Monday 31 March 2008

A confused decision on the IB

The government's plan to scrap Tony Blair's commitment to enabling at least one school or college in each local authority to provide the International Baccalaurate is a regressive decision that reflects the confusion at the heart of the government's Diploma programme. Diplomas were not initially intended to replace A-levels, but the IB is a well-respected alternative route for students seeking to pursue a broader academic curriculum, one which is different from the planned specialised Diplomas in humanities or science, because the IB requires study of both, as well as the core subjects and languages. Of course, there was considerable resistance from the education establishment to Blair's decision, not least because they knew that as an independent qualification, it set a high competitive bar for A-levels (and perhaps for Diplomas). Unlike Applied GCSEs or Applied A levels, for example, which it makes sense to drop, the IB is different from Diplomas (just as A levels are too), and the more the government confuses the issue as in its consultation today, the harder it will be to establish their credibility. In reality, as Friday's TES reported, a growing number of state schools and colleges will decide to go for the IB, and are doing so. But it is petty-minded to renege on a promise to provide some minimal funding to help them to do so. Why is the government unwilling to maximise choices for young people, and provide those that want it with the breadth of academic study taken for granted in most other developed nations?

Sunday 30 March 2008

Healthy progress?

In what exam is a 93% score regarded as a failure? Yet this is how the BBC reported the news that the government's sensible decision to order a deep clean of our hospitals has led to 93% of hospitals being fully cleaned, with a 35% reduction in MRSA over a year. The point about targets is that they should be challenging: it is far better to get 93% on a tough target than 100% on an easy one. And this is one area where the government was right to respond - despite suggestions from shadow health secretary for life Andrew Lansley that it is no business of government to do so. After all, were not 'cleaner hospitals' one of the main planks on which the Tories fought (and, admittedly, lost) the last election? Turns out that the Tories, whose health policy is now written in BMA headquarters, are no longer thinking what we are thinking about this issue.

Holiday reading

Enjoying the warmth of Tenerife provided a good opportunity to catch up on my reading. I found Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope strangely uninspiring. The book is undoubtedly well-written, but its insights seemed shallow and its history rudimentary, though some of the racial insights are as refreshing as the 2004 convention speech that propelled the author into national politics. This is far more boilerplate Democratic politics than the 'new politics' it affects to represent. J.G Ballard's autobiography Miracles of Life is a splendid evocation of growing up in pre-war Shanghai, of the child's sense of wonderment in two years' detention in a Japanese concentration camp (his basis for Empire of the Sun) and of the author's life in drab post-war England and as a provocateur with his enthusiasms for surrealism, science fiction and psycho-sexual exploration (notably through Crash). It is a very readable, fascinating story. I finally got around to reading Khaled Hosseini's brilliant history of modern Afghanistan through the eyes of a fictional boy, The Kite Runner, which offers as many insights into the tragic story of the nation and its people as any history book. Less satisfactory for me was Mark Slouka's The Visible World, an award-winning story of a Czech boy growing up in New York who returns to piece together his parents' past in wartime Czechoslovakia, particularly the events surrounding Heydrich's 1942 assassination by partisans. Though an intriguing story which I wanted to like, it didn't really work for me, and felt both cliched and pretentious. For light relief, I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's comic tale of Chicago office life in an ad agency as the boom years give way to layoffs, Then We Came to the End, a splendid evocation of contemporary business and office culture, and a fascinating contrast with the brilliant TV series Mad Men, set in the early 1960s Madison Avenue. I also enjoyed the latest John Grisham, The Appeal, a murky tale of political, legal and big business shenanigans over a Mississippi environmental scandal, and Alexander McCall Smith's latest tale from Botswana's finest lady detective, The Miracle at Speedy Motors.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Staying the Course

A new volume of essays that I have edited, Staying the Course, is published today by the Social Market Foundation. It includes a fascinating debate between Alan Smithers and Michael Barber on the Government´s plans to make students stay in education or training until 18, and essays by Miles Templeman, Mike Tomlinson and Karen Price on qualifications, with an introduction by Ed Balls and a contextual essay from Mike Baker. In my own essay, I argue for a strong range of choices for 14-19 year olds and good careers advice. There has been some early coverage of the book in the Times. Copies of the book can be obtained or downloaded from the SMF directly.

Friday 21 March 2008

As the NUT gathers, it's time for an Easter escape

The start of the NUT conference - with its calls for strikes unless secondary heads are forced into a class size straitjacket and over pay - is always a good cue to escape. (Jim Knight, the schools minister, was absolutely right on Today to dismiss the idea that there should be a class size limit of 20 in secondary schools - with an average of 21, but no evidence that lower class sizes make much difference over the age of seven, this would be a ludicrous straitjacket on headteachers). I still have fond memories of the 1995 conference where the more militant members of the union forced David Blunkett, Estelle Morris and myself into a small office with Doug McAvoy and other NUT leaders - thereafter a 'cupboard' in the lore of education correspondents - while the Trots made an ass of themselves and their union for the benefit of the evening news, and provided David with a wonderful opportunity to highlight New Labour's get-tough approach to failing schools. The current NUT leader Steve Sinnott is a moderate-minded sort, but seemingly remains unable to move the Easter conference and give the ordinary NUT members their voice. Until he does, his union will remain at the margins of real influence, and serve merely to fill space on the Easter news bulletins.

Blogging will be light for the next week, as we head off for some Canaries sun. Happy Easter.

Thursday 20 March 2008

Are classes of 70 ever acceptable?

If I were Jim Knight, I don't think I'd have chosen a teaching union conference to share my enthusiasm for classes of 70 - even the supposedly progressive ATL. But does he have a point? First, despite credulous headlines in the Mail , let's be clear what Knight was talking about and what he was not talking about. The minister was not proposing that students spend all their time, or even the majority of it, in classes of 70. Nor was he suggesting that the Pupil Teacher Ratio - currently 16.5 in secondary schools and falling - should change (indeed there is now one adult to every 11.4 secondary pupils, much better than the 14.5 when Labour came to power). But he was recognising that some schools have experimented with such classes for particular lessons or lectures and that they have found them to work. I've seen them working extremely well (I'll spare the school concerned the attentions of silly reporters) and the challenge of a well-structured large mixed-age class can be particularly valuable for able students; there were a host of teaching assistants on hand to help those who needed it. Equally, a masterclass by a university lecturer or star speaker could be of such a size - or, as often happens, be provided across several settings using broadband. If we don't let schools experiment in such ways, not least with the chance for IT to offer each student different challenges, without being shouted down by teachers who should know better, go-ahead schools have no chance of finding the best ways to engage students in learning.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

How to win over parents on Diplomas

The DCSF has today announced that consortia in most parts of the country have signed up to offer the new Diplomas. That's the good news. But parents remain pretty clueless about them, and the Department has only itself to blame. Even Ed Balls found himself in a muddle trying to explain the concept to John Humphrys on Today recently.

There are three main reasons for the confusion. The first is that Diplomas are unnecessarily complex: Mike Tomlinson introduced the notion of 'lines of learning' - in engineering, leisure or science, for example, with lots of options within each 'line' - which make sense when you are close to deciding exactly what you want to study, but causes bemusement to everyone else. Ministers and other Diploma salespeople must simply talk about subjects and leave the detail and talk of 'lines' for teachers with their students.

The second is that the government is so obsessed with the Diplomas not being vocational that it has no clear explanation of what they are. Now I know that the ICT industry was very keen that its diplomas were much broader than functional IT diplomas, one reason why this stricture was applied. But it is treated as heresy to call Diplomas 'vocational' or even 'specialised' even though they were introduced in the first place as a vocational alternative to A-levels (a prohibition I'm pleased to say that Tony Blair dutifully ignored). Moreover, colleges believe the rigid limit of 40% practical content may make some Diplomas less attractive to those who want them to be a stepping stone into practical jobs, particularly at GCSE level 2 standard. This mentality is also preventing a sensible sales campaign, where different Diplomas are marketed differently.

And third, there is the whole business of A-levels. Gordon Brown went as far as possible at PMQs to talk-up A-levels today - far further than Balls has done - but the sooner the government simply says that Diplomas are unlikely to replace A-levels, the better for students and the better for Diplomas. Until ministers concentrate on what Diplomas are, rather than what they are not or what they might be, they will have a tough sell to parents, students and teachers.

Obama's best speech of the campaign

Regular readers of this blog will know that we support Hillary here. But it has to be said that Barack Obama's speech yesterday was his best of the campaign; it had a sincerity that seemed absent from the rockstar gigs that have characterised his campaign to date, and as a result managed to evoke the freshness of his remarkable national debut at the 2004 Democratic Convention. But the question is whether it does enough to stem the criticism of his pastor's remarks or the growing doubts about Obama's broader judgment in his associates. And given that it seems unlikely that it will, the reality remains that Hillary has a better chance of beating McCain in 2008.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

The 'purity' of statistics

Ben Brogan relates the valedictory whinge of the Statistics Commission, one of the most self-important, prissy creations of Gordon Brown's years at the Treasury. They are upset that ministers dare to sully their pure statistics with comment (published separately from the statistical releases, as it happens) as they are published. The implication is that their statistics are sacred facts, whereas politicians' interpretations are vile propaganda. In fact, government statisticians collect rather too many irrelevant facts that are of little use to anyone; a cull of such information should be a priority for the Commission's successor, along with the collection of more genuinely useful data. As I have previously blogged, some of the figures collected by statisticians have been simply ridiculous: such as counting as a 'class of 40' an assembly that happens to coincide with the annual class size census.

In the real world, unless government politicians attempt some explanation, they won't get a look in as the media put far more outrageous spin on the statistics than any minister. Of course, the statistics should appear in full, and independently in statistical releases for those that want to read them (and I am one of those who does). But the idea that a minister should not separately and simultaneously highlight the good news when everyone else will alight on the bad is as silly as trusting the Daily Mail to provide a fair and balanced presentation of the data. Perhaps the new UK Statistics Authority could busy itself ensuring that government statisticians collect more genuinely useful and reliable information rather than worrying too much about how politicians debate the results. That was the job the Statistics Commission was supposed to do.

Gordon should meet the Dalai Lama, but take no lectures from Malcolm Rifkind

Of course, Gordon Brown should meet the Dalai Lama. And he should make clear to China what we think of their suppression of Tibetan dissent. But he should take no lectures on ethical foreign policy from Sir Malcolm Rifkind, defence secretary (1992-5) and foreign secretary (1995-7), who was sounding off (20 minutes into clip) on the Today programme this morning. Here's a reminder of Sir Malcolm and Lord Hurd's ethical foreign policy in action (result: at least 100,000 Bosnian deaths, and well over a million displaced people). And here's another. Perhaps the Today programme's selectively combative interviewers could spend as much time reminding pontificating ex-Tory ministers of their role in allowing these events to happen, as they do stamping on the jargon of children's ministers?

Monday 17 March 2008

What do Iraqis think five years on?

There has been a lot of repetition of fixed opinions in the British press over the last few days as they look back at what went wrong after the overthrow of Saddam. So, it is worth looking at what Iraqis themselves think. Here's what the BBC pollsters found (to the profound disappointment, one senses, of John Simpson and his colleagues). 55% of Iraqis are happy with their lives, including 62% of Shias and 73% of Kurds; 50% more people than last year say security is good in their areas; and 50% of people have confidence in their government (rather more than say the same in their own countries about many Western governments). Yes, utilities remain erratic; and as many Iraqis want the Americans to go as want them to stay. But this is hardly the picture of a country of hopelessness, as portrayed in the anniversary pullouts.

Should languages really be compulsory up to GCSE?

Tim Hames repeats the Times line - I assume it is he who has written the impassioned leaders over the years - that the removal of compulsory languages from the curriculum for 14-16 year-olds is a national disaster. But his argument rests on several false assumptions. For a start, there was little use in the majority of young people learning rudimentary French, the language of choice in most schools. Spanish or Mandarin, both of which are growing in popularity, are far more important for business purposes. Second, languages should be taught primarily in primary school: by 14 it is often too late, so the government is right to shift compulsion from 11-16 to 7-14, though it is a fair point that it might have done this before removing compulsion. But third, if we want better linguists, we do need to focus on the best language students, and they will learn better with those who want to learn; they are the ones who should be incentivised to study languages at university, so long as we are confident there is the genuine demand for them. When Estelle Morris dropped compulsion, she did so because 15-20% of pupils were not doing languages anyway, and her hope was that the numbers dropping it legally would be of similar proportions. No school is prevented from making or keeping languages compulsory; I am a fan of the IB, which makes languages a compulsory component. With the proposals of the Dearing Review, it is to be hoped that more schools and universities will encourage more students to learn languages. But let's not get carried away: requiring every 15 year-old to do languages will not make them linguists nor will it address our languages deficit; getting it right at seven might just do so.

St Patrick's Day gift to the Irish in Britain

There was a brief attempt to provide Irish television to the 850,000 Irish-born people in Britain during the 1990s, with Tara TV, run by those who now make a fortune with Setanta. But it is good news that a permanent service is now to be provided, blending RTE 1 and RTE 2 programmes, with an announcement expected today.

Friday 14 March 2008

The real reason why too many children aren't reading properly

A report today by the charity Xtraordinary People claims that the reason 20% of youngsters don't make the grade in national tests is because half of them are dyslexic. That may indeed be the reason, and I'm all in favour of better diagnosis earlier. But isn't it just as plausible that the failure of a quarter of schools to introduce phonics yet, as indicated in Sir Jim Rose's report today, might be as much to blame?


To see Juno last night. With Jason Reitman's direction, it lives up to its billing as a smart, sassy, different sort of film. Diablo Cody's story of a pregnant teenager (played with great wit by Ellen Page) and her plan to give the baby to childless parents fizzes along from the clever opening credits, through the great soundtrack. And there's CJ from the West Wing (Allison Janney) playing Juno's fiesty stepmom. Don't miss it.

Thursday 13 March 2008

No strings attached

So it was a boring budget, as the minister with a reputation for being a 'safe pair of hands' emerged with his reputation intact. Forgive me as a non-driver if I don't get worked up about showroom taxes on gaz guzzlers; even as a drinker, I doubt that 14p on a bottle will bring an end to my Rioja-drinking habits. So boring was the budget that even the columnists had little interesting to say this morning. But this didn't stop Alice Miles. In the absence of much else to write about, she used her Times column to recall the days when Gordon Brown used to keep budgets secret from the Prime Minister (and much of the cabinet). But she was picked a bad example when she claimed
Mr Brown not only told the ministers the amount they were getting, he would publish a slew of targets telling them what to prioritise, and even directly order them how to spend it - he told David Blunkett, for instance, in March 2000 that the extra £1 billion for schools was to be sent directly to head teachers, bypassing local education authorities.
Not true. In fact, the direct funding was devised by David Blunkett and some of us who worked with him precisely to avoid all of the education spending being tied up in Treasury targets. Brown took a lot of persuading initially, though the 'direct grants' were to become a popular feature of later budgets (and a similar budget was introduced, at Blunkett's behest, for school capital). Indeed it was Brown's and John Prescott's opposition that prevented Tony Blair and Charles Clarke from moving to a national funding formula for schools that would bypass local authorities. And, in 2006, there was a return to form, when the Treasury started to link increases in what became known as the School Standards Grant to poverty indicators. The result has been that the one grant that benefited schools in every part of the country (and every constituency) has lost its simplicity and popularity. As Brown 2008 embraces reform and independence for schools, he should restore the simplicity of this direct funding, and use other resources to target the poorest schools. Better still, he could move to a national formula and funding agency for all secondary schools.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Breaking down educational apartheid

One of the most impressive aspects of the Academies programme has been the extent to which it has broken down many of the barriers that had built up between state and independent schools. Several private schools have abandoned fees and selection to become academies, with Bristol Cathedral School and Colston Girls following others in Merseyside and Manchester. At the same time, independent schools are increasingly becoming academy sponsors; and today's news that Winchester is to do so is a great fillip for the programme. Incidentally, while the government has been highlighting the egregious admissions practices of maintained schools, it is noticeable that contrary to the claims of their opponents, academies are not among the offenders; many use banding to ensure fair admissions.

Goldsmith's snub to the Irish in Britain

When Ireland decided to leave the Commonwealth in 1949, admittedly a rather silly act of gesturism by an inter-party government, Clement Attlee's government wisely decided to place Irish citizens in the UK on the same basis as British citizens. This included a right to vote in all elections in the constituencies where they were resident. At a time when the Irish were literally rebuilding Britain after the war and Irish nurses were vital to the new NHS, this was an act of enlightened pragmatism. Even though some concessions had to be moderated following the entry of the UK into the EEC to avoid having to afford similar rights to all European nations, these voting rights were maintained - to the credit of the Heath, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher governments - through the worst of the IRA's campaigns. British citizens enjoy reciprocal rights in Dail elections. Now, at a time when Anglo-Irish relations have never been stronger, Peter Goldsmith is proposing to phase out those rights in the name of legal tidiness rather than any pressing requirement to do so. His impractical proposals for youthful pledges of allegiance are (one hopes) unlikely to see the light of day; but Gordon Brown should make clear that he has no intention of taking the vote from Irish citizens who live in Britain, those whom Lord Goldsmith regards as 'residuals'. Indeed, if Lord Goldsmith accepts that Northern Ireland will still need a different regime, his arguments for the change are even less justified: is he saying that a Belfast Catholic with an Irish passport who decides to move to London must change nationality to keep his Westminster vote? The ex-Attorney General may have a fine legal mind; he has no sense of history.

UPDATE: There are lively blog debates on the subject here, here and here.

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Mossbourne's minor miracle in Hackney

Here's a strange one. Every week in the Education Guardian diary, we are treated to digs at academies - the schools that are lifting standards in our poorest areas - in a diary co-written by the leading light in the Anti-Academies Alliance Francis Beckett. This week, he has a pop at the hugely successful Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, which has transformed the lives of hundreds of youngsters. I've spoken to many of the students, and seen the excellent teaching and the innovative work to combat transition problems at age 11. Around 37% of its pupils are in receipt of free school meals (FSM) - well over twice the national average - yet it achieves some of the best Key Stage 3 results in the country (as the school started from scratch, the pupils have yet to sit GCSEs) and has been declared 'outstanding' by Ofsted inspectors. But this is not good enough for Beckett who jeers that 77% of the pupils at the predecessor school Hackney Downs (which was rightly closed by a 'hit squad' in 1996 after dismal Ofsted reports) were getting free dinners. Indeed: there were just 436 pupils on the register at that stage, because those who had the slightest chance of getting a place elsewhere wouldn't touch the school (this didn't stop it becoming a Trotskyist cause celebre). Do the maths: in 1994, 335 pupils were on FSM and 11% got five good GCSEs. Today, the school is thriving, filling each form of entry with just over 200 pupils; when full, it will have 1000 pupils including at least as many FSM pupils as when it closed, but a much wider social mix too, which most experts think is crucial in lifting standards for all. Oh, and there is the minor fact that the disadvantaged pupils are getting a first-class education too.

Tories in double poll shock

Today's Times Populus poll is a double-shocker for David Cameron. Not only has Labour narrowed the gap to three points, at 37-34, an extraordinarily poor showing for the Tories given the tales of economic woe that befall us on a daily basis (and Mori recently recorded 39-37). But for all the huffing and puffing about the European Treaty, only 37% of people think the Treaty is the same as the Constitution. Sure, people still say they want a referendum. But the poll suggests that Europe is not the issue the Tories (or some of Nick Clegg's excitable troops) think it is.

Monday 10 March 2008

Brown spikes Cameron's guns

Gordon Brown's article in today's Financial Times is the culmination of a series of moves since Christmas that have helped to put his government back on the reform track. It will be a big disappointment to David Cameron that his main line of attack against the PM has been so roundly scuppered (and this coming after Alan Johnson successfully took on the BMA over weekend working, a stark contrast with the subservience preferred by Dave's health spokesman for life, Andrew Lansley). With a strong team now backing the PM in no 10, it will be back to the drawing board in Tory HQ at Millbank Tower.

Friday 7 March 2008

Why Hillary has Democratic electoral legitimacy

While Barack Obama may be licking his wounds at the moment - some of them self-inflicted - the Obama-maniacs continue to insist that he should be candidate because he has most of the 'popular vote' - that minority of people who take part in the Primaries, excluding those in Florida and Michigan. But here's another way to look at Hillary's position.
There are 19 states plus Washington DC that John Kerry won in 2004, when Bush beat him by 286-251 in the electoral college. To win, Hillary needs to add Ohio or Florida. There are three other fairly closely fought 2004 states, which the Democrats ought also to win this time: New Mexico, Iowa and Colorado (adding two of them helps Obama in what follows, so we are being fair). Let's look at the states that Clinton and Obama have won, and focus on those 24 states plus Washington DC (as people in Florida and Michigan will vote, their college votes are included).

Based on the electoral college for each of these states, Hillary has won 202 Electoral College votes to date, and Obama a mere 97 such votes. There are two of these states still to be contested - Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral college votes, where Hillary seems set to win, and Oregon, with seven votes. Even if we exclude Florida's 27 college votes and Michigan's 17, Hillary still beats Obama 158-97, or 179-104 if she takes Pennsylvania and he wins Oregon. So, if we're talking electability in the states that matter, then Hillary wins hands down. And that's also why the big state primaries are rather more important than the folksy caucuses or no-hope Democratic states where Obama has been doing especially well.
UPDATE: Michael Savage at the Independent Open House has been thinking along the same lines.

We need clear choices on A levels and Diplomas, not confusion

Ed Balls is announcing plans for a higher-value extended Diploma today. In principle, it is a good thing to provide a Diploma route for the most able students. But if students want to take a stretching academic Diploma, the International Baccalaureate is a much better option mixing a broad range of subjects, and it already has strong credibility. Moreover, the government is running before it can walk on Diplomas: it is not yet clear whether there will be the 40,000 takers from September for the first five Diplomas. I hope there are, but today's announcement could confuse potential takers rather than illuminate them. And finally, Ed Balls should be less churlish about A-levels. The idea that Diplomas will replace A-levels is fanciful: they are different qualifications, each with their own strengths; to pretend otherwise simply encourages people to keep demanding the emasculation of GCSEs and A-levels.

Breakfast with Mugabe at the Ustinov

To see Breakfast with Mugabe, Fraser Grace's play (first shown at the RSC in 2005) in the newly refurbished Ustinov Theatre in Bath. It is a very fine production which worked well in the small theatre. Based on a reported incident in 2001 when Robert Mugabe was supposed to have turned to a white psychiatrist for help, the play imagines what happens with eminent and liberal-minded psychiatrist Andrew Peric (played with aplomb by Miles Anderson) meets the President (a fine and convincing performance by Nicholas Bailey, pictured), with his second wife Grace (Andi Osho) and ice-cool secret service bodyguard, Gabriel (Joseph Marcell) entertaining Peric as the President is late for his appointments. Set against the background of the 2002 elections, the play explores the ngozi - Shona demons - that haunt Mugabe. He is particularly troubled by Josiah Tongogara, the man destined to be Zimbabwe's first president who died in a mysterious car crash (that many believe was engineered by Mugabe) shortly after the Lancaster House talks in 1979. Had he lived, he would probably have led a more conciliatory course for the country, keeping Mugabe in check. (His replacement Rev Canaan Banana was an ineffectual check on Mugabe and later forced into exile having been charged with sodomy). The play also brings out the contradictions and tensions of the increasingly racially charged land confiscations and the conflicting emotions of a liberal white opponent of Ian Smith's racist regime. This taut, believable production is an excellent start for the new Ustinov. As for the theatre itself, if the refit has cost £1.5 million as Venue suggests this week, it is hard to see where the money has gone: there is a trendy bar, slightly better stage, new (but less comfortable) seating and a new balcony, with more space at the back for lighting and technical wizardry. But it is hard to treat seriously the ludicrous suggestion made in the programme that it is a 'major architectural re-invention.' It was a good second theatre for Bath before the refit, and remains one, despite the 're-inventions.' The play continues until 22 March.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Why Hillary won

Andrew Stephen has long resisted the Obama hype in the New Statesman. His take on Hillary's win is well worth reading in this week's edition. Anatole Kaletsky also has an interesting perspective in The Times today - he is spot on in his assessment of the campaign against McCain.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Yes, she could; yes, she can

Three out of four for Hillary, and on to Pennsylvania. The Obama campaign says that Hillary still can't win on delegate numbers because of the proportional split in the Democrat primaries. But they also ignore the fact that Hillary won handsomely in Florida - and DNC chairman Howard Dean indicated on Sunday that he would be open to a rerun of the state primary if governor Charlie Crist - who is willing to do so - agreed. And they are trying to pretend that the superdelegates have some moral obligation to vote for Obama. But they don't, anymore than MPs have to copy party members in a Labour leadership contest here. If Obama proves as flaky in the coming months as he has been the last few days, it would be the duty of the superdelegates to vote for Hillary, who would by then be the most electable candidate against John McCain. But for now, disappointment for the pundits; but a good night for the Democrats.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Ian Paisley steps down

Ian Paisley - the senior figure in the comedy duo that is the Chuckle Brothers - is to step down as First Minister in Northern Ireland. His contribution to the process that began with the Good Friday agreement has been creditable: he was right to demand full demilitarisation by the IRA and he was right to share power with Sinn Fein and his co-chuckle brother, Martin McGuinness in the end. But it was his extremism in the sixties that probably contributed as much to the birth of the Provisional IRA as anything, and his flirtation with the brutal end of loyalist paramilitarism was inexcusable. Nevertheless, his work over the last few years have shown the other side of a remarkable man; his constituents had always seen it, and now Northern Ireland has benefited from the stability of his leadership for the best part of a year. Peter Robinson, if it is he who succeeds him as First Minister, will have a tough act to follow.

Hillary can win Texas and Ohio

The Obama-maniacs have been calling on Hillary Clinton to step down, to allow their man a clear run against John McCain. But at the same time, two interesting things have been happening. First, Obama has finally started to be questioned about some dubious aspects of his past (even leading Obama cheerleader Sarah Smith had to admit as much on Channel 4 News last night, though she hoped/thought it would make no difference). And second, the polls in Texas have been slipping away from Obama in recent days (though his opposition to free trade may be narrowing the gap with Hillary in Ohio, even if it is all rather contrived). So, there is a very good chance that Hillary will win three out of four states tonight (add in Rhode Island, Obama will win Vermont), regain the momentum she lost in recent weeks and squeak the convention. If she loses all four, I'd be the first to say she should step aside. But I do hope the pundits get egg on their faces once again: contrary to received wisdom, I believe Hillary has the strength to beat McCain which an Obama, who is tetchy in the face of any criticism or hostile media and an indifferent television performer away from the set speeches, may not have.

Are school admissions really such a lottery?

Once again, school admissions are at the top of the news agenda. The schools minister, Jim Knight (left), is chided for reminding parents who don't get their chosen school of their right to appeal (since over a third win on appeal, this is surely perfectly reasonable advice, even if school leaders don't want the paperwork). But what is less remarked is the extent to which admissions are less of a lottery now than they were when Labour was elected. For one thing, there are far fewer schools with poor results: Michael Gove may only have been in nappies in 1997, but in that year a full 50% of secondary schools had fewer than 30% of their pupils gaining five good GCSEs in English and Maths. Today, it is a quarter, and the numbers below 25% achieving any five grade C or above GCSEs or equivalent has dipped from over 600 to a couple of dozen, thanks to the development of specialist schools and academies.

Equally, there are far more comprehensive schools topping the 70%+ mark - over 600 now compared with 83 in 1997. And this has been reflected in the appeals figures, where the number of appeals (and their proportion of total admissions) has been falling significantly. In 2002/3, there were 50,200 secondary school appeals heard by an appeals panel; in 2005/6 this had fallen to 41,650; or a reduction from 7.2% to 6.1% of all admissions (appeals lodged fell from 10% to 8.3% over the same period; the difference reflects those that have been withdrawn); moreover the proportion of successful appeals rose from 33.5% to 36.4% over the same period. This suggests that about 4% of secondary parents don't get a school of their choice. Of course, it is higher in London and some other cities like Bristol, and not everyone can ever get their first choice of school; and the work to get more good schools must continue; but the facts suggest a rather better picture than the media are suggesting today.

Monday 3 March 2008

A measured approach to drinking

Last week, we were chastisted for drinking mineral water. This week it is the turn of alcoholic drink. Dame Jacqueline Wilson, the children's author, has publicised a survey showing (horror of horrors) that 71% of parents allow their teenage children a drink at home. The Local Government Association is trying to mix increased flexibility for village pubs to open a bit later with the binge drinking that existed in inner cities long before the licensing laws changed. And the Chancellor apparently wants to tax us wine drinkers further (while presumably not raising the duty on Scotch whisky again). Tim Hames gets to the heart of the middle class wine drinking debate in the Times. But with all of these stories, there is a common thread.

Parents who allow their teenagers a glass of wine with dinner or a half of lager with a meal are acting responsibly; they are introducing them to alcohol in a measured way (those who are banned are surely more likely to binge when they are outside the home). Those who allow twelve year-olds to drink unlimited booze are not. Equally, the local that opens until midnight on a Friday and Saturday, and until two in the morning on New Year's Eve, without having to justify itself to bossy bureaucrats and magistrates at every turn, is not the same as an inner city bar offering unlimited cheap booze to young people.

It is high time this debate acquired a sense of proportion: the horrors predicted by the Daily Mail have not occurred since the licensing laws were relaxed; the fact that a wholesale cafe culture may not have either might have more to do with the weather than the law (though smokers have been forced into one!). So, if Alastair Darling really wants to cut middle class drinking rather than simply raising revenue, here's a thought: cut the duty on half-bottles of wine, which are nearly impossible to get in this country so that people can have a glass of wine midweek without feeling the need to open a whole bottle. That will both stimulate demand and supply for half bottles (the only company I found with a half-decent selection recently was Laithwaites) and cut middle class drinking. At the same time, let us praise not condemn parents who encourage responsible drinking and pubs that use the new licensing laws sensibly, as well as excoriating those who don't. When we do, we might have a sensible debate on drinking.

Sunday 2 March 2008

Sidmouth's delightful ambience

We spent last night in Sidmouth, the Devon seaside town that puts so many other English resorts to shame. It lacks the pier and entertainments that seem central to others' offer. But its wonderful seafront, with magnificent red cliffs, great hotels and charming independent shops more than make up. We stayed in the splendid Edwardian Victoria hotel, where Miss Marple would surely feel at home, with jackets required for an excellent dinner, a band playing during and after, and the whole ambience reflecting what one assumes the Imperial in Blackpool or Grand in Brighton used to offer a long time ago. It is not a cheap place; and though we used public transport (hourly buses from Exeter), one can't help but feel that the resort may have remained in a genteel timewarp thanks to the absence of a railway since 1967, having been another victim of Beeching's rail cuts. For once, perhaps, the axeman did us a favour.

Saturday 1 March 2008

Daniel Day Lewis is extraordinary in There Will Be Blood

To see There Will Be Blood last night. Daniel Day-Lewis is truly extraordinary as the personification of the evil oil man, Daniel Plainview, in Paul Anderson's sprawling, spellbinding movie. a performance for which he totally deserved his Oscar. The first twenty minutes are without words; but they are redundant as the grizzly scene-setting provides its own narrative. While Day-Lewis steals the film, and it often feels like a 2h 40 minute one-man show, there is a fine performance by Paul Dano as the preacher Eli Sunday, whose family is ripped off by Plainview in his quest for oil. This is a truly epic film, in the finest Hollywood tradition, but with the story being inspired by Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil, though the latter's socialist undertones have been replaced by a straightforward portrayal of a ruthless, self-centred oil baron. This is definitely one not to be missed.