Magazine article The Spectator

How Labour Ministers Lie about the World and Their Opponents

Magazine article The Spectator

How Labour Ministers Lie about the World and Their Opponents

Article excerpt

One of the key reasons why New Labour has been successful for so long is its ability to destroy or marginalise opponents. The techniques used are ruthless. Those who challenge government orthodoxy are smeared, discredited and rubbished as liars. Their motives are questioned and their characters assassinated.

Normally, in the quotidian frenzy of political debate, there is no time to examine how ministers construct their arguments. Life moves on, the smears and falsehoods remain hanging in the air. But this month, while Westminster is quiet and the main characters absent, there is an ideal opportunity for a leisurely examination of New Labour at work. The last week has provided two interesting case studies. One involves the claim made by Denis MacShane, minister for Europe, that Tory Eurosceptics are guilty of fostering racism. The second concerns the schools minister David Miliband's eye-catching assertion that A-level standards are as high as ever.

First Miliband. It is interesting to note that he kicked off his speech last Tuesday not by making a reasoned argument, but by questioning the good faith of his opponents. He accused those who argue that A-level standards have fallen of wanting 'to defend the old order of things', and of putting up 'barriers of birth not merit to the rise of hardworking pupils from all over the country'.

Miliband's method of argument is disgraceful. The wave of protests against low standards in Britain's schools had not come from the tiny section of British society -supposing it still exists in any meaningful way - which continues to depend on socalled 'barriers of birth'. The complaints about falling standards in schools have come from other quarters: employers, universities, and some of the examiners themselves.

An important series of articles in the Economist has shown how a growing number of universities now regard A-levels as such a worthless measure of achievement that they are searching for other methods of assessing potential students. In medical and veterinary science, six of the top faculties in Britain now select through a special biomedical admissions test. Eight law schools are now following suit, with a legal aptitude test. Other universities have simply given up on A-levels as a method of sorting out bright students. Leeds Metropolitan and Huddersfield universities, which have 20 applicants for each physiotherapy place, just choose successful applicants randomly from those with the right grades.

Miliband believes that this oversupply reflects a heroic improvement in teaching standards in the last 20 years. All the evidence suggests the exact opposite. This week a pamphlet published by the Bow Group showed that nine out of ten academics believe A-levels have been devalued. A remarkable recent survey by Coventry university showed that those with a B grade in maths have the same or possibly worse capacity as those who actually failed the exam in 1991. Reports from employers echo these concerns. The Economist has revealed how the Ministry of Defence has been obliged to start a large remedial maths programme after it emerged that soldiers with a C pass at GCSE are often baffled by common fractions. Listen to this from the Engineering Council: "There is strong evidence from diagnostic tests of a steady decline over the past decade of fluency in basic mathematical skills and of the level of mathematical preparation of students accepted on to degree courses.'

One could go on and on. It is intellectually dishonest of Miliband to ignore the massive amount of evidence showing that A-level standards have fallen sharply in the last 20 years, and utterly shameless to misrepresent those who point this out as defenders of social privilege. …

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