Monday 26 April 2010

The real question for Gove: where will the axe fall?

The Conservative leader of Kent County Council, Paul Carter, is absolutely right to worry about the funding for his party’s free schools policy. The truth is that it there is a black hole at the heart of both this policy and the party’s commitment to a pupil premium. And every time he is asked to fill it, the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove manages to dodge the question.

John Humphrys once again generated plenty of heat, but little forensic light, when he quizzed Gove on the Today programme this morning. By focusing on the principle of free schools – which are different only in potential scale to Labour’s academies programme and parent-led schools already running – he allowed Gove to skirt the practicalities of how they will be afforded. And he didn't even ask Gove how he plans to pay for a pupil premium that the Liberal Democrats have, probably conservatively, costed at £2.5 billion a year in their own programme.

There are plenty of Tories in local government who question the principle of free schools, among them the Birmingham education chair. But Carter seems to recognise that free schools won’t be free to the taxpayer. Because they will require surplus places in other schools at a time of falling rolls, they will cost at least £1 billion a year in revenue costs over and above their capital costs. And Gove has already made clear that he will raid the Building Schools for the Future budget to pay capital costs (something the Swedish schools wisely do not provide). So, with the pupil premium, the real question for the Tories is this: where will the £3.5 billion come from?

And if you say, as Gove does this morning, that it will come from waste in the DCSF budget, which programmes will be cut to cover that sum? Gove claimed on Today that 'only £32m' of the £62m resource budget for DCSF went to schools, implying the rest was used wastefully. Well a look at Annex A in the DCSF Departmental Report.

It is true this includes money for programmes like the National Challenge or for teacher recruitment and training, but much of this programme money is used directly in schools. Again they should be told which ones are to go. An additional £1.7 billon goes to early years and childcare, which Gove erroneously included in the schools budget. £11 billion goes on teachers' pensions, which may be a target for cuts, but shouldn't teachers be told? Nearly £6 billion is spent on education maintenance allowances and other youth services. Again, a probable target but shouldn't we be told? And £1.5 billion goes on safeguarding, careers advice and parenting programmes described as 'support for children and families'. Perhaps this is to be cut, but shouldn't we be told? It is time for Gove to spell out where his axe is most likely to fall.

This posting has been picked up on Left Foot Forward, New Statesman, Stumbling and Mumbling and Hopi Sen.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Creative boycott

Following my posting on the test boycott, I have received the following interesting email from an East London primary schoolteacher explaining the approach of one school to the boycott:
You might be interested to hear how the SATs 'boycott' is being interpreted in our school. I wonder how many other schools are following a similar approach? Our Year 6 will be sitting SATs tests under full exam conditions. But they will be the 2009 tests, not this year's' The raw results won't be reported to the borough, but they will be used - informed and modified, where appropriate, by teacher assessment - to give parents an overall level which the school thinks the child has reached at the end of primary school. If the borough asks, I imagine the same overall level will be reported to them. I think this is a sensible response to the situation we find ourselves in. I for one don't have a problem with SATs. The powers that be at my school have a similar view. The classroom reality is that we've been building the kids up towards the exams all year, and we can't tell them now: 'Sorry, all that work's been wasted. We won't be doing SATs.' Colleagues say 'It's the league tables we object to.' I happen to think that SATs should continue - though my experience, with children now beginning secondary school, is that secondary schools largely discount them. From a professional point of view, I think teachers are in severe danger of landing themselves with something far, far worse, in terms of workload, if APP is to become the alternative.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Testing times

I've written this post on the NUT/NAHT test boycott for the Public Finance blog:

News that the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers plan a boycott of the tests for 11 year-olds in English and Maths may be cause for immediate celebration on the part of some pupils and teachers. But it should worry the rest of us – and any teachers genuinely concerned with improving standards.

The unions say the tests require excessive workload and force teachers to drill pupils in English and Maths when they could be doing other things. Yet, independent experts found the tests to be ‘educationally beneficial’ while reminding teachers that they could teach the basics more effectively through good teaching rather than drilling for tests. Since there is still a 22 point gap between the achievements of poor and better off children, the boycott will have a disproportionate effect on the disadvantaged, those who were failed most by schools before the increase in accountability in the nineties that included testing and performance tables. National test data are vital in raising teacher expectations as well as revealing where primary schools need to improve.

It was interesting to note the lack of enthusiasm even among the unions’ own members for this boycott (which is opposed by other unions). Most members of both unions chose not to vote in the ballot, which meant that only a third of NAHT members and a quarter of NUT members actually voted in favour of this action. This may make it a lot harder to enforce the boycott.

Of course, there is room to reform the tests. But it is absurd to suggest that a single set of tests in English and Maths at the end of primary school – the only independent measure of primary schools – is excessive. Equally, at a time when we have seen the adverse effects of self-regulation in parliament and banking, it is untenable to suggest that teachers should mark themselves. Whatever happens, it is vital that whoever becomes education secretary after the election makes clear that testing is here to stay.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Cameron's failure and Clegg's surge

The unpredictability of the current political climate makes analysis a foolhardy enterprise. Yet there is one thing that seems clear from the surge in support for Nick Clegg and the decline in support for David Cameron since last Thursday's debate: it is a sign of Cameron's failure to follow the logic of his initial attempts to modernise the Conservative Party. Support for the Tories has always seemed tentative over the last year, rarely topping 40% in opinion polls. It was a reluctant support that quickly crumbled when an alternative seemed available. Yet whatever policy criticisms may justifiably be levelled at Clegg and the Liberal Democrats could equally be laid at Cameron's door. He simply didn't do his homework.

There is a myth that the Labour government came to power in 1997 unprepared for what faced it. And it is true that the party had not yet developed its theories of public service reform to the extent that Blair wanted, and it took until the late second and third terms for that to be fully articulated. But a huge amount of groundwork had been done, and it has been very apparent to me over the last year that little such effort has been going on in terms either of policy or reshaping the Conservatives with the present Opposition, even if shadow ministers have been having lots of chats with civil servants. And that is Cameron's big failing.

Take education. We are told by uber-cheerleaders like the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson that there has been huge preparation in this policy area. And I have no doubt that Michael Gove is both the most personable and best informed education spokesman the party has had (save, perhaps, David Willetts) since 1997. Yet there are huge glaring gaps in policy. There is no money for pupil premiums - something the Lib Dems have at least costed at £2.5 billion - and there is a foolish pretence surrounding the free schools policy that it will be cost neutral, when the truth is that if it succeeds it will cost between £1-2 billion a year. There have been daft inconsistencies, such as a flirtation with worker co-ops and threats to scrap Key Stage 2 tests. And there is a conceit that the schools will largely be parent-led (which is backfiring badly on the doorsteps) when the reality is that they are more likely to be run by academy-style sponsors and chains. Compared with the huge detail and costing of Labour education policy pre-1997, this is very much policy lite.

And on other areas, the party is in a much worse state. Plans for US-style elected sheriffs have been attacked by the police, with justification. Health policy is thoroughly regressive for patients and lacks any reforming zeal. Economic policy has seemed dangerously half-baked, with the National Insurance wheeze only the latest example, and George Osborne has lacked the gravitas of a would-be Chancellor. But over-riding all this is something that the voters have noticed: despite a few high profile efforts to promote women and minority candidates, the Tory party itself seems relatively unchanged on the ground. There has been no Clause 4 moment: even on grammar schools, a shibboleth if ever there was one, a quick retreat took place. While Labour always had its internal battles, there were many new Labour members in the party in 1997 in constituencies like the one I chaired; the Cameroons seem like a small elite without any roots. The change was far too superficial, unlike the change effected by Blair from 1994-7. Voters see this locally.

So, the fact has always been that the Cameron project was far less solidly built than the Blair project, and far more likely to crumble in the face of a plausible alternative. Once Cameron had conceded equal billing to Clegg in the TV debates, he sealed his own fate. Of course, it is not good for Labour if its support falls below 30% or leaves it in third place, though a Lib-Lab government seems a real prospect, though there is still a chance that Lib Dem support will fall back as their policies are scrutinised more. But the Tories should never have allowed themselves to be in this situation. And for not taking his project forward properly, Cameron has only himself to blame.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Election fun with Jacob Rees-Mogg

In my North East Somerset constituency, where our excellent three term Labour MP Dan Norris is defending a majority truncated by boundary changes to around 150, we are blessed in the Tory candidate, the extraordinary Jacob Rees-Mogg. Last week, the Sunday Times devoted nearly a whole page to an attempt by Camille Long to track the elusive candidate down. Now Mogg has shown his brilliance in campaigning by starting a row in the Bath Chronicle about a quite funny spoof website that a local university student has set up. Instead of ignoring this bit of fun, the son of Lord Rees-Mogg has cleverly decided that the site should have loads of publicity, so he has threatened legal action. See the site here.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Hanging in the Balance

I have written about hung parliaments for this week's Public Finance:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said last Sunday that a narrow victory for either Labour or the Conservatives could create ‘social unrest’. And the opinion polls still suggest that the Conservatives will find it difficult to secure an overall majority on May 6.

Media and City pundits tell us we are ‘in danger’ of having a hung Parliament. Yet if that’s what our democracy produces, why should we be so afraid of such an outcome?

Clegg might be mixing disingenuousness with party advantage: he refuses to say who he would favour in a hung Parliament, yet clearly wants one to give the LibDems the upper hand. Even so, in the current economic circumstances, such a result could be better not only for the country but also for the main party leaders than a narrow majority for either of their parties.

Indeed, a weekend poll for the Independent on Sunday showed that Labour could benefit most from talk of a hung Parliament: 51% of voters want the party to be in power either on its own or as part of an alliance with the LibDems (with 26% favouring a Lib-Lab alliance and 25% a majority Labour government) against 49% saying the same about the Conservatives (split 29-20).

Yet saying so is heretical for Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, even if LibDem voters are actively courted by the likes of Transport Secretary Lord Adonis. But across Europe, coalitions are the norm. In part, that’s the result of their more proportional electoral systems: governments need more than 40% of the popular vote. It is also often the result of a political system that is rather more honest with the voters than ours.

Here, po-faced hedge fund managers tell us that a hung Parliament would cause a run on the pound. They seem to forget that British political parties are broad, often disunited coalitions. Labour’s rebellions have reflected strong differences between Left-wing radicals and a centrist leadership. In Germany and Scandinavia, such views are represented by several different parties.

Similarly, John Major’s Conservative government in the 1990s struggled as Eurosceptic and Europhile MPs constantly bickered. In a Cameron-led government, there would likely be big differences with those who favour a return to Thatcherite certainties, as rows over grammar schools have shown.

In truth, there is more uniting the mainstream leadership of the three main parties – on issues such as policing, education and the need for spending cuts – than they might care to admit or than this week’s manifestos might suggest.

But Clegg’s strongest point was about the difficulties involved in making public service cuts or raising VAT, decisions a new government will have to make. Chancellor Alistair Darling has already said that the cuts will be deeper than anything experienced in the Thatcher years and his Tory counterpart George Osborne is keen to be seen as an even more fervent cost-cutter.

These cuts will be deeply unpopular. One only has to look at Ireland for a flavour of what might lie in store: higher staff contributions to public sector pensions, big public sector staff and pay cuts, major reductions in public spending. The idea that a party with less than 40% of the popular vote would be better able to withstand this than a government with the combined support of say, 55% or 60% of voters, is fanciful. Whether this involves a formal coalition or agreement to support a minority administration, it would still potentially be stronger than one party governing with a slim majority.

Of course, all this presents a real dilemma for the LibDems. It was easier in Scotland, where they happily supported Labour. That is, as Adonis mischievously pointed out last week, where their activists see their natural allies. Indeed, Clegg’s reluctance suggests that he and his allies feel closer to the Conservatives.

The LibDems need to tell voters where they would stand if no party won an outright majority. In Germany, federal voters knew that the liberal Free Democratic Party would back Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in last September’s elections even if the details had later to be agreed.

But whatever happens, we shouldn’t buy the myth that what might result would be any less stable for the country than a single party government with a tiny majority. It might be just what the economy needs.

The power of debate

There is nothing the media likes more than stories about itself. So to be able to have not one, but three TV debates has meant a positive orgy of excitement on the broadcasts, as they salivate at the prospect of their being centre-stage with the three party leaders playing their assigned walk-on parts. That said, it is good that the debates are happening: they provide some focus to an otherwise tedious national campaign. There is plenty being said about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the leaders on TV. But let's not beat about the bush on this ahead of tonight's first debate. Nick Clegg is already a winner, simply by being there. David Cameron should walk the contest between himself and Brown: he can only lose if he allows his smug arrogant side to come across too obviously, and he imagines his sneering PMQs tone will work here. But as a consummate PR man who knows - and exudes - the value of style over substance, I would be astonished if he allows that to happen. Brown has the most to gain, and to lose. The campaign is being more closely fought than the heirs apparent at Millbank Tower assumed, and a strong performance would defy expectations though it is still unlikely to be a game-changer. With just 60 seconds to make points, this is a format for those who are better at mastering shallow soundbites rather than detailed debate. It will be an uphill struggle for the PM to gain the advantage in those circumstances. But while the significance of these debates is not nearly as great as the media self-obsessives would have us believe (TV was still relatively new during Kennedy-Nixon, after all) it is still an important step forward for British elections.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

The limitations of 'people power'

I'm all in favour of parents being helped to start their own schools. Indeed, I helped develop legislation under Labour that would make it easier for them to do so, and I would support its liberalisation. A few have done so successfully,and doubtless the Tories have a few more lined up, but it never felt like the groundswell - faith schools aside - that would make a significant difference to the school system. The truth is that the Conservatives - who made 'people power' their manifesto theme today - will rely on extending the role of the sort of organisations that are already engaged in academies to develop their Swedish schools, rather than a rush of parent power or even workers co-ops. And for them to pretend otherwise is disingenous and a tad deceitful.

Equally, it may be that there is a huge groundswell of untapped voluntarism just waiting for the chance to become the new government. If there is, I'll be the first to applaud. But there is simply no evidence that there is. Of course, there are plenty of volunteers around and their work is to be applauded and encouraged. But the idea that they can take over the bulk of the public services - and improve them - is fanciful. Improving public services demands good leadership, skilled professional staff, clear measurable goals (particularly minimum standards) and strong accountability. External drive from the private or voluntary sector can also make a big difference, as in academies and some health services, but not without the combination of other facets in place too. Because the Conservatives have chosen to lie about the extent of progress in the public services since 1997, they have chosen to ignore the importance of all these factors in combination. And that is the big flaw in their odd document today.

By all means, let's get more people engaged in government and public services. But by pretending that this is the solution to society's ills, the Tories are either hopelessly naive or unforgivably cynical. Sure, their media cheerleaders who don't visit state schools or wait in A&E will cheer their prescription. But when it comes to putting all this into action - should they get into power - let's see how much genuine people power takes off. I won't be holding my breath.

Monday 12 April 2010

Cartoon manifesto

This is a great sales pitch, and there is plenty of meat in the new Labour manifesto itself.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Health improvements at risk

Today's report from the Kings Fund highlighting the extent to which there have been real improvements in access and speed in the NHS under Labour shows what is being put at risk if the Tories scrap the patient guarantees that have helped deliver these improvements. Isn't about time these issues were debated in this election campaign and that the BMA spokesman and Tory would-be health secretary Andrew Lansley was asked to explain the full effect of his returning the health service to the state in which the Tories left it in 1997?

Thursday 8 April 2010

Citizens' Service (Mark 2?)

David Cameron says he wants a national voluntary citizens' service scheme. Apart from its focus on 16 year olds alone, the voluntary nature of the scheme makes this little different from the Millennium Volunteers scheme launched by David Blunkett in 1998 when he was education and employment secretary. It is now called v-involved. But its voluntary nature meant it was never going to be a universal scheme. Cameron's scheme is destined to be no different.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Dumbing down

I've always been a bit concerned about dumbing down, especially on Channel 4's evening schedule or the BBC News (which has become a version of Hello! at 6pm). But I thought some things would be immune. Until now.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Politics must be an election winner

That the election that we now know will take place on May 6th is competitive at all is remarkable in itself. And the fact that there is any doubt about the result owes much to the weaknesses of David Cameron and the strengths of Gordon Brown. The extent to which Cameron overcomes his weaknesses and Brown plays to his strengths will determine the outcome of the election. But this must also be an election where politicians show that politics matters again, after the recent expenses scandals.

The opinion polls give a mixed picture: Labour stalwarts may prefer ICM’s 4-point Tory lead in the Guardian to YouGov’s 10-point advantage in The Sun. But both suggest a tighter result than the 15-20 point lead of polls last year. Cameron lost ground by retreating to his Tory comfort zone when he should have stuck with his initial instincts to regain the centreground won by Tony Blair in the last three elections. The result was that – with the possible exception of last week’s national insurance battle – a Tory policy blitz promised for after Christmas proved a damp squib. Meanwhile, despite a depleted party budget, Labour proved a sharper than expected campaigner and has played well to the economic strengths of the Brown-Darling team (so much so that Brown has said that in the – still unlikely – result of a Labour victory, Darling would remain as Chancellor).

But all that could change in the next four weeks. The novelty of the TV debates could be a game changer in three ways. First, if Cameron allows the sneering petulance that has occasionally reared its ugly head at PMQs to come through, he will turn off middle ground voters. Second, if Brown doesn’t manage to mix his undoubted gravitas with a lighter touch, he will lose to Cameron and Clegg. And, finally if Nick Clegg does as well as Vince Cable in the Chancellors’ debate, he could affect the result in some marginals to the detriment of the two larger parties.

For the two main parties, however, this will be an inauspicious election, as the combination of Westminster expenses and economic uncertainty could drive record numbers of voters either to abstain or to vote for fringe parties and independents. It is that as much as the polls that suggests a hung parliament remains the most likely result. And the big challenge for all the parties in the weeks ahead is to make people realise that politics matters and makes a difference to their lives. Whatever the result, this election campaign can only be judged a success if it switches people back to politics.

This post first appeared on the Public Finance blog today.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Inside North Korea

Cruising the Nile, I have been reading Barbara Demick's superb and disturbing account of life in North Korea, Nothing to Envy. Demick, an LA Times reporter who has covered Korea and China, uses the stories of six very different defectors to give an extraordinary account inside the world's most secretive country. She describes the brainwashing from birth and the absence of external information that combined to produce a zealous devotion (at least outwardly) to the Dear Leader, with people whose fortitude and reilience was extraordinary. People's lives are regulated in extraordinary detail. There are (at least in the early stages) none of the Soviet queues here as the state provides an allocation of food every fortnight and even haircuts are provided by an assembly line of hairdresssers (men one side, women the other) by the Orwellian Convenience Bureau.

Demick's witnesses move from various degrees of loyalty to varying degrees of disillusion as the Soviet Union's collapse prompts a horrendous famine that drives people to sell their meagre goods to buy from a newly emerging black market (often filled with Western aid produce) or to cook grass instead of rice. One of her witnesses, a doctor, is confronted with the disappearance of basic supplies and an expectation that she add to her 12 hour day with time picking herbs for medicine in the mountains. Electricity - the spread of which was a genuine advance in North Korea - is rationed to an hour a day. Big Brother meanwhile starts a campaign to spread a message extolling the delights of 'two meals a day' instead of three, though getting one is a challenge even for the starving children at the infant school.

All the while the propaganda is strengthened about the evils of South Korea (for whom some rumours suggest the state is stockpiling food to feed its 'starving people' after reunification) and the USA. Some brave souls manage (at huge personal risk - state police can visit at any hour) to listen to South Korean radio, adjusting blocks on their sets to do so. Mrs Song, the once loyal party apparatchik, has her faith in the Leader dimmed by a request to provoke critiques of the regime - something likely to result in years in a labour camp with 200,000 other unfortunates - from her neighbours who turn silent in her presence. Gradually, we see people escaping into China - where they can be turned back by the Chinese - in a bid either to fly to Seoul on a false passport or to go by land to Mongolia where the country is more tolerant and will deport them to South rather than North Korea. Even reaching South Korea has its own difficulties as fraudsters find ways to relieve them of their $20,000 welcome money and adjusting to such a different world is difficult. There is also the guilt of leaving family behind to their unpleasant fate as unwitting relatives of defectors. This is a story that deserves the widest possible airing. Barbara Demick's book is as important in telling the personal story of North Korea as Jung Chang's was in taking us through the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It is a chilling, but essential read.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Lessons from Egypt

ASWAN - From today's Egyptian Gazette, an English-language daily in operation for 130 years, I bring news of how not to behave when the education minister pays a visit. Apparently, Zaki Badr, the education minister decided to pop in to a model school, El-Khulafaa el-Rashiudun preparatory school in Helwan, on Monday to see how things were going in the school recommended by his ministry. Finding the school empty of students and teachers, Mr Badr promptly ordered the staff to be transferred to 'remote educational facilities' accusing them of 'laxity and incompetence'. Now the 93 staff are staging a strike in protest at this 'humiliating decree'. Principal El-Khuli told the Gazette that he had been late himself because he had to attend a physiotherapy session, and complained that he had been given no money by the ministry. But Egyptian cynics say the minister should not have been surprised to find no learning going on in Halwen: Mohammed Amin of Al-Wafd said that most youngsters were now educated in privatre tuition centres (where parents pay the teachers to do the job that they should be doing in the state-funded schools!).