Monday, 12 September 2011

This is what I call 'like for like'

In its recent media release, the Education Department criticised Frontier Economics' 'decline' graph as being a 'flawed' comparison and 'not like for like'.

Let me tell you a little story. In 2004, the States started publishing a 'Facts and Figures' booklet, showing trends in various key indicators which can help determine policy.

In 2005, Education included a graph in this booklet showing the proportion of Guernsey pupils gaining at least 5 GCSEs grade A*-C, compared with their UK counterparts. Here it is:

It shows the Education Department performing well, as their glowing analysis underneath explains.

On to 2006:

The graph in 2006 tells the same story, but Education decided to add an extra line. Aren't we doing well, overtaking Jersey! Although one can't help noticing that it's lucky these Jersey statistics weren't available last year, because without that most recent figure they would have suggested Guernsey performs consistently worse than the Crapauds...

Now it's 2007 and... oops! Guernsey's had a bit of a crash! But look, a new dotted line has swung in to rescue us. As the rubric says, the news isn't all that bad: It's because we have a school leaving age of 15 in Guernsey, and so the previous line is bound to look bad as it included all those early leavers. So, as the new dotted line shows, it's actually '68% [in Guernsey] compared to 58% in England'. Phew!

2008 - not much change since last year. Still a touch below England using the old 'all pupils' measure, but our new dotted line has risen this year to a magnificent 71%.

Swinging into 2009, and that Guernsey 'all pupils' line is still struggling to keep up with England. But look! The old 'all pupils' line is now a washed-out pastel shadow of its former self, and the dotted line has now become a big fat solid line, which means it's Official - we are doing better than England again, and pulling away from Jersey as well! Hurrah!

Into 2010, and... oh dear... the jiggery pokery isn't holding up... Our new solid Guernsey line, despite its patriotic green hue, is stagnant, and Jersey and the UK are powering along to draw level. The rubric notes we are holding on to our 71%, but no comparisons are offered. Even the masters of spin at Education can't paint a rosy picture of this one.

And so to the 2011 graph. Oh shit.

And then it gets worse again. The 2011 figures (not included in this last graph) show a further 5% fall in the Guernsey figure. Funnily, that part of the line doesn't make it into the graph Education included in their recent media release about GCSE statistics, even though it is included in the raw figures in the same document!

In light of all that, have another read of this paragraph from Education's media release:

'Education’s official statistics, which are included in the 2011 Facts and Figures booklet, accurately reflect the steady improvement in GCSE results from 2001 to 2010. This is contrary to figures published by Frontier Economics who have used the exam entrants only and not the full cohort which the England and Jersey figures seem to represent.'

But the fat solid line in the Facts and Figures booklet IS the same line published by Frontier Economics! And, as Commerce and Employment points out, its use in the Frontier report was signed off by Education. Now it is showing a decline, Education want to disown it.

They should never have started using it - they should have been up-front when we started struggling in 2007 and 2008. Instead we've wasted four years sweeping the problem under the carpet, and now Education have been caught with their pants down, using whatever statistics they think are going to paint the best picture for the purpose.

On its own that might be understandable. We are where we are, as Carol Steere is so fond of saying. But put it alongside her sanctimonious preaching about other States departments' 'flawed comparisons', and it looks like we're being hoodwinked again.

What is really needed is change at the top of Education to prevent us from wasting the next four years. But if it saves her having to have a few difficult conversations with her senior civil servants, it seems Deputy Steere would rather we have another four years of statistical acrobatics, moving deckchairs and deflecting blame.

Monday, 31 March 2008

How to fix the States in one easy step

The more I think about it, the more it seems obvious that the way to fix the States, and give the people the government they have been crying out for, is staring us in the face. Richard Digard has been subtly pushing it again lately - his comment column in the Press alluded to it last week, and again in the Press blog today.

The easy step is this: Give the Chief Minister the power to appoint and sack the ministers.

The way the government is supposed to work is that the Policy Council sets the agenda for the States. No department can bring its policies before the house without the Policy Council's approval, and no department will waste its time drafting plans which won't get the council's backing. So, theoretically, the Billets should be stuffed with Big Vision Goodness.

Except it doesn't work, because the ministers in the Policy Council vote independently, and perhaps contrary to the Chief Minister's wishes. So in reality the Big Vision can go hang most of the time.

That is if you can find a Chief Minister who has any vision. Which you won't, because the Stuart Fallas and Peter Ferbraches of the world won't touch the post with a bargepole in its current form - it's a political death sentence. You're the only person anyone can really pin any blame on, but you get none of the real power needed to do anything about it!

Give the Chief Minister the power to sack the ministers, and the whole landscape changes. If the Chief Minister deems a matter important enough for a three-line whip, then dissenting ministers could simply be removed and replaced with ministers who will agree.

So, does that just give the power to some megalomaniac uber-Deputy, the worst of the worst?

On the contrary: It puts the power in the hands of the electorate. What brings this matter to the fore is the second post-Harwood general election being held next month. Looking at the candidate list, and especially reading the manifestos, the electorate once again basically has no choice but to elect the least incompetent people, who will just spend the next four years tugging the island in 45 different directions with predictable results.

If the Chief Minister is granted the power to push through his vision, the election is transformed, because candidates can declare their voting intentions for the post of Chief Minister at manifesto time. So then you've really got something to vote for - and it's 'island-wide', because whichever district you're in, you can vote for the candidates who pledge to vote for your preferred CM!

Of course all this change may not be in the interests of two groups of people. The first are those running the finance industry, because they like a nice stable jurisdiction and a parliament they can bamboozle; a government with a sense of direction threatens their cosy outlook. The second are incompetent sitting deputies who in all likelihood stand to lose their seats should the change cause a rush of able candidates to put their names forward next time.

Luckily one thing Harwood did get through was provision for referenda!

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Use fewer plastic bags: Save world

Following the Guernsey and Jersey supermarkets' recent announcement that they would charge for plastic bags, both the Press and the Beeb ran vox pops interviews with generally supportive islanders.

Although I'm a big old cynic when it comes to the supermarkets' motives behind this action, particularly chains like M&S which insist on including stacks of unnecessary glossy packaging on their own brands, I've got to agree with the sanity of the move on litter grounds, and as a libertarian, it heartens me that we got there without any legislation being necessary.

Plastic bags are an eyesore and a menace to wildlife. Charging for them means everyone gets a little reminder that the world needs some TLC every time they reach the end of the check-out queue. There's even a chance that charging for plastic bags will reduce our oil consumption by some microscopic proportion (though that's not clear-cut, because the re-usable alternatives involve a lot more oil in their manufacture).

But the madness of it is the vox pops still contain plenty of people talking about this as 'doing their bit for the environment'.

I predict that when such people pass away, their heads will be drilled open and their brains exhibited as curiosities in 22nd century museums. There is a vast, yawning chasm between using a jute bag once a week, and the kind of changes we are going to have to make to 'do our bit for the environment'.

Another oft-heard comment that tries but fails to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem is that this is a 'step in the right direction'. Sadly, it ain't necessarily so. Trying to step in any direction usually results in inadvertently generating more CO2 - for example by traipsing halfway across the island in a car to stick some bottles and a couple of cardboard boxes in a skip.

Then the assumption is if we make lots of steps in this direction then the world as a whole can arrive at the destination. In reality, any slack created by Guernsey in the demand for oil will be picked up oil being consumed elsewhere. I don't just mean that Guernsey can only have a small impact - I mean it will have no impact, because what drives CO2 emissions globally is fossil fuel production and callous economics.

Apart from a readjustment in the 70s, world production of oil has increased every year since the industrial revolution started. No economic forecast of world fossil fuel extraction has been adjusted down because climate change makes it less desirable, even with the Kyoto agreement and the EU's laudable pledges of big CO2 reductions. Guernsey can't stop oil being produced, all we can do is change where it is consumed.

The climate change scenarios predicted now even by most moderate scientists constitute a monumental international crisis. The only realistic solution is a virtually impossible unification of world leaders behind some incredibly tough and painful decisions to reduce fossil fuel extraction in the face of relentlessly rising demand - economics would deal with the rest of it, as long as global thermonuclear war doesn't break out first.

But in any case, the alternative to us solving climate change is that climate change will solve us.

In the meantime, we are not powerless. The chattering classes can remove their heads from the sand, educate people to face up to this problem, and lobby for however long it takes for real action to reduce global CO2 emissions instead of token measures.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Brief introspective moment

I haven't posted to this blog for 197 days. Which is a shame, because I've often thought of things to post about and then forgotten about them. And then later I might hear something on the radio or read something in the paper which made me wish I'd posted them. In fact that's happened a lot.

The reason I stopped posted is partly because I have a lifestyle which very rarely permits me to sit down for an hour, in private, and collect my thoughts - unless I get up at 4am and do it.

I've also been thinking about what the point of this blog is (if any) and, basically, whether any bloody good will come of it. Anyhow, I thought seeing as there's a general election soon, I might as well give blogging another shot.

That's quite enough about me. Me is a terrifically boring topic, and there are far too many bloggers already writing about it. And anyway, my private blog-writing idyll is just about to be shattered...

Monday, 13 August 2007

Credit where credit's due

Perhaps I'll take a break from bashing the Press today.

Firstly, last Saturday's cover, featuring Jason Duncombe providing us with a delightful enumeration, via the medium of his middle digits, of the precise number of braincells he posesses, was outstanding. All credit to the photographer for getting the shot (I'd have been too incensed to have had the presence of mind to press the shutter button), and to the editors for turning it into Guernsey's very own 'Up Yours Delors'.

El Ed has defended it as 'exposing' the yob culture. To be honest, I don't think that defence is even necessary. It's sufficient that the photo shows, at a glance, precisely what kind of person Duncombe is, in a way that a dry court report couldn't possibly do. It's only a shame the photo hasn't been immortalised in the online version of the article.

And secondly, Nigel Baudains' report today on the anti-mast lobby group's hijacking of Al Brouard's public meeting comes as a great relief. Without taking sides, the Press has finally managed to come up with some much-needed critical reporting on the attitudes and approach of this group's hysterically irrational hardcore members.

Anyway, enough of this praise, normal service will be resumed shortly. I haven't got started yet on the Press's tendency to report staff mishaps as earth-shattering news...

Friday, 27 July 2007

The Great Mobile Mast Conspiracy

Over the last few weeks, a bit of a storm has erupted over Airtel's applications to spackle the island with the masts required to run the island's third mobile phone network. Naturally there's some serious questions to be answered about these potential eyesores, why they are necessary and why they couldn't share existing sites.

However, lately the furore has largely focused on health implications. Most recently on Tuesday, Mr Roger Coghill rolled in to the island to give a talk at St Martin's Community Centre which has been widely and uncritically reported in the media. The Press proclaims him to be an 'electromagnetic energy expert' and a 'research scientist', and BBC Guernsey never miss an opportunity to point out that he is 'Cambridge-educated'.

But dig a little deeper, and it seems things are not quite what they appear.

As the Press notes (nearly) correctly, Coghill became quite prominent in 1998 when he published independent research arguing that RF emissions from mobile phones damage the immune system, and attempted a private prosecution against a mobile dealer arguing that under the Consumer Protection Act he should be displaying warning labels on phone packaging.

Coghill lost the case. His research was not published in any peer-reviewed journal, and as such represented nothing more than his opinion. More importantly, it was not corroborated by other peer-reviewed studies. But that didn't stop both the case and the research generating a huge amount of media interest: Coghill was cited 119 times in the media between 1998 and 2003, fuelling considerable public fear over the safety of mobile phones.

Around the same time, Coghill set up Coghill Research Laboratories. For the last ten years, he has been conducting research there into the effects of magnetism, electric fields and non-ionising radiation on living tissue.

Coghill has published very few papers in peer-reviewed journals (especially if you don't count papers in European Biology and Bioelectromagnetics, a journal set up by Medcross Group which in turn was founded by... er... Roger Coghill). Of those which have, none effectively demonstrate a causal link between EMR (electromagnetic radiation) and negative health effects.

Nor do any of them provide evidence for the health benefits of Coghill's products, peddled via his website. These consist of a variety of alternative therapy books, highly dubious 'therapeutic' pendants and bracelets, mobile phone shields, and the modestly-named 'Coghill SuperMagnet', which is... er... a magnet. It's a very expensive magnet though, so it must be good at... whatever it does...

So what? The guy's a bit iffy - but there's still lots of research to indicate there are risks from mobiles, right?

Well, it is true that even though we know a lot more than we did 20 years ago, mobile phone masts are still not guaranteed to be safe. Millions of pounds are being poured into epidemiological studies to continue to examine the long-term effects of mobile phone emissions, and rightly so.

But with each study which comes up negative, with the benefit of ever longer case histories to examine, and with each literature review which whittles out the chaff from the previous studies, the odds that we will discover any health risks in a future study get smaller and smaller.

Despite this increasing body of evidence, surveys conducted in Europe, the UK and the US generally indicate that about 3% of the population suffers from a condition known as 'electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome' (EHS). This is a recognised condition with symptoms like stress, nausea, headaches and joint pain. The problem for scientists is that it is not known what causes EHS. A number of 'provocation studies' have been conducted into this - basically subjects who claim to have EHS are tested to see how the presence or absence of a mobile phone signal affects their symptoms.

One such study was published by Essex University yesterday and made headline news nationally. In fact there have been more than 30 similar studies published in the past. Most of these gave similar negative results to the Essex study - the few that didn't were either demonstrably flawed, couldn't be repeated even by the same researchers, or had mutually contradictory results.

However, what the provocation studies do show is that although EHS is not caused by the presence of mobile phone signals, subjects are afflicted with EHS when they believe that a signal is present.

Many media outlets have reported this result as saying that EHS is 'all in the mind', but that's not helpful because it belittles the very real and sometimes debilitating effects of EHS - a bit like dismissing depression as being 'all in the mind'. Though other causes of EHS cannot be ruled out, the most plausible explanation is that many subjects suffering from EHS are experiencing the consequences of anxiety brought on by their own fear of 'electrosmog'.

Coghill believes (or at least says he believes) that mobile companies are engaged in a conspiracy to fund biased studies, stymie true research, and cover up the true dangers of mobile technology. True, a lot of research into mobile phone risks is sponsored by mobile phone companies, but that's why there is a scientific peer-review process. What would Coghill be saying if the mobile companies refused to fund this research?

In reality, campaigners such as Coghill are always poised on the sidelines to pump the media with misinformation over any health scare, justified or not, and the media's blind acceptance of their authority converts this into public fear. Whilst Coghill reaps the rewards and boosts his notoriety, the well-being of around 2 million EHS sufferers in Britain alone is in jeopardy.

Acknowledgement: Apart from Coghill's own website, this astonishing thread on the James Randi Educational Foundation forum proved to be an absolute mine of references and links which proved thoroughly useful in researching this post, largely provided by the man himself.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Bottled out

As I blogged a month or so ago, I'm a bit of a recycling cynic, at least as far as Guernsey's present strategy is concerned. This week the Press joined the party with their article about the bazillion tons of glass, carefully sorted and posted into the green bins by enviro-conscious consumers, and collected and crushed at taxpayers' expense.

After all that work, this multi-coloured crushed glass is now being stockpiled at Longue Hougue and is very possibly destined for landfill after all, because the product of the process is basically worthless. When you think about the insane cost of producing all this crushed glass, largely borne by those who in good faith have gone to great efforts to 'do their bit', you can't help but feel a little bit let down.

The fact that the glass can't be used as aggregate because it hasn't been finely crushed enough is reasonably amusing, but probably beside the point. The point being, what was the point anyway? The Press referred to using glass as aggregate as 'down-cycling'. I think that's something of an understatement.

If we don't use glass as aggregate, then instead we use rock. When rock is quarried, it leaves a hole in the ground which we can use to dump rubbish (like... er... glass). Why go to the trouble of crushing and processing glass to use as an aggregate if it's easier just to use rock (the crushing of which Ronez has down to a fine art), and then dump the glass where the rock came from?

All we've really achieved is to divert a relatively tiny amount of inert waste away from Mont Cuet, but it looks like that was all we would ever have achieved anyway. Even if the glass can be used as aggregate, that's not what any green-minded recycler would really call recycling.

Recycling is supposed to help the environment by reducing energy and resources consumed. What we're doing with this glass doesn't achieve that. In fact all it will achieve is to fractionally extend the lifespan of the tip, and in turn all that will really achieve is to give the States an extra month or so to dither around and put off having to make any difficult decisions about how we should manage our waste.