Tuesday 31 July 2007

Dave needs some discipline

If you want to know why most voters regard David Cameron as policy-light, just have a look at this tosh. Cameron repeats yet again the ludicrous notion that discipline problems in schools could all be solved if only we abolished the appeals panels which lead to just over 100 kids a year out of 9000+ excluded pupils being reinstated. Heads' leaders know that far more cases would go the parents' way in the courts than end up back in school after appeals now. Of course, schools should use good voluntary units more but local authority pupil referral units are a darn sight better now than they were when the Tories left office. And banning exclusion appeals is not the answer.

Saturday 28 July 2007


This piece by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator shows what a parlous state the Tories and David Cameron are in now. What a shame. Given the truly extraordinary figures in this week´s YouGov poll (pdf), it is hard to see how they could recover. But the excellent spin of the last month won´t produce the goods forever, and Mr Brown´s spinners should be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Monday 23 July 2007

Turkey votes for modernity

FOÇA, TURKEY: The build-up to yesterday´s decisive vıctory for the moderate Islam AK Parti here in Turkey was a colourful affair. The three main parties - the AKP, the once social democratic CHP and the ultra-natıonalist MHP faced each other wıth flags and placards from their respective headquarters in this Aegean town, the seasıde playground for the Izmir middle classes. But even here, despite the imposıng figure of the father of Turkish secularism, Kemal Ataturk, lookıng down from the side of the CHP headquarters and the ubiquity of bikinis and beer, there was substantial enthusiasm for the AKP. One barman muttered that he thought the army, which has a history of coups after results it dislikes -the last one as recently as 1997 - might step in. But several others I spoke to here were delighted. The AKP has not only been good for this boomıng economy, and, despite the Turkophobic French leadership, Turkey´s prospects for EU entry; it has also been a generally modernising force for good, ignoring the more puritanical voıces in its own party. Here the contrast between smiling scarfless young women advertising the AKP facing the grey men of the other two partıes on pre-election billboards said it all. The AKP are the modernisers. The army forced this vote in a row over the potential president´s wife´s wearing of a headscarf. But with a 14 point increase in the AKP vote, the people have spoken. PM Recep Erdogan struck a note of conciliation - as well as vowing continued reform - last night. If democracy is ever to succeed in the Arab world, it must be allowed its voice here in Turkey.

Brown´s bounce

Last Thursday night´s by-election results were a tremendous fillip to Labour and an appallingly bad result for Davıd Cameron. Coupled wıth weekend polls placıng Labour at 40% or more, it suggests that the Cameron bubble has burst. Of course, events may have their impact, but I tend to agree wıth those who think the results of the Tory policy reviews will be a headache rather than a help for Cameron. After all, the Tories couldn´t even agree on no new grammar schools, a policy that had been a mere shibboleth under Margaret Thatcher´s and John Major´s leadership.

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Staying on (after the bell)

Today's new report from the think tank Centreforum is a bit more interesting than the usual response to deprivation in schools. It proposes a simpler funding formula attached to individual disadvantaged pupils, which is sensible, though would require considerable transition funding before it could be introduced. Conventionally, it argues that this could be used to fund smaller primary classes (although teaching assistants are doing a lot already to cut adult: pupil ratios). It also advocates 'hard to serve' bonuses in inner city schools, but rightly wants these linked to performance bonuses. But perhaps its most controversial idea is that pupils would be taught for longer hours. A government spokesman is too hasty in dismissing the idea. After all, the more imaginative American schools have shown it could make a real difference. So do some of the best city academies and specialist schools. And Labour has already introduced Saturday classes to stretch brighter pupils, and extended schools to enrich the curriculum. This idea is surely worthy of a pilot.

Sunday 15 July 2007

Irish New Labour?

The Irish Labour Party flatlined in the Republic's recent general election. Now, the party's leader Pat Rabbitte has started to think about what went wrong. Politics.ie offers this link to his Kemmy lecture, where I was particularly struck by the following:

In marketing parlance, there is a problem with the Labour 'brand'. In using that term, I am not referring to something superficial, such as the way that we package the party. I am referring to the spontaneous associations and reactions that voters have when they see the words 'Labour Party'. The way we are seen in modern Ireland.

What does that mean – that there is a problem with the brand? It means that the Labour Party does not conjure up in people's minds, much less inspire, a definite sense of what the party stands for and how it relates to their day to day lives.

As a party, we tend to think of ourselves as having a core working class vote. According to the RTE exit poll, more people in the ABC1 category vote for us than do the C2Des. Its not that we are loosing our traditional base – its that our traditional base is being eroded and has changed. Affluence has changed the way people think about themselves. If we ever did, we do not reflect the aspirations of most of the new middle class – people in working class occupations trying to live middle class lives. People whose parents in some cases voted Labour, but who themselves do not vote Labour. We have not persuaded them that we will improve their lives, and certainly we have not persuaded them that we are worth the risk, as they see it, of changing
horses mid-stream.

Irish New Labour beckons, perhaps?

Gordon's poll bounce

Gordon Brown has had an excellent start as Prime Minister. He has avoided the temptation to tilt to the left, but has nonetheless injected fresh energy into the Government. Cabinet appointments like David Miliband and Jacqui Smith at senior levels have given the government a freshness and youth which has made Cameron's Tories feel tired. Today's poll for the Sunday Telegraph suggests that the public agrees. Miliband was in top form on this morning's Sunday AM, making clear where UK foreign policy lies. However, he does need to make clear who's boss to some of his junior team.

Saturday 14 July 2007

Still slightly constitutional?

I do hope the new Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, can get the message across to his fellow Sinn Fein members that they are now supposed to be backing the forces of law. Sadly, as Slugger O Toole reports, some of the party's councillors still appear to be confused about what such responsibility means.

Thursday 12 July 2007

A balanced curriculum

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is today announcing its changes to the National Curriculum for 11-14 year-olds. The QCA has struck a good balance between prescription and flexibility. Flexibility in modern foreign languages fits with the times, given how many specialist language colleges have started teaching Mandarin in the last few years. It is great that cooking (rather than food technology) is back on the curriculum. And a greater emphasis on personal finance should help today's young people manage their household budgets more effectively. As Ken Boston, the QCA chief executive, said on Today this morning, it is also essential that teachers have the time to develop different approaches for able and struggling pupils. But at the heart of the National Curriculum - especially for 11-14 year-olds - there must continue to be a core entitlement in history and geography as well as English, Maths and Science. Alan Johnson ensured that he left that intact for Ed Balls, just as David Blunkett had done in 2000. Personalisation is nothing without purpose.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Flexible learning after 16

Gordon Brown has been talking on the Today programme about the importance of flexibility in education to promote opportunity. He cited John Denham's fees holiday as a good example. But there is a real danger that his enthusiasm for a compulsory education leaving age of 18 will militate against what he really wants to achieve. Contrary to what some claim, this is not just about staying in school. In truth, most will take level 2 (GCSE standard) college courses, start apprenticeships or learn at work. It is certainly a noble goal to increase staying on in education. But is it right to impose a new legal leaving age? Part of the problem is that the policy confuses two issues: those who are genuinely doing nothing (and most of those called NEETs drift between employment, only 1 in 10 NEETS or 1 in 100 of 17-18 year olds are long-term jobless) and those who are in work, but not undertaking recognised training. Many of the latter are being trained, but until recently officialdom was fairly inflexible in recognising good training provided by, for example, the big supermarket companies. That has recently changed, but one still must ask why so few young people in work who have a legal Right to Study since 1998 don't exercise that right.

These are not the only issues. Why should we require those who already have a level 2 (GCSE-standard) qualification to continue studying, if they don't want to? Why can't more young people start apprenticeships at 14? Is there enough independent careers advice to guide young people to the right course or work-based training for them - far too many young people stay a year in the sixth form to do AS levels for £30 a week educational maintenance allowances, when they'd be better off at college or starting an apprenticeship. If we want young people to learn while they delay leaving, we should be getting those issues right before we legislate. That would be the flexible approach to promoting opportunity.

UPDATE: Gordon Brown has confirmed that this will be part of the legislative programme in the autumn. When the original plans were published, it was envisaged that compulsion would not be introduced until all the Diplomas were ready, meaning it would not be enforced until 2015. It is vital that time is used to make staying on an opportunity rather than a punishment for those who wouldn't otherwise do so.

Wondrous Wrath

Reviews of last night's first episode of Cape Wrath on Channel 4 see it as derivative and boring. I beg to differ. The quirky mix of weird and wonderful characters in the admittedly somewhat implausible Meadowlands estate housed by people with something to hide does succeed in mixing the strangeness of Twin Peaks with the claustrophobia of The Prisoner, as the advance PR suggested. But more importantly, the acting from David Morrissey as Danny Brogan down is pretty flawless, the story fairly gripping and the filming of a quality we are more used to from the best American series. More of this, and less Big Brother and makeover shows could give Channel 4 the distinctive edge it had hitherto appeared to have lost.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

Ed's educational goals

News that the new children's and schools secretary Ed Balls wants every university to help run an academy is good for the future of an increasingly successful programme. And by removing the requirement that they must find a partner to contribute £2m sponsorship, he has not only made this goal more achievable, he has also shot the Tory fox. The only difference between their policy on academies and the government was on this issue: in reality, there was always a lot more flexibility than people assumed. The truth is that there are plenty of potential sponsors for academies - and having a £2m endowment is good for any inner city school - but there is no point in letting the sponsorship stand in the way of such partnerships.

Ed Balls has pledged to consult on a number of other educational issues. On primary maths, he is putting into practice a commitment made by Gordon Brown in his Mansion House speech. It will be important that there is as much emphasis on finding why some schools with similar intakes do much better than their peers as there is on reinventing the numeracy strategy. On school discipline, the measures introduced in Tony Blair's last schools bill have only just become law: the challenge here is spreading consistent good practice to all schools. Alan Steer's excellent report should be the government's starting point. It has wide support in schools.

Monday 9 July 2007

Fair's fair?

Proof that the great Tory attack on poverty to be announced tomorrow by Iain Duncan Smith is so much hot air is provided by the news that plans to support fairer admissions to schools have been excised. There are only two fair ways to allocate state school places where demand exceeds supply, and academic selection is ruled out: banding, where places are allocated to pupils of different abilities after a test, and random ballots, both supported by the School Admissions Code. Ballots - dubbed lotteries here - are actually fairly common in the United States, Scandinavia and New Zealand. Here, many academies use banding to ensure a balanced intake. A key feature of Tony Blair's last schools bill and white paper was the promotion of school transport, choice advisers and fair admissions. Far from rejecting such ideas, any party serious about tackling poverty should be seeking ways to extend them. Of course, the public need to gain a better understanding of how they work - and the number of good schools needs to continue to increase - but the idea that good schools should only be open to those who can afford expensive houses nearby is indefensible. The ball is now in Balls's court.

Sunday 8 July 2007

Better than bog standard

I am looking forward to reading Alastair Campbell's diaries. Alastair did an awful lot to help Labour win at least two of its three election victories. I was a member of the Mountfield group that he established in 1997 to drag government press offices into the 24-7 world of the late 20th century, introducing them rather late in the day to the concept of communication.

But, in today's Sunday Times, Lesley White reports: "The more cross and exasperated Campbell became about journalists, the more he deflected attention from the message. Blair became concerned. “He said, ‘The trouble is that the press are now more interested in you than in what you are saying’.” An example, he says, is his “bog-standard comprehensive” gaffe at the time of the 2001 education white paper [sic]. “Tony had said that before you know . . . It was his phrase. When he said it publicly no one had picked it up.” "

This may well have been a Tony Blair phrase, though I never heard him use it. But, ironically, the one person who uttered it most in my presence for months before the Green Paper was Peter Hyman, then a strategy adviser in no. 10 who has been reborn as a first-class history teacher in one of the country's best comprehensives. I always argued strongly against its use - and knew that David Blunkett, for whom I then worked, would have hated it, as he made clear after its use - because it was never true to say that most comprehensives were 'bog-standard'. Indeed all the academies subsequently established and most specialist schools are comprehensives (even if their intake could often be better balanced). And one of Labour's biggest achievements has been to increase the number of comprehensives where more than 70% of young people get five good GCSEs from 83 in 1997 to 604 last year. I was furious when Alastair used the phrase in lobby because I felt it undermined a strong Green Paper in schools. I'm sure I wasn't alone: I can't believe (Alastair's partner) Fiona Millar, who has since become a doughty defender of a very narrow view of comprehensive education was any more enthusiastic.

Friday 6 July 2007

Specialist success

The news that another 100 schools have acquired specialist status brings England one step closer to having a specialist system. Along the way, the critics have moved from hostilty to enthusiasm. And with good reason. Specialist status has been less about whether a school has extra facilities for sports or languages than the galvinising effect that acquiring and retaining that status has on a school's sense of mission and ambition. But coupled with a stronger link with neighbouring schools and the ability to provide a hub in the school's specialist subject, it is no exaggeration to say that the move to near-universal specialism has transformed England's comprehensives. Congratulations to all those who will become specialist schools this autumn.

Good politics, bad policy?

The news that graduates are to get a five year loans holiday and that eligibility for grants will increase significantly may seem like good news. But there is a good reason why the proposals have only received a "cautious welcome" from vice-chancellors. This £400 million wheeze may make it easier to win back seats lost to the Liberal Democrats in university towns. But it will do very little to improve access for poorer students. The big problem is raising ambition rather than finance - the evidence of both the 1998 and 2006 fees changes is that there is no impact on access from the higher fees, because both packages effectively allowed for post-graduation repayments. Had the £400m been invested in a big expansion of summer schools, there would have been a bigger return. Instead, there is a huge deadweight cost. And far from being a signal that higher fees are imminent, vice-chancellors must be wondering whether this first announcement from the once anti-top up fees minister John Denham is a signal that they cannot really expect to be able to charge higher fees after the promised 2009 review.

Monday 2 July 2007

Smoked out

Given how fraught the original decision was to ban smoking in pubs, restaurants and work places, it is surprising how little fuss there has been since the ban actually took effect. Alan Johnson, the new health secretary, rightly hails its popularity. Visiting our local in Keynsham yesterday, it was a pleasure to experience the smoke-free atmosphere in the older, cosier part of the pub. People ate meals in the once smoky lounge. The landlady reported brisker business than usual. And the smokers popped outside between showers without too many grumbles. None of this was surprising given the successful experience of Ireland, Scotland and New York. But there were still many arguing for partial bans even two years ago. That we had a full ban is not just an important part of Tony Blair's legacy, it is a tribute to the tenacity of Caroline Flint, the public health minister until Thursday, who argued over the merchants of doom to win the day. The non-smoking majority should toast her.

Cameron's revenge

David Willetts has not been forgiven for allowing the Conservative party's u-turn on grammar schools to destroy David Cameron's poll lead. Gordon Brown has given Cameron the ideal opportunity to keep Willetts away from schools policy without removing him from the shadow cabinet. He has now been given the job of shadowing John Denham as universities minister. Michael Gove will be a strong shadow to Ed Balls. But he would be unwise to change tack on schools policy again. Willetts may not be the greatest politician in the world, but his basic analysis was right for the Tories - it makes far more sense to promote city academies for all pupils in 2007 rather than more grammar schools for a few.

Jacqui Smith's baptism of fire

I have never understood why Jacqui Smith went unnoticed in the government for quite so long. I first worked with her when she joined the Department for Education and Skills in 1999 as a junior schools minister. Her ability was outstanding then, and her stature grew with a series of second-tier ministerial posts in Labour's second term. Jacqui's real breakthrough only came thanks to the rebellion on Tony Blair's school reforms, when her calm good sense and can-do attitude was seen by many of my number 10 colleagues. She was promoted to the Cabinet as chief whip. Her appointment as Home Secretary last week was the best bit of Gordon Brown's reshuffle, and she has certainly had the mother of all inductions to contend with. But as her interview on the Today programme this morning demonstrated, she is the right person for these troubled times.

Doing the Splits in the Education Ministry

Few government departments can have had quite so many changes as the English education ministry. For twenty years it was merely the Ministry of Education, until its 1964 rebirth as the Department of Education and Science. Then, it lost science, forcing universities to court two masters for their research budgets. In 1995, it merged with the old Department of Employment to create the Department for Education and Employment. This meant, for example, that childcare and nursery education were under the same roof (though it took rather longer for the responsible civil servants to work together). In 2001, much of the employment brief was diverted to the new Department of Work and Pensions, but childcare and skills survived in the Department for Education and Skills. At least there was no further name change when children's services were added to the DfES's responsibilities in 2003.

Now one of Gordon Brown's first acts is to split the department in two: creating the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills . But, to what purpose? There are in Ed Balls and John Denham, two able cabinet ministers. Ian Watmore will be an excellent permanent secretary at DIUS. And science is back at one of the new ministries. But, as Mike Baker points out here: "With one parent giving each its undivided attention, there may be some gains. But where does that leave the middle child, known as Further Education? The answer seems to be: caught in the middle of a complicated custody battle, spending some time in each parent's home."

Surely Mike is not right to suggest also that it is merely a ploy to concentrate more control of education at no. 10?