Tuesday 31 March 2009

The corrosion of politics

I'm with Hopi Sen on the ludicrously overblown 'Jacqui Smith affair' and I also think David Aaronovitch (as ever) gets to the heart of the matter. But I do worry about the corrosive effect all this talk of MPs' expenses has on people's already low opinion of politics and politicians. In part, it is the absurd media reporting which conflates staffing costs with MPs' salaries and expenses, as in some of last night's TV news. In part, it is a side effect of the greater transparency wrought by FoI and other changes. And it also seems as if it may be the result of corrupt dealings and disgraceful leaking by someone close to the Fees Office.

But it is also a product of the way in which the expenses system is constructed as a poor substitute for salaries. Gordon Brown needs to get together with his fellow party leaders to sort this out quickly, whether through single payments that are taxed or through attendance allowances which could cover a hotel bill and meals. One way or another, these needs sorting....and quickly.

Saturday 28 March 2009

A good night for Labour and Jacqui Smith

Luke Akehurst reports as ever on Thursday's by-elections. Amongst some generally encouraging results are two brilliant ones in Jacqui Smith's Redditch constituency, confirming her formidable campaigning powers and suggesting that the Tories will find it tough to defeat her in the general election, despite Redditch's marginality.

But then it is worth remembering that the swing to the Tories in Redditch in 2005 was precisely zilch.

Friday 27 March 2009

Why our exam system needs re-examination

It is good news that the new exam regulator Ofqual has expressed its disquiet about the rigour of last year's new science GCSEs. Not because it is good that the questions were too easy. But because it shows that the new regulator (about whose creation I was sceptical) has teeth and is prepared to bare them. It makes their pronouncements about the English and Maths papers the more credible and gives some assurance that the new regulator will not hesitate to act where dumbing down is taking place.

Unlike some commentators, I have never held the view that there is a conspiracy to dumb down GCSEs and A levels. Rather it has been changes made to the nature of the exams that have led to changes in the marking. I can see some point in modularity at A-levels, particularly with innovations like the new extended essay or project, but have always argued for a substantial synoptic element. Equally, while it is good that coursework (conceived before use of the Internet became widespread) is being reined in, it is absurd that costly modular exams are being introduced across all GCSEs.

I also don't share the view that the attempt to popularise science necessarily leads to a dumbing down of the exams. It is perfectly possible to compile challenging questions for a popular curriculum. Indeed, it should be remembered that there has also been an increase in schools offering the three science subjects separately; these are the students most likely to take science at university. Those scientists who complain confuse the need for a minority to gain expertise in science with the importance of the majority having a basic understanding of the subject.

But there is one overriding lesson from this whole sorry saga. Competition between the exam boards has always led schools to shop around and there is a pressure on the boards to provide schools with syllabuses that will be attractive to them. Labour drastically cut the number of boards in 1997. But we didn't go far enough: this is an area where competition is unhealthy, as any innovations that it creates are outweighed by perverse incentives to make things easier. As I have argued before, there should be a single board contracted to provide each exam and Ofqual should work to make the whole process simpler and more transparent.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

When a grammar school fails...

I have never been an enthusiast for closing the 164 remaining grammar schools. Apart from anything else, it seemed a foolish distraction from the wider goal of raising standards in Labour's first term, and the balloting arrangements introduced in 1998 hardly suggested a groundswell of popular support. The only ballot to date - in Ripon - confirmed the status quo. Indeed, there is a lot to be said for the sort of partnerships now being developed with grammar schools which are improving choice and results for other schools.

But there is something quite extraordinary about the blind faith of some in grammars, as caricatured by a piece in today's Daily Mail about Ofsted placing Stretford Grammar School in Trafford into special measures. "Grammar school with a 96% GCSE pass rate branded a failure by Ofsted. Why? Its race policy is out of date," thunders the Mail in my print edition, managing to work two hobby horses into a single headline.

Yet in a selective grammar school, every pupil ought to achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths, and a lot more besides. Any proper comparison must be with other grammars, not with non-selective schools.

And, here are the reasons why the school was really failed, according to the Ofsted report:

* The overall effectiveness of the school has declined since the last inspection and is now inadequate.
* Girls and higher ability students make insufficient progress. Mathematics and science subjects are weak in Key Stage 4. Too many students fail to attain the very highest grades they are capable of in their GCSE examinations.
* Too much teaching remains lacklustre and is not good enough to ensure that all students achieve as well as they should. A decline in the standard of students' behaviour in lessons is a consequence of teaching that fails to challenge, extend and inspire.
* Leadership and management are inadequate. Governance is inadequate (and there is then a brief mention of the equalities policies)
* The school's specialist science status has not had sufficient impact on raising students' achievement, improving the quality of teaching and learning or enhancing the curriculum.

There are many grammar schools that are stretching their able students and teaching exciting lessons. This is clearly not one of them. To pretend that any school that fails on so many counts is not failing merely because of its iconic status or because of political correctness is quite extraordinary.

Indeed, in other circumstances, a person uttering such tosh would be subjected to the full Why Oh Why? treatment ......in the Mail.

This post was picked up by John Rentoul.

Monday 23 March 2009

How to reform tests

I have a piece in the latest edition of The House Magazine, continuing my arguments in favour of a reformed testing system in schools. Here's an extract:

Testing has – with regular inspections and pupil-level targets – been part of a cultural shift in schools that has brought real improvements. But it is not just through greater accountability that testing has helped improvement. The data from tests – combined with the power of computers – has given teachers access to data that they can use to ensure that they get the most out of individual pupils. By seeing what the best students in similar circumstances can achieve, they can lift expectations in their own classroom.

There are still ways to simplify the tests whilst keeping the level of independent scrutiny that they provide for every primary school. First, teachers could still be encouraged to enter pupils for tests when they are ready. Pupils should not be prevented from scoring higher-than-average grades on the papers, but many might be tested at age 10 rather than 11. In schools that devote months to the preparation for tests to the exclusion of other subjects – and those that do are rarely the best schools – this should allow a better curriculum mix.

Second, marking pressure could be reduced by confining external marking to English and Maths, leaving Science to internal assessment. Those are clearly the most important subjects for any child if they are to access the rest of the curriculum. Third, there may be a place for multiple choice questions in Grammar, Spelling and Mathematics, which can be marked by computer, though there must still be a place for independently marked writing tests.

Whatever happens, we cannot afford to abandon the level of independent scrutiny that testing provides for primary schools. Without it, we will fail future generations of children.

Lost Tiger

This month's Progress carries an extended and updated version of a blog posting I wrote last month about the Irish experience of the recession and some parallels between Taoiseach Brian Cowen's approach and that of David Cameron's Tories. The piece is finally online here.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Time to simplify and cut MPs' allowances

The Mail on Sunday's campaign against politicians continues today in its attack on jobs minister Tony McNulty. Like Jacqui Smith, he has been pilloried for how he has allegedly used his second home allowance. Next week, doubtless someone else will be picked off by the paper. Neither McNulty nor Smith were breaking any rules - but they are victims of a ridiculous system of allowances which should be scrapped forthwith.

Instead, there should be a very simple flat rate payment to MPs who live outside London - McNulty suggests himself a 40 mile radius would make sense - for accommodation, utilities and transport which should be enough to run a decent flat and cover rail or air fares (perhaps banded for those living furthest away). It should be significantly less than what is currently paid, but sufficient, with no John Lewis lists.

But it should then be entirely up to MPs whether they use it to pay rent, stay in hotels, pay a mortgage or stop in a youth hostel. In other words, rather than encouraging creative interpretations of the rules, it would be seen as a part of their salaries. And how they spent it would be nobody's business but their own. For those living closer to London, there might be a free rail season ticket and the occasional overnight hotel room where business demanded it.

The whole thing would be a lot cheaper - a target of halving the total cost should be set - as the size of the allowance would be cut, and as there would be far fewer administrative overheads, with no need for ever-expanding audits. And we would not have the absurd weekly attempts to portray politicians who are decent, hard-working and honourable people - as both Tony and Jacqui are - as corrupt chancers. The only losers would be certain Sunday papers. But I think we could live with that.

Suspension at the Bristol Old Vic

The fact that Bristol's fine Old Vic theatre has been closed and threatened for much of the last two years owes a lot to an eccentric policy of running esoteric plays to half-empty houses for far too long. Despite some fine exceptions - Carol Ann Duffy's Beasts and Beauties and Great Expectations spring to mind - the theatre management too often put on the main stage drama for a month at a time that more properly belonged in the fringe Studio or should have been given shorter runs.

It will still be 2012 before the Theatre properly reopens with a refurbished main stage. But it was a delight to see the matinee performance yesterday of an excellent new Bristol-based drama, Suspension, by Catherine Johnson, whose Mamma Mia has been a huge box office and stage hit. The story of two men brought together by difficulties with their ex-wives and lack of access to their children, who find themselves on top of Clifton's suspension bridge, one to unfurl a banner that he hopes his daughter will see on her wedding day, the other in a bid to commit suicide, has the comedy that made Mamma Mia such a hit, but laced with a much darker edge. There is an excellent cast, and fine staging in what has proved a sellout production.

In fact, it is just the sort of play that the main stage should have been doing more of in recent years. However, on this occasion it is confined to the much smaller Studio. Once the Old Vic is restored to its former glory, it is to be hoped that its management learn the art of running a theatre that is both innovative and commercially successful. To see the two as mutually exclusive was a foolish piece of self-indulgence. Suspension is a sign that the theatre can get back on track. The shame is that it will be the best part of three years before Bristol has its Old Vic proper back again.

Why yellow school buses make sense

It was good that the Government was able to extend free transport to match pupil choices rather than local authority diktats with the 2006 Education Act. It is a shame that the parallel proposals for choice advisers to help people make choices has been allowed to wither into town hall-led inertia instead of being delivered by part-time community-based volunteers, as was originally intended.

And today's report from the Transport Select Committee is right to argue that more needs to be done to encourage walking, cycling and buses as an alternative to the school run. The idea of yellow buses, which David Blunkett has also neen promoting, is not that they should be carbon copies of their American cousins but that there should be distinctive school buses that speak safety, reliability and which could be used for school and community trips when not taking youngsters to and from school. The case was made well in a Sutton Trust report that I helped to produce back in 2005. It is to be hoped that ministers will take the Committee's recommendations seriously.

Friday 20 March 2009

Juliet Stevenson is superb in Duet for One

To see the Almeida production of Duet for One at Bath Theatre Royal last night. Juliet Stevenson is stunningly good as the world renowned violinist Stephanie Anderson, who has to give up her beloved instrument as multiple sclerosis starts to take over her body. Her regular visits to psychiatrist Dr Feldmann (played with feeling by Henry Goodman), lead her through a series of highly charged encounters to examine her deepest emotions and finally to consider a future without music. Stevenson brings her all to this demanding role, leaving the audience wanting more after a two-and-a-half-hour emotional rollercoaster. This splendid revival of Tom Kempinski's 1980 play is touring before returning to London's West End in May. Stevenson ended last night's performance in Bath with a heartfelt tribute to her friend Natasha Richardson.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Make the case for higher fees first

What can have possessed Universities UK to raise the spectacle of tuition fees of £5,000 or £7,000 right now? Of course, there is a promised review of the issue later in the year, and doubtless ministers will ensure that it reports to an incoming post-election government, just as Gillian Shephard did with Dearing's 1997 review.

But vice-chancellors who opined on their preferred fee levels for a separate BBC survey need to make a case for higher fees, not simply declare their ideal level of fee. At a time when the country is in economic recession, people need not only to hear the case for higher education as a way of generating a successful recovery but also the rationale for what could be a 100% fees hike.

And there is a good case for tuition fees (despite cries of 'middle class debt' from the Daily Mail), not least as the method of their repayment is both fair and progressive according to post-graduation income: those not in work pay nothing until they are. Moreover, the predictions from student leaders that fees would deter students have clearly come to nothing.

But the case for lifting the cap of £3225 has not been made yet by the vice-chancellors, particularly to a secretary of state who is not keen on doing so and a prime minister who thinks universities are hotbeds of inefficiency (and perhaps prejudice). Rather than fuelling wish lists, the VCs need to get back to first principles. As any undergraduate would (hopefully) tell them, you should make the case and marshal the facts before presenting your conclusions.

Monday 16 March 2009

The dangers of repetition in Obama's America

Janet Daley in today's Telegraph has succumbed to the delusions prevalent among many Republicans in the United States. She believes that Obama has 'staggered to the left' which would be good news for them. Aside from the fact that Obama is too cautious even to consider the level of state ownership that has been brought in here in Britain, Daley and her soulmates in the Right wing magazines, on Fox News and in rightwing talk radio Stateside are making precisely the same mistakes that the Tories made in Britain in 1997. In other words, they are fighting the pre-election battles after the election has been won, believing their own propaganda along the way.

The fact is that Obama is both governing as he said he would and is doing so largely from the centre. On Iraq, he may withdraw combat troops but will leave 35,000 others there, for example. He has scrapped the more egregious of Bush's doctrines, and he is a stronger believer with Hillary Clinton at State in tough diplomacy. But he is no pacifist. And on health and education, his policies involve taking on vested interests where necessary, for example to improve educational accountability or to provide affordable universal health cover.

With approval ratings above 60%, the Republican attacks have little traction beyond the usual suspects. But this is not to say that Obama is not in danger of repeating an error of the early Blair years himself. Before the 1997 election, Labour made relatively modest pledges on things like class sizes. But by creating a raft of aspirational if over-ambitious targets in the following years - largely at the insistence of the Treasury apart from the initial literacy targets - the Government allowed relatively good progress in the public services to be portrayed as 'failure' because those targets had been missed. The level of Obama's ambition is such that he could suffer a similar fate. For example, nobody believes there will be univeral health cover in the US by the time of the next election because of the complexity of change: Obama should set milestones that can be met along the way to demonstrate progress towards the greater goal.

Nevertheless, it is the Republicans who are suffering most in their delusions at the moment. Like the Tories in 1997, they simply haven't come to terms with the simple fact that they lost the election.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Isn't there a good reason why so few top Tories appear on Marr?

Iain is fulminating again about the dearth of shadow ministers on the BBC. But it isn't the BBC's fault that the Shadow Cabinet is so lacking in strong figures, is it? Apart from William Hague, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Gove, they are a bunch of lightweights with far fewer strong politicians than the cabinet.

The Marr programme is intended to feature interesting interviews, not PPBs, though I concede that we should see Andrew Lansley properly interrogated about why he thinks the best thing for the NHS would be to allow arrogant consultants to dump on patients from a great height or Theresa May questioned about the Tories' backtracking on welfare reform (though I suspect that's not what Iain has in mind).

But given the choice between having a minister who is doing something and a shadow minister who has nothing original to say, who can blame Marr for having Ian Rankin or Hugh Orde on instead. The truth is that the dearth of interesting shadow ministers says more about the Tories than the BBC.

Report cards in the balance

John Dunford, the thoughtful leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, has given a measured account of the potential benefits of the Government's planned report cards for schools, at his association's annual conference.

But the ASCL has unanimously rejected the idea of grading schools on an A-E scale. However, without a simple scale with which parents can compare schools, the report cards are in danger of confusing rather than assisting with accountability.

This is not to say that report cards are without problems. Unless there is reasonable alignment between grades, minimum test and exam scores, and Ofsted inspections (which may only take place every six years) the cards could become an excuse for poor performance. Of course, a measure of progress is also important, but so are absolute results too. So, in developing the idea, it is not only important that the Government has a straightforward way of rating schools, it is equally important that schools are not able to pick and choose different ratings.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Sinn Fein finally comes of age

After the murder of the two British soldiers in Antrim on Saturday night, I thought the response to the brutal killings would be a real test for Sinn Fein. For too long, their responses have been characterised by equivocation and weasel words, and having listened to them for decades both before and after the peace process, I expected another set of carefully calculated platitudes on this occasion. Their response on Sunday acknowledged that the killings were wrong, but had a cold, calculated feel to them.

That's what makes the press conference by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson with Chief Constable Hugh Orde yesterday such an important moment. The penny seemed finally to have dropped with McGuinness that the killing of a police officer was not simply another pawn on the Republican chess board known as the 'peace process' (never quite what everyone else regarded the process as being), and he expressed himself with unprecedented emotion and feeling. Even Gerry Adams, always a cooler customer, seemed to have been liberated from self-imposed P O Neill mode on Channel Four News last night. When the DUP and Sinn Fein joined together in government, it was a truly remarkable moment. But yesterday was the day when the process - and Sinn Fein - finally showed its maturity.

This post has been picked up by Mick Fealty at Slugger O'Toole and the Telegraph, and by the New Statesman.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

How much training do teachers need?

The teaching unions have reacted with predictable fury to the announcement that some graduate career changers might be able to gain a teaching qualification within six months instead of the year currently expected on the Graduate Teaching Programme. But they were never all that keen on the GTP in the first place, with its classroom-based alternative to traditional teacher training, whereas headteachers welcomed the real experience it offered. One in five teachers now gains a GTP qualification.

The issue is surely what is learnt rather than how long is spent doing it. There is no good reason why this shouldn't take six months for an able and willing learner.

There is no single route to teacher training any more, and that is a good thing. However, a programme like this will only real work well if it is combined with the sort of experience that happens in Finland, where teachers' professional development is about more than in-service training days. Teachers routinely work for Masters degrees and Doctorates by researching issues that matter in their schools and developing solutions to real problems. This is something that the promised Masters in Teaching and Learning has the potential to offer here.

It is a long way from the traditional theoretical musings which characterised too many of our university education departments in the past.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Responding to the brutal murder in Antrim

The murder of two soldiers in Antrim - the first in 12 years - is a shocking reminder that there are still some Republican dissidents who are determined to try to wreck the successful and peaceful existence that Northern Ireland has now achieved.

There can be no equivocation about such barbarity - and there must be unity among all politicians in condemning the murders. If Martin McGuinness thinks otherwise, he will simply give succour to those who are determined to wreck the peace that he and others worked so long to achieve. As the SDLP's leader Mark Durkan, said:

Those who committed it are steeped in the mindset and means of past violence. They need to understand this is not an attack on British army but the Irish people who have voted for and value above all else peaceful politics and democratic accommodation.

12 NOON UPDATE: I am pleased to see that Sinn Fein have now condemned the attack.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Plane Stupid just acts plain stupid

Tom Harris is spot on in puncturing the pathetic pomposity of Plane Stupid in its justification for Leila Deen's common assault on Peter Mandelson yesterday. The idea that people put themselves above the law simply because they oppose a new airport runway is absurd.

The notion that they have some sort of right to break the law because they have decided despite evidence to the contrary that "nobody" (apart from weary travellers, London business and many airport workers, I suppose) is in favour of a third runway at Heathrow is the mob politics of fascism. As Tom points out, Ms Deen has the right to express her views in the ballot box or in many forms of non-violent protest.

What further evidence do the police need to prosecute this woman?

Friday 6 March 2009

Gran Torino

To see Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino last night. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a cross between Dirty Harry and Victor Meldrew, who fumes through his retirement against his grasping offspring, an over-solicitous priest and his Asian neighbours in the wake of his wife's death, only to warm to the latter and become their defenders despite his frequent racist language. His growing attachment and support to a Vietnamese teenager, Thao, and his sassy sister Sue (with brilliant performances by Bee Vang and Ahney Her) draws him into a bitter gang feud with shocking but not entirely predictable consequences. There's a great theme song sung by Jamie Cullum and the Gran Torino is Walt's beloved vintage Ford which provides an important backdrop to a movie which though not Eastwood's best is still another engaging addition to an impressive oeuvre.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

A radical recipe for civil service reform

While the media obsesses about perceived transgressions in the allowances of MPs, they spectacularly miss the point about why our political system doesn't work as it should. Sure, we need a simple transparent system of remunerating MPs.

But far more important is establishing proper accountability for the civil service, which is shielded from responsibility for any faults by the idea that minsters are to blame for every problem no matter how little they knew or were told about it. It is why delivery is so poor, yet other countries have moved beyond it with good results.

This is why Greg Rosen's excellent new report for Reform today is so important. It sets out with admirable clarity some of the changes that could introduce real dynamism to the civil service including:
  • Ending the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. The idea that Ministers are responsible for every action of their department shields officials from taking personal responsibility for their actions. Ministers should be responsible solely for the strategic direction of policy and its communications.

  • Implementing democratic accountability for civil servants. The UK has one of the most unaccountable Civil Service systems in the world. Democratically elected politicians should have the power to appoint senior civil servants, with greater scrutiny of appointments, on the Australian model.

  • Abolishing grades and recruiting openly. Because the current recruitment system is centralised and based on fixed “grades” for different jobs, it is a barrier to the best people being recruited to do the jobs that are needed. Discrimination of “internal” over “external” candidates should be abolished and line managers should lead recruitment of their teams.

  • Embracing localism. Local government can be more clearly accountable for performance in many areas of policy.

It is a bracing and vital read for any minister - or would-be minister - who wants to make a real difference in government.

Lies, damned lies (cont.)

For years, we have been told that we are spied on by CCTV cameras 300 times a day. I have always thought the figure sounded pretty fishy. Now, thanks to a brilliant piece of detective work by David Aaronovitch in today's Times, we know it is. Could we now subject all other such spurious 'facts' to similar scrutiny?

Monday 2 March 2009

A lottery is much fairer than selection by postcode

Schools secretary Ed Balls has asked the Schools Adjudicator to consider whether or not it is fair to children for schools to use a lottery to allocate places where there are more applications than the school can cater for. Contrary to popular (media) mythology, it has always been permissible to use a lottery in such circumstances, though the latest schools admissions code is more explicit on the subject than before. And it is a much fairer way of doing so. Indeed, the Times survey today suggests that 3.5% more parents in Brighton have gained their first choice than before it introduced its lottery (though it is true that its manner of doing so left a lot to be desired).

The main objection to lotteries has always been that they sound unfair rather than that they are so. This was a debate I used to have about their political practicality with my former colleague Phil Collins, whose views are admirably reflected in today's Times leader, and it was why I have tended to favour banding, which offers similar choices but appears less driven by chance.

Of course, such methods need to be applied with a dose of common sense. So, there should be some places for those living very close to a school, and to help twins. However, lotteries and banding are much fairer than an arbitrary line drawn on a map beyond which a parent has no chance of getting into their preferred school.

It is said that in an ideal world, nobody would want to choose schools because all would be equally good and each would have enough places to cater for demand. Apart from the improbability and cost of that outcome, there will always be variables that attract some to one school over another. Schools may offer different sports, be stronger in a particular subject, have a more progressive or more traditional curriculum.

Just as such diversity is healthy, it is equally healthy that parents should be able to choose between such schools and not be precluded simply because they live 1.8km rather than 1.7km from the school gates. And when you have 600 applications for 200 places, as with some London academies, it is palpably unfair to deny most of them the chance of a place. Selection by postcode or house price is hardly a model for comprehensive education. Moreover, attracting a broad mix of pupils is a recipe for success that was understood by those who first campaigned for comprehensives - and is now demonstrated by successful academies.

So, I trust that the adjudicator will reach a wise decision in this case. But it is rather worrying that the schools secretary appears to think that a comprehensive school can achieve a broad intake simply by taking those who live within its rather arbitary catchment area.

This post was picked up by Common Endeavour and Teachers TV News.