Tuesday 30 March 2010

The wonder of Abu Simbel

ASWAN - To visit one of the most remarkable sites in the world today - the temples built to Rameses II at Abu Simbel, in Southern Egypt, close to the Sudanese border. The sheer size of the temples is remarkable, as is the preservation of the art inside. Rameses was a narcissistic sort, as we had already seen on a two-day visit to Cairo, which included Memphis. He was also a great spin doctor, turning treaties that followed unwon wars into great victories over his enemies, illustrated on the walls of these great temples. Perhaps no less remarkable than their survival since the thirteenth century BC is the way the temples were transplanted whole to their present site to make way for the flooding that created Lake Nasser. Visiting the site involves a convoy of buses and cars with military escort, departing Aswan just twice in the morning, at 4am and 11am, and a 600km round trip with a couple of hours at the site. But it is a great experience, and a clear highlight of our trip to Egypt so far.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Is truancy really rising?

Today's 'record' figures for truancy show that the proportion of school sessionss missed through unauthorised absence has risen slightly to 1.05%. "Truancy" is on the rise, say the reports, and doubtless this will feature in pieces on "Labour's failure" tomorrow. Much is made of the comparisons with 1997 when 0.7% of sessions were missed. At the same time, the Government reports that days lost through 'authorised absence' are falling rapidly. The two figures are related. When the Government decided to clamp down on term-time holidays and visits to the dentist or on Christmas shopping trips, they created a rod for their own back.

Schools are reluctant to grant permission for such occasions that they might previously have granted, hence the rise in unauthorised absence. Unauthorised family holidays now account for 11% of all unauthorised absences. This has little to do with what might normally be regarded as 'truancy', pupils skipping school on a regular basis often without the knowledge of their parents. And a look at the detailed statistics suggests a more balanced picture.
  • First, since 1996/7, the proportion of sessions lost due to all absence has fallen in primary schools from 6.06% to 5.30% - in other words pupils are at school for an average of 1.4 days more than they were when Labour took office. In secondary schools, the improvement is even better, with a fall from 9.06% to 7.25%, suggesting pupils are at school an average of 3.4 days more than in 1997. However, within those figures there have been increases in unauthorised absence that have offset some of the improvements in authorised absence. (Table 2.1)
  • Second, the number of pupils defined as persisent absentees - missing over 32 days a year - has fallen from 272,950 in 2006/7 to 208,380 in 2008/9 as a direct result of a programme targeted at this group and the schools where the problem was greatest. This 24% reduction is a remarkable result for an intervention programme and is far more significant than the small rise in overall unauthorised absence. Indeed, persistent absentees are now responsible for 43.4% of unauthorised absence compared with 51.8% in 2006/07. (Table 1.2)
  • Third, there has been an 18% drop in persistence absence in academies (from 8.00% to 6.50%) over the last year and an 8.5% reduction in unauthorised absence, again suggesting that targeted intervention does work. (Table 6.1)
None of this is to suggest that there is not a real problem with truancy. Clearly far too many pupils are still absent for too long and more work needs to be done. But if the targeted schools and the academies have been able to make a difference where previous intervention programmes have failed, it would be rather more useful to learn their lessons and share them rather than assuming nothing can be done.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

A very political budget

Alastair Darling has grown greatly in Chancellor, and he was in full command of his brief today. By being able to highlight better than expected tax receipts and lower borrowing, he was on strong ground arguing that the Government's approach to the economy has been showing signs of success. His announcement on a stamp duty holiday for first time buyers up to £250,000 cleverly linked its funding to a higher duty on homes worth over £1 million. He wisely focused a range of new tax reliefs on entrepreneurs, innovation and business investment, with a new national investment bank to support green transport and energy. And he made much of contrasting Labour and Tory approaches to public service guarantees, employment training and high speed rail. His plans to clamp down on tax avoidance in Grenada, Dominica and Belize were a masterstroke, showing a mischievous sense of humour. Given the perceived limits on his room for manouevre, this was a sensible package that put Labour in a stronger position than before. Gordon Brown should make clear that in the still limited chance that he should win the election, he will retain the experienced reassurance of Alastair Darling at the Treasury. Being able to draw a sharp contrast with the woeful George Osborne would be a vote-winner.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

To see the Swedish film adaptation of Steig Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) last night. Noomi Rapace is brilliant as Lisbeth Salandar, the troubled tattoed cybersleuth who joins crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist)in a bid to uncover an increasingly disturbing mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young woman forty years earlier. The story introduces Swedish Nazis and plenty of grisly revelations along the way. This is not a film for the faint-hearted any more than the book - and its theme of 'men who hate women' has attracted plenty of controversy - but it is still at heart a tale of good and evil. It is also a cracking thriller which despite its 2h 45 it rattles along with pace, ditching extraneous aspects of the book and focusing on the principal plotlines. I read the thriller at Christmas, and the film is as faithful an adaptation as is possible, capturing the characters and landscape as one imagines it. It deserves a better critical reception than it has received.

Monday 22 March 2010

Obama's healthcare victory

It would be unwise to underestimate the significance of Obama's victory on healthcare last night. However narrow the vote in favour, it marks the beginning of a new phase of his presidency. That he has had to win without Republican support is the result of the absurd extremism of the contemporary Republican party and its media cheerleaders, rather than a sign of the President's having shifted to the left. Had he allowed their wrecking tactics to prevail, he would have destroyed his own Presidency as well as any hope of healthcare reform. Now he needs to set a clear path of other domestic and international policy issues - he is already well advanced on education with little fanfare - including climate change and Middle East policy. But after a rocky start to 2010, the President should be able to regain the confidence of his early months and give the Democrats a stronger chance than they had before today in the November mid-terms.

Sunday 21 March 2010


To see the touring production of Edna O'Brien's Haunted at the Bath Theatre Royal last night. Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy put in fine performances as the ageing couple whose lives are haunted by a lost child, and whose lost romance is crystallised in his infatuation with a young and bewitching woman, Hazel, an affair with its own sorry but predictable conclusion. The acting is superb, and there's a great set, but one is left with one question, for all the Shakespearean allegory, poetic quotation and Biblical allusion: is that it?

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Toddlers or students: where to invest?

Today's Times bemoans the Government's protection of Sure Start spending on children's centres at a time when university spending is being cut. It also complains that spending on the under-5s has risen more rapidly under Labour than that on higher education. It questions whether this is the right prioritisation to achieve social mobility. Of course, there may be more that Sure Start can do to improve outcomes, though recent evaluations have been better than earlier ones, but the answer is most definitely Yes. All the evidence suggests that inequalities set in before the age of five. Unless they are addressed at that stage - including through effective social skills and reading programmes - the chance of improving mobility later are greatly reduced. The universities should have access to higher fees, but it is absurd to suggest they should have a greater call on limited resources over early years education.

Monday 15 March 2010

Clegg could destroy the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg's conceit in pretending that the Liberal Democrats are not thinking about what might happen if - as seems increasingly likely - there is a hung parliament after the general election will fool nobody. But Andrew Adonis was right yesterday (on this, as on the BA strike) in pointing out just how damaging an alliance with the Conservatives would be to the Liberal Democrats.

Their trouble is that, even if their voters are split in their second choice between the Tories and Labour, most of their own members are instinctively opposed to the Tories, and would find themselves to the left of Labour on a range of issues. Education is a good example. David Laws, their intelligent schools spokesman, has to tie himself in knots in a bid to embrace a position that he clearly supports - the development of academies and Tory-style free schools - whilst satisfying the traditionalists in the party by promising a strong role for local authorities and claiming to back 'academies for all' (a position which would probably mean no improvement in the weaker schools that academies largely embrace). Equally tortuous is their continued promise to get rid of university tuition fees, a position that has no intellectual coherence at a time when their finance spokesman Vince Cable is demanding public spending restraint.

These disingenuous compromises don't come in for a great deal of scrutiny when the party is unlikely to be in government, and Clegg has cleverly put forward his bottom lines on issues like education - where he promises to scrap the child trust fund to pay for a pupil premium - and voting reform, knowing that these are issues on which he can carry his party. But what if Clegg takes his party into a coalition, or more probably, props up a minority Conservative government? Unless Clegg calls a conference to ratify his decision, something he seems reluctant to do, he will destroy all the gains that his party has made since 1997. Minority parties can gain all the blame from the voters in such circumstances with little credit for the 'stability' or 'responsibility' that may also have resulted, or indeed for the policies they have successfully had introduced. So Clegg may be the kingmaker after the election, but if he gets it wrong, he may also be the author of his own party's downfall.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Cameron's indecision

David Cameron has apparently told Trevor MacDonald in an interview to be broadcast tomorrow night that he has told George Osborne that he might sack him from his role as Shadow Chancellor. Given Osborne's track record - had we taken his advice on the banks, many of us would have had our savings wiped out - why the delay?

Monday 8 March 2010

Conservative contradictions

I have written this post for the Public Finance blog:

The Conservatives’ shadow schools secretary is finding himself in an increasing muddle as he starts to put flesh on his schools’ policy. One day Michael Gove is extolling the virtues of free schools, liberated from the shackles of Whitehall, with the touchy-feely charms of Goldie Hawn jostling alongside Swedish companies to deliver. Days later he is laying down the level of detailed knowledge that every youngster should have of their kings and queens, their classical poetry by heart and their algebra under the tutelage of the Tories’ Maths mistress Carol Vorderman.

Gove’s confusion on education policy, one of the few areas where the Tories have at least done some homework, seems to mirror his party’s wider confusion as it wobbles in the polls. This is exemplified in planning, where Gove has pledged to railroad through new local school plans in Whitehall regardless of local objections while his shadow cabinet colleague Theresa Villiers apparently wants every parish council to have its say on any high speed rail link.

Meanwhile, the funding problems that I outlined last month in Public Finance have been exacerbated by a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which suggests that a £2.5 billion pupil premium would only have a modest impact on social mobility, and even then the sums involved – about £2500 a pupil – would be similar to the extra £2460-£3370 which the IFS says are already spent on such pupils by the Labour government. Even Ed Balls has started to detail £500 million in cuts for his department, yet Gove has £3.5 billion of unfunded spending commitments, including funding the pupil premium without reducing existing school spending.

Gove has also pledged to introduce some symbolic legislation within days of a Tory government winning an election, whch would apparently give greater freedoms to academies and introduce further changes to the frequency and scope of Ofsted inspections. Even here there is confusion: Gove’s colleagues maintain that they would enforce their traditional curriculum in ‘free schools’ through Ofsted, yet outstanding schools are to exempted from such inspections (even though a significant minority of schools fall back over time).

And whether Gove needs primary legislation to introduce either change is a moot point: much legislation is done for political show, and this looks like no exception. Indeed he might be better spending his time resolving the built-in contradictions that are growing more apparent the more he tells us about his policies, explaining what parts of the curriculum would be compulsory and how he would fund his ambitions. Unless he gets this right, there will be a lot of confused heads and teachers if he gets the chance to implement his blueprint.

Thursday 4 March 2010

"Due diligence" and the Tories

That the Electoral Commission - despite a disgraceful boycott of their requests to interview senior Tories - has ruled that Lord Ashcroft's Bearwood company is entitled to pour money into buying the election in marginal constituencies does not absolve the party from the questions that arise after William Hague's astonishing admission on BBC Radio last night.

Hague effectively admitted that Lord Ashcroft had misled him - to put it politely - about his tax status. As Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, has indicated, ignorance is no defence when Hague had given clear undertakings as a condition of Ashcroft's peerage. The Electoral Commission maintains - despite their boycott of its interviewers - that the Tories had in all probability done their 'due diligence' over the Bearwood donations. Yet since Lord Turnbull is quite clear that Hague had not done his 'due diligence' with respect to Ashcroft's supposed willingness to pay his taxes as a UK resident, it is hard to see on what basis the Electoral Commission has decided to give his party colleagues the benefit of the doubt.

The facts appear to be these. Lord Ashcroft led Hague to believe that he would pay "tens of millions of pounds a year" in taxes if he entered the House of Lords. Ashcroft intended to do no such thing, preferring the congenial Belizean tax regime, and throwing a few quid to the Revenue as a non-dom instead. James Arbuthnot, a Tory chief whip, reached some side deal with Sir Hayden Philips, according to the Cabinet Office, that allowed Ashcroft to be declared a 'long-term' rather than 'permanent' resident, allowing his congenial Belizean tax regime to continue for most of Ashcroft's income. He presumably didn't feel it necessary to tell William Hague. As a result, Hague misled both Tony Blair and the Cabinet Secretary. And until a few months ago, neither Hague nor presumably David Cameron could be arsed to check what had gone one.

Of course, Ashcroft should be required to relinquish his role in the Tory party and his peerage. But isn't there also a big question over the judgment and competence of William Hague, and his ability to be Foreign Secretary if the Tories win the election, when he may be required to agree treaties and other matters with other countries? Presumably he won't be too bothered to check up on whether they keep their promises.

And I do so look forward to hearing David Cameron pontificating about cleaning up politics again.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Michael Foot 1913-2010

Michael Foot was a great journalist, fine orator, a brilliant writer and a giant of the Labour movement. His life from the Spanish Civil War and the founding of Tribune through to his less happy time employment secretary and Labour leader saw him play a big part in the great events of the 20th century. He was a towering intellectual and a believer in ideas, someone whose convictions fitted their times, but whose actions were characterised by courtesy and statesmanship in expressing those ideas. His time as leader was not a happy time for the party, and he didn't deserve the personal abuse he suffered in those times, even though he was not the best person to do that job. The death of Michael Foot is also the death of an era of politicians of a pre-television age. May he rest in peace.

Ashcroft tax bombshell makes case for party funding

Today's news that William Hague misled Tony Blair about Lord Ashcroft's willingness to pay 'millions' in taxes is a further example of the effects of relying on large private donations to fund our political parties. I've also just been reading Peter Watt's Inside Out and the thing that comes out clearly there is the absurd extent to which the Labour Party had to rely on a small number of private donors - and its impact on one of our great political parties - as well as some equally preening trade union leaders for its survival over several years. Such funding is unhealthy for democracy, and a distraction from the proper business of politics. Given that the state already funds political parties to a substantial extent - £4.8 million a year to the Tories and £1.7 million to the LibDems - it is hardly a great leap to increase that funding. There are several options. First, ban large costly political posters. Second, restrict funding and spending to £15 million a year. Third, allow small donations of up to £500 a year for individuals, and match fund them to encourage such participation. And fourth, provide a basic allowance for all parties, including the governing party, to allow them to maintain a reasonable structure, with the level of funding dependent on their votes in the previous general election, with a minimum threshold for funding within each UK nation. The idea that it is better for politics to have the pantomime of Hague's Ashcroft porkies or 'cash for honours' than to bite the bullet of state funding is simply laughable.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Gove's welcome willingness to perform U-turns

Michael Gove was complaining during his many valiant - but unsuccessful - attempts to defend Lord Ashcroft on his taxes last night that the Tories were somehow being held to a higher standard than Labour over non-Doms. Michael White explains why this is not so with Ashcroft. But there is another area where the Tories are being allowed to get away with murder: their ability to perform U-turns unnoticed (unless they break their sacred marriage vows with the Daily Mail).

The latest came yesterday, barely noted in the Independent and ignored elsewhere. Alongside an announcement on Ofsted that I have detailed earlier, Gove declared that the story that dominated the news a few months ago - that he would have secondary teachers marking primary pupils' test results at the start of Year 7 - was just an idea he was floating. All those headlines may have come in handy highlighting the party's flexibility to grumpy teachers and giving the impression of new policy in a generally policy-lite party. But now it had served its purpose, it could go. According to the excellent Richard Garner, the last remaining truly experienced education correspondent in the national press:
he appeared to back-track from a plan to transfer tests for 11-year-olds to the first term of secondary schooling – a move designed to reduce teaching to the test in the last year of primary schooling....He said he had only “floated” the idea and could see arguments both for and against it. “We do need to maintain objective testing to discover the level at which children are working,” he added. “There is no way that we will get rid of end of primary testing..."
This is a welcome U-turn, if that is what it is. And I reported in Public Finance last summer that Gove was already having his doubts about letting secondary teachers mark primary tests. But surely it deserves the same celebratory scrutiny that normally accompanies major political U-turns - at least when they come from Labour ministers?

Making admissions a lottery

My former no 10 colleague, Phil Collins has a great piece in The Times today rehearsing his old argument in favour of lotteries for school admissions. If the Tories are serious about opening up the school system and doing so with fair admissions, then they must encourage lotteries or banding in the cities. As Phil argues:
Ten more years of reform would certainly mean that the second best schools would be a lot better than they are. But even that wouldn’t solve the problem entirely. There is no admissions system within the wit of man that will avoid the best schools being over-subscribed. Even in the utopia of universal greatness it will still be rational for parents to choose the best school they can. Therefore, it is crucial to find a fair way of distinguishing between applicants.....There is one decisive political objection to the lottery scheme: it means that, all of a sudden, access to a good school cannot be purchased via the housing market. In politics, the complaints of those who lose will always drown out the muted thanks of those who gain. It will be hard to do but it is only when we have enough good schools and a fair way of selecting children that parental choice will become really meaningful.

Not inspecting outstanding schools would be a big mistake

In between his shaky defences of Lord Ashcroft, Michael Gove announced yesterday that outstanding schools - so deemed by Ofsted - would not be inspected ever again under a Conservative government. This could be a big mistake, for two reasons. It would make it harder to define other schools as outstanding without inspectors having visited the gold standard, and harder for Ofsted to spread the secrets of their success. An inspection in an outstanding school is rarely the burden it is for others, rather a chance to show how its done. And secondly - and perhaps more importantly - schools designated outstanding now could quite easily lose their high standing without some pressure to maintain it. A change of head or a new curriculum could make the difference. And while a school may continue to show good exam results for a time, the failure to have regular inspections could disguise a dip until pupils had fallen behind. To be fair, Gove no longer plans to abandon testing in primary schools, so there would be some independent evidence of progress. But a school could still coast for years before parents or other concerned parties trigger an inspection. By all means, have a lighter touch system for the best schools, keeping their inspections on a six year cycle, or the threat of lightning sampler inspections, but don't abandon all inspections of schools that are great today. Because they may not be tomorrow.

Monday 1 March 2010

Labour must articulate its vision as Tory arrogance cuts their poll lead

I have no idea whether or not yesterday's Sunday Times poll is the game changer it purports to be, though it is interesting to see how the underlying questions suggest that the David Cameron and George Osborne - especially, I suspect, the latter - have lost ground on confidence issues that had propelled them into double-digit leads just a few months ago. But the biggest problem the Tories face was exemplified in Cameron's lacklustre speech yesterday: he all but declared that people had a 'patriotic duty' to vote Conservative. No, they haven't, and it is the height of arrogance to suggest they do. Indeed, had we listened to Osborne on the banks, many of us would be as poor as Argentinians were after their banks collapsed at the turn of the Millennium, as their savings turned to dust. Some patriotic duty.

With signs of recovery, people are right to be distrustful of Osborne's medicine now. Equally, the Tories continue to leave the BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley in charge of health policies that will increase inefficiency in the NHS while greatly reducing patient care, and Cameron says that this man knows more about the NHS than anyone else alive. If he does, one only wonders why he has been keeping it to himself all this time. The list goes on: Theresa Villiers trying to wreck plans for high-speed rail and sideline our most important airport; Jeremy Hunt, the media spokesman set on wrecking the BBC. Add to that the preening arrogance of young Tory wannabees who loudly declare in bars near Millbank and Westminster the jobs that they will have in a new Government - to sharp intakes of breath from non-partisan folk nearby - and the renewed sense of entitlement being displayed in Tory-Labour marginals like mine, and you can see why the polls are narrowing.

That's not to say that Labour has been getting it right: too many of our policies remain unfocused, and we have not found a way either to articulate the progress and vision in our public services, especially education. The Budget must not shirk from an honest assessment of what the economy needs and what it will require to halve the deficit over four years. But we now have a chance to start winning these arguments, as swing voters think twice about the Tories. It is a small window, and it is vital that ministers and those in no 10 grab it while they have the chance.