Monday 28 December 2009

My top ten lists

This blog may not get the readership of some. But I am impressed that there have been 11,556 unique visitors with 28,843 page views since January 1, 2009. Quite a few of those visitors are regulars too, and I wish you all a happy new year.

For the record, here are the ten most read posts (at least among those accessed directly) during 2009 (some had been written in 2008) and the ten blogs that sent me most readers. The data is drawn from Google Analytics.

1. Field or Bercow: Make a maverick moderniser speaker
2. Eating out in Keynsham
3. Alan Johnson was right to sack Prof Nutt
4. Irish woes
5. Rising above party politics?
6. The death of Fianna Fail?
7. Is the tax rise good politics?
8. Ireland looks at tuition fees again
9. Ireland shows the Tory approach to the recession in action
10. Christmas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

And here are my main sources of traffic, aside from those who come to the site directly, or via Google, AOL or Bing search engines:

1. Hopi Sen
2. Iain Dale
3. Matthew Taylor
4. Bloggers4Labour
5. Total Politics
6. British Blogs
7. Scenes from the Battleground
8. John Rentoul
9. Tom Watson
10. Progress Online

Thanks to all those blogs for mentioning posts or listing this blog in their blogrolls.

Monday 21 December 2009

Eurostar adding insult to injury

"Our strong advice to customers holding bookings in the next few days is only to travel if absolutely necessary," proclaims to hapless Eurostar chief exec Richard Brown in full page ads in today's papers. "If you are holding a booking now and Christmas Eve, we wil happiy refund your ticket." Fat chance - do have a go if you hold a pair of non-refundable tickets as I do and you will be treated to fatuous emails on a par with what it now seems passes for customer service in this outfit. Having forked out for flights - and been speedily reimbursed by German rail for their leg of our journey to Cologne - I don't intend to give up. But given that they want the seats so badly, perhaps they could ensure their website did the job it should?

6.30pm Update: After a lot of fiddling around the Eurostar website, I have found a link here which others messed about by Eurostar might find useful. Of course, it says nothing about those of us due to travel tomorrow, but it does explain how to ensure they pay our bills. I certainly intend to do so. Now I just have to hope that the snow coming down here at Stansted doesn't prevent us making Cologne tomorrow! At least, we seem to be the least affected London airport tonight.

6 FEB Update: I'm pleased to report that Eurostar have finally paid for the cost of our flights and refunded our train fare and an unused London hotel. Once they got their act together in early January, things were much more satisfactory. My letters were responded to by email with promised payments. But there is an object lesson here for other companies in how not only to do the right thing but to be clear from the start that you intend to do so.

Eco-smug to eco-mug Christmas travel

That'll teach me. Last week, as the British Airways strike looked likely to be happenening, I took satisfaction on this blog at having taken the environmentally friendly option of planning to travel by train to Germany this week. I had reckoned without the cretinously inept leadership of Eurostar, and its utter contempt for passengers. Last night, after much prevarication, we settled on a flight to Cologne (where we had planned to break our journey) tomorrow morning rather than waiting until 6pm today to see whether or not Eurostar could be bothered to let us travel early on Tuesday morning. I may have lost some money on the deal, though unlike Eurostar, German railways refunded the Brussels-Cologne leg instantly online, but at least (weather permitting) we have a good chance of getting to Germany tomorrow morning (where we still plan a lengthy German rail journey to Bavaria). Christian Wolmar (as usual) was absolutely spot on in his Today interview this morning about the way Eurostar has handled this whole shambles. They have not only done themselves huge damage, they have set back the cause of rail travel to Europe immeasurably. Heads should roll as soon as this shambles is sorted out. It's back to the plane for winter travel to Europe after this.

In the meantime, Happy Christmas to all my regular blog readers.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Irish woes

DUBLIN - As if the economic woes that public servant friends tell me has led to them taking 19pc effective salary cuts in the past year were not enough, Ireland is gripped by three sordid sex-related scandals this weekend. The fallout from the report into the Dublin Catholic archdiocese's failure to deal properly with its paedophile priests claimed the scalp of the Bishop Murray of Limerick, a fomer Dublin bishop, this week and looks set to bring down several more bishops in the coming weeks, as the Church's position is only saved by the hard-headed realism of the capital's current archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

But, if anything., the scandal is being overshadowed this weekend by reports that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams's brother, also a party activist, allegedly raped his own daughter, and is on the run from the police, giving the Republican chief a mighty headache and questions to answer over what he knew.

Then the small Kerry town of Listowel, home of the late great satirist John B Keane, has come to represent a small-mindedness that the Celtic Tiger was supposed to have changed after a local sex-attacker with good connections gained a strong visible show of support this week from townspeople and a local priest (since forced to resign) after he was sentenced, while his badly beaten victim was shunned for her impertinence in bringing charges.

As the country tries to enjoy Christmas - despite the ludicrous cost of living leading to a boom in border town stores - Irish people are wondering can things be any worse in 2010?

This post has been picked up by Iain Dale.

Friday 18 December 2009

A Serious Man

To see the Coen Brothers' latest film, A Serious Man, last night. One of the brothers' best films, this is a dark comedy about a midwestern Jewish professor Larry Kopnik whose life is beginning to resemble the car crash that occurs during the movie. His wife is leaving him for the insufferable Sy, his students are bribing him, his racist neighbour is making life hell, his rabbis offer trite tales instead of the wisdom he seeks and he faces constant calls from Dick Dutton demanding payment for albums he didn't order from a music club. All this takes place as his son prepares for his Bar Mitzvah, and the film is not only laced with a wonderful sense of time - 1967 - and place, together with an affectionate portrait of the Jewish community with which the Brothers are so familiar. There is uniformly excellent acting, especially from the relatively unknown Michael Stuhlbarg as Kopnik, with great support from Richard Kind as his wayward brother and Fred Melamed as Sy. Not to be missed.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Will class war win Labour a fourth term?

John Rentoul, who continues to illuminate his blog with examples of questions where the answer is 'No', has already gone a long way to deal with the notion that 'class war' will be answer to Labour's problems. Tom Harris does so well today too.

Naturally, those I speak to in No 10 deny that any strategy so crude is under way. And I wasn't alone in celebrating Gordon Brown's recent return to form at PMQs, when he had a few decent jokes about Eton and Cameron's crew. He and Osborne deserve to have their pomposity pricked a bit, and we need more such humour. But as someone who has been a part of Labour politics since the early eighties, I also know that it would be absurd and self-defeating to craft an election campaign around the theme.

That's not to say that there aren't individual actions that can be vote-winners. The PBR attack on bankers' bonuses is believed by Downing Street insiders to explain last week's remarkable council by-election victories. But it is to recognise that Labour will not win by developing absurd dividing lines which place Labour on the wrong side of aspiration. Becoming a party of aspiration was - and remains - the essential insight behind New Labour's continued electoral successes. And it would be absurd to throw it away on the illusion that a greater number of so-called core voters might be persuaded to turn out in May (the idea that there will be a March poll seems fanciful) if they heard the call to the barricades.

Instead, Labour needs to have a much sharper message about what it can do and what it can't do, as well as what it has done. It is understandable that ministers didn't want to reveal the entire departmental budgets ahead of a post-election spending review. And given the uncertainty of the result, it is quite sensible too. Look at what happened when 'priorities' were revealed in defence this week. However, it was a tactical mistake to try to obscure the overall size of likely cuts in the years ahead in last week's PBR statement when it was patently obvious that the IFS would have its own figures within 24 hours. And the government should have been clearer that decisions to raise national insurance or top rate income tax are a temporary and regrettable measure, not a cause for celebration.

At the same time, Labour must do more to highlight its approach to the public services - and its successes which get routinely rubbished by partisan pundits. Despite some criticisms by my friends at Progress, Andy Burnham's health statement last week was a decent attempt to explain a clear approach to NHS reform, even if it was a bit neutered by attempts to please some of the unions. Tessa Jowell has interesting ideas on mutualism. Andrew Adonis is doing remarkable things at transport, showing what Labour should have done ten years ago. Peter Mandelson has grappled the question of university fees and produced a decent plan on skills (just a shame there's no money with it). But elsewhere, the government's approach suffers from a confused message and a perverse willingness to cede ground to the Conservatives on Labour innovations, particularly on schools and academies.

Despite a lot of talk about failures to narrow the gap under Labour, the truth is that chances have been considerably improved for the working classes as opposed to the 'underclass' - those who voted for Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 - with the greatest improvements in health and education for those groups. [See here for example, go to the Excel table 4.1.1]. They might resent the bankers, but they're not interested in class war or dodgy dividing lines (something Cameron could suffer for as much as Labour). But crude attempts to compare the top and bottom 10% social groups don't bring out their improvements. And those voters do want some straight talk from the Labour government that many of them elected, which means an honest appraisal of the last 12 years and an honest assessment of what could be done with a fourth term. And they need to hear it from all the Government.

It may not have quite the same ring to it, but a message to ministers to give it to the voters straight could help bring back many of those who now say they will vote for other parties. It is rather more likely to do so than recreating the Tooting Liberation Front.

A bad day for democracy. Really?

When even Unite's general secretary Tony Woodley thought that the BA unions' decision to strike was 'a bit over the top', it is hardly surprising that the courts have struck down this weird attempt by some in Unite to revive the spirit of Derek Hatton's Merseyside as part of Unite's brotherly internal politics. It may well be the case that Willie Walsh, no slouch in taking on the unions at Aer Lingus in his day, wants to impose rather than negotiate crew levels that are apparently similar to those used by BA staff at Gatwick. But the idea that a 12 day strike, which would cripple the airline and send loyal passengers elsewhere in droves, was the best way to address these issues was absurd. Perhaps the court action will allow some sense to prevail - as well as letting many people enjoy a happy Christmas. And I can't say I'm sorry that my flight back from Munich on 3 January is less uncertain, either.

Monday 14 December 2009

Eco-smug Christmas travel

I have every sympathy with the thousands of passengers who will find themselves stranded by the BA unions' strike vote today. A couple of years ago, we found ourselves caught up in the chaos of a fogbound Heathrow as we got ready for a Christmas trip to Bavaria. Most BA flights to Munich were cancelled. Though our flight did take off, the lack of information, masses of woebegone passengers and shambolic airport management made us vow to avoid Heathrow - and BA - before Christmas in future. So, making the same trip next week, we have taken the eco-friendly option and booked via Eurostar and Deutsche Bahn, stopping in Cologne en route. But, we are due to fly back from Munich by BA - on January 3rd.

Friday 11 December 2009

Labour's PBR council gains

It is often fascinating to compare the Westminster media bubble view with the public reaction to events like the PBR. So, Luke's set of last night's council by-election results, including big swings to Labour in several marginals, is well worth a read. They add to the picture from most recent polls of a swing away from the Tories, which George Osborne's shrill response to the PBR won't have helped. Highlights include three Labour gains, in Dorset, Nuneaton and Hampshire, and big swings to Labour in the Hastings and Rye and Westminster North parliamentary marginals.

Pride and Prejudice

The programme at Bath Theatre Royal reminds us - as if we needed reminding - that Pride and Prejudice is a perennial favourite for film-makers and fillers of the Sunday night TV schedules. So it was brave of Simon Reade to attempt Jane Austen's familiar classic for the stage in this new Bath production. Susan Hampshire plays a nice comic turn as Mrs Bennett, while Peter Ellis is credible as her long-suffering husband. The production is split into 18 quick changing scenes with members of the 17-strong cast filling in as trees and statues to provide some light relief along the way (shades here of the recent 39 Steps production). From there, the verdict must be more mixed. Newcomer Katie Lightfoot is excellent as Lizzie, Tom Mothersdale plays Mr Collins with appropriate absurdity, and Carolyn Pickles is a suitably sinister Lady Catherine de Bourgh. But other members of the cast suffer from their lack of acting experience: Nicholas Taylor's boyish Darcy inevitably draws comparisons with Colin Firth. Still, it is a credible attempt to dramatise the Austen novel, and it was well-received by the predominantly female Bath audience.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Just 18% of NUT members back their union's planned test boycott

The Guardian reports the humiliating lack of interest among NUT members in the SATs boycott that has had Ed Balls and Michael Gove scrabbling to appease the teaching unions. Apparently, only 25% of NUT members bothered to vote, and 75% of them wanted a boycott. In other words, just 18.5% of NUT members felt strongly enough about the issue (that teaching union leaders say is top of teachers' agendas) to support the boycott which would damage children's education and futures. If the NUT doesn't now abandon its efforts to obscure schools that fail their pupils, ministers - and their Tory shadows - must stand up to their silliness and robustly defend the only externally marked tests that pupils are required to sit in primary school as a vital measure of accountability. We should hear no more about replacing tests with teacher-marked assessments whether at the end of primary or the start of secondary school.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Budget balance

Doubtless there will be plenty of grumbles about today's pre-budget report in the days ahead. Some will say that the cuts should be deeper - though a 0.8% increase a year for two years is pretty deep, especially once the welfare budget is considered - while there will be complaints about the national insurance rise. But the real problem for the Tories is that the more they rant, the less they tell us about what they would really do instead. I've just been watching shadow chief secretary Philip Hammond on Sky News who had nothing but rhetoric to contribute to the debate. Indeed, what impressed most about the PBR speech was the unflashy authority of Alastair Darling, whose stature has grown greatly in the financial crisis, which compared starkly what the shrill response of George Osborne, who has experienced a big dip in his reputation by calling it wrong last year. The idea that Osborne could be allowed to let his economic ignorance loose on the economy in six months time is something that really ought to worry the markets.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Pots and Kettles

Gordon Brown gets the better of David Cameron at PMQs for once, with a few decent jokes at Dave's expense. And this is 'petty and spiteful', whines the Tory leader. Yet most weeks, Dave regales the House with the pettiest most spiteful gossip about the PM from the week's press. Pots and kettles, anyone?

Friday 4 December 2009


Today's Daily Telegraph editorial repeats the lie that standards in health and education have got worse under Labour, claiming that this amounts to a 'betrayal' of voters. Really? In health, waiting times are down to an 18-week maximum, where 18 months was common in 1997. A&E waits are down to four hours and trolley crises have disappeared. In education, just 52% of primary pupils got a level 4 in both English and Maths in 1997. This year, despite a small drop, 72% did so. In secondary schools, there were 1600 - or half of all secondary - schools in 1997 where fewer than 30% of pupils gained five decent GCSEs including English and Maths. This year there were just 270. There are over 1500 new schools built and lots of new hospitals and GP centres.

The argument on 'education productivity' is ludicrous. Using the definition favoured by ONS it would be possible to achieve greater educational productivity by increasing class sizes (which have fallen) and by replacing experienced teachers (whose numbers have grown) with classroom assistants. Had the Labour government done so, it would indeed have been guilty of betrayal. And, incidentally, if the Tories increase surplus places to allow new schools, they will find that it may increase choice, but it will also probably reduce 'productivity'.

Choice advice needs to improve

I've written a column for today's TES arguing that more needs to be done to ensure that disadvantaged parents get better independent advice on school choice:

The chief schools adjudicator Ian Craig made headlines last month when he proposed a crackdown on parents lying to get a place in a good school. And Schools Secretary Ed Balls was quick to propose fines and other sanctions for the wrongdoers.

But they both appeared to ignore an equally worrying issue, even though it also featured in the adjudicator's annual report: poor choice advice.

Disadvantaged families have been missing out on the help they need to get their preferred school. This failure to engage the families who need the most support has grown apparent under Labour, but it also risks undermining the Conservatives' plans to open the system up to new schools.

Choice advisers were one of three measures introduced in Tony Blair's controversial schools white paper in 2005 which were intended to ensure that, as new academies and trust schools were established, they were accessible to children from poorer homes. Along with greater flexibility in free school transport (since 2008, it applies to a choice of three schools, not just that deemed acceptable by the local authority) and an admissions code that encouraged random selection or lotteries and ability banding, choice advisers were meant to be advocates for those without the pushy elbows.

Without such measures, parents might fall foul not only of fraud by other families, but also the inbuilt unfairness of an admissions system that too often reflects the size of the family mortgage. I was Blair's adviser at the time, and we always recognised that choice advisers should be wholly independent of the local authority; ideally they should include people drawn from the communities that needed help, including the white working classes and some minority ethnic communities.

I had been particularly struck, for example, by the success of a young Somali woman graduate in persuading Muslim mothers in a Bristol school of the value of their daughters continuing in education after their GCSEs. And I'd spoken to parent support workers from the voluntary sector who made a real difference to how parents related to their children's education in east London.

The good news in Dr Craig's report is that all but one local authority now provide choice advice. Moreover, many have linked them to other parent or family information services, giving them a degree of independence, though limited funds. And local authorities believe the advisers are doing a good job helping parents navigate the applications timetable.

The bad news is that the service is too often poorly targeted. As Dr Craig says: "Some (local authorities) have found it difficult to prioritise the most 'needy' ... consequently, those who would benefit the most have not necessarily received the level of support that they otherwise might, and the choice advice service is not maximising its contribution to fairness."

To be fair, the best authorities do inform people of the service, placing leaflets in supermarkets, children's centres and doctors' surgeries. Some have public sessions at shopping centres, and many are happy to visit parents in their homes.

But the service is inevitably hampered by time constraints and anxieties that suggest many of the advisers are not being drawn from the communities themselves. A significant number would not attend an appeal hearing, fearing "blame" if parents lost their appeal. A separate analysis by academics from Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, suggests that where local authorities used arms-length parent partnerships to deliver choice advice, rather than basing them in existing admissions teams, they received "more in-depth support and guidance", often including "repeated home visits" and joint school visits. The report said that when choice advice is well targeted and staffed, it can play a "small but important part in making the admissions process fairer and easy to navigate".

Critics of choice advice - and school choice generally - say it is a poor substitute for making every school a good school. It isn't - we need to do both. But even if that happens, some schools will still be better than others, and may offer different strengths or facilities. And with the academies programme being extended and Conservative plans to allow new providers to develop new primary and secondary schools, poorer parents will need such support more than ever.

Of course, not all parents will want to share the angst of the metropolitan middle classes. The Sheffield researchers noted that for many favouring their local catchment school, "accessibility and their child's happiness were more important than the educational performance of schools". Choice advisers can only advise them of their options.

Yet, while the middle classes make the most of what choices are available to them - including opportunities to work with new providers where there is dissatisfaction with local schools - it is vital that such advice is available, impartially and from trusted sources. Once parents have the advice, they must get the support they need if they want to apply beyond their local school.

But so long as schools only offer places to those in an immediate catchment area, the choices for many others will remain limited. A real success of academies has been in attracting a genuine social mix, either with banding or lotteries or because they are located in poorer areas. Other good schools should be encouraged to open some of their places up to a wider cross-section of families.

So, Ed Balls should do more to encourage all authorities to follow best practice and encourage genuinely fairer admissions. His Tory shadow, Michael Gove, should stop pretending that without the right support and open admissions policies, his plans for a Swedish-style system will do much to improve social mobility. Unless politicians get admissions policies and advice right, the poorest pupils will only enjoy Hobson's choice.

Thursday 3 December 2009

False dividing lines

I have this column in today's Independent, arguing that the 'choices' being presented on schools by Ed Balls and Michael Gove represent false dividing lines, but there are areas of real difference where both politicians should be challenged.

The Queen's Speech was all about dividing lines. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, suggested huge differences with his Tory shadow, Michael Gove, over their policies on school diversity. Mr Gove happily joined in, contrasting his plans with those of his opponent.

Both are happy to characterise their opposite number as the devil incarnate – Balls the arch-centraliser, undermining academy independence, or Gove the arch-privatiser, who would ignore the plight of the weakest schools. Of course, there is a grain of truth in the charges. Mr Balls has tweaked academy independence, forcing co-operation with local authorities. But he has not changed their fundamental character, and has expanded their number to 200, with 100 more due to open next year.

Mr Gove does want Swedish-style independent state-funded schools, promoted by parents and school chains. But they would be not-for-profit and he would turn the 100 worst schools into academies, a policy similar to the Balls idea of forcing change on schools where at least 30 per cent of pupils don't get five good GCSEs.

Indeed, Mr Gove would probably be able to achieve his main aims through existing
legislation introduced by Labour, which already promotes competition for new schools and is intended to empower parents unhappy with existing school choices. That explains why the main legislation he cited for a Tory government's first Queen's Speech was an extension of teachers' powers to confiscate, and an abolition of the exclusion appeals panels that send just 60 out of 8,000 excluded pupils back to their schools each year.

By exaggerating each other's differences on discipline and diversity they are misleading the public and are in danger of underestimating the weaknesses of their own policies. By doing so, they could be threatening their own success.

One big spur for recent improvement has been floor targets, including the expectation that at least 30 per cent of pupils in a school achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths. With similar challenges to primary schools, a swathe of poorly performing schools has improved. Where 1,600 secondary schools fell below the GCSE threshold in 1997, only 270 do so today. And while the pressure was most effective with poor performers, comprehensives at 70 per cent or above have doubled in the same period.

While other targets may have been crude – and with the Treasury's help, certainly too numerous – floor targets have been Labour's greatest success. Yet instead of extending this challenge, Mr Gove would abandon it, making it harder to judge the success of his policies on replacing failing schools or extending competition. This is a real dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives. And it deserves to be highlighted more than the supposed dangers of their Swedish schools policy.

Indeed, by acceding to the Tories' false dividing lines on diversity, Labour is in danger of ceding its big education successes to them. Academies are a Labour innovation. A big reason for their success – their results improve twice as fast as other schools – is their independence from local authorities.

This doesn't mean academies don't want to work with their local councils, rather that
any partnerships with them would be stronger because both parties are engaged voluntarily. Indeed some of the strongest community work I've seen has been in academies. Tony Blair recognised this when he extended foundation and introduced
trust schools, which though funded through councils, own their own buildings and employ their own staff.

But while both academies and trust schools have expanded since Mr Balls became Schools Secretary, he has also tried to force rather than empower co-operation. Instead of extending such bureaucracy, Labour should be outflanking the Conservatives in their support for independent academies. And instead of exaggerating differences, the Conservatives should start to explain how we might judge the success of their schools policy – with goals based on exam results, not just the number of new schools. Doing so would serve schools, parents and pupils much better than the false choices being served up by both parties at the moment.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Game, set and match to Brown

The polls must be getting to David Cameron. He was hopeless at PMQs today, having got his facts wrong last week. And Gordon Brown was on witty sparkling form. Whatever is now in the water at No 10, the PM needs to drink more of it. And whoever is crafting his lines deserves a medal. Dave can't afford a third outing as hopeless as this for him.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

A Scottish tale of broken promises, localism and wishful thinking

A delicious cautionary tale from North of the border, as Scottish education minister Fiona Hyslop is demoted for the failure of the SNP's class size policy. Local authorities were given cash to employ more teachers to cut primary class sizes for younger pupils to 18. But being good localists, the SNP let them spend the money as they wished. They even drew up a vacuous agreement with the Scottish local authorities' association, COSLA.

Funny enough, the councils had other plans for the cash. The result: a fall in teacher numbers of 1,348 over the last year, more embarrassment for Alex Salmond and Ms Hyslop forced to spend more time visiting art galleries. To be fair, the average class size in primaries did fall - from 23.2 to 23.1 but as the BBC reported, 13.2% of P1-P3 pupils were in class sizes of 18 or fewer, a figure which was unchanged from 2008.

When Labour cut infant class sizes to 30 or below in its first term, it did so by a combination of legal sanction and intensive monitoring of every authority with large class sizes. Ministers knew exactly which schools were not meeting the pledge. Money was directly targeted to those schools. Even then, the need to allow flexibility on in-year entry means that up to 20,000 infants (compared with 450,000 in 1997) will find themselves in an over-large class in any given year. This approach may seem unduly centralist - but it was the only way that politicians could keep a promise so specific. And the literacy and numeracy strategies were probably rather more important to standards.

As the 2010 election approaches, voters should ask politicians south of the border when they promise simultaneously to free schools and impose more traditional teaching and rules on all pupils, how exactly they plan to square the circle?

Primary results

In 1997, just 53% of pupils reached level 4 - the 'average' standard created by the Conservatives that David Blunkett decided should be Labour's ambitious expectation - in the national tests at 11 in English and Maths combined. This year, 72% reached that standard, according to the latest performance tables published today.

What that means is that a Government which the right-wing press insists has 'failed' on education has presided over a situation where 110,000 more pupils achieved the expected standard this year than would have done so had results peaked in 1997.

There has been a small dip this year - probably as a result of a toughening of standards with the removal of the borderlining process - but improvements have been slow generally in recent years. So, the government - and the opposition - should not lose sight of the need to focus as much attention on poorly performing primaries as it does on weak secondaries, particularly in the crucial Key Stage 1 years.

There is a real danger that schools lose focus on the basics with the demise of the literacy and numeracy strategies, unless proper kitemarked alternatives - that include synthetic phonics - are introduced. Where a primary is failing, it must be open to takeover by a stronger school or academy. And there must be no let up in independent testing, floor targets (minimum standards) or the publication of results. If we are to see more primary progress, these are the basics that matter.

Monday 30 November 2009

Statistical niceties

It is right that Dr Foster highlights the differential death rates for hospitals. And it is also right to highlight any disparities between their findings and those of the hospitals inspectorate.

However, it is noticeable that one important fact, buried in the Observer report, has been studiously ignored by the BBC and most follow-up reports:
Overall, the hospital standardised mortality ratio (the actual number of deaths against the expected number) fell by 7% last year. That means 14,500 saved lives.
Of course poorer hospitals should do better for those patients who experience sub-standard safety and cleaning, and on the finding that across the system, to quote the Observer again:
5,024 people died after being admitted for "low-risk" conditions such as asthma or appendicitis, of whom 848 were under 65. A proportion of those deaths will be linked to safety errors.
But is it too much to ask for some context in reporting the whole story?

This post has been picked up by John Rentoul.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Tories,bureaucracy and extremist schools

I hold no truck for Hizb ut-Tahrir. I would certainly share Tony Blair's instincts that they should be banned. But they are not. Nor is there any evidence that the organisation is running two independent schools in Slough and Haringey which receive state funding under the government's under-fives programme that has relied largely - as apparently will the Tories' new schools programme - on the private and voluntary sectors for expansion. David Cameron and Michael Gove have been condemning the Government for funding these schools.

Yet Tory spokesmen win applause from headteachers pledging that the Tories' new schools will be funded with the minimum of bureaucracy, sweeping aside most current checks. I'm all in favour of cutting bureaucracy and slashing the size of DCSF circulars - I spent many an hour trying to do so when I worked in the old education department.

But some bureaucracy does have a purpose. For example, Ofsted currently looks at what a state school does to promote community cohesion as well as teaching, behaviour, leadership and attendance, a measure introduced precisely to ensure that state funding does not go to sectarian or cultish religious schools. The curriculum includes citizenship - following a review in which Lord Baker was prominent - to promote democracy and create a common sense of identity. No longer, apparently, if the Tories have their way. And I'm not aware of any Tory plan for a more rigorous inspection of independent schools; if there is one, perhaps they could share it with the sector.

How exactly can the Tories guarantee us that they will not fund a school run, say, by a group of Muslim parents where some people suspect a hidden promoter but cannot prove it, under their free-for-all? Either they will have proper (bureaucratic) checks or they will not.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Shooting the messenger

I have written this post about today's Ofsted annual report and the attendant controversy around inspections for the Public Finance blog:

Today’s Ofsted annual report has both good and bad news. There has been a substantial increase in the number of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools – the equivalent of 1800 extra good schools in three years – but there remains a stubborn group where teaching is poor.

More needs to be done to improve literacy and numeracy at every level. And an increasing number of local authority children’s services departments is rated inadequate. Some of the problems being highlighted have been the focus of earlier reports. But the evidence is also that the focus of accountability – and independent inspection – is making things better.

Yet this year’s report has been accompanied by an unusually loud chorus of criticism from those who see themselves as the victims of Ofsted. The Local Government Association complains that the inspectors look for trouble too much. The National Union of Teachers says it doesn’t give schools that don’t get decent overall GCSE grades top marks even if they do well on the government’s value added measure. And the Association of Directors of Social Services thinks that the inspectors have got too tough, and that’s making it harder to recruit social workers.

One reason why the criticism is louder is that Ofsted inspects much more now than before. As well as schools, its role extends to nursery education and childcare, further education colleges, training providers, children’s social services and local authority children’s services departments. And the current chief inspector Christine Gilbert inherited an inspection regime where enforced efficiencies led to more reliance on data and less on classroom or frontline observation.

Those systems are changing. School inspections since September include more of what happens in the classroom. And together with spot inspections, inspectors talk more to social workers than before. Even so, data can reveal truths too. I doubt many parents would think a school – no matter how challenging its intake – could be deemed ‘outstanding’ if 75% of its pupils failed to meet the basic GCSE benchmark.

Of course, there is a legitimate debate about the government’s decision to merge so many children’s services and education functions, and on the weight given to the Every Child Matters objectives that are now part of the inspection mix. But the bottom line is that Ofsted remains an invaluable asset because of its independence and its willingness to act without fear or favour. And its findings can still make uncomfortable reading for governments as much as they do for some schools and service providers. Which is as it should be.

In the end, today’s detailed annual report throws a far clearer light on the strengths and weaknesses of many of our public services than the special pleading of those who should focus on their own improvement – rather than shooting the messenger

Sunday 22 November 2009

The height of hypocrisy

The Sunday papers are full of sanctimonious twaddle about the choice of the Belgian prime minister and Baroness Ashton for the two top European jobs, heaping blame on Gordon Brown for failing to do something or other that is not entirely clear, given that Britain still won one of the top jobs despite their unpatriotic efforts effectively to promote Benelux federalists over the outstanding British leader of recent times. Has there ever been a clearer example of people ignoring the consequences of their own position? Given that these newspapers - shamefully abetted by the Conservative front bench - actively campaigned against the one British figure who could have brought real relevance to the Presidency of the EU, isn't a morning of silent embarrassment the least we could expect in atonement for own culpability in the outcome?

Saturday 21 November 2009

The Pitmen Painters

To see the wonderful National Theatre production of Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters last night. Max Roberts' production of the story of a group of Northumberland miners whose artistic talents were unleashed thanks to a combination of the Workers Educational Association and an academic art teacher from Durham University, Robert Lyon, who believed in them makes for great theatre and a splendid mix of comedy and tragedy. The group saw their work displayed in galleries during the 1930s and found themselves feted by the art establishment. Of course, there were tensions with their new-found fame, and the clash between a belief in tight-knit community values and an aspiration to get on in the world are well explored, with aspiration the loser or community values the winner depending on your perspective. The staging is splendid with overhead projections of the paintings and art blended with an otherwise simple stage that is perfect for the many scene changes. The cast is great, and while the author is keen to bemoan the failings of post-war Britain to embrace socialism, the real loss is perhaps the spirit of auto-didactism that inspired such a culture of learning and inquiry. The Bath audience cheered the cast into four well-deserved encores. I can easily see why this play won so many awards. It is back in London soon, and is well worth seeing.

Friday 20 November 2009

Balls should put children's futures before the teaching unions

Until yesterday, Ed Balls had commendably resisted attempts by the teaching unions to scrap accountability, by refusing to abolish testing and league tables. Yesterday, he announced pefectly reasonably that teacher assessment results would be published in league tables alongside test scores. What was unreasonable was his suggestion that Key Stage 2 tests could go, in a shameful attempt to curry favour with the teaching unions.

Primary schools face one set of external tests. They are vital for parental confidence, Ofsted inspections and public accountability. Doubtless many of the assessments will match the test scores, which is as it should be. But if the system becomes entirely self-policing, the dynamics would change considerably. There would be no real pressure to achieve in the basics, and this will particularly hurt boys' achievement in English. It will also hurt standards in primary education, where accountability has been important in the improvements over recent years.

I have been critical of Michael Gove's proposals to shift the tests to the start of secondary school, partly because it too was an attempt to appease the unions, but also because it would delegitimise the results as secondary teachers have an interest in marking down pupils at the start of secondary (Gove has since suggested that he would probably go for external marking). Both Balls and Gove should make clear their unequivocal support for externally set and marked national tests, and stop putting the interests of the teaching unions ahead of children's futures and school standards.

This post was quoted in the TES.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Playing politics with the law

Michael Gove has been on Today bemoaning the level of 'electioneering' in today's Queen's Speech, suggesting that such tactics would have been beyond previous Prime Ministers. I presume Michael was having a laugh. Otherwise, I must have been dreaming when John Major invented 'a grammar school in every town' just ahead of the 1997 election - the policy Michael and David Willetts have wisely binned - and extended assisted places in their last legislation as a way of creating silly dividing lines with Labour on education (which we managed to turn to our advantage with a policy of cutting infant class sizes instead).

In fact, today's measures are surprisingly strong for a government that is supposed to have run out of steam. The new national care service blueprint is a long overdue way of addressing a major concern for many families. The earlier guarantee of an 18-week waiting time for treatment shows how far the NHS has come since 1997, and matters hugely to patients, but it does challenge the BMA spokesman and part-time shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley who would happily see waiting times back at eighteen months, if it kept his consultant chums happy. The parent and pupil guarantees may be more reflective of what already exists, but they are an important statement of measures that matter. And the commitments on fiscal responsibility answer the charge that the Government is not ready to cut the deficit. There is no reason why the Tories should oppose any of them - or object to their introduction.

However, when Michael Gove told us what crucial legislation he was planning, the best he could do was to declare more powers of confiscation for headteachers. Since heads have had significantly extended powers in this area under Labour, it is doubtful these are quite as crucial as he pretends. The measures he wants could probably be introduced through secondary legislation or ministerial guidance. But then if he is elected, he will want to have a first education bill to give the impression that he is 'changing' things 'radically'. How shocking it would be to see such blatant politicking with legislation and Her Majesty's precious time.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Dave's Euro man wants Euro-taxes

With William Hague telling Euro-leaders not to back Tony Blair for the Presidency of Europe, it is instructive to read the considered thoughts of his most serious rival, Herman Van Rompuy, who one assumes to be David Cameron's preferred candidate in the absence of any loony right-wingers from Eastern Europe in the running. According to today's Times, Dave's man wants to see new European taxes. It is no wonder that the well-informed Ben Brogan is urging a small wager on Tony Blair winning through. With 4/1 available at Paddy Power, it doesn't sound like bad advice.

Monday 16 November 2009

Saying sorry for history

There is a lot of predictable disdain about plans by Gordon Brown to apologise on behalf of the British state for the appalling way in which child migrants to Australia were treated. I first learnt of their story when David Hinchliffe was part of our shadow health team in opposition in the mid-nineties, and was working with the Child Migrants Trust to lead a parliamentary drive to get them greater recognition.

And watching the joy on the faces of so many of those who were at Kevin Rudd's apology in Australia, there can be no doubt that Brown should do the same here. There are parallels with the extent to which the abuses of some Catholic clerics - and the cover-ups of church and state - are being painfully but necessarily brought to light in Ireland and elsewhere.

Acknowledging recent historical wrongs matters. In Ireland, Kevin Myers has long campaigned for proper recognition of the soldiers from the South who fought - and often died - for Britain in the two world wars. News that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been able properly to commemorate their sacrifice at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, and that Sinn Fein has joined in ceremonies to honour them in Northern Ireland is a sign of political maturity, as Myers acknowledged in a powerful piece in the Irish Independent last week. [Hat tip: Slugger]

Of course, the sneerers say that governments are far slower to apologise for 'wrongs' today. If by that, they mean decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, or economic decisions taken in Ireland, the difference is that such subjects are widely debated and the topic for many inquiries and court cases. Few heard of the child migrants - or spoke publicly about clerical abuses - until the 1990s, and few in Ireland wanted to honour those who died particularly in the Second World War until President Mary Robinson started to mark Remembrance Day. Yet by accepting past mistakes and omissions, governments not only validate the experiences of those involved, they also set clearer parameters for the future.

Friday 13 November 2009

Labour's Glasgow win has lots of silver lining

I'd forgotten how it used to sound waking up to the Today programme announcing a comfortable Labour victory, as occurred last night in Glasgow North East. Congratulations are due to the team involved and to the new Labour MP, William Bain. As well as being a Labour victory, there's plenty more to savour in the result. The pretty poor SNP score - a sobering result for Alec Salmond with barely a fifth of the votes. The Tories barely holding their deposit. And the Lib Dems getting 474 votes, less than either the BNP or Tommy Sheridan in his latest party, Solidarity. This was also a particularly dire result for the Jury Team of no-policy independents, which had fielded the Glasgow Airport hero John Smeaton. Running on what might be called the Esther Rantzen ticket, he got just 258 votes. There's hope for politics yet, even if last night's result proves to be a rare piece of good news for Labour.

Joan Baez in Salisbury

There is something slightly surreal in seeing a giant of the 60s folk revival playing to a crowd of 800 in the city hall in Salisbury. But it proved a great venue in which to see a still feisty and inspiring Joan Baez on Wednesday night. She says she has never been happier doing concerts than now, and it shows. I've been going to Baez concerts over the last two decades, and she has never been better than in her more recent ones. Having missed her in Bristol, it was a pleasant surprise when she added Salisbury to her tour. She went through a phase of trying to jazz up her act with rock numbers that never quite worked. Now, over two hours without interval, she combines more effective newer numbers, from her latest CD produced by Steve Earle (of The Wire fame) with a brilliant rendition of old standards like Farewell Angelina, Baby Blue, Deportee and Long Black Veil. Sometimes she does these with minimum accompaniment, which is when she is at her best, but this time she was joined by an excellent group of musicians who gave her act the folk feel it deserved. With an encore of Blowing in the Wind and The Night they Drove ol' Dixie Down, she brought a hugely appreciative audience to their feet. True, her voice is not quite what it was, though it remains remarkably pure, and she missed the odd line, but for someone who recorded her first album in 1959, a night with Joan Baez is still an evening to remember.

Monday 9 November 2009

Berlin Twenty Years On

It is hard to believe that it is twenty years since the Berlin Wall came down. But its legacy can be seen throughout an Eastern Europe that has been transformed since, in no small part thanks to the openness of the European Union to countries in the region. I spent over a week in old GDR in 1985, with a Quaker group, where we combined the obligatory visits to the propaganda ministry and those implementing Dresden's ten year plan with far more enlightening evenings in the company of East German Quakers.

There was no hint then that the whole edifice of the GDR might be about to tumble. But one was struck by the appetite of those one met for the wider world. Clearly well-educated, they wanted to read and experience more than their censors would allow, and they devoured that which was permitted. A charming retired history teacher in Dresden, who proved an excellent guide to the city's splendid art collection, had managed to retain a sense of humour despite having had to teach her subject in the Nazi and Communist years. She kept her sanity listening to BBC broadcasts and watching West German news bulletins that the authorities tried to distract people from viewing by screening BBC Miss Marple episodes against them. Even then, among religious people, there were some signs of the struggles that would give birth to New Forum and the ultimately successful church-led protests that led to the fall of the Wall. But these were small scale efforts to avoid the humiliations that often came with trying to keep a faith in a society where it was officially discouraged.

Leaving the virtually deserted streets of East Berlin, with their feel of the 1950s, to take the U-bahn into West Berlin after ten days on that side of Iron Curtain was a profoundly strange feeling. Little did we know that within four years the ghastly security apparatus that divided the city would come tumbling down. Two years ago, when I took my first trip back to the city since 1985, it was great to see how much had changed, and what had not been shown on that first visit, particularly the way the TV tower shows a cross at certain times of the day that furious GDR officials had never been able to eliminate. True, there was a bit of Ostalgie in the fascinating GDR museum, but there was much more the sense of a city that is going places again, and is far more than just the political capital of a united Germany. Today's celebrations are significant not just because of what they mean to Berlin, but because of what they signify for a Europe that is no longer divided by the grotesque stitch-up that followed Yalta.

Bright Star

To see Jane Campion's new film on the last years of the poet John Keats' s life, Bright Star. Based on Andrew Motion's biography, the film tells of his love for Fanny Brawne, his neighbour's daughter in Hampstead and how that affected his life before TB took him to Italy for a forlorn cure and his untimely death. Abbie Cornish carries the film as a hugely impressive Fanny, and there is much to like in the beautiful filming and poetry recitals. But Ben Whishaw fails to spark as Keats and Bright Star suffers from a tediously ponderous first half that is not entirely mitigated by the narrative strengths of the film as events move towards their tragic conclusion.

Personal letters

There is something hugely distasteful in the Sun's exploitation of a mother's grief this morning to take a political pop at Gordon Brown. It would surely have been far easier for the PM to have topped and tailed a typewritten letter that had been properly spellchecked by his staff.

Because he has decided - honourably - to write the letters himself in a handwriting that Sun journalists and editors must know to be authentically his, down to the poor spelling, we are treated to an excruciating example of the lobby at its worst. Gordon has never had Tony Blair's sureness of touch in dealing with such matters. But on this occasion, he was trying to do the right thing. As Iain Dale says, we should cut him a little slack for that.

Friday 6 November 2009

The Caretaker

To see a magnificent performance by Jonathan Pryce as the tramp in the Liverpool Everyman production of Pinter's The Caretaker, in Bath this week. The semi-absurdist play, apparently based on Pinter's own experiences of some neighbours in a Chiswick flat, has echoes of Beckett as the tramp and the eccentric brothers play out a series of farcical episodes after Aston, who has a history of mental illness brings home Davies to live in a dilapidated London flat with himself and his volatile brother, Mick. The resulting combination of the tramp's snoring and 'stink' combined with the odd behaviour of the two brothers combine to produce many comic moments. But behind it all are the best intentions never fulfilled - Davies always talks about going to Sidcup for his papers; Mick dreams of importing interior design into the squalid flat. It was Pinter's first big success, and is shown to great effect in this splendid revival.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Pooter Kelly is not the fount of all wisdom

I've just been wading through Sir Christopher Kelly's £339,000 examination of MPs' expenses. On most main recommendations, despite an often Pooterish pettiness, he is probably broadly right, and MPs need to bow to public opinion. But it is only when one starts to consider the detail that questions arise. That is why he should not be so arrogant as to assume that the new independent agency shouldn't look again at some of his ideas. It most certainly should.

Phasing out of mortgage subsidies is reasonable. MPs shouldn't make a profit from their London accommodation. And, a £1250 a month cap on rent works if an agency does negotiate some deals, and just about covers the costs of a furnished flat South of the river, provided, as Kelly proposes, council tax and utilities bills are treated as extra. The £120+VAT nightly cap on London hotel bills is also probably manageable. It would at least meet John Mann's Travelodge test.

But this doesn't stop some petty-minded silliness creeping in. Instead of providing an agency cleaner, perhaps supporting a fortnightly two-hour cleaning of a flat, costing around £500 a year, MPs are imperiously informed that
the difficulties of maintaining a clean home while working long hours are not unique to MPs. Should MPs wish to maintain the services of cleaners the Committee does not think it unreasonable to expect them to meet these costs out of their salaries, as others do.
Yet these are not their main homes, and 'others' do not generally maintain two homes, certainly not on a salary half that of many senior civil servants. Presumably those opting for hotels should deduct a sum to cover cleaning costs in their rooms? No less petty is the abolition of subsistence allowances for MPs renting rather than staying in hotels.

Kelly is right to scrap second homes for outer London MPs and those on the fringes, but with the welcome proviso that accommodation is covered for late night sittings. But here the obsession with detail becomes confused. There is a recognition that getting home in 60 minutes is about more than the train journey. The independent regulator will apparently draw up 'a definitive list of constituencies covered'. Does this mean that MPs who live elsewhere in a rural constituency - or who replace someone on the 'definitive list' should move close to the railway station to meet the regulator's requirements?

Fair enough to get MPs to publish what they spend on travel. But, it doesn't always follow that a first class rail ticket is absurdly expensive. A Sunday evening first class ticket from Bath booked in advance is far cheaper than a 2nd class open return on a Monday morning, for example. So I fail to see the point of publishing the class of ticket, apart from playing to the gallery.

There is also a curious disincentive on MPs to stand down at a general election, rather than fighting and losing their seat. An MP who is defeated can get nine months pay after two terms, but one who doesn't stand again after twenty years only gets two months. There is no good reason why someone the electors have rejected fares so much better.

And, on the bigger picture, I really don't see how he can support MPs having unlimited outside employment, but not see that employing spouses properly approved by the Commons authorities can provide better value to the taxpayer as well as better support to MPs. After all, the report itself says:
Despite the publicity that a small number of cases have received, the Committee has no evidence of abuse occurring on a significant scale through the employment of family members. On the contrary, the Committee has heard evidence that many MPs’ family members work hard and offergood value for money for taxpayers, including testimony from those who have expressed reservations about allowing the practice to continue.

Kelly also gives no reason for sacking existing employee spouses apart from satisfying the mob (expressed a little more politely). Yet when it comes to paid employment outside parliament, Kelly moves from the Pooterish to the broad brush pragmatic. No rules apply here beyond the need for a declaration on an improved website.

In the Committee’s view, this is largely an issue of balance. A limited amount of time spent writing newspaper articles or other paid journalism, for example, need not be incompatible with being a fully effective MP. Nor is it unreasonable for MPs with professional qualifications to wish to maintain some element of expertise, or for others to take the view that limited direct experience of a particular issue is a good way of building up expertise which will benefit their contribution in Parliament. But if any of these activities are pursued to excess they are bound to have an impact on the MP’s effectiveness in performing their main role. The Committee takes the view that outside paid employment should not be banned, provided it is kept within fairly limited bounds and there is transparency.

Fairly limited bounds? And what are they? Surely Kelly has a view? Not really -unless you are a Northern Ireland MP, of course. But this does run against the grain of a report mindboggling in its attention to detail, yet somehow completely oblivious to the lives of MPs and the true cost of doing their job, and composed in a manner that only a lifelong civil servant could. As Steve Richards argued in a forceful piece yesterday, it is ironic that civil servants invited to review politicians are themselves so lacking in accountability:

Kelly will explain his thinking at a press conference tomorrow and presumably in interviews. That will be the limit of his accountability in changing drastically not only the way MPs are paid, but in the ways they function. MPs are loathed but at least they are accountable around the clock, unlike current senior civil servants and former officials who wield immense power. If an MP throws a grenade into any saga they will be on the Today programme at ten past eight to explain what they were up to and a non-appearance would be pilloried: "We asked X to appear, but they refused to do so". Yet others who wield power without responsibility are revered even if they cause mayhem. Legg is nowhere to be seen. Kelly will return to the darkness. MPs sweat in the public eye. The more they explain the more they are loathed.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

University challenge

Following Lord Mandelson's announcements on universities today, I have written this for the Public Finance blog:

The parties are pushing any decision on increased university tuition fees until after a 2010 election. All the predictions suggest that the review will propose that fees increase from their current maximum of £3225 a year to anything between £5000 and £7000. But neither the Conservatives – who have dropped their previous opposition to fees – nor Labour are keen to advertise this before an election. Hence the cross-party agreement on a fees review – details probably next week, but heralded by today’s publication of a new higher education framework by Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, echoing a similar deal between the Tories and Labour in the Dearing review that led to the £1000 annual fee after the 1997 election.

In some ways, it is easier now than before. The last two changes to fees had no lasting negative impact on student numbers. Indeed, the problem today is that there are too many applications for cost-limited places. And where the big concern was that a new fees system would hit social mobility – again it hasn’t, as students are cushioned by income-contingent loans repaid only on graduation - there is now just as much concern about the quality of courses and the contribution being made by employers.

Of course, efforts on social mobility need to continue and intensify, as Mandelson said today. And they need to be better targeted, with more emphasis on links at an earlier age in schools. But the new emphasis on course quality is overdue. Many students and their parents bemoan the limited teaching hours and tutorial time in too many universities. It is a complaint heard as loudly from overseas students who already pay in excess of £10,000 a year for their courses. It is evident in any reading of the. National Student Survey for individual faculties. Now there is cross-party acceptance that something must be done. And universities need to do much more to respond.

The second issue of employment links is sometimes presented as a form of philistinism. In reality, many degree courses, especially those taken by mature students, are highly employment-focused already. The issue for government – and society – is whether employers should contribute more of the cost, and do more to help shape such courses. This is about more than sponsoring individual students: it could see more degree courses delivered largely in the workplace, for example. Such developments are where the real expansion of higher education – that which is vital to the economy - might take place over the next decade, often with part-time students.

In addressing these issues head on – despite an understandable wish to leave the level of fees for later – Peter Mandelson is showing a decisiveness in higher education that seemed lacking in his more cautious predecessor, John Denham. While Denham extended grants, the cost was borne in fewer places. And he made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for higher fees. Yet universities need the money to stay competitive. They – and employers, who have argued for the fees increase – now need to show that they can meet the higher expectations placed on them in return.

Obama's first year

When I was in Washington last month, one couldn't escape the TV ads for the Virginia gubernatorial elections taking place today. And it was pretty clear that the Republican Bob McDonnell, was wiping the floor with the Democratic candidate State Sentator Creigh Deeds. A shrewd mix of clever policies on issues like transport gridlock, combined with relentless attacks on Deeds, seemed to be getting little response from the hapless Democrat. No wonder Barack Obama passed on getting too involved in his campaign - even though it was in a state that Obama took last year. By contrast, Obama has been lending his weight - no pun intended - to Democratic Governor Jon Corzine to Republican Chris Christie. Corzine's attack ads were certainly the stronger, including dubious attacks on his opponent's girth, but faces a tough battle tonight.

If the Democrats lose both states, a lot will be written about Obama's failings. Indeed much has already appeared on these lines. And it is true that the healthcare legislation has fallen victim to a combination of sharp politics by the private healthcare industry and some pretty inept early responses by Obama and his people. Moreover, the shrillness of the Conservative Repubican media and political opposition have made it hard to become the unifier he might have been. But the reasons for defeat today may have more to do with the candidates in both states and less to do with Obama than critics allow.

No account of the first year of this President could fail to recognise how much he has tried to do, and how far things have advanced in a year domestically. The US is now far stronger on climate change than before, and is ready to accept targets, even if they are less than the Copenhagen summiteers might wish. He has successfully revived the American economy, which is now back in growth. He has embarked on ambitious and very New Democrat education reforms. And he is now within striking distance of major health reform, even if the limited public option may still limit its scope. What he has largely avoided, to his credit, is getting sidetracked by second order issues (unless declaring a brief war on Fox News counts).

Internationally, good relations have been restored with Russia - at least, to a point. He has made bold speeches in the Muslim world. Hillary Clinton's appointment has proved astute in associating his administration with important foreign policy achievements, including her Northern Ireland mission recently. His Afghan policy may not be settled, and is suffering from the large casualties recently, but he is gaining more credit for careful consideration on military numbers than criticism for dithering.

All in all, that's not a bad record for a first year. And I have never pretended I didn't have my doubts about Obama. Of course, it won't be enough this time next year, by which time healthcare must be up and running, and the economy must have been showing serious continued growth, with unemployment starting to reverse. But significant credit is still due one year on.

Monday 2 November 2009

Alan Johnson was right to sack Prof Nutt

It is a long time since I have seen Alan Johnson so angry as he was with Adam Boulton on Sky News this morning, defending his decision to sack Professor David Nutt from his position as chief drugs adviser. But he was absolutely right to do so. Professor Nutt seems surprised that the Home Secretary should take exception to his adviser publicly slagging off the government, and breezily declaring ecstasy to be less problematic than horseriding. Such spurious comparisons may have some statistical merit - for example, in preparing a new edition of Freakonomics - but they do little to advertise the seriousness of someone charged with providing advice on a subject of huge concern to millions of families across Britain.

Johnson, as the elected politician, is charged with making decisions, drawing on scientific advice but also on society's expectations. It is a calculation that seems wholly to have eluded Prof Nutt. Look by contrast at the excellent chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, to see someone who has an understanding of the real world as well as huge skills in his specialist field. That Prof Nutt seemed so unfamiliar with that world in which a Home Secretary or Prime Minister has to operate may qualify him for a place in the ivory towers of academia. But it made him ill-suited to being a government adviser.

MONDAY 1.30pm UPDATE: Those who are defending Prof Nutt seem to suffer from two delusions. The first is that the Professor was prevented from giving advice based on his view of the evidence in public. He was not. He was sacked for actively campaigning against government policy. The second is that his view of the dangers of cannabis and ecstasy is a scientific truth, accepted by the entire scientific community. In that light, the work of Prof Robin Murray, which has shown the harmful impact of continued cannabis use on people's mental health is particularly illuminating. Indeed, if Prof Murray who also gave a fascinating and worrying interview on the World at One today is right, it would seem that some of the advice given on this subject by this 'expert' committee was not only wrong, but dangerously so.

This post has been picked up by John Rentoul and Hopi Sen.

Fair admissions are key to school choice

A plan to crack down on parents lying about their home or religious circumstances as a way of gaining an advantage in schools admission has attracted the predictable response that 'there should be more good schools' rather than fairer admissions rules. And an inquiry into school lotteries - predictably - is likely to endorse their continued use.

Of course, those who raise the mantra about good schools - like the indefatigable Sheila Lawlor on Today this morning - don't bother to look at what's actually been happening in schools over the last decade or so. There are twice as many comprehensives where 70% or more pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths, and the number where fewer than 30% do so has fallen from 1600 - half of all secondaries in 1997 - to around 250 today.

But even if the numbers of top performing schools are doubled again and no school gets below the 30% benchmark - which should be the minimum expectation for the next phase of school reform, although the Tories are curiously unwilling to explain what outcomes they expect from their proposed changes - there will still be some schools that are more popular than others. Anyone suggesting otherwise is talking rot.

So, the issue is then: what is the fairest way to allocate places where a school has more applicants than places? Good schools are encouraged to expand, but are often reluctant to do so. The number of academies, which are typically very popular with parents, is expanding rapidly. But a system will still be needed that is fair.

Since both major parties now eschew selection (apart from a limited 10% on aptitude in a handful of subjects) this boils down to a question of whether proximity to a school should trump most other criteria? For primaries, it makes sense to use this. But for urban secondaries, it does not, as the arbitrariness of distance simply drives up house prices and places some schools out of reach on financial grounds. Far fairer to use either banding or a lottery (random allocation).

But that is not enough in itself. There must also be a network of community activists trained to help less articulate parents to be as pushy as their middle class counterparts. Such choice advisers should not be local authority bureaucrats, but part-timers from the communities that need support, with credibility in those communities but the knowledge to understand the best choices for individual pupils. And the changes introduced in 2008 (following the 2006 Act), where free school transport is now linked to choice, should be extended and much better publicised so that there is subsidised transport available to a choice of schools within a reasonable distance of one's home. To pretend that choice will emerge simply because new providers are allowed is not enough. There must be active support to enable people to exercise those choices.

UPDATE: The Adjudicator's reports can be read here. Ed Balls's response is here; there is to be no wider crackdown, and a welcome endorsement of lotteries as tie-breakers. However, the response does dodge the genuine usefulness of random allocation or banding as a way of widening access to good schools. That is a debate which should not be dodged.

This post is also featured on Progress online.

Sunday 1 November 2009

An Education

To see An Education, last night. Nick Hornby and Lone Scherfig's rendering of Lynn Barber's autobiographical coming-of-age tale, set in early 1960s London, tells the story of 16 year-old Jenny, a bright A level student played with great panache if a little too much maturity by Carey Mulligan, hoping to get to Oxford, who lets her studies suffer as she receives the attentions of an older man, David, whose flash car owes much to his dubious business dealings. Jenny's parents are as seduced as she is by David's charm and wealth, allowing her to swap her homework for weekends in Oxford and Paris, all the time oblivious to the increasingly unpalatable truths about their daughter's 'boyfriend'. Critics have bemoaned the breeziness of the film, which splendidly evokes the good life for some in London at that time, wishing for something darker and more sordid, to go with the obvious unsuitability of the relationship. But the film's ending is hardly lacking in an appropriate lesson in morality, and the film benefits from its general breeziness - and some great acting.

Friday 30 October 2009

What the Tory Euro row really means

Bagehot in the Economist today is spot on in explaining the real significance of this week's row over Kaminski and the odds and sods that pass for a Tory grouping in Europe.

Seeing the move as a ransom paid to his party may be the best excuse for the moral compromises and apparent political myopia it involved. The switch and the credit it earned may even make it easier for Mr Cameron to take a relatively sane position on the Lisbon treaty if, as expected, it goes into force soon. But if this interpretation—charitable but plausible—mitigates the foolishness of Mr Cameron’s past decisions, it also raises an awkward question about his future.

It is this: if this shoddy, shaming alliance is the price he was obliged to pay his party for the changes needed to make it seem modern and compassionate, what sort of party is it that Mr Cameron leads? What else will its members demand, and what else—when his popularity and authority wane—will he be obliged to give them, after he becomes prime minister.

Mrs Warren's Profession

To see a sparky Felicity Kendal in a new Theatre Royal Bath production of Shaw's once controversial comedy about prostitution, Mrs Warren's Profession, last night. The play which tells the story of an independent-minded 1890s Cambridge-educated young woman's discovery of how her largely estranged mother earns her living and has paid for her genteel upbringing, is remarkable not only for its subject matter but also for its strong feminism. Behind the comedy there is a sharp critique of the sort of jobs and wages that poorer women faced in late Victorian England. Much of the action takes place in the country, where the local vicar's background is found to have coincided a little too closely with Mrs Warren. With its principal theme, and a suggestion of incest, the play, although written in 1894, was not performed publicly until it appeared in New York in 1905. It took another 20 years before the Lord Chamberlain's officials deemed it suitable for a general British audience (though it was performed in private theatre clubs from 1902). The play's qualities shine through in this fine production from Bath. With excellent support from David Yelland, as Lord Crofts, as caddish a figure as any created by Shaw, and great acting from Lucy Briggs-Owen, as Vivie, Mrs Warren's daughter, this production is a great revival of an underperformed gem. It is touring before a West End slot in 2010.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Political pariahs?

I've written this piece at the Public Finance blog about the saga of MPs expenses:

MPs could be forgiven for thinking that they have officially been declared enemies of the people. After the public lynching engendered by the Daily Telegraph’s weeks of revelations before the summer, they now have to ensure the tortuous combination of Sir Christopher Kelly’s hairshirt and Sir Thomas Legg’s restrospective thumbscrew.

Of course, some MPs have been abusing the system, and some have claimed very little. But most have just been doing what they were told by the officials at the Fees Office that they could – and often should – do. And it is a bit much to see the rough justice where some MPs – including David Cameron, who has happily used the saga to rid himself of a few troublesome backbenchers – are able to enjoy rich pickings from property speculation whilst the Prime Minister is rapped for spending more than an abritrary £2000 a year on flat cleaning and laundry.

The reported plans by Sir Christopher to phase out mortgage subsidies make sense, as do attempts to clamp down on needless first class travel. But stopping MPs employing spouses will not produce better or less expensive offices – they are the ones most likely to work longer and mix constituency and Westminster duties better – nor will the arbitrary 60 minute travel rule enhance the quality of debate, unless Parliament moves to a 6pm curfew. Having MPs rushing for the last train is hardly the stuff of decent democracy.

All these new rules may satisfy the forces of public opinion as they are mediated by the tabloids. But they could prove costly if they confirm the public’s view that all MPs are fiddling the system.

It would be far better to make things simple. Either give MPs a rail season ticket and a choice between staying at Westminster-owned serviced apartments or a hotel with which the Palace authorities have negotiated a good deal or increase their salaries and only pay them a decent allowance for running their office. And provided they are up to the job, and do the hours, let MPs employ their spouses if they get the work done.

All this nit-picking about railway timetables and internet subsidies is as damaging to democracy as the moats and duck ponds. Many good people on both sides of the House have had their careers destroyed because of mistakes or simply assuming that the Fees Office knew what they were talking about. Creating a whole host of complex new rules will not save taxpayers much money but could make the MP a permanent pariah, which even next year’s general election could do little to change.

A simple, transparent system, which everybody can understand, and which recognises the nature of the MP’s job, is the only way to restore faith in our democracy. Sadly, neither Sir Christopher nor Sir Thomas, born bureaucrats whose civil service instincts for micro-management inform their world view, seem to grasp that basic reality.

The simple fact is that the Tories' approach to the European Parliament is quite mad

Iain Dale is demanding that those who criticise the Polish MEP Michal Kaminski should apologise because the Chief Rabbi of Poland has been prevailed upon to say that the man is not an anti-semite these days and to criticise a headline run by the New Statesman suggesting he was asking the UK Tories to ditch their alliance with him.

Yet, as Toby Helm points out, Rabbi Schudrich said in an email to the New Statesman that he has not retracted:
"It is clear that Mr Kaminski was a member of the NOP, a group that is openly far-right and neo-Nazi...Anyone who would want to align himself with a person who was an active member of NOP and the Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne, which was established to deny historical facts of the massacre ... needs to understand with what, and by whom, he is being represented."
Moreover, Helm explains that the new comments come as a result of 'enormous pressure ' - bullying in plain terms - from Kaminski's Law and Justice Party to retract, but he has not done so. As Helm says:
I suspect that if one really wants to get to the heart of what Schudrich thinks, one should stick to the statement he originally gave to the New Statesman, before the row really got going. Cut through the political mud-slinging, go back to the time when he gave an opinion under no pressure at all. Then he raised questions about Kaminski's past association with a neo-Nazi leaning party, and said people needed to think clearly before getting alongside such individuals. The Tories want to portray Schudrich as a great supporter of Kaminski because they are in a mess over their new EU allies. The truth, I reckon, is rather more complex and less helpful to David Cameron's party.
However much the defenders of Cameron's mad Euro-policy may grumble, the simple fact is this: at a time when the Tories could (and if they were rational, should) have continued in the EPP, the party of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, they instead chose to ally themselves with a motley crew of fringe parties and MEPs well outside even the right-wing mainstream. They did this purely to satisfy a bunch of Eurosceptic fanatics who had backed Cameron as leader. And they were quite happy to ditch their own respected leader at Strasbourg in the process, preferring to see Kaminski as their leader.

That some of their new allies have pretty unsavoury pasts (to quote Rabbi Schudrich "Mr Kaminski was a member of the NOP, a group that is openly far-right and neo-Nazi") adds to the oddity of it all. And no amount of huffing and puffing can detract from the sheer idiocy of such positioning, both for the Conservatives and for a Britain they hope to govern again.

Universities must give students a better deal if they want higher fees

I have a piece in today's Independent, arguing that if universities want fees to rise to as much as £7,000 a year, they must provide students with a better all-round deal. And this should be an explicit part of the forthcoming fees review. Here's an extract:

In the coming weeks the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, will announce the terms of reference for a review of student fees. The cross-party investigation is likely to recommend an increase in tuition fees from £3,225 to as much as between £5,000 and £7,000 a year, increasing the proportion of courses costs paid back by students after graduation. But if universities want the right to charge higher fees, there is growing political consensus that they must also be prepared to improve greatly the experience they provide for undergraduates.

The Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that the combination of teaching and private study for undergraduates in some humanities and social science courses amounts to just 14 hours a week, though it is much higher in the more demanding universities and the average is 29 hours, including 14.5 hours' contact time. But the higher the fees become, the greater the expectation of students and their parents.

This isn't just a problem with domestic students. Overseas students, who contribute £4bn a year in fees (more than eight per cent of the total income of UK universities) already pay £10,000 to £20,000 a year for most courses. Their numbers have grown over the last decade, but there is greater competition within Europe, Australia and the United States, and Chinese and Indian students increasingly have less expensive options closer to home. Unless they feel they are getting good value for their money, they will go elsewhere.

Some universities are recognising how important it is to provide a good student experience. Lancaster, Manchester and the London School of Economics give students clearer commitments on contact time, class sizes and access to lecturers than many. Others, like Northumbria, provide substantial hands-on facilities and work experience in subjects such as law and health.

But there is still a sense among too many vice-chancellors that they should be allowed to charge higher fees without needing to improve substantially students' overall academic and pastoral experiences. That's why the terms of reference for the new review must explicitly include the issues that Mr Willetts suggested [contact hours, class sizes and employability]. It will be hard enough selling another fees increase to Middle England. Unless their anxieties about what happens at university are addressed, it may prove politically impossible. Vice-chancellors must raise their game if they want the right to raise their fees.