Local authorities purported in the past to have this responsibility but failed in many cases to carry out that remit. So, just like Margaret Thatcher’s response in London (to abolish the GLC), where possible local remits are abolished and individual schools set up – with progressively more independence.

This disruption, between local authority or central government, between local (often bad) control and school independence, means that local areas may lose the chance to have a substantial uplift in education capability because individual schools are now encouraged to go it alone. Without some understanding of overall local need, the progressive freedoms of the market (in a confused market economy like education) will throw up abnormal results – often by chance. Economics is not strong on education.

The ability of individual schools (often under pressure from Boards) may not be high. The ability of many Free Schools to chose teachers not based on rigorous teacher training standards is also dubious.

Choice of what?

Michael Gove hopefully has learned a lot in the last ten years. When he was in opposition, I personally asked him for his views on whether there was scope for schools to benefit from better procurement and management of IT through some association or collaboration of state schools. Over 3,000 secondary schools typically pursued their own aims and ambitions in this area. Recruitment is tough in this sector as salaries are not competitive for strong IT staff. Imagine a company with 3,000 subsidiaries all being allowed to go their own way!

Gove’s written response to me was interesting. His view was that individual schools should stand on their own feet and that, if they had poor IT, parents would exercise choice and not send their children to such schools.

This outlined to me Gove’s prioritization and focus on choice. It puts too much weight on parent’s assumed knowledge of even backroom systems like IT – which almost no parents would investigate. It suggests that perfect information is not just available but understandable and assessable. This seemed to be a nonsensical response at the time but seems to underlie much of Conservative thinking about so-called “choice”. We should be ensuring that all schools have great IT – a fundamental requirement in the modern, high-tech working society – not allowing any to fall by the wayside. This should not be about allowing schools to fail – but, ensuring they all succeed: not sink or swim, but ensure they can swim.

Parental choice has to be reasoned choice that makes sense to parents. Each area may have different needs. In some, there may be great schools but a requirement to spend £500,000 on a house to get into one; in other areas, there may be one excellent school that attracts the best students and the rest are allowed to wallow in mediocrity at best; in other areas, grammar schools may dominate; in other areas, reduced capital investment may not attract good staff – the list goes on and no two areas are the same.

Choice is what is highlighted each time a Free School comes before local people. It is, in itself, meaningless because no-one really understands it. Choice of what is less a real choice than a funding decision as a Free School may be the only way to acquire the funds locally to do something of real value.

So, Nick Clegg is on the right lines in trying to firm up key elements of Free Schools but there is more to do. Liberals (or anyone that shares a desire to benefit local communities) need to bring in some form of assessment that enables local people to gauge their options. In addition to the assessment of individual schools and our focus on league tables, parents have to acquire information on the local area’s overall education capabilities (not the Borough itself) into which Free Schools, Academies, Private education and other schools exist.

This is not a call for local authorities to get back its old powers, but for educational assessment that enables citizens to acquire immediate information on their local areas (their catchment area) and for decision-makers (often central government) to actively show that they have not just taken these assessments into account but are actively pursuing change in areas of real priority.

This way, choice allied to progressive and continuous overall improvement can be parsed into the local framework and maybe enable real decisions to take place: localism that means something rather than a free-for-all.

See-through Society – transparency

Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

Liberalism and politics – short-term thinking or the fight for ideals?

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are holding their Spring conference this week. I declare an interest. That party represents the closest thing to the ideals that I hold – the belief that monopolies of any type are bad in principle and that the state (and other potentially totalitarian groupings) should be limited in scope and the individual in society provided with the best chances to succeed.

This overly-simplified outline of Liberalism (probably not social democracy) – at least to a British formula – where society is seen as individuals and groups that must be enhanced and where over-bearing accumulation of power is to be resisted – is nevertheless a strong reason why I pay my annual subs to the party.

Against the centralist doctrines of the Labour party (where state is still seen to be the best judge of everything) and Conservatism (difficult to assess but primarily a “market is best” doctrine allied to a notion that old institutions must be conserved no matter what), Liberalism should be the politics of the 21st Century. It shouts for the spirit of individuals and civil society making changes for the better against the rigid institutions set up in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It should be capturing the spirit of the internet age – where freedoms to communicate should be elevating transparency and openness to a new generation (and convincing the old as well). It should be screaming about how the UK fits into the future of a world that continues to change (and not always for the better), where the rise and development of China threatens the drive to democracy and transparency that has been in place since the defeat of Nazism and totalitarianism after World War II and since.

Today’s Politics

Tragically, politics in the UK is all about shopping baskets. All our attention is drawn to GDP and austerity. These issues are important – especially to those living (or just about surviving) on low incomes. The drive to change taxation at the margin (and we always talk about changes at the margin – not true in the US where a real debate on dramatic changes in taxation are taking place – see John Mauldin’s latest on this) is a proper argument but the focus on taxation and its short-term impact blots out everything else.

Liberal Democrats believe in a wide range of issues. Moving in with the Conservatives as part of the Coalition Government has been a brave move that is hitting the party hard – based on recent polls. Shifting the tax burden to free those earning low salaries to a wealth tax (although the shift is tiny) is seen by senior Liberal Democrats as working to define the party.

Ask a voter what the Liberal Democrats stand for and they will probably answer with comments about university tuition fees or other short-term decisions made during this parliament.

Today’s politics, the politics of short-term economics and counter-terrorism (or long-standing views on how to counter the perceived threats that international terrorism poses) is our staple. Politicians (and we are not blessed with the cream of intelligence in that area – they usually became bankers in the 1980’s) are hooked on short-term ideas and the next election. It was ever thus.

GDP slaves, taxation dummies, election addiction, five year parliamentarians that act like five-year olds.  In the UK we may have been better off than our EU colleagues in Greece (we do have a society that respects to a greater extent tax collection as a cornerstone) but minor modifications to our lives emphasize the conservatism of the nation –  conservatism that is likely to propel the UK backwards and means that our influence is greatly lessened as the 21st Century progresses.

Tomorrow’s politics

Political parties are under threat. Their short attention span means they are missing the evidence that is before them. People and groups in society are pursuing single initiatives to great effect. Whether these groups are organized as NGO’s or small societies or other types of organization, civil society (propelled by new technologies) are able to have a greater influence on politics than ever before. Politicians and government has to be aware of that change and make efforts to respond to it

That response has to mean that decisions must be allowed to take place at the lowest level possible not at the highest.

It must mean that politics has to “open up”and be more inclusive – that means helping those in society to understand what parties stand for – really stand for – and the world that they see ahead.

It must mean that the political parties must continuously work to make themselves relevant.

For Liberal Democrats fighting to show themselves as sufficiently different so that voters provide them with a future beyond this parliament, it seems pretty important to use the remaining three years to do two, crucial things.

First, sure – secure the short-term changes that (even if at the margin) show benefits to that area of society that is bleeding because of the poor economic conditions.

Second, and far more important in the long term, ensure that Liberal Democrats shout about the society that the party wants to have in place and the UK’s place in the world. This is not about minor taxation shifts. This has to be a society where individuals and groups have a bigger say but also where the opportunities to develop (in terms not just of how many makes of designer trainers one can buy but in terms of real education opportunities, real quality of life from birth to death, a society where large, monopolistic groups which threaten that society from inside or outside are not tolerated) are maximized.

Liberal Democracy (or at least the Liberal part of it) has a strong tradition in all these areas. The message has been obscured in its pro-Europe and pro-euro fervour and over-reliance on short-term tax issues and the obscuring of its longer-term reason for existence and how it should want to change the world.

Nick Clegg’s speech back in December at the Open Society Institute made an attempt to voice some of these issues (see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/liberalism-and…e-21st-century/).

Politics needs to motivate and excite in the 21st Century as large movements (such as the labour movement in the late 19th Century and early 20th) are not so obvious – that does not mean it is not happening.

The movement is now about individuals and groups within civil society using whatever tools are available (and which technology is supplying) to make their case. For Liberal Democrats, the aim should be to show how it supports that key change in society and can help and nurture it and maybe lead it and make it work.