Tuesday, 31 March 2009
But it is also a product of the way in which the expenses system is constructed as a poor substitute for salaries. Gordon Brown needs to get together with his fellow party leaders to sort this out quickly, whether through single payments that are taxed or through attendance allowances which could cover a hotel bill and meals. One way or another, these needs sorting....and quickly.
Saturday, 28 March 2009
But then it is worth remembering that the swing to the Tories in Redditch in 2005 was precisely zilch.
Friday, 27 March 2009
Unlike some commentators, I have never held the view that there is a conspiracy to dumb down GCSEs and A levels. Rather it has been changes made to the nature of the exams that have led to changes in the marking. I can see some point in modularity at A-levels, particularly with innovations like the new extended essay or project, but have always argued for a substantial synoptic element. Equally, while it is good that coursework (conceived before use of the Internet became widespread) is being reined in, it is absurd that costly modular exams are being introduced across all GCSEs.
I also don't share the view that the attempt to popularise science necessarily leads to a dumbing down of the exams. It is perfectly possible to compile challenging questions for a popular curriculum. Indeed, it should be remembered that there has also been an increase in schools offering the three science subjects separately; these are the students most likely to take science at university. Those scientists who complain confuse the need for a minority to gain expertise in science with the importance of the majority having a basic understanding of the subject.
But there is one overriding lesson from this whole sorry saga. Competition between the exam boards has always led schools to shop around and there is a pressure on the boards to provide schools with syllabuses that will be attractive to them. Labour drastically cut the number of boards in 1997. But we didn't go far enough: this is an area where competition is unhealthy, as any innovations that it creates are outweighed by perverse incentives to make things easier. As I have argued before, there should be a single board contracted to provide each exam and Ofqual should work to make the whole process simpler and more transparent.
Tuesday, 24 March 2009
But there is something quite extraordinary about the blind faith of some in grammars, as caricatured by a piece in today's Daily Mail about Ofsted placing Stretford Grammar School in Trafford into special measures. "Grammar school with a 96% GCSE pass rate branded a failure by Ofsted. Why? Its race policy is out of date," thunders the Mail in my print edition, managing to work two hobby horses into a single headline.
Yet in a selective grammar school, every pupil ought to achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths, and a lot more besides. Any proper comparison must be with other grammars, not with non-selective schools.
And, here are the reasons why the school was really failed, according to the Ofsted report:
* The overall effectiveness of the school has declined since the last inspection and is now inadequate.
* Girls and higher ability students make insufficient progress. Mathematics and science subjects are weak in Key Stage 4. Too many students fail to attain the very highest grades they are capable of in their GCSE examinations.
* Too much teaching remains lacklustre and is not good enough to ensure that all students achieve as well as they should. A decline in the standard of students' behaviour in lessons is a consequence of teaching that fails to challenge, extend and inspire.
* Leadership and management are inadequate. Governance is inadequate (and there is then a brief mention of the equalities policies)
* The school's specialist science status has not had sufficient impact on raising students' achievement, improving the quality of teaching and learning or enhancing the curriculum.
There are many grammar schools that are stretching their able students and teaching exciting lessons. This is clearly not one of them. To pretend that any school that fails on so many counts is not failing merely because of its iconic status or because of political correctness is quite extraordinary.
Indeed, in other circumstances, a person uttering such tosh would be subjected to the full Why Oh Why? treatment ......in the Mail.
This post was picked up by John Rentoul.
Monday, 23 March 2009
Testing has – with regular inspections and pupil-level targets – been part of a cultural shift in schools that has brought real improvements. But it is not just through greater accountability that testing has helped improvement. The data from tests – combined with the power of computers – has given teachers access to data that they can use to ensure that they get the most out of individual pupils. By seeing what the best students in similar circumstances can achieve, they can lift expectations in their own classroom.
There are still ways to simplify the tests whilst keeping the level of independent scrutiny that they provide for every primary school. First, teachers could still be encouraged to enter pupils for tests when they are ready. Pupils should not be prevented from scoring higher-than-average grades on the papers, but many might be tested at age 10 rather than 11. In schools that devote months to the preparation for tests to the exclusion of other subjects – and those that do are rarely the best schools – this should allow a better curriculum mix.
Second, marking pressure could be reduced by confining external marking to English and Maths, leaving Science to internal assessment. Those are clearly the most important subjects for any child if they are to access the rest of the curriculum. Third, there may be a place for multiple choice questions in Grammar, Spelling and Mathematics, which can be marked by computer, though there must still be a place for independently marked writing tests.
Whatever happens, we cannot afford to abandon the level of independent scrutiny that testing provides for primary schools. Without it, we will fail future generations of children.
Sunday, 22 March 2009
Instead, there should be a very simple flat rate payment to MPs who live outside London - McNulty suggests himself a 40 mile radius would make sense - for accommodation, utilities and transport which should be enough to run a decent flat and cover rail or air fares (perhaps banded for those living furthest away). It should be significantly less than what is currently paid, but sufficient, with no John Lewis lists.
But it should then be entirely up to MPs whether they use it to pay rent, stay in hotels, pay a mortgage or stop in a youth hostel. In other words, rather than encouraging creative interpretations of the rules, it would be seen as a part of their salaries. And how they spent it would be nobody's business but their own. For those living closer to London, there might be a free rail season ticket and the occasional overnight hotel room where business demanded it.
The whole thing would be a lot cheaper - a target of halving the total cost should be set - as the size of the allowance would be cut, and as there would be far fewer administrative overheads, with no need for ever-expanding audits. And we would not have the absurd weekly attempts to portray politicians who are decent, hard-working and honourable people - as both Tony and Jacqui are - as corrupt chancers. The only losers would be certain Sunday papers. But I think we could live with that.
Friday, 20 March 2009
Wednesday, 18 March 2009
But vice-chancellors who opined on their preferred fee levels for a separate BBC survey need to make a case for higher fees, not simply declare their ideal level of fee. At a time when the country is in economic recession, people need not only to hear the case for higher education as a way of generating a successful recovery but also the rationale for what could be a 100% fees hike.
And there is a good case for tuition fees (despite cries of 'middle class debt' from the Daily Mail), not least as the method of their repayment is both fair and progressive according to post-graduation income: those not in work pay nothing until they are. Moreover, the predictions from student leaders that fees would deter students have clearly come to nothing.
But the case for lifting the cap of £3225 has not been made yet by the vice-chancellors, particularly to a secretary of state who is not keen on doing so and a prime minister who thinks universities are hotbeds of inefficiency (and perhaps prejudice). Rather than fuelling wish lists, the VCs need to get back to first principles. As any undergraduate would (hopefully) tell them, you should make the case and marshal the facts before presenting your conclusions.
Monday, 16 March 2009
The fact is that Obama is both governing as he said he would and is doing so largely from the centre. On Iraq, he may withdraw combat troops but will leave 35,000 others there, for example. He has scrapped the more egregious of Bush's doctrines, and he is a stronger believer with Hillary Clinton at State in tough diplomacy. But he is no pacifist. And on health and education, his policies involve taking on vested interests where necessary, for example to improve educational accountability or to provide affordable universal health cover.
With approval ratings above 60%, the Republican attacks have little traction beyond the usual suspects. But this is not to say that Obama is not in danger of repeating an error of the early Blair years himself. Before the 1997 election, Labour made relatively modest pledges on things like class sizes. But by creating a raft of aspirational if over-ambitious targets in the following years - largely at the insistence of the Treasury apart from the initial literacy targets - the Government allowed relatively good progress in the public services to be portrayed as 'failure' because those targets had been missed. The level of Obama's ambition is such that he could suffer a similar fate. For example, nobody believes there will be univeral health cover in the US by the time of the next election because of the complexity of change: Obama should set milestones that can be met along the way to demonstrate progress towards the greater goal.
Nevertheless, it is the Republicans who are suffering most in their delusions at the moment. Like the Tories in 1997, they simply haven't come to terms with the simple fact that they lost the election.
Sunday, 15 March 2009
The Marr programme is intended to feature interesting interviews, not PPBs, though I concede that we should see Andrew Lansley properly interrogated about why he thinks the best thing for the NHS would be to allow arrogant consultants to dump on patients from a great height or Theresa May questioned about the Tories' backtracking on welfare reform (though I suspect that's not what Iain has in mind).
But given the choice between having a minister who is doing something and a shadow minister who has nothing original to say, who can blame Marr for having Ian Rankin or Hugh Orde on instead. The truth is that the dearth of interesting shadow ministers says more about the Tories than the BBC.
But the ASCL has unanimously rejected the idea of grading schools on an A-E scale. However, without a simple scale with which parents can compare schools, the report cards are in danger of confusing rather than assisting with accountability.
This is not to say that report cards are without problems. Unless there is reasonable alignment between grades, minimum test and exam scores, and Ofsted inspections (which may only take place every six years) the cards could become an excuse for poor performance. Of course, a measure of progress is also important, but so are absolute results too. So, in developing the idea, it is not only important that the Government has a straightforward way of rating schools, it is equally important that schools are not able to pick and choose different ratings.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009
That's what makes the press conference by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson with Chief Constable Hugh Orde yesterday such an important moment. The penny seemed finally to have dropped with McGuinness that the killing of a police officer was not simply another pawn on the Republican chess board known as the 'peace process' (never quite what everyone else regarded the process as being), and he expressed himself with unprecedented emotion and feeling. Even Gerry Adams, always a cooler customer, seemed to have been liberated from self-imposed P O Neill mode on Channel Four News last night. When the DUP and Sinn Fein joined together in government, it was a truly remarkable moment. But yesterday was the day when the process - and Sinn Fein - finally showed its maturity.
This post has been picked up by Mick Fealty at Slugger O'Toole and the Telegraph, and by the New Statesman.
Tuesday, 10 March 2009
The issue is surely what is learnt rather than how long is spent doing it. There is no good reason why this shouldn't take six months for an able and willing learner.
There is no single route to teacher training any more, and that is a good thing. However, a programme like this will only real work well if it is combined with the sort of experience that happens in Finland, where teachers' professional development is about more than in-service training days. Teachers routinely work for Masters degrees and Doctorates by researching issues that matter in their schools and developing solutions to real problems. This is something that the promised Masters in Teaching and Learning has the potential to offer here.
It is a long way from the traditional theoretical musings which characterised too many of our university education departments in the past.
Sunday, 8 March 2009
There can be no equivocation about such barbarity - and there must be unity among all politicians in condemning the murders. If Martin McGuinness thinks otherwise, he will simply give succour to those who are determined to wreck the peace that he and others worked so long to achieve. As the SDLP's leader Mark Durkan, said:
Those who committed it are steeped in the mindset and means of past violence. They need to understand this is not an attack on British army but the Irish people who have voted for and value above all else peaceful politics and democratic accommodation.
12 NOON UPDATE: I am pleased to see that Sinn Fein have now condemned the attack.
Saturday, 7 March 2009
The notion that they have some sort of right to break the law because they have decided despite evidence to the contrary that "nobody" (apart from weary travellers, London business and many airport workers, I suppose) is in favour of a third runway at Heathrow is the mob politics of fascism. As Tom points out, Ms Deen has the right to express her views in the ballot box or in many forms of non-violent protest.
What further evidence do the police need to prosecute this woman?
Friday, 6 March 2009
To see Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino last night. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a cross between Dirty Harry and Victor Meldrew, who fumes through his retirement against his grasping offspring, an over-solicitous priest and his Asian neighbours in the wake of his wife's death, only to warm to the latter and become their defenders despite his frequent racist language. His growing attachment and support to a Vietnamese teenager, Thao, and his sassy sister Sue (with brilliant performances by Bee Vang and Ahney Her) draws him into a bitter gang feud with shocking but not entirely predictable consequences. There's a great theme song sung by Jamie Cullum and the Gran Torino is Walt's beloved vintage Ford which provides an important backdrop to a movie which though not Eastwood's best is still another engaging addition to an impressive oeuvre.
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
But far more important is establishing proper accountability for the civil service, which is shielded from responsibility for any faults by the idea that minsters are to blame for every problem no matter how little they knew or were told about it. It is why delivery is so poor, yet other countries have moved beyond it with good results.
This is why Greg Rosen's excellent new report for Reform today is so important. It sets out with admirable clarity some of the changes that could introduce real dynamism to the civil service including:
- Ending the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. The idea that Ministers are responsible for every action of their department shields officials from taking personal responsibility for their actions. Ministers should be responsible solely for the strategic direction of policy and its communications.
- Implementing democratic accountability for civil servants. The UK has one of the most unaccountable Civil Service systems in the world. Democratically elected politicians should have the power to appoint senior civil servants, with greater scrutiny of appointments, on the Australian model.
- Abolishing grades and recruiting openly. Because the current recruitment system is centralised and based on fixed “grades” for different jobs, it is a barrier to the best people being recruited to do the jobs that are needed. Discrimination of “internal” over “external” candidates should be abolished and line managers should lead recruitment of their teams.
- Embracing localism. Local government can be more clearly accountable for performance in many areas of policy.
It is a bracing and vital read for any minister - or would-be minister - who wants to make a real difference in government.
Monday, 2 March 2009
The main objection to lotteries has always been that they sound unfair rather than that they are so. This was a debate I used to have about their political practicality with my former colleague Phil Collins, whose views are admirably reflected in today's Times leader, and it was why I have tended to favour banding, which offers similar choices but appears less driven by chance.
Of course, such methods need to be applied with a dose of common sense. So, there should be some places for those living very close to a school, and to help twins. However, lotteries and banding are much fairer than an arbitrary line drawn on a map beyond which a parent has no chance of getting into their preferred school.
It is said that in an ideal world, nobody would want to choose schools because all would be equally good and each would have enough places to cater for demand. Apart from the improbability and cost of that outcome, there will always be variables that attract some to one school over another. Schools may offer different sports, be stronger in a particular subject, have a more progressive or more traditional curriculum.
Just as such diversity is healthy, it is equally healthy that parents should be able to choose between such schools and not be precluded simply because they live 1.8km rather than 1.7km from the school gates. And when you have 600 applications for 200 places, as with some London academies, it is palpably unfair to deny most of them the chance of a place. Selection by postcode or house price is hardly a model for comprehensive education. Moreover, attracting a broad mix of pupils is a recipe for success that was understood by those who first campaigned for comprehensives - and is now demonstrated by successful academies.
So, I trust that the adjudicator will reach a wise decision in this case. But it is rather worrying that the schools secretary appears to think that a comprehensive school can achieve a broad intake simply by taking those who live within its rather arbitary catchment area.
This post was picked up by Common Endeavour and Teachers TV News.