Thursday 27 August 2009

The wrong education battle

Why on earth is the schools minister Vernon Coaker arguing about accreditation for the International GCSE (on the World at One today) on a day when we should be celebrating the achievements of young people, and the record of the Labour government in improving secondary education? Is it any wonder that people don't recognise Labour's improvements when ministers spend their time being sidetracked into pointless debates?

It is a silly debate, yet officialdom in both DCSF and the QCDA are fervent in their refusal to recognise the IGCSE, just as they are disdainful of the International Baccalaureate, from which Ed Balls shamefully cut funding. But both qualifications could offer real competition to other exams, helping maintain standards, and the official arguments against their recognition are pretty weak.

It must be said that the Tories are taking a more discreditable stance in their attempt to do down the achievements of those following vocational routes. But ministers are failing to focus on the real dividing lines between the parties by defending the indefensible. If schools want to offer the IB or IGCSE, they should let them do so. And credit their achievements in league tables - as well as those pursuing vocational routes.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Edward Kennedy 1932-2009

Ted Kennedy, who has died after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer, achieved more by not becoming president than either of his two assassinated brothers. Of course, he was a flawed character, as his response at Chappaquiddick and the incident in Florida demonstrated. But he was also a truly great legislator, who despite his liberalism (or perhaps because of it) recognised the importance of reaching across party lines in the US context to achieve change that would make a real difference to his poorer constituents and to African Americans.

No Child Left Behind has its flaws, but it was the first serious attempt to address the great flaws of the American public school system. His work on civil, labour and voting rights was transformative. He paved the way for health care reform, and one must only hope that Barack Obama doesn't blow it.

And as I write this from County Cork, RTE radio reminds its listeners - as if they need reminding - that it was his influence more than most that changed Irish America in its vital role in ensuring that mainstream Irish Republicanism embraced the Northern peace process. Of course, he was also a great lion of Democratic politics, even though his 1980 efforts to wrest the nomination from the hapless Jimmy Carter proved a failure for both men ultimately, and a skilled convention orator. But it for his legislative legacy, rather than his being the last of the Kennedy siblings, that he most deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Irish sojourn

We're off to Ireland today for a couple of weeks' holiday. Blogging will be less frequent as a result.

Monday 17 August 2009

The future of league tables

Whatever happens at the next election, schools will be subject to performance tables. Labour is proposing to grade schools according not only to their exam results, but also their wider extra-curricular activities and what parents think about them, with a new report card. Yesterday, the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove proposed that the existing tables be skewed so that schools get more marks for physics and no marks for vocational subjects.

Gove seemed to confuse several things in his remarks on league tables, and his attempt to suggest 'all was awful' drove him into the realms of hyperbole. First, he ignored the fact government has already changed the 5A-C benchmark by focusing on those schools that achieve the benchmark including English and Maths. That has changed the rankings considerably. Second, he ignored the fact that there is already a GCSE points score in the tables, though only the Guardian uses it for its rankings. Newspapers compile league tables, government provides the information. And third, he ignores the changes to A-levels that will mean tougher exams and more open-ended questions next year. These were part of a package introduced by Alan Johnson and Tony Blair.

That said, Gove makes a reasonable point when he argues the importance of international rankings, though he ignores those tables where England has done better. And there is a perfectly good case for giving schools an incentive to sit A-level students in tougher subjects like physics by giving them extra credit in point scores for those subjects. I also agree with the idea of having league tables based on university success rates, something the Sutton Trust has proposed.

However, the idea that schools should get no credit in mainstream league tables for vocational qualifications is wrong-headed and dangerous. Some such courses were over-credited at GCSE in the past, but that shouldn't prevent schools being recognised when they help practically-oriented students to do well. Not every pupil will be going to university, let alone Oxford or Cambridge; many may want to go on to apprenticeships or vocational degrees. And such courses often have a very good employment record. Of course, the qualifications should be rigorous, and any credits appropriate. There must be a place for both the academic and vocational. But if schools are not incentivised to guide pupils towards the most appropriate courses for them, we will end up with students given advice to take academic options as inappropriate as the advice being given to some academically able students to steer away from hard academic subjects.

This post also features on the Public Finance blog.

Saturday 15 August 2009

The value of universal healthcare

Janice Turner's column in this morning's Times is one of the sharpest defences of the NHS and best indictments of the shortcomings of American healthcare that I have read:
I happened to read Senator Grassley’s statement that in Britain the 77-year-old Ted Kennedy would not have received treatment for his brain tumour, at the bedside of my 86-year-old father. Mr Grassley’s view that “when you get to be 77, your life is considered less valuable under these [NHS] systems” seemed rather surreal, as my old pa, who collapsed at home, was brain- scanned until it was discovered that he had suffered a minor stroke. As a consultant attended him, physios assessed him and he was found a place in a rehabilitation unit, where he will spend a month recovering, I thought how the life of this elderly man — no high-born statesman but a person of modest means — was treated as immensely precious. Throughout this difficult week, in which I was plunged abruptly into the dark labyrinth that is geriatric care, I gave thanks that the least of my worries — and more importantly my father’s — was money.
Of course, the NHS needs reform, and the Labour government has done - and is doing - much to introduce choice, shorter waiting lists, cleaner and more pleasant wards. Indeed, a danger of the crudity of the debate as it has been framed by the 'eccentric' Daniel Hannan is that the Conservatives retreat further into the dishonest bubble of complacency on health policy that has been effortlessly occupied by BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley since he became shadow health secretary.

An end to entitlements on waiting times, as the Tories propose, will bring back the extreme examples of waits that have so exercised the Republican right. There will be plenty of A&E horror stories again, and an end to the 18 week diagnosis to treatment guarantee.

Nevertheless, the great principle of the NHS, as Turner says, is its underlying principle of universality. Preserving that is what matters.

Friday 14 August 2009

Those teachers without 2 A levels

Alan Smithers and his team at the University of Buckingham do a fairly good analysis of our trainee and newly trained teachers each year. Their league tables are a must for potential students. This year, they note, for example that 80 per cent of teachers trained in schools are teaching a year later, but the figure is rather lower among those trained at universities, though a snapshot six months after graduation may not tell the whole story. This is another argument for extending employment-based training, which has already grown substantially under Labour to a fifth of all training.

But they are being a bit disingenuous in the claim that has hit the headlines: two thirds of science teachers don't have 2 A levels. Of course, this refers only to those on four year undergraduate courses, a route mainly chosen by primary teachers. Buckingham's own data shows that only 6 per cent of secondary teachers are now trained on such courses. In fact, there were only 953 people accepted onto all four year secondary teaching courses in 2008, of which only a fraction will have been to science, compared with 5147 onto postgraduate PGCE science courses alone. And as the Buckingham team acknowledge, 78% of them had good degrees.

There is a good case for scrapping undergraduate secondary specialist teaching, and shifting more places to school-based training. But it isn't helped by playing to the August 'everything in education stinks' gallery.

A week that added to the doubts about Cameron

This week has given us the merest glimpse of what lies behind the facade of Cameron's Conservatives. Fortunately for Cameron, lots of people are on holiday. But those floating voters with doubts about his changes have had three things to add to their doubts.

  • First off, George Osborne made clear how much he wanted to see real cuts in public services, despite his fanciful pretence that measures like adding 220,000 surplus school places would save money.
  • Then, Alan Duncan, with characteristic honesty, was caught admitting what most of his Tory colleagues really think about Cameron's response to the expenses saga

  • And finally, Daniel Hannan joined the loonies on Fox again - chewing the fat with those who see him as a Prime Minister-in waiting - to trash the NHS and Obama just as Cameron was unpacking his swimming trunks.

    Meanwhile Peter Mandelson didn't put a foot wrong as he deputised for the holidaying PM. At least, Cameron can rejoice in the reselection of Anne Main as the party's standard-bearer in St Albans, can't he?

Easy targets

I've blogged at the Public Finance blog on the Centre for Policy Studies report on quangos. You can read my thoughts here.

The desimation of skool standards

A heartfelt plea to be left free from inspectors and government spelling lists, from the comments on the Telegraph's website:
Labour have desimated the standards of Education over the past 12 years with their constant interference and micro management, that teachers have given up teaching what they should and now just parret face from government instructions.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Don't lose a primary focus on the basics

I have a column in today's Independent, reiterating the case for testing after last week's disappointing Key Stage 2 results. You can read it here. Here's an extract

The most important feature of the years between 1995 and 2000, when results rose rapidly, was single-minded momentum. Schools were in no doubt that their top priority was the 3Rs. That momentum disappeared as ministers merged the literacy and numeracy strategies into a catch-all primary strategy, and began to give equal emphasis to welfare issues. Of course, primary schools should offer a broad curriculum and care for their pupils' welfare. And they should ensure that pupils who can read get access to plenty of good books.

But the focus of government needs to be clear. After all, those pupils who don't reach level 4 are unlikely to gain five good GCSEs. And without them, they will find it much harder to get a good job or progress to university...... let's not lose sight of why testing and accountability were introduced – too many primary schools assumed that children would acquire the 3Rs through osmosis or their parents. The losers in this lottery were poorer pupils without supportive or fluent parents.

And, given the evidence that rigorous phonics, a sound grasp of grammar and punctuation, and a facility with mental arithmetic are essential building blocks for the 3Rs, governments should not shy away from expecting schools to deliver them. But if government wants schools to do better, it must avoid mixed messages.

Ministers made a big error allowing the abandonment of Labour's literacy and numeracy strategies to be seen as an admission of their failure. And the Tories played a foolish game when they suggested that the Key Stage 2 tests could be replaced by teacher-marked tests in secondary school (they have since indicated that external marking is more likely).

The main reason there has been so little recent progress has been that – with the exception of a renewed focus on phonics – there has been too much muddle over what matters in primary schools. The latest thematic review of the curriculum is in danger of adding to the confusion. But the strategies should not be revived: schools must be held accountable instead for the extent to which they successfully teach the 3Rs, and encouraged to use the best of the available commercial teaching programmes. Ofsted inspections should ensure that children are taught the basics properly, and show how some schools succeed against the odds.

Yet, in the end, the only way that we can know whether individual primary schools are doing their job is through independently set and marked tests. To imagine that our children would be better taught without them is to ignore the lessons of history.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Progressive Conservatives?

George Osborne has chosen to eschew the hospitality of Nathan Rothschild this year - or more likely the other way around - in order to speak to us about the Conservatives as the new progressives. But they are progressives with a twist: as a result of their belief in reform, they will also save cash, he says.

Let's take these propositions at face value. On reform, the record is pretty patcy. It is true that Michael Gove has some interesting ideas on schools, though his structural school reforms largely build on Labour academies and legal requirements for more providers in schools. The big difference is the cost. An extra 220,000 surplus school places are promised, and are essential to deliver the promised changes, at a cost of £1 billion a year. Some £4.5 billion of capital would be raised from existing plans to replace or renew schools. So, no savings there.

But, as we have seen, education reform is not matched in health. Indeed the BMA spokesman and shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley is determined to push up waiting times, demand less from doctors and assume that patients will prosper merely because they (and the hackers of Russia) can access their patient records on Google. He has also declared that NHS spending will rise without this reform.

Equally, on political reform, the record is just as patchy. The Totnes primary was a good idea, and Labour should embrace primaries. I'm backing the Progress campaign there. But it is hardly cost-free. And more to the point, David Cameron has set himself resolutely against electoral reform, even though it would with the Alternative Vote or Additional Member System do more to ensure that voters had a direct say over who was their MP than the current system. Again, hardly a bastion of progress.

But, there is a reason they're still called the Conservatives, isn't there?

Monday 10 August 2009

Fermat's Room

We finally caught Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena's brilliant mathematical thriller, Fermat's Room (La habitación de Fermat) at the weekend. A taut clever thriller, it brings four maths geniuses together ostensibly to solve a complex enigma, but in reality to subject them to a terrifying ordeal. Hercule Poirot may not be amongst them, but there are enough false trails to energise the little grey cells, all served up with the chilling horror of a room that has no obvious exit but is gradually reducing in size, and will crush them if they don't solve a series of problems. This is an excellent debut by the Spanish directors, and if it is still around where you are, don't miss it. It may be the most gripping 90 minutes you experience all year.

Selective statistics

Fraser Nelson also inadvertently demonstrates the fallacy of the attack in many papers today on the notion that more should be done to encourage bright youngsters with potential to aspire and apply to our elite universities. He publishes this table in an effort to show that comprehensive schools are rubbish.

Of course, what he ignores is the fact that a selective school chooses only the top 25% of pupils in a given catchment area - and often a tighter group than that given their paucity - so it is absurd to compare its exam performance directly with that of a comprehensive school, where though there will often by a 5 A-C at GCSE expectation for A-level groups, the cohort will be much wider in ability than a grammar or independent school. Without such weighting, the comparisons are pretty meaningless. He has also ignored sixth form and FE colleges for his comparison. When these are added in, a total of 14,893 students gained 3As from 'comprehensive schools' last year compared with 5,470 in selective schools and 10,680 from independent schools. Certainly still not as good as they should be doing, but the key point being made by the Sutton Trust is that pupils gaining 3As from state schools are less likely than those from independent schools to go to a top university.

And here, exam results aren't necessarily the biggest problem. It is the lack of ambition of students and some teachers in too many comprehensives. It is the failure to guide students towards the right subjects. And it is a lack of the sort of self-confidence and self-belief that often comes with a public school education. A growing number of comprehensives, including Academies, are starting to recognise this. Whether students might benefit from the allocation of scholarships to the best achievers in certain inner city schools or some recognition of potential beyond A levels - what is hilariously called 'class war' - matters less than whether they gain these attributes, and do so from an early stage in their secondary education.

Lansley the lingering liability

Fraser Nelson asks how long David Cameron can keep the BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley in his shadow health post (let alone make the man health secretary if he wins a general election).
On the Marr sofa (or the Sophie Raworth sofa as it was today), he announced that the Tories are planning "real term increases to the NHS year on year." Well, David Cameron has only said he would protect health from cuts - but he has not specified how long for. It could be as little as one year.
Nelson worries that he has gone native on NHS spending, after a series of gaffes and unapproved funding commitments. Cameron should be equally worried that Lansley is opposed to any sensible accountability or reform for that money. After all, his every pronouncement is an echo of what the BMA says, and apart from shoving patient records securely on Google, he shows no interest in what patients experience at the hands of their members.

Lansley was promised the job by Cameron for some reason best known to himself. But having changed his mind on virtually everything else he has said over the last two years, surely it can only be a matter of time before Cameron finds a new shadow health secretary?

UPDATE: And even his Google Health wheeze seems to have fallen flat.

A guide to modern Ireland

A brilliant exposition of modern Irish politics from the Irish News.

Ireland is an island to the west of Britain, but Northern Ireland is just off the mainland – not the Irish mainland, the British mainland....

The capital of Ireland is Dublin. It has a population of a million people, all of whom will be shopping in Newry this afternoon. They travel to Newry because it is in the North, which is not part of Ireland.

Under the Irish constitution, the North used to be but a successful 30-year campaign of violence for Irish unity ensured that it is now definitely in the UK. Had the campaign lasted longer the North might now be in France.

Hat tip: Slugger O'Toole

UPDATE: For the benefit of correspondents in the comments, this is a light-hearted satirical piece from the Irish News flagged up by Slugger. It is not my considered view of the geography or politics of Ireland!

Friday 7 August 2009


We saw the revival of Michael Frayn's 1978 farce Balmoral at the Theatre Royal Bath. This is the story of an imaginary gathering of writers in 1937 at the freezing Balmoral Writers Retreat (no longer occupied by any Royals) in Soviet Britain, after the 1917 rising took place in the UK rather than Russia. It is an entertaining farce based around four writers at the retreat in the depths of winter, but lacks any real political bite. There are amusing touches, not least as the writer of erotic verse Enid Blyton discovers her true vocation and the Beaverbrook Royalist hack Godfrey Winn is portrayed as a slavish supporter of the State's version of the truth.

Despite this, the play is more slapdash comedy than serious critique. It was served well by a competent, if slightly raucous cast. Rik Mayall was supposed to play Skinner, the warden of the house, and was ably replaced by Steve McNeil. In any event, his seemed a lesser role than that of the 'butler' and general factotum, McNab, played here comedian Andy Gray, but played by Fulton Mackay in the original seventies production.

Blame Brown for everything

The Local Government Association, a body now controlled by the Conservatives, commissioned a report which proposed means testing free bus passes for the elderly. So how does the Daily Mail respond to this outrageous plan in a report commissioned by the Tories?

Scrap our free bus passes? That'll be your ticket to ballot box oblivion, Mr Brown

Labour needs US-style primaries

David Miliband is absolutely right to argue for a system of registered party supporters, as in the United States, in his article in Tribune (ironically not online, though significantly a Tribune leader attacking him is!).

As with most parties, Labour has been rapidly losing members in recent years, as its dated ways of doing business slip into increasing irrelevance nearly a decade into the 21st century. What Miliband is proposing is not a free-for-all as with the Tories in Totnes, but a system of registered supporters who vote in primaries, and are presumably available for invitation to fundraising and other events.

It was dispiriting to hear Neal Lawson, once a serious moderniser, defending the status quo - albeit with PR whichI support - presumably in the knowledge that a smaller party may be more likely to succumb to vote-losing ideas, as it did in the eighties. It is simply untenable to expect that the only people who should have a view on Labour's candidates are those who turn up to hear the minutes of the last meeting read before the guest speaker from Compass or the self-styled Campaign for Labour Party Democracy drones on about the evils of a three-term Labour government and the wonders of Hugo Chavez.

If politics is to regain a relevance in people's lives, we need simpler structures and much more flexibility about how people can register their support and get involved.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Take a proper holiday, Gordon

I don't often agree with Stephen Glover. But his plea to the PM - presumably written with some encouragement by Brown's friend Paul Dacre - to take a proper holiday is spot on.

This time in 12 months we could well have another prime minister. That thought should not galvanise Mr Brown into still more intense feats of activity. It should make him pause and reflect. A holiday properly spent gives one a sense of perspective on one's problems, and can put oneself in a stronger position to address them......The odd thing is that, unlike many observers, I believe there is still a lot to play for. The die is not irrevocably cast in favour of the Tories. They are not bound to win by a stonking majority. If only Mr Brown could summon the energy and calmness that one needs before a great battle, he might yet put in an impressive performance.....

It is not impossible that by early next year Gordon Brown will have a positive story to tell - namely that he and the Chancellor, Alastair Darling, took measures, largely opposed by the Tories, which enabled Britain to emerge from the global recession earlier than its rivals. But if Mr Brown is going to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in recent political history, he will first have to inspire and reenergise his party at its autumn conference, and then convince a battered, surly and cynical electorate that Britain really has turned the corner as a result of the Government's policies. And he won't have the slightest chance of achieving this enormous task as long as he resembles one of the living dead in a late-night horror movie, making us feel uncomfortable just to look at him. He needs to bound back with all the self-belief and sense of hope he exuded when he took over from Tony Blair just over two years ago.

Senior Tory attacks Cameron's localism: shock?

A rising star in the Conservative Party today launched a scathing attack on his leader's policy of localism. Shadow health minister Grant Shapps denounced David Cameron's plans to extend a postcode lottery in IVF treatment.

"Prioritisations must be made equitably," the rising Tory star declared. But this runs counter to the rousing declarations of support for decentralisation made by Cameron. "Decentralisation isn't just some theory - it really matters," the Tory leader has declared. "We're not control freaks, we're enablers."

That's not quite how the news that some health authorities have chosen not to offer three IVF cycles to infertile couples was reported (though Jim Naughtie did ask some searching questions even if he got some disingenuous answers).

But if Tory would-be ministers insist on getting cheap headlines by criticising the government for not imposing more central control over local institutions, shouldn't they have to spell out exactly what they would do themselves to rectify the situation. Or stop talking rot.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

What do the test results tell us today?

Today's Key Stage 2 test results may not tell us an awful lot. Despite the headlines, the fall in English - one point - is neither here nor there, and could disappear after the final results are published, though it may signal lost momentum, as the pressure has eased on primary schools.

Also, as Sarah Ebner points out, it is worth recognising that a level 3 is not the equivalent of illiteracy; when David Blunkett decided that level 4 should be the expected standard, he did so in the knowledge that it was conceived as the average. The truth is the tests show no significant change from last year; that is in itself of concern.

But there are four things we should take from the tests. The first is how important it is to have independent evidence of how pupils are doing in each school in the 3Rs, and how far pupils have come since 1995 with the tests. The second is that writing remains weaker than reading probably because schools don't do enough to encourage creativity alongside the grammar (though do remember that grammar and punctuation had disappeared for too long), and haven't yet found a good way to enthuse boys.

And the third is that there are plenty of schools in disadvantaged areas that get better than average results. Their secrets should be kitemarked and shared in place of the now defunct national strategies. Their heads should also do more mentoring of their weaker colleagues. Finally, the weakening of level 5 results since 2007 suggests that not enough is being done to stretch bright pupils. In a significant minority of schools, this should be the expected result for most pupils rather than level 4.

But before we indulge in a bout of collective government-bashing and educational dystopianism, let us not forget that in the first year of the tests in 1995, just 49% of pupils gained a level 4 in English and 45% did so in Maths (See Table 1 and Chart A). 80% did so in English and 79% in Maths this year. Had the 1995 results been replicated today, 178,870 fewer pupils would have gained a level 4 in English and 196,180 fewer pupils would have done so in Maths.

Monday 3 August 2009

The maintenance of exam standards

The A level and GCSE results can only be weeks ago, because the dumbing down debate has started in earnest. First off, the universities select committee publishes a report attacking universities for a virtual doubling in the number of candidates awarded first class honours degrees. Then comes the shadow schools secretary promising to advance his enthusiasm for history by publishing past exam papers online.

Both rather miss the point. With universities, there is certainly room for greater input by external examiners, preferably from overseas, to ensure that standards remain rigorous. But it is virtually impossible to make a meaningful comparison between a First won for a professional or vocational qualification against one in a scientific or humanities subject. Just as with school exams, there is not a lot of point making bald comparisons over time either. No 1950s exam paper would have displayed much familiarity with modern computers or bioscience, for example. Equally, there is little point in young people today using the log tables I had to use in my youth.

What matters most is the currency of the exams with employers and international students. So what's needed is a proper system within different subjects to ensure high standards across countries. And within countries, there is some merit in publishing employment and postgraduate data for each course and grade so students can see their currency. (There may also be a good case for simply publishing student marks, and skipping the 2:1s and 2:2s which have become less meaningful, alongside the level of work needed to gain those marks). What is definitely not needed is a huge new layer of bureaucracy to force the sort of 'parity of esteem' on higher education that has bedevilled vocational education for younger people.

With school exams, I'm all for transparency. When I worked with David Blunkett in the first term of this government, we allowed students to see their marked papers by right, something we did in the teeth of fierce opposition from the exam boards. Of course, past papers should be published online. But let's not pretend that they offer much more than historical curiosities in most subjects. What matters is that there is a robust independent mechanism in place - and has been since 1996 - ensuring that standards are maintained over time. It has not been afraid to point out where it believes standards are slipping. But it is able to take full account of advances in knowledge and technology as well as that which is timeless. Ensuring that mechanism remains and is strengthened is the best way to guarantee standards.