Wednesday 29 April 2009

Obama's impressive 100 days

Today marks the 100th day of Barack Obama's Presidency. And an impressive if challenging 100 days it has been. Leave aside the sillier obsessions of cable news channels and you have a picture of decisiveness and decision-making that would be creditable in a President with far more experience than Obama.

His cabinet picks have been strong - especially Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State - though he had a few early mishaps. Kathleen Sibelius was only sworn in as health secretary yesterday in good time to face up to the flu crisis. But in a few months Obama has pushed through a huge economic stimulus, set a date for closing Guantanamo Bay and stopped CIA torture practices, changed Iran policy and ensured a safe ending to a pirate hostage drama. Importantly, European and Latin American visits changed how the US appears to the outside world (though he should not be afraid to speak up on human rights either - nobody gains if the Chavezes win out over the Lulas in the battle for Latin American minds). With Sibelius in place, he should be able to push forward the crucial healthcare reforms.

That he has been more liberal than pundits expect may owe more to the times than to the man. I finally read Dreams from my Father over the Easter and found it a far more perceptive and revealing book than his rather bland policy tome Audacity of Hope written more recently. It is a good guide to his philosophy, and the influence of Chicago community politics. It also suggests a mix of radicalism and pragmatism that came through in the election, and which many thought would translate into greater bipartisanship. His standing - and his ability to get things done - is certainly boosted by the defection of Arlen Spector, the Pennsylvania senator, from the Republicans, but his failure to reach more widely into the Republicans reflects both the increasing partisanship of the party (and the far reach of its lunatic fringe) as well as the more partisan instincts of an unforgiving Democrat majority in Congress.

It won't be easy for Obama to keep up the momentum, or to maintain his current levels of popularity, though the Republicans and their crackpot media allies are doing their bit to help him. What he needs to show over the next year are solid results in the economy, progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan on security, and the beginnings of healthcare reform. His ability to do so will help determine whether he is to become a great President.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Will Tory councils block more academies?

I'm delighted that Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister is a fan, as he told the Commons yesterday, of this "excellent, well-written blog." My blog posting on Saturday was critical of the Government response to the Tory announcement on primary academies; it also pointed out one or two inconsistencies in the Tory policy, particularly where it comes to ensuring phonics in the curriculum, on which Gibb is a redoubtable campaigner.

But curriculum delivery may not be the only problem facing the Tories on academies and school reform. The Tories have been winning a lot more councils in recent years, which means that their local government lobby is growing ever stronger. Their education leader on the LGA and Birmingham City Council's chair of children's services, Councillor Les Lawrence, is not exactly a fan (Q81) of the Swedish schools model embraced by the Tories, as he told the schools select committee recently:
If you look at the Swedish system you see that there is now quite a lot of debate as to whether the free school system has caused a degree of dissent and division within the communities themselves. As I understand it, looking at recent debates in Sweden, they are beginning to wonder whether they need to go in the opposite direction, having been through the experiment-it has taken them about 20 years to create 900 of these schools, separate from the other more traditional schools.
And Labour MPs have pointed to examples of Tory councils blocking academies. My former home council of Merton has been a particular problem in this regard since the Tories regained it, as local MP Siobhain McDonagh reminded the Commons yesterday when she pointed to academies, one of them supported by the Tory peer and philanthropist Lord Harris, that were opposed by local Tory councillors who didn't want more good schools in the less advantaged part of the borough:
In 2006, we opened two new city academies in Mitcham in my constituency, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative councillors. Those two schools have now doubled the number of pupils getting five GCSE passes. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the sponsors, Lord Harris and the Church of England, as well as all the staff and the pupils at those schools? Will he also warn people that although those on the Conservative Front Bench may have converted to supporting academies, Conservative local councillors on the ground do not want schools in deprived areas?
Similar problems have apparently emerged in Dudley and with the Tory opposition group in Rotherham. The opposition front bench may wish to give promoters the right to sidestep such opposition and could simply remove the right of local authorities to establish new community schools, but that may not be enough. Local government still has a lot of say in planning decisions and owns a lot of sites for potential schools.

Indeed one reason why academies have taken off - including in Birmingham - is because the Government has persuaded local government that they are an important part of regeneration in their areas and got them on side. The Tories need to be clear what role they see for local government in their schools policies if they are serious about delivering them.

Monday 27 April 2009

Harriet is right: The poor should have better access to good schools

Harriet Harman has come in for some flak for her plans to force public bodies to do more to promote equality, particularly for those from poorer backgrounds. But when it comes to education, she is right that there should be greater encouragement for people from poorer backgrounds to apply for good schools.

For that to happen however requires more than a duty on local authorities (indeed they may simply resort to bureaucratically ineffective solutions). Instead, ministers should revisit and revitalise the proposals in the 2005 schools white paper in this respect.

It argued for greater use of 'fair banding' so that schools attracted a broad intake - and were open to pupils of all backgrounds and abilities. This is something many academies do, and which some London authorities use for admissions, and is less contentious than 'lotteries'. Without fair banding, choice for poorer families is often a chimera given catchment areas.

The second proposal, for community choice advisers should focus on recruiting more trusted people from local communities for a fixed period each year to help their fellow citizens make better choices. With subsequent legislation having given pupils free transport to a choice of schools, there is the possibility of some real action in this regard.

Saturday 25 April 2009

Listen to Christy

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Christy Moore was producing what many would regard as his best material, not only during his time with Planxty and Moving Hearts, but in some fine solo albums like Ride On and Ordinary Man (though I was never a fan of his more Republican outings at the time). His concerts since have survived on many of the songs recorded during that period. More recently, he has had his own personal difficulties too.

So it is a pleasure to be able to report that Christy has recorded his finest album in decades, with Listen, just released. I've listened to it three times and it is as familiar now as his much-played earlier titles. Recorded with Declan Sinnott, the album contains thirteen great songs including a great rendering of Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond, a wonderfully whimsical tribute to the Galway Races in the Ballad of Ruby Walsh. There are powerfully lyrical but poignant stories of migration in Does this Train Stop on Merseyside? (which John Peel used to like) and Duffy's Cut (recalling the tragic death of Irish labourers in Malvern in 1832), together with a great rendering of John Spillane's Gortatagort. It all ends with a lively tribute to Rory Gallagher. This is Christy in top form again.

Labour should support primary academies that help weak schools

Today's announcement by the Conservatives that they want to extend the academies programme to primary schools may not be properly thought through, but that's as nothing compared to the response of the Government. Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove has opened a trap for the government as big as that opened by Alastair Darling on tax, and ministers have fallen thoughtlessly into it.

Labour's academies programme - for that's what it is - is successfully raising standards in many secondary schools, and there is no reason why it shouldn't be extended to primary schools. Indeed, with 3-18 academies, there are already primary schoolchildren attending academies under Labour and benefiting from a closer working relationship with secondary schools, easing transition problems.

The problem with the Tories' proposal is not that they want the programme extended to primaries but how they want to target the programme. By focusing on the most successful primaries, they will do little to lift standards in the schools that need it most.

A clever Labour response would have welcomed the Tory embrace of Labour academies, but argued that part of the deal should be that those given academy freedoms had to work with a poorly performing primary school. Labour ought also to question how the Tories' - correct - support for synthetic phonics would work with complete curriculum freedom.

Instead we get an uncharacteristically sour contribution from Jim Knight which would leave the listener thinking that academies were not a Labour success story, but a Tory plot, with the silly statement that the plan "will send a chill down the spines of parents and teachers around the country."

The only spines feeling any chill this morning will be those of thoughtful Labour supporters who know that scoring own goals is not the way to win elections.

This posting has been quoted in the Daily Telegraph.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

State of Play

We saw Paul Abbott's magnificent newspaper-political thriller State of Play tonight. The film adaptation transplanted to a thinly disguised Washington Post newsroom casts Russell Crowe as the crusading journalist conflicted by his friendship with the ostensibly right on crusading congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) whose world starts to fall apart after the death of his mistress and researcher. Having seen the great BBC TV series on which this is based is no handicap in watching this taut thriller, with other fine performances from Helen Mirren as the newspaper editor, Robin Wright Penn as Collins's wife and Rachel McAdams as a cub reporter-cum- newspaper blogger. The complex conspiracy theory plot is leavened with some great lines about the world of newspapers and blogging, as Crowe gives another brilliant turn as the old-fashioned reporter in the battered car and dated computer, but the right instincts. The film will hold your attention throughout with Kevin Macdonald's taut direction.

Is the tax rise good politics?

There is no doubt that the big story out of the budget politically will not be the huge levels of borrowing or even the Chancellor's optimistic growth forecasts for the coming years. It won't be increased duty on spirits or petrol: that is a given in budgets. Nor will it be the very welcome boosts for pensioners and savers, or the extra child tax credit, let alone the money for colleges I mentioned in the previous posting. All of these things are valuable, and Alastair Darling presented them well.

The story will be around the increased tax on high earners, some of which was announced in the pre-budget report, which means that those over £150k a year lose higher income pension tax relief and pay 50% on earnings above that level from April 2010, and those above £100k have their taxes increased as a result of the removal of their tax-free allowances.

There are three questions to be asked about the strategy. The first is whether it will raise much money. It can reasonably be argued that the extra millions or even billions it does raise each year is financing useful measures such as the extra training for the unemployed or college places. But the same extra revenue could be raised in many other ways without touching basic rate tax.

The second is whether it is fairer. And on that score, it is hard to argue against the changes, as it is being targeted at the top 2% of income earners. The system is certainly more progressive.

But is it good politics - the third and trickiest question? On the one hand, it puts the Tories on the spot, and they have been careful not to announce any repudiation of the measure even though they know they could do so at relatively little financial cost. Doing so would paint them as on the side of the rich, a group that includes traders and bankers whose unpopularity knows no bounds. Moreover, it would hardly fit with their cost-cutting lectures on public services. So, as a 'dividing line' it is probably good politics. And the Tories would be wiser taking Danny Finkelstein's prescient advice on this score than Iain's instant reaction.

However, whether it is good politics for Labour in the long term is another matter. It may well be popular with some of the party's base support and Guardian columnists. But an important part of New Labour's promise and success has been that it would not raise taxation, and until November, the party kept to its promise (albeit with a 1% rise in national insurance). The politics of doing so was not particularly about attracting the very rich to vote Labour: their proportions were always going to be very small and their support smaller. It was more about making Labour attractive to the aspirational middle, business-owning and professional classes, particularly in London and the South East. And while most would never earn more than £100k in 1997 - the level that some wanted at the time - or £150k now, they might aspire to do so.

At a time of recession, it is easier - as Obama has done in America - to justify raising taxes on a better off minority. It is hard for anyone to argue with higher taxes on the highest earners at present and to sound unselfish in doing so. So it may prove initially popular. But the willingness to increase the top rate of tax could make it harder in the future for Labour to build the sort of coalition that kept it in power for three terms. And that may mean that any short term political gain has longer lasting political pain.

This posting has been picked up by Iain Dale and the Observer.

A good budget for colleges

After two almighty cock-ups by the Learning and Skills Council - over the capital funding programme and sixth form places - the Chancellor has done the right thing by colleges and school sixth forms in this budget with announcements of extra revenue and capital. It may not be enough to satisfy the more ambitious college building programmes, but it is a good start, and it is worth remembering that there was no school or college building programme before 1997.

Who's right on NEETs?

At Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron and Gordon Brown traded statistics on so-called NEETs - those young people not in education, employment or training. It is true that these figures are rising, and it is also true that there are more young people in education or employment than ten years ago. But what is less well understood is how dubious the headline NEET figures are in the first place. They are based on a snapshot, and they include, for example, gap year students. Those who are long-term NEET - and are not doing jobs or in training at different stages during the year - are actually a much smaller group than the main figures suggest, though in the recession they are a growing number. Politicians developing policies on the subject should look beneath the headline statistics and focus on those who need support most.
UPDATE: I'm pleased to see that the Chancellor has recognised this in his Budget plans to guarantee jobs or training to the long term youth unemployed.

Gordon Brown's plans on MPs' expenses are spot on

As John Rentoul says, Gordon Brown's proposals for flat rate daily allowances for MPs, with an end to second homes and John Lewis lists as well as cossetting of those living within the M25, are exactly what is needed to deal with the recent problems.

Of course, the media hate them. There will be no more receipts to trawl through or houses to inspire envy. The Sunday 'newspapers' will be bereft. But that's also why it is right. British MPs are not especially well rewarded compared to other parliamentarians. But the system they created for expenses couldn't have been more cockeyed especially for our FoI times.

Brown's simple but fair proposals - even if they upset those who wanted to spend months hammering out compromises in committee - are just the job. MPs should get on and introduce them quickly. Doing so can only improve faith in them in the long term.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Happy talk - behind the UK's 'dismal record' for children

A few years ago, a report appeared from UNICEF which claimed that Britain was the worst possible place for children to live: the whole thing was lapped up gleefully by everyone from the Daily Mail (as a stick to beat Labour) to Polly Toynbee (in her crusade for more cash for early years). Now a 'new' report for the Child Poverty Action Group - surprise, surprise - says pretty much the same thing and is being given top billing on Today and in the Mail. Today's Mail said that the CPAG research 'echoed' the UNICEF report. Well, it would do, wouldn't it, since the principal author of both reports is Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the Social Policy Research Unit at York University who decides which criteria to use in drawing up the league tables.

Now, having read some of his work, I think Professor Bradshaw is pretty good at his job. He can write reasonably well aside from occasional lapses into jargon - which can't always be said for academics - and has developed a perfectly reasonable theory about how to measure relative childhood happiness and quality of life across countries. But it is just that: a theory. Yet it is being treated as irrefutable fact despite his league tables (as with the UNICEF report) giving equal weight to different things that few would regard as of equal importance or reliability. The CPAG report doesn't tell you anything about Professor Bradshaw's weighting of different aspects; in order to understand why the UK does so badly, one has to understand his weighting. To do that you need to fork out $34 for an article he wrote with Dominic Richardson of the OECD (in an independent capacity) in a journal called Child Indicators Research, published earlier this month.

The research splits 43 indicators into 19 components across 7 domains, giving each domain equal weight. There, you find, for example, that the reason the UK does poorly on child health is because of its relatively low childhood immunisation rates. These are given equal weight to infant mortality and to something called 'health behaviour' based on questions to children about whether they brush their teeth, are too fat or eat apples. The UK is apparently doing fairly well on these latter scores, but has been downgraded by its low immunisation rates. I wonder which newspaper and which morning current affairs programme has most to answer for on that score?

Then, there's something called "subjective wellbeing" - which is ranked as importantly as health or education. This has three components - each one three times as important to a country's score as whether kids can read properly. These are "personal wellbeing - the percentage of children reporting high life satisfaction" - whatever that means; wellbeing at school - whether children "feel pressure at school" (bad, apparently) or "like school a lot" (good); and 'self-defined health" - whether children think they are healthy. Each of these three subjective components is ranked more importantly than whether a country's babies die in infancy. Anyway, needless to say, British kids score below average on this lot. But it is comforting to learn that in league table-free Finland, regarded as the best education system by many, children feel just as much pressure and are just as likely not to like school as their British counterparts. The authors tell us this is because "educational attainment may be a well-becoming indicator rather than a well-being indicator." I did warn you Prof Bradshaw was guilty of occasional lapses into jargon.

Next up is relationships. There are just two components here, each worth considerably more to a country's ranking than good literacy or low infant mortality. And as Britain is slightly above average here, we probably shouldn't complain. But it is again subjective and is based on the percentage of children who "find it easy to talk to" their parents and who find their classmates "kind and helpful." In case you were wondering, France is not a good place for this sort of thing. I trust President Sarkozy has a taskforce on the case already.

Then we turn to material wellbeing, which is based on relative poverty indices, measures of deprivation and children in workless households. This seems, like health, to be a reasonably objective indicator. Children in the UK are, apparently, among the most likely to be living in workless households, but the authors tell us this does not mean they are lacking in consumer durables (colour TVs, computers or cars) or under severe economic strain. The next 'domain' is risk and safety. The three components here are 'violence and violent behaviour' (fighting or experiencing bullying), child deaths and risky behaviour (early intercourse, smoking, drugs, drunkenness). Surprisingly, perhaps, the UK does a bit better on this list, being brought down by youthful drunkenness, but having a relatively low number of child deaths.

Then we turn to education. The UK gained slightly above average PISA scores (among the countries in this report) in literacy, numeracy and science (though the combination of these is only worth the same as each of the subjective questions above). The other two components are educational participation of 15-19 year-olds and in pre-school and NEET rates (those not in work, education or training). Since there is an obvious correlation between post-16 participation and NEETs, the authors have chosen to give half of the education score to this aspect of education. There is no mention of university participation, where the UK does well. And the relatively high pre-school participation rates, where the UK is also doing much better than many - and which most researchers would regard as the most crucial element - are apparently worth just a third as much as 16-19 participation/NEETs. That is the authors' choice but this is not an accurate representation of any education system. There is a final domain for housing issues, which is a second poverty grouping.

In their academic article, the authors themselves show how easy it is to manipulate the data - and, to be fair, are happy to offer it to anyone else wanting to do so. They pick just seven indicators - child immunisation, 'high life satisfaction', talking to dads, lack of educational possessions, recent bullying, maths scores and houses with housing problems and the UK finds itself up in 18th position instead of 24th, ahead now of France and Italy.

I have no quibble with researchers reporting these indicators and highlighting where Britain ranks according to each one of them. I also think it is important that young people's voices are heard - as is increasingly the case in schools. But I worry about arbitrary weightings which give far more weight to subjective - and perhaps culturally sensitive - questions than to matters of life and death or pretty basic educational outcomes. The CPAG should publish all this information on its website, but if the media weren't so keen on talking our country down, they might actually explain the arbitary nature of these rankings - and own up where our low rankings reflected their own efforts rather than the policies of the government.

This post has been picked up by John Rentoul.

Monday 20 April 2009

Children in care need pushy 'parents'

There is some good sense in today's report from the Children's select committee on children in care. The state does have to become a 'pushy parent' demanding better health and other services for those in its care. There is also a lot to commend the Danish system of care homes, and given what happened with Baby P and other such cases, there are legitimate questions about whether children are always having their needs put first.

But one of the biggest differences could be made by having more dedicated adults - individual people who are advocates but not necessarily social workers - who take individual young people under their wing and keep with them through their years of growing up, regardless of where they are placed. The 'lead professional' proposed by the Government is too often likely to change. The young people need someone who consistently acts as their advocate - and there are good advocates around - and can push bureaucracies to work in their favour as much as any pushy middle class parent. And good as the select committee report is, one must fear that if the Government pays too much attention to its bureaucratic recommendations like
We recommend that all Children’s Trusts take responsibility for multi-agency corporate parenting training, to include managers within adult ealth and social care services, and officers and members of district councils where relevant
......and too little to the need to address this concern identified in one of its own reports
Children and young people often say that they want better and more consistent relationships with the professionals who work with them. Far more than other children, children in care have to relate to a wide range of different professionals and learn to deal with different people coming in and out of their lives
.....then young people in care will continue to lose out no matter how much multi-agency corporate parenting training goes on.

Saturday 18 April 2009

The ghost of GBH at work in Erith?

News today that somebody had sought to destroy the postal votes cast in the selection for a new candidate in Erith and Thamesmead brought back unpleasant memories of the 1980s. Georgia Gould, an impressive young candidate who is also the daughter of pollster Philip Gould, was set to win the nomination in the south London seat today with the support of many ordinary party members who have little time for the machinations of the badly misnamed Campaign for Labour Democracy. Pitched against her were the combined forces of dormant Trotskyism and members of a Damian McBride tribute group who have been busy smearing her supporters. New versus old politics, in other words. When it was clear that Georgia was set to triumph over the unholy alliance, somebody decided to destroy postal votes which were expected to go in her favour. Let us hope that when the contest is rerun, Georgia triumphs. But the whole business stinks. It may be pretty difficult for Labour to win the next election. Why are these people so determined to make it impossible?

Friday 17 April 2009

Test and publish

When David Blunkett experienced the wrath of militant teachers at the NUT conference in 1995, the NASUWT's then general secretary Nigel de Gruchy ensured that the shadow education secretary had a standing ovation the following week when he turned up at their conference. So it was no surprise to read tongue-in-cheek reports today that NASUWT would strike if the tests for 11 year-olds went, a neat juxtaposition with the NUT's rallying call for a boycott of the tests by its members.

But behind the headlines there are two problems. The first is a headache for Ed Balls. He wants to move to a system of testing when ready, which would probably involve teachers in more work than the current tests, as there would be several testing opportunities each year; though the NASUWT objections are also to the NUT's absurd idea that the tests should be marked by the teachers themselves. There are good arguments for the Balls change, as well as the status quo.

There is a second problem that should worry us all. Keep tests, but scrap tables, say NASUWT. DCSF doesn't itself publish league tables. Its search engine directs you to individual school results. You can also see in an alphabetical list how those results compare with other schools if you search by local authority. Newspapers compile the tables using discs supplied by the DCSF. What NASUWT is demanding is that the government censors the information it supplies newspapers and the public. That is no more tenable than ditching the tests.

Lenny Henry is a powerful Othello

It is a long time since I've seen anyone getting such rapturous applause as the Othello cast received at Bath's Theatre Royal last night. Lenny Henry is an extraordinarily powerful Othello, giving the role the emotion and physicality it demands with great gusto, supported by an excellent cast from the Northern Broadsides/West Yorkshire Playhouse company. The cast includes a suitably villainous Conrad Nelson as Iago, a heartrending Jessica Harris as a dimunitive, naive and terrified Desdemona and a powerful finale from Maeve Larkin as Emilia. Othello is a gripping and compelling play, yet too often Shakespeare can be drily presented on stage. This production shows what can be done with a great director and an imaginative cast.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Will the Tories now give leakers carte blanche?

With the inevitable decision not to charge Damien Green or his accomplice in the Home Office leaks case, there is plenty of crowing from the Tories and criticism of the Home Secretary. The way the police handled the case was undoubtedly heavy-handed and the Commons Select Committee has said the Home Office exaggerated its concerns.

But given that the Tories think it is in order to encourage civil servants to breach the contracts they signed and the Official Secrets Act, I trust that when they next find themselves in power and trusted civil servants in their private offices take it upon themselves to share confidential briefings to ministers with the media and the opposition, we shall hear no complaints or moans.

Indeed, the right to leak must surely be written into the contract of anyone working in the private office of a Tory minister or adviser, must it not?

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Special advisers have a positive role to play in government

The last few days have not only given Downing Street's advisers a bad name (though there are many decent special advisers working in there whose names have not featured in press pictograms), they have hardly done wonders for the reputation of special advisers in general. Yet having people who understand the politics of the ministers is vital both for good governance and civil service impartiality. I spent six years in the role, working both for David Blunkett and Tony Blair.

I won't pretend the job was without its frustrations, and the sheer grind of pushing through manifesto commitments and relaying ministerial wishes didn't always make us advisers the most popular people, but neither I nor most of my fellow advisers across government would ever have thought about smearing either people within our own party or individuals in the opposition.

Instead the role was a combination of policy development - there is too little external expertise in Whitehall - and ensuring that policies were followed through (the latter being the more difficult in a civil service that had traditionally assumed a passive role in that regard). I was also one of the few advisers who spoke regularly to the media during my time with David Blunkett, largely to ensure that the government's case was heard and positive aspects of a policy got a mention in a media that invariably focused on either the negatives or political gossip.

All ministers need such people to help them do their job. But where advisers can guide civil servants in how their political masters are thinking, they can also help them do a better job. Equally, where there is trust between advisers and politicians, they can help clear up misunderstandings about what civil servants are proposing.

Political advisers are a part of governments the world over, though often in much greater numbers than here (as is causing Obama problems in the US). Their presence in British government also allows civil servants to pass on tasks like party conference speeches or political content in Commons debates that they should not engage with. If David Cameron comes to power - and he is a former special adviser himself - he will need the support of political advisers in Whitehall if he is to implement whatever policies he wants to introduce. Damien McBride's actions should not be allowed to negate that reality.

UPDATE: I was invited to talk about the role of the special adviser following the tougher code issued by Gus O'Donnell today, on the World At One. The broadcast is available here for seven days. I also see Fraser Nelson has made the case for SpAds well on the Spectator website today.

A good discipline for schools

Ed Balls may have been on the ropes this morning about his ex-colleague Damien McBride's antics in no 10. But he has a good report from Sir Alan Steer to highlight today at the NASUWT conference on school discipline and behaviour. Having consistent approaches to discipline, with clear sanctions and rewards, has brought real improvements to many schools, and can do so for the quarter or so deemed to be not good enough at the moment. So can the use of 'withdrawal rooms.'

Applying this approach - and using existing powers - is likely to be far more effective than any new legislation - as Sir Alan says, they have the powers already; at no 10, I pressed for a right to discipline which became part of the 2006 legislation - and it has the benefit of being good common sense. (The Tory idea that all heads need is a 'right to exclude without appeal' is fanciful, given that only 100 out of 8680 permanently excluded troublemakers are actually readmitted after exclusion [table 11] and this is one area where the government is right to hold the opposition to account).

I have one niggling doubt about the schools secretary's prescriptions, however: he wants local authorities to send expert teams into schools that don't come up to scratch. It would be far more effective to facilitate groups of heads working together to achieve solutions: heads learning from fellow heads are more likely to heed their advice.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Brown is better without the Damian McBrides

Damian McBride was right to resign for having sent the controversial emails suggesting smearing senior Tories. Apart from the inappropriateness and stupidity of the supposed content, it is quite extraordinary that McBride thought fit to set his thoughts down on emails, given the chequered history of such content. But the bigger issue is that Gordon Brown recognised that McBride was doing him little good when he sidelined him last year. Smears should have no place in politics - whether it comes from the likes of McBride or through Guido. And Brown is better off without those who think otherwise.

Valencia in the rain

VALENCIA - We're spending a pleasant long weekend in wet and cold Valencia, a city where many of the inhabitants - at least those not participating in the Holy Week activities - seem to have left town. Many of the shops and bars simply shut for the whole weekend. The cold and wet may not perhaps what we expected when we booked with Easyjet a few months ago. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating city which seems effortlessly to mix the old and new. The old centre, with its dominating cathedral and large central market, is a typical Mediterranean city with plenty of history as the gateway to Spain through the nearby port. But the extraordinary City of Arts and Sciences is the stuff of Prince Charles's worst architectural nightmares, a bold and daring collection of museums, concert halls and an aquarium oozing confident modernity. There's also a fairly new, spotless metro and tram system. That's the thing about modern Spain - its ability to transcend eras without apology. And Valencia does it in spades.

20 questions

I've added my responses to Paul Burgin's "20 Questions to a Fellow Blogger" here.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

A South African Tempest

Anthony Sher's Prospero has competition in dominating a cracking version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, jointly produced by the RSC and Cape Town's Baxter Theatre, which we saw last night in Bath. The African music, wonderful puppetry and spirited cast all add to the atmosphere in a lively production, which is currently on a short national tour. Sher is magnificent - of course - but there are also particularly good performances from Atandwa Kani as Ariel, John Kani as Caliban (pictured) and Tinarie Van Wyk Loots as Miranda. The production is a great example of how to fuse cultural traditions with Shakespeare in a way that greatly enhances one's enjoyment and feel for the play. It is well worth seeing.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Parents back tests - ministers need to do so more clearly too

One of the arguments made by the two teaching unions threatening to boycott national tests next year is that they have the backing of parents.

Well, they may have on the sort of self-selecting surveys that teaching unions seem to specialise in. David Aaronovitch did a good job exposing the latest ATL survey proclaiming the death of school discipline to the sort of basic scrutiny that seems to have eluded most newspapers.

And when the DCSF conducted a proper opinion poll - using Ipsos MORI and based on a scientific sample - it found a rather different picture when it comes to what parents think of tests.
  • 75% of parents think information on the performance of primary schools should be available to the general public;
  • 70% of parents place value on the tests in providing information about how their child’s school is performing;
  • 78% of parents with children who have done the tests think they are an accurate reflection of how their child is doing;
  • 69% of parents think test results are useful for teachers when their child progresses to secondary school

Even when given the chance to say whether the tests should stay as they were or be replaced, 44% of parents said tests should stay as they are, with 36% of parents wanting them replaced, with most of the latter group wanting testing to stay. As the DCSF press notice pointed out, this means that 55% of parents expressing a preference think tests should stay at they are.

Despite last year's fiasco, tests still retain majority parental support. So Ed Balls should be wary of sending mixed messages to the teaching unions at their annual whingefests. The main headline on the DCSF press release showing A MAJORITY OF PARENTS BACK TESTS was not that; instead it was KEY STAGE 2 TESTS NOT SET IN STONE, ED BALLS TELLS TEACHERS' UNION CONFERENCE with the survey results given second billing.

The truth is that the Government is looking at a more complex alternative to the current tests, which would see most pupils taking more than one test in each subject in their last two years of primary school, and wants to publish the results on a new report card. Which is fine if they can find a straightforward way to present the results, whilst getting the marking right, crediting high achievers and avoiding the low expectations which CVA value added tables have fostered.

Balls was right yesterday to make clear that some form of national testing would remain and to condemn the threatened boycott. But we need to hear much stronger and clearer support for national testing and published results from ministers, more often. The parents they polled have shown them the way.

Monday 6 April 2009

What's up with the Tories on the NHS?

Clearly all the fame has gone to Daniel Hannan's head. Being feted by the barmy Fox News for his mad attack on Gordon Brown in the European Parliament has seen him lose whatever political nous he might once have had. Labourlist has picked up a clip where the Fox hero denounces the NHS as a socialist conspiracy/consensus and hails an American system that fails to cover 40 million people. That's the view from the privatising wing of the Tory right providing one headache for David Cameron - and it is worth seeing how supposedly sane modernising candidates have been swooning over Hannan - but at the same time, his health spokesman Andrew Lansley continues to suck up to the BMA with deeply unedifying policy consequences. Isn't it about time the media asked the Tories where exactly they stand on patients rights, choice and waiting lists?

The silence of Paul Merton

We caught Paul Merton's Silent Clowns at Bath's Theatre Royal last night, the show where he presents a series of silent comedies from the early 20th century. It is wonderful to be reminded of the ingenuity of the silent film-makers. The 1925 Buster Keaton film Seven Chances, following the antics of a young man who has several hours to find a bride or lose a seven million dollar inheritance, is a gem (and is better than the advertised Steamboat Bill Jr, which I've seen before), as were shorter clips from Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and earlier French film-makers. There was some great piano-playing from Neil Brand which gave the theatre the feel of a pre-talkie cinema. But there was a some justified grumbling from the audience about how little Merton told us about the movies and movie-makers. He has undoubtedly done a great job bringing these pictures to a new audience. But he doesn't need to remain as silent as his subjects.

Sunday 5 April 2009

The Boat that Rocked

I'm not surprised that the critics hated The Boat that Rocked, Richard Curtis's homage to Radio Caroline and the sixties pirate radio stations that led to the creation of Radio 1 and nearly 300 local pop stations. I would normally be with them.

But, instead, as one who had a fleeting involvement with dry land pirate stations in Ireland in the late seventies and early eighties, I preferred to wallow in the great music and enjoy the absurd caricatures developed by Curtis and a pretty good cast - including Bill Nighy as the louche station boss, Kenneth Branagh as a Pythonesque cabinet minister (who bore little resemblance to Tony Benn) and Philip Seymour Hoffmann playing a version of the legendary Emperor Rosko (whose shows later graced the Irish pirates).

True, it didn't go into the reasons why the BBC couldn't play more pop (a Musicians' Union ban) or the ideological objections of the Labour government (who handled the whole thing very badly). And the ending was a bit ridiculous. But if you take it at face value, as an entertaining - if overlong - piece of nostalgic hokum, it is just good fun.

Some good news in the polls

Today's Sunday Times/YouGov poll shows the Tory lead reduced to seven points and a boost in Gordon Brown's personal ratings. It now needs Alastair Darling to do the goods with the Budget to consolidate this position. I've been surprised by the sourness of the Tory reaction this week: it is all-advised.

But the Government also needs to show the confidence that has been on display at the G20 this week across other policy areas: Labour has much stronger welfare and health policies than the Tories and should say so; on education, Labour academies are showing the way forward but they are not being promoted by Labour 'children's ministers' whose message on education has been lost in recent months. Here too, Labour must regain the initiative, not least in the wake of LSC incompetence over college and post-16 funding.

On a separate note, it is encouraging to see that voters have a saner attitude towards the whole issue of MP funding - and Jacqui Smith in particular - than has been exhibited in the sexist bile dumped on the Home Secretary in recent weeks. But Gordon Brown must sort the expenses issue out quickly if it is not to become a running sore that damages the government and not just the public perception of MPs.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Gordon's G20 triumph

Listening to the doom-mongers in the media in recent weeks, one would have been led to believe that the G20 would be anything from a disappointment to a disaster for the Prime Minister. While there may be no financial stimulus, the summit has made some genuinely historic and big decisions. The trillion dollars for the IMF is one. So are the tighter regulation of hedge funds and bank capital deposits and the clampdown on tax havens. Even the markets have been lifted.

Equally, there is no doubt that the images of the Obamas and other world leaders in London - including yesterday's press conference - have clearly rejuvenated the Prime Minister, who has not looked so good for a long time. Those who doubted the wisdom of placing so much store on the G20 have been seriously wrongfooted. This has been a real success for the PM, albeit one that he really needed.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Blogging from the HEFCE conference

For the second year running, I shall be joining the team blogging at the Higher Education Funding Council conference, which is being held this year at the Royal Holloway, University of London in Egham, Surrey. Higher education has a big role to play in preparing for the economic recovery when it comes, so the gathering will be of particular importance at this time, even if won't quite steal the headlines from the G20.

50 years of Ronnie Scott's

To Ronnie Scott's last night for the first time in this the jazz club's 50th anniversary year. There are those who miss the smoke and bad food that characterised the club before its makeover. I am not among them. The club now serves better food, and it is a bit pricier, but it continues to surprise and delight with its music. I had not, to my shame, previously heard the Brazilian singer Joyce Moreno, who was singing last night her mix of brilliant Bossa Nova standards and some of her own compositions. But I will certainly listen to her again. There was also a splendid support act in Jiving Miss Daisy, with Anjali Perin singing some great 40s and 50s songs. And that's the thing about the club: you always get something good, and often different. Fifty years on, Ronnie Scott's is still bringing us great music.