Friday 31 October 2008

Alaska's finest

Anyone wondering why Sarah Palin is so popular in Alaska should have a look at what other politicians in the state get up to. This great clip is from Politico's ten worst campaign ads of the current election season in the United States.

Hat Tip: Stephen Pollard.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Let the Tories play to their obvious strengths

David Cameron and his shadow cabinet have been far more effective in venting their outrage at the crass calls made by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand than at advancing a single useful suggestion for dealing with the global economic crisis. Perhaps, rather than entrusting the clearly unprepared Opposition with the nation's governance, they could chair the BBC Trust instead? There is clearly a vacancy at the top there, and one that plays to the Opposition's true interests and strengths.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

The fallacy of citing Google hits

My old friend David Hughes, onetime Daily Mail political editor, has a rather uncharitable piece about John Prescott in today's Daily Telegraph, following his BBC documentary on class on Monday night. I have a higher opinion of Prescott than Hughes, though I also have no doubt that he has a chip on his shoulder about class, but I am more concerned with the error he makes at the start of his piece - it is one increasingly made by columnists seeking to give greater authority to their pieces while appearing in tune with the times. Hughes tells us:
If you Google "John Prescott" and "class", you will get 199,000 results. That's quite an obsession. Showing a hithero unimagined flair for enterprise, Prescott has now decided to turn it into an industry.
In fact, I was told that there were 110,000 hits when I did so. But never mind. When I tried "David Hughes" and "class", I got 51,000 hits. When I did the same for "David Cameron", the total soared to 373,000.

But that is less important than the fact that many of the so-called hits are either repetitious or of little relevance. Indeed, after 360-odd hits in the Prescott list, you are told that the rest have been omitted to avoid repetition. Even then, the hits include details about an American football enthusiast called John Prescott. It used to be said there were lies, damned lies and statistics. Now it seems we must add 'Google results' to the list. Columnists beware.

Student grants should be better targeted

Universities secretary John Denham has had to clawback on the grants regime he introduced shortly after his appointment last year. A family income ceiling of £50,020 rather than £60,000 will be imposed on those getting grants and starting university next year or later. But this still raises a bigger question.

The whole point of the new fees regime is supposed to be that no fees or maintenance costs are repaid until after graduation, and then only as a proportion of income over a minimum level. By extending the grants regime so dramatically last year - so that students from higher earning families get a few hundred pounds - at a time when university applications had defied the critics of fees and risen significantly, Denham was making a costly political gesture.

But it was also a serious strategic blunder in that it undermined government efforts to sell the new loans regime. Denham should revisit the whole grants scheme, and refocus it to provide generous scholarships for poor bright students, especially those who would benefit most from courses at top universities not available near to home, and on students taking up strategically important and shortage subjects. Other resources should be targeted on persuading poorer youngsters to get decent A levels in the first place.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Spare us from the selfish in-flight knee crushers

I empathised with Iain Dale as he endured one of the worst things about long distance air travel on his flight to Israel recently. I am 6' 3" (188cm). And there is nobody in contemporary air travel - not even Michael O'Leary announcing his latest extortionate wheeze - who does more to make flying unpleasant than the selfish moron who insists on tilting his seat back, reducing the standard paltry 31 or 32-inch (78cm) seat pitch by several inches.

The contrast between my recent Iberia flights to and from Latin America could not have been greater. On the way out, despite picking online seats marked as 'emergency exit', I ended up behind an unrepentant knee crusher, who grinned manically as he shoved his seat as far back as possible. The stewardess simply shrugged, and looked at me as if I had demanded a free upgrade to First Class, when asked to help (the crusher was beyond reason). So, for most of the twelve hour flight from Madrid to Buenos Aires, I had to try sitting at strange angles with feet in the aisles - or walk around - since there was no obvious place to put my legs. It took a juicy steak and an excellent bottle of Malbec in the splendid La Posada de 1820 restaurant in Buenos Aires to lift the spirits.

On the way back, flying from Montevideo to Madrid, I had worked out that, unlike British Airways, Iberia releases its seats online at midnight on the day before the flight. The contrast was extraordinary. Not only did I manage to get seats with nobody in front, behind the galley; there was an extra few inches of legroom. Oh what joy! My appreciation of the flight was such that I even enjoyed the in-flight meal and dozed off for a few minutes.

Surely, something can be done to ensure that nobody is obliged to spend a long distance flight in agony and discomfort so that somebody else can tilt their seats back. Airlines should provide no-crush rows where we can do our best to enjoy the meagre 31 inches of space assigned to us without encroachment? If train operators can provide mobile-free train carriages, surely the airlines could manage as much?

Sunday 26 October 2008

The Lake District organisers should pay for their defiance

I am pleased that there appear to have been no casualties from the atrocious weather conditions that hit the Lake District fell run, despite the decision of the organisers to defy the police and go ahead with the event against their advice. I have just been listening to one of the organisers on Channel 4 News explaining that they ignored the advice from the police because they knew better and were 'not children' and numbered 'doctors and lawyers' among their number. Fine. Perhaps the organisers could reimburse the taxpayer for the hundreds of thousands of pounds their clearly superior wisdom has cost the emergency services, the Police and NHS?

Fianna Fail loses the plot - and its political touch

One unexpected casualty of the global economic crisis has been the political sureness of touch of the self-styled natural party of government in Ireland. Ever since Eamon DeValera found a way to overcome his principles to sit in the Dail, despite having to declare allegiance to the British crown, Fianna Fail has been the party where pragmatism and populism have been blended to perfection, to their enormous electoral advantage and the frustrated fury of its opponents.

Bertie Ahern, whose tenure as Taoiseach coincided with Tony Blair's as British Prime Minister, perfected the art. But his semi-forced resignation earlier this year has seen his party take leave of its senses. The bluff former finance minister Brian Cowen has been a disaster as Taoiseach, and his own finance minister Brian Lenihan surprisingly seems to lack his father's political antennae: a tough budget ten days ago - forced by a sharp downturn in public finances - saw them proposing to take away the medical cards of many pensioners aged over 70, forcing them to pay medical bills above €100 a month, and to levy a 1% tax on everyone, even those on the minimum wage (health care is not universally free in Ireland).

The prospect of thousands of irate pensioners descending on Dublin combined with the disbelief of their populist backbenchers and the acute embarrassment of their Green coalition allies to force an almost complete U-turn. But the result has been that Fianna Fail will never again be regarded as the political pacesetters in Ireland. It has reached a low of just 26% in a new poll (against 33% for Fine Gael and 15% for Labour). Irish politics will surely never be the same again. No wonder Bertie broke a leg this week.

Burn after Reading

To see Burn after Reading, the latest offering from the Coen Brothers, at Bristol's indulgent new cinema complex at the city's Cabot Circus centre last night. I have long been a fan of the Coen Brothers, but aside from No Country for Old Men, have found some of their recent offerings to be distinctly below par. This is a cracking return to form. As ever, the plot is zany, inpenetrable and inconsequential, involving a forcibly retired CIA operative (with John Malkovich perfect in the role), his steely wife (Tilda Swinton), her affair with another government figure with a less clear role (George Clooney in best Cary Grant mode) who has a fling with a gym worker (the wonderful Frances McDormand) who discovers the CIA operative's memoirs on disc with her immature co-worker (Brad Pitt) and who then embarks on an attempt at extortion, to the bemusement of the CIA chief (the ubiquitous but underrated JK Simmons). What ensues is an hilarious, sometimes shocking, series of events in a film that is almost as good as O Brother Where Art Thou or Fargo. Do see it.

Friday 24 October 2008

The teachers' case for Key Stage 3 tests

My arguments in favour of keeping the Key Stage 3 tests obviously came to nought. But do read what Oliver Quantrill, a Maths teacher at Lavington School, Wiltshire, has to say on the subject in this week's TES, where his views are carried alongside two other teachers who seem pleased that the tests are gone. I suspect he speaks for a substantial number of his profession.

We will still be doing an internal assessment, as I suspect will most schools, and we will try as hard as we can to make it as formal as possible so we can motivate pupils to take it seriously, get themselves prepared for the start of the GCSE course and give us and them an accurate assessment of their current level in the subject.

The fact that this is no longer an external exam means it will be harder to convince them to take it seriously and we will have less chance of identifying those whose under-performance in lessons might be masking their actual potential. It also means pupils will have less experience of this kind of formal test and so will find the GCSE exams that much more daunting.

We, in our maths department, feel that the maths Sats paper is a good test of abilities....All that happens now is our department will have to put in a significant extra amount of time and effort marking and moderating our own set of papers. Scrapping a good test, which is a reliable measure of a pupil's progress, seems short-sighted.

Ofqual should be raising standards, not telling exam boards to lower them

Schools Secretary Ed Balls established Ofqual shortly after taking up post to reassure the public about exam standards. If a story in today's Times Educational Supplement is to be believed, it is going a funny way about it. The AQA exam board claims it was told to reduce the borderline for a grade C in one GCSE science paper to bring it into line with other exam boards. Shouldn't Ofqual have told the other boards to raise their game instead?

But the bigger issue this raises once again is why the boards aren't allowed simply to set boundaries for exams that everyone can understand: when I did my school exams in Ireland it was 40% for a D pass, 55% for a C, 70% for a B and 85% for an A. I understand all the arguments about why so much effort goes into altering the boundaries after the exam. Yet it ought surely to be possible to decide the boundaries in advance? It would certainly lift the credibility of the exam system in an instant.

Time to revisit state funding of political parties?

As this blog has already noted, the real charge against George Osborne in the Corfu yacht saga is not about the donation that never happened, but the appalling judgment shown by the man who would be Chancellor.

However, as Martin Kettle persuasively argues in today's Guardian, the whole affair once again also raises the question as to why politicians don't bite the bullet and accept more state funding - after all, they already get far more than most people realise.
If we had public funding for political parties, many but not all of these issues would shrivel. Without it we condemn politicians to solicit money from potential supporters and thus to encourage the destructive sanctimony of MPs and writers who make a living out of smugness. Do we really despise politicians so much that we insist they continue to behave in ways that make us despise them more, while refusing to do the one thing that might help us despise them less? If that is so - and it seems it is - it says more about us than the politicians.
The short term hit with public opinion couldn't be any worse than the constant stream of vitriol that they get over affairs such as this.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Obama's strong lead and campaigning strengths

As a supporter of Hillary Clinton, I confess I was sceptical about Barack Obama. I felt he was policy-lite and that he would be scuppered by the Republican attack machine. Twelve days out from the election - with many people already voting - I have to confess I underestimated his strengths.

Obama has proven a resilient campaigner. His calm response to the economic crisis contrasted with the floundering of John McCain. His selection of the dull if gaffe-prone Joe Biden as his running mate has proven a wiser choice than the increasingly divisive Sarah Palin, who has become a figure of fun for independent voters as much as Democrats. In a characteristically powerful piece for Time magazine, Joe Klein explains how those qualities have been melded with a much clearer view of policies. (As Klein says, Obama's book Audacity of Hope was hardly audacious on the policy front.)

Of course, there are still 12 days to go, and one is naturally inclined towards the caution of Jonathan Freedland in yesterday's Guardian. But the polls are very different now: Obama is ten points ahead in Virginia, for goodness sake! He looks the leader that John Kerry never seemed. He has avoided the faux-populism that cost Al Gore the 2000 poll. And the feeble attempts by the Republicans and Fox News to crank up scandals about Acorn voter drives and 60s radical William Ayers just look pathetic, especially given Republican links to Acorn.

Obama has proved himself as the best Democratic candidate since Clinton. If, as seems increasingly likely, he is elected as their first president since then, he will need to show that his policies - and some such as his healthcare proposals need some work - can be put into effect at the same time as managing the aftershock of the financial crisis. And in doing so, he must show a sureness of touch that Bill Clinton lacked in his early days in the White House.

Government must be clearer about its curriculum priorities

Today's news that Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) is to become a compulsory part of the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools shouldn't trouble the majority of schools which provide such lessons in any case. And the fuss over sex education is overdone: the government has been at pains to point out that lessons should be age appropriate, placed in their proper moral context and developed in consultation with parents. Indeed, schools minister Jim Knight has framed the arguments in an exemplary manner.

However, there are two issues where ministers must be clearer.

The first relates to the relative importance being given to different subjects. There is a danger that primary schools that already offer sufficient lessons will feel obliged to offer more, and that literacy and numeracy will suffer in the process. The government must set priorities, or it will repeat the mistakes made when the Primary Strategy was first introduced, which led many schools to downgrade the 3Rs. When Jim Rose produces his review, he should be explicit about this; otherwise his own excellent phonics report could be downgraded. With the recent abolition of Key Stage 3 tests, there is also a danger that some secondary schools could do the same.

And the second relates to parental choice. Will parents still have a right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons they consider inappropriate because of their own religious beliefs? Those lobbying for compulsion have always argued that they shouldn't have this right: but if they don't, won't this just mean more are home schooled in a totally insular environment or sent to mediocre independent religious schools?

Wednesday 22 October 2008

A devastating poll for Cameron

Tonight's YouGov poll for Channel 4 News in 60 key marginals brings not only real signs of a bounce for the Prime Minister, but some very bad news for the flailing leader of the Opposition.

Here are some of the devastating results:
  • The Tory lead over Labour in key battleground seats has reduced from 13 to just five points, with Labour up to 38 points.
  • 59 per cent of voters reckon David Cameron is a 'lightweight' politician.
  • Most voters recognise that the economic crisis is a worldwide crisis, rejecting Cameron's spin that it is all the government's fault.
  • 48 per cent of voters think the Tories haven't a clue what to do in an economic crisis.
  • By 41-27, voters think Brown not Cameron is the man to handle the crisis.
  • Oh, and just 12% of people rate George Osborne as a potential chancellor
It is true that the poll would still give the Tories a majority, albeit a slimmer one, and that the voters are still saying they would prefer Cameron to Brown after the next election. But this is still a remarkable recovery by Gordon Brown, with its direction likely to cause much soul-searching in Tory Central Office.

An indiscreet fool who hasn't grown up: the perfect qualities for a Tory chancellor?

The entertainment provided by the ludicrous saga of the Bullingdon Set at war is tempered by a realisation of what this tells us about the would-be Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.
  • First, he is a fool. Otherwise, why would he have leaked the details of Peter Mandelson's alleged indiscretions when he himself had been behaving rather more badly at the same time? And when the incident was at the private party of someone whose family was vital to Tory fundraising?

  • Second, he is utterly indiscreet. Given that discretion is important for any government minister, especially a Chancellor, this hardly inspires confidence.

  • And third, he hasn't grown up, and still enjoys schoolboy japes. A would-be Chancellor shouldn't be wasting his time dispensing witless gossip.
How any of this makes the man capable of being a Chancellor of the Exchequer at a time when - in the words of the governor of the Bank of England - we are going through a banking crisis as bad as anything seen since the first world war, is beyond me. That David Cameron thinks he is still fit to do so tells is a lot about the Leader of the Opposition.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Denham's training flexibility

Alongside his welcome plans for quick payments by government departments - I hope they are being monitored - today's announcement by John Denham, the skills secretary, contains a very welcome change of heart on training. The Train to Gain programme has been far too inflexible for employers, with an obsession on accrediting level 2 skills. The flexibility promised, including opportunities to take 'bite size units' and second level 2 qualifications, should make it easier for employers to get the courses they need. This follows plenty of lobbying by colleges and employers' organisations. Now, with unemployment set to rise, it is important that training for people to gain new skills independently of employers through personal skills accounts is also given a rapid boost.

A bad hair day for the Tories

Not only are the Tories embroiled in a sleaze scandal of their own making (given their desperate attempts to smear Peter Mandelson) but one of the lies that they have been telling about Labour's record - that it has failed to narrow the gap between rich and poor - has been thoroughly disproved by the OECD. Labour's poll ratings may not yet have improved in some polls, but with Cameron's general feebleness on the economy, the Tories' reputation is taking an overdue battering.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Fox News is more balanced than this sort of British reporting

Here in Buenos Aires we get to choose between the hilarious 'fair and balanced' Fox News and BBC World News for our hotel room coverage of the US election and global finance crisis. But then reading some of the British press coverage of domestic news makes Fox seem like an oasis of objectivity. How can you write a report like this which piles assertion upon assertion without giving the readers one basic independent fact, namely that in 1997, only a third of youngsters got five good grades including English and Maths whereas today it is close to half? I'm not saying they shouldn't run the rest of their spin, but there was a time when the Daily Telegraph {which is not alone in this respect} used to give you all the key facts first. No longer.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

The end of Key Stage 3 tests

The scrapping of Key Stage 3 tests for 14 year-olds was probably inevitable given the recent testing fiasco, and the greater importance now placed on GCSE scores in English and Maths. And, for most schools the tests had ceased to be treated as of great importance. It is important that Key Stage 2 tests are to remain as the only independent tests in primary schools. However, for one group of schools, the tests have been an important barometer: those that are improving from failure. It will be vital that they can continue to access externally moderated measures of their improvement if the drive to turn around failing schools and to establish new academies is not to be pushed into reverse.

Brown's rising stock

There is no doubt that Gordon Brown's stock has risen greatly as a result of his decisive action in the financial crisis. Being abroad and relying more on international news outlets makes this abundantly clear. Today's announcement by President Bush shows that Brown's solution of government buying stock in the banks is the preferred US option too. After a good conference speech and a strong reshuffle, it can surely only be a matter of time before the polls properly reflect this reinvigorated leadership.

The direction of Diplomas

News that only 12,000 students are taking the new Diplomas doesn't greatly surprise me. After all, this blog has consistently warned that a confused message on Diplomas was likely to lead to a low take-up. But this is still very much a trial year, so take of a 'big flop' is wildly premature. So there is still time to refocus the marketing of Diplomas as the strong vocational qualifications which they were always intended to be. And to drop the three academic options. Getting this right is more important than fearing accusations of a U-turn.

Monday 13 October 2008

The value of property

Buenos Aires - To hear a brilliant talk by the great Peruvian economist and intellectual Hernando de Soto at the opening of the International Bar Association conference here last night (my wife, Sarah, is the lawyer). De Soto explained the current financial crisis in terms of property law: when we knew what a bank effectively owned, we knew that there was a legal truth in its assets. With the reselling of sub-prime mortgages, we have no such guarantee. For much of the world, where property ownership remains unclear - it is, apparently, true of 60% of Peruvian land - there is a permanent sub-prime crisis, and economic development is hard to measure accurately. Only when countries have clear property rights can they become developed nations: yet the developed nations have squandered that strength in recent years. De Soto was clear that it is only when we know that banks really own the assets that they say they own can we move beyond our current predicament. It was the most lucid insight into the current situation I have yet heard.

Saturday 11 October 2008

Travelling in Argentina

Iguazu, Argentina - While the world faces global monetary meltdown, we´ve been enjoying some of what Argentina, a country not immune to financial woes, has to offer. After an overnight in Buenos Aires, we headed 1000km west to Mendoza, staying four nights in a delightful vineyard and small hotel, the Finca Adalgisa (pictured). As a base for the surrounding area, it was perfect. We had one day visiting and lunching at local vineyards looking out at the Andes, and another exploring the remarkably verdant city of Mendoza, with its large park and tree-lined boulevards. The Finca is located in the suburb of Chacras de Coria, a 25 peso (five pound) taxi ride from the city centre, but with a rural character all its own. The food - not least the huge succulent steaks - and the local wines are wonderful.

From Mendoza we headed North to the Iguazu falls on the border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Staying at the Sheraton with a room overlooking the falls (as pictured), we spent time in both Brazil and Argentina seeing them from every angle. On the Brazilian side, we enjoyed a boat ride and helicopter trip, as well as several jungle trails, while we took the park train shuttle to the Devil´s Throat (a particularly powerful set of falls) near our hotel and walked several of the trails nearby. The sheer breadth of the falls is astonishing - they are best seen from the Brazilian side and there are plenty of companies offering day trips across the border. From Iguazu, we head back to Buenos Aires later today.

Friday 10 October 2008

An interlude

I'm off on holidays for a few weeks. Regular blogging will resume later in October.

Passing the test?

I have written the cover feature in this week's Public Finance magazine, in defence of national tests. You can read it here.

Monday 6 October 2008

Adonis´s move

Whatever the internal machinations that led to Andrew Adonis being moved from schools to transport, the former´s loss is undoubtedly the latter´s gain. One hopes that Ed Balls is now firmly committed to academies, and that the Tory charges prove groundless. The evidence has certainly been more encouraging in recent months. And I have no knowledge of Sarah McCarthy-Fry´s views on schools - I hope she proves an able minister.

But Andrew´s contribution went far beyond a commitment to academies. He had an instinctive grasp of the important issues in schools policy and understood where Labour should be in those debates. He had a hand in creating the National College for School Leadership, Excellence in Cities and the London Challenge, all of which have helped improve school standards no end. Moreover, he had an eye for detail and a tenacious understanding of delivery, qualities that are all too rare in ministers. It is vital those qualities are not lost in his absence.

Saturday 4 October 2008

Mandelson´s Return

Mendoza, Argentina - Peter Mandelson´s return to the cabinet was on the front of the excellent English language Buenos Aires Herald this morning (though it was being ignored as is usual with UK politics on BBC World News) where we started a fortnight´s trip to Argentina. It is a brave and imaginative move by Gordon Brown, confirming that he has had a new lease of life since his successful conference speech. It is a good idea to bring Margaret Beckett back to a frontline role too, and the promotions for Jim Murphy, Tony McNulty and Jim Murphy are richly deserved. Those predictions of a low key reshuffle were wide of the mark. Brown now needs to ensure he takes the right steps in ensuring the Downing Street machine - and his own ability to delegate - match the sense of surprise and creativity shown in the last few weeks.