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.