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24 July 2008

Labour’s soppy love for America

The British government enthuses over US institutions and policies just when it is becoming clear tha

By Andrew Stephen

I fear that Ed Balls – or whichever buffoon it was who decided to outsource the £156m contract to mark the Sats of British schoolchildren to a New Jersey-based company called Educational Testing Service (ETS) – does not read the NS. If he (or whoever was responsible) did, they would know that the whole system of Sats that Britain copied from the US in 1991 is an increasingly discredited shambles here; and that ETS, which marks US SATs and had a turnover of $1.1bn last year, leaves teachers, schoolchildren and parents shrugging their shoulders in despair. Nobody should be remotely surprised, therefore, that the exam results of 1.2 million UK schoolchildren are in turmoil this summer.

What is so symbolic about awarding such an important task in British education to a US company, though, is the degree to which new Labour is bewitched by all things American. Whether it is Jack Straw’s obsession with introducing a British “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” based on America’s 1791 Bill of Rights, the British government’s willingness to allow US defence companies to fund the Queen’s garden party in Washington, or the new-found enthus iasm to introduce US-style electoral primaries and caucuses in the UK, all these would-be initiatives share one glaring factor in common: British ministers become enthused by them just as it is becoming clear to anybody who lives on this side of the Atlantic that the institutions or policies are failing in the US.

But the rapid Americanisation of Britain, nonetheless, proceeds apace. There are trivial as well as deadly serious examples: just as Starbucks became all the rage in Britain, so Starbucks in the US has announced that it is being forced to close 616 of its stores.

First, though, the ETS fiasco. Few Brits (including the likes of Ed Balls?) are aware that nearly all institutionalised school tests in America, right up to college and beyond, consist of multiple-choice questions scanned and graded largely by computers. In Britain, Edexcel and other boards used human beings until this summer to mark the exam papers of schoolchildren. “When ETS took over the marking this year,” the Times reported with more insight than it perhaps realised, “it embraced new technology, using online training and verification for markers and for recording results.”

Exactly. ETS may have impressed British government naïfs with slick PowerPoint present ations, but the results have been all-too predictable. In the reality of the classroom, sweat from the hands of nervous children often leaves pages stuck together – meaning that at least one page easily passes by unnoticed by the computers. Pencil marks filling in the circles dilute and run and the scanners are unable to detect them properly. No wonder that no fewer than 58 children at one school in Essex were awarded with an A, for “absent”, for their efforts.

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If only I had known that ETS, described by Ned Johnson and Emily Warner Eskelsen in their book Conquering the SAT as “a quite profit able non-profit organisation”, was going to be al lowed to run amok with the futures of British schoolchildren, I would have been happy to tell Balls of my first personal experience with it. A 14-year-old boy I know took his very first SAT in “Biology M”, which meant biology with a section devoted to molecular subject matter. He re ceiv ed a disappointingly low grade and his parents paid $25 to have the paper “hand-checked”, ie examined by a human. The checker quick ly saw that the computer had mistakenly marked the SAT as “Biology E” – which had an ecological rather than a molecular section – and had therefore completely ignored the molecular part.

The result? The exam was re-marked and a 14-year-old boy’s grade shot up, along with his morale. This is emblematic of how the reputation of the SAT (it once stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test” and then “Scholastic Assessment Test”, but is now officially known only by its acronym) is going downhill fast. A recent study of 78,000 students in California showed SAT results correlate more closely to parental income than to later academic achievement; Wake Forest and Smith College are the latest to dump SATs altogether from application requirements.

Cultural domination

So why is 21st-century Britain spellbound by American practices, however disastrous, in a way it never has been before? The US culturally imperialised Britain via its entertainment industry long ago, and the pace has picked up so much recently that it no longer raises eyebrows to hear a BBC cricket commentator (of all people!) refer to a question as “coming out of left field” or cabinet ministers repeatedly insisting that people “must now step up to the plate”. Few, I suspect, have any more clue about what the words actually mean than Balls’s predecessor David Blunkett did, when he referred to “three strikes and you’re out”. Such expressions have direct relevance to the American way of life, but none whatsoever to Britain – yet, by some widespread instinctive osmosis, they are now being adopted daily as perfectly normal British vocabulary.

But that kind of cultural domination, I fear, has now given way to something altogether more insidious. Underlying it all is a failure to realise that the US and the UK are two very foreign countries, with entirely different histories, needs and political imperatives. There are excellent reasons why America has many of its traditions and institutions, and likewise Britain; but by becoming a mere imitative culture, Britain is inflicting ever more damage on itself.

I could barely believe the naivety of a British embassy press release here announcing a lecture by Jack Straw, for example, that trumpeted: “The United States Bill of Rights is an iconic statement of freedom. It is a powerful symbol of what the United States stands for, and a means of uniting all Americans.”

In fact, Founding Fathers such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton hurriedly cobbled together the US Bill of Rights – in reality, the first ten amendments to the constitution – to bring dangerously feuding federalists and anti-federalists together and thus save the very constitution (which had been drawn up only two years before) itself. Hamilton, later a slave-owning president, showed a perspicacity that is badly needed today: “The several Bills of Rights in Great Britain form its constitution,” he wrote. He knew better than anybody that much of the newly written US Constitution and Bill of Rights was, in fact, based on the 1215 Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights 1689, and other English common law.

Straw’s subsequent lecture here, perpetuating the British obsequiousness, was duly confused and confusing. Besides the comic self-abasement visiting Britons feel they must dutifully serve up to Americans (“I have to dress up [as Lord Chancellor] in dress coat, frilly lace . . . breeches, shoes with buckles on them, very shiny shoes, and tights”) – you would never hear that kind of self-mockery the other way round – his lecture could be summed up in seven words. He quoted FDR saying that the US constitutional system “has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced”, and then added: “and our aim is to emulate that”.

Enough said. It is precisely because the US has a written constitution, drawn up because it was necessary then for a brand-new country, that it has since found itself in so much domestic trouble over its interpretations. Nine politically appointed judges comprising the US Supreme Court, which Straw admires so deeply, deliberate endlessly over whether executions are “cruel and unusual punishments”, for example, or what comprises a free press. “Who can give any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?” the ever-perspicacious Hamilton argued at the time.

In the words of Paul Johnson in A History of the American People, “it may be that enacting individual rights formally has proved, especially in the 20th century, a great er source of discord than of reassurance”. But the likes of Jack Straw, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – ignorant of the real America but besotted by its image – know best. After all, doesn’t Gordon Brown know America intimately from the perspective of his glorious summers in Cape Cod?

Even the Queen’s cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey tea at her embassy garden tea party here last year were underwritten by a consortium including American companies ranging from Raytheon (the world’s leading producer of guided missiles, based in Massachusetts) to Electronic Data Systems (aka EDS, the $14bn Texas-based company started by Ross Perot and which the British government has employed with in fin itely more disastrous consequences than ETS has so far inflicted – its computer systems were involved in the tax credits fiasco). I wonder what Her Majesty, when she reads this, will think of her very own garden parties being subsidised by such American largesse?

Straw was visiting DC when the Democratic primaries were at their busiest, and I heard much predictable talk at the British embassy of how the UK should now introduce primaries, too. Yet politically enthralling though the Obama-Clinton tussle may have been, the 2008 campaign demonstrated how chaotic, hokey, illogical and in need of reform the US system of primaries and caucuses actually is (the cue, in other words, for British ministers to want to introduce them).

Yet Straw told his DC audience that “we can learn a great deal from . . . your enviable notion of civic duty”. When I asked him what he meant by this, he referred to Americans helping their neighbours and the “obligation” they felt “to take part in the democratic system”. Eh? “I’ve not lived in the United States . . . but at Massachusetts town hall meetings and places like that, [there is] a really greater sense of control and ownership of what happens in localities in the United States . . . than in the United Kingdom.”

Tosh, Jack, tosh. The fact that you have not lived in the US is a giveaway that you, too, are besotted with America’s image rather than its reality. Straw quickly shut me up when I pointed out that voter turnout is much higher in Europe than here; in Britain it averaged 76 per cent between 1960 and 1995. In the 2004 US presidential elections voter turnout was 59 per cent, and plunged to 29.7 per cent in the 2006 midterms; maybe as many as a third of all Americans do not even bother to register to vote at all. Perhaps Straw, Brown and Balls will nonetheless now call in ETS or EDS to count the votes at Britain’s next general election?

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