Wednesday 30 April 2008

Don't lose the focus on standards

Reports in today's Guardian that a DCSF working group wants to hold schools responsible for everything from obesity to drug abuse are rightly greeted with alarm by the teaching associations (although the group involved seems to include their members). While it is right for schools to offer healthy meals and teach the dangers of drugs, schools cannot effectively act as an alternative to the family and social services, while at the same time providing the good rounded education and qualifications that young people need to get on. There is no harm getting more information on social problems - though government should be careful to avoid loading too much bureaucratic responsibility on schools - but ministers should be wary of anything that shifts the focus from standards to social services. Schools with overall high standards tend to be the best at dealing with discipline and social problems; they also tend to be the ones who do most to lift pupils out of poverty. Don't let's lose that vital focus.

Tuesday 29 April 2008

Three more reasons why Hillary can win

John Rentoul pays too much attention to Dick Morris, the embittered former Clintons' adviser. There are three reasons in the real world why Hillary still has a good chance of winning.

1. The latest Indiana poll puts her well ahead.

2. Obama's outspoken minister has chosen to speak out again.

3. North Carolina's governor has endorsed her.

The down to earth approach to league tables

In today's Daily Telegraph, Martin Stephen, the Master of St Paul's with whom I had the opportunity to debate league tables on Radio 4 yesterday, asks 'what planet [I] am living on' when I say that 'league tables help to drive up standards'? The answer is: one rather closer to where the majority of our young people are educated than St Paul's.

First, the data derived from the tables is used by most state schools to set individual and school targets. They are helped to do so by organisations such as the Fischer Family Trust and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which allow them to compare like with like, but show how much more ambitious many schools can be. There is no question whatsoever that this is driving up standards. The only reason why this data is available is because it is collected by the government. If it is collected by the government, it must also be published. That is what the newspapers use to create their league tables.

Second, when primary tables were first published in 1997, few parents knew much about how well - or poorly - their primary schools were doing. Their publication showed just how many coasting schools there were, prompting measures that led to a real improvement in literacy and numeracy standards. Without comparative data, there would not have been that improvement.

So, the data collected for league tables does help drive up standards in many schools; though, I am prepared to concede that they may not do so in schools where the pupil who fails is the one without 5 As at A level.

Monday 28 April 2008

Will YouGov have egg on its face?

For some years, I have enjoyed filling in Yougov's surveys. I even received a cheque for fifty quid for my trouble last year. But the online pollster faces a make-or-break week. For it is not just Ken v Boris that will be decided on Thursday, but the veracity of Yougov polls versus the rest. Most polls have shown Ken recovering in recent weeks, with Boris trailing on issues like leadership and transport (though winning on crime). But tonight's Evening Boris has another poll giving the Tory pretender a whopping 10-point lead. If they are right, it will not just be curtains for the Mayor and a bad night for Gordon; it will be a disaster for traditional pollsters and another feather in Yougov's cap. But if they are wrong, and Ken wins, taking the wind out of Cameron's sails, there will be some fairly searching questions about the accuracy of Internet polling.

Defending performance tables

I was on the Today programme this morning, debating performance tables with Martin Stephen, the High Master of St Paul's school. Some leading independent schools want to 'abolish' the tables, though are not very clear how this might be done in an age of Freedom of Information, nor are they on strong ground when it comes to the desirability of doing so; the data produced by the tables is crucial in helping hundreds of low performing schools to improve; and the tables provide an important measure of comparative accountability. We did, at least, agree that the Government should credit the International GCSE, a more traditional O-level style exam preferred by some private schools, in the tables. One suspects that the failure to do so lies in part behind the abolition call. You can hear the debate here.

Sunday 27 April 2008

In Bruges

To see Martin McDonagh's fine dark comedy In Bruges this afternoon. I'm not normally a Colin Farrell fan, but he gives a cracking performance as Ray the hitman who has made a terrible mistake and is forced to hide out with a more experienced colleague Ken (played by Brendan Gleeson) in Bruges. The Bruges tourist board is counting on a big tourist influx thanks to the many picturesque shots of the town over Christmas and its fine architecture and history (and there is a real magic to the place at that time of year). But Ray regards it as 'a shithole' (until he falls for a local lass), though Ken insists on his doing plenty of sightseeing. Ralph Fiennes is the dastardly boss, Harry, who has more sinister reasons for sending the hitmen to the Belgian town, and the ensuing chases and killings are not pretty. Anyone who has seen McDonagh's brilliant but boisterous satire on the pretensions of extremist Republicanism, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, will know what to expect. If you can take the occasionally strong violence and language, this is as good a film as one could hope for from the master playwright behind it.

Tories turn from Question Time to Telly Addicts

According to today's Sunday Times, the Tories have taken to stereotyping swing voters by television programmes:
Party strategists have identified four archetypes based on popular television programmes to help them target swing voters. These include “Holby City worker”, a middle-ranking health service employee; “Top Gear man”, who is angry with Labour’s petty bureaucracy; the “Apprentice generation”, young professionals coming to terms with political and financial reality; and finally the “Grand Designs couple”, the young aspirational family pursuing an ethical lifestyle.
Such advertising awfulness should come as no surprise with today's Tories. David Cameron's interview with Andrew Marr this morning showed him completely unable to name a single thing he would cut (aside from "MPs' allowances", which are neither here nor there in the public finances) to be more fiscally responsible that the government he derides.

Perhaps Central Office should add another demographic - "Mad Men MPs," Opposition politicians so desperate to win, that they have abandoned policy for PR?

Lord Levy lowers the tone

Michael Levy made an invaluable contribution to ensuring that Labour had the funds it needed to win recent elections. His work with city academies was crucial to getting them off the ground. And he - and others - were unfairly traduced in the reporting of the so-called 'cash for honours' saga. But it is a complete mystery to me how he thinks his reputation will be enhanced by his becoming a temporary gossip columnist for the Mail on Sunday. Behind the excitable headlines lies an unedifying attempt at self-justification that merely diminishes his undoubted achievements. It is a sad and sorry spectacle.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Kate Rusby

Barnsley-based folk singer Kate Rusby has become something of a folk sensation in the last few years. Her remarkable voice, memorable tunes and adaptations of older folk songs are becoming known to an ever-growing fan base (though she has been recording for a decade). Her latest album Awkward Annie is as good as any she has done. Her concert last night in Bristol was a brilliant presentation of her best songs. Having seen a less confident, too chatty version of Rusby previously a few years ago, it was good to see her maturing as a concert performer, doing justice with an excellent band to her many fine tunes, not least a rendering of Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes that did justice to the iconic song. She enchanted her audience and showed exactly why she keeps picking up folk awards.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Gordon's 10p climbdown

The right-wing press are predictably pillorying Gordon Brown for making concessions following the abolition of the 10p tax rate. But he was right to do so. The difference between this and other rebellions was profound: in other rebellions, the backbenchers were often the ones defending the indefensible, seeking to drag the government back to its pre-New Labour approach. On this occasion, it was the government doing so. Put simply, it was penalising those who took on low paid work, rather than staying on benefits. The next step should be to raise thresholds to do more to make work pay - without the complexity of too many tax credits.

She Stoops to Conquer

To see a wonderfully entertaining production of Oliver Goldsmith's Restoration comedy She Stoops to Conquer in Bath last night. The Birmingham Rep production brings Colin Baker and Liza Goddard (pictured) back together as the Hardcastles in a production which also boasts excellent performances from two relative newcomers, Tony Broadbent as the mischievous Tony Lumpkin whose misleading advice leads to all the misunderstandings, and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Kate Hardcastle. The innovative production restores the 'prologue' tradition of the 1770s when the play was first performed, and has excellent folk music accompaniment.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Hillary's Pennsylvania victory shows again why Obama is not a winner

Last night's victory for Hillary Clinton in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania is further proof that she is the candidate most capable of beating John McCain in the Presidential election. With a convincing 10-point lead, she has managed even to move the commentators to acknowledge that she has a chance. She has shown how well she can win the Reagan Democrats whose votes help to decide whether or not a Democrat will go to the White House. Obama greatly outspent Hillary in TV advertising, to little avail; since last week's TV debate, the first time he has faced real pressure in the campaign, he has started to lose his lustre with the voters. The general election will be won or lost in the big states and the swing states: Obama has won few of either. The question now is not when will Hillary drop out, but when the super delegates will realise that they need to elect a candidate who can win a general election rather than one who simply makes them feel good?

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Back to the Eighties, NUT style

Schools minister Jim Knight rightly condemns the ludicrous NUT teachers' strike on Thursday. Having got a pay award higher than the rest of the public sector - one that was welcomed by most teaching unions - the NUT (joined by the college lecturers' union) has decided to take the day off on Thursday to protest about the unfairness of it all. Back in the eighties, this sort of pointless strike was pretty common. But most unions - and certainly the other teaching unions - have moved on, recognising that teachers' pay has risen by a fifth in real terms in recent years, workload has been cut and classes have 100,000 extra assistants to improve adult:pupil ratios. NUT acting general secretary Christine Blower cynically maintains that the strike is a 'mark of respect' to the late Steve Sinnott: but while Sinnott backed the strike, he was working to bring the NUT out of its current irrelevance into the DCSF's social partnership. As the unions that make-up that partnership know, they have gained far more for teachers from within than manning the barricades outside. It is time the NUT joined them in the 21st century too.

Monday 21 April 2008

For Hillary v Obama read Lincoln v Lee

Tim Hames sets out with his usual erudition exactly why Hillary should be the Democrats' candidate this autumn. The polls in Pennsylvania are moving in her direction ahead of tomorrow's primary and there is every chance Hillary will get the decent margin she needs not only to stay in the race but to win over the necessary superdelegates. For the sake of a Democratic victory against McCain, it is vital that she does.

Cameron's unhealthy approach to NHS reform

The Tory approach to the NHS is inexplicable for a party that claims to be at the cutting edge of reform. As if to confirm that their policy is decided entirely in the interests of the powerful doctors' union, the BMA, and entirely at variance with the needs of patients, the Tory leader, David Cameron is today reported as launching a barmy petition (copyright old Labour c. 1982) designed to oppose the establishment of polyclinics open seven days a week from 8am to 8pm in favour of only having small GP practices (shut at weekends, no appointments after 5pm) and long waits at A&E. The best health systems in the world recognise that accessible primary care is crucial to keeping A&E costs down and to ensuring better preventative care, especially for people in work who pay for the NHS, but whose needs come last in the often inflexible hours provided by small practices. It is high time the Tories' extraordinarily reactionary health policies were exposed for what they are.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Lies, damned lies and Tory statistics

Today's Observer contains the 'statistic' that a million GCSE pupils 'have been failed by Labour' since 1997. This is apparently the line being taken by the Tory Bow Group in a report out this week, which also claims that '90,000' pupils failed to get five Grade G GCSEs last year, the 'highest figure' since 1998.

This is of a piece with the self-selected statistics being used by the Tory front bench to maintain that despite a third more pupils gaining five decent GCSEs every year than when they left power - and despite the fact that the number of schools where fewer than 30% reach this standard falling from half to a fifth of secondaries - the system is somehow getting worse. As Table 1 in this release shows, the proportion of pupils achieving five A-G grades at GCSE or equivalent has risen every year since 1997.

The Tories only reach their conclusion by discounting the vocational qualifications - including functional English and Maths - that schools often use (and have increasingly done since 1997) to engage young people less likely to achieve academic qualifications. In fact, although the numbers of students taking the exams has risen from 575,000 in 1998 to 656,000 in 2007, the number failing to get five good grades has fallen from 72,000 to 65,600 over the same period. Moreover, the figure for 2007 falls to 53,880 when the results are included for students who do their exams a little later than others (at the end of Key Stage 4). At the time of the 1997 election, contrary to what the Observer said in its leader, Labour did set a target to cut the numbers of pupils leaving education with no passes: their numbers have fallen from 44,291 in 1997 to 7,140 in 2007.

With changes introduced in the last year - and which were never part of the tables when the Tories were in power - Labour is now looking at the figures including English and Maths GCSEs, and that is forcing schools to work at getting better results in both subjects. That is likely to see that figure increasing too in the future. But do the Tories really need to discount the hard work over the last decade of teachers and pupils to explain how they would supposedly do better?

Buena Vista Social Club

To see the thirteen-strong Buena Vista Social Club orchestra in fine form in Bristol last night. They wowed the audience with renditions of their popular Cuban songs and the brilliant performances of stars who have acquired world-wide fame in the last decade since Ry Cooder and World Circuit Records brought some of Cuba's best musicians to international attention. While some of the original performers, notably Compay Segundo, have since passed away, the touring orchestra brings to life the vitality of the multi-million selling album that made their names, with the incomparable Cachaito Lopez on bass. They played a straight two hours without interval, and had the entire concert hall dancing in the aisles for their final number. This is a musical treat not to be missed.

Saturday 19 April 2008

After his American success, Gordon must show that he intends to make work pay for all

When Mr Brown went to America, he was rather successful, despite the wishful thinking of the accompanying press corps. The absence of a BA charter and the simultaneous presence of the Pope did nothing to prevent great pictures from his meetings with the presidential candidates or his well-received speech at the Kennedy library, and his tone at the Bush meeting was more appropriate than his first Stateside foray.

But all this was to no avail because of the row over the 10p tax rate back home. The PM's briefers say that Brown is furious about the fuss. However, those who are complaining about the change do have one particularly strong point: why should the low paid who are working face a cut in their take-home pay in order to provide tax cuts for those who are better off and (presumably) to subsidise benefits for those who can't be bothered to get a job? And there are many who don't get tax credits. That's why Frank Field is so incensed about all this, and the Treasury does need to find a way to address his concerns - it should be in the business of incentivising work and disincentivising those who can work but won't do so.

The best way to do this would be to lift the threshold below which no taxes are paid, but clearly that is not affordable at the moment - something Dodgy Dave refuses to recognise in his opportunism, where he has not told us how he would pay for his restoration of the 10p tax rate (which Tories who know better rightly think is daft). In its absence, the Treasury does need to find a temporary fix to the problem. The MPs who are protesting this time are not the usual suspects opposing progressive change, though it is odd some are only doing so now. But they have a good point. And it needs to be answered by a commitment to measures that show the government wants to make work pay, not just for those with children, but for everyone.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Fighting failure

I have the cover feature in this week's Public Finance magazine about the government's plans to tackle low-attaining schools, and how a battle over failing schools that had begun in 1996 has been rejoined by the Conservatives. You can read the piece here.

What Cameron's Tories really believe about the United Kingdom

In the middle of Fraser Nelson's argument in the Spectator today for the Tories to kick Scotland out of the union, there is this revealing passage (emphasis added):

‘If we’d have proposed cutting Scotland loose five years ago, we would have been accused of leaving it to the wolves,’ one shadow minister told me. ‘Salmond is stupid enough to see this as emancipation, so let’s do it.’ He added that his favoured policy was ‘lining the Tweed with explosives and floating Scotland off towards Iceland’ — but that fiscal autonomy was ‘the next best thing’.

It's always good to be reminded what Cameron's Tories really believe.

The difficulties with Diplomas

Jerry Jarvis, the boss of the Edexcel exam board, will surely be persona non grata at the DCSF for some time to come. His suggestion that Diplomas - which his exam board is charged with introducing - are in disarray will not endear him to ministers or officials who are convinced that Diplomas are on track for their introduction in the autumn. And there are certainly signs that more local authorities - and the schools and colleges within them - have signed up to the idea. Of course, there will be teething problems as Jarvis suggests: there are bound to be with any new qualification. That's why the government set a modest 40,000 target for the first year, and is staging their introduction. It can't help logistically that the QCA is moving north and reforms to A levels and GCSEs are happening at the same time. But as this blog has argued previously, the real problem with Diplomas is more fundamental. It is a lack of clarity about what they are for, at whom they are aimed and the differences between different subjects. Parents are confused about them, and those who have to deliver them fear that even the Government's modest target will be difficult to achieve. Until the Government is clearer with parents and students about these issues, it could have a hard task selling them even when Jarvis's teething problems are sorted out.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

On US TV News, they get answers from Gordon first and ask questions later

Gordon Brown was interviewed for CBS News by Katie Couric last night. Couric, a former star breakfast show presenter, was brought in after veteran Dan Rather quit following a scandal over one of his reports, to freshen up the news. She has been a ratings disaster and is likely to be replaced. But a quick inspection of the CBS website reveals that the Americans are still in the business of getting answers first and asking questions later. In the CBS transcript, Couric asks Brown:
COURIC: There were 20,000 British troops at the time of the invasion, now there are only 2,000. You had planned to reduce that number but earlier this month you
decided to put that on hold. Why?

Of course, that is inaccurate. Which is why in the clip that was broadcast, she is heard asking:
There were 43,000 British troops at the time of the invasion. And now there are only 4,000 in Basra. You had planned to reduce that number to 2,500. But earlier this month, you decided to put that on hold. Why?

On this occasion, it doesn't really change the nature of the question, even it stops Couric sounding silly. But, when a similar incident happened here, there was an outcry, and 'noddies' as well as re-edited questions were banned by some channels. Yet in fact-check rich America, it's apparently OK to alter the question after the event. To be fair, we only know this because CBS put the whole unedited transcript on their website. That is something we could copy more routinely here for recorded interviews.

Memories of the loony left in Brent

It is over two decades since the politics of Labour were dominated - at least in the public mind - by the antics of the so-called 'loony left' in London and some other cities. Yet behind the caricatures of extremism, there were some figures whose lives were irrevocably changed by the period. Some politicians - Ken Livingstone and Paul Boeteng among them - went on to have a second chance (and did rather better second time round). Other figures have faded from memory. One part of London that was perhaps most associated with the barminess of the period was the borough of Brent. And one case that attracted national attention was the story of the Sudbury Infants School head teacher Maureen McGoldrick in 1986, who was suspended by Brent Council for allegedly making a racist remark to one of their officials. Jim Moher was on the board of governors at the school at the time, and his feelings about how unfairly she was treated drove him into Labour politics where he became a moderating force in the local party, stood as a parliamentary candidate and became a leading Labour councillor. In a well-researched book that he has published himself, Stepping on White Corns, he uses the McGoldrick affair as the springboard for a fascinating account of the politics and personalities of Brent Labour politics at the time. Moher's book is strongly critical of the way in which highly politicised 'anti-racism' came to dominate education in the Brent of the eighties, in place of the basics that were more important to Black parents. This is not an easy read - and it would have benefited from a good sub-editor - but anyone with a fascination for Labour or education politics of the time will find it a rewarding and challenging account. The extent to which local politics has changed is shown by the presence of an introduction by the current Brent Labour group leader, Ann John. The book is available from the author at 51 Medway Gardens, Wembley, Middlesex HA0 2RJ price £11.50 including postage & packaging.

Monday 14 April 2008

Could Obama really win Reagan Democrats?

The media has been so resolutely pro-Obama in recent months that it affects surprise that Hillary Clinton is still running (even though she is still very much in the running, depending on what happens in Pennsylvania and Indiana, let alone the votes of Florida and Michigan Democrats). Yet this weekend's revelations of Obama's views about the sort of conservative Democrat voters whose votes are essential to put a Democrat in the White House served merely to highlight what will become the Obama problem should he become the Democratic nominee. Despite a lot of tosh in the British media about how Obama has been reaching out to independent voters in ways that Clinton doesn't, in the swing states the votes that matter are those of the so-called Reagan Democrats (not uncommitted liberal college kids); Hillary has been winning their support and continues to do so. Contrary to popular mythology, the Clinton-Obama battle has been one of the mildest such contests in recent years. But do read The Politico for some of the real - and completely unsayable - reasons why Obama is not streets ahead of Clinton among leading Democrats.

Saturday 12 April 2008

Is Gordon doomed?

As the Prime Minister prepares for his American visit, it seems he can do nothing right. The weekend papers are woeful. Matthew Parris, while elegant in his demolition of Gordon's credentials, is predictable. But the Guardian has turned on his leadership with a vengeance. Yesterday, it was that ficklest of friends, Polly Toynbee. Today, more seriously, it is a pretty sharp leader and a sharper piece by Martin Kettle, citing the collective mumbling from the backbenches. The economy is feeling the pinch, as mortgages dry up and European holidays become more expensive. Bizarrely, Mark Penn has been giving advice. And even the US jaunt is mis-timed, as it coincides with a long-awaited Papal trip.

So, is it really curtains for Gordon? Probably not. For one thing, Boris Johnson seems to have peaked in the London Mayoral polls, and after a serious wobble, Ken Livingstone has now got a better than evens chance of winning, once Green and LibDem transfers are counted in (and Ken must do everything he can to win the latter); if Labour holds London, it will be a serious blow to David Cameron and be as valuable to Labour as the Tories holding Wandsworth was in 1990. Second, though the economy is feeling the heat of the global and banking crisis, its fundamentals remain strong. Employment remains high and unemployment low; inflation is still manageable. And third, there is still not yet a credible alternative government. Cameron may be personable enough and be a better character on American Idol, if the opportunity presents itself. But his party remains either policy-lite or policy-disfunctional (as with its anti-patient health policy driven by someone whom Cameron has promised not to sack). And when these policies face proper scrutiny, the parties will be more evenly matched. But that's not to say it is not serious.

Brown has wasted months of disorganised leadership in Number 10 (now finally in better shape) and pandering to a never-satisfied backbench left-wing (and some of his ministers still seem to think they, rather than the electorate, should be their main audience). Gordon must now set a small number of clear, attainable and potentially popular goals across government and see them being delivered. If he does that - and holds London - the picture could be very different six months hence.

Why Hillary can win, where Obama can't

Despite the continued demonisation of Hillary Clinton in the European press, it is worth reminding ourselves why she is still in the race - and why only she is likely beat John McCain in the autumn. Since this is not the received wisdom in our liberal media, some facts may help. First, according to the most reliable latest polling, Hillary would defeat McCain by three points in a general election, whereas Barack Obama would merely score a tie (and even that is before the Republican smear machine gets to work). And the reason lies in states like Pennsylvania where Hillary is scooping up Reagan Democrats, as a fascinating article and poll in this week's Time magazine demonstrates:
Democrats rarely have to worry about the urban centers or the college towns falling into line. Clinton's core constituency, by contrast, is a group that Democrats must win but frequently don't. Working-class whites, despite their historical ties to the Democratic Party, have shown time and again that they will defect if they don't like the nominee.....Ever since he launched his campaign in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Obama has been happy to have himself compared with the original skinny outsider from Illinois. But as this race goes on, the image of another Illinois icon looms. The shape of the Pennsylvania electorate, and the prospect of a contentious convention, evokes 1952, when Adlai Stevenson--the darling of "every thinking person," as one woman later famously phrased it--captured a fiercely contested nomination by putting the urban and the urbane blocs together. But he never won over the white working class, and that's why there never was a President Stevenson.

Crisis, what crisis?

South African President Thabo Mbeki has his reasons for being grateful to Robert Mugabe, the defeated Zimbabwean leader who refuses to go gracefully. After all, Harare provided his African National Congress with sanctuary during the dying days of apartheid. But there is no excuse whatsoever for his lily-livered refusal to acknowledge the will of the people of that country in his absurd statement that 'there is no crisis' in Zimbabwe. If, after a fortnight, a defeated President is refusing to allow the Electoral Commission to publish the results of the poll, what is that if not a crisis? If thugs calling themselves 'war veterans' are beating up opposition supporters for voting for the MDC, presumably with Mugabe's blessing, what is that if not a crisis? The Southern African countries reasonably want to take responsibility for the future of their region, and not be beholden to the former colonial powers. Mbeki's ANC successor Jacob Zuma, for all his own shady history, has recognised the truth about Zimbabwe. Why can Mbeki not do so? Or are we to assume that the leader of Africa's most important economy has as much understanding of the meaning of democracy as he has about his country's most debilitating disease?

Thursday 10 April 2008

Why schools should decide on class sizes

I have a column in today's Independent making the case for headteachers to be free to decide on class sizes in their own schools, contrary to teaching union demands for legal limits. You can read the piece here, but these paragraphs sum up my argument:

The NUT might be on stronger ground were they calling for smaller infant class sizes, though ....studies....suggest that further real benefits for this age group require classes of below 15. But the biggest problem with the NUT ultimatum is that it wants the Government, rather than head teachers, to micro-manage schools. It was, after all, schools and their leaders who decided to use the extra money they got from government to employ more support staff.

And it is schools that occasionally opt to use classes of 70 to teach in different ways. Contrary to the more excitable headlines, such classes are usually well-run and are used to enrich students' learning experiences rather than to save money. One such class that I saw in an excellent West Midlands school used a large classroom with computers to set a range of challenges to a mixed age-group; it stretched able students and it allowed very personalised learning, regulated by a teacher supported by a host of teaching assistants. There was no evidence that pupils – or teachers – were losing out; in fact, quite the contrary.

Of course, such classes are not for all – or even most – situations. But they can play a part in a rich teaching and learning programme, just as masterclasses or lectures from university dons may mix several classes together. And the possibilities of broadband technology allow distance learning to widen A-level choices across groups of more than 20 students.

The point is not that these should become standard practice, but that they should not be outlawed in favour of a measure for which there is little beneficial evidence. What matters most is to enable every student to maximise their potential. And for that to happen, head teachers should have the freedom to try approaches that work best for their schools.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Boris doesn't do his maths homework

It is quite extraordinary that Boris Johnson is leading the polls for London mayor; one can only assume the voters haven't heard him much. I have just watched the most inept, extraordinary performance I have seen by any politician in years on Newsnight. Boris hadn't a clue how much his treasured Routemasters cost. He said the mayor should earn less, but had no idea to what. All the time, one had the impression of a politician making it up as he went along, including a 90 second intro that he had plenty of time to rehearse. Goodness knows what this buffoonery would lead to in City Hall. I can see why he doesn't like doing too many debates in this election, but surely that was one thing Eton was supposed to equip you for?

Denham's impressive pitch on access

I've spent the last couple of days helping the Higher education Funding Council with their conference blog. Today's speech from the universities secretary John Denham was impressive not for the various stories that have excited the media, but rather for the careful argument he made for widening participation and access policies. He rightly positioned them as being as much about fulfilling the ambitions of the children of paraprofessionals as about those of the most disadvantaged; by doing so, and identifying with their aspirations - apparently 50% across all classes now aspire to university for their children - he is selling a difficult policy the way it should be sold. And by urging that access funds - such as Aim Higher - should focus much more on young people aged 14 and under, he is recognising that it is then that aspirations are fixed (and, perhaps, adding extra money to grants was not the best use that could be made of it). Despite affecting disagreement, his Tory shadow, David Willetts said largely the same thing this morning, and as the government is giving itself more time to reach its 50% participation rate, there should be more consensus on this policy across the parties.

Monday 7 April 2008

Suspended reality

David Cameron is today detailing the Tories' plans to free schools of troublemakers. Yet the top line of this fantasy-policy is once again the abolition of exclusion appeals panels. As has been said on this blog before, this will make virtually no difference to school discipline, but could greatly increase the amount of time heads will have to spend in the courts. This is why the Tory schools minister Robin Squire invented the appeals panels in the first place; since then, successive Labour ministers have tightened the rules and membership so that, of over 9000 exclusions, just 130 are reinstated on appeal each year. Even heads are not infallible, and there will probably be at least as many cases overturned in costly court cases.

The Tories also want to stop good schools 'having' to take excluded pupils; in fact, the best schools are often very good at dealing with excluded pupils in small numbers, and they should play their part with other heads in deciding what happens to excluded pupils, whether to use pupil referral units or other placements. And for that to work, the money must follow the pupil: to suggest otherwise, as the Tories do by saying schools would not be 'penalised' is confused (the only 'penalty' imposed has been to ensure that money does indeed follow the pupil, so a school would forfeit some money for a pupil no longer on its books).

Discipline is usually worst in the poor performing schools; one reason it is so is that they are expected to take a disproportionate number of excluded pupils. PRUs have improved since 1997, and there are far more places in them; but the government should also look at more permanent special school placements for those with the most severe beahavioural problems, for whom no mainstream schools may be appropriate. But today's recycled and ill-thought through policies from the Conservatives are a pretty poor substitute for a coherent school discipline policy, and show no sign of having moved on from Michael Howard's brilliant strategy on the subject at the last election.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Bertie's downfall - the verdict

Bertie Ahern, who announced that he is stepping down as Taoiseach in May, does a very full interview with the editor of today's Irish Sunday Independent. Part of it is self-justification, but it is a full account of where he sees things. But the best assessment of his time as Taoiseach comes from that master historian John A Murphy in a piece elsewhere in the paper. It is will worth reading.

The truth behind Zimbabwe's election fraud

As the Opposition MDC seeks a court order to release the results of the Presidential election, it is worth reading the veteran Southern Africa reporter, RW Johnson's account of the last week's events in today's Sunday Times. Johnson explains how Mugabe was told the likely results last Sunday, and ordered a fraudulent results; how Mbeki's intervention has been about promoting Makoni (a modernist technocrat of whom he approves) over Tsvangirai, whose own reputation is more as a bruiser than as an effective administrator; how the MDC has been as much responsible for delays in the publishing of results as ZANU-PF after uncovering extraordinary discrepancies between the official and locally published results. It is quite extraordinary that the Sunday Times has not highlighted all this on its front page - though perhaps a sign of news values today - but it is by far the most complete account I have read of what has been happening.

The Bank Job

To see The Bank Job last night - albeit some weeks after its release - a much-lauded British crime caper recounting a 1971 bank robbery which rumour suggested was more about keeping some compromising royal snaps from the public glare as it was about emptying the vaults of jewels and cash. Many British films of this sort exude a certain naffness; not in this case. This is an extremely well-crafted caper, with fine performances by Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows and David Suchet and a cracking script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The movie pulls together a number of real events and weaves them with a thick coating of supposition to produce a conspiracy theory worthy of Spooks - and the ubiquitous Keeley Hawes has a role too - but with a good period feel. It is a diverting way to spend a couple of hours.

Saturday 5 April 2008

Steve Sinnott

I was very shocked and saddened to learn of the untimely death of Steve Sinnott, at the age of 56. Whatever my views of the NUT union he led, he was always a decent, straightforward person to deal with. He was particularly influential, for example, in formulating the Steer Committee's proposals on strengthening the right of teachers to discipline pupils, which are now law as part of the 2006 Act. He will be missed. My condolences go to his wife and family.

Friday 4 April 2008

The myth of school playing field sales

Last Sunday's Observer was at it again. Claims that the government has been 'selling off' school playing fields were repeated. These claims have entered the ether as an indisputable 'truth' about Labour's record. And they are bunkum. The first ever protection of school playing fields was introduced in 1998 - it has been tightened further since. Those protections haven't meant no sales, but they do mean that the sale must lead to better sports facilities, something the absurd attacks wilfully ignore. The main critics of school playing field sales in the 1990s have acknowledged that the situation is very different from the Conservative years when 10,000 playing fields were sold. Indeed they have helped to design the tough rules, and Sport England must approve any sales. So, to realise quite how absurd the charges are now, do read all of Kevin Brennan's factual written statement on the subject this week, where he explained precisely how the proceeds of the handful of sales each year of what the Government calls "Areas of Land Capable of Being Used as a Small Sports Pitch" (since many of the sold 'playing fields' are actually overgrown and not used as playing fields at all) are being used.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Where the Democratic race stands now

Another excellent analysis of the US Democratic contest by Andrew Stephen in today's New Statesman. As he notes
....the next primary is on 22 April in the crucial state of Pennsylvania, demographically ideal Clinton country and where polls currently have her 16 points ahead. Should she falter in Pennsylvania, she will be finished - but a strong showing might have a significant effect on how the super-delegates view her ability to win the big, all-important states that matter so much in the general election in November. The alarming news for Obama, in fact, assuming Clinton takes Pennsylvania, is that no candidate in modern times has ever gone on to win the presidency without first being victorious in the primaries or caucuses of at least one of the nation's biggest seven states, which Obama will have failed to do.

The power of philanthropy

I'm delighted to see John Denham enthusiastically taking forward the £200m endowment scheme announced by Tony Blair last year. There is plenty of evidence from the Sutton Trust and others than when similar schemes were introduced in state universities in the United States, they led to a big increase in alumni and philanthropic giving. British universities have often been reticent about turning to their alumni for donations; the new scheme with match-funded on a tiered scale should encourage all to do so, not just the Oxfords and Cambridges which have a reasonable tradition of doing so. If it is a success, improved fundraising could considerably increase higher education income, and the ability of universities to innovate.

A primary concern?

It is, of course, wrong for any state school to imply that a termly donation is expected from parents as a condition of admission. It is also right that children in care should have first call on places in good schools. And the Schools Adjudicator should clamp down where this is not happening. But I am a bit worried about the manner in which the government has chosen to highlight breaches of the admissions code in a host of primary (and some secondary) schools. (Observers will, incidentally, have spotted the absence of academies, which take a genuinely comprehensive intake, in the government's name-and-shame lists). Aside from the handful of Jewish schools asking for donations, the main problem seems to be that the schools have not made clear in their documentation that children in care take precedence over others (something they have been legally required to do since 2005), and there are some failures to comply with special needs legislation. But since local authorities act in loco parentis for children in care, and there is a legal requirement to give them first preference, won't the authority ensure compliance where it needs to, whatever it says in a school's written policy? And wouldn't a better way to deal with such breaches - some of which may result from a misunderstanding of the numerous changes that have been made in recent years - be to send a short simple letter to voluntary-aided and foundation school heads and governors reminding them of their legal responsibilities in such matters - and to provide some model admissions codes for non-local authority schools on the DCSF website? Then ask the adjudicator to check schools have complied for the next admissions round. Appropriate legal action should be taken then if changes are not made.

The problem with turning the issue into a cause celebre is that it alienates many of the good school leaders that this government needs if it is to tackle failing schools and pioneer personalisation. After all, the reason why we established the Office of Schools Adjudicator was to take the heat out of admissions disputes (which were often a proxy in those days for local authority distaste for independent-minded heads), while providing a legally enforceable remedy for breaches of the rules (and it is a myth that legal enforceability only came with the new Code; have a look at the Adjudicator's many rulings on his website if you doubt this). With further proactive powers now being given to the Adjudicator, the schools secretary and his ministers would be wise to let him and his team get on with their job, and then to show the same zeal for improving the 638 low-attaining secondaries highlighted by Gordon Brown last year.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Harriet hits Hague for six

Not only did Harriet Harman, remarkably, have the better jokes at PMQs today, she clearly outshone William Hague as a result. Of course, it helps that expectations for Harman were lowered by the media and Tory backbench gigglers. But those who helped prepare her did their job well and the doyen of parliamentary comedians was left reeling. (Contrary to the BBC's online report of the exchange, Hague did not as I suggested earlier say that Harman was the first woman to do PMQs for Labour (Margaret Beckett did so in 1994 as temporary leader of the opposition) but the first women to answer questions, so I have amended my earlier posting.)

The end of an era for Bertie Ahern and Irish politics

News that the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern is to step down will surprise nobody who has been following the convoluted tribunal investigations into the Taoiseach's murky financial affairs, and many in his Fianna Fail party probably think his resignation should have come sooner; hopefully, after May 6th, Brian Cowen can restore some semblance of purpose to the coalition government. Bertie presided over the good times for the Celtic Tiger, but failed to make the necessary improvements in health and education that the largesse of the boom years allowed; now Ireland is facing the economic chill that has affected the US and Europe. Yet his single greatest achievement, as Jonathan Powell reflects in his new book, was with Tony Blair to the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and for that he deserves great credit - few will forget his returning quickly from his mother's funeral to keep the process on track. Bertie survived 11 years in office, a remarkable stint only matched by Eamon DeValera. Perhaps it was inevitable that as the country's fortunes started to wane, his did too. It is the end of an era not only for Bertie, but for Irish politics.

What Ken needs to do to win

Perhaps as one of those New Labour types whom Ken cheerfully enjoyed smashing into the ground in 2000, I should be sitting this mayoral election out, particularly since I don't have a vote in the capital any more. I helped Frank Dobson win the Labour nomination at the time (though was not part of his mayoral campaign team) fearing that Ken might resort to cronyism, gesture politics and consorting with extremists if he became Mayor, having remembered the less attractive features of the eighties GLC. But while Ken has been his 1980s self to an extent, he has also made a big difference to the capital. The congestion charge has been a success, buses are more frequent, the Oyster card is great, crime is down and the capital will host the 2012 Olympics. True, taxi fares are also utterly extortionate now, but this is a success list any mayor would die for. And one look at his motley crew of opponents, including the charming but utterly unconvincing Boris Johnson, makes it clear that Ken is the only candidate capable of leading the capital. So I hope he takes Jonathan Freedland's excellent advice on how he needs to do it in today's Guardian: debate more, promise this is your last term, offer to hire Brian Paddick, get out the vote and be your cheeky, populist self. He needs all the help he can get.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

The real truth about immigration

After today's Lords' report on immigration, it was good to see the ubiquitous Sir Andrew Green aka Migration Watch having the logic of his arguments properly examined on Channel 4 News tonight. When a First Bus boss explained that her company had to recruit Polish drivers because despite its many training schemes, it couldn't recruit British ones (certainly the case in Bath), Sir Andrew cheerfully suggested raising the fares to pay much higher wages. When the man from the Care Homes Association explained that its wages reflected what councils pay, hence its 30 per cent overseas workforce, pompous Sir Andrew prescribed a hike in council taxes. To what extent their Lordships factored these matters in their deliberations is unclear. But I do hope Sir Andrew's true views are exposed rather more fully in the Daily Mail and on Today in future.

Hillary's lead in the real world

Michael Barone has a fascinating piece on the US News and World Report website which shows that on a winner-takes-all basis, where all delegates were allocated to the winner of states in Democratic primaries, Hillary's lead over Obama would be the same as his over her now. Moreover, confirming the notion advanced here on 7 March that she is winning the electorally viable states, he notes that when the population of her winning states is added up
Clinton's states have 132,214,460 people (160,537,525 if you include Florida and Michigan), and Obama's states have 101,689,480 people. States with 39,394,152 people have yet to vote. In percentage terms this means Clinton's states have 44 percent of the nation's population (53 percent if you include Florida and Michigan) and Obama's states have 34 percent of the nation's population. The yet-to-vote states have 13 percent of the nation's population.
So long as there are no more Bosnia-style gaffes, those are some more very good reasons for super-delegates to vote for Clinton. Do read it in full.

Harriet and that bullet-proof vest

I am no great fan of Harriet Harman (she had my sixth preference in the deputy leadership ballot.) But she doesn't deserve today's ridiculous media fuss about her wearing a bullet-proof vest for a photo opportunity to publicise neighbourhood policing. And the po-faced political correspondents who attack her for it have attended many such photo-ops where politicians donned uniforms in the past, going back to Margaret Thatcher.* So, Harriet should stand her ground, though it won't make PMQs any easier for her tomorrow.
*UPDATE: Danny Finkelstein provides the proof at Comment Central.