Saturday 29 September 2007

Changing times in Ireland?

A poll in today's Irish Times shows that a majority of women in the Republic now believe that abortion should be legalised. How times seem to have changed from the abortion referendum of 1983 that gave constitutional protection to the unborn. Such changing attitudes don't mean that any mainstream party will embrace them, or that the law will change any time soon, or even that a referendum to change the constitution would succeed. Ryanair flights to Britain will continue to provide Irish politicians with a get-out clause for some time to come.

Cameron's continuing collapse (3)

Two more polls this morning confirming the trend in the Channel 4 News poll, and suggesting that not too much can be read into Thursday's by-election results. A Populus poll for the Times gives Labour 41% to the Tories' 31%, while YouGov in the Telegraph puts Labour on 43% and the Tories on 32%. If Gordon Brown is looking for good polling data to help decide on an autumn election, he won't be disappointed. As Peter Riddell notes in the Times, Brown has a clear edge in Populus over Cameron on key leadership attributes: by 59 to 30 per cent on having what it takes to be a good prime minister, and by 60 to 45 per cent on caring about the problems faced by ordinary people. The Yougov poll is particularly devastating for Cameron: substantial majorities of voters brand him as out of touch, a bad leader and insubstantial. Even on the environment, fewer than a third of people think his plans to tax their holiday flights brave and courageous. To say he faces an uphill struggle at Blackpool gives new meaning to the concept of an understatement.

Folkie heaven

For us folkies, there is a small treat every Friday evening at 8.30pm on BBC 4 (produced with RTE). The third series of Transatlantic Sessions brings together the best of Scottish and Irish folk with Nashville musicians. Among those appearing are Paul Brady (pictured, left), Cara Dillon, Mary Black, Karen Matheson, the incomparable Scots Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, Sharon Shannon and Eddi Reader. Grumpy breakfast show hosts who think the best thing about the BBC today should be scrapped should stick to interrupting politicians.

Friday 28 September 2007

Daniel Pearl's legacy

We caught A Mighty Heart last night at the cinema. Angelina Jolie certainly makes her presence felt as a pouting and not wholly believable Mariane Pearl in Michael Winterbottom's compelling account of the kidnap and murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl (left) by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan five years ago. But the strongest performances really come from the supporting cast, especially Irrfan Khan as the industrious police chief trying to find Pearl and Archie Panjabi as an Indian journalist working for the Journal. I know that Pearl's father thought the story tried to create a moral equivalence between the kidnappers and the Americans for Guantanamo Bay. Normally I would agree with Harry's Place on these matters. Not this time. While there are a couple of short gratuitous shots of the prisoners on a TV news bulletin, it is hard to sustain the argument that this is a reflection of the whole film, which does nothing to glorify Pearl's murderers; quite the opposite. Indeed, it starkly reminds people of the brutal way Pearl was killed and celebrates his legacy. Particularly well captured are the chaos of Karachi and the extraordinary odds stacked against the Pakistani police in stamping out the Al Qaeda support networks in their cities, let alone along the Afghan border. Despite Angelina's pouting, this is well worth seeing.

Sunderland's signal

The Tories are clearly trying to spook Gordon Brown against having an immediate general election, by talking up their victory in a by-election in Sunderland last night. A swing to Labour in marginal Dover is far more significant. Yet after a few good weeks of by-elections, the run of last night's results could be read as suggesting that Labour's luck is starting to run out. But Brown shouldn't make his decision on an election on the basis of a few by-elections with low turnouts. An important finding in the Channel 4/You Gov poll earlier this week was that few people actually want an autumn poll, including most Labour supporters. A November poll could cause resentment, and many of them to stay at home. That, as well as whatever private polling he is seeing this weekend, should affect his final decision.
UPDATE: Luke Akehurst has his usual exhaustive take on the by-elections here. There are clearly some odd shifts in Dover, but some apparently good results in Chester-le-Street and Mansfield. Seeing the figures suggests the Tory night of triumph was more a triumph of Central Office spin. They really don't want an early election, do they?

Too many retakes?

Whatever the impact of Ed Balls' move to give the exam regulator greater independence - something that seems to have caused irrational excitement with normally reliable commentators - it risks ducking the real issues around the examination system. One is the perennial question of whether it is a good idea to have competition between exam boards. A second is raised by this morning's Times Educational Supplement: why are pupils allowed to have unlimited retakes at A-level? David Blunkett and Tessa Blackstone resisted attempts to allow unlimited retakes (just as they insisted on requiring a minimum amount of synoptic assessment in A levels) when they were at the Department for Education and Employment. That was not what independent advisers advocated, and later ministers changed the position. We are now moving away from coursework to controlled assessment again at GCSE. But it is worth remembering that in all the battles on standards, it has been politicians not regulators who have - with the exception, to be fair, of Ken Boston on coursework - insisted on keeping measures that are most likely to maintain standards.

Hope in Iraq?

Bartle Bull's article on the situation in Iraq in the latest edition of Prospect offers a rather more optimistic take on events than we are used to hearing, and than the cycle of car-bombings and killings of recent years might warrant. But it is an interesting and somewhat persuasive analysis. Let us hope he is right.

Thursday 27 September 2007

Standards and structures

I have a column in this morning's Independent on the standards v structures debate in education. Here's an extract:
In a curious echo of where the Tories are now, we then attacked the government for its failures on literacy and numeracy – standards were much lower then – and positioned Labour as the party of higher standards. Blunkett had made this his goal in his first statement as shadow education secretary. And he quickly embraced performance tables, testing and Ofsted inspections as the means to that end. Standards not structures became his catchphrase.

Last year, as Labour set about creating city academies and trust schools, Tony Blair told the annual Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference: "Over time, I shifted from saying 'it's standards not structures' to realising that school structures could affect standards." More recently, we have had the new schools' secretary Ed Balls promise that he would "focus our efforts not on structures but on standards in the classroom," while announcing plans to speed up Blair's academies programme.

Now that the Tories have ditched selection and embraced academies, such debate as there is between the parties is over how to lift standards in primary and secondary schools. But that is because the structural change is being put in place and has cross-party support.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Cameron's continuing collapse (2)

Continuing, before I was rudely interrupted, the latest Yougov poll for Channel 4 News gives Labour an 11-point lead, putting the party on a remarkable 44% to the Tories' 33%, its biggest lead since 2005. However, few people want an autumn election: a plurality of voters from all parties favours 2008 over 2007 (pdf). Funny enough, the group least keen on an autumn poll are Tory voters who must live in hope. Yet David Cameron's woes just keep on coming as he approaches the never terribly enticing prospect of a week in Blackpool. Norman Tebbit has made his views known on his leader (and Gordon).

An end to dumbing down debates?

Ed Balls is announcing today that he intends to split the functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, so that testing and exam regulation are 'independent' of ministers and answerable to Parliament. This is not a new idea, but it is doubtful it will make a whit of difference to the annual dumbing down debate each August. After all, the competitive exam boards will remain, and they have no new incentive to lift standards (a single exam board would be better). In itself the split is not necessarily a bad idea, but there is a real danger that without ministerial pressure to continue regular externally marked testing of 11 and 14 year-olds (such tests for 7 year olds have already been largely abandoned) the testing system will be effectively passed over to schools. The unions have long lobbied for teachers to mark their own tests, as now happens at 7 where Balls is now rightly taking remedial action to deal with a slip in standards since. National testing could be replaced by sampling, fine for statisticians, but useless for measuring the performance of individual schools or stretching individual pupils. The legislation to split QCA must make very clear that national externally marked tests for all are here to stay, and it is the responsibility and duty of the new body to ensure this happens. Otherwise the danger is that this measure will have the opposite effect from that intended: it could lead to some real dumbing down of our whole system of accountability.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Where Blair's education policy got us....

Although Gordon Brown has had a remarkably good press from the Tory papers, including the Daily Mail, for his conference speech, the Mail still continues to ask, as if rhetorically:

As for our schools, it's all very well for Mr Brown to say: "Education is my passion." Didn't Mr Blair tell us more than ten years ago that it was all three of his top priorities - and where did that get us?

Since I'm fed up reading such crass comment, here are a dozen ways in which our schools are better now than they were in 1997.

1. Over 100,000 more 11-year-olds can read, write and add up well now each year than could do so in 1997.

2. Over 25% more 15 year olds get five good GCSEs every year - whether you include English and Maths or not. Results have improved fastest in London. The number of non-selective schools where 70% or more pupils get five good GCSEs rose from 83 in 1997 to 603 in 2006.

3. The universal free nursery education promised by Maggie Thatcher in 1972 but never delivered is now available to all 3 and 4 year olds, with their hours increasing. Sure Start children's centres link this with other services including childcare.

4. Most schools are much better at stretching brighter pupils and helping weaker pupils than they were ten years ago, as the culture of expectations has been transformed, with Gifted and Talented programmes now widespread.

5. Over 1000 new schools have been built, and many more have had vital repairs.

6. There are now over 100 open academies and most schools have a specialism, which has led to a completely transformed attitude to education in our secondary schools.

7. Over 30,000 more teachers work in our schools, and teachers and heads are now reasonably paid, with performance pay part of the system.

8. Teaching is one of the top careers of choice, not of last resort.

9. Our schools have entered the 21st century with modern IT equipment and teachers who know how to use it, increasingly imaginatively in lessons.

10. Over 130,000 more teaching assistants now work in our schools, making one-to-one tuition easier and providing vital support to teachers.

11. There is far more school sport than there was, both in and out of school hours, and teachers are helping provide it. School playing fields are much better protected.

12. Thousands of schools now provide extended facilities, including breakfast clubs, after-school homework, IT, sports and arts, and all will soon do so. Few did so in 1997.

I could list many more examples. But, to the question (presumably snidely intended) asking where making education Tony Blair's top priorities got us, that's where.

Choices to be made

In today's Times, David Aaronovitch puts his finger on the challenges facing Brown after his conference speech, when he writes:

It is another myth that the last few Blair years were the swansong of a delusional, dying leader, in which everything stopped, while the pomaded dilettante built his cardboard academies. Some fairly profound changes were being wrought in public service provision, and the question has always been whether Mr Brown intended to deepen this process and possibly even accelerate it in pursuit of what he called yesterday a “genuinely meritocratic Britain”, in which “if you try hard, we will help you”..... But, in the general run of education and health provision, what does the PM think about patient and parent choice? Who chooses the personal tutor that we have all been promised? Who can tender to become such a tutor?.... Now, my presumption is that the Prime Minister is prepared to make tough decisions, because if he isn’t, then there’s not much point to him. And if he is, then perhaps he should go to the country very soon.....if he wants the freedom to do the difficult as well as the easy things, then he needs to put the Long Election Campaign behind him.
Aaronovitch almost has me persuaded of the case for an early election so that Brown could start to work through these choices (though, to be fair, he has made a lot of them already even if chose to obscure them yesterday). Meanwhile Steve Richards in the Independent makes a good case for not going early, as he applauds how Brown's approach to policy, though downplays the hard choices that he will face turning policy ambitions into reality.

Monday 24 September 2007

Gordon's solid conference debut as leader

It was a good speech, not a great one. There was none of the rhetorical flourish that characterised Tony Blair at his best, and little of the oratorical exuberence that Neil Kinnock brought to eighties speeches. But then he didn't need to do either. Gordon Brown had one of the least restive conference audiences in years. There were no rival briefings, and the unions and left were subdued. So instead we got a bit more of the vision than we have become used to in Gordon's speeches on the Budget or as Chancellor at conference. Though, in education, there was much more on children and literacy and much less on specialist schools and Academies, yet the policy is largely unchanged; and there was a rhetorical return to student grants in higher education, a conference pleaser not a serious change of direction on tuition fees. Nevertheless, despite the difference of emphasis, this was a speech that emphasised continuity as much as it spoke change. Whether it was a pre-election speech is another matter: it is unlikely to set the nation's pulse racing, but it should solidify the strong support built by solid summer leadership.

Burmese bravery

The growing protests by Buddhist monks in Burma put the rest of the news, including election speculation, into perspective. Let's hope the people finally get to have their say without the army intervening again, in one of the world's most brutalised countries. Meanwhile, we must salute and support their bravery, including that of Aung San Suu Kyi who has been detained for nearly 12 years now.

Election fever

I can see why an autumn election looks increasingly attractive to Gordon Brown's advisers. The party conference has none of the acrimony of recent years - no commentator thinks Alistair Darling is vying for No 10! Today's Sun poll gives Labour an extraordinarily good 42% with an eight point lead over the shellshocked Tories. Council by-elections, albeit with special circumstances in Worcester, look increasingly rosy. And much of the media wants a general election too (though that's never a great reason for one). But Brown is rightly cautious: who would want to rival George Canning as the shortest-serving PM in British history? But if the Tories implode during their Blackpool jaunt next week, an election may appear inevitable.

Saturday 22 September 2007

Testy about testing

Once again, we are being told that our children are over-tested, an assertion with little factual basis. And according to reports, this testing is bad for children. How much worse would it be for children, especially those without the support of strong homes, if we were unable to assess their progress and needs, or when their schools were useless, their teachers not up to scratch and their potential was being ignored?

No Northern Rock effect

A new Yougov poll in today's Daily Telegraph shows that the majority of people thought the government handled the Northern Rock situation well, and Labour remains six points clear of the Tories going into the party conference, at 39-33%. David Cameron remains 22 points behind Gordon Brown, who is on 42% as best prime minister (though for those LibDem fantasists who think Ming has shone this week, he scores a mere 6%). Most importantly, asked to choose between a Brown-led Labour government and a Cameron-led Tory government, Brown beats Cameron 47-32%, a recipe for an extraordinary landslide. I still find the idea of an autumn election unlikely, though it must be very tempting. And it is time for an inquest at Tory Central Office into how they so badly mishandled their response to Northern Rock, surely?

Friday 21 September 2007

Polly is disappointed with Gordon

Good news for Labour. Polly Toynbee, who had crudely created a version of Gordon Brown in her own image to complement her dislike of his predecessor, now realises that she was wrong (though she has to mask her disappointment in the notion that the supposed 'dire Blairite predictions' were misplaced). Gordon is not going to throw the New Labour baby out with the bathwater, and as one of its key architects, he intends to do all he can to win the next election, precisely so he can continue to achieve the economic success that allows us to be the biggest investor in pre-school education in the developed world, and to make big inroads into reducing child poverty. Polly's prescription would put all that at risk. His speechwriters should look elsewhere for sound advice.

Thursday 20 September 2007

Good schools beat discrimination

Melanie McDonagh is spot on in her assessment of why discrimination against the Irish in Britain ended, not least in her observation that
Here in Britain, the Irish had access to Catholic schools, which were better than the state average. It meant that they were equipped to profit from the transition that Gordon Brown keeps talking about, from an economy requiring manual labour to one that places a premium on skills. The moral of all this is that it’s not positive discrimination and equality legislation that make ethnic prejudice redundant. It’s decent schools.

That is why the Government is right to respond to the aspirations of parents for more faith schools. They are probably the best available route for ethnic minority social mobility.

Aiming higher

Today's Sutton Trust report (pdf) showing how much the odds are stacked against bright young people from our best state schools getting to our leading universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, deserves serious consideration. For the Trust rightly concludes that this is not simply a matter of bias (albeit in a way other than the independent sector has sometimes had us believe) but it is as much about aspiration, teacher expectation and a better applications process. The OECD report earlier this week found English youngsters uniquely pessimistic about their prospects of getting to university, despite a better than average graduation rate. Such pessimism clearly extends to the ablest students having the confidence to apply to top universities rather than a safer less challenging alternative.

Clearly the excellent summer schools run by Hefce and the Sutton Trust with top universities can do a lot to redress the balance. The universities need to back a fairer applications process - A levels can be marked quicker; and university terms could change too. Plans by independent schools to work with state schools on the interview process are welcome. But the biggest change has to be in the mindset of teachers, parents and students: they need to aim higher, and have the support to do so.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

A liberal curriculum?

Apparently, David Laws, the new Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, is planning to free up the curriculum and leave it to teachers to decide exactly what they teach. They'll have the power to set their own curriculum (and perhaps also mark tests, inspect themselves and decide whether to bother telling parents how their school is doing). Just like in the old days. Before we had a national curriculum. When only 40% of kids could read and write to a reasonable standard at age 11. That's what it says in the Times. But is Laws really planning this? Further down the story, we're told he only wants to give schools "freedoms to innovate with the curriculum" just like Academies (and just like Estelle Morris did as Education Secretary, though few took up the offer). Does this mean the National Curriculum would be scrapped or doesn't it? Is this a neat way of ditching the producerist policies of the LibDems while pretending otherwise (there's lots of talk of choice in the article, though choice is meaningless unless it is informed). Not that Liberal policy matters much in the greater scheme of things, but I feel we should be told.

A question of trust

"Is it any surprise -after Iraq and ten years of spin and lies - that the public don't trust Labour on Northern Rock?", asks Stephen Glover with a mixture of synthetic anger and wishful thinking in today's Daily Mail. Sorry, Stephen, better luck next time. First, today's ICM poll for the Guardian records Labour on 40% and the Tories on 32%, with Brown enjoying huge public confidence as PM and Cameron sinking below Ming Campbell in personal approval ratings. Then, a Times/Populus Poll not only finds that most voters blame Northern Rock or the American mortgage market for the problems of the last few days, it shows public trust for Brown/Darling on the economy at 56% compared to 18% for Cameron/Osborne. Clearly the public still trust Labour in a crisis, and were deeply unimpressed with Cameron's pathetic attempts to talk the economy down last weekend.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Higher expectations

Today's OECD report on education internationally, though reported with the usual negative spin in some of the media, is actually a welcome corrective to the education debate in Britain. First, far from having too many graduates, we are in danger of having too few, as our graduate numbers are growing too slowly to keep up with our competitors. Second, there is still a substantial earnings premium from having a degree. And third, we spend more on schools, particularly pre-school, than most other countries, and pay teachers better. Yes, we still underperform on staying on rates at 16 (though not as badly as before) and our young people's aspirations don't match their potential (perhaps because they and their families spend too much time reading newspapers telling them they are useless). But ministers are right to say that this is a story of real improvement.

In mixed company

Iain Dale has kindly listed me in his top 10 new blogs for his forthcoming Guide to Political Blogging (probably the only thing I have in common with John Redwood). I have also written a piece for the Guide, which is published next week.

Deja vu for Dave

Ben Brogan has some worrying news for David Cameron: Graham Brady, who helped spark the grammar schools fiasco for the Tories earlier in the summer, will be speaking at a fringe meeting in support of grammars at the party conference. What was the policy again? No new grammars, except where there are existing grammars (maybe). That's clear, then.

Poor substitute

Can't we just have our Sky channels back - plus Sky Arts while you're at it - instead of this rubbish, Mr Branson, please?

Pupil power

Here's a story that probably won't get too much attention. But it represents a very important change in how our schools are run. Andrew Adonis, the schools minister is today hailing the value of school councils, where students learn responsibility through taking some for the running of their schools. When such stories reach the media, it is usually through scornful pieces about pupils telling teachers what to do or snitching to inspectors. But this is a far more important development than that. School councils are one of the best ways of maximising a school's success in getting through to pupils, in improving discipline and respect, and in teaching the sort of 'soft skills' the lack of which are regularly bemoaned by our business leaders. Let's hear it for pupil power (and responsibility)!

Monday 17 September 2007

All-Ireland politics

Now that Fianna Fail has announced its plans to organise in Northern Ireland - and perhaps even to merge with the SDLP - there is no reason why the Irish and British Labour Parties should not ensure that voters of all backgrounds have the chance to vote Labour. Both parties should ensure there are Labour candidates in every constituency. I used to oppose this idea, but times have changed. Bertie and Sinn Fein shouldn't have a free run.

Palin's new Europe

Michael Palin's latest series on The New Europe (Sunday nights, BBC 1) had a brilliant start last night with visits to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Albania. It is excellent to see the programme enjoyed 7.5 million viewers. Albania presented itself as if to caricature and clearly failed to impress Palin, but the most moving testimony came in Sarajevo and Mostar, where Palin talked gently to local people who had experienced the full effect of the terrible war in the nineties. Lest we forget, this war which left Sarajevo under siege for three years and dotted with landmines for the next seventy years, happened with the connivance and complicity of the Major government. Indeed some of those whose inaction allowed so many to perish have the gall to present themselves as honest brokers in debates on foreign policy today. It is good to be reminded so elegantly of just what the war meant to so many people's lives.

Twigg's triumph

Well done to Stephen Twigg for defeating Bob Wareing to become Labour candidate for Liverpool West Derby yesterday. Stephen lost his Enfield seat in 2005, having held it for eight years after his celebrated victory over Michael Portillo in 1997. Stephen will be a big asset to the next parliament.
UPDATE: Bob Wareing is hardly graceful in defeat. He plans to stand as an independent. I'm with Tom Watson on this one.

Poll position

Labour is entering the conference season ahead of the Tories (and well ahead of Ming's squeezed Liberal Democrats). A ComRes poll in today's Independent and the latest Yougov in yesterday's Sunday Times have given Labour leads of three and five points respectively. What's more, YouGov shows 65% of people think Gordon Brown is doing a good job, with only 17% believing otherwise. David Cameron has only 29% favourable, 55% negative, comparable to Ming's 43% negative, 24% positive rating. Moreover, the Tories' green gimmickry fails to impress the voters, which may explain their poor showing. Whether the troubles of Northern Rock impact on polling figures remains to be seen, though voters may not appreciate the disgraceful attempts by David Cameron to talk the economy down. After all, his advice to Norman Lamont as Britain crashed out of the ERM hardly inspired confidence, did it?

Sunday 16 September 2007

Two Days in Paris

We saw Julie Delpy's quirky but engaging comedy of manners, Two Days in Paris, yesterday. The story of a French woman and her American boyfriend (played brilliantly by Adam Goldberg) coming to terms with the very different attitudes of her friends, family and the local taxi-drivers in Paris, it is amusing well-acted entertainment which delightfully captures the cultural and linguistic divide that the Atlantic Ocean represents. Delpy stars, has written the script and some of the music, and directed the movie.

Friday 14 September 2007

It's the economy, stupid

While David Cameron and his chums John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith spent the day switching off Tory voters in droves with his eccentric environmental wheezes, Gordon Brown has established an extraordinary lead on the economy, according to Populus. If the economy were to face problems, 61% of voters - including a quarter of Tories and two thirds of Liberal Democrats - would want Gordon in charge rather than Cameron and George Osborne. Isn't that what we mean by a 'wellbeing economy' in the words of the new flat earther's handbook (pdf)?

Thursday 13 September 2007

Stuck in the middle with you

Peter Riddell has shown just how close Gordon Brown is now perceived as being to where the British public stand on the issues. In office, he is drawing heavily on the Tony Blair textbook. And he is enjoying upsetting David Cameron by the day. No politician will succeed by tilting too far to the right or to the left, flash or not.
UPDATE: Neal Lawson is upset that the ad was created by Saatchi and Saatchi. What must really upset him is that Gordon has ignored the advice he has been doling out since he set up Compass.

Classroom politics

I have written the cover feature for this week's Public Finance magazine, comparing the education policies of the two main parties. You can read it here.

University challenge

Universities secretary John Denham is right to focus university expansion on older, more mature students. Today's announcement that 15,000 workers' degree places will be created is good news. The 2010 target for 50% participation among 18-30 year-olds - one that looks challenging for 2010, but less so a few years later - was always going to be met largely through older workers, not young people. The challenge with young people is to ensure that bright pupils don't miss their chance to go to university, and that those with the right grades have an equal chance of getting to Russell Group universities as their better connected private school peers.

More good news for Hillary

This week's CNN Opinion Research poll(pdf) is excellent news for Hillary Clinton. She has got twice as much support as the flailing Barack Obama among Democrats for the party's nomination. She is four points clear of Giuliani in national rankings. And Fred Thompson, the Law and Order candidate, whom Hillary would beat hands down, is just one point behind Giuliani for the Republican nomination.

Wednesday 12 September 2007

No crowing please

I had the pleasure of being up in London for a series of meetings on the day of Bob Crow's ludicrous underground strike. His brothers and sisters at the TUC must have been equally pleased, if the results of the TUC general council elections are anything to go by, as reported by Luke Akehurst.

Union madness

Let me get this straight. Trade unions that want to increase the degree of social legislation from Brussels are signing up to a referendum on Europe being promoted by the forces of Euroscepticism who want to scrap what European protection there already is. Meanwhile Jackie Ashley, the co-leader of Guardianistas for Gordon, is telling the PM he is sunk without one. The truth is that the only reason the Daily Telegraph and Tories want a referendum on a treaty that tinkers with the constitution in order to accommodate a larger Europe, is (a) to embarrass Gordon and Labour and (b) to defeat the European cause. There is no merit whatsoever in Brown holding a referendum that he would lose. And there is no more need for one now than when Thatcher signed the rather more radical Maastricht Treaty. Gordon should stick to his guns and ignore the Tories and their new allies.
UPDATE: Recess Monkey captures the full extent of public enthusiasm for the referendum.

Monday 10 September 2007

Smokefree success

Now that we have evidence from Scotland that the smoking ban has significantly improved the health of smokers and non-smokers alike, perhaps the loopy pro-smoking lobbyists, Forest, could apologise and shut up shop?

Child's play

I have some sympathy with the authors of the latest letter to the Telegraph from children's experts when they complain that an ultra-cautious society has made it too diffficult for children to play in parks or enclosed streets. But their assertion that children don't play enough because there is too much testing is too silly for words. Before the age of 14 there are two short sets of tests for all: one at seven has moved so far from being a serious national test as to be unrecognisable; those at eleven are the only independent measure we have of whether 11 year-olds - not five or six-year olds - can read, write and add up. Of course, children need more freedom to play. They also need the 3Rs if they aren't to spend the rest of their lives playing around.

Have the faith

I am delighted to see that the government is reasserting the importance of faith schools, and keeping to a commitment made in the 2005 education white paper to enable more such schools to move from the unregulated independent sector into the regulated maintained sector. Faith schools can be one of the best ways of increasing social mobility for ethnic minority communities: for all their flaws that is exactly what Catholic schools in Britain did for the Irish.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Fruits for labour

Alan Johnson's plan to give pregnant women cash to buy fruit and vegetables makes sense from a nutritional point of view. And I can see why it is right not to load it down with bureaucracy by creating, for example, more tax credits. But couldn't they provide £100 worth of fruit and veg vouchers - or a debit card - that would be accepted at any supermarket or fruit and veg store instead? And couldn't it then be rather better targeted?

Atonement - stylish but slight

We saw Atonement, the stylish adaptation of Ian McEwan's tale of lost love, wrongful accusation and the travails of War, last night. The cast are universally good, though Saoirse Ronan as the young and spiteful Briony steals the show from the much-hyped Keira Knightley and increasingly impressive James McAvoy. The film is beautifully shot and familiar figures like Gina McKee and Vanessa Redgrave offer splendid supporting performances. In particular, the chaos of Dunkirk as soldiers await evacuation is extraordinarily captured in a five-minute scene worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. But after it is all over - and the ending twist is moving - there is a niggling feeling that it may not quite add up to the sum of its parts. It is, though, well worth seeing.

Friday 7 September 2007

Galloway loses respect for Respect

George Galloway seems to be falling out big time with his comrades in Respect. Luke Akehurst has a highly entertaining link here. And to think he hasn't even got Celebrity Big Brother to fall back on.

Lifting expectations

This is a more thoughtful piece of research by Donald Hirsch for the Joseph Rowntree Trust, deserving of rather more attention than the Staffordshire suppositions. Low expectations bedevil education in this country, and until we raise them among both teachers and pupils, we will not narrow the gap between the poorest and the best off youngsters. In fact, the evidence (pdf: see Table A) suggests that it is the skilled working classes who have gained most from educational improvements in recent years, but the bottom fifth (or probably tenth) have made fewer gains. Whether a wide-ranging children's review is the answer seems doubtful, though clearly both extended schools and Sure Start have a big role to play. Far more important will be maximising the number of youngsters who make the grade in the 3Rs as early as possible.

Specialists are a success story

According to a statistical analysis by academics at Staffordshire University, specialist schools only do a bit better than other comprehensives, but any benefit they enjoy is simply a result of the extra £129 per pupil that they receive. In fact, specialist schools have achieved results 12 percentage points ahead of non-specialists, comparing the proportions getting five good GCSEs, and last year's analysis showed an 11 point advantage including English and Maths. I don't know how many specialist schools these boffins have visited, but I have seen many where the gains of applying for and retaining specialist status translate into huge improvements in teaching and learning, better links with other schools, strong business links and better exam results. Even applying for specialist status can change a school's ethos and sense of purpose. What these academics seem to have ignored is the fact that huge differentials in funding between similar counties or boroughs don't translate into radically different results. For a rather sounder analysis of the exam effect of specialist status, it is worth reading Professor David Jesson's reports (pdf) which compare pupils with the same starting point in specialist and non-specialist status and don't start factoring in lots of other excuses for low achievement. They are rather more persuasive.

Thursday 6 September 2007

Gilmore's challenge

The Irish Labour Party has confirmed the unopposed election of Eamon Gilmore as Pat Rabbitte's replacement for leader. A postal ballot will decide between Joan Burton and Jan O'Sullivan for deputy. It is good that the party will have a woman deputy, but Gilmore, though undoubtedly able, feels a bit like more of the same. If he is to see the growth that Labour could achieve Gilmore must turn this part of his acceptance speech into more than mere rhetoric:

But to help change Ireland for the better, Labour itself has to change. We need to change the way we organise, becoming more open to new members and new candidates. We have to change the way we communicate, applying the most modern methods to get across our message. We have to be more positive, telling people what we are for and not just what we oppose. And we have to bond better with our voters and our potential voters to construct a new politics for and of the new Ireland.

Blasts from the past

David Cameron has today chosen The Sun to hit back at Michael Ancram and his other critics who accuse him of abandoning traditional Thatcherism in the pursuit of power. He calls them 'blasts from the past'. This is the same man who has come up with a brilliant new plan of non-compulsory citizens' service for school leavers. (Ignore the spin for The Sun) I'm afraid there's nothing new for The Sun here. David Blunkett had the same idea in 1995 and as education secretary introduced it: it is called Millennium Volunteers.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Dismal science

This is why economics is the dismal science. The number crunchers at the Office for National Statistics divide spending by GCSE results and claim 'productivity' in education is falling (or at least did so until a year ago and is now 'flat'). Their calculations are meaningless rubbish akin to quite a lot of what the statisticians come up with, even if the leader writers at the Torygraph have been salivating over them. Schools have improved immeasurably over recent years, as anyone who visits them can attest. A lot of the extra spending since 1997 has gone on paying teachers a decent salary, hiring teaching assistants, installing computers and rebuilding schools. It will take years to measure any effect of this spending on GCSE results. Even those who have had five years of the literacy hour have yet to take their GCSEs. When I worked in the DFES, the statisticians told me that there were still classes of over 40 well after we were sure we had got most classes down to 30. Given they had taken a census - and we had data for every primary school in the country - I asked them to tell me which schools they were so we might target extra teachers to them. A few days later the statistician returned, sheepishly, to inform me that the classes in question weren't actually classes at all. The data was based on where children were at 11am on a particular day in January. Those in 'classes of 40' were in assembly or watching a film with another class. I won't repeat any cliches about statistics.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Brown's personal bounce

Tim Hames is right in this morning's Times. Gordon Brown is now well ahead of his party in popularity, while David Cameron trails the Tories. Who would have thought it six months ago? Even this morning's Populus poll confirms the trend, though Brown clearly needs time to show what he can do to impress those who remain unimpressed.

Monday 3 September 2007

Election fever

He is a tease, that Gordon Brown. But I don't believe there is going to be an autumn election, however much the press want it. Today's polls are a bit closer than those last week, and people want to see PM Brown in action before they have to vote again. It was only two years ago that they voted before, and this government is not exactly short of a majority.

Staying on

Labour wants youngsters to be kept on until 18 if they don't get their GCSEs. The Tories want them kept in primary school if they miss out on their SATs (or, at least, in a summer school). But the real challenge with the 3Rs is much younger. The most important change this term is the introduction of synthetic phonics across primaries. Gordon Brown wants that backed up with remedial teaching of six and seven year-olds who fall behind. There's nothing wrong in principle with what the Americans call 'no social promotion' - keeping youngsters back until they get key tests - but it would be much better for all concerned if we got it right at seven, rather than waiting until eleven or sixteen.

Saturday 1 September 2007

Hillary's commanding lead

Has Barack Obama's time passed? Hillary Clinton now has a commanding lead in polls for the Democratic nomination, and strong leads in key states, including New Hampshire. With Law and Order DA Arthur Branch aka Fred Thompson entering the Republican field next week, Giuliani's lead could evaporate very quickly. At the very least, attention will turn from the Democrats to the Republicans, reducing Obama's chances of a surge in popularity. What's more, Hillary is ahead of all her potential Republican rivals on the RealClearPolitics poll of polls. Giuliani is clearly her strongest opponent, which is why she must be hoping that Thompson has a good few weeks too.

Cameron's collapse continuing?

Other polls have not given Labour so generous a lead as Yougov. Unsurprisingly, a private Populus poll for the Tories puts them level-pegging. A Mori poll for the Sun gives Labour a five point lead (and still puts the party above 40%). And Peter Bradley, who lost his seat in 2005, strikes a timely cautionary note on the Progress website. But what is so interesting about the Yougov figures is not so much the Labour lead, which is a few points more than Mori, but the extent to which Brown is leading Cameron as 'best PM' and on a number of key issues. And the fact that his people are celebrating being only one point behind the party of power for the last ten years. Moreover, if Cameron plays to his party's current strengths - on law and order, and asylum - he can only do so at the expense of his previous strategy. It may appeal to the Mail's leader writers. But shifting back to the right would be fatal for him. Brown seems unlikely to call an election this year, despite the excitement on Tory websites, but he has Cameron right where he wants him.