Friday 26 February 2010

Home schooling mustn't be a cover for abuse

The law allows parents to educate their children at home. It is right that it does so, as parents are their child's primary educator. But that should not mean that there are no checks to ensure that this is not a cover for permanent truancy or the sort of horrific abuse reported in Birmingham yesterday. There is far too much centralisation and regulation in the current Children, Schools and Families Bill that Ed Balls has brought into parliament. But one area of the Bill - which is being opposed by the Tories in the face of a rowdy opposition from home schoolers - is long overdue. The Bill requires local authorities to keep a register of all children of school age who are being educated at home. Without such a register, how can we expect social workers to follow up the sort of concerns initially expressed by Khyra's headteacher? (Equally, it should be said the failure of social workers to deal with heads' initial concerns highlights the problems with the bureaucracy around safeguarding - schools should have their own social worker on staff able to investigate abuse rather than having to rely on the so-called multi-agency response system)

Yet Michael Gove has declared the plans for a register "deeply sinister" and has promised to block them, as have the Liberal Democrats. Of course, parents should have the right to educate their children at home so long as that is what they are doing, and many home educators do a great job. But equally we have an obligation to the children to be sure this is not used by a minority as a cover for the sort of abuse shown to Khyra Ishaq. After all, twice as many children on the child protection register are 'home educated' as those educated at school. Children's interests must come first. And the three political parties should quickly agree a light touch registration arrangement that ensures that they do. To do so is only 'totalitarian' if one believes that the interests of the child are always outweighed by the beliefs of the parent - even if they should contribute to their child's death.

Hedda Gabler

Rosamund Pike is simply superb as an icily beautiful and statuesque Hedda Gabler in the Bath Theatre Royal revival of Ibsen's story of the frustrated woman whose scheming has shocking and tragic consequences. Pike's chilling portrayal brings out the demon that Ibsen saw in Hedda to full effect, while being ably supported by Tim McInnerny in a great performance as the louche Judge Brack. The combination of tragic menace, shocking indiscretion and frustrated hestitation is wonderfully captured in Adrian Noble's production of a very modern translation by Michael Meyer. Other cast members, including Anna Carteret as Auntie Ju-Ju and Robert Glennister as Hedda's adoring but boring husband Tesman, make for a bracing evening's entertainment. It is a sure-fire hit when in reaches the West End.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Cameron flunks it

David Cameron was the clear loser at PMQs. He failed to use the most open of open goals to good effect, and even got his figures wrong on the Tories' own story about per capita GDP. To follow my discussion with Paul Richards and Rachel Reeves about PMQs visit Progress Online.

This posting was picked by the Guardian website.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Labour's accredited schools providers are a step forward

Gordon Brown's announcement today that the Government is accrediting the best academy providers, plus some universities and excellent secondary schools as schools providers, with parents having the power to demand change, is a significant step forward in Labour's schools policy. Until now, the party had appeared far too defensive about structural reform in the face of Michael Gove's Swedish free schools policies, and had been unprepared to take sufficient credit for Labour's academies, allowing the Tories to adopt them as their own.

The new policy will allow parents to demand a new school provider - choosing from those like the Harris Federation that are showing such success in academies, or from excellent schools like Outwood Grange - if their own school is failing. The local authority will be obliged to ballot parents on the plan but they can't ignore parents' wishes. The policy will apply as much to primary as secondary schools. Schools already have the right to opt for foundation or trust status, something a new provider is sure to demand.

The policy is certainly a less costly route to diversity in these straitened times. But there are some potential pitfalls. The first is that it doesn't extend the academies programme and freedoms as much as it should. Despite No 10's best efforts, there is still a blind spot about academy status in DCSF. All the schools that become part of the academy chains should be able to become academies, funded directly from Whitehall and fully independent of the local authority. Second, the government has missed an opportunity to reverse its silly opposition to primary academies: a chain of primary schools could be the ideal way to develop this approach. There are also important issues around how chains are inspected and held accountable, as Robert Hill argues in a new think piece for the National College.

Nevertheless, by moving onto a debate about the right structures needed to raise standards, Gordon Brown has finally put his stamp on an education policy that has been allowed to drift for too long with the lack of focus that came from trying to mesh schools and family policy in a single department. These new 'brands' of school could extend Tony Blair's academies' strengths in a fruitful direction. By combining new powers for parents, structural reform and a strong drive for minimum standards through the National Challenge, Labour is offering a serious alternative to the Tories' policies at a time when they are facing increasing questions about affordability and impact. Labour's manifesto should give this new policy the additional radical edge it deserves.

A version of this posting appears on the Public Finance blog.

We need more curriculum clarity

Ed Balls has inevitably had to give ground on his sex and relationships education plans in the Children, Schools and Families Bill, despite his protestations to the contrary today. But there is a far bigger problem with the ludicrous attempt to impose a lengthy personal, social and health education curriculum on every school and academy up to age 16, at a time when languages, design technology, history and other subjects are at the discretion of schools at Key Stage 4. The decision to abandon Key Stage 3 tests has meant the abandonment of Shakespeare at Key Stage 3. Today's predictable climbdown in the face of church lobbying obscures the confusion at the heart of the Government's approach to the curriculum. Instead of a piecemeal approach to different subjects, we need a much clearer sense of the essential knowledge and skills that young people should acquire between the ages of 11 and 16, with schools and academies able to develop their own programmes to provide them and other subjects they choose to offer in ways that work with their students.

Monday 22 February 2010

Shouldn't the Charity Commission investigate this 'helpline'?

Until yesterday, I have to confess that I had never heard of the 'National Bullying Helpline', despite working closely with various anti-bullying charities in my time in government. And there are plenty of excellent organisations, like Kidscape and Bullying UK that provide good impartial advice on school bullying, for example.

But, I'm quite sure that nobody in their right mind would want to call this helpline in the future given its founder's blase attitude to confidentiality and her admission that the website refers people to a few favoured solicitors. I'm not surprised that one of the only non-partisan patrons of the 'helpline', Professor Cary Cooper has quit as a patron because of Christine Pratt's flagrant breach of confidentiality. But the whole saga also raises issues about the charitable status of the organisation, which were not satisfactorily dealt with by Mrs Pratt in her interviews today.

A registered charity should be resolutely non-partisan - actively seeking support from all three parties if politicians from one party are involved - yet the front page of this organisation's website boasts quotes only from Ann Widdecombe (who, to be fair, has commendably expressed outrage at Mrs Pratt's behaviour yesterday) and David Cameron.

And such an organisation should not just be impartial in its politics, but in the advice it offers. The Charity Commission says that where charities are used for 'significant private advantage', there may be grounds for removing an organisation's charitable status. There are 5,000 employment lawyers in the country, yet this charity seems to refer people to just five firms, one of which is apparently run by her husband (as Mrs Pratt admitted on the Today programme). There is nothing wrong with running a website and 'helpline' to promote firms of solicitors, and offering some potentially helpful free advice in the process, but I can't see why it should qualify for charitable status any more than the 'free half hour' that most solicitors offer new clients should qualify them for charitable status.

I trust the Charity Commission will now be taking a close look at whether the 'National Bullying Helpline' has lived up to its obligations as a charity. None of this is to defend unreasonable behaviour by the PM or anyone else in No 10: if it has happened, it should be dealt with appropriately. But Mrs Pratt has allowed her own prejudices to outweigh the duty she has to anyone who trusted her 'helpline' as a source of impartial advice and confidentiality. And far from gaining the positive publicity she presumably hoped to elicit through her media interventions yesterday, she has caused immeasurable damage to her own organisation.

Saturday 20 February 2010

A future fair for all

Fairs for all - isn't that better than Dave's slow train age of austerity? But surely Labour can do better than 'protecting' front line services? We have an excellent record of public service reform and strong ambitions to do more. Why this is largely ignored in the party's new campaign slogans and website is beyond me. We need more than 'protection' to combat the Tories: we need to show the level of our aspiration and ambition. Plans for academies and new school brands, improved healthcare and highspeed rail need to be given the airing they deserve.

Friday 19 February 2010

The Tories' planning paradox

Listening to Tory transport spokesperson Theresa Villiers trying to explain on the Today programme why she couldn't take up Andrew Adonis's generous offer to give her early sight of his transport white paper and why she couldn't back a high-speed link to Birmingham - apparently it would undermine her commitment to yah-boo politics - I was struck by one extraordinary paradox in the Tories' approach to planning. After years of frustration, Labour sensibly established a fast-track planning mechanism to support large projects. Now Ms Villiers plans to undermine any chance of a UK high speed rail network a mere 20 years after our major competitors by handing the decision back to interminable planning inquiries.

However, her saner colleague Michael Gove who has seen how such Nimbyism can impede the establishment of academies, has decided that planning decisions about new schools, including new primaries, will be taken centrally in his department should be become secretary of state. So major national infrastructure projects like high speed rail will be taken only after every parish council has had the chance to complain, but local councils will have no say on whether new primary schools should be established in their communities. That's localism in action, I suppose.

This posting has been picked up by Stumbling and Mumbling.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Private Lives

To see Richard Eyre's sparky production of Noel Coward's Private Lives at Bath's Theatre Royal last night. With Kim Cattrall (left) as Amanda and Matthew MacFadyen as Elyot, there is no shortage of glamour in this revival of the 1930 comedy which originally brought Coward and Gertrude Lawrence together in the lead roles. Amanda and Elyot have been divorced for five years, and find themselves both on honeymoon with new partners in Deauville, with serious and not entirely predictable, often comic and sometimes shocking consequences. The new Bath production enlivens every line of Coward's drama while Cattrall and MacFadyen are brilliant in the roles, though they are ably supported by Simon Paisley Day as stuffy Victor and Lisa Dillon as the romantic perfectionist Sybil. This is a great production of one of Coward's best plays, and should be a big hit when it transfers to the Vaudeville in London. It has had a rapturous reception in Bath.
This posting has been picked up by the Darcylicious/Matthew MacFadyen blog.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Empathy or traditionalism: Goldie's lesson for Gove

One of the biggest problems with the Tories' school policies is the contradiction between their desire to let a thousand flowers bloom when it comes to 'free schools' and their own strong convictions about an ideal curriculum or syllabus. Michael Gove is commendably strong in his opposition to Islamist extremism. Yet there are supporters of extremist Islamism, as well as scientologists and various religious cults, keen to establish taxpayer-funded schools. On the curriculum, Gove's support for traditionalist rigour sits uneasily with the thematic skills-based learning that many schools believe to be more relevant. And at the weekend, we learnt that a prime candidate for some of Gove's new schools is the actress Goldie Hawn, whose MindUP organisation advocates empathy rather than traditionalist teaching (although to be fair, her foundation includes some respected mainstream educationists among its directors).

However, this incongruity has finally awoken the anxieties of the Daily Mail, which has a scathing attack today on the actress's philosophy and Gove for adopting her 'unproven' approach. As Christopher Wilson writes:
Whether the Tories’ Mr Gove has checked the efficacy of this system, we wait to see; more crucial is how he can contemplate giving taxpayers’ money to a system devised and patented by an unqualified individual, whose knowledge of the special educational problems of this country can at best be rudimentary.....Surely, with ‘hundreds’ of teachers trained in the use of MindUP, the research has already been done — it either works, or it doesn’t. Apparently not. So quite what value MindUP can offer our nation’s children can only be in the far-seeing eye of Mr Gove. But when putting forward his ideas, it’ll be interesting to see how many times he comes up with the word ‘ empathy’ — for ‘empathy’ is what MindUP is all about.

Monday 15 February 2010

Brown was right to do the ITV interview

With an audience of four million at 10.15 and a profile that no party political broadcast could replicate, of course Gordon Brown was right to do the interview with Piers Morgan last night. It showed a side of Brown that the public - and many of those who worked in government - rarely saw and he came across the better for it. To say that he shouldn't have talked about his family tragedies in such circumstances is as absurd as saying that politicians should never engage with mass appeal TV shows or talk to the Saturday supplement of The Times. Of course, one television programme won't change the political weather but it does help to leaven the caricature so assiduously cultivated by David Cameron and his media allies ahead of an election, as even Fraser Nelson recognises.

Osborne's plan for William Tyndale Mark 2

Until today, the Tories had the makings of a coherent education policy. They were planning to encourage the development of free schools on Swedish lines and extend Labour's academies programme. Parents or teachers were to have the chance to set up new schools, which in reality would have involved their engaging with other providers, many of which have developed in recent years to run academies. Heads would have been given more say over curriculum and pay. There were big questions over funding, curriculum and admissions enforcement, but the policy offered the chance of a sensible mix of continuity and innovation.

Now, in a batty wheeze, George Osborne comes along to undermine Gove's efforts with his plans to empower the Socialist Workers Party with a battery of 'workers co-op' schools. Presumably this will open the door to schools run along the lines of the notorious William Tyndale school in Islington, in the mid-seventies, the school whose antics led directly to Jim Callaghan's famous Ruskin speech and the accountability we have today? (Do read this terrific piece by Jill Tweedie from the Guardian archive showing how working class kids lost out.) I appreciate that Boy George was probably not yet born in 1976, but its philosophy was best summed up by its headteacher Terry Ellis who declared: "I don't give a damn about parents". With this in mind, perhaps the shadow chancellor could explain how parents' and pupils' interests - or the authority of the headteacher - might be preserved in schools where teachers can opt to exercise a takeover at any moment?

Of course, there is a role for co-operative schools, and the government has promoted a range of trust schools along these lines. But as Michael Stephenson, general secretary of the Co-operative Party, put it today:
"George Osborne's comments show the Tories are completely clueless on co-operatives. Mutuality is about giving communities a say in how services are run. That is about more than involving workers, it is about people running services as a community asset. The Tories don't have co-operative values.....George Osborne's plan for employee-run public services fails to balance the needs of consumers, the public, with the interests of the public-sector workers themselves."

UPDATE 1: Tessa Jowell has more here on Labour's co-op trust schools. The key point is that they are not simply run in the interests of the teachers, but for those of parents too. That may be what David Cameron spoke about two years ago; it is not what today's policy suggests.

UPDATE 2: James Crabtree at Prospect seems also not to recognise the difference between a mutual which is owned by the community and allowing the workers to take over an existing service. Without substantial safeguards, the Osborne plan could actually prevent other radical proposals on new academies that would be in pupils' interests, or necessary school mergers.

This posting has been picked up by the TES.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Advisers and leaders

I took part in a radio discussion earlier today about leadership, spin doctors and advisers in the wake of the crisis for Fine Gael and its leader Enda Kenny following this week's resignation of George Lee. The discussion was chaired by John Murray, with Noel Whelan and Gavin Duffy on RTE Radio 1's Marian Finucane show. You can hear it here (discussion starts around 33 minutes in).

Friday 12 February 2010

Will Eurostar communicate better in future?

As one of those who was affected by the Eurostar saga in December, albeit in a less extreme way than those trapped in trains or tunnels, I'm pleased to see today's recommendations from their independent review being accepted. The report itself is in places a jaw-dropping saga of incompetence and ineptitude that makes the reports at the time seem remarkably understated. In particular, take this charming description of what happened to one stranded train from Paris in the early hours of the morning of 19 December:

During this period, the toilet facilities quickly became unpleasant. There were only 10 toilets – six in the single shuttle and four on the lower deck of the double deck shuttle. Although Eurotunnel provided some additional toilet paper, they did not clean or empty the toilets, which were overflowing....This led to passengers designating one carriage as an open toilet area. Passengers have no recollection of any senior member of Eurostar or Eurotunnel staff, or other authorities, other than the three medically trained FLOR staff, walking though the shuttle to see how the 650+ passengers were, or to provide explanation or instructions.

It also strongly bears out my experiences with the lack of timely information. To say that better communications with customers and in the tunnel are clearly essential is an understatement. They need staff who know what they are doing. I blogged at the time about the utter uselessness of their website in providing practical information during the chaos - we were due to travel early on 22 December and chose to fly to Cologne from Stansted instead. It took some weeks before they explained clearly the compensation they would provide to passengers like me who had booked alternative flights and accommodation with no guarantee of reimbursement. I am pleased to report that I have now received refunds and good communications by email about the refund process.

But today's report sets out the scale of communications inadequacy - all of it entirely avoidable with today's media:

Passengers were often instructed to call the customer line or visit the website for more information but then found these to be totally inadequate.The call centre hours were slightly extended in the evening..Beyond this there was no ‘out of hours’ provision. The staffing levels were not able to cope with demand....For passengers calling from abroad using mobile phones this was unacceptable and many feared incurring large phone bills. The website was updated with basic information regarding the disruption, but customers felt that updates were slow and insufficient. Whilst the advice not to travel was communicated clearly, there was no information or advice on alternative transport or accommodation. Customers have also complained that information was not sufficiently prominent on the homepage (making it especially difficult for those using handheld devices to access updates). Indeed, the homepage layout was not amended until midday on Monday 21st , when content other than the disruption message and booking engine was removed. Some email communications were sent to customers, but not until the Monday. There was no facility for providing text updates to passengers. Overall, the information about alternative methods of transport was poor. No real facility was established for sharing contact numbers and timetables for ferries, trains or airlines. There was also a lack of clarity regarding validity of Eurostar tickets on trains and ferries. In fact, this had not been officially arranged and although some train companies did honour Eurostar tickets, many other passengers were forced to buy new tickets. Over the initial period of disruption, on the Saturday in particular, there was uncertainty over compensation and what costs would be reimbursed (e.g. for hotels, transport and other expenses such as meals).

I hope that it is not just Eurostar that learns the lessons from this saga, but on communicating with passengers, it is vital that they are learned by airports and airlines, and other rail and sea operators too. We booked Eurostar in December, ironically, to avoid the chaos we experienced at Heathrow two years before. In both cases, it was not the disruption that was the biggest problem, but it was the lack of proper information about what was happening and how to access alternatives. Communication is key.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Playground politics

I have the cover feature in this week's Public Finance on the battle between the parties on education:
The economy might be the big election issue but another equally bitter battle is being fought over education, as two Oxford contemporaries traduce each other’s policies. Schools Secretary Ed Balls scorns his Conservative shadow, Michael Gove, for planning a ‘free for all’ and ‘spending cuts’, while Gove denounces his opponent’s ‘bureaucratic’ policies and ‘dumbed-down’ curriculum.

In truth, both policies throw up serious questions. There are differences in approach. Balls warms to local authorities more than Gove. He has chipped away at the freedoms of academies – the state-funded independent schools that were the centrepiece of former prime minister Tony Blair’s school reforms – while rapidly expanding their number. His legislation would entrench Labour policies in ­‘guarantees’ to parents. Gove has pledged to ‘break down barriers’ – often set by local authorities – to allow new schools and free academies. His ‘draft manifesto’ on education confirmed plans to support 220,000 new school places in the poorest communities.

In fact, many of Gove’s ideas build on Labour’s policy architecture. Allowing ‘outstanding’ schools to become academies provided that they support weaker schools replicates a model already adopted by Outwood Grange College in Wakefield and Greensward School in Hockley, Essex. A requirement that failing schools become academies within a year unless they improve echoes Labour’s National Challenge, aimed at lifting the minimum achievement in secondary schools. Even Gove’s plan ‘to break down barriers to entry so that any good education provider can set up a new academy school’ reflects a growing role for not-for-profit sponsors in academies and trust schools. So much so that Gove’s internal critics argue that unless he allows profit-making providers, as in Sweden, he will find it hard to effect the radical change he seeks.

According to Anna Fazackerley, head of the education unit at centre-Right think-tank Policy Exchange: ‘A significant number of potential multi-academy sponsors say they have been put off by the inability to make a profit.’ However, Gove is keen to avoid charges of ‘privatisation’ in an election campaign.

Equally, teacher training reforms dubbed ‘brazenly elitist’ by Conservative leader David Cameron are less radical than their sales pitch. The headlines focused on a plan to bar the dwindling number of third-class degree holders from teaching but the main pledges echo Labour ideas. Paying off the student loans of top mathematics and science graduates is worth around £2,000 a year to a new teacher, but would replace £5,000 golden hellos. The Tories would also expand ­Labour’s Teach First programme for top graduates and rebrand existing programmes to attract experienced ­graduates as Teach Now.

Bigger differences lie in the parties’ approaches to funding and accountability. Labour has significantly increased spending on schools: real-terms funding per pupil has risen by 85% since 1997, while capital spending has grown six-fold. And, although this spending spree is coming to an end, Chancellor Alistair Darling was persuaded by Balls to announce that school spending would increase by 0.7% a year in real terms in 2011/12 and 2012/13. Balls doesn’t rule out cuts in quangos or in other education programmes, though he has yet to emulate Lord Mandelson’s university and college cuts. The National College for the Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services has urged efficiencies in schools through federations and structural change, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families has ­published its own money-saving guide. This has angered heads’ leaders. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: ‘Heads, quite rightly, feel insulted by this attempt to decapitate schools.’ A freeze on teachers’ pay and lower employer ­pension contributions also seem likely.

Yet while Labour has given some commitments to school spending, the Tories have not. Without such guarantees, they are likely to require even bigger cuts than Labour, which will make it harder to afford their two main commitments – the extra school places in poor areas and paying schools a premium for disadvantaged pupils.

The Tories say they need to make these pledges because Labour has failed on social mobility. A Higher Education Funding Council for England report did show that a fifth of the poorest youngsters now go to university, compared with an eighth in 2004. But the proportion of better off undergraduates has grown slightly faster, so the gap has not narrowed.

In terms of secondary schools, Balls says his National Challenge programme is making a difference. Its target is that by 2012, 30% of pupils in all schools should gain five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics. In 1997, 1,600 schools (half the total) did not achieve this. By 2009, the number had fallen to 247, and schools in the poorest areas are improving twice as fast as those in better-off areas. However, Gove argues that Labour’s approach is not feeding through into university success. Despite the reported improvements, he calculates that the number of boys at Eton public school with three As at A-level in 2009 – the minimum required for elite university courses – is still greater than the total number of boys in the state school system on free school meals who gain three A-levels.

His concerns are shared by Alan Milburn, the former Labour Cabinet minister. In a December report, he said: ‘If the growth in social exclusivity is not checked, it will be more and more middle-class children, not just working-class ones, who will miss out.’ He wants radical measures to improve social mobility, such as the pupil premium and vouchers for parents in areas with lots of failing schools. Prime Minister Gordon Brown rejected Milburn’s more controversial ideas, but backed other proposals, such as paid internships to improve access to professional jobs.To be fair, more poor pupils – ­measured as those receiving free school meals – are going to good state schools, according to a 2008 study by the Sutton Trust. The number attending the top 200 comprehensives has risen by 44% in the past ten years, although the overall number of children receiving free school meals has fallen by 18%. However, while the numbers are up, the proportion of poor pupils in those schools is still only 7.6%, against the national average of 13.6%.

Gove argues that a pupil premium would encourage good schools to ‘work particularly hard to attract’ poorer pupils. The Liberal Democrats agree: their leader Nick Clegg confirmed last week that he would spend £2.5bn on the premium, funded from ‘savings’ in the education budget and limiting tax credits. But there are big questions over how the Tories would fund the premium and their other ambitions. They have said they would divert funding from Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme to pay the capital costs of their 220,000 new school places.

But this would be a costly intervention. Primary rolls are starting to rise again, but secondary rolls are set to fall by 55,000 until 2015 before rising again. Gove has confirmed that he plans to take school place planning out of local authority hands, and approve new schools directly in Whitehall. This will effectively encourage surplus places, so the extra ­revenue costs could exceed a billion pounds a year. The pupil premium could prove even more expensive, as many believe even the Clegg figure underestimates what it would cost. At present, schools in deprived areas or with large numbers of deprived pupils get the extra funds based on national and local formulas, whereas other schools with a smaller proportion of disadvantaged pupils get nothing extra to pay for them.

This means there are only two ways to fund the policy: find extra money at a time when cuts seem likely or redistribute existing budgets away from disadvantaged inner-city schools to more prosperous suburban and shire schools and local authorities. The Conservatives have not said how big their premium would be, but if it is to be introduced at any meaningful level – many say this should be an extra £2,000 or 50% of per pupil funding – the redistribution could be substantial. Such changes can produce a huge outcry from the ­losers and little thanks from the winners, as Charles Clarke found as education secretary in 2003 when he made more modest reforms to make school funding fairer. So significant financial compensation would be required to reduce such losses. Doing this at a time of financial restraint would be no easy task.

Alongside funding, an ideological battle is taking place over how to make schools accountable for pupil performance. The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers are balloting their members to boycott this year’s English and mathematics tests for 11-year-olds. Both Balls and Gove have tried to appease the unions with respective proposals to increase teacher assessments and test children at the start of secondary school instead. But whoever wins the election, schools will have to be more accountable to those they serve.

Labour’s Children, Schools and Families Bill proposes minimum ‘guarantees’ for parents and pupils in everything from ‘good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety’ for pupils to opportunities for parents to be involved in their child’s learning. Many of the proposals included in the 88-page consultation document ­issued after the Bill’s second reading reflect existing entitlements. Those that are new include a promise of one-to-one ­tuition, tougher home-school agreements and a report card on the schools for parents to supplement existing league tables.

However, many schools believe that the legislation is too bureaucratic and lacks the money to fund the guarantees or the means to enforce them. Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told MPs: ‘[There is] potential in an increasingly litigious society for parents to take up an awful lot of head teachers’ time in disputing what are rather uncertain and woolly guarantees.’ The Tories would rely instead on published data, including results from new reading tests for six year-olds, and tougher Ofsted inspections. But an absence of legal levers could prove problematic when it comes to what schools teach. The headmaster of ­Harrow public school, Barnaby Lenon, echoed Gove recently with claims that too many state schools were cramming their pupils with ‘worthless qualifications’ to boost their league table rankings. And the Tories have argued that the increase in the proportion of pupils gaining five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, from 35% in 1997 to 50% in 2009 is devalued because pupils are ­taking easier exams.

The Conservatives would exclude vocational qualifications from league tables and could give extra credit to harder subjects. Yet despite arguing that schools should teach all pupils languages and history to age 16, they would not require them to do so. Instead, they hope a combination of league table, Ofsted and ­parental pressure would do the trick. Some schools would choose a more academic curriculum, but a growing number prefer to focus on employability and research skills.

And the fate of ­languages provides a cautionary tale. When Estelle Morris, as education secretary, decided in 2002 to give schools the freedom to drop modern language lessons for 14 to 16-year-olds, she urged them to apply the change selectively as a way of enabling a minority of pupils to do more vocational subjects. In fact, the proportion of pupils sitting a language GCSE has fallen from a peak of 78% in 2001 to 44% in 2009. Recent pressure from ministers and published data have not increased the numbers. ‘The lesson,’ says Morris, ‘is that the consequence of giving schools greater freedom – on this or on anything else – is that they will sometimes make decisions with which the rest of us might not be thrilled.’

Both parties face problems with their attempts to create dividing lines. Balls’ bid to win parents’ support risks unleashing new bureaucracy on schools at a time of tough spending choices. Gove might find that exhortation is not enough to promote freedom and tougher standards simultaneously. And as both parties’ plans come under increasing scrutiny, they will face growing pressure to explain exactly how they will fund and achieve their ambitions.

Putting posters over personal care

If there is one issue that requires a cross-party consensus, it is social care for the elderly. As the numbers of older people continue to grow with medical advances, it is both a costly and long-term issue that doesn't lend itselt to crass sloganeering and cheap political advertising. So it was good that the three parties were prepared to sit down to discuss the issue. And it is quite frankly inconceivable that any solution will not involve a contribution, through insurance or otherwise, from those who would benefit from a more equitable system of social care.

One idea is that there should be a deduction from pensions, another that we might emulate Singapore's stakeholder funds, and another that homeowners should leave a fixed sum to the state upon their death. All have their strengths and weaknesses. But no sane person would want to rule them out and whinge if others declined to do so. Yet that is precisely what the BMA spokesman and shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley appears to have done. By not allowing a potential cross-party agreement on social care to develop, simply so that he could preside over a juvenile poster stunt, confirms that this man is simply up to any great office of state. As older people continue to sell their homes to fund social care, perhaps Mr Lansley could console them by explaining that their plight is worth it because it has made for a topical poster.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

False hope in Keynsham

KEYNSHAM - Last night's confirmation by Kraft that they would not be keeping the old Fry factory in Keynsham open is a body blow to our small town. Cadbury had already planned to move the jobs to Poland, and the work on shifting production was well-advanced. In a global marketplace, these changes will happen both to Britain's cost and benefit. So the promises being made to campaigners in advance of the Cadbury takeover that Kraft would keep the Somerdale plant open seemed surprising. But by making them, they offered hope at a time when plans for the future use of the extensive site were already well aired by the local council. Yet the seeming inevitability of the plant's closure cannot excuse Kraft's cynical handling of the issue. They gave workers and community campaigners false hope. And that is unforgivable.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

The truth behind Tory health policy

An excellent new poster for the Labour Party NHS campaign. It is about time that the reality behind the Tories' patient unfriendly policies for the health service were given a proper airing. Voters need to realise that when they get Ashcroft-funded leaflets from Tory candidates pledging to scrap terrible Labour targets, this is what they really mean. I hope there's a lot more where this came from.

Treat celebrity politicians with care

As the prospect of more celebrity politicians looms on this side of the Irish Sea, with the likes of Esther Rantzen staking her claim to parliamentary seats, I have sad tidings to report from my old constituency of Dublin South in Ireland. George Lee had gained a name for himself as an incisive critic of government economic policy on RTE during the boom years. With the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, he acquired secular sainthood, so it was quite a coup when he agreed to stand for Fine Gael, the main opposition party, in a parliamentary by-election last June. He won a spectacular 52% of the vote and his victory cemented Fine Gael's national poll lead (Fianna Fail has remained in third place behind Labour).

Of course, George thought he had gone into the Dail not just to win a spectacular by-election victory for Fine Gael but so that he could speak truth onto power by taking charge of his new party's economic policies. Instead, he found himself sidelined by the party leader Enda Kenny as the head of the sort of useless economic forum that oppositions create to keep their supporters busy, while the regular politicians continued slagging off the government as if nothing had changed. All this clearly upset Boy George. With the result that yesterday he announced not only that he was leaving Fine Gael, but that he was quitting his Dail seat. Conveniently his RTE job is still open to him should he wish to resume his punditry.

I'm sure there is a moral in this tale somewhere about the need to treat celebrity politicians with kid gloves. But let's just say Fianna Fail's hapless leadership can't believe their luck. And Kenny is reduced to seeking loyalty pledges from his shellshocked backbenchers. Nobody ever said that Irish politics lacked drama.

Monday 8 February 2010

Making Britain educationally uncompetitive?

There is always a tension between the desire to restrict immigration and the economic imperative to recruit more international students to study in the UK. Yesterday's announcement by Alan Johnson of his plans to introduce further restrictions on overseas students, with shrieks of 'not enough' from his Conservative shadow, is in severe danger of reducing our competitiveness in a market where Britain is already fighting to retain market share.

To be fair, much of what Johnson proposed is sensible enough. A clampdown on those with poor English or those bringing dependents in for short courses seems unarguable. But, the severe tightening in student working hours is already being misreported in the Indian press (it applies apparently only to sub-degree courses though this was not made clear yesterday) and will cause confusion in the international education market.

A British Council report last year showed that with over half a million overseas students, the UK rivals the US as a top international student destination. Their numbers, which have grown as a result of major recruitment drives, include 55,000 Chinese students and 35,000 Indian students. Those students who are not from within the EU must pay full fees, and the proportion of postgraduates from overseas at 36% is much higher than the 13% of undergraduates who are from abroad. Both groups make a huge contribution to the UK economy and our innovation and science bases and are worth at least £5.5 billion to our economy.

Now, as students will find that they are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week in the USA and Australia, those countries could gain an additional competitive edge, particularly on sub-degree courses that lead directly on to degree courses. This decision could cost our economy dear at a time when universities and colleges are already facing cutbacks. Ministers need to think again about the messages they are sending - and their impact on a growing export market.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Airbrushed Dave

There's a lot more where this came from at the highly entertaining website, where you can create your own version of that classic airbrushed Dave poster.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Why a testing boycott would hurt poorer pupils most

I have a column in today's Independent arguing that the unions' wish to scrap testing would damage poorer pupils most.

Last week the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers started to ballot their members on a planned boycott of this year's national English and Maths Key Stage 2 tests for 11-year-olds. At the same time, the National Equality Panel laid bare the extent of economic and educational inequality that still exists in Britain today.

The NUT and NAHT argue that the tests impose an excessive workload on their members, and force teachers to drill pupils in English and Maths when they could be doing other things. Yet the independent expert group on assessment, comprising five
experienced education figures, found these tests to be "educationally beneficial" and pointed out that the best way to prepare for Key Stage 2 tests is "through a varied programme of high-quality teaching throughout the year, not through repeatedly sitting practice test papers".

Aside from the revelation in the equality panel's report that there is still a 26 percentage point gap between the achievements of poorer children and their better-off peers at the age of 11, it is clear that the planned boycott by the two unions is wrong-headed. National test data allows teachers to compare the results of different schools, and of schools in similar circumstances, helping to drive faster improvements in poorer areas such as east London. It is crucial to revealing hidden weaknesses so that they can be properly addressed.

But the achievement gap that remains – and the fact that one in four pupils fails to reach the expected standard in both subjects – shows why it is so important to retain the accountability and openness that has helped to drive improvement in so many schools. If testing is abandoned we will lose such vital information in the future. Yet both major parties have been trying to appease the unions with proposals that – despite their protestations to the contrary – could see the demise of this key indicator of primary school performance.

Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said before Christmas that he was "not closing the door" on scrapping the tests at 11 in 2012, if Labour is re-elected, provided he was confident that teacher assessments could provide a reasonable alternative. And his Conservative shadow had earlier proposed moving the tests from the end of primary school to the start of secondary school, with secondary teachers doing the marking, and those marks used to create primary performance tables. Both proposals would reduce independent scrutiny. Teachers already do plenty of their own assessments, but theirs is not an independent judgement. If the results are published and become the main indicator of primary school success, the incentives for cheating will be greater.

The Tories' ideas are equally problematic. Secondary teachers have a different vested interest. They are judged in part on the progress they make with each pupil from the start of school to their GCSEs. If they mark pupils down in Year 7 it will look as if they have made greater progress by Year 11. And the moment such results are used in primary league tables, there will be justifiable uproar in primary schools.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, parents strongly support the tests. An Ipsos Mori poll for the Government in 2008 showed that 75 per cent of parents think information on the performance of primary schools should be made public, and 70 per cent of parents place value on the tests in providing information about how their child's school is performing. The unions say that teachers can be trusted to perform the assessments honestly. And while most teachers undoubtedly can be, the unions hardly inspire confidence when they counter scientific and representative polls with unscientific self-selecting ballots of parents collected by their members. At a time when we are regretting allowing self-policing by MPs of their expenses and the lack of regulation for financiers, it would be extraordinary to contemplate removing the most important piece of independent scrutiny that we have in our primary schools.

Despite their flaws, tests remain our best way of providing independent information to parents and taxpayers about how individual schools are doing and giving teachers
comparative data that they can use to improve. Instead of dreaming up alternatives, politicians should be vigorously defending the tests. Abandoning them will limit the chances of many of our poorer pupils getting the education they deserve. They will be the real losers.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

PMQs verdict

I've been sharing views on today's PMQs with the esteemed Labour bloggers Hopi Sen and Paul Richards at Progress Online today. You can read our deliberations here.

My Wonderful Day at Bath

To see Alan Ayckbourn's splendid new play My Wonderful Day at Bath Theatre Royal last night. The play follows the absurdities of adult behaviour through the eyes of nine year-old Winnie. Her mum, Laverne, has gone into labour at the house where she cleans, so Winnie who has accompanied her that day, is left in the 'care' of the adults of the office, as she proceeds to fill her exercise book with an essay on her day, as a school assignment. Watching the tantrums, adultery and jealousies of the adults, whilst experiencing their patronising behaviour, gives her a memorable essay and creates a highly entertaining black comedy, enhanced by Winnie's insistence on speaking French (as it is a Tuesday) to please her Francophone mother. With a stunning central performance by 18 year-old Ayesha Antoine (pictured), the play breezes along in 100 interval-free minutes.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

AV is better than FPTP, even if it is not AMS or STV

Whether electoral opportunism or not, the planned introduction of a referendum on the Alternative Vote would be a significant improvement to the current First Past the Post system for electing MPs. By requiring that MPs gain the support of at least half of constituents, even if it isn’t all on the first ballot, AV would give MPs a greater sense of legitimacy at a time when they sorely need it. Already, the London Mayor is elected in this way, and there is some form of PR for elections in devolved elections and for Europe. Of course, it is not as proportional as other systems like the Additional Member System or the Single Transferable Vote (STV) which I happily learnt how to use most effectively in Ireland, but both would make it harder in a large country like Britain to retain the link with the local MP. It may feel like acronym soup, but it is about a stronger democracy.

So, the Liberal Democrats, as keen PR enthusiasts, should stop worrying about whether or not Gordon Brown has been having ‘death bed conversions’ and embrace AV as a major step forward for Westminster elections. Once voters get used to it, they will surely be open to more reform in the future. The only shame is that the referendum is not scheduled for polling day, when it could be sure of a big turnout and would not be open to abandonment by any government opposed to such an extension of democracy.

Monday 1 February 2010

Creepy political adverts

When Dave has got his elected sheriffs, can elected coroners be far off? We may think the airbrushed posters are creepy, but they can't match this TV ad from Dwight McKenna in the current coroner race in New Orleans. (Hat tip: Time/Swampland blogs)