Friday 29 October 2010

The devil is in the detail

The coalition is in trouble on several fronts. Boris has started his re-election campaign with a vengeance, out-Kenning Ken on the curbs on housing benefit. The plans to restrict child benefit to basic rate taxpayers are proving rather more complicated than they were presented. The politics of both policies is probably right, despite Labour's objections, but the government have erred because of a fundamental weakness: their inattention to detail.

I started to notice this in some of the consultation papers they issued, notably that on the pupil premium. The consultation paper says very little about the detail of the premium, leading the TES and John Howson to assume today that it will benefit some schools to the tune of £1 million while leading to many losers. The same inattention to detail compounded the agony of the Building Schools for the Future and GP fundholding announcements.

Had they thought things through with their housing benefit changes, they would have put a higher cap for inner London or applied the policy only to new applicants, and that would have forced Labour to say whether or not they opposed a change they long wanted to make themselves. At the same time, they would have applied sanctions for continued unemployment to JSA rather than housing benefit, something they could only have done if they guaranteed them at least one job offer or a community alternative. Instead, they have succeeded in giving Boris Johnson a fillip and uniting Lib Dems, Labour and inner London MPs against a policy that sounds harsher by the day.

There are similar problems on child benefit: for parties that criticised the complexity of Gordon Brown's tax credits to apply new layers of expensive bureaucracy - which will be trebled with separated couples - is bizarre. But it suggests that they have assumed that if they have an idea, they just need to announce it and the details will worry about themselves. With six years experience as an adviser in government, I can share a little secret: they won't.

Which brings me to the pupil premium, the next accident waiting to happen. I think a pupil premium is a good idea. But, let's not forget that in practice Labour shifted large sums to schools - far more than the maximum premium - with large numbers of pupils on free school meals, which is why their budgets are already significantly higher than others. If funding for schools were rising across the board and there were a genuinely open admissions system, it would make sense simply to have a pupil premium starting at say, £1000 a year, rising to £2500 a year for every FSM pupil by 2015, as the Liberal Democrats envisaged it. Since it isn't, this could cause chaos in coalition constituencies.

For not only is funding not rising, but the government has slashed a host of grants including specialist school funding and school development funds upon which all schools relied. The local authority is to be allowed to redistribute this money (with the local school forum) as it sees fit. Local formulae already build in significant premiums for poorer pupils. So the only way to avoid complete chaos in the school system and an uprising among government backbenchers that would make this week seem like a picnic, is to build in a minimum funding guarantee assuring all schools that they would get at least a standstill per-pupil budget (bearing in mind the teachers' pay freeze) for the next four years. And even then, the likelihood is that schools will simply see the premium as a replacement for other cuts and it will have no effect on narrowing the attainment gap, unless there are other levers and sanctions, such as published data on FSM pupils' achievements by school and financial penalties for those not improving poorer pupils' results.

Either the government opts for simplicity - earning education secretary Michael Gove his inner Aneurin Bevan as the editor of the TES has it - or complexity that keeps restive backbenchers and anxious headteachers happy. This week should have taught the coalition a lesson that they seem not to have learned before now. The devil is definitely in the detail.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The right economic approach for Labour

There's plenty of gloating about a leaked internal document from Labour (£) where insiders recognise that the party lacks economic definition yet and needs a clearer approach to tackling the coalition cuts. Such gloating is premature. If anything it suggests a degree of real understanding about the potential weakness of the party at a time when it has just overtaken the Conservatives on today's Populus poll but growth figures are better than predicted by a gloomy city (albeit down on Labour's last quarter). And that is a good thing. Labour needs to box clever not only the economy - where it has failed to allow a narrative to emerge that blames the party for the size of the deficit and ignores the penury into which millions of savers would have fallen had Labour allowed the banks to collapse as George Osborne advised - but also on health and education. A first step in doing so is recognising one's weaknesses. A second step, which some frontbenchers including Alan Johnson and Douglas Alexander on welfare have already recognised, is to fight the coalition strategically and not wholesale. The third one is having the right policies for the next election. So, embarrassing though this leak may be, it is a sign that the party is not retreating into an opposition comfort zone. That approach needs to be followed through across the front bench - without the leaks, perhaps.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

What will Osborne's education plans really mean?

George Osborne has been trumpeting his plans to protect school budgets. And by the standards of some other departments, Michael Gove has had a good settlement, even if the logic of Osborne's budget should be that education is more important than health. But he shouldn't be surprised if his plans are not received with enthusiasm at the chalkface once schools see their budgets.

The reason is that, as Osborne admitted, per pupil funding and Sure Start funding will only be protected in cash terms, not in real terms. As Charles Clarke discovered when he tried to reform the distribution of funding in 2004, therein lies a recipe for grief further down the line. With the likelihood that local authorities - bizarrely - will be able to reorder priorities for several key grants, including specialist schools funding, there will be many schools worried that local authorities will choose favourites and penalise the very independent-minded leaders most likely to become academies. The details of how the pupil premium is distributed are crucial - and it is funded from the 'real terms' increase in school spending.

And, the scrapping of education maintenance allowances will remove a real incentive for learning from the poorest young people. If a more targeted fund administered by schools and colleges is introduced, it is important that it is strong enough to ensure that those who should stay in education can do so. EMAs were better at this than 16-18 child benefit. It is good that some new schools will be built in future, but the 600 planned over four years will include primaries as well as secondaries, suggesting a rate of progress that is relatively slow and doesn't even deal with the 700 lost BSF projects. It represents a real terms cut of 60% in education capital.

The addition of new apprenticeships is welcome, but there is nothing new to improve the skills of adults who we need to be able to adapt to the changing global environment, as Train to Gain is scrapped and the adult FE budget is slashed. And, in higher education, it looks like the huge cut in the teaching grant has been built in. All in all, education may have fared better than it might have, but there remain huge questions over the real impact of this review at the frontline.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

The loss of specialist leverage

The news - not entirely unexpected - that the coalition is scrapping specialist school funding and handing the money to local authorities to distribute as they choose illustrates a central failing of the government's education policy. It is unwilling to support the means to achieve its goals. A wise government would have recognised that the levers in specialist schools could be harnessed to achieve many of its goals - a tougher rebidding process could have made schools more businesslike, while the specialist networks could ensure that the academic subjects ministers wish for were actually delivered. Its modest funding could have had significantly more impact than the pupil premium, which in the absence of any accountability will simply become a prop in schools to compensate for the wider cuts. Instead, a programme that has direct links to Kenneth Baker's CTC programme and which - contrary to what Paul Waugh claims - was actually created by the Tories in 1994 - even if Labour greatly expanded them - is to be dropped for the sake of ideological consistency. This is a big mistake and a huge loss of the leverage which was crucial to higher standards over the last 15 years. Michael Gove will come to regret it.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Will school funding really be protected?

The coalition's spinners have been claiming that schools will be protected from the Chancellor's axe on Wednesday. I hope they are right. But anyone seeking to get behind the spin might ask the following five questions first, if they are not to be surprised when many schools suggest otherwise once they see their budgets.

1. Will schools have their total revenue budgets protected at least in real terms, including funding for specialist schools (worth £129 a pupil) and the school development and personalisation grants? A July consultation paper proposed allowing local authorities to impose their own formulae on this funding, creating winners and losers.

2. Most schools rely on a range of external services, often delivered by the local authority, to support the poorest pupils. These include pupil referral units, truancy officers, special needs support and free school transport. Will these be protected or will schools have the funds to provide alternatives? After all, many local authorities have already starting axing them?

3. Will schools continue to have their own formula capital funding to allow them to make repairs and undertake improvements without having to ask the local authority?

4. Is there provision made for an increase that allows for demographic changes - primary rolls are rising again, and per pupil funding needs to be increased to recognise this if school funding is genuinely not being cut?

5. Understandably, teachers' salaries are being frozen next year. Has the equation assumed no increasing in teaching costs, and a 'real terms' calculation being made that way. If so, how do schools cover incremental increases and performance threshold rises?

Additionally, we await real details of the pupil premium, which will average less than £2bn a year. Will the extra money be provided equally on a per pupil basis to all those on free school meals, or a comparable measure, or will it only be provided in reality to FSM pupils in areas that had gained less from Labour's increases? While this could both be justified and happily benefit Tory and Lib Dem constituencies, it would not narrow the gap between rich and poor, particularly if inner city schools lose some of the infrastructure on which they depend.

The reality is likely to be that schools will be better protected than most public services. But if the government is not to suffer disillusionment in schools when the reality of the funding settlement is reflected in budgets, it would be wise to be totally honest about what will survive - and what won't - on Wednesday.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Exaggeration and academies

It is good that a significant number of outstanding maintained schools wish to become academies. I hope many others choose to do so. But the Education Secretary Michael Gove and his media briefers should stop pretending that the speed with which an excellent school goes through a relatively simple legal process is somehow comparable with the task of replacing a failing school with something wholly new and with strong sponsorship, or establishing a business-sponsored city technology college. Indeed, the danger of Gove's approach is that he ignores the hard graft required to turn around those schools that are failing and which remains essential to school reform. We need to hear what's happening with those schools - which were the main focus of Labour's academies drive for good reason.

Browne's imaginative proposals

Today's report from Lord Browne on university funding offers an imaginative set of proposals to a difficult problem at an impossible time. By setting a partial cap at £6,000, with a tapered cap linked to student affordability above that, he has gone a long way to satisfy the universities, including those in the Russell Group who want to charge more without having the taxpayer subsidising the higher fees. Including part-timers in the loans system is a big step forward that reflects contemporary student realities. It also makes sense to increase the starting point at which students pay loans back to £21,000, which means a £16 a week repayment for those earning £30k a year, and to add interest to the loan: that will reduce the taxpayer's subsidy of student living expenses. There is also a larger grant for poorer students, though I wonder whether it would have made more sense to focus those resources on much larger targeted bursaries linked to getting poorer able students onto economically valuable courses.

For the graduate, the package would mean higher debt, but repayments would be lower initially and his proposals reflect the good sense of the graduate repayment system introduced in 1998 (contrary to popular mythology, the level of student loans rose in 1998 by the same amount as the new £1000 tuition fees although they were given for living expenses, so 'upfront fees' were never actually required). Lower earners would do better from this new system.

We must await the government's detailed response. But they would be wise not to tamper too much with what seems like an elegant and fair solution. More important than tinkering with the repayment formula is ensuring that some of Browne's other proposals get implemented. The first is to increase undergraduate places. The second is to ensure that careers advice is radically improved, particularly at a time when cuts could threaten its extinction. Students must have a better teaching and tutorial experience while at university. And universities should use the availability of loans to sell the part-time route more effectively to those in work who could benefit from higher education.

For Labour, John Denham has issued a sensibly cautious response, drawing attention to the likely cuts in government support for teaching: it is important that ministers are clear about the extent to which graduates and taxpayers pay for universities now and in the future. The Browne proposals should not simply be a substitute for HEFCE grants - the must support expansion, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses. And there may be more to do in targeting support to able disadvantaged students. But how Labour responds to the final package will be a test of its seriousness. Browne has shown why a graduate tax would not work (indeed Labour found the same in government, as Tony Blair reminds us in A Journey) and the report explains how this proposal is fairer to low earning graduates. Provided that the final package is also fair, Labour should support it in a Commons vote. Doing so would do far more for its political credibility than propping up a Lib Dem rebellion.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Why should most undergraduates live away from home?

Today's newspapers suggest that the cap on university tuition fees is likely to be completely removed, if Lord Browne has his way, paving the way for fees up to £12,000 a year. That would be a mistake: it would be more sensible to lift the cap to £7000 a year, the figure sought by Universities UK. At the same time, as predicted by this blog, the silly notion of a graduate tax has been abandoned in favour of a more income-related version of the current graduate contribution. But what seems absent at a time when we are fundamentally reviewing our welfare state is any questioning of the idea that undergraduates should be expected to live away from home while they study.

Let's be clear about this. It is not the norm in most countries - including in Ireland, where I gained my degree cycling to college from my Dublin home - to study in another city when one's local university offers the course one wishes to pursue. Given that we provide subsidised loans - with subsidies worth 23% of the value of the loan - for three years simply to enable largely better off young people to pursue a 'rites of passage' experience, surely we should start to question whether this should be the norm for a third of all young people. Adults who increasingly study as mature students don't expect it, so why should young people? Fair enough for those from poorer backgrounds who win a place in a Russell Group university or on a rare specialist course in another university - indeed, decent non-repayable bursaries should be provided for those students - but can we really afford to continue subsidising this experience for everyone else?

That's the sort of question that Ed Miliband should be asking as he seeks to stake out a credible alternative to the coalition ahead of the Spending Review. He could argue for lower fees instead of automatic living expense subsidies. But, having adopted the graduate tax in his leadership campaign, he chooses instead to play games with Lib Dem backbenchers. He may even win a Commons vote by doing so, but he will do so at the expense of his own credibility as a serious leader. Living expenses are certainly something the Treasury should be challenging instead of seeking to cut programmes with far more genuine impact on social mobility that benefit toddlers of school students. Instead, we are left arguing about the size of tuition fees and their repayment, whilst ignoring this extraordinary - and unusual - subsidy that has far less to commend it than universal child benefit.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Enron and Eric

To see Lucy Prebble's wonderful Enron last night. The staging is brilliant, the cast great and the exposition of the way the company operated electrifyingand worryingly revealing. Prebble's story, brilliantly realised under Rupert Goold's direction, relates the rise and fall of Enron as a story not only of greed, but also of I watched this stunningly good play at Bath Theatre Royal last night, I found one of extraordinary hubris. Particularly poignant was the way Enron's staff were encouraged to invest in such dodgy stock. But there was one episode that seemed particularly chilling and of contemporary relevance: as the firm's accountants endorsed their fraudulent scheme, they declared their willingness to provide their customers with whatever they wanted. For some reason, I couldn't help thinking about the plans by the ludicrous Eric Pickles to replace the independent integrity of the Audit Commission with a system where local authorities shop around for auditors likely best to meet their needs - and tell them what they want to hear. Enron Eric - I offer this to his new opponent, Caroline Flint, free of charge.

Friday 8 October 2010

A good start in the shadow cabinet

Ed Miliband has chosen wisely in making Alan Johnson (left) his Shadow Chancellor, rather than Ed Balls or even Yvette Cooper, whatever her undoubted talents. She is an interesting choice as shadow foreign secretary, and her big success in the PLP vote deserved such a reward. Johnson has a sounder understanding of how to take on George Osborne and the coalition, and his humour should do wonders to prick Osborne's pompous sense of his own self-importance. Ed Balls has the chance to provide the Tories with the opposition they deserve on crime and justice policy, provided he is ready to reflect the views of ordinary Labour voters, and overcomes his own instinctive opposition to the sort of measures that have helped reduce antisocial behaviour and crime while Labour was in government. With Ed Miliband's loyal lieutenant Sadiq Khan shadowing Ken Clarke at Justice, this may be more difficult.

Andy Burnham's Blairite instincts should return some sanity to the party's schools policy, and he needs quickly to reclaim academies as a Labour success story, while ensuring that he develops a distinctive but constructive critique of the Tories' version. At health, John Healey needs to regain the initiative in challenging the destructive reorganisation of the NHS and reminding voters at every turn how the Tories ditched A&E and waiting time targets, as the consequences of Andrew Lansley's madness come home to roost. Jim Murphy is a good pick at defence, and Caroline Flint needs to find the right riposte to Eric Pickles at communities. By picking John Denham to shadow Vince Cable, Ed Miliband is ensuring that his mistaken graduate tax plans are advanced. Douglas Alexander is a good pick on work and pensions, and should be able to provide the constructive positioning needed on the issue. Interesting that he also wisely ignored the PLP, by giving Shaun Woodward Northern Ireland and Peter Hain Wales, pushing his shadow cabinet up to a hefty 27 places. Liam Byrne is a bit wasted shadowing the cabinet office unless he is explicitly taking on Nick Clegg (which Harriet Harman will do as deputy leader).

But there are big promotions - and a real test - for Mary Creagh shadowing DEFRA and Meg Hillier taking on Chris Huhne at environment. With Harriet Harman also shadowing International Development, Patricia Scotland as shadow Attorney General, Rosie Winterton as chief whip, Angela Eagle as shadow chief secretary, sister Maria at Transport, Ann McKechin covering Scotland and Tessa Jowell keeping her cherished Olympics role, Ed Miliband now has a record 12 women in his shadow cabinet, a vindication for Harman's efforts to achieve greater equality. The new shadow cabinet has many new faces. Now their challenge is to get the response to the Spending Review right. With AJ, there is a better chance that they will do so.

Monday 4 October 2010

Don't scrap social mobility benefits

There is some logic in Chancellor George Osborne's clawing back of child benefit from better off families through the tax system, whatever the practical difficulties involved. The idea of a universal credit is also a good idea, though more difficult in practice. But there is absolutely no sense in scrapping child benefit and education maintenance allowances for the over-16s as suggested in the weekend press.

Legislation will soon compel young people to remain in training or education beyond their 16th birthdays. Their choice of what to do - school, college, a training programme, apprenticeship or work with training - should be informed by their ability not their ability to pay. If families and students lose child benefit and EMAs (worth up to £200 a month combined) even the brightest students from poorer families could find themselves forced by financial considerations to take a paid training programme or job with training, rather than a school or college course, and give up hopes of university (where, despite the rhetoric around a graduate tax, it is graduates not students who pick up the living costs through loans). Moreover EMAs are one of the few successful conditional benefits we have. At the very least, they should stay for the poorest students.

How could Vince Cable, with his enthusiasm for easing graduate burdens, support an end to opportunity for poorer young people aged 16+? And how could Michael Gove, with his passion for social mobility, countenance the removal of the funds that enable these young people to continue their studies? Martin Narey is absolutely right on where these funds should be prioritised. He should be heeded on this issue.

Made in Dagenham

Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham has received some deserved rave reviews. Sally Hawkins is really superb as the Ford seamstress who leads a 1968 battle for equal pay with the semi-skilled men at the Dagenham factory. Their battle received national attention and highlighted similar inequities before 1970s Equal Pay legislation. Miranda Richardson is great as a feisty Barbara Castle, too. There are moving performances from Geraldine James and Roger Lloyd Pack. And there's a great story, a reminder of equality battles past and a pro-union plot with potential wide appeal. But the film has serious flaws, too. Many of the cast - excepting Hawkins and Richardson - are cast in cardboard cut-out roles, two-dimensional and talents wasted. This is certainly true of the men, including Bob Hoskins playing himself and a shop steward, but is equally true of many of the women in the cast including the ubiquitous Andrea Riseborough. The script is terribly formulaic, like so many such British movies - including Calendar Girls - which may provide mass appeal, but holds back many of the fine cast. Nevertheless, this is a significant movie that makes some important political issues accessible in a way that Ken Loach never could.

Friday 1 October 2010

The Town

To see Ben Affleck's fabulous new thriller, The Town, a claustrophic tale of Boston bank robbers. There are great performances from Affleck as Doug, the robber who wants to escape his blue collar roots, Rebecca Hall as his unwitting victim turned girlfriend and Mad Men's Jon Hamm as the FBI agent determined to break an ever-more audicious gang. The film is gripping from the start, and despite some very violent scenes and its fair share of cliches, manages to provide a story surprising in its depth. There are plenty of great action scenes, chases, explosions and comic book shootouts, but this is ultimately a stronger film than the sum of those parts. Affleck - whose Gone Baby Gone was equally rewarding - is becoming as strong an actor/director as Clint Eastwood. Don't miss it.