Michael Gove’s exam fetish, Hong Kong mystery and Tim Yeo’s Nobu lunch

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Apart from changing eight grades denoted by letters (A*-G) to eight grades denoted by numbers (strangely reversed so that 8 is highest, 1 lowest), the point of Michael Gove’s new GCSEs is to abolish coursework assessment and restore end-of-course, three-hour written exams to their former glory. Popular opinion, presumably shared by Gove, is that this will make exam results fairer and more reliable.

Popular opinion is wrong. Because conventional exams are taken on a single day and are limited to a small number of items, they are a poor measure of any individual’s performance. Different items taken on a different day are likely to produce a different result. Researchers estimate that one child in three gets the wrong grade. Assessment throughout the course, covering a wider range over a longer period, has a better chance of giving an accurate picture.

It’s true that coursework assessment also has shortcomings because thousands of teachers in different schools award the marks. But it is now called “controlled assess ment”, and exam boards are more rigorous about how teachers carry out testing and marking. Besides, old-fashioned exams are also marked by numerous different hands and the role of subjective judgement will rise with the introduction, at Gove’s command, of more extended-essay questions.

It is precisely because there is no single reliable method of assessment that Gove’s predecessors opted for a mixture: coursework, projects, old-style exams and (albeit rarely) multiple-choice tests. Not for the first time, Gove prefers rigidity and dogma to flexibility and pragmatism. That, I suppose, is why he is so popular with Tory backbenchers.

Fear itself

Talking some years ago about Britain’s difficulties with tracking illegal immigrants, an American Democrat, who held high positions under Bill Clinton, expressed lofty incredulity that “your government doesn’t know how many people are in your country”. I express ed incredulity that the land of the free – which itself doesn’t know whether its illegal immigrants total 11 million or 20 million – should expect governments to have a precise headcount. But the US political class, so sharply divided on everything else, is almost united on the need for federal agencies to collect unlimited data. Despite outrage among civil liberties groups at the snooping revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, Demo crats and Republicans alike have no misgivings about the surveillance state.

I suspect this insouciance is attributable to the American electoral system. Since vital elections occur every two years, politicians live in fear of terrorist attacks for which they may be blamed. Any suggestion that they denied security agencies the means to apprehend suspects would lose them far more votes than any concerns about loss of civil liberties.

Hong Kong phooey

Hong Kong is not an obvious haven for asylum-seekers. So why did Snowden choose it? I called a barrister friend in Hong Kong who drew my attention to its 1998 extradition agreement with the US. It lists 36 offences for which “fugitive offenders” may be surrendered but, as my friend points out, there is no mention of national security or espionage. In his opinion, “Hong Kong is the worst place in the world to flee to if you’ve committed a criminal offence,” but Snowden hasn’t committed one as defined by the agreement. “He’s certainly safer here than he would be in England,” m’learned friend (who is British born and bred) added. And if the US were tempted to use its tried and trusted technique of extraordinary rendition to get its man, Beijing might have a thing or two to say about it. What a strange world we live in, when a man is safer in what, after all, is now part of communist China than he would be in London.

Humble pie

What is most alarming about MPs and peers who allegedly express willingness to accept money from lobbyists is that so many of our legislators appear to be stupid. The latest example, Tim Yeo, the chairman of the Commons energy and climate change committee, was approached by undercover reporters purporting to represent a solar energy company. Such stings are not exactly unprecedented. Did it not occur to Yeo to check their cre dentials before joining them for lunch at Nobu in Mayfair, London? Was there perhaps a company website? Or a record at Com panies House? Could Yeo not have made inquiries among friends and contacts in the energy world?

Politicians are notoriously eager for free lunches but I don’t think I have ever accepted a meal without first researching the person who’s buying it. If MPs are too gullible to protect their own interests, how can they be expected, in this wicked world, to protect ours?

Give them an inch

Speaking to the Colchester branch of the Fabian Society, I remarked that, as a journalist, I wasn’t much good at making policies. An audience member disagreed. He was so impressed with Guardian columnists, he said, that he could think of at least six who should be on the opposition front bench. Would the country be better run, I later wondered, if government alternated between competing teams of Guardian and Telegraph commentators? Discuss.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.