Monday, 28 December 2009
For the record, here are the ten most read posts (at least among those accessed directly) during 2009 (some had been written in 2008) and the ten blogs that sent me most readers. The data is drawn from Google Analytics.
1. Field or Bercow: Make a maverick moderniser speaker
2. Eating out in Keynsham
3. Alan Johnson was right to sack Prof Nutt
4. Irish woes
5. Rising above party politics?
6. The death of Fianna Fail?
7. Is the tax rise good politics?
8. Ireland looks at tuition fees again
9. Ireland shows the Tory approach to the recession in action
10. Christmas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
And here are my main sources of traffic, aside from those who come to the site directly, or via Google, AOL or Bing search engines:
1. Hopi Sen
2. Iain Dale
3. Matthew Taylor
5. Total Politics
6. British Blogs
7. Scenes from the Battleground
8. John Rentoul
9. Tom Watson
10. Progress Online
Thanks to all those blogs for mentioning posts or listing this blog in their blogrolls.
Monday, 21 December 2009
6.30pm Update: After a lot of fiddling around the Eurostar website, I have found a link here which others messed about by Eurostar might find useful. Of course, it says nothing about those of us due to travel tomorrow, but it does explain how to ensure they pay our bills. I certainly intend to do so. Now I just have to hope that the snow coming down here at Stansted doesn't prevent us making Cologne tomorrow! At least, we seem to be the least affected London airport tonight.
6 FEB Update: I'm pleased to report that Eurostar have finally paid for the cost of our flights and refunded our train fare and an unused London hotel. Once they got their act together in early January, things were much more satisfactory. My letters were responded to by email with promised payments. But there is an object lesson here for other companies in how not only to do the right thing but to be clear from the start that you intend to do so.
In the meantime, Happy Christmas to all my regular blog readers.
Sunday, 20 December 2009
But, if anything., the scandal is being overshadowed this weekend by reports that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams's brother, also a party activist, allegedly raped his own daughter, and is on the run from the police, giving the Republican chief a mighty headache and questions to answer over what he knew.
Then the small Kerry town of Listowel, home of the late great satirist John B Keane, has come to represent a small-mindedness that the Celtic Tiger was supposed to have changed after a local sex-attacker with good connections gained a strong visible show of support this week from townspeople and a local priest (since forced to resign) after he was sentenced, while his badly beaten victim was shunned for her impertinence in bringing charges.
As the country tries to enjoy Christmas - despite the ludicrous cost of living leading to a boom in border town stores - Irish people are wondering can things be any worse in 2010?
This post has been picked up by Iain Dale.
Friday, 18 December 2009
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Naturally, those I speak to in No 10 deny that any strategy so crude is under way. And I wasn't alone in celebrating Gordon Brown's recent return to form at PMQs, when he had a few decent jokes about Eton and Cameron's crew. He and Osborne deserve to have their pomposity pricked a bit, and we need more such humour. But as someone who has been a part of Labour politics since the early eighties, I also know that it would be absurd and self-defeating to craft an election campaign around the theme.
That's not to say that there aren't individual actions that can be vote-winners. The PBR attack on bankers' bonuses is believed by Downing Street insiders to explain last week's remarkable council by-election victories. But it is to recognise that Labour will not win by developing absurd dividing lines which place Labour on the wrong side of aspiration. Becoming a party of aspiration was - and remains - the essential insight behind New Labour's continued electoral successes. And it would be absurd to throw it away on the illusion that a greater number of so-called core voters might be persuaded to turn out in May (the idea that there will be a March poll seems fanciful) if they heard the call to the barricades.
Instead, Labour needs to have a much sharper message about what it can do and what it can't do, as well as what it has done. It is understandable that ministers didn't want to reveal the entire departmental budgets ahead of a post-election spending review. And given the uncertainty of the result, it is quite sensible too. Look at what happened when 'priorities' were revealed in defence this week. However, it was a tactical mistake to try to obscure the overall size of likely cuts in the years ahead in last week's PBR statement when it was patently obvious that the IFS would have its own figures within 24 hours. And the government should have been clearer that decisions to raise national insurance or top rate income tax are a temporary and regrettable measure, not a cause for celebration.
At the same time, Labour must do more to highlight its approach to the public services - and its successes which get routinely rubbished by partisan pundits. Despite some criticisms by my friends at Progress, Andy Burnham's health statement last week was a decent attempt to explain a clear approach to NHS reform, even if it was a bit neutered by attempts to please some of the unions. Tessa Jowell has interesting ideas on mutualism. Andrew Adonis is doing remarkable things at transport, showing what Labour should have done ten years ago. Peter Mandelson has grappled the question of university fees and produced a decent plan on skills (just a shame there's no money with it). But elsewhere, the government's approach suffers from a confused message and a perverse willingness to cede ground to the Conservatives on Labour innovations, particularly on schools and academies.
Despite a lot of talk about failures to narrow the gap under Labour, the truth is that chances have been considerably improved for the working classes as opposed to the 'underclass' - those who voted for Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 - with the greatest improvements in health and education for those groups. [See here for example, go to the Excel table 4.1.1]. They might resent the bankers, but they're not interested in class war or dodgy dividing lines (something Cameron could suffer for as much as Labour). But crude attempts to compare the top and bottom 10% social groups don't bring out their improvements. And those voters do want some straight talk from the Labour government that many of them elected, which means an honest appraisal of the last 12 years and an honest assessment of what could be done with a fourth term. And they need to hear it from all the Government.
It may not have quite the same ring to it, but a message to ministers to give it to the voters straight could help bring back many of those who now say they will vote for other parties. It is rather more likely to do so than recreating the Tooting Liberation Front.
Monday, 14 December 2009
Friday, 11 December 2009
Thursday, 10 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Friday, 4 December 2009
The argument on 'education productivity' is ludicrous. Using the definition favoured by ONS it would be possible to achieve greater educational productivity by increasing class sizes (which have fallen) and by replacing experienced teachers (whose numbers have grown) with classroom assistants. Had the Labour government done so, it would indeed have been guilty of betrayal. And, incidentally, if the Tories increase surplus places to allow new schools, they will find that it may increase choice, but it will also probably reduce 'productivity'.
The chief schools adjudicator Ian Craig made headlines last month when he proposed a crackdown on parents lying to get a place in a good school. And Schools Secretary Ed Balls was quick to propose fines and other sanctions for the wrongdoers.
But they both appeared to ignore an equally worrying issue, even though it also featured in the adjudicator's annual report: poor choice advice.
Disadvantaged families have been missing out on the help they need to get their preferred school. This failure to engage the families who need the most support has grown apparent under Labour, but it also risks undermining the Conservatives' plans to open the system up to new schools.
Choice advisers were one of three measures introduced in Tony Blair's controversial schools white paper in 2005 which were intended to ensure that, as new academies and trust schools were established, they were accessible to children from poorer homes. Along with greater flexibility in free school transport (since 2008, it applies to a choice of three schools, not just that deemed acceptable by the local authority) and an admissions code that encouraged random selection or lotteries and ability banding, choice advisers were meant to be advocates for those without the pushy elbows.
Without such measures, parents might fall foul not only of fraud by other families, but also the inbuilt unfairness of an admissions system that too often reflects the size of the family mortgage. I was Blair's adviser at the time, and we always recognised that choice advisers should be wholly independent of the local authority; ideally they should include people drawn from the communities that needed help, including the white working classes and some minority ethnic communities.
I had been particularly struck, for example, by the success of a young Somali woman graduate in persuading Muslim mothers in a Bristol school of the value of their daughters continuing in education after their GCSEs. And I'd spoken to parent support workers from the voluntary sector who made a real difference to how parents related to their children's education in east London.
The good news in Dr Craig's report is that all but one local authority now provide choice advice. Moreover, many have linked them to other parent or family information services, giving them a degree of independence, though limited funds. And local authorities believe the advisers are doing a good job helping parents navigate the applications timetable.
The bad news is that the service is too often poorly targeted. As Dr Craig says: "Some (local authorities) have found it difficult to prioritise the most 'needy' ... consequently, those who would benefit the most have not necessarily received the level of support that they otherwise might, and the choice advice service is not maximising its contribution to fairness."
To be fair, the best authorities do inform people of the service, placing leaflets in supermarkets, children's centres and doctors' surgeries. Some have public sessions at shopping centres, and many are happy to visit parents in their homes.
But the service is inevitably hampered by time constraints and anxieties that suggest many of the advisers are not being drawn from the communities themselves. A significant number would not attend an appeal hearing, fearing "blame" if parents lost their appeal. A separate analysis by academics from Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, suggests that where local authorities used arms-length parent partnerships to deliver choice advice, rather than basing them in existing admissions teams, they received "more in-depth support and guidance", often including "repeated home visits" and joint school visits. The report said that when choice advice is well targeted and staffed, it can play a "small but important part in making the admissions process fairer and easy to navigate".
Critics of choice advice - and school choice generally - say it is a poor substitute for making every school a good school. It isn't - we need to do both. But even if that happens, some schools will still be better than others, and may offer different strengths or facilities. And with the academies programme being extended and Conservative plans to allow new providers to develop new primary and secondary schools, poorer parents will need such support more than ever.
Of course, not all parents will want to share the angst of the metropolitan middle classes. The Sheffield researchers noted that for many favouring their local catchment school, "accessibility and their child's happiness were more important than the educational performance of schools". Choice advisers can only advise them of their options.
Yet, while the middle classes make the most of what choices are available to them - including opportunities to work with new providers where there is dissatisfaction with local schools - it is vital that such advice is available, impartially and from trusted sources. Once parents have the advice, they must get the support they need if they want to apply beyond their local school.
But so long as schools only offer places to those in an immediate catchment area, the choices for many others will remain limited. A real success of academies has been in attracting a genuine social mix, either with banding or lotteries or because they are located in poorer areas. Other good schools should be encouraged to open some of their places up to a wider cross-section of families.
So, Ed Balls should do more to encourage all authorities to follow best practice and encourage genuinely fairer admissions. His Tory shadow, Michael Gove, should stop pretending that without the right support and open admissions policies, his plans for a Swedish-style system will do much to improve social mobility. Unless politicians get admissions policies and advice right, the poorest pupils will only enjoy Hobson's choice.
Thursday, 3 December 2009
The Queen's Speech was all about dividing lines. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, suggested huge differences with his Tory shadow, Michael Gove, over their policies on school diversity. Mr Gove happily joined in, contrasting his plans with those of his opponent.
Both are happy to characterise their opposite number as the devil incarnate – Balls the arch-centraliser, undermining academy independence, or Gove the arch-privatiser, who would ignore the plight of the weakest schools. Of course, there is a grain of truth in the charges. Mr Balls has tweaked academy independence, forcing co-operation with local authorities. But he has not changed their fundamental character, and has expanded their number to 200, with 100 more due to open next year.
Mr Gove does want Swedish-style independent state-funded schools, promoted by parents and school chains. But they would be not-for-profit and he would turn the 100 worst schools into academies, a policy similar to the Balls idea of forcing change on schools where at least 30 per cent of pupils don't get five good GCSEs.
Indeed, Mr Gove would probably be able to achieve his main aims through existing
legislation introduced by Labour, which already promotes competition for new schools and is intended to empower parents unhappy with existing school choices. That explains why the main legislation he cited for a Tory government's first Queen's Speech was an extension of teachers' powers to confiscate, and an abolition of the exclusion appeals panels that send just 60 out of 8,000 excluded pupils back to their schools each year.
By exaggerating each other's differences on discipline and diversity they are misleading the public and are in danger of underestimating the weaknesses of their own policies. By doing so, they could be threatening their own success.
One big spur for recent improvement has been floor targets, including the expectation that at least 30 per cent of pupils in a school achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths. With similar challenges to primary schools, a swathe of poorly performing schools has improved. Where 1,600 secondary schools fell below the GCSE threshold in 1997, only 270 do so today. And while the pressure was most effective with poor performers, comprehensives at 70 per cent or above have doubled in the same period.
While other targets may have been crude – and with the Treasury's help, certainly too numerous – floor targets have been Labour's greatest success. Yet instead of extending this challenge, Mr Gove would abandon it, making it harder to judge the success of his policies on replacing failing schools or extending competition. This is a real dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives. And it deserves to be highlighted more than the supposed dangers of their Swedish schools policy.
Indeed, by acceding to the Tories' false dividing lines on diversity, Labour is in danger of ceding its big education successes to them. Academies are a Labour innovation. A big reason for their success – their results improve twice as fast as other schools – is their independence from local authorities.
This doesn't mean academies don't want to work with their local councils, rather that
any partnerships with them would be stronger because both parties are engaged voluntarily. Indeed some of the strongest community work I've seen has been in academies. Tony Blair recognised this when he extended foundation and introduced
trust schools, which though funded through councils, own their own buildings and employ their own staff.
But while both academies and trust schools have expanded since Mr Balls became Schools Secretary, he has also tried to force rather than empower co-operation. Instead of extending such bureaucracy, Labour should be outflanking the Conservatives in their support for independent academies. And instead of exaggerating differences, the Conservatives should start to explain how we might judge the success of their schools policy – with goals based on exam results, not just the number of new schools. Doing so would serve schools, parents and pupils much better than the false choices being served up by both parties at the moment.
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Funny enough, the councils had other plans for the cash. The result: a fall in teacher numbers of 1,348 over the last year, more embarrassment for Alex Salmond and Ms Hyslop forced to spend more time visiting art galleries. To be fair, the average class size in primaries did fall - from 23.2 to 23.1 but as the BBC reported, 13.2% of P1-P3 pupils were in class sizes of 18 or fewer, a figure which was unchanged from 2008.
When Labour cut infant class sizes to 30 or below in its first term, it did so by a combination of legal sanction and intensive monitoring of every authority with large class sizes. Ministers knew exactly which schools were not meeting the pledge. Money was directly targeted to those schools. Even then, the need to allow flexibility on in-year entry means that up to 20,000 infants (compared with 450,000 in 1997) will find themselves in an over-large class in any given year. This approach may seem unduly centralist - but it was the only way that politicians could keep a promise so specific. And the literacy and numeracy strategies were probably rather more important to standards.
As the 2010 election approaches, voters should ask politicians south of the border when they promise simultaneously to free schools and impose more traditional teaching and rules on all pupils, how exactly they plan to square the circle?
What that means is that a Government which the right-wing press insists has 'failed' on education has presided over a situation where 110,000 more pupils achieved the expected standard this year than would have done so had results peaked in 1997.
There has been a small dip this year - probably as a result of a toughening of standards with the removal of the borderlining process - but improvements have been slow generally in recent years. So, the government - and the opposition - should not lose sight of the need to focus as much attention on poorly performing primaries as it does on weak secondaries, particularly in the crucial Key Stage 1 years.
There is a real danger that schools lose focus on the basics with the demise of the literacy and numeracy strategies, unless proper kitemarked alternatives - that include synthetic phonics - are introduced. Where a primary is failing, it must be open to takeover by a stronger school or academy. And there must be no let up in independent testing, floor targets (minimum standards) or the publication of results. If we are to see more primary progress, these are the basics that matter.
Monday, 30 November 2009
However, it is noticeable that one important fact, buried in the Observer report, has been studiously ignored by the BBC and most follow-up reports:
Overall, the hospital standardised mortality ratio (the actual number of deaths against the expected number) fell by 7% last year. That means 14,500 saved lives.Of course poorer hospitals should do better for those patients who experience sub-standard safety and cleaning, and on the finding that across the system, to quote the Observer again:
5,024 people died after being admitted for "low-risk" conditions such as asthma or appendicitis, of whom 848 were under 65. A proportion of those deaths will be linked to safety errors.But is it too much to ask for some context in reporting the whole story?
This post has been picked up by John Rentoul.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Yet Tory spokesmen win applause from headteachers pledging that the Tories' new schools will be funded with the minimum of bureaucracy, sweeping aside most current checks. I'm all in favour of cutting bureaucracy and slashing the size of DCSF circulars - I spent many an hour trying to do so when I worked in the old education department.
But some bureaucracy does have a purpose. For example, Ofsted currently looks at what a state school does to promote community cohesion as well as teaching, behaviour, leadership and attendance, a measure introduced precisely to ensure that state funding does not go to sectarian or cultish religious schools. The curriculum includes citizenship - following a review in which Lord Baker was prominent - to promote democracy and create a common sense of identity. No longer, apparently, if the Tories have their way. And I'm not aware of any Tory plan for a more rigorous inspection of independent schools; if there is one, perhaps they could share it with the sector.
How exactly can the Tories guarantee us that they will not fund a school run, say, by a group of Muslim parents where some people suspect a hidden promoter but cannot prove it, under their free-for-all? Either they will have proper (bureaucratic) checks or they will not.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Today’s Ofsted annual report has both good and bad news. There has been a substantial increase in the number of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools – the equivalent of 1800 extra good schools in three years – but there remains a stubborn group where teaching is poor.
More needs to be done to improve literacy and numeracy at every level. And an increasing number of local authority children’s services departments is rated inadequate. Some of the problems being highlighted have been the focus of earlier reports. But the evidence is also that the focus of accountability – and independent inspection – is making things better.
Yet this year’s report has been accompanied by an unusually loud chorus of criticism from those who see themselves as the victims of Ofsted. The Local Government Association complains that the inspectors look for trouble too much. The National Union of Teachers says it doesn’t give schools that don’t get decent overall GCSE grades top marks even if they do well on the government’s value added measure. And the Association of Directors of Social Services thinks that the inspectors have got too tough, and that’s making it harder to recruit social workers.
One reason why the criticism is louder is that Ofsted inspects much more now than before. As well as schools, its role extends to nursery education and childcare, further education colleges, training providers, children’s social services and local authority children’s services departments. And the current chief inspector Christine Gilbert inherited an inspection regime where enforced efficiencies led to more reliance on data and less on classroom or frontline observation.
Those systems are changing. School inspections since September include more of what happens in the classroom. And together with spot inspections, inspectors talk more to social workers than before. Even so, data can reveal truths too. I doubt many parents would think a school – no matter how challenging its intake – could be deemed ‘outstanding’ if 75% of its pupils failed to meet the basic GCSE benchmark.
Of course, there is a legitimate debate about the government’s decision to merge so many children’s services and education functions, and on the weight given to the Every Child Matters objectives that are now part of the inspection mix. But the bottom line is that Ofsted remains an invaluable asset because of its independence and its willingness to act without fear or favour. And its findings can still make uncomfortable reading for governments as much as they do for some schools and service providers. Which is as it should be.
In the end, today’s detailed annual report throws a far clearer light on the strengths and weaknesses of many of our public services than the special pleading of those who should focus on their own improvement – rather than shooting the messenger
Sunday, 22 November 2009
Saturday, 21 November 2009
Friday, 20 November 2009
Primary schools face one set of external tests. They are vital for parental confidence, Ofsted inspections and public accountability. Doubtless many of the assessments will match the test scores, which is as it should be. But if the system becomes entirely self-policing, the dynamics would change considerably. There would be no real pressure to achieve in the basics, and this will particularly hurt boys' achievement in English. It will also hurt standards in primary education, where accountability has been important in the improvements over recent years.
I have been critical of Michael Gove's proposals to shift the tests to the start of secondary school, partly because it too was an attempt to appease the unions, but also because it would delegitimise the results as secondary teachers have an interest in marking down pupils at the start of secondary (Gove has since suggested that he would probably go for external marking). Both Balls and Gove should make clear their unequivocal support for externally set and marked national tests, and stop putting the interests of the teaching unions ahead of children's futures and school standards.
This post was quoted in the TES.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
In fact, today's measures are surprisingly strong for a government that is supposed to have run out of steam. The new national care service blueprint is a long overdue way of addressing a major concern for many families. The earlier guarantee of an 18-week waiting time for treatment shows how far the NHS has come since 1997, and matters hugely to patients, but it does challenge the BMA spokesman and part-time shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley who would happily see waiting times back at eighteen months, if it kept his consultant chums happy. The parent and pupil guarantees may be more reflective of what already exists, but they are an important statement of measures that matter. And the commitments on fiscal responsibility answer the charge that the Government is not ready to cut the deficit. There is no reason why the Tories should oppose any of them - or object to their introduction.
However, when Michael Gove told us what crucial legislation he was planning, the best he could do was to declare more powers of confiscation for headteachers. Since heads have had significantly extended powers in this area under Labour, it is doubtful these are quite as crucial as he pretends. The measures he wants could probably be introduced through secondary legislation or ministerial guidance. But then if he is elected, he will want to have a first education bill to give the impression that he is 'changing' things 'radically'. How shocking it would be to see such blatant politicking with legislation and Her Majesty's precious time.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Monday, 16 November 2009
And watching the joy on the faces of so many of those who were at Kevin Rudd's apology in Australia, there can be no doubt that Brown should do the same here. There are parallels with the extent to which the abuses of some Catholic clerics - and the cover-ups of church and state - are being painfully but necessarily brought to light in Ireland and elsewhere.
Acknowledging recent historical wrongs matters. In Ireland, Kevin Myers has long campaigned for proper recognition of the soldiers from the South who fought - and often died - for Britain in the two world wars. News that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been able properly to commemorate their sacrifice at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, and that Sinn Fein has joined in ceremonies to honour them in Northern Ireland is a sign of political maturity, as Myers acknowledged in a powerful piece in the Irish Independent last week. [Hat tip: Slugger]
Of course, the sneerers say that governments are far slower to apologise for 'wrongs' today. If by that, they mean decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, or economic decisions taken in Ireland, the difference is that such subjects are widely debated and the topic for many inquiries and court cases. Few heard of the child migrants - or spoke publicly about clerical abuses - until the 1990s, and few in Ireland wanted to honour those who died particularly in the Second World War until President Mary Robinson started to mark Remembrance Day. Yet by accepting past mistakes and omissions, governments not only validate the experiences of those involved, they also set clearer parameters for the future.
Friday, 13 November 2009
Monday, 9 November 2009
There was no hint then that the whole edifice of the GDR might be about to tumble. But one was struck by the appetite of those one met for the wider world. Clearly well-educated, they wanted to read and experience more than their censors would allow, and they devoured that which was permitted. A charming retired history teacher in Dresden, who proved an excellent guide to the city's splendid art collection, had managed to retain a sense of humour despite having had to teach her subject in the Nazi and Communist years. She kept her sanity listening to BBC broadcasts and watching West German news bulletins that the authorities tried to distract people from viewing by screening BBC Miss Marple episodes against them. Even then, among religious people, there were some signs of the struggles that would give birth to New Forum and the ultimately successful church-led protests that led to the fall of the Wall. But these were small scale efforts to avoid the humiliations that often came with trying to keep a faith in a society where it was officially discouraged.
Leaving the virtually deserted streets of East Berlin, with their feel of the 1950s, to take the U-bahn into West Berlin after ten days on that side of Iron Curtain was a profoundly strange feeling. Little did we know that within four years the ghastly security apparatus that divided the city would come tumbling down. Two years ago, when I took my first trip back to the city since 1985, it was great to see how much had changed, and what had not been shown on that first visit, particularly the way the TV tower shows a cross at certain times of the day that furious GDR officials had never been able to eliminate. True, there was a bit of Ostalgie in the fascinating GDR museum, but there was much more the sense of a city that is going places again, and is far more than just the political capital of a united Germany. Today's celebrations are significant not just because of what they mean to Berlin, but because of what they signify for a Europe that is no longer divided by the grotesque stitch-up that followed Yalta.
To see Jane Campion's new film on the last years of the poet John Keats' s life, Bright Star. Based on Andrew Motion's biography, the film tells of his love for Fanny Brawne, his neighbour's daughter in Hampstead and how that affected his life before TB took him to Italy for a forlorn cure and his untimely death. Abbie Cornish carries the film as a hugely impressive Fanny, and there is much to like in the beautiful filming and poetry recitals. But Ben Whishaw fails to spark as Keats and Bright Star suffers from a tediously ponderous first half that is not entirely mitigated by the narrative strengths of the film as events move towards their tragic conclusion.
Because he has decided - honourably - to write the letters himself in a handwriting that Sun journalists and editors must know to be authentically his, down to the poor spelling, we are treated to an excruciating example of the lobby at its worst. Gordon has never had Tony Blair's sureness of touch in dealing with such matters. But on this occasion, he was trying to do the right thing. As Iain Dale says, we should cut him a little slack for that.
Friday, 6 November 2009
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Phasing out of mortgage subsidies is reasonable. MPs shouldn't make a profit from their London accommodation. And, a £1250 a month cap on rent works if an agency does negotiate some deals, and just about covers the costs of a furnished flat South of the river, provided, as Kelly proposes, council tax and utilities bills are treated as extra. The £120+VAT nightly cap on London hotel bills is also probably manageable. It would at least meet John Mann's Travelodge test.
But this doesn't stop some petty-minded silliness creeping in. Instead of providing an agency cleaner, perhaps supporting a fortnightly two-hour cleaning of a flat, costing around £500 a year, MPs are imperiously informed that
the difficulties of maintaining a clean home while working long hours are not unique to MPs. Should MPs wish to maintain the services of cleaners the Committee does not think it unreasonable to expect them to meet these costs out of their salaries, as others do.Yet these are not their main homes, and 'others' do not generally maintain two homes, certainly not on a salary half that of many senior civil servants. Presumably those opting for hotels should deduct a sum to cover cleaning costs in their rooms? No less petty is the abolition of subsistence allowances for MPs renting rather than staying in hotels.
Kelly is right to scrap second homes for outer London MPs and those on the fringes, but with the welcome proviso that accommodation is covered for late night sittings. But here the obsession with detail becomes confused. There is a recognition that getting home in 60 minutes is about more than the train journey. The independent regulator will apparently draw up 'a definitive list of constituencies covered'. Does this mean that MPs who live elsewhere in a rural constituency - or who replace someone on the 'definitive list' should move close to the railway station to meet the regulator's requirements?
Fair enough to get MPs to publish what they spend on travel. But, it doesn't always follow that a first class rail ticket is absurdly expensive. A Sunday evening first class ticket from Bath booked in advance is far cheaper than a 2nd class open return on a Monday morning, for example. So I fail to see the point of publishing the class of ticket, apart from playing to the gallery.
There is also a curious disincentive on MPs to stand down at a general election, rather than fighting and losing their seat. An MP who is defeated can get nine months pay after two terms, but one who doesn't stand again after twenty years only gets two months. There is no good reason why someone the electors have rejected fares so much better.
And, on the bigger picture, I really don't see how he can support MPs having unlimited outside employment, but not see that employing spouses properly approved by the Commons authorities can provide better value to the taxpayer as well as better support to MPs. After all, the report itself says:
Despite the publicity that a small number of cases have received, the Committee has no evidence of abuse occurring on a significant scale through the employment of family members. On the contrary, the Committee has heard evidence that many MPs’ family members work hard and offergood value for money for taxpayers, including testimony from those who have expressed reservations about allowing the practice to continue.Kelly also gives no reason for sacking existing employee spouses apart from satisfying the mob (expressed a little more politely). Yet when it comes to paid employment outside parliament, Kelly moves from the Pooterish to the broad brush pragmatic. No rules apply here beyond the need for a declaration on an improved website.
In the Committee’s view, this is largely an issue of balance. A limited amount of time spent writing newspaper articles or other paid journalism, for example, need not be incompatible with being a fully effective MP. Nor is it unreasonable for MPs with professional qualifications to wish to maintain some element of expertise, or for others to take the view that limited direct experience of a particular issue is a good way of building up expertise which will benefit their contribution in Parliament. But if any of these activities are pursued to excess they are bound to have an impact on the MP’s effectiveness in performing their main role. The Committee takes the view that outside paid employment should not be banned, provided it is kept within fairly limited bounds and there is transparency.Fairly limited bounds? And what are they? Surely Kelly has a view? Not really -unless you are a Northern Ireland MP, of course. But this does run against the grain of a report mindboggling in its attention to detail, yet somehow completely oblivious to the lives of MPs and the true cost of doing their job, and composed in a manner that only a lifelong civil servant could. As Steve Richards argued in a forceful piece yesterday, it is ironic that civil servants invited to review politicians are themselves so lacking in accountability:
Kelly will explain his thinking at a press conference tomorrow and presumably in interviews. That will be the limit of his accountability in changing drastically not only the way MPs are paid, but in the ways they function. MPs are loathed but at least they are accountable around the clock, unlike current senior civil servants and former officials who wield immense power. If an MP throws a grenade into any saga they will be on the Today programme at ten past eight to explain what they were up to and a non-appearance would be pilloried: "We asked X to appear, but they refused to do so". Yet others who wield power without responsibility are revered even if they cause mayhem. Legg is nowhere to be seen. Kelly will return to the darkness. MPs sweat in the public eye. The more they explain the more they are loathed.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
The parties are pushing any decision on increased university tuition fees until after a 2010 election. All the predictions suggest that the review will propose that fees increase from their current maximum of £3225 a year to anything between £5000 and £7000. But neither the Conservatives – who have dropped their previous opposition to fees – nor Labour are keen to advertise this before an election. Hence the cross-party agreement on a fees review – details probably next week, but heralded by today’s publication of a new higher education framework by Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, echoing a similar deal between the Tories and Labour in the Dearing review that led to the £1000 annual fee after the 1997 election.
In some ways, it is easier now than before. The last two changes to fees had no lasting negative impact on student numbers. Indeed, the problem today is that there are too many applications for cost-limited places. And where the big concern was that a new fees system would hit social mobility – again it hasn’t, as students are cushioned by income-contingent loans repaid only on graduation - there is now just as much concern about the quality of courses and the contribution being made by employers.
Of course, efforts on social mobility need to continue and intensify, as Mandelson said today. And they need to be better targeted, with more emphasis on links at an earlier age in schools. But the new emphasis on course quality is overdue. Many students and their parents bemoan the limited teaching hours and tutorial time in too many universities. It is a complaint heard as loudly from overseas students who already pay in excess of £10,000 a year for their courses. It is evident in any reading of the. National Student Survey for individual faculties. Now there is cross-party acceptance that something must be done. And universities need to do much more to respond.
The second issue of employment links is sometimes presented as a form of philistinism. In reality, many degree courses, especially those taken by mature students, are highly employment-focused already. The issue for government – and society – is whether employers should contribute more of the cost, and do more to help shape such courses. This is about more than sponsoring individual students: it could see more degree courses delivered largely in the workplace, for example. Such developments are where the real expansion of higher education – that which is vital to the economy - might take place over the next decade, often with part-time students.
In addressing these issues head on – despite an understandable wish to leave the level of fees for later – Peter Mandelson is showing a decisiveness in higher education that seemed lacking in his more cautious predecessor, John Denham. While Denham extended grants, the cost was borne in fewer places. And he made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for higher fees. Yet universities need the money to stay competitive. They – and employers, who have argued for the fees increase – now need to show that they can meet the higher expectations placed on them in return.
If the Democrats lose both states, a lot will be written about Obama's failings. Indeed much has already appeared on these lines. And it is true that the healthcare legislation has fallen victim to a combination of sharp politics by the private healthcare industry and some pretty inept early responses by Obama and his people. Moreover, the shrillness of the Conservative Repubican media and political opposition have made it hard to become the unifier he might have been. But the reasons for defeat today may have more to do with the candidates in both states and less to do with Obama than critics allow.
No account of the first year of this President could fail to recognise how much he has tried to do, and how far things have advanced in a year domestically. The US is now far stronger on climate change than before, and is ready to accept targets, even if they are less than the Copenhagen summiteers might wish. He has successfully revived the American economy, which is now back in growth. He has embarked on ambitious and very New Democrat education reforms. And he is now within striking distance of major health reform, even if the limited public option may still limit its scope. What he has largely avoided, to his credit, is getting sidetracked by second order issues (unless declaring a brief war on Fox News counts).
Internationally, good relations have been restored with Russia - at least, to a point. He has made bold speeches in the Muslim world. Hillary Clinton's appointment has proved astute in associating his administration with important foreign policy achievements, including her Northern Ireland mission recently. His Afghan policy may not be settled, and is suffering from the large casualties recently, but he is gaining more credit for careful consideration on military numbers than criticism for dithering.
All in all, that's not a bad record for a first year. And I have never pretended I didn't have my doubts about Obama. Of course, it won't be enough this time next year, by which time healthcare must be up and running, and the economy must have been showing serious continued growth, with unemployment starting to reverse. But significant credit is still due one year on.
Monday, 2 November 2009
Johnson, as the elected politician, is charged with making decisions, drawing on scientific advice but also on society's expectations. It is a calculation that seems wholly to have eluded Prof Nutt. Look by contrast at the excellent chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, to see someone who has an understanding of the real world as well as huge skills in his specialist field. That Prof Nutt seemed so unfamiliar with that world in which a Home Secretary or Prime Minister has to operate may qualify him for a place in the ivory towers of academia. But it made him ill-suited to being a government adviser.
MONDAY 1.30pm UPDATE: Those who are defending Prof Nutt seem to suffer from two delusions. The first is that the Professor was prevented from giving advice based on his view of the evidence in public. He was not. He was sacked for actively campaigning against government policy. The second is that his view of the dangers of cannabis and ecstasy is a scientific truth, accepted by the entire scientific community. In that light, the work of Prof Robin Murray, which has shown the harmful impact of continued cannabis use on people's mental health is particularly illuminating. Indeed, if Prof Murray who also gave a fascinating and worrying interview on the World at One today is right, it would seem that some of the advice given on this subject by this 'expert' committee was not only wrong, but dangerously so.
This post has been picked up by John Rentoul and Hopi Sen.
Of course, those who raise the mantra about good schools - like the indefatigable Sheila Lawlor on Today this morning - don't bother to look at what's actually been happening in schools over the last decade or so. There are twice as many comprehensives where 70% or more pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths, and the number where fewer than 30% do so has fallen from 1600 - half of all secondaries in 1997 - to around 250 today.
But even if the numbers of top performing schools are doubled again and no school gets below the 30% benchmark - which should be the minimum expectation for the next phase of school reform, although the Tories are curiously unwilling to explain what outcomes they expect from their proposed changes - there will still be some schools that are more popular than others. Anyone suggesting otherwise is talking rot.
So, the issue is then: what is the fairest way to allocate places where a school has more applicants than places? Good schools are encouraged to expand, but are often reluctant to do so. The number of academies, which are typically very popular with parents, is expanding rapidly. But a system will still be needed that is fair.
Since both major parties now eschew selection (apart from a limited 10% on aptitude in a handful of subjects) this boils down to a question of whether proximity to a school should trump most other criteria? For primaries, it makes sense to use this. But for urban secondaries, it does not, as the arbitrariness of distance simply drives up house prices and places some schools out of reach on financial grounds. Far fairer to use either banding or a lottery (random allocation).
But that is not enough in itself. There must also be a network of community activists trained to help less articulate parents to be as pushy as their middle class counterparts. Such choice advisers should not be local authority bureaucrats, but part-timers from the communities that need support, with credibility in those communities but the knowledge to understand the best choices for individual pupils. And the changes introduced in 2008 (following the 2006 Act), where free school transport is now linked to choice, should be extended and much better publicised so that there is subsidised transport available to a choice of schools within a reasonable distance of one's home. To pretend that choice will emerge simply because new providers are allowed is not enough. There must be active support to enable people to exercise those choices.
UPDATE: The Adjudicator's reports can be read here. Ed Balls's response is here; there is to be no wider crackdown, and a welcome endorsement of lotteries as tie-breakers. However, the response does dodge the genuine usefulness of random allocation or banding as a way of widening access to good schools. That is a debate which should not be dodged.
This post is also featured on Progress online.
Sunday, 1 November 2009
Friday, 30 October 2009
Seeing the move as a ransom paid to his party may be the best excuse for the moral compromises and apparent political myopia it involved. The switch and the credit it earned may even make it easier for Mr Cameron to take a relatively sane position on the Lisbon treaty if, as expected, it goes into force soon. But if this interpretation—charitable but plausible—mitigates the foolishness of Mr Cameron’s past decisions, it also raises an awkward question about his future.
It is this: if this shoddy, shaming alliance is the price he was obliged to pay his party for the changes needed to make it seem modern and compassionate, what sort of party is it that Mr Cameron leads? What else will its members demand, and what else—when his popularity and authority wane—will he be obliged to give them, after he becomes prime minister.
Thursday, 29 October 2009
MPs could be forgiven for thinking that they have officially been declared enemies of the people. After the public lynching engendered by the Daily Telegraph’s weeks of revelations before the summer, they now have to ensure the tortuous combination of Sir Christopher Kelly’s hairshirt and Sir Thomas Legg’s restrospective thumbscrew.
Of course, some MPs have been abusing the system, and some have claimed very little. But most have just been doing what they were told by the officials at the Fees Office that they could – and often should – do. And it is a bit much to see the rough justice where some MPs – including David Cameron, who has happily used the saga to rid himself of a few troublesome backbenchers – are able to enjoy rich pickings from property speculation whilst the Prime Minister is rapped for spending more than an abritrary £2000 a year on flat cleaning and laundry.
The reported plans by Sir Christopher to phase out mortgage subsidies make sense, as do attempts to clamp down on needless first class travel. But stopping MPs employing spouses will not produce better or less expensive offices – they are the ones most likely to work longer and mix constituency and Westminster duties better – nor will the arbitrary 60 minute travel rule enhance the quality of debate, unless Parliament moves to a 6pm curfew. Having MPs rushing for the last train is hardly the stuff of decent democracy.
All these new rules may satisfy the forces of public opinion as they are mediated by the tabloids. But they could prove costly if they confirm the public’s view that all MPs are fiddling the system.
It would be far better to make things simple. Either give MPs a rail season ticket and a choice between staying at Westminster-owned serviced apartments or a hotel with which the Palace authorities have negotiated a good deal or increase their salaries and only pay them a decent allowance for running their office. And provided they are up to the job, and do the hours, let MPs employ their spouses if they get the work done.
All this nit-picking about railway timetables and internet subsidies is as damaging to democracy as the moats and duck ponds. Many good people on both sides of the House have had their careers destroyed because of mistakes or simply assuming that the Fees Office knew what they were talking about. Creating a whole host of complex new rules will not save taxpayers much money but could make the MP a permanent pariah, which even next year’s general election could do little to change.
A simple, transparent system, which everybody can understand, and which recognises the nature of the MP’s job, is the only way to restore faith in our democracy. Sadly, neither Sir Christopher nor Sir Thomas, born bureaucrats whose civil service instincts for micro-management inform their world view, seem to grasp that basic reality.
Yet, as Toby Helm points out, Rabbi Schudrich said in an email to the New Statesman that he has not retracted:
"It is clear that Mr Kaminski was a member of the NOP, a group that is openly far-right and neo-Nazi...Anyone who would want to align himself with a person who was an active member of NOP and the Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne, which was established to deny historical facts of the massacre ... needs to understand with what, and by whom, he is being represented."Moreover, Helm explains that the new comments come as a result of 'enormous pressure ' - bullying in plain terms - from Kaminski's Law and Justice Party to retract, but he has not done so. As Helm says:
I suspect that if one really wants to get to the heart of what Schudrich thinks, one should stick to the statement he originally gave to the New Statesman, before the row really got going. Cut through the political mud-slinging, go back to the time when he gave an opinion under no pressure at all. Then he raised questions about Kaminski's past association with a neo-Nazi leaning party, and said people needed to think clearly before getting alongside such individuals. The Tories want to portray Schudrich as a great supporter of Kaminski because they are in a mess over their new EU allies. The truth, I reckon, is rather more complex and less helpful to David Cameron's party.However much the defenders of Cameron's mad Euro-policy may grumble, the simple fact is this: at a time when the Tories could (and if they were rational, should) have continued in the EPP, the party of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, they instead chose to ally themselves with a motley crew of fringe parties and MEPs well outside even the right-wing mainstream. They did this purely to satisfy a bunch of Eurosceptic fanatics who had backed Cameron as leader. And they were quite happy to ditch their own respected leader at Strasbourg in the process, preferring to see Kaminski as their leader.
That some of their new allies have pretty unsavoury pasts (to quote Rabbi Schudrich "Mr Kaminski was a member of the NOP, a group that is openly far-right and neo-Nazi") adds to the oddity of it all. And no amount of huffing and puffing can detract from the sheer idiocy of such positioning, both for the Conservatives and for a Britain they hope to govern again.
In the coming weeks the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, will announce the terms of reference for a review of student fees. The cross-party investigation is likely to recommend an increase in tuition fees from £3,225 to as much as between £5,000 and £7,000 a year, increasing the proportion of courses costs paid back by students after graduation. But if universities want the right to charge higher fees, there is growing political consensus that they must also be prepared to improve greatly the experience they provide for undergraduates.
The Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that the combination of teaching and private study for undergraduates in some humanities and social science courses amounts to just 14 hours a week, though it is much higher in the more demanding universities and the average is 29 hours, including 14.5 hours' contact time. But the higher the fees become, the greater the expectation of students and their parents.
This isn't just a problem with domestic students. Overseas students, who contribute £4bn a year in fees (more than eight per cent of the total income of UK universities) already pay £10,000 to £20,000 a year for most courses. Their numbers have grown over the last decade, but there is greater competition within Europe, Australia and the United States, and Chinese and Indian students increasingly have less expensive options closer to home. Unless they feel they are getting good value for their money, they will go elsewhere.
Some universities are recognising how important it is to provide a good student experience. Lancaster, Manchester and the London School of Economics give students clearer commitments on contact time, class sizes and access to lecturers than many. Others, like Northumbria, provide substantial hands-on facilities and work experience in subjects such as law and health.
But there is still a sense among too many vice-chancellors that they should be allowed to charge higher fees without needing to improve substantially students' overall academic and pastoral experiences. That's why the terms of reference for the new review must explicitly include the issues that Mr Willetts suggested [contact hours, class sizes and employability]. It will be hard enough selling another fees increase to Middle England. Unless their anxieties about what happens at university are addressed, it may prove politically impossible. Vice-chancellors must raise their game if they want the right to raise their fees.
Wednesday, 28 October 2009
As I have argued here before, it is right that MPs should receive money for rent or modest hotel rooms rather than mortgage subsidies: there is no justification for MPs using their living expenses to build a property empire. I still think the Parliamentary authorities should buy up some apartment blocks near Westminster, so it makes money on the deal. That way, it could provide services like dry cleaning or house cleaning on a contractual basis, making money on the flats and saving money on the services.
But on two other issues, I am less convinced. The new 60 minute commute rule is fine if it is fairly enforced. But as someone who travels from home near Bath to London a few times a month, I would never allow less than 2h 30 to reach a meeting in the centre of the city, even though Bath is a 1h 20 commute. When I lived in Mitcham in South London, using the dreadful Northern Line and walking to and from the tube stations often took 1h 15. So the debate about a 60 minute commute will be fun. Far better to set the boundaries as those of the London Underground or overground lines in Greater London. And for late sittings, the option of an overnight hotel stay must remain. Indeed, if MPs are still to be allowed to travel first class, it is often cheaper to stay over than travel to and from London (from Bath it is even true with an open 2nd class!).
And on the employment of spouses, Sir Christopher is plain wrong. A husband or wife who works for an MP is likely to be able to balance constituency and London duties far more effectively than a secretary who is wholly London or constituency-based. Those I know are harder workers and often have far more useful experience. Of course, they should have the right skills and experience, and be audited to ensure they work the hours (I suspect many work twice the hours they should). But a blanket ban on spouses shows no understanding of the nature of the MP's working life. It should be dropped.