The threat to school standards
Rhodes Boyson, MP
There are numerous experiments which illustrate that rats can be made neurotic by continued change and the prevention of any settled way of life. Our human society has become more neurotic as governments anti so-called intellectual elites foster continued change. If such change does continue then society will break down and the human Pavlov dogs will run amok.
Already this year the '0' level GCE gradings have been changed so that the majority of parents and employers have no idea what they mean. Fails are now passes apart from the 20 to 30 per cent who are unclassified. Every employer, parent and governor must check the new 1975 grades against their previous grades before they have any meaning. The cynic could suggest the whole arrangement is not just an advance to the egalitarian age where no one succeeded or failed, but that the new system was introduced to hide the fall in academic standards after comprehensive reorganisation.
Recently the Schools Council, ever desirous to leave us with no peace, published The Whole Curriculum 13-16, which recommended that external examinations at sixteen be scrapped in favour of teacher assessment of children's attainments and interests. Yet all the evidence is that teachers are much more lenient in assessment than in examinations. Now is there any way (even with external monitoring), of comparing an assessment at, say, Eton or Highbury Grove with those at Birmingham
Gas Works Secondary Modern School of Summerhill. All employers, colleges and universities would have to introduce their own examinations to see what these assessments meant.
On the heels of this report we now have the Schools Council's Examinations at 16-Plus which suggests that the GCE '0' and Certificate of Secondary Education should be replaced by one examination at sixteen-plus. IA, 1B and IC grades would equate with the old GCE '0' levels and 2-5 would be CSE grades and Unclassified would presumably cover the bottom '40 per cent ability' groups, who, whatever the Schools Council thinks, would be put in for the examination.
It is impossible to have an examination at sixteen-plus catering for all, from the potential Oxbridge open scholar to the educationally well-below-average. It would bore the bright and be the despair of the dull (it is of interest that in one of the present tests a quarter of the pupils gained below 15 per cent) and would certainly bring alarm to the less able. Multiple-choice questions and computer marking would not only increase illiteracy, but evidence from the US indicates that such tests are unfair to the very able imaginative child who can score very badly since he sees far more possibilities in each answer than the programmed computer.
There is nothing wrong with the present system. The academicallygifted sit GCE, another 40 per cent can cope with CSE and there should be a lieracy/numeracy basic knowledge examination for the others at fourteen-plus. On passing this basic test the non-academic boy could leave before he is ruined by two years of truancy from a school which, however much he tries, cannot offer him the man hood, opportunities and self-discipline available in the real world. It is no accident that juvenile delinquency and football hooliganism have increased with a higher minimum school life.
One sixteen-plus examination for all pupils will mean no satisfactory examination for any pupil; there will be a further decline in academic standards, a call for longer university courses and more general despair. The report which goes to the Schools Council in May and, if passed, to the Secretary of State, should be firmly rejected. If, in our times of high fever, it goes through, then the universities should declare UDI and continue with their own examinations and ignore the Council recommendations. Somebody must take a stand somewhere against our present barbarians. Parents, dons and employers, be warned in time!
The 'Scottish Daily News' story
Unless you happen to live in Caledonia stern and wild I don't suppose you are the least bit interested in what is going on at the Scottish Daily News. But it is important, so it therefore behoves me to tell you. There is, however, just one slight snag. I haven't the faintest idea. Nevertheless, if we begin at the beginning, we might just be able to get a glimmer by the time we get to the end of this column. I doubt it, personally, but we might as well give it a try.
Once upon a time there was a paper called the Scottish Daily Express. Well, there still is, as a matter of fact, but in those days it was printed in Glasgow, whereas today it is printed in Manchester, which is a funny place to print a Scottish newspaper in, but then it's that kind of industry. Since everyone in the business knew the Glasgow operation was wildly uneconomic, it was allowed to carry on for years — again, its that kind of industry. Then Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd, observing a lot of little red figures on their bank statement, decided that the time had come. So they closed Glasgow down.
Not unnaturally, the 1,800 men and women employed there felt a bit hurt, and decided they would start a paper on their own. They
did, they called it the Scottish Daily News, they ran it as a co-operative, and they put a lot of their handshake money into it' Youput money into it, too, by courtesy of Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, and I'll bet he never asked your permission first, did he? And a certain Mr Robert Maxwell got into the act. Mr Maxwell doesn't know much about newspapers, but he does know quite a bit about publishing books and things, so I suppose he was better than nothing. Ther fact that he was willing to put up a sizeable chunk of his own money no doubt helped the co-operative to decide to have him as publisher, co-chairman and chief executive, a title which does not appear to have been as precisely defined as perhaps it should have been.
The paper went on the streets on the morning of May 5 this year. Within a month the co-operative was looking decidedly unco-operative. Robert Maxwell and his co-chairman Allister Mackie were scarcely on speaking terms, and the paper was selling far fewer copies than it needed to break even. Wildly optimistic talk of sales of 350,000 copies a day gave way to reluctant admissions that circulation was down to about 130,000. Shortly after that a little bird told me that it had fallen to 80,000, a figure which was denied at the time but is now admitted to be true. Something had to be done. It was. The paper went tabloid, and that only two months after the original launch. The cover price was also cut to 5p, which can't have been the most sensible decision ever taken, since it was losing about £50,000 a week at the time. Its fortunes weren't helped by Beaverbrook Newspapers who took counter-action in the form of bigger discounts and allowances for newsagents handling the Scottish Daily Express.
The initial tabloid print order was 250,000, a figure which was also soon shown to be optimistic. So Mr Maxwell and his mates were publishing figures of the sort intended to prove that Dunkirk was a great victory — we have doubled our pre-tabloid circulation and advertising is coming in very nicely thank you. Well, in fact circulation was well below what was needed and the ads weren't coming in very nicely. A statement that they were bringing in about 18 per cent of total revenue, on average, only partly concealed the fact that on certain days the ad revenue was as low as 8 per cent, and there's no paper ever going to get fat on that sort of diet.
By the beginning of last week an atmosphere of panic was distinctly detectable. The editor was writing about witch-hunts and unwarranted attacks on the paper. The former SDN secretary and the former co-chairman published a
statement that if the paper had to meet all its liabilities today it would be three-quarters of a million in the red. The statement was immediately rebutted by Mr Maxwell and his new chairman, Allister Blyth. They said that the Paper had enough ready cash to last at least another six weeks at the present rate of loss, which was guesstimated at about £15,000 a week. Mr Maxwell did say that a further £250,000 of reserve capital Was needed to ensure "a breakthrough into viability by next Spring." He also said the paper needs another £5,000 a week from advertising, another 25,000 a day increase in sales, a subvention from the wages of the 500 employees, and a rise in price, Presumably back to 6p.
But by this time other people were making statements. The UK Press Gazette leading article last week said: "Many people, who would dearly love to see the Scottish Daily News fulfil the intentions of its founders, believe that a return to that infectious Spirit and confidence requires that book publisher Robert Maxwell Should advance his timetable by six weeks. He could give the staff their third and only remaining Chance by handing over now to a Professional newspaper chief executive while there may still be time." Or as Lady Macbeth might have put it: "Stand no,t upon the Order of your going, but go."
And of course he went. But he did not go graciously. His resignation statement was bitter, referring, as it did, to the increasing vendetta of vilification against him and the paper, and the efforts of certain sections of the media to force the paper to close down. He didn't make it clear whether by that he meant . Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd, but it seems likely, since only a few days earlier, under the headlines, "Beaverbrook Raid On News Cash", he made an attack on that organisation for issuing a summons freezing part of the SDN's bank account in an attempt toenforce payment of some £60,000 they claim the News owes them.
Anyway, whoever he was blaming, he has now resigned as Chief executive of the SDN and says that under no circumstances Will he ever go back, although he will continue in an , advisory capacity. Whether, after all that has happened, that would be a good thing is a matter of opinion. What is not a matter of opinion is the fact that if the SDN folds, 500 men and women who have been Putting up a brave fight will be out Of work, and Scotland will be the Poorer by a paper. It's a sad thought. Even sadder is the thought that it now seems almost bound to happen. I'm not saying When the closure will occur — I sincerely hope it doesn't — but I
shall be surprised, and gratified, if the paper ever sees its first birthday.
Science Doubts about 'peers' Bernard Dixon
Only one in every eleven American scientists believes the system widely adopted for assessing applications for research funds in that country to be fair and reasonable. That suggestion emerges from a survey in the US journal Industrial Research (September 1975). At a time when the same method — known as 'peer review' — is under attack in Britain, this revelation is more than a little disquieting.
In science, as in any other profession, there will always be a fund of discontent to be tapped by sly use of suitably worded questionnaires. But when nearly 900 out of a sample of 1093 scientists and engineers insist that the present practice fails to ensure equitable distribution of funds, something must be seriously wrong.
Industrial Research set up the study in conjunction with Dr Carlton Hazlewood of Baylor College of Medicine. He is chairman of a committee created at the request of Congressman Bob Casey to gather information about peer review. That system, based on the idea that the best judges of a research proposal are the applicant's senior peers in the same line of science, is
used in universities and government establishments in both Britain and the United States.
When a physicist or psychologist in Glasgow asks the Science Research Council for £20,000, for example, his synopsis is referred to one of the specialist committees of the SRC, Whose verdict largely decides the matter. By their nature, these committees are packed with mainly middle-aged and elderly people with substantial research publications to their credit in the field concerned.
As the BBC-television programme Controversy will show on October 20, peer review has inevitable demerits. The one valuable part of this programme (the rest being devoted to the alleged mystery of Geller-style spoon-bending) is an implicit illustration of how difficult it can be for researchers with heterodox notions to get through grant-awarding machinery manned solely by past and currently successful practitioners of orthodox science.
Of course, rigorous standards of reasoning and preliminary observations should be required before public money is dispensed. This is why the SRC has (so far), rightly denied such funds to , people who wish to investigate alleged paranormal feats with cutlery. But that is very different from the committee conservatism per se which can so easily stifle novel research lines of inquiry.
Surely, though, peer review is essential? Not at all. Many industrial laboratories get along well enough without it. There, the tendency is rather to take risks, to back hunches, to support talented and _ hopeful innovators rather than play safe. This used to be the case in the universities too. The great Lord Rutherford built up his team at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in the 'twenties and 'thirties on just this principle, taking on bright young men and giving them their heads. The result was one of the most productive periods in the entire history of physical science.
Apart from its tendency to discourage unconventional ideas — all genuine advances in science are, by definition, unconventional — another defect of peer review is that it is open to abuse. Frank corruption may be rare, but there is little doubt that the engaging extrovert with good contacts in the committee world is better placed for fund-raising then the shy flower who doesn't know the ropes. Eighty-six per cent of the Industrial Research respondents asserted that the system promotes cronyism and favouritism. Over three quarters also agreed that there are no adequate means of appealing against a decision.
The answer, I believe, is for funding authorites to contine to apply peer review to what Thomas Kuhn calls 'normal science' — the ordinary, relatively predictable work that follows'and consolidates genuine revolutions in thought — but to be flexible enough to abandon such machinery in dealing With the extraordinary. Science is one of the few fields where a genius or revolutionary can be stifled by a committee. But it shouldn't happen.
Dr Bernard Dixon, who contributes this column fortnightly, is editor of New Scientist.
Crime and consequences
"The only really reliable jury would be one composed of twelve good coppers and true." So last week spoke an ex-policeman — now a successful businessman — of my acquaintance.
"Of course," I hear you say, "he was joking." Well, let's put it like this: he grinned as he said it to make it sound like a joke (this was after all a social occasion), but in fact he meant what he said.
Nor is he alone in his view. The truth is that things have come to such an unpretty pass that many otherwise not unintelligent coppers, present as well as past, have by now convinced themselves that it is the bounden duty of a jury to convict. And that if it fails to honour that obligation, then it's because there's been dirty work at the crossroads.
Said another: "We don't put people up (into the dock, that is) unless we know they're guilty."
Now if this last sounds like a paraphrased quote from the as yet unpublished Wit and Wisdom of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Robert Mark please don't worry too much: that's just about what it is. Nor is it by any means his most damn-fool remark to date.
During the last two or three years Sir Robert has come out with some of the most corking stupid utterances ever to fall from the lips of a commissioner (and heaven knows some of his predecessors made some puerile remarks).
When for instance he suddenly noted that the rate of jury acquittals was rising steadily, he came out with excuse after excuse. Jurors, we were given to understand were too often too unintelligent to understand the full implications of the prosecution (which is a euphemism for 'police') evidence; or they were too inclined to give the accused (which in this book is a euphemism for 'guilty') person the benefit of the doubt; or they were quite simply 'bent'.
And anyway, he added (as though this wrapped the whole thing up to his own intellectual satisfaction and should therefore do the same for ours), juries were not only an outmoded safeguard, they were an anachronistic luxury which we could no longer afford if we (the police, that is) were to win the fight against crime.
Then, not content with all this guff, he went rabbiting on about unjustified acquittals brought about by the activities of 'shady' solicitors and 'bent' barristers,
protested about the way some judges allowed his officers to be cross-examined by unscrupulous lawyers, and called into question the whole system of criminal justice by implying that it was loaded against the forces of law and order. (another euphemism for 'police').
But never once — and this despite challenges from the Bar Council, Law Society, NCCL and umpteen newspapers — did he produce one single jot of evidence to support these suggestions, assertions and accusations.
Which, frankly, I find very strange. Indeed I find it so strange that I've been making a few gentle enquiries to discover possible reasons for Sir Robert's extraordinary behaviour. And I think I may have come up with an answer.
When 'Honest Bobby' knapsacked the Commissioner's baton in April 1972 (here let me say that I took twenty-one minutes of BBC radio time over a period of three weeks to acclaim the man and welcome his appointment), his reception by senior and junior colleagues was not a happy one. Here was a highly intelligent man who also had the unsullied reputation of being a 'straight' copper. And it was well known that he was determined (or hell-bent, as one of his senior but already disenchanted officers put it to me at the time) on cleaning up the Met.
One of the first things he did was to set up a new complaints department (A10) which was to succeed the secretive Rubber-Heel Mob and show the public that there was no longer going to be one law for the police and another for the public.
Not unnaturally the public were chuffed. The police themselves were not so happy. In fact the effect on morale was catastrophic. Already 4,589 short of establishment on appointment he ended up his first year with an even greater shortage. "While recruitment . . has shown an improvement as compared with 1971," he wrote in his report, "the exceptionally large number of men leaving the force has outstripped the intake." And later he remarked on the "sharp rise in premature retirements."
These official phrases could be interpreted by some as meaning that an awful lot of not-so-straight coppers went scarpering for cover while the going was good. Certain it is now that a great many apparently good officers have since been discovered to be villains in uniform. Far more of them, indeed, than even Honest Bobby can have envisaged when he first started out on his crusade.
And here lies the rub. For a very long time Met morale remained at a very low ebb while the public were happy and relieved that someone was weeding out the bad apples in Scotland Yard's barrel. But then so many bad apples were discovered and brought to public attention through the court processes that the public themselves began to wonder just exactly when it was going to stop. And individuals who came into contact with the law began to wonder whether they were dealing with a straight copper or a bent'un.
In other words, Honest Bobby's good intentions were paving the way to a hell shared by both public and police alike. And in the meanwhile the striped-sweater villains were getting it more and more their own way.
When and if Sir Robert suddenly realised that all his best efforts had boomeranged I have no way of knowing. But a study of his set speeches and other public statements over the last two years has convinced me that not only has he been forced to change his tune in order to try to restore police morale and public confidence, but also that he has over-reacted to such an extent that he will fail on both counts.