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The turn against the BBC, a new role for Nigel Farage and London’s sewage problem

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

As I understand the government’s approach to childcare, outlined by the early years minister, Elizabeth Truss, it’s fine for one person to look after six babies and toddlers, provided that person has grade-C GCSEs in English and maths and somebody with A-levels is at hand. This seems to me a particularly insane example of what I call “the diploma disease”. The possession of general educational qualifications is assumed to be both a necessary and a sufficient condition of competence.

Childminders and nursery staff need training, to be sure, but they are not required to subject toddlers to synthetic phonics or long multiplication. They need to talk to, play with, empathise with and generally stimulate children. They need patience, energy and dexterity. Grade-C GCSEs in English and maths – achieved by only 60 per cent of pupils – do not guarantee these quite rare qualities and they are likely to exclude many who have them in abundance.

As a childcarer battles to take half a dozen cantankerous two-year-olds to the park or library, it is hard to see how GCSEs can help. Perhaps the minister thinks maths is needed to keep count of the children.

Oxbridge too far

The government’s sole strategy for improving social mobility is fatally flawed, I fear. In another instance of the “diploma disease”, rising numbers of professional careers require postgraduate qualifications. Yet, as revealed by a 26-year-old who is suing St Hugh’s College, Oxford, for “selection by wealth”, Oxford requires postgrads to prove that they have liquid assets to pay both course fees, which can reach £40,000, and living costs. Few grants or loans are available. Part-time jobs are unacceptable because colleges insist postgrads must concentrate on their studies. Some 15 per cent of students offered places turn them down because they lack the funds.

So, even if state school children from poor homes, following the course mapped by the government, get high-grade A-levels, secure entry to elite universities and emerge with Firsts and Upper Seconds, they are likely to find almost insurmountable barriers to further progress. Which shows education is not the solution to inequality and class division and never has been.

Effluent speech

London’s sewers are struggling with increased population, causing the annual discharge of 39 million tonnes of untreated sewage into the Thames. Something must be done. But by whom? One expects it to be Thames Water, the private company responsible for water and sewerage services in the capital. It would recover the £4.1bn cost of a new super-sewer from higher bills. But it is worried about “unusual construction risks”. Would the taxpayer mind underwriting those risks?

The government, on our behalf, usually says something like, “Of course not. Here’s a blank cheque.” But the awesomely clever Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin has what the Financial Times calls a “radical” plan. The government will build the super-sewer itself. The Treasury, according to the FT, advises that “if the state is guaranteeing the risks . . . there is no point in outsourcing it to the private sector”. A “government insider” said: “Why should we nationalise the downside and privatise the upside?”

I think I’ve seen arguments like that – even those very words – somewhere before, perhaps in old NSleaders. I’ve also seen “radical” arguments that water services should be publicly owned. Will Letwin be a late convert?

Times a’changing

To the London College of Communication to hear the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans defend Leveson’s proposals for press regulation and excoriate newspapers’ claims that they entail state control. Evans had several digs at Rupert Murdoch, who removed him from the Times editorship in 1982, and he expressed admiration for the recently ousted Times editor, James Harding. But some of the lefty hacks and senior parliamentarians at the lecture and subsequent reception seemed bored with reviling Murdoch. Instead, they told me about the awfulness of the BBC and how executives award each other enormous salaries and pay-offs. The BBC has been corrupted, they say; its managers are as guilty of rent-seeking as those in private corporations.

“I’ve always supported the BBC in the division lobbies,” said one Labour life peer. “Never again. Attacking it is the one thing Murdoch’s got right.”

When even people like that turn against the BBC, I fear for its future.

Plans for Nigel

Worried about Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain when the EU lifts migration restrictions next year, the government proposes an advertising campaign to explain that it’s cold and wet. I have a better idea. Send Nigel Farage to Sofia and Bucharest. That should scare them off.

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.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap