Obama’s chance for gun law change

Sir Peter Lampl draws parallels with Dunblane after the Newtown massacre.

Watching with horror reports from Newtown, Connecticut last weekend of the killing of 20 young children and six of their teachers, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities with Dunblane.

Back in March 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into a classroom in that Scottish town, armed with a small arsenal of legally owned guns. It took him just three minutes to kill sixteen 5 and 6 year-olds and their teacher.

But while those two tragedies share a chilling resemblance, I hope that what followed from Dunblane provides President Obama with the inspiration to ban at least some of the deadly weapons that have blighted so many American lives.

When I moved to Boston in the seventies, I was shocked to discover there were more murders in that city each year than in the whole of Britain. Moving back to Britain before Dunblane, I worried that this country was moving in the same direction.

Yet that tragedy led to a fundamental change in the UK.  At the time, I read that a campaign was being organised to ban handguns, so I asked how I could help. Two weeks later, two fathers whose young daughters had been killed showed up in my living room. This moving experience led me to fund the campaign.

The campaign won the support of both John Major and Tony Blair, and proved so successful that it resulted in a complete ban on the private ownership of handguns in Britain.

It changed my life too, as its amazing success encouraged me to devote the next 16 years to education philanthropy, and to the formation of the Sutton Trust a year later.

But Dunblane was not the only mass killing that year to lead to positive change. Six weeks after Dunblane, a killing spree in Port Arthur, Tasmania claimed 35 lives and wounded 18. That massacre led to change too: a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns across Australia. The ban worked. A Sydney University study found that in the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, and none in the ten years afterwards.

I’ve spent so much of my working life in the United States that I have no illusions about our different attitudes. Cold hard facts will not be enough to sway those whose attachment to the constitutional right to bear arms is as strong as the Biblical literalism of the most convinced Creationist.

Last year, I visited a Florida gun show. Hundreds of stalls legally sold every type of weapon imaginable, from samurai swords and tiny handguns that fit in a pocket or purse to semi-automatics like that used in Newtown. There are 5,000 such shows across America annually. US federal law requires gun dealers normally to be licensed and perform background checks, but this requirement does not extend to “occasional sales” at gun shows.

Whenever I switch on the local news in the US, it’s the same story. Someone has been shot dead in a shopping mall, in a side street or at traffic lights. While mass murders make national headlines, the pervasive availability of guns – there are 300 million in circulation, around one per person – means that they are routinely used to settle disputes.

Masses die and are injured each year as a result, with no fanfare. United Nations statistics show that there are nearly 10,000 homicides a year involving firearms in the US, or 3.2 for every 100,000 people. This compares with rates of 0.1 in the UK and Australia.

Yet, support for gun control has fallen. After violent crime rose during the seventies and eighties, President Clinton felt able to outlaw assault weapons. Gallup reported 78 per cent of Americans backing gun control in 1990. By contrast, the most recent Gallup poll on the issue found 54 per cent wanting no change (a fifth of them wanted laxer laws) and only 44 per cent supporting tougher laws.

The Clinton ban lasted ten years, but was not renewed in 2004. The author of the legislation, Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to reintroduce it next month, and I hope she is successful. But she faces formidable foes in the National Rifle Association and other gun rights lobbyists.

People carry guns because they know others do too. Fear of guns is as damaging as their ready availability. And it is white males like me who are the least likely to back gun control. Some Florida friends of mine keep guns in their cars, so any altercation could turn fatal. If someone breaks into my Florida home, they will almost certainly have a gun, making it a life and death situation; here it is more likely to be just another burglary.

After Friday’s massacre, President Obama has a unique window of opportunity to break the cycle of fear and persuade his fellow Americans a ban on assault weapons is essential in stopping such senseless killing. I hope he takes it.

A version of this blog appeared in Wednesday’s Times.

On your bike – social mobility outside London

James Turner says that a priority is spreading the riches of opportunity beyond the capital

A young man from a deprived borough of London, with immigrant parents, was describing his aspiration to read Law at Oxbridge. He listed the opportunities he’d accessed over the last two years in pursuit of this dream: an internship programme, a leadership development initiative, one of our Sutton Trust summer schools – and he was being mentored by a senior partner at one of the world’s leading law firms.

It was a tremendous story of determination, aspiration and – very likely – social mobility.

But a question struck me.  How likely is it that he’d have these same chances if he lived not in Hackney, but in, say, Blackpool, Scunthorpe or Hastings? Almost certainly nil.  And our society would be poorer as a result.

It is always striking how much activity is focused in London. There are good reasons for this – London has poverty and inequality; it is the centre of business for many of the wealthiest and most active corporations who sponsor much good work; and there is no better place to get your work noticed than within spitting distance of Whitehall.

But London’s school results are out shining other urban areas.  Its university progression rates are higher.  Spend per head in schools is generally greater – even before you factor in the spending of charities and corporates.

And some of the most pressing issues of social mobility lie outside the capital – in coastal towns, ex-industrial heartlands in The Midlands and the North, and in forgotten rural areas.  Not only do these areas face material poverty, but often cultural deprivation too.  The signs of aspiration a young Londoner may see out of his or her window – Canary Wharf, The City, the towers of Westminster – seem a million miles away from a crumbling social housing estate in the North East.

The challenge for organisations like ours is to reach these communities directly through our work – and to make it feasible and cost effective for others in the capital to access this national pool of untapped talent.  It is a redistribution of opportunities from the capital outwards.

There are some good schemes underway. The Social Mobility Foundation’s programme to provide City internships to disadvantaged young people from the regions is a great example – and we plan something similar thing in the legal sector next year as part of Pathways to Law. And one of the advantages our summer schools bring to London universities is a truly national reach – with students recruited from all corners of the UK.

But there also needs to be a more systematic way – through funding, partnership work and collaboration – of ensuring activity is not focussed on a few lucky ones, but spread where it is most needed. The Education Endowment Foundation is doing sterling work.  The projects it has supported range from Bournemouth in the South to County Durham in the North, via almost every local authority region in between.

Social mobility is about more than turning on the tap of talent for one city, important though that is. The country is awash with young men and women with great potential who equally deserve a chance to shine.

Turning the Tables

Conor Ryan looks at the growing role of international education league tables following the new Pearson index.

Last week’s publication of a new global education league table by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Pearson raised some eyebrows with its claim that the UK’s education system now ranks sixth in the developed world.

After all, on the same day, the Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw was using the data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to make a case that English schools must do better if we are to match global competitors in the future.

The UK scores around average in PISA for reading and mathematical literacy, and a little above average for scientific literacy, based on tests of 15 year-olds. This places UK schools 25th for reading, 28th for maths and 16th for science, out of 65 countries.

Pearson has aggregated this PISA data with other studies from the Trends In International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which measures international trends in mathematics and science achievement of 9 and 13 year-olds, and the Progress In International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which just focuses on the reading achievement of 9 year-olds – those in fourth grade.

The Pearson Learning Curve report also includes some UNESCO data to create a ranking of countries that looks at both cognitive skills and educational attainment. For cognitive skills, they use PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS, and for attainment they use UNESCO data on adult literacy and OECD data on graduation rates at the end of secondary school and at university.

PISA and TIMSS/PIRLS measure different things and do so at different ages. The primary difference is that TIMSS/PIRLS looks at what you been taught in a particular subject and how much you have learnt, whereas PISA looks at what you are able to do with the science you have been taught. PISA is more about the practical application of your knowledge.

The Learning Curve report also draws wider conclusions and lessons for education policymakers, including the importance of good teachers, a strong pro-education culture and on the best ways to engage parents.

But how does it reach so different a conclusion from PISA on the comparative health of the UK education system? It does so quite easily, in fact, and it is all in the weightings. And in looking at how it reaches the conclusions it does, there are also lessons on how one should use such league tables.

First, on PISA, the Pearson/EIU index has fewer countries than PISA in its list, so removing those countries and only using Hong Kong for China (PISA includes Shanghai and Macao too) elevates the UK four places higher in reading and science and six places higher in Maths. The new index is more interested in a country’s relationship to the mean than its ranking, so bunching around the mean in PISA would also reduce ranking differentials.

Second, on PIRLS and TIMSS, England and Wales score significantly better on these tables (some of which exclude other major developed nations such as France, Finland and New Zealand) than on PISA. Although Scotland scores lower, the UK average remains strong. Because TIMSS has both Grade 4 and Grade 8 tests, the combined value of PIRLS and TIMSS is stronger than that for PISA.

And finally, although the UK is rated 6th overall, it is only ranked 11th for cognitive skills – those measured by PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS – and its higher rating on the overall table owes more to adult literacy and graduation rates.

Add in all these factors, and look at the weighting given to each factor in the report. The default weight for the Index is two-thirds to cognitive skills and one-third to educational attainment. Within the cognitive skills category, the Grade 8 tests’ score accounts for 60% while the Grade 4 tests’ score accounts for 40% (Reading, Maths and Science all account for equal weights).

Pearson table








So, the PISA reading and Maths scores combined, where the UK is weakest, only account for 20% of a country’s ranking, and PISA science another 6.7%. But because PIRLS and TIMSS are available at Grade 4 and Grade 8, they will be worth 26.7% for the Grade 4 and 13.3% for the Grade 8, a total of 40%. The HE and adult literacy scores are worth a further 33.3% between them.

Perhaps a bigger issue than the rankings is what the tables do not reveal about education in the UK, particularly the absence of any measure in the Pearson/EIU table of the attainment gap or of social mobility. One recent OECD report, for example, said that only Russia and the Czech Republic had a more socially segregated schools system.

The big gaps in attainment between pupils on free school meals and their peers in GCSEs are another important indicator – other countries have narrower gaps in attainment, as we demonstrated at our social mobility summit in May.

And the rankings should also look at how well countries perform with their most able students. Sutton Trust analysis earlier this year showed that, in maths, just 1.7% of 15-year-olds attained the very highest PISA level (level 6), compared with an OECD average of 3.1%, placing England 26th out of 34 countries.

The new index is an important step forward in consolidating international data. But any such league table is dependent on the quality and range of inputs. As the Economist Intelligence Unit and Pearson develop the index, they should consider adding measures of mobility and the achievements of the most able to give a fuller picture of the success of national education systems.