Friday 29 February 2008

Speeding up schools reform

Critics of academies - like Fiona Millar and those who think Gordon Brown has been stalling education reform - will be upset by this news from the schools department. Following a review by the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, the academies programme is being speeded up. That it is undeniably good news for the pupils who will benefit and their communities probably won't be any consolation to the critics.

The 3Rs are more important than creating costumes for a parade

I fear I'm about to say something terribly controversial here. But as the monthly moan from the self-styled Primary Review (memo to excitable Independent subs: their report is no more 'official' than this blog) is treated as 'news', we should remind ourselves of a few home truths.

  • First, it is actually more important that children are taught to read, write and add up properly in primary school than that they learn to paint, sing or make costumes for a parade. This is not to say that they shouldn't do all of those things too, but unless children learn the basics they will become truants, criminals and welfare dependents. That was why the national curriculum emphasised English and Maths; it was why national tests were introduced; it was why the literacy and numeracy strategies were based on this fundamental truth; and it is why the government is rightly insisting that phonics are the basis of reading for young children. And measured in this way, primary schools are significantly better (though performance has slowed since 2000 and the further intervention now in place is needed to get them back on track).
  • Second, many primary schools were simply not doing this job properly before government 'intervened'. It is no accident that the biggest improvements in results - and in the quality of teaching as measured by Ofsted inspections - occurred between 1995 and 2000 when such intervention was at its strongest.
  • Third, before the late nineties, teachers were taught theory rather than how to teach, which meant that the basics were not being taught properly. Many of those at the heart of this 'primary review' failed a generation of schoolchildren who were not taught to read, not taught the rules of grammar, not taught to spell and rarely tested adequately because they didn't teach their teachers how to teach them.
  • And finally, those who want to de-emphasise the 3Rs in primary schools will not be failing the middle class kids whose parents will ensure their mastery at least of English, but poorer and working class kids who rely on the school system to teach them the basics above all else. It is time we turned this discussion from whether to give the basics prominence in primary schools to how we can do so most effectively and soonest so that every child can be fluent in the 3Rs and know how to make a decent costume.

Thursday 28 February 2008

Labour's 'Southern challenge' explains why New Labour reform matters

The current issue of Progress includes some fascinating articles about the importance of Labour keeping hold of its existing seats in the South, including my constituency of NE Somerset, where the excellent Dan Norris faces a challenge, bizarrely, from Jacob Rees-Mogg. The articles are an important reminder of why New Labour was - and remains - so important. The silly gesturism of Harriet Harman praising Castro or backbenchers singing the Red Flag after the Northern Rock nationalisation suggest that too many in the party have forgotten the lessons of the eighties and early nineties. I can still remember how we felt on the day after John Major - a man clearly regarded as an indecisive lightweight by his colleagues, if Michael Portillo's excellent documentary on BBC 4 is any guide - won the 1992 election and we failed to win the Mitcham and Morden constituency which I then chaired.

Gordon Brown has shown some understanding of this, particularly since Christmas with his cabinet shake-up, but he and his ministers should not allow the notion to spread that the Tories are more radical than Labour on public services reform. Despite the impressionability of Fraser Nelson in the Spectator, the fact is that Labour has opened (not talked about opening) 83 academies already; has given parents a legal right to request feasibility work on schools that they would run themselves; has insisted on competitions for new schools open to the same providers of which Nelson and Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove clearly approve; and has delivered substantial improvements in school standards.

At the same time, the Tories have simply caved in to vested interests on the NHS - as Iain Dale concedes - when Andrew Lansley, Cameron's shadow health secretary for life, chooses the day that the NAO reveals how the BMA conned us all over GP contracts to announce his plans for another vast increase in NHS spending, presumably on terms entirely dictated by the BMA. Labour must reassert the radical credentials - that have not only won it three general elections, but have delivered real reform - if it is to retain the coalition of Southern voters so vital to a fourth victory.

Some home truths from the Chavez 'revolution'

Here is a fascinating account from Foreign Affairs of what is really happening in Venezuela, including some remarkable statistics on poverty, from one who worked as an economist for Chavez and has since studied the factual evidence. It suggests that the revolutionary gesturism of Hugo Chavez is rather less effective than Lula's Bolsa Familia in Brazil.

Why is this man talking such rot about the responsibilities of MPs who happen to be ministers?

If the Tories want to be treated seriously, they should stop people like Charles Hendry talking rot. Apparently, the 'shadow post office minister' thinks that elected Members of Parliament should stop making representations on behalf of their constituents because they are cabinet ministers. Since when? Ministers are paid to do two jobs: as MPs and as ministers. An MP doesn't cease to represent his or her constituents on becoming a minister; indeed it would be political suicide to do so (presumably why Mr Hendry thinks they should). And given that there is a consultation about the practice - rather than the principle - of the post office closures, they are perfectly entitled to do as any MP would do in the circumstances. Or does Mr Hendry think that the 100 or so constituencies represented by ministers should not expect the same service as the other 546?

Let's get drastic with plastic bags

A great piece of chutzpah from the Daily Mail this morning, claiming credit for the Marks and Spencer plan to charge 5p for plastic bags nationwide from May. Here in Bath, M&S have been doing it all this month, with the expectation that they would extend it nationwide, and it has worked as a great discipline remembering to bring the 'bag for life'. There is no doubt that plastic bags are an unnecessary, hugely wasteful part of modern life, often creating terrible waste hazards for wildlife. I have seen the ban in operation in Ireland for years, where it is an accepted part of everyday life. People just bring old plastic bags to the supermarket to reuse. In bookshops and department stores, tasteful and recyclable paper bags are provided instead of the unsightly plastic still offered by many stores here. So, I agree with the Mail - it is time for other stores to follow suit or for the government to introduce a bag tax to make sure change happens.

Fairport keep on rocking

To see Fairport Convention at St George's in Bristol last night. After 40 years - and many line-up changes - these guys keep producing great concerts. They rendered a wonderful Matty Groves and gave us a rousing version of On the Ledge as an encore (though, disappointingly, offering a rather naff forgettable new song 'for the fans' in lieu of Tam Lin). Simon Nicol did an affecting rendering of Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes, though nothing could match her magnificent voice. Last night's support was a Belfast singer called Anthony John Clarke who has a nice line in patter (rather better than the too wordy Fairport) and a good voice. With an audience that looked as if it remembered the group's early gigs, this was nevertheless a brilliant night out. And though towards the end of their UK tour, for someone who hadn't seen them since the eighties, it was a reminder of what a good concert band they are.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Can we have too much information?

It is extraordinary that the Information Commissioner is insisting that Cabinet minutes should be released regarding the Iraq war because of the controversy surrounding them. The minutes themselves may not name those who are speaking in the debate, though they are likely to be more detailed than merely recording the decisions made, as Vernon Bogdanor asserted on Today (20 minutes into this segment) this morning. But they simply shouldn't be released for at least a decade after the discussions (I wouldn't object to cutting the 30-year rule back a bit) any more than the civil service advice to ministers given in recent years should be made public. I'm with Michael Heseltine on this one: unless cabinet ministers can discuss issues without the expectation that their deliberations should be as public as a morning spat with John Humphrys, then we might as well give up the whole notion of cabinet government. Equally, unless civil servants and advisers can offer ministers - who are elected to take decisions - a range of options without having to worry about how they might look in the Daily Mail, then the notion of an independent civil service is dead, not to mention effective government. Like Ben Brogan, I do wonder whether the Information Commissioner hasn't mistaken his role as a guardian of free information with that of an advocate for the anti-war movement.

As someone who is self-employed, I have rather less sympathy with MPs arguing against keeping receipts or recording their expenses (though the publicity of their expenses should be done in a way which explains how they spent their money and why, and not in some absurdly prurient shopping list for the tabloids which simply feeds the notion that politicians are all corrupt, a point Nick Robinson makes well).

I'll take the trains, thanks

Brian Cooke, chairman of London TravelWatch and a board member of Passenger Focus, whatever that is, has moaned to the Times about a deal whereby £29 million will be spent by the admittedly grim First Great Western on a better service, including new carriages on the dismal line that I use every morning. (The trains, it must be said, were even worse when they were operated by Wessex Trains before FGW won the franchise.) Has Mr Cooke, who presumes to speak for us, ever asked the commuters in Bath, Keynsham or Bristol who suffer from the absence of such carriages whether they would prefer the money to disappear into Treasury coffers as a fine, or to be used to provide more trains? Somehow, I don't think so.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

The truth about truancy

The truancy statistics issued by the education department have long been a source of frustration for ministers. For a start, the figures have lacked sufficient precision to tackle the problem. Then the definitions were not terribly helpful: for a long time, unauthorised absence was, improbably, higher among primary school pupils, a figure gleefully interpreted as signalling wilful truancy among ten year-olds rather than too many mums not telling the school when they took their nine year-old to the dentist. Added to that, the only progress that seemed to occur was when 'absence' - including weeklong holidays taken with permission - was included in the figures. So, today's statistics from the DCSF represent a real improvement.

For the first time, we know the reasons for absence. Half are off because they are ill. Many others are on family holidays (in most cases, approved by the school). And primary pupils are three times as likely to be on an unapproved family holiday than their secondary counterparts. But behind the 1% of unauthorised absence there is a hard core of persistent absentees, inevitably given a new acronym that will not be welcome to many super-secretaries - a shocking 11% of all pupils in Year 11 are 'PAs'. These are pupils who should be preparing for GCSEs. They are the ones for whom post-16 compulsion will be especially challenging.

And we now know what works thanks to one piece of remarkably good news: there are clear signs that a programme of targeted intervention first ordered by Tony Blair two years ago to tackle persistent truancy in the 400 schools with the worst problem is having a real effect, with cuts of 20% in persistent absenteeism in those schools over the course of last year. (Academies have seen significant cuts too) This is where most efforts should be targeted, both on tackling existing PAs - if we must call them that - and preventing new persistent absenteeism. Unfortunately, the DCSF departmental press release seems to have obscured this genuine piece of good news in a misbegotten bid to ward off hostile media attention by highlighting changes in the extent of absence overall.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Father Ted had nothing on Dustin

Irish people baffled by the latest twists and turns of the Bertie saga - he used money donated to Fianna Fail branch funds to subsidise a house for his girlfriend's aunt - can at least celebrate the emergence of true talent in Ireland's Eurovision entry. Father Ted fans who cheered the episode where My Lovely Horse was selected will have cause for true celebration when Dustin the Turkey takes to the stage in Belgrade this year.

Saturday 23 February 2008

A week of misjudgment for Cameron

Who'd have thought that the week when Gordon Brown was forced to nationalise a bank would be the week when the wheels started to come off the Cameron bandwagon? But this has not been as bad a week for the Government as it might have been. Polls suggest the public doesn't blame them for the failings of Northern Rock; indeed Brown and Darling are rated more highly than Cameron-Osborne for competence. The Tories have shot themselves in the foot at a time when they had the chance to gain political advantage. First, George Osborne made a complete chump of himself with his shrill shriekings over Northern Rock on Sunday and his lightweight Commons performance on Monday. Then, Cameron missed the target at PMQs. And finally, he capped a week of poor judgment with his crass list of 'gimmicks' yesterday, which was bad enough in itself, but was compounded by a refusal to withdraw his suggestion that sending sixth-formers to visit Auschwitz was a 'gimmick'. (The idea, being put about by poor David Hunt, who has been forced to defend Cameron, that the fuss has obscured an otherwise brilliant speech is absurd, as a quick reading of its contents will show). Cameron makes a great pretence of copying the tactics of Tony Blair and his team before the 1997 election; but this week has shown that he lacks the sure-footedness of Blair. And it may be that this unexpectedly bad week for the Tories will reignite public doubts about his judgment and competence (those that were buried after last year's Tory party conference). How ironic if the event that Brown least wanted - Northern Rock nationalisation - should trigger that reaction.

Why Kosovo independence is right

Martin Kettle provides a timely reminder of why Kosovan independence is right, and why we should not turn our backs on liberal interventionism, in a characteristically well-argued piece in today's Guardian.

Friday 22 February 2008

Cameron's rubbishing of Auschwitz visits

David Cameron has clearly lost the plot today. He has attacked an imaginative programme whereby some British schoolchildren have the opportunity to visit and reflect at Auschwitz as a 'gimmick'. Under the programme, up to 200 students from across the country will visit to Auschwitz each year to see first hand where the atrocities occurred. Surely, providing such first-hand experience is a vital part of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, and to be applauded?

Has Hillary blown it?

Last night's Texas debate set few hearts racing. Meanwhile, the polls suggest that Hillary's Texas and Ohio leads are being cut to single digits, although she is still strong in Pennsylvania. But it is looking increasingly likely that Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate come November. Yet the result may not be the Democratic triumph that the current polls suggest. As Gerard Baker points out in a characteristically caustic assessment in today's Times, the comments by Michelle Obama this week about her lack of pride in America until her husband starting winning primaries do not bode well for a full-on fight with the Republican attack machine. Not that John McCain hasn't got his own problems. But one strength that Hillary had was her careful positioning over several years on a range of issues that had previously turned off potential voters. To be fair, Obama has been as careful to cultivate churchgoers as Clinton, abandoning the astonishing ineptitude of the Kerry campaign in 2004. But the winning of independents in caucuses in not the same as winning independents in the general election; and it is not clear that the Obama campaign recognises this yet or the pitfalls that await them. Hillary may defy the pollsters - as, to be fair, she did in California and New Hampshire - and regain a much bigger lead in Texas and Ohio (at least postal votes may help there). Unless she does, her husband is right to conclude that she will have blown her chance of becoming the first woman president in the United States.

Thursday 21 February 2008

Pupils need better advice on their options

Ahead of a new book that I have edited for the Social Market Foundation, which will be published shortly, I argue in today's Independent that young people need better advice on their post-16 options, including on their subject and qualifications choices for university. You can read the article here.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Is the "£800m" on university retention really wasted?

The National Audit Office (prop. Edward Leigh) continues to churn out its tales of waste and woe in the education world. Its latest report allegedly shows that £800 million has been wasted on programmes to retain university students. In fact, the sum being spent is around £160 million a year, as the NAO is doing the sort of thing it and others complained about when Gordon Brown used to do it, wrapping several years' spending together. And there has been a small improvement in retention rates - already among the best in Europe - at a time when there has been a substantial expansion in student numbers, with a growing number from poorer backgrounds. The NAO is on stronger ground when it says that universities should do more one-to-one tuition. But this £160m a year is probably a much better use of resources than the £400m now being poured into maintenance grants for middle class students who would have gone to university anyway.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Fidel calls it a day

Fidel Castro has finally decided not to be President of Cuba any more. Now, perhaps, his country has some chance of entering the post-Soviet 21st century (more so than the economic reforms already in train since he fell ill). There is no doubt that his revolution replaced a corrupt sleazy regime in the late fifties, and developed a health and education system that were the envy of many in Latin America. Nor that the tourist visiting Havana - as we did five years ago - can enjoy a mix of brilliant Buena Vista-style music and faded Spanish glories, all within an increasingly lucrative tourist infrastructure (even if the restaurants reflected the vagaries of rationing). This all came at a price, not just in human rights and freedom of speech: since the Soviet collapse, Cuba has also been a country where educated young men spend the day latching themselves onto you as unwanted guides for a dollar and baby formula (probably to sell on), where the prostitution that Castro claimed to have eliminated is again rife or where taxi drivers earn far more than doctors or teachers. Hardly the ideals of the revolution. Of course, the ridiculous American embargo has propped this regime up far longer than it might otherwise have survived; and in that respect the US boycott is as culpable as Hugo Chavez with his subsidies today. Yet while one might hope that Raul Castro and whoever might replace him will open Cuba fully to democracy, the attraction of Vietnamese or Chinese market-led autocracy will be stronger for the Cuban Communists. But, democracy is far more likely to come if the Americans use Castro's death to end the boycott for good. For the Western tourist, there will no doubt be a sadness at the loss of an open air museum. But for most Cuban people, the hope must be that life can get better.

The truth about the 'holistic' family doctor

David Aaronovitch is on top form today in his defence of polyclinics over the ludicrous claims of the doctors' trade union about the 'family doctor'. Here he gets to the nub of the matter.
Richard Vautrey, of the GPs' committee of the British Medical Association, has been the chief voice raised at the weekend in opposition to Lord Darzi. He was principally worried about the loss of the role of medical generalist. The new specialists, he claimed, such as those looking at children's or women's problems, would “undermine” GPs and mean that doctors would no longer “provide a holistic, generalised service that patients really value”.....When I saw this claim, I thought long and hard about it. And decided that this “holistic” approach, is, in fact, code for “inexpert”.

Monday 18 February 2008

Reasons to cheer in Kosovo and Cyprus

Two reasons to cheer in the world today. First, Kosovo has moved to independence with a minimum of Serbian interference. Britain and NATO, thanks to Tony Blair, were prepared to defend the Kosovan people from a repetition of what happened in Bosnia . And the birth of the small, new republic is an important success for liberal interventionism. Second, the Cypriot elections have brought hope of a peaceful settlement on that long-troubled island. The Turkish Cypriots, with strong encouragement from Ankara, have wanted to negotiate in recent years. Now, at least, with change on the Greek side, a resolution is possible.

The distortions of Today

We have grown used to the irritating interruptions of John Humphrys on the Today programme, Following today's exchange with Alastair Darling, Andy McSmith reveals the degree of distortion that is now deemed acceptable in pursuit of the daily row.

Sunday 17 February 2008

My guilty secret

I have a confession to make. It is one I make with some considerable trepidation, as I know that what I am about to reveal will have me condemned to the realms of outer darkness by those who think I am (a) stupid (b) single-handedly destroying the planet or (c) simply a social pariah. My habit was until recently thought to be harmless, if not positively good for me. Now it is seen as even worse than driving a gaz-guzzling 4X4 in London or spilling raw sewage into our rivers. Tomorrow night's Panorama is devoted entirely to this clearly filthy habit. Nevertheless, I will let you in on my guilty secret: I drink mineral water. And I have no intention of swapping it for what comes from my tap even if a combination of Phil Woolas, Giles Coren and Jeremy Vine try to force me to do so. First, the water I drink is sparkling, and as such is good for the digestion; indeed I'd start to be very worried if that from the tap sparkled. Second, I don't particularly like the taste of the water from taps, no matter how good people claim it to be. Third, when I'm drinking mineral water I am generally drinking less alcohol or less of other fizzy alternatives, which have already been condemned as unsuitable, not less tap water. And fourth, unless I'm abroad where I drink the national mineral water, I tend to drink British or Irish mineral water, which is providing thousands of people with gainful employment and shouldn't involve any air miles. Indeed I have yet to hear those who champion this latest piece of political correctness explain why drinking sparkling British or Irish mineral water necessarily involves the use of any more glass or plastic than the materials used to package Coca Cola, imported lager or their doubtless cherished organic New Zealand wines. Perhaps I will give in if the NHS establishes a Quit line to help wean us mineral water drinkers from our terrible habit.

Friday 15 February 2008

Lee Jasper's suspension

Ken Livingstone should have suspended Lee Jasper much sooner. The allegations - and the apparent evidence - of wrongdoing were fairly compelling weeks ago. Particularly disgraceful was the way in which Jasper's personal dislike of Trevor Phillips was allowed to be turned into a vendetta apparently using public money. That Ken has waited so long to make his move may suggest a commendable loyalty to a friend, but it was bad politics. Whether or not the various enterprises to which Jasper lent his support turn out to be the turkeys they are portrayed as in the media remains to be seen. But the whole affair can only have given Boris a boost that he doesn't deserve.

Can Hillary still win the nomination? (2)

Gerard Baker, hardly a champion of Hillary Clinton, brings a sense of proportion to the question of whether she can still win the nomination in today's Times. But the figures also suggest a more nuanced story than the Obamaphiles would have us believe. Not only is Hillary ahead in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, but Obama does no better against McCain in the battleground states that will decide the election than Hillary does; in some, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, she outperforms him. So, disappointing as it will be to Obama's swooning fans in the British media, not least Sarah Smith on Channel 4 News and the Spectator's James Forsyth, we are probably in for a rather closer battle than the received wisdom would have us believe (received wisdom that called New Hampshire and California so accurately).

Thursday 14 February 2008

Are tuition fees deterring poorer students?

Today's Guardian proclaims that "Tuition fees favour the rich" and that children from poor families say fear of debt is deterring them from university. But is this really true? The Guardian's headline is their interpretation of research from Staffordshire University for the Sutton Trust, which found that
  • a majority of students (59%) who had decided not to pursue study in higher education reported that avoiding debt had affected their decision ‘much’ or ‘very much’.
  • more than half (56%) of all the students surveyed who were thinking of going into higher education were considering a local university because of the financial implications.
  • most students understood bursaries, but only 30% had actively searched for information on financial support. Almost half (45%) did not know whether they were eligible or not. Had they known that they were eligible for a bursary of £2,000 nearly 85% of those from low income homes said it would have encouraged them to apply.

The Staffordshire survey drew from 20 schools, and its main conclusions are more nuanced than the Guardian's interpretation suggests. First, a lot of students go to local universities instead of one far away from home. If students are deterred from going to a Russell Group university, such as Oxford or Cambridge, then this is a concern. But if a student is opting for a similar course at a local university to one they might otherwise have chosen 200 miles away, then this is simply following the pattern of most students in most countries of the world, and it is hard to see why this should be of concern (in case you ask, I cycled five miles to my local university as a student).

Second, it would seem that ignorance of bursaries rather than tuition fees is what deters potential students: the universities have simply not publicised their bursaries well enough, and the sector collectively has done far too little too. Recent reports from the Office for Fair Access showing that many bursaries went unclaimed even by those who were already at university confirm this.

The research deals with those who haven't applied to university for whatever reason. But, if the Guardian's thesis is correct, this would presumably be reflected in the application figures. As it happens, and the Guardian acknowledges this in its penultimate paragraph, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service UCAS published its latest application figures today.

They showed a 7% increase in applications to university compared with this time last year (or a 10% increase in English students applying to English universities). And they found the increase to be higher among the poorest students: nationally, data on the socio-economic background of all UK applicants aged 18 years and under shows that 29.6% were from the lower groups (4 to 7) in 2008, compared to 28.9% in 2007. This is not surprising, as the evidence of the first introduction of tuition fees was that there was an increase, albeit small, in the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups.

The issue is, then, not whether tuition fees 'deter' students who were not applying in greater numbers before they were introduced, but how to encourage more disadvantaged students (a) to gain the necessary qualifications and (b) to consider higher education. That is the Sutton Trust's main point - and there is a particular issue about students being sufficiently ambitious in the university to which they apply - and how we ensure that students access all the financial support and bursaries to which they are entitled. It is not about declaring class war on fees.

Wednesday 13 February 2008

How migration restrictions threaten our curries

News that Indian restaurants are running short of staff is a reminder that restrictive migration policies can impact on all our lives. Tom Watson recently linked to this excellent Australian game site which puts some perspective into the migration debate.

SAT's crazy

According to David Gee, managing director of the National Assessment Agency, children should be able to sit their national tests at any day of the year that teachers think they are ready. "My personal view is that it should be when ready on a daily basis", he proclaims. Fine in theory - and the government is moving towards progress tests which could be sat on a number of set days each year - but perhaps Mr Gee could explain (1) how the tests can still be externally marked (2) how cheating can be avoided, unless there are hundreds of different papers and (3) how schools are supposed to cope with the resulting chaos? But perhaps the director of the National Assessment Agency doesn't really believe in national tests at all? I think we should be told.

Can Hillary still win the nomination?

Barack Obama had another good night last night, particularly in Virginia, where Hillary should have done better. But he is no shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. If Hillary wins in Texas and Ohio on March 3rd, and goes on to win Pennsylvania, she is the most likely winner of the nomination. And she has consistently won the big states so far. Her campaign has an injection of energy (that's what 'another aide quits' really means) that was wrongly delayed after New Hampshire, but will need to put up a big fight to counter the bias against her and for Obama in the media. Only after March 4th will we know whether or not Obama is likely to be the Democratic candidate and even though he will probably win Hawaii (though that may be closer than people think because of the strong Democratic machine in the state) and Wisconsin, that is the date that really matters.

Why schools can deliver the cultural commitment

One of the great myths about Labour's education policy is that it has been anti-culture and downplayed the arts. The decision to focus on the 3Rs in primary school has produced its share of tirades from authors who claim that to teach children to read, spell and write accurately can only be done at the expense of their enjoying their books (the illogicality of the argument is never questioned). But while this emphasis on the 3Rs was important, it was never at the expense of artistic and cultural activities. For example, Jacqui Smith, as junior schools minister one year after the introduction of the literacy hour, launched a special scheme to fund instrumental tuition, which continues as the Music Standards Fund. When targeted money was given to schools in 1998, their libraries were given injections of cash to fund new books. Museums and galleries have been expected to devote more effort to education, and in London, a forerunner of today's pledge by Andy Burnham that children should have the opportunity to enjoy five hours of culture a week, operated for several years through the London Challenge, with a clear list of activities that each child could expect to enjoy.

Given the growth of after-school clubs and other extended facilities, today's promise is far less ambitious than it sounds, and those teaching union leaders who use the announcement to whinge about SATs should stop talking rot. The real issue is not whether this can be delivered, but how it can be delivered in a meaningful way. It is right to allow local decisions, and the idea of an entitlement is a good one. The Times leader argues that the 'right' to five hours is too prescriptive, but then says it is too 'vague' about what should be involved. The writer has a better point with their concern about vagueness than in worries about prescription. A five hour entitlement in and out of school during term time is a reasonable expectation, including after-class activities. But the entitlement should be more precise: every child should expect to experience a live play or visit an art gallery during their secondary years, as well as the chance to take part in a live production and try their hand at a bit of painting or digital art. As the pilots develop, perhaps this could become clearer. However, none of this should detract from what is a good idea and a welcome announcement from the new culture secretary.

Monday 11 February 2008

The death of jazz on digital radio

We've been allowed another jazz digital station for just over a year. The Jazz provides the best music on the radio for those of us who don't want to listen to the hundreds of repetitive pop and rock channels. 364,000 listeners, listening for an average of over five hours a week, seemed to agree. Now somebody called Fru Hazlitt has decided that our tastes have no place in her new 'multi platform environment'. The destruction of digital jazz stations is not a new phenomenon. Previously, the Guardian Media Group had exiled Jazz FM by using its DAB slot to broadcast Smooth FM (though the former survives on the Internet). Apparently we're all going to junk our DAB radios for internet radios, according to Ms Hazlitt. I don't believe it for a moment: millions of listeners have paid a lot for these radios, and they are not going to get rid of them when they can still receive BBC stations; cable and satellite TV listeners are also an important part of the digital audience. But I wonder how much credibility the chief executive of GCap, the company that owns the station, has when she tells us that we must accept the closure of The Jazz so that she can develop "brands and content that can win within a multi-platform environment" creating a "national broadband footprint" and "a new flexible inventory policy with up to nine minutes of advertising per hour"? Surely the whole point of digital radio and TV is to provide audiences with programming that meets their distinctive interests, not to force everybody to listen to nine minutes of ads an hour on Capital Radio even in the name of a "flexible inventory policy"?

A brave (and right) BAFTA decision

Last night's best actress award to Marion Cotillard was a brave decision by BAFTA, and the right one. Her outstanding performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose was the best by an actress in a leading role last year. If Atonement won any awards, one should have gone to the brilliant 13-year old Saoirse Ronan for her supporting role rather than the less convincing Kera Knightley. It was good to see the German drama The Lives of Others winning best foreign film; but it was more richly deserving of the best film mantle than Atonement, which really did not live up to the hype (Ronan's performance aside).

Friday 8 February 2008

Johnson 1, BMA 0

The BMA have capitulated in the row about GPs spending a bit more time with their patients. A clear victory for Alan Johnson.

Tested to destruction?

The latest predictable 'findings' from the self-styled primary review gets its desired headlines today. The Independent uses its findings to repeat the canard that our children are 'tested to destruction'. This is simply nonsense. There are no formal national tests sat under proper conditions, and independently marked, before the age of 11. (Those at age seven are internally marked teacher assessments; other tests are sensibly set by teachers, sometimes using optional QCA test papers). After that, the only requirement on schools is that pupils sit tests in English, Maths and Science at age 14 (though many schools do them a year earlier). GCSEs suffered from excess coursework, but teachers objected when QCA sought to get rid of it; so it will survive in a supervised form in most subjects. Beyond that, whether or when pupils sit tests depend on the choices they make. If they do A-levels, their marks are awarded for modules: again this was something for which teachers argued; but they could do the tougher but less tested International Baccalaureate and will soon have Diplomas. In Helsinki, in Finland, the Shangri-La for educationists, children are tested annually. Testing helps do two things: it enables teachers to have an independent check on progress, and that measurement is crucial to the pupil's educational development. And it allows us to know how well - or badly - a school is doing. Those who think that we would know this without testing should remember the reaction in many Home Counties primary schools which had a nice image when the tests revealed the terrible truth to trusting parents. Thankfully the government is not listening to these siren voices; its progress tests, once they get them right, could offer a better measure than the existing tests, but they will be independently set and marked. Equally, the idea that structured lessons before the age of seven or eight is 'damaging' is a fallacious argument that ignores the fact that too many children lack the structure provided in middle class homes; as other research shows, early learning makes a huge difference. When I asked a primary teacher in Helsinki whether all her pupils couldn't read until the age of seven, she laughed and pointed out that the majority of her children were fluent readers by that stage, having been taught by supportive parents at home. Some still needed to learn, but most didn't. The real problem we face in this country is the twenty per cent of pupils who lack fluency at the age of eleven: they need to learn to read through synthetic phonics by the age of six or seven. They do not need well-meaning liberals pushing their progress even further behind.

Thursday 7 February 2008

The market should decide on A levels

Let me make a prediction. Diplomas will not have replaced A-levels by 2013. So, why shouldn't Gordon Brown say so, instead of exciting the Telegraph into predictions of doom? The problem for the PM is that it is not for him to guarantee that students will continue to study A-levels if a genuine market exists - and if that market includes the International Baccalaureate as well as the more vocationally-oriented Diplomas. However, he could and should express himself differently by making clear that the choice will be with students, but that given the differences between A levels and the IB or Diplomas, he would expect A-levels to remain a major part of the offer at that stage. I know of no teacher who seriously expects Diplomas to replace A-levels, and it would be far better for Diplomas if they were marketed for what they are, rather than according to a vague and unlikely theory of what may become of them.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Hillary's Super Tuesday win

The disappointment was palpable in the voices of the Obama-supporters on the BBC who had secured freebies to the United States to deliver inferior coverage of the Super Tuesday primaries. But the facts spoke for themselves. Hillary and Obama had done well in New York, Arkansas, Illinois and Georgia, as expected. But beyond that, the winner of the states that mattered was Hillary - California in double-digits despite those polls saying that the luvvies and Shrivers had done it for Obama; Massachussets in double-digits despite (or because of) the endorsements by John Kerry and Ted Kennedy; New Jersey by ten points despite it being such a 'close call'; big wins in Tennessee and Arizona, where the Democratic governor had endorsed Obama. Obama has had good results in medium-sized states like Missouri, Connecticut, Minnesota and Alabama. But much of the rest of his haul in places like Delaware, Utah and Alaska doesn't outweigh the fact that Hillary was the real winner last night. Moreover, in a close run contest, she could get her Florida delegates added in with the convention's support (another big state she won well). Clinton is currently well ahead in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, the biggest states still to vote, and she has a great organisation in Texas. So Hillary should win the nomination, but the prospect of a Clinton-Obama ticket come the convention is an increasingly live and appealing prospect, not least because it could help to get out the younger voters in the Presidential election.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Caroline Flint shows her mettle

Much of the commentary around Gordon Brown's mini-reshuffle surrounded the deserved promotions for James Purnell and Andy Burnham to Work and Pensions and DCMS respectively. Less well noticed was Caroline Flint's promotion to the job of housing minister, replacing Yvette Cooper, and giving her a non-voting seat at the Cabinet table. In her first interview with the Guardian today, the minister who effectively steered the successful anti-smoking legislation through government and parliament, in spite of considerable opposition to the total ban from some in cabinet, has once again shown her mettle. By linking the housing agenda to a much clearer sense of social responsibility, she has not only outflanked the opposition, but has brought forward a genuinely radical proposal that will appeal to millions of hard-working Labour voters. With Johnson versus the BMA yesterday, and Flint on housing today, this government is rediscovering its radical nerve; all it needs now is to get public attention beyond snoopers and sleaze.

Monday 4 February 2008

Johnson is right to take on the BMA

A good example of where the government is on the right tack is Alan Johnson's decision to bypass the country's most self-interested trade union, the British Medical Association, in order to persuade GPs' surgeries to open a little longer. The BMA has changed little from the arrogance that opposed the creation of the NHS. Johnson's plan is long overdue; if it didn't need a government push, the BMA should explain why it isn't already happening - after all GPs got a huge pay increase in return for providing better patient services - rather than telling absurd lies about the purpose of polyclinics or improved minor injuries facilities.
UPDATE: Sam Coates has a reminder of just how arrogant the BMA can sound.

Perhaps it is Cameron who has lost most direction?

I wouldn't argue with Charles Clarke that the government could do a better job of explaining where it is going (though I do wonder whether his aggressive interventions will help them to get there); Progress is right to say that 'safety first' won't win us another term; and Jackie Ashley is right to argue the importance of better delivery. But the latest polling figures suggest that David Cameron may have an even bigger task on his hands, with a one-point deficit on Mori and a relatively small ICM lead (even if it is a little bigger than the Guardian ICM poll). The Sunday commentariat certainly thought the Conway affair hardly helped in this regard, not least Matthew D'Ancona in a bullish piece for the Telegraph and Miranda Green in the Observer.

Sunday 3 February 2008

The man who won the 2000 election for Bush gets ready to endorse John McCain

Here's some news that should cheer John McCain. Having done more than hanging chads to win the 2000 election for George Bush, it looks like McCain can count on the endorsement of this man and his deluded supporters.

Since when is school choice only for the middle classes?

The Sunday Times makes the absurd claim today that lotteries for school admissions are part of some great ideological battle between "the principle of choice established under the last Tory government and the social engineering that has come to permeate the new Labour educational agenda." Even by the admittedly diminished standards of the Sunday Times, this is ignorance of the highest order. The Conservatives gave parents the right to express a preference for a particular school. They did not give them the chance to insist on getting there. In fact, Labour has given them a greater chance of doing so, by expanding popular primary schools in its first term (an unrecognised side effect of the class size policy) and by making it easier for popular schools to expand (why else have grammar school places expanded since 1997?). And by exam and Ofsted standards, the number of good schools has expanded significantly, including in London, since 1997; academies are also raising the game in most inner cities.

However, there is always going to be a problem of oversubscription in a system of parental preference. Some popular academies have thousands of applicants for a few hundred places. And it is because Labour has retained (and, arguably, enhanced) the Tory system that it has had to consider what is fair for schools that are oversubscribed; the decisions remain for schools and local authorities. It cannot be a part of a school's responsibility to consider whether their policy pushes house prices up or down. Popular schools should consider what it the fairest way to allocate places once other criteria (perhaps sibling, children in care etc) are taken into account. Most still use distance. But most of those schools using random allocation or banding will hold some places for pupils living fairly close to the school. Beyond that, why should a pupil living two miles away be less able to attend the school than one living 1.5 miles away because one is within an arbitrary boundary, the other is not. Surely it is much better to keep a proportion of places aside which are open to all who apply, or to all who are able to get to the school. There is no more reason that this should discriminate against the middle classes than that it should advantage the poor - and Brighton saw one group of middle class parents happy, with another grumbling - unless we assume that only middle class people live near good schools. If so, if what we are then saying is that all families should at least a reasonable choice of schools, then what's wrong with that? Since when is school choice only for the middle classes?

Friday 1 February 2008

Hillary wins the debate

CNN's undecided voters' panel started 50-50 Obama: Clinton before last night's Democratic debate in Hollywood. It ended 60-40 for Hillary Clinton. Her less confrontational style clearly paid dividends.

The cracks are showing in Cameron's modernisation makeover

This week has been a salutary one for those in the commentariat who believe that ex-PR man David Cameron has modernised the Tory party, and brought it to the moderate centre. First, we had had the extraordinary story of Derek Conway and has family job-creation scheme, a classic example of the arrogance that so characterised the Tories in power and which led to their 1997 defeat; and taking £25,000 a year from the taxpayer to pay one's student son for not working is of an entirely different order to the late declaration of donations. Now, we have the MEP Daniel Hannan taking to the extreme the Europhobic tendencies that were limited to the 'bastards' under John Major, but which are now part of the party's mainstream, by comparing the German President's powers to those of Hitler in 1933. There are, to be fair, some serious modernisers in Cameron's shadow cabinet, but his makeover has not reached the wider party (as any conversation with local councillors or members aptly shows), and Hannan has simply given voice to their obsessive paranoia. Perhaps Cameron's failure to achieve decisive polling leads shows that voters already recognise that reality.

Fairness and logic in school admissions

School admissions is one of those issues where logic flies out the window. It is inherently political, and those who shout that lotteries are 'unfair' or demand the immediate closure of grammar schools should realise that. This is why I worked with David Blunkett to develop the balloting system which has meant that local authorities cannot close grammar schools, but that if there is genuinely strong local demand, a referendum on selection can be held. Opponents of grammars denounce the arrangements as unfair: what they mean is that, with the exception of Ripon where they were defeated, there has not been such demand. Yet the Tory press - especially the Daily Telegraph - works itself into a lather every now and then to suggest that the end of the grammar school is nigh. It does so again today. Things were particularly daft when the balloting rules were first published; I always thought such hysteria suggested that the paper knew rather less about parents' views than they confidently proclaimed in their leader columns. So, there is now a broad consensus between the parties that existing grammars will stay (internally their pupil vnumbers can and d0 expand) but no new ones are likely to be built.

The real debate is then about how best to admit pupils to the remaining 3000 secondary schools. David Cameron apparently supports lying and cheating in order to get into faith schools, or at least declines to disapprove of such actions. But most people want to see a system that it transparent and fair. The new admissions code is much better in this regard than earlier guidance or rules - and, incidentally, by refusing to allow schools to put first preference first, it offers a level playing field in areas with popular comprehensives and grammars. Essentially, once children in care are given places, schools can use distance or sibling to allocate places; faith schools can use adherence to religion; and schools can use banding or random allocation (aka lotteries). There should be no doubt that the fairest system, and that most likely to give all parents the best chance of getting a place in a good school, is either of the latter two methods.

The issue, then, is to what extent such methods are used: schools tend to apply some distance criteria, perhaps allocating places to those very near the school before introducing random methods; they may also keep places for siblings. Small towns are rural areas are likely to want to stick to distance and sibling, for practical reasons. But the idea that it is 'fairer' to allocate all places according to distance from school is absurd; how can selection by house price be a fair system? Of course, two other things are needed to ensure that all parents understand that they can apply for randomly allocated places: the government should do more to introduce independent choice advisers, as envisaged in the 2005 Schools White Paper (too many of them are council functionaries rather than community advocates) and to improve school buses (the 2006 Act gives poorer families the legal right to select any one of three schools within a two-six mile radius from this September, rather than settling as before for the one allocated to them by the council for transport purposes). Now, it is true that Brighton was not the best advertisement for random allocation, at least in its presentation if not its application; but a growing number of schools are showing not only that it can be done, but when they are hugely oversubscribed, it must be done.