Thursday 30 September 2010

After a shaky start, Ed must pick the right shadow cabinet

There are two good things behind that paywall in today's Times, David Aaronovitch's excellent column and Sam Coates's tips for the shadow cabinet (page 11).

Unlike David Aaronovitch, I watched Ed Miliband's speech on TV, and gave my instant verdict on this blog - a clever speech but one that begged questions. But David A is right that Ed needs to show a desire to lead: he should have said he would campaign for AV, not just vote for it. His hard sections were quickly softened by crowd pleasers. Second, while I share the view that he probably had to address Iraq, I agree with David A that Ed M was utterly wrong in his characterisation of Tony Blair's foreign policy, and his passage would have been far more credible had it recognised how a Labour government saved tens of thousands of lives in Kosovo or Sierra Leone. Waiting for the UN - for which, read the principled leaders of Russia and China -to act is a recipe for genocide, as the people of Rwanda and Cambodia know only too well. Such positioning made it impossible for David Miliband to stay in the frontline.

Ed Miliband has the makings of a credible attack on the coalition's cuts, but he must avoid any repeat of last night's interview on Channel 4 News where he sounded too enthusiastic about tax (he needs a better way to express his plans for banking levies, and he should heed Nick Pearce's advice about the effect of focusing too much on redistribution rather than having a broad tax base to tackle inequalities). I know it is early days, and the switch of Chief Whip from Nick Brown to Rosie Winterton suggests a welcome steeliness. Yet to end Labour Party conference with a 'new generation' leader two points behind the Tories in the latest Yougov poll must be worrying.

But if Ed wants to move on from what has been a pretty inauspicious first week, he needs to get his shadow cabinet right. He could do a lot worse than the excellent suggestions for a well-balanced team made by Sam Coates - assuming they all get elected, and recognising that more than six women are likely to be in the team, as Harriet Harman and Rosie Winterton are there by right. Douglas Alexander or Liam Byrne would be right for shadow chancellor, Caroline Flint and Yvette Cooper would be great in education and health, Ed Balls (provided he is allowed to oppose the Tories properly) would be a powerful shadow home secretary and Pat McFadden deserves a big job like shadowing Vince Cable or Eric Pickles. Jim Murphy would be right for defence and Andy Burnham good at transport. Tessa Jowell should have Olympics. Coates proposes Harriet Harman as shadow foreign secretary, a just reward for her renaissance as acting leader and Alan Johnson to tease the increasingly pompous Nick Clegg. I doubt that Ed's advisers could do much better.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

A clever first speech, now for the hard part

Ed Miliband's first speech as party leader was clever and well-constructed, though it suffered from an as yet limited sense of what it all means in practice. Nevertheless, he met the tests set for him by the tabloids. He couldn't have been clearer about his support for fiscal responsibility and reducing the deficit, but he wrapped it in a great phrase about true patriotism being about reducing the debt burden for our kids, as well as about building an economy and a society fit for our kids to live in. He was clear what he supported from Labour's legacy, as well as starting to set a clearer sense of where he wants to go - graduate tax, tax breaks for a living wage, work-life balance, sensible welfare reform, civil liberties - but was sharp in reminding the unions of the 'book of historic failures' and that he would not support 'irresponsible strikes'.

His is a style where he lays the hard choices out clearly, but softens them to please his audience: backing being tough on crime, pro-business, changing clause 4 but finishing with all-women shortlists. He is also unclear where he stands on some of Labour's most important reforms: his tale of tackling a failing school should have been followed by support for Labour's successful academies. Instead it was used to talk up government. It was also fascinating how muted a response he received from the conference floor for his criticism of the Iraq war. (Note, by contrast, the stronger applause he got for his support for Palestine).

Where he is on strongest ground is on democratic reform - with a clear pledge to support the Alternative Vote and reform the Lords - and on the need for intelligent cross-party thinking (a promise to go soft on Ken Clarke and Theresa May must rule out Ed Balls for Shadow Home Secretary, then). But his speech lacked a clear sense of where Ed Miliband will take the party, though given how little time he had to prepare this speech, this is excusable this year. This was a well crafted first speech, confidently delivered, not least in his repudiation of the "Red Ed" label and his shaping of Labour as a party of optimism. He has passed this first test: the big challenge comes in translating all this into practice in a way that genuinely wins back many of the five million New Labour voters lost since 1997.

This post has been picked up by Left Foot Forward and Iain Dale.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Wise words for Ed

Alan Johnson has some good advice for Ed Miliband in the Independent on Sunday, including on his unwise obsession with a graduate tax:

Think "out of the box" (as I believe they say in management-speak). The very existence of the coalition has demonstrated that the public is willing to accept new and innovative thinking about how we manage government in the UK. During your campaign, all candidates spoke regularly of not returning to the old ways. Now show you mean it. Breathe new life into our education policy; define localism and community activism in a way that is not a metaphor for filling gaps in public services; understand that the public does not want to see a reverse in the progress we made in tackling crime. Oh, and for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees. Students don't pay them, graduates do, when they're earning more than £15,000 a year, at very low rates, stopped from their pay just like a graduate tax, but with the money going where it belongs: to universities rather than the Treasury.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Now Ed must show real leadership

I didn't vote for Ed Miliband as leader. But now that he has been elected, I congratulate him and will join other party members in giving him my support. But he must also show the country that he has what it takes to win their votes. That means a rather more outward-looking agenda than has been apparent during the leadership campaign. It means a selective and coherent critique of the coalition, which starts from an acceptance of what we would have cut and an indication of what we can support - some welfare and education reforms, for example - followed by a strong and clear critique of those coalition cuts and policies that are bad for Britain. It means a recognition of the issues that matter to those voters who elected us under Tony Blair three elections in a row, and a conscious abandonment of those parts of the Brown approach that contributed to our defeat. I don't share the silly characterisation of Ed Miliband as 'Red Ed', but the challenge for our new leader is to show the voters that it is just that. We need surprising, innovative and vote-winning ideas in Tuesday's leader's speech and in the months ahead. Not least because we have had precious few of them during the long leadership campaign.

Friday 24 September 2010

New leader needs to speak to the voters again

Whoever wins the Labour leadership election, one thing is very clear from today's Times/Populus poll: the public, especially Labour voters, want the new leader to follow the outward-facing approach of Tony Blair. They don't share the leadership candidates' predeliction for bashing Blairism. The poll finds that 60% of all voters and 70% of Labour voters believe that the new leader should adopt a similar approach to that adopted by Tony Blair. Of course, that doesn't mean no changes to policy: but it does mean developing policies with broad appeal and seeking to rebuild the coalition of voters that won Labour three elections.

In his first speech, the victorious Miliband would do well to follow Philip Collins's sage advice (£) in today's Times - support some government policy so that your wider critique is heard:
The new leader would be [well] advised to find an area of policy on which he intends to support the coalition — education is the obvious example — and then, in the slipstream of this concession, go in hard on Andrew Lansley’s chaotic health plans, vague Hague’s international retreat and the absence of a coalition plan for law and order.

Culling quangos

It is a strange notion that because an organisation is a quango, it is inherently worse than something run by the civil service. Yet that seems to be the sole rationale for Francis Maude's zealous cull of these arm's length bodies. Reading through the list leaked to the Daily Telegraph, an organ guaranteed to back Maude over timid ministers, one is struck not by the absurdity of many of the bodies to be axed, but by their obvious usefulness.

Baroness Deech provided an elegant defence of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on the Today programme this morning, quietly correcting a sneering John Humphrys over her remuneration for chairing this august body: a modest £8,000 a year (and many other chairs are unremunerated despite bringing huge experience and expertise to the subject that most certainly does not exist in the Civil Service). The HFEA has allowed an honest independent scientific and ethical analysis of some of the thorniest dilemmas of recent years, far more usefully than had it been left to the civil service or ministers.

But look beyond the HFEA to the School Food Trust, under Prue Leith's leadership transforming school dinners or the Audit Commission, offering independent assessments of council standards. The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts - which is largely funded through a ten year-old endowment rather than recurring government funding - has a global reputation for its championing of innovation, something key to our economic recovery. Some quangos certainly may usefully be merged, scrapped or their functions absorbed by others: but if that is so, then we must hope that the final list is rather more explicit about what is really happening than the gung-ho tone of Maude's letter to Nick Clegg on the subject, also published in today's Telegraph.

For example, the Legal Services Commission may be unloved, but someone will need to administer Legal Aid, and the functions of the General Teaching Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency will both be absorbed into the Department for Education or other agencies, as they will have to continue.

When the government - so committed to transparency and value for money - publishes its final list of axed quangos, perhaps it could provide the following information for each quango
* What it did and why
* What it actually cost and what remuneration was paid to its board, if any
* What functions, if any, will tranfer elsewhere
* The genuine net cost or saving from abolition of each quango, after redundancy and the cost of delivering services elsewhere
* An independent analysis of the net wider economic, social, cultural or other costs of abolishing the quango

Simply because the generic abolition of quangos appeals both to right-wing newspapers and to civil servants (who always disliked them) does not make each individual case right. But perhaps we will have to wait until their absence is lamented to realise that.

This posting also appears on the Public Finance blog and has been picked up at Stumbling and Mumbling.

Thursday 23 September 2010

The Country Girl

To see the new production of Clifford Odets' The Country Girl at the Theatre Royal Bath, ahead of a West End run at the Apollo Theatre. Martin Shaw is compelling as Frank Elgin, the faded actor whose alcoholism and self-delusion destroyed a promising career, with Jenny Seagrove his icily supportive and long-suffering wife, Georgie. When Bernie Dodd (Mark Letheren) is determined to revive Frank's career in a new play in Boston, he has to battle not only with the actor's loss of confidence but with his own misapprehensions about the nature of his relationship with Georgie. This often bleak tale had Bing Crosby, William Holden and Grace Kelly in the 1954 film version - it is finely acted by all the current cast, and benefits from an imaginative set. Rufus Norris's direction provides a worthy revival that should be a success on the London stage.

Monday 20 September 2010

How not to be a Lib Dem minister

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat minister at the Department for Education, has been coming under fire at her party's conference from delegates who object to coalition support for academies and free schools. She has just been defeated on the conference floor over the policy. Yet, in defending herself, Teather makes an extraordinary confession about her own lack of influence in her department:

"We got significant changes by working with our people in the House of Lords, negotiating behind the scenes, significant changes to improve accountability."

What she is admitting is that rather than managing to influence the original Academies Bill - and anticipate backbench criticism - Teather had to bow to the demands of her party members in the House of Lords. That is a sign not of influence, but of weakness. What she is saying is that, as a coalition minister, she has little power over the content of legislation, but her backbench Lords colleagues can do her job for her. No wonder her audience were unimpressed.

Friday 17 September 2010

A test of Tory wills over academies in Bath

A fascinating insight into the tensions inherent in the coalition government is playing itself out in Bath. Oldfield School, a successful girls' foundation school, had declared its plans to apply for outstanding academy status even before the ink was dry on the coalition agreement. Its head Kim Sparling had tried to become the poster girl for Michael Gove's new academies.

But there was a rather big snag in her ambitions: Conservative-run Bath and North East Somerset Council had plans to turn Oldfield into a co-educational school, closing a less successful boys' school in the process. The Tory council, with the support of Liberal Democrat Bath MP Don Foster, made vigorous representations to Gove. The result was that Oldfield did not appear on the list of 32 new academies announced earlier this month, to the fury of Sparling, who has been firing legal letters into the DFE. The school itself has even been advertising as an academy in the local press, even though it is not (yet) one. And now the council has told Oldfield that if it doesn't agree to go co-ed by 5pm today, it will close the school and reopen a coed school on the same site.

This all seems a mite curious. After all, the whole point of Gove's Academies Bill was that outstanding schools would be automatically designated as academies, wasn't it? In fact, what has happened in Bath suggests that far from sidelining local authorities, the coalition has become even more sensitive to their objections. And a host of amendments forced onto the Academies Bill by the Liberal Democrats in July greatly strengthened the power of local authorities to slow down planned academies. The Local Government Association is said to have unprecedented access to ministers, and a coalition of local interests can clearly outweigh a determined head teacher.

In truth, there is also a degree of pragmatic good sense in all of this: at a time of cuts, a degree of strategic planning is necessary to avoid deadweight costs. There is a logic to the council's plans for the authority as a whole, though the whole affair has stopped their wider plans for reorganisation too. And it remains likely that many more good schools will opt for academy status without much objection - but at their own pace.

But what are the cheerleaders for a radical overhaul of the school system to make of it all? This one can't really be blamed on the teaching unions, can it?

UPDATE: Bath's council has won the battle of wills: Oldfield School will admit boys with extra capital funding to provide suitable extra facilities. In return, the council has removed its objection to the school becoming an academy. All of which shows who really has the upper hand in the practical application of the coalition's freedom for outstanding schools.

The economics of Nimbyism

The October Spending Review is likely not only to have a severe impact directly on public sector jobs, but also indirectly on the private sector through reduced spending power and a loss of public contracts. That is a given in George Osborne's plans. But there is also an assumption that the private sector will still be able to step in to fill the gap created, generating sufficient growth to outweigh the negative impact of the cuts.

That theory might be fine if it were not for three deeply damaging protectionist policies that are achieving exactly the opposite effect, and which are set further to stunt prospects for growth. In a welcome breath of fresh air, Vince Cable has told the Financial Times this morning that the ludicrous cap in non-EU skilled migrants is having a real impact on key economic sectors, echoing views expressed by the London Mayor Boris Johnson. Meanwhile, Damian Green's zealously populist embrace of Home Office antipathy to overseas students - who contribute £5 billion a year to the UK economy - not to mention the ties that are created with many graduate entrepreneurs afterwards - is likely to see them turn to other countries with less short-sighted attitudes instead.

But there is a third element that is exemplified vigorously in today's Bristol Evening Post: the coalition's support for Nimbyism over the national interest, whether in the expansion of Heathrow Airport or in major economic developments. What the Post accurately describes as a 'rutted former tip' has been given the status of a 'town green' because 22 local residents successfully appealed in a planning inquiry against a £150 million investment in a world-class football stadium at Ashton Vale that could have provided 6,000 jobs and £150m if the World Cup comes to Britain. Yet far from reducing the impact of such Nimbyism, the coalition in a misguided piece of localism has handed far more power back to small groups of residents and abolished the independent Infrastructure Planning Commission, to the dismay of industry.

Combined with an appetite for cuts that has already choked infrastructural investment in schools and transport, it all amounts to a recipe for economic stagnation. Let's hear more from those in the coalition who recognise this reckless folly for what it is.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

The Rivals

To see a splendid production of Sheridan's The Rivals, his Bath-based tale of rivalry and comic misunderstanding, at the refurbished Theatre Royal last night. Penelope Keith was simply splendid as the wary aunt, Mrs Malaprop, enhanced by the sheer pleasure of absorbing so many of her malopropisms. She was ably supported by Peter Bowles as the Sir Anthony Absolute, played with timely moderation, and a fine cast, notably Gerard Murphy as the blustering stage Irishman Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Robyn Addison as the languid Lydia and Tony Gardiner as Faulkland. But this was very much an ensemble performance, under Sir Peter Hall's incomparable direction, that served to remind the capacity audience at Bath of the wonderful wit of this 1775 play (with its operatic echoes). Sheridan was just 23 when he wrote it, though his first effort extended to four hours, mercifully halved for later audiences. The reunion of Keith and Bowles is an added pleasure in this excellent start to a new Bath season.

Still the bookies' favourite

Ed Miliband may feel that he is winning the Labour leadership race, hyped by the BBC today, and boosted by last Sunday's YouGov calculations. It is interesting that the bookies don't agree, and are not placing both brothers at evens. Here are the latest odds:

Paddy Power, Coral and William Hill: David Miliband 2/5, Ed Miliband 7/4

Ladbrokes: David Miliband 4/11, Ed Miliband 15/8

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Schools must be able to recruit poorer pupils

I've written this piece for the Public Finance blog:

The education secretary, Michael Gove, is reported to be considering a change to the Schools Admissions Code that would allow successful schools actively to recruit pupils entitled to free school meals from outside their catchment area. The change has been greeted with predictable shrieks of ‘social engineering’ from the right-wing media and claims by the Margaret Morrissey, who runs an organisation called ‘Parents Outloud’ that it would ‘shunt’ parents to ‘the bottom of the list.’

But Gove is absolutely right to look for ways to ensure that new academies and free schools – which are more likely than Labour’ academies to be in better off areas – are not simply ghettoised by the middle classes. Poorer parents are too often already ‘shunted’ to the bottom of the list by virtue of where they live. The fact is that the use of catchment areas as the main admissions criterion by urban schools ensures that many of the best schools exclude poorer pupils not because they go out of their way to do so, but because they simply cannot afford to live near enough to the school to get in.

With the 2006 Education and Inspections Act, the new School Admissions Code made it easier for schools to combat this by introducing either ability bands or random allocation (lotteries). A growing number of academies use this criteria – often within a wider catchment area than the neighbourhood around the school – to ensure a balanced intake. In fact, middle class families can benefit from this too, as the Brighton experiment showed (in that case, catchments were drawn largely for their benefit), since it at least gives them a chance of getting their child into a school otherwise closed to them. Those who can lose are those who have moved into an artificial catchment area to get into a particular school, though it makes sense for schools to provide a proportion of places for those living very near a school as well as a proportion that is open to wider competition.

Gove’s proposal would give schools another way of widening their intake, by allowing them actively to recruit poorer pupils, presumably by setting aside a number of places for those entitled to free school meals (FSM). There is a critique of FSM as the measure, in that it misses a lot of youngsters from families of modest means, but the principle is a good one. And if the new pupil premium - provided it is additional and significant – is to work, good schools must have more than an incentive to recruit poorer pupils, they need the means to do so as well.

That said, there are two other aspects of the 2006 reforms that need a shot in the arm, if this scheme is to work. The first is the entitlement to free transport to any one of three local schools (rather than that nominated by the local authority, as before). This needs to be better publicised, and must not be a victim of the Chancellor’s cuts. The second is the choice adviser. As I wrote last year, the idea of people actively helping poorer families to make choices has had a patchy record. But it could be revitalised as a Big Society idea, with successful people from poorer communities providing the advice at crucial times during the year, and active rather than passive efforts to promote good choices.

Of course, Ed Balls is right to point out that Labour’s academies, by being placed within poorer communities, are making a huge difference to many poorer families. But that doesn’t mean his successor is wrong to find ways to redress the imbalanced intakes of some of our more successful schools at the same time.

Friday 10 September 2010

Gradually moving away from a graduate tax

David Willetts, the universities minister, gave a characteristically thoughtful tour d'horizon of the challenges facing higher education, when he addressed the Universities UK conference yesterday. But important though a reshaping of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act will be to many colleges and universities, it was his further refinement of the coalition's ludicrous contortions on the repayment of fees that has inevitably attracted the media's attention.

Willetts clearly thinks his boss Vince Cable was mad to start floating the idea of a graduate tax; since then, he has loyally been trying to find ways to shift the position back towards the graduate contribution that David Blunkett introduced alongside fees in 1998 and which was refined with the 2005 changes to fees. Yesterday was his latest attempt. He told journalists at the UUK conference that he ruled out a full-blown graduate tax but was looking at making the current system more progressive.

What he and his boss signally fail to do is to explain the basic fairness of the current system, particularly compared to other countries. Students not only get their fees paid while at university, but - unlike many other countries - they get a generous loan (with a grant for some) to cover living costs while they enjoy a rite of passage experience subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of 23p in the £. (In many other countries, most students go to their home universities.) Once they have started to earn at least £15,000 a year, English graduates are asked to pay back their loan at a rate of 9% on all income over the threshold. Those who earn more pay the loan back more quickly, though some high earning professions also involve longer studies and larger debts. The interest charged on the loan is rather less than that on most commercial loans, and certainly a lot less than is charged by banks for overdrafts or credit card companies. It would be ridiculous for the government to move radically away from this repayment system.

However, if the loan system is to keep pace with any rise in tuition fees, it will cost significantly more to the Exchequer initially, unless costs are cut in other ways. One would be to increase the rate of interest charged on the loan, but this would actually see lower earning graduates repaying more, since higher earners would pay the loan back more quickly, though it might also discourage those better off students who take out loans just because they are there. Another option, apparently being considered by Willetts and expounded by Neil O'Brien of Policy Exchange in today's Telegraph would see graduates who earn more paying back a higher proportion of their extra earnings by continuing 'repayments' until after the loan was paid off. If such a progressive contribution is to be introduced, this seems a perfectly sensible way to do it. But it should be combined with a greater encouragement for students to go to home universities or colleges where the course they want is available there - the British taxpayer-subsidised rite of passage is not a universal experience - while universities should do much more to link undergraduates to paid and useful work experience both during term and in the holidays.

I don't imagine any of these deliberations will do much to improve Vince Cable's demeanour. He and his colleagues are already struggling to explain to their student voters in university cities that the Lib Dems sold them a rather scraggy pup.

Technically, these schools were launched by Labour

Today's Daily Mail breathlessly announces on its second page today, "Gove brings back technical schools" as it describes the Secretary of State's detailing of plans for a dozen University Technical Colleges to provide students with a specialist vocational education. Throughout the piece, the implication is that this is yet another reversal of dreadful Labour education policy.

Funny, then, that Lord Mandelson announced the same plans in his skills strategy last November:

We will work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to support the development of University Technical Colleges. These will offer new opportunities for 14-19 year olds to undertake vocational and applied study. Alongside the introduction of 14-19 Diplomas, University Technical Colleges will greatly strengthen the flow of young people coming into the labour market with the skills and capabilities employers want, particularly for technician careers. We will ensure good progression from University Technical Colleges to other routes of study including advanced apprenticeships and foundation degrees.

Or, as Lord Baker, the former Conservative education secretary who came up with the idea in the first place with the late Ron Dearing, recalled events in the TES earlier this year:

Ron and I decided to promote the idea of a new technical school, but with two important differences. First, recruitment should be from the age of 14 and continue until the age of 19. Second, each should be sponsored by a university or FE college to secure their proper status. We took our idea for university technical colleges (UTCs) to Andrew Adonis, then a minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and he warmly welcomed it, suggesting that they should be established under the existing academies programme. This was the "go-ahead".

The truth is that this was a genuinely bipartisan initiative, which enjoyed the support of both Labour and the Conservatives. To encourage partisan newspapers to pretend otherwise is unworthy of those doing the briefing.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Back to school

I've written the cover feature for this week's Public Finance, analysing how Michael Gove's education policies look at the start of the new school year. You can read the article here. Here's a sampler:

As a new school term begins, Education Secretary Michael Gove hopes to breathe fresh life into his troubled education plans. The pace of reform has been slow and headlines have focused on Gove’s botched review of Labour’s school building programme. Only 23% of people think the coalition is doing a good job on school reform, according to last month’s polls, with 42% saying it is doing a bad job.Gove is hoping to regain the initiative – and his reputation as one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s star performers – with plans for a pupil premium, an overhaul of the curriculum and a review of capital investment in schools. But the success of these measures will depend on how his department fares in October’s Comprehensive Spending Review........Gove entered government with a ­reputation for radicalism and sure-footedness and many Cameron supporters saw his reforms as central to their project in power. That reputation has been seriously dented in the coalition’s first four months in office, and the extent to which he can recover will depend on his ability to advance his radical agenda while minimising the frontline impact of Treasury cuts this autumn. How he negotiates that difficult balancing act will determine not only whether his reputation for radicalism survives the pressures of government – but the futures of millions of schoolchildren and their teachers as they return from their summer holidays.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Top 100 Labour blogs

Congratulations to Labour List, Tom Harris MP and Hopi Sen for staying in the Top 3 Labour blogs in the Total Politics poll, albeit in a different order. And thank you to those of you who voted to place this blog at no 31 in the Top 100, slightly down from last year's position at No. 26.

Monday 6 September 2010

A delayed revolution?

Michael Gove has been at pains to stress the radicalism of his school reforms, as critics charge that it all amounts to a bit of a damp squib. While his critics are wrong to argue against the expansion of academies and the growth of free schools, Gove is guilty of taking his eye off the ball - and misunderstanding the nature of academy improvement under Labour.

By focusing on the 32 'new academies', Gove largely ignored the 64 academies that had been planned by Labour. Yet it is the latter group that can do most to raise standards - building on a further 7% point rise this year in open academies - and by expending so much political capital on encouraging outstanding schools to take on academy powers, the Education Secretary is in danger of sidelining their crucial role in reform.

During the passage of the Academies Bill, Gove said that the new academies would be expected to work with other weaker schools to help them to improve. Yet this aspect of their role has been all but forgotten. Without even having a sponsor, they are closer to foundation schools than existing academies. Their moral purpose needs to be restated clearly.

But the success of the existing academies has not just been about sponsorship, strong leadership and a new ethos. Ministers underestimate the importance of new buildings and facilities at their peril. If the academies drive in disadvantaged areas is not to falter, there must be a clear sense of the capital that is available in schools that require more than basic refurbishment.

Finally, today's free schools list must be a big disappointment to ministers. Five of the new schools are religious schools - Labour significantly expanded their number, embracing other faiths too. Few of the other eleven could not have opened under existing legislation, at least with a sympathetic minister in charge. With money limited, it will be particularly hard to develop the free school model but it will need considerably more innovation than this group suggests for the policy to live up to its radical billing.

Interestingly, Gove floated a promising idea for a GCSE-Bac yesterday, where students would gain credits for gaining a broad mix of GCSEs. This would be a positive alternative to simply denying any credit for vocational qualifications, as ministers had previously proposed. And with the right support, it could also give a boost to the International Baccalaureate in state schools. It will be interesting to see the details as they emerge.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

We need a leader who shows Labour is back in business

It may come as no surprise that I am backing David Miliband when I cast my vote in Labour's leadership election. I have known and worked with him at various times over the last fifteen years, and while not always agreeing with him, have no doubt that he is the only one of the five candidates with the range of qualities needed not only to lead the Labour Party but to be Prime Minister. His speeches including that at the King Solomon Academy recently reflect an understanding of why we lost and how we should respond to the coalition that is frankly absent from any of his rivals.

Ed Miliband has been the surprise of this campaign, at least to me: his bizarre decision to tack leftwards reflects a lack of seriousness about the role that he seeks and a misunderstanding of how to reconnect with the voters we lost in droves in the 2010 election in constituencies like mine and across the South and South West. I have no doubt that he is often the better speaker at engaging seminar audiences than his brother, but that is not in itself a qualification for the top job. He may have attracted union endorsements and the support of the New Statesman in the process, but he has also made it far harder to win back lost voters.

Yet this has been a campaign that - fratricidal elements aside - has largely failed to ignite the attention of the public. On the one hand, that may be to the good: our support has held up well in the polls and council by-elections. But once the result is declared it is vital that the energy displayed by Tony Blair after 1994 is on display from our new leader. There must be boldness, renewal and new policy. Rather than re-running the 2005 election on Iraq, we need to prepare for an election in 2015 (or before) with a cunning and a maturity that gives people the confdidence to vote Labour again. On the evidence of recent months, David Miliband is readier to strike that balance than his opponents. But if - and, hopefully, when - he wins, he needs to redouble his efforts to show that Labour is once again back in business.

Blair's education revolution bears fruit

Not having read Tony Blair's book yet, I shall leave it to others to litter their blogs with extracts and index-referencing. But it is notable that his memoirs appear on a day when the government has published remarkable data confirming the success of academies.

This is not about Michael Gove's decision to focus his attention on persuading outstanding schools to join the movement, or the development of free schools, on which initial overambition has been replaced by cautious realism. Rather it is about the relatively unsung success of Blair's academies which were embraced (albeit with some pointless interference with their independence) by his successor despite earlier misgivings.

Today sees a lot of attention on the limited number of 'new' academies - there are 32 outstanding schools that heroically managed to convert in time for a new term, with 110 more on the way - but it is also the start of term for 64 academies that had been initiated by the Labour government. They are largely in disadvantaged areas, replacing failing schools and offering new hope and leadership for thousands of youngsters.

Early indications suggest that academies taking GCSEs in both 2009 and 2010 have seen their GCSE results rise by a fifth - from 35% to 42% of pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and Maths - in a single year. This is three times the national average improvement rate (after several years of similar such improvements). Results in schools run by Harris and Ark have exceeded an 11% rise, and the remarkable Mossbourne Academy has stayed above the 80% mark despite a slight dip. When one considers that half of all secondary schools in England couldn't get 30% of their pupils to achieve the five good GCSE standard in 1997, and many inner city schools found 20% a challenge, this is a remarkable result. [Fewer than 200/3200 schools are likely to be below 30% this year]

The challenge for the coalition is three-fold. First, having devoted so much energy to encouraging outstanding schools to become academies, they must refocus their energies on failing schools and turning them around; there are fewer than before, but the challenge remains. Second, they must ensure that their pupil premium does not take money away from academies in disadvantaged areas, which it could well do if the Treasury has its way, and consider linking part of the premium to improvement. And third, they should be much more imaginative in encouraging the development of new academy trusts, particularly for primary schools but also to link outstanding academies with schools that need extra support. There has been a lot of rhetoric about social mobility: we have yet to see the real detail.

Academies are a success story for disadvantaged pupils - but they will only continue to be so if the detail of the policy focus is as relentless as it was when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.