Monday 28 December 2009

My top ten lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 21 December 2009

Eurostar adding insult to injury

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

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

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

Eco-smug to eco-mug Christmas travel

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

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

Sunday 20 December 2009

Irish woes

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

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

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

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

This post has been picked up by Iain Dale.

Friday 18 December 2009

A Serious Man

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

Thursday 17 December 2009

Will class war win Labour a fourth term?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bad day for democracy. Really?

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

Monday 14 December 2009

Eco-smug Christmas travel

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

Friday 11 December 2009

Labour's PBR council gains

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

Pride and Prejudice

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

Thursday 10 December 2009

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

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

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Budget balance

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

Sunday 6 December 2009

Pots and Kettles

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

Friday 4 December 2009


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

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

Choice advice needs to improve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 3 December 2009

False dividing lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Game, set and match to Brown

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

Tuesday 1 December 2009

A Scottish tale of broken promises, localism and wishful thinking

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

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

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

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

Primary results

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

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

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

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