Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Grammars and Comprehensives



This is something I've been meaning to post about for a while, and rumours about budget allocations for new Grammar schools from the current Conservative government have reminded me about the issue. As usual, I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I do think we need to think carefully about what we are doing. Should we return to grammar schools, or not? Has the 'comprehensive experiment failed or succeeded? Are grammar schools an aid to social mobility, or quite the opposite?

The first thing I think is important to note is the difference between 'mixed ability schools' and 'mixed ability teaching' - I fully agree that the latter can be a problem in holding back more able children in a given subject, while leaving behind less able ones (while those in between are suffering under a teacher who is trying to balance the extremes within a class, which isn't really helping them much either). I don't think it is the most effective possible approach to teach a subject to a group with abilities in that subject that vary to such an extent that virtually nobody is really being taught at the right level. A mixed ability school is something completely different, though, and I would argue that you don't need to have separate schools in order to have appropriate levels of teaching in different subjects.

So what are the supposed advantages of grammar schools? Lack of 'mixed ability teaching' is the most obvious, but in some ways even that could be a bit of a red herring, depending on how children within the school are taught in different subjects - being great at maths doesn't make you great at history or English, so some form of 'setting' is required. Once you acknowledge the need for 'setting', the biggest advantage of grammar schools goes out of the window entirely. The other oft-quoted advantage is 'social mobility' - allowing kids from poorer backgrounds who are more academically inclined to get a better education, and to advance in life beyond the station of their birth. That, of course, comes with an obvious flip side - the disadvantage to those who don't get in, and have to go to a school already defined as 'lesser'. Even if those schools are theoretically 'comprehensive' rather than the old 'secondary modern', they have still had the most academic children 'creamed off the top', and that is not to their advantage.

So we have a system with no real advantages, blighted by disadvantages. Not getting in to the grammar school, whichever school you end up in, creates a 'social stigma' that can last a lifetime - as much as we like to say it isn't so, or that it shouldn't be so, having 'the right school' on your CV can be a positive advantage in later life (and 'the wrong school' a disadvantage). Beyond even that, though is the issue of social division - those who are in schools separated by 'academic ability' don't have the daily opportunity to associate and socialise with one another that they would if the were in the same school. The live in 'different worlds' from one another right from the start. Add that the the reality that entry is not just 'academic', but also very often dependent on 'class' and/or 'money' - peer pressure at an early age, and parents coaching children and/or paying for private tuition to get them through the 11+ (or whatever selection system is used), have a huge effect. That's not creating 'social mobility', but a kind of 'social separation' at an early age that is likely to introduce a mindset of 'us and them' that could last a lifetime. That, I would argue, is a very bad thing for society.

However, before we get carried away, we need to understand that comprehensive education hasn't been exactly perfect either. Aside from issues like 'mixed ability teaching' experiments, this single multi-ability school has often been operated under much the same kind of system of academic prejudice that the grammar and secondary modern system did. We changed the school, but often didn't really change the idea of 'academic snobbery' nearly enough. In my case, for example, I went to a 'streamed' comprehensive school - that system had many advantages over the grammar system in the way that it operated, but by 'streaming' kids according to whether they were 'Academic', 'Average' or 'Remedial' (their terms, not mine!) we still reinforced the same kind of thinking. We were still engaged in 'rating' children according to academic ability, as if that equated somehow to their 'worth' - the 'best' ones got the best education, but the 'lesser' ones were largely taught the same subjects but just at a lower level (with a a kind of assumption that they were 'never really going to get it'). It was assumed that being good at one thing meant being good at everything else academically too, and that's also a bit of an issue. I think we need to think about things a little differently.

We also have 'setting', as I've already mentioned, and that is a lot better as an idea because it allows for people having varying abilities. One problem, however, was that that was still done within those 'streams', I suspect at least partly because of the sheer complexity of timetabling. Another was still that issue of the 'lesser' children being largely taught the same academic subjects - since they usually weren't going into academic beyond school, I'm going to suggest that was sometimes really only useful as an exercise in giving them something to occupy their time in school, while enhancing the impression that they just 'weren't good enough', or were even 'too stupid'.

So how do we address this? Well, I'd say the first principle is to stop rating kids purely by academic ability in the first place. We shouldn't be primarily thinking about whether they are good at academic subjects, but thinking about what each child is best at. That may seem like a subtle and idealistic change, but I think it's an important one. We do here about ideas like 'technical schools' and 'vocational training', but we've not really made a clear commitment to that idea of 'equal worth, with different abilities' in the way we operate our school system. I think we can do that within the comprehensive education system, and I think we can use the 'streaming' idea in a different way. 

An important aspect of that is 'choice' - not just the 'parental choice' that we so often hear about, but also 'pupil choice' (an often neglected notion). It shouldn't just be about the school or education system judging a child's academic ability, but about making a choice between 'academic' and 'technical', or 'theory' and 'practicality', or 'intellectualism' or 'trade', or however you want to put it. That should be a choice in which schools, parents and children participate actively, based on desires and talent, and without any hint of the 'well you're a bit thick, so we'll teach you woodwork' prejudice that has so blighted our system. That, of course, needs us to really properly address how we deal with those who choose the less theoretical path, and what tools they need to leave school with in order to prosper in their future lives. It also needs us to think about a 'Careers Service' not being something that delivers a quick interview and a couple of leaflets just before the age when you can leave school comes - one that is integral within the school system from a much earlier point, and is able to understand individual needs (I hope it has moved beyond it now, and I suspect it probably has, but it certainly was the case at one time, in some places, that any girl who wasn't planning A levels was simply asked whether they wanted to become a hairdresser or a secretary - that was quite obviously completely inadequate!).

So let's deal with our three 'streams' in turn. First, the 'academic', or 'theoretical' stream - they are the easiest to deal with here in many way. In this day and age, we can reasonably assume that most of them will be looking towards continuing education and study beyond the age of sixteen, and even beyond the age of eighteen (given our current levels of university participation). We can probably broadly treat them in a fairly 'traditional' was educationally, teaching them academic subjects in a fairly theoretical and intellectual way, examining their academic work, and so on. I do think we can still improve on that, not just with continuing research into educational approaches, but by allowing more specialisation, and wider range of academic subjects for them to choose, and by introducing programs to attract more specialised teachers (for example, by employing PhD graduates to teach part time in a school while spending the rest of their time working as researchers in nearby universities or even private research facilities - part time teaching, part time research doesn't need to involve only university-level teaching). More on 'specialisation' in a moment.

Secondly, we have our 'practical' or 'trade' 'stream'. I'm sure there are better names out there, but the point is to not characterise people according to being 'not so clever', 'merely average', and so on, but in a positive way according to choice. Here's where we need a total rethink - we need to treat this group as something different, not merely a 'lesser' version of the 'academic' group, and a group with equal but different positive talents to be developed. That doesn't mean simply not teaching any of the traditional subjects, but thinking about the way we teach them in a different, much more practically applicable and relevant way.

Is there any point in teaching the finer points of Henry VIII wives in history, for example? Perhaps not, but the key skills of critical thinking and assessing evidence are really important for everyone (as I have noted in a previous blog post) - perhaps we could teach those in a more 'practical' way, giving them the tools they need to apply them, while removing the need for an academic exam about which women had their heads chopped off centuries ago. OK, that was a slightly simplistic case, but it's the point of 'boiling down' those subjects to make them relevant to practical skills for life rather than an exercise in heady intellectualism being coached mainly for the purpose of getting through irrelevant exams. Similarly, many tradesmen and other practical people could really use a practical grasp of business, taxation, and so on (and very probably before the 'academic' group need them, and that group will have the study habits to be able to learn them themselves more easily by the time that they do need them (though I'm not suggesting that they shouldn't have any business education, of course!)) - they probably don't need simultaneous linear equations in their maths lessons so much. It's not about teaching 'at the appropriate level', but 'the appropriate things in the appropriate way', and I'm not convinced that we've always been terrible good at doing that.

Really, though, their main efforts should be directed towards the practical skills that they could use to go into trades. We used to allow them to leave school earlier and become apprentices much more, of course, but why can't we actually turn them out with the trade skills ready for the workplace - as we turn out 'Newly Qualified teachers', why don't we turn out 16 year old 'newly qualified plumbers', for example, with all of the skills and knowledge necessary, ready to move on to a year of supervised and mentored work before becoming 'fully qualified'? Obviously we can't expect every school to teach every trade, but that again brings up that issue of 'specialisation' in schools.

So what do I mean by 'specialisation'?  Well it's not about only teaching certain subjects and not others, of course, but about each school developing its own 'centre of excellence' in certain subject areas for post-14 education, and offering the facilities and teaching expertise to deliver full education in particular trades and additional academic subjects within their particular area. This then goes to the heart of parental choice about which secondary school they should apply to get their children into - it's no longer about which is 'best' (or even 'in the best place to get the richer kids'!), but about what subject areas each school has specialised in.

For example, in a town with three comprehensive schools, there should be coordination so that each chooses a different specialist area for each of its 'streams'. School A may choose to specialise in Languages (so offering Dutch, Mandarin and Russian at 'GCSE' in addition  to the usual French and German, or whatever) and Physics (teaching different specialisms rather than one 'Physics' GCSE) academically, and in 'trades' it may choose 'Car Mechanics' and 'Plumbing' (developing full facilities for both for 14-16, or even 18 ages, while only teaching others at a more basic level to younger children). School B might choose History and Computing (offering a range of options within those at 14-18) along with Carpentry and Masonry. School C might choose 'The Arts' (Music, Art History, and so on) along with Hair and Beauty and Performance Arts as 'trade' options. I should obviously mention there the difficulties in more rural areas with less available school choices, but I think the same things can largely still apply - it would perhaps require examination of funding to ensure that there was the ability to provide a reasonable choice of options (so a more rural school may 'specialise' in more subject areas, but without going as far in the options it offers for each, but would still need to be able to provide appropriate facilities on the 'trades' side particularly).

Finally we come to the third group or 'stream' - what, in my day (I sound so old!) were often very badly referred to as 'remedial'. This is a group with a massively diverse set of different needs, and needs to be treated accordingly. How we name them is a matter for debate, although I guess we could take a lead from the former 'Special Olympics' and call it the 'Parastream' or something. Again we have to be very careful with assumptions about different abilities, difficulties and additional needs. I'm no expert, so I'm not about to define exactly how we should deal with them, apart from saying that we obviously have to recognise them as individuals and support them accordingly, rather than lump them together as all requiring the same. This is another area where 'specialisms' come into play between different schools, with different ones (as they often do now, of course) specialising in dealing with different particular kinds of need.

I have, perhaps, wandered a little from the discussion of grammar schools versus comprehensives as such, but I think it was an important road to go down. the important thing is that all three groups need to be integrated in all areas apart from the actual teaching if we are to have a society not divided by academic ability and/or issues of inherited wealth (and let's be clear here - that is what grammar schools all too often broadly divide us by, even if it isn't the case for every single child (which it certainly isn't)). For example, the ability to play football is really not academically related (although common characterisation of football players and fans may lead some to believe that to be the case!). At the basic level, school football games should be between teams based on football ability, not the 'posh school' or 'swot school' against whatever less than complimentary name may get applied to others. Academic ability should be entirely irrelevant to football between schools, but more than that it should be entirely irrelevant within schools too.

Beyond the school team we should, of course, be encouraging physical activity for all youngsters, and school sports lessons are a social experience that all academic abilities should be able to experience together and without barriers. Indeed, we should also be considering the third 'stream', and those in all streams with physical disabilities - there are 'Paralympic' sports that can also be enjoyed by able-bodied people, and we should be encouraging the development of these in schools as a shared social experience. Other social experiences are much the same, of course - whether you enjoy a school trip to a theme park (and no, I don't believe that all school trips need to be entirely 'educational' - socialisation is important for kids too, as indeed is 'fun'!) isn't actually dependent on whether you are going to be a professor of mathematics or a bricklayer in later life, and the more those different people share positive mutual social experiences at an early age the better it is for them and for society as a whole.

This kind of issue was dealt with quite well (though not by any means perfectly) by the school I went to, in fact, by using a system that has sadly now been removed from there. It was quite a simple idea - morning registration, form periods, school assemblies, school trips, sporting competitions, and so on, were all organised by non academic groupings ('forms'), while only teaching itself was by 'academic' groupings ('classes'). It's really not hard to do, and it does get kids to socialise positively on a daily basis 'across academic lines', so to speak, and in a way that simply isn't possible within a grammar school system.

Finally, I just want to touch in the issue of 'free schools', 'academies', and the like. This is something that I am really not in favour of, personally. Having said that, I don't doubt that some schools were being 'choked' by the previous systems of local authority control. There has to be a practical 'middle way' solution, though - something that allows local democratic control and coordination of all schools, but without becoming mired by prescriptive diktats over budgets and so on. It seems to me that the solution of providing some schools with an 'escape' rather than not addressing the issue properly is one that should never have even been considered as a solution - it is, again, divisive, promotes the idea of parental choice for 'better schools' over 'worse schools', and leads to perceived (if not actual, which they may be) funding deficits and disadvantages. I think that we can do better than the current mess of a two-speed approach, in the way we run our schools as well as in the way we allocate our children to them.


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Best Albums of 2016



So it's that time of year again, where I have to decide on my top 20 favourite albums of the previous 12 months. As usual, I have a list that's probably a bit approximate, probably in an order that will change tomorrow, and will probably be missing some absolutely essential stuff that I've completely forgotten about. I make no guarantees of accuracy.

Here it is anyway, though:

20. Avatar - Feathers & Flesh
19. Testament - Brotherhood of the Snake
18. September Code - III
17. Erra - Drift
16. Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik's Skuggsjá - Skuggsjá
15. Hacktivist - Outside The box
14. Ihsahn - Arktis
13. Headspace - All that You Fear Is Gone
12. Invent, Animate - Stillworld
11. Vektor - Terminal Redux
10. Metallica - Hardwired...To Self-Destruct
9.  Killswitch Engage - Incarnate
8.  Textures - Phenotype
7.  Korn - The Serenity of Suffering
6.  Architects - All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us
5.  After The Burial - Dig Deep
4.  Gojira - Magma
3.  Meshuggah - The Violent Sleep of Reason
2.  Avenged Sevenfold - The Stage
1. Periphery - Periphery III: Select Difficulty


And here is a playlist of a song from each of them:






A New Federal Political System For The UK





If you have been reading my past blog posts, you may already be familiar with the kind of ideas I have included here. What has prompted me to bring them together like this now is really that the Boundary Review process that has been going on has made it very much easier to start putting some good illustrative figures in place, working around the idea that constituencies will become more or less equal in size. Having said that, the current review is flawed in a number of ways, with out of date and inaccurate electoral register information, hard and fast rules that sometimes prevent any kind of really logical constituency, some obvious errors in proposed constituencies, and so on. The basic concept is a sound one, though, and creates a kind of ‘standard political unit’ around which we could build a logical and coherent system of government and administration for the UK. This is something we’ve not really had before with our patchwork of constituencies with different electorates.

Currently we have different ‘political’ borders for different things – councils and local authorities, regional/national assemblies/parliaments, and Westminster parliament. If the current boundary review goes through, all will have different borders and boundaries for people to figure their way around. I’m going to say at the outset that I believe this to be plain silly – it is completely unnecessary, confusing, makes no real sense, and doesn’t really help people to engage with politics at any level. Since we are looking at boundaries, and in Wales also potentially at council boundaries at the same time but separately, we should do the job properly, once and for all. We should develop a standard ‘unit’ around which all boundaries are based, and only review periodically to see if we need to change the boundaries of the ‘units’ themselves because of significant population shifts (with everything else consequently changing as a result).

The other thing we need to change, of course, is our electoral system. We need to abandon the First Past The Post system that is so damaging to democracy in so many ways (again something I have previously addressed in blog posts) and adopt some kind of a system of Proportional Representation. There are a number of different methods available, but essentially the most obvious ones require there to be larger constituencies electing a number of members per constituency (by Single Transferrable Vote or whatever). The creation of our ‘unit’ allows us to do that very easily – we simply group a number of ‘units’ together to make one constituency, and elect the relevant number of members that we want according to the number of ‘units’. In other words, as standard 5 ‘unit’ constituency would elect 5 MPs, or a multiple of that for regional assemblies (more of that later), but it also allows us an option to have a slightly smaller constituency (in ‘unit’ terms) for large, sparsely populated regional areas without it skewing the vote or the proportionality of representation.

To use the example of Wales, under current proposals it would have 29 FPTP parliamentary seats in total. Under this proposal it would have 5 ‘5 unit’ constituencies, each electing 5 MPs, plus one ‘4 unit’ constituency electing 4 MPs (making up the total, and allowing for the fact that the Mid and West Wales ‘units’ are very much larger and more rural). Five is a better number for a PR type system, but four is still operable to give a reasonable outcome (anything less probably isn’t, although the option would still be there if absolutely necessary). Anything larger than five would make the constituencies themselves unworkable – although 5 MPs would be providing cover for the whole area, each would cover the whole area rather than just one fifth of it as they do now. In practice, of course, many constituencies would elect more than one MP from the same party, and they would be able to split the territory to an extent between themselves. The kind of land area we are talking about is going to be slightly less than the equivalent of the kind of area covered currently in the Welsh Assembly by the ‘regional’ AMs, so we know it is achievable.

To flesh that out a little with some figures, each proposed constituency under the current boundary review sees one member representing an electorate of around 75,000. Under this system, each ‘5 unit’ constituency would then have an electorate of about 375,000, being represented by 5 Members of Parliament (with a ‘4 unit’ being 300,000, obviously represented by 4). Those may sound like large figures, but the average is only the same as the current proposals, with the same number of parliamentary seats in total. Each resident could then decide whether to approach their MP who is most locally based, or who most represents their own political views.


Unitary Authorities or Councils.

Having used the term ‘unit’ for the basic electorally similar unit upon which constituencies would be based, I’m going to step aside from that slightly in the construction of councils, but still keep to the overall idea of a coherent entity. I’m going to suggest that a population of 375,000 is too large for a single council to effective manage, keeping in mind that, as I have said in previous blog posts, I would abandon all other town or community councils in favour of one single unitary authority. Our original ‘unit’, on the other hand, would create councils that were too small to operate efficiently. I’m therefore going to propose that every council should cover half of a constituency, using those same constituency borders but split roughly down the middle in whatever way works best around communities and wards. This would also maintain that linked ‘5 unit’ or ‘4 unit’ issue of rural areas being able to have councils that cover less people because of the scale of their physical geography.

That then gives us a council, at its most common ‘half of a 5 unit constituency’ size, covering an electorate of roughly 187500 people. Within that, of course, we need to maintain the same kind of approach to the electoral system, with large multi-member wards choosing representatives via an STV or similar kind of system. Here our original ‘units’ come into play again, with each ‘unit’ being covered by 40 councillors (so a 2.5 unit council has 100 councillors, and a 2 unit council has 80). Again we need to look at a 5 per ward kind of number for that to work effectively, so each original ‘unit’ (i.e. current proposed constituency) has to be divided into 8 council wards, each with an electorate of about 9,375. Again, though, there can be flexibility to have 4 (or perhaps even 3 in some rural cases) member wards, but this is easy enough to work out proportionally, since we already know that there is a standard fixed ratio of about 1,875 electors to each councillor.

I will just briefly here touch on the issue of abolishing town/community councils, since I have gone into this idea in more detail elsewhere. Each ward would, under this proposal, have 5 (or so) councillors, and they would be directly responsible for a ‘ward budget’ (to cover the kind of things that those ‘lower’ councils do now, and perhaps a little more), and for forming local advisory groups to suggest how it should be spent, and what other local issues they should be exploring, and perhaps to raise additional funds for community projects. These committees can be formed in any way they choose, including by running village/community ‘mini-elections’ to choose a representative for each village or community in their patch, but they are advisory only. Ultimate responsibility and accountability for the ward budget rests with the councillors themselves – this gives a very good level of direct local democratic accountability, and also ensures that everybody has the same level of coverage (where currently there is a ‘democratic deficit’ for those places not covered by such ‘community’ bodies). It would also reduce the possibilities of different levels of council trying to pass responsibilities off to each other, or trying to blame each other for issues (since it is the same councillors who will be responsible ‘at both levels’).

You’ll notice that I’m always keeping all of the electorate numbers as equal or proportionate. There can obviously be a little flexibility in terms of the current standard of plus or minus 5%, and in terms of councils not being exactly equal in ward numbers (so where there are two ‘2.5 unit’ councils, one could have 95 councillors and the other 105, or whatever). This is important, because under this proposal each level of election has implications for other institutions, and that needs to be kept proportional by population.

Across the UK, numbers would look something like this:

Region
Units (MPs)
Constituencies
Councils
Councillors
Assembly 2nd Ch Mem
East Midlands
44
9
18
1760
88
Eastern
57
12
24
2280
114
London
68
14
28
2720
136
North East
25
5
10
1000
50
North West
68
14
28
2720
136
Northern I.
17
4
8
680
34
Scotland
51
11
22
2040
102
SE (inc IoW)
83
17
34
3320
166
South West
53
11
22
2120
106
Wales
29
6
12
1160
58
West Midland
53
11
22
2120
106
Yorks & Humb
50
10
20
2000
100
Total
598
124
248
23,020
1301

To put these figures into some kind of perspective, currently the UK has 433 ‘principle authorities’ which are a mixture of unitary authorities, counties, boroughs, and so on. This new system would mean only 248 councils, each with proportionate numbers of wards and councillors, and each with the same set of responsibilities in their area. In terms of councillor numbers, Wales currently has 1264 councillors, which would be reduced slightly to 1160. England apparently has around 18,100 currently, and this would increase slightly to 19,820. It should, of course, be remembered that every one of these councillors would now have equal responsibility for an equal number of electors, and greater responsibility than they have now (since they would, in effect, be both community and unitary authority councillors, with direct control of a local budget, local committee-forming responsibility, and so on).

A final note on this point - this more proportionate approach to council sizes would mean the end of some of our larger city council entities. This is something I personally see as a good thing for encouraging a less centralising approach to the way we have allowed the some places to dominate their regions, and allowing towns like Ashton-under-Lyne to perhaps 'step our from the shadows' of  larger neighbours like Manchester city (while still obviously collaborating with them on cross-border and regional issues, as in 'Greater Manchester, forming collaborative groups and associations as they feel necessary). All councils would be pretty similar in terms of electorate size, and so also in terms of financial muscle and even 'soft power'.

Assembly Second Chamber.

In this instance, the council elections also determine the make-up of the second chamber at regional/national assembly level. Returning to our ‘units’, each one of those will, in effect, send 2 representatives to that institution (so a ‘2.5 unit’ council of 100 councillors would return 5 members of the second assembly chamber). These would be appointed (by council, not ‘unit’) rather than elected, at the rate of one member for every 20 council seats (or larger portion thereof), and would be answerable to their party colleagues in their appointing council rather than the whips in the assembly parties. This system mirrors that which I have mentioned in previous blog posts for the second chamber in Westminster (with the ‘House of Regions’ replacing the ‘House of Lords’ as the second ‘advise and revise’ chamber). This provides a close tie between different levels of the democratic system.

Given that there would be 29 ‘units’ covered by 10 councils in wales, that second ‘Chamber of the Councils’ for the Welsh Assembly would contain 58 members, able to perform roughly the function for the Assembly  that the House of Lords currently performs in Westminster – this is a very useful function of suggestion and, even more importantly, scrutiny of legislation and measures that helps significantly in ensuring that whatever the primary chamber does is well worded and robust (it’s important to note here, I think, that second chambers should be able to question and consider, but should not be allowed to block or indefinitely delay).

Their appointment would come immediately after the council elections (and council elections would be for whole authorities, not the current nonsense of partial council elections), and these would be roughly ‘mid term’ (or at least ‘partial term’) compared with the primary assembly elections. People do vote differently at different times and in different kinds of elections, so this would ensure that the second chamber has a somewhat different political make-up to the primary, which is democratically healthy. It is ‘democratic’ according to a vote, though not directly elected and not requiring yet another expensive election campaign. Parties (or rather local council groups, which could include joint multi-party collaborations or groups of independent councillors, providing them a voice at the ‘next level’ of democracy) could appoint whoever they feel appropriate for each term (and maximum terms could also be considered), so this could provide a way of keeping experienced voices within the system as well as a place for knowledgeable people from outside the system without the need for ‘lifetime appointments’ in the way that the House of Lords currently operates.

As we will see, it is the same system as I propose as a replacement for the House of Lords, with the lower level of democracy providing a second chamber for the higher (councils for assemblies in this case, assemblies for federal parliament in the other).

National/Regional Assemblies (Primary Chamber).

The current boundary review, as well as providing for our ‘units’, also provides a regional breakdown of the entire UK. While I think this regional map is somewhat flawed in some cases, I will stick to it for the moment as an illustratory example. The essential idea is for each region or nation to have equal responsibilities over its own affairs, with an end to the current devolution patchwork and consequent mess of UK parliamentary responsibilities for different bits in different places. That, I believe, is an unsustainable system that will only cause confusion, and perhaps particularly a set of ‘grey areas’ in the minds of the electorate as they go out to vote.

Anyone who regularly discusses politics in Wales, for example, will be aware that many people don’t know that the NHS in Wales is run by the Welsh Assembly government (currently Labour-led) rather than by the Westminster (Conservative) government. Even more people are unaware of issues like ‘Barnett consequentials’ that mean NHS issues in England do, in fact, have funding implications for Wales even though the parliament in Westminster isn’t responsible for the Welsh NHS. It’s a confusing mess, frankly, and we need to create a stable situation where everybody knows which institution does what, and every area has the same set of its own devolved responsibilities as every other.

Our boundary review ‘units’, when organised into constituencies as already described, then split into regions, can provide us with a map of electorally proportional assemblies. Since I would certainly advocate a kind of ‘devo-max’ solution, with the maximum possible responsibilities being given to regional institutions, we would need to create institutions with sufficient numbers of elected representatives to allow them to function at the task. This can be achieved easily enough by simply multiplying the number of members allocated to each of our constituencies (‘5 unit’ and ‘4 unit’), so that instead of electing 5 members (as in a General election) they elect 10, or 15, or whatever works for that region (smaller regions, for example Northern Ireland, would need a greater multiplier to get a practical number of assembly members, but this doesn’t affect their number of ‘units’ as it applies to other cross-regional institutions such as the Federal Parliament and House of Regions).  This not only continues the proportional system, but would allow even more flexibility for ‘minor’ parties to be able to gain a seat or two.

With the current regions being used by the boundary review, we could end up with numbers something like this:

Region
Units (MPs)
Constituencies
AM multiplier
AMs
HoR divider
House of Regions
East Midlands
44
9
2
88
4
22
Eastern
57
12
2
114
4
29
London
68
14
2
136
4
34
North East
25
5
3
75
6
13
North West
68
14
2
136
4
34
Northern I.
17
4
5
85
10
9
Scotland
51
11
2
102
4
26
SE (inc IoW)
83
17
2
166
4
42
South West
53
11
2
106
4
27
Wales
29
6
3
87
6
15
West Midland
53
11
2
106
4
27
Yorks & Humb
50
10
2
100
4
25
Total
598
124
-
1301
-
303

House of Regions (Federal Second Chamber).

You will, I’m sure, have noted the last two columns in the above table. These obviously refer to the number of seats that each region would get in the ‘House of Regions’, which is the institution that would replace the current House of Lords (performing more or less the same role). As with the previously described second chamber at ‘Regional’ or ‘National’ level, this would be a chamber appointed by and answerable to the parties in the regional institutions. The numbers are based on there being one member for every two of our original ‘units’ (rounded up for odd numbers), but allocated according to the number of seats each party wins in the assembly elections (which would again need to be ‘partial term’ to the Federal General Election, to provide a ‘mid term’ situation).

Since the seats in regional assemblies are subject to different ‘multipliers’ in order to provide a reasonably functional size of institution, they are similarly subject to different ‘divider’ factors to produce a proportional number of members for the House of Regions. In other words, in London, where the divider is 4, a party would gain a House of Regions seat for every 4 seats in gains in the London Assembly. In Wales, however, it would be one HoR seat to every 6 Welsh Assembly seats.

As before, these would have to include a ‘larger part of’ to allow for the maximum representation for different parties, so a party having only 5 Welsh Assembly seats should be eligible for one HoR seat whereas a party getting 25 would get 4 of the HoR seats. In second chambers, where statutory responsibility is limited to revising and advising rather than making final decisions on legislation, maximum breadth of representation is actually slightly more important that strict proportionality, so we can afford to ‘round up’ where necessary without upsetting the proportional balance of the institution in a way that will make any significant difference to any region’s influence over the Federal system as a whole.

In the case of the regions, in order for the second chambers to be both of practical size and of practically applicable makeup by council, they are (mostly, aside from those with different multipliers for primary chambers) of the same size as the primary chambers (although may well be part time in operation). Here you will note that the size of the second chamber is about half that of the primary chamber (rounded up) – that, I think, should provide sufficient operational capacity, though it would have to run on a more or less full time basis for members (meaning an end to the current system of occasional visitors and people turning up on the basis of daily allowances and the like – more about the payment of ‘politicians’ issue later). We just don’t need a second chamber comprising of many hundreds of people who mostly aren’t actually there very often (and are just wheeled in by parties for particular votes) – we need a functioning system of regular attendees.

House of Commons.

So now we come to the primary chamber of the Federal UK parliament, and its makeup should be fairly obvious by now having already gone through the process of describing our ‘units’. It is simply one MP per ‘unit’, but with those ‘units’ organised into our 4 or 5 ‘unit’ multi-member constituencies, and elected by a proportional system (some form of STV, or whatever).

Each MP would need to cover a larger area, and would be covering two complete council areas, of course, but would not be the only representative covering that area – people would have a much better chance of having at least one MP who actually represents their views. That surely has to be a very, very good thing for everyone.

The Monarchy.

This isn’t going to be a pitch for Republicanism – I’m pretty neutral about the whole issue, to be honest. Although the hereditary principle is frankly a silly one to base the appointment of a Head of State around in the modern world, it actually has some distinct practical advantages over any other system I’ve ever looked at. It’s also quite popular, and any abolishing of it is likely to be met with stiff resistance that could effectively scupper the other constitutional improvements that are really needed if the two issues are tied together. My only comment here, then, is that we need to make absolutely sure that the role of Head of State becomes strictly a ceremonial one, and remove any last vestiges of ‘Royal Prerogative’ from our system. Of course, they are currently operated as ‘executive powers’ for government, and such things do need to exist in some areas, but we need to rewrite the rules such that it is clear that they are, practically and legally, government powers (under the control of, and devolved by, parliament) and nothing to do with whoever has currently inherited the silly hat (and likewise we need to address the archaic legal language of ‘The Crown’, ‘Crown Estates’, and so on).

European Parliament.

No, I’m not going to go over the Brexit arguments here either! Suffice to say that my opinion on that is clear, but for the moment we are a member of the EU and need to consider the possibility that we might end up still being a member of the EU for some time at least. We don’t have direct control over the makeup of that parliament, of course, but in this context all we need to be concerned about is that the allocation of EU parliamentary seats works with, and is correctly proportional to, our other regional and ‘unit’ issues. I will note, though, that I am a big fan of second chambers, and I would prefer to see the EU have a ‘second chamber’ made up in the same way as I have been doing here, with seats allocated according to party seat numbers in National Parliaments rather than being effectively having a part of the institution made up from system of direct government/executive representatives.

Responsibilities and Devolution.

I don’t propose to cover ground here that I’ve already mentioned elsewhere in great detail. In brief, though, I think we have to consider the way in which we have been doing devolution, by saying a particular area of responsibility is devolved rather than a particular level of responsibility. I think that may not be the best way of doing it. For example, we currently say that Education is ‘devolved’ to Wales, so that the Welsh Government and Assembly are fully in charge of all educational matters within Wales. I think a better way to look at it would be for the Federal Parliament to deal with the setting of basic groundrules and standards (and for inspecting that those basic standards are being met), for regional assemblies to develop the policies of how those groundrules will be addressed in their area, and for the unitary local authorities to be responsible for delivery and implementation of those policies in their areas. That’s quite a different concept, and one which will need a great deal of thought in its own right over and above the practicalities of the institutions that I’ve been talking about here, but I think it’s something we should be thinking about. At the moment we have too many conflicts of interest, with, for example, institutions effectively appointing their own ‘independent’ (but not really) organisations to inspect what they themselves are doing in terms of meeting their own set standards. I think we could be much clearer about the division of responsibilities, as I have laid out in a little more length elsewhere.

As a brief example, though, the UK parliament could be responsible for a 'Road Inspectorate' that sets out relevant road standards in association with the parliament (what does 'Motorway' mean, for example, or what kind of standards an 'A' road should meet, or what type of signage should be deployed where, or whatever). Devolved Institutions have responsibility for deciding broadly how the roads will be run in their area, perhaps with 'Trunk Road Agency' type bodies, while Councils deal with smaller roads in their areas. The UK-wide Inspectorate would then be responsible for inspections to ensure the set standards are being met (we're not talking about punitive measures for non-compliance here, but rather producing an annual report of 'Road Quality' that becomes an issue for Devolved Institutions and Councils to address, and be democratically accountable for).

Funding.

I'm not going to go into detail here about devolution, taxation, revenue and funding issues, but it should be noted that we need a funding model that works. Currently we don't have that, either at devolved institution level or at council level - our poorest areas are often effectively paying the highest levels of tax but getting the lowest levels of service, and not because they elect high-tax parties who are useless at running councils. We simply have the wrong balance in the local taxation and support funding system - we need to take much better account of the fact that poorer areas will require greater levels of spending on statutory services that better off ones. We need to compensate for that in some way other than just raising more council tax from lower earners while higher earners in council areas with lower levels of social deprivation are paying less, and have councils with more cash to spend on the 'niceties'.

Election timings.

We have now arrived at a point where we know who needs to be elected to what, so the question arises of when. In general, fixed terms make things clearer for everyone, but a fixed round of elections could make it even more so. We now have implications of one set of elections on another institution’s second chamber, so we need to take this into account. What we end up with, when we consider all that, could be something roughly like this:

Year 1: EU parliament.
Year 2: Federal Elections
Year 3: Council Elections (and Assembly Second Chambers)
Year 4: No Elections
Year 5: Assembly Elections (and Federal Second Chamber)

Politician Pay

Thorny subject, to say the least, but I’m just going to address it a little in passing. We do need to be mindful of attracting good quality ‘applicants’ at all levels of our democracy (including councils), but also of the issue of ‘public service’ not being something that anyone should be making a fortune at from the taxpayer. I don’t think it would be too hard to arrive at a fairly simple formula that applies universally across all levels of politics, all pegged to a basic salary for a back bench MP. For example, broadly something along the lines of this:

Federal Parliament Primary Chamber:
MP: £75,000 (with annual percentage increases linked to civil service rises)
Committee chair: +10% = £82,5000
Junior Minister: +25% = £93,750
Senior/Cabinet Minister: +50% = £112,500
Prime Minister: +75% = £131,250

Official opposition ‘Shadow’ ministers to receive 50% of their ministerial counterparts, so:
Leader of the Opposition: +37.5% = £103,125

Other party leaders to receive half of Leader of Opposition rise (so +18.75% = £89,062)

National/Regional Assembly:
Assembly Member: MP/1.5 = £50,000

All other multipliers apply as in Federal Parliament.

Council:

Councillor: MP/4 = £18,750

Multipliers apply as above for Council Leaders, Cabinet Members, Group Leaders, etc.
(A note here – this is a rise from what most councillors currently receive as an ‘allowance’, but this is a ‘salary’ in recognition of the fact that the extra direct responsibilities that this system places on them is likely to make it pretty much a full time job. It should certainly, in my opinion, be a wage set at a level such that it attracts a wide variety of people to see it as a viable full time job).

Second Chamber Members:

Federal House of Regions Chamber Member: Assembly Member/2 = £25,000
Regional House of Councils Chamber Member: Councillor = £18,750

No additional multipliers available apart from +10% committee chair.

These are just example figures, but the kind of coherent system that I think we should be considering.

Politician ‘Expenses’

This is an even more difficult issue, but one we really have to address urgently in our political system – it is causing a great deal of almost entirely unnecessary distrust, simply because we’ve created a system that is simultaneously confusing and misleading, and that is a recipe for disaster. Again it’s something I just want to touch on very briefly in passing here.

We need to stop calling ‘Office Costs’ ‘MP Expenses’, as if they are the same kind of thing as the travel and subsistence ‘expenses’ claimed by many people who have to attend meetings or whatever away from their normal place of work. We need to separate out ‘parliamentary office costs’, and provide a much better framework for what they are and how they are used. For example, one of the biggest ‘expenses’ is staff wages, but we currently give little guidance on what staff structure a member of parliament should have (which allows nonsense like highly paid ‘personal assistants’ who happen to be the wife of the MP).

We should put in place a default staff structure, with default pay scales, and a list of standard posts which the MP has to fill, and which are then paid directly without it appearing to be money allocated to an MP individually. In other words, every MP has a ‘parliamentary branch office’ in their constituency that is staffed in exactly the same way as every other one. They should be able to appoint people who are in some way sympathetic to their general ideals, of course, and someone who they can get on with and work with effectively, but that should be the limit of their control over the posts that exist. They are all doing the same job – they should all have the same staff to do it.

We could also consider the idea of having council-maintained parliamentary (and assembly) offices, rather than MPs (and AMs) choosing their own and ‘claiming expenses’ for it. There’s always going to be an MP, and they will always need an office (and for the same number of staff), so why should they need to have a different one from the person who was MP last time around? In the case of our ‘5 unit’ constituencies, they could be provided as one in each ‘unit’ so that there is a good geographical spread of MPs around the area (and, if necessary, lots drawn after each election to allocate each MP an office). There is the issue of ‘party activity’ and ‘parliamentary activity’, and having an office that is part one and part the other for convenience, but in the grand scheme of things providing an office area that includes a reasonable ‘party room’ to house any local ‘political’ staff or activities that might be associated with an MP/AM really shouldn’t be an issue (and doing so also helps compensate for any unfair disadvantage in that area for independent members or  members from smaller parties).

I have considered a similar idea for ‘second homes’, or accommodation close to parliament, but different needs and security issues may make that unachievable. Even so, we should tighten the rules on such things, so that it is clear that the MP should always live primarily in their constituency, but have secondary accommodation (only provided if they live outside the area, of course, and don’t own any property within the area) close to parliament.

Collaborative Politics.

In summary, now that the ideas have been set out and the systems described, I’d just like to add this as being what I see as one of the primary benefits of such a system. Of course, having a sensible and coherent system that applies across the UK for everyone is an important goal in itself, as is having an electoral system where votes actually match seats, and where every institution is proportional to the elections which appoint its members.

It would be a huge change, but one of the most positive changes, I think, would be a necessity to develop a more collaborative style of politics. Currently our political system is very adversarial, and not just between parties – we have institutions blaming each other and ‘passing the buck’, and an almost dysfunctional set of competing responsibilities exercise without reference to each other. This kind of system that I am proposing would encourage the opposite – parties would have to work together constructively far more at all levels (PR elections make that almost inevitable, and that is a good thing) from ‘ward committees’ upwards, but also institutions would have an important advisory voice in other institutions. This would see our political system interconnected in a way that we’ve really never had before, and I think it would go a huge way to improving the way that the UK as a whole is run.