Thursday, 17 February 2011

Time for a few more U-turns

I'm afraid I hadn't got around to stirring myself into a righteous rage about the management of the forests before David Cameron ruthlessly hung the hapless Caroline Spelman out to dry over the ill-communicated and poorly considered proposals. He badly needs to get a grip from No 10. But I am sure that its impact would have been far less damaging than two other government plans that remain a core part of the coalition project: forcing GPs to take over most of the NHS budget and the scrapping of the EMA. Both require swift retreats or they will lead to future problems when it is too late.

As I have said here before, there is nothing wrong with GP fundholding, where GPs actually want to hold the funds and where certain services that they will have no interest in commissioning are provided elsewhere. There is a lot wrong with simply handing over £80 billion of our money to consortia on the hunch that it might be a bit less bureaucratic or a bit more efficient. After all, the King's Fund has shown decisively that the Government's rationale for change is wholly bogus. Some GPs may have a natural aptitude for strategic decision-making. But just as some are lousy at diagnosing diseases, some will be hopeless budget-holders, at least when it comes to dealing with such large sums. This policy has disaster written all over it. Like the forest sell-off, it has no real support except from a few keen fundholders (and if they are keen, let them do it). In his heart, the PM must know this. Since he's in u-turn mode, here's what he should do. First, slow the reform timetable and the abolition of primary care trusts to allow reluctant fundholders to join as volunteers rather than conscripts, as with academies. Second, make the policy permissive, so that those with good business plans get the right to commission and those without must go back to the drawing board. Third, introduce a quality threshold alongside price into the value-for-money criteria, so that the policy doesn't end up replacing good provision with weaker but cheaper alternatives. Oh, and give Andrew Lansley another job where he can be less destructive.

On EMAs, it is a little different. This is a policy driven not by ideology but by funding. Ironically, the determination to pretend that school budgets were not being cut to fund the pupil premium led to the destruction of a proven, targeted measure to encourage ambition and achievement for poorer pupils to fund an untried, untargeted pot of money that will merely be used to plug funding gaps in schools that receive it. Michael Gove told school leaders six months ago that he wanted to persuade the Treasury that EMAs should stay. He clearly didn't succeed. But now that we are seeing the combined impact of government policies on young people, he needs to try again. Not least because without it, in the absence of compulsion when the participation age is raised, there will be nothing to persuade poorer young people who should do so to stay in further education when that is a better long-term option than a badly paid job with statutory part-time training tacked on. I know poorly paid young people lack the voting power of weekend forest-goers, but if the government cares about social mobility, it will make important changes.

Here's what Gove should do. First, all students who received an EMA in Year 12 should get one for Year 13 or the college equivalent. Scrapping an EMA mid-course is unforgivable: have university students been asked to pay a higher fee mid course? This will also avert another court defeat if a legal challenge takes place. Second, savings are needed, so the EMA should in future be made available to all students entitled to free school meals while at school whose family income remains low. This would encourage students to claim FSM at school, helping schools in areas where there is a stigma about FSM to claim the pupil premium. But it would still save money by confining eligibility to the poorest students. Third, the EMA's requirements for study and attendance should be strengthened, with rewards for those gaining good qualifications. Fourth, there should be a differential transport element depending on where students go to college or school. Such a scheme could be introduced at lower cost than the existing EMA but it would make a direct link with the pupil premium and bridge the gap between school and university, where poorer students receive significant support.

A wise education secretary would make the change before a beefed up Number 10 policy and strategy function works out what a disaster EMA abolition will prove to be - and before he loses another court case.

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