Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Thursday, 25 March 2010
Schools are reluctant to grant permission for such occasions that they might previously have granted, hence the rise in unauthorised absence. Unauthorised family holidays now account for 11% of all unauthorised absences. This has little to do with what might normally be regarded as 'truancy', pupils skipping school on a regular basis often without the knowledge of their parents. And a look at the detailed statistics suggests a more balanced picture.
- First, since 1996/7, the proportion of sessions lost due to all absence has fallen in primary schools from 6.06% to 5.30% - in other words pupils are at school for an average of 1.4 days more than they were when Labour took office. In secondary schools, the improvement is even better, with a fall from 9.06% to 7.25%, suggesting pupils are at school an average of 3.4 days more than in 1997. However, within those figures there have been increases in unauthorised absence that have offset some of the improvements in authorised absence. (Table 2.1)
- Second, the number of pupils defined as persisent absentees - missing over 32 days a year - has fallen from 272,950 in 2006/7 to 208,380 in 2008/9 as a direct result of a programme targeted at this group and the schools where the problem was greatest. This 24% reduction is a remarkable result for an intervention programme and is far more significant than the small rise in overall unauthorised absence. Indeed, persistent absentees are now responsible for 43.4% of unauthorised absence compared with 51.8% in 2006/07. (Table 1.2)
- Third, there has been an 18% drop in persistence absence in academies (from 8.00% to 6.50%) over the last year and an 8.5% reduction in unauthorised absence, again suggesting that targeted intervention does work. (Table 6.1)
Wednesday, 24 March 2010
To see the Swedish film adaptation of Steig Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) last night. Noomi Rapace is brilliant as Lisbeth Salandar, the troubled tattoed cybersleuth who joins crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist)in a bid to uncover an increasingly disturbing mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young woman forty years earlier. The story introduces Swedish Nazis and plenty of grisly revelations along the way. This is not a film for the faint-hearted any more than the book - and its theme of 'men who hate women' has attracted plenty of controversy - but it is still at heart a tale of good and evil. It is also a cracking thriller which despite its 2h 45 it rattles along with pace, ditching extraneous aspects of the book and focusing on the principal plotlines. I read the thriller at Christmas, and the film is as faithful an adaptation as is possible, capturing the characters and landscape as one imagines it. It deserves a better critical reception than it has received.
Monday, 22 March 2010
Sunday, 21 March 2010
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Monday, 15 March 2010
Their trouble is that, even if their voters are split in their second choice between the Tories and Labour, most of their own members are instinctively opposed to the Tories, and would find themselves to the left of Labour on a range of issues. Education is a good example. David Laws, their intelligent schools spokesman, has to tie himself in knots in a bid to embrace a position that he clearly supports - the development of academies and Tory-style free schools - whilst satisfying the traditionalists in the party by promising a strong role for local authorities and claiming to back 'academies for all' (a position which would probably mean no improvement in the weaker schools that academies largely embrace). Equally tortuous is their continued promise to get rid of university tuition fees, a position that has no intellectual coherence at a time when their finance spokesman Vince Cable is demanding public spending restraint.
These disingenuous compromises don't come in for a great deal of scrutiny when the party is unlikely to be in government, and Clegg has cleverly put forward his bottom lines on issues like education - where he promises to scrap the child trust fund to pay for a pupil premium - and voting reform, knowing that these are issues on which he can carry his party. But what if Clegg takes his party into a coalition, or more probably, props up a minority Conservative government? Unless Clegg calls a conference to ratify his decision, something he seems reluctant to do, he will destroy all the gains that his party has made since 1997. Minority parties can gain all the blame from the voters in such circumstances with little credit for the 'stability' or 'responsibility' that may also have resulted, or indeed for the policies they have successfully had introduced. So Clegg may be the kingmaker after the election, but if he gets it wrong, he may also be the author of his own party's downfall.
Saturday, 13 March 2010
Monday, 8 March 2010
The Conservatives’ shadow schools secretary is finding himself in an increasing muddle as he starts to put flesh on his schools’ policy. One day Michael Gove is extolling the virtues of free schools, liberated from the shackles of Whitehall, with the touchy-feely charms of Goldie Hawn jostling alongside Swedish companies to deliver. Days later he is laying down the level of detailed knowledge that every youngster should have of their kings and queens, their classical poetry by heart and their algebra under the tutelage of the Tories’ Maths mistress Carol Vorderman.
Gove’s confusion on education policy, one of the few areas where the Tories have at least done some homework, seems to mirror his party’s wider confusion as it wobbles in the polls. This is exemplified in planning, where Gove has pledged to railroad through new local school plans in Whitehall regardless of local objections while his shadow cabinet colleague Theresa Villiers apparently wants every parish council to have its say on any high speed rail link.
Meanwhile, the funding problems that I outlined last month in Public Finance have been exacerbated by a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which suggests that a £2.5 billion pupil premium would only have a modest impact on social mobility, and even then the sums involved – about £2500 a pupil – would be similar to the extra £2460-£3370 which the IFS says are already spent on such pupils by the Labour government. Even Ed Balls has started to detail £500 million in cuts for his department, yet Gove has £3.5 billion of unfunded spending commitments, including funding the pupil premium without reducing existing school spending.
Gove has also pledged to introduce some symbolic legislation within days of a Tory government winning an election, whch would apparently give greater freedoms to academies and introduce further changes to the frequency and scope of Ofsted inspections. Even here there is confusion: Gove’s colleagues maintain that they would enforce their traditional curriculum in ‘free schools’ through Ofsted, yet outstanding schools are to exempted from such inspections (even though a significant minority of schools fall back over time).
And whether Gove needs primary legislation to introduce either change is a moot point: much legislation is done for political show, and this looks like no exception. Indeed he might be better spending his time resolving the built-in contradictions that are growing more apparent the more he tells us about his policies, explaining what parts of the curriculum would be compulsory and how he would fund his ambitions. Unless he gets this right, there will be a lot of confused heads and teachers if he gets the chance to implement his blueprint.
Thursday, 4 March 2010
Hague effectively admitted that Lord Ashcroft had misled him - to put it politely - about his tax status. As Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, has indicated, ignorance is no defence when Hague had given clear undertakings as a condition of Ashcroft's peerage. The Electoral Commission maintains - despite their boycott of its interviewers - that the Tories had in all probability done their 'due diligence' over the Bearwood donations. Yet since Lord Turnbull is quite clear that Hague had not done his 'due diligence' with respect to Ashcroft's supposed willingness to pay his taxes as a UK resident, it is hard to see on what basis the Electoral Commission has decided to give his party colleagues the benefit of the doubt.
The facts appear to be these. Lord Ashcroft led Hague to believe that he would pay "tens of millions of pounds a year" in taxes if he entered the House of Lords. Ashcroft intended to do no such thing, preferring the congenial Belizean tax regime, and throwing a few quid to the Revenue as a non-dom instead. James Arbuthnot, a Tory chief whip, reached some side deal with Sir Hayden Philips, according to the Cabinet Office, that allowed Ashcroft to be declared a 'long-term' rather than 'permanent' resident, allowing his congenial Belizean tax regime to continue for most of Ashcroft's income. He presumably didn't feel it necessary to tell William Hague. As a result, Hague misled both Tony Blair and the Cabinet Secretary. And until a few months ago, neither Hague nor presumably David Cameron could be arsed to check what had gone one.
Of course, Ashcroft should be required to relinquish his role in the Tory party and his peerage. But isn't there also a big question over the judgment and competence of William Hague, and his ability to be Foreign Secretary if the Tories win the election, when he may be required to agree treaties and other matters with other countries? Presumably he won't be too bothered to check up on whether they keep their promises.
And I do so look forward to hearing David Cameron pontificating about cleaning up politics again.
Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Tuesday, 2 March 2010
The latest came yesterday, barely noted in the Independent and ignored elsewhere. Alongside an announcement on Ofsted that I have detailed earlier, Gove declared that the story that dominated the news a few months ago - that he would have secondary teachers marking primary pupils' test results at the start of Year 7 - was just an idea he was floating. All those headlines may have come in handy highlighting the party's flexibility to grumpy teachers and giving the impression of new policy in a generally policy-lite party. But now it had served its purpose, it could go. According to the excellent Richard Garner, the last remaining truly experienced education correspondent in the national press:
he appeared to back-track from a plan to transfer tests for 11-year-olds to the first term of secondary schooling – a move designed to reduce teaching to the test in the last year of primary schooling....He said he had only “floated” the idea and could see arguments both for and against it. “We do need to maintain objective testing to discover the level at which children are working,” he added. “There is no way that we will get rid of end of primary testing..."This is a welcome U-turn, if that is what it is. And I reported in Public Finance last summer that Gove was already having his doubts about letting secondary teachers mark primary tests. But surely it deserves the same celebratory scrutiny that normally accompanies major political U-turns - at least when they come from Labour ministers?
Ten more years of reform would certainly mean that the second best schools would be a lot better than they are. But even that wouldn’t solve the problem entirely. There is no admissions system within the wit of man that will avoid the best schools being over-subscribed. Even in the utopia of universal greatness it will still be rational for parents to choose the best school they can. Therefore, it is crucial to find a fair way of distinguishing between applicants.....There is one decisive political objection to the lottery scheme: it means that, all of a sudden, access to a good school cannot be purchased via the housing market. In politics, the complaints of those who lose will always drown out the muted thanks of those who gain. It will be hard to do but it is only when we have enough good schools and a fair way of selecting children that parental choice will become really meaningful.
Monday, 1 March 2010
With signs of recovery, people are right to be distrustful of Osborne's medicine now. Equally, the Tories continue to leave the BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley in charge of health policies that will increase inefficiency in the NHS while greatly reducing patient care, and Cameron says that this man knows more about the NHS than anyone else alive. If he does, one only wonders why he has been keeping it to himself all this time. The list goes on: Theresa Villiers trying to wreck plans for high-speed rail and sideline our most important airport; Jeremy Hunt, the media spokesman set on wrecking the BBC. Add to that the preening arrogance of young Tory wannabees who loudly declare in bars near Millbank and Westminster the jobs that they will have in a new Government - to sharp intakes of breath from non-partisan folk nearby - and the renewed sense of entitlement being displayed in Tory-Labour marginals like mine, and you can see why the polls are narrowing.
That's not to say that Labour has been getting it right: too many of our policies remain unfocused, and we have not found a way either to articulate the progress and vision in our public services, especially education. The Budget must not shirk from an honest assessment of what the economy needs and what it will require to halve the deficit over four years. But we now have a chance to start winning these arguments, as swing voters think twice about the Tories. It is a small window, and it is vital that ministers and those in no 10 grab it while they have the chance.