Sunday 28 November 2010

Time for a rethink on school sports

At the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in Birmingham this week, the strongest applause from the audience during the speeches of schools minister Nick Gibb and shadow education secretary Andy Burnham came when mention was made of the coalition's bizarre decision to axe the school sports partnerships that have revitalised PE and competitive sports in schools. Needless to say, the 2000 heads and school leaders were not applauding the rather thin defence being offered for the decision, nor did they buy the shameless spin that has accompanied the axe,

Today's Observer reports that ministers are frantically seeking a way out of the problem, which has already wrongfooted David Cameron at PMQs and threatens to undermine any hopes of a serious Olympics legacy among young people. Heads and pupils already threaten a national campaign that will embarrass even the most thick-skinned coalition MP. The fact that the SSPs have doubled participation in competitive team games and increased PE participation fourfold is dismissed by Cameron with statistics that no Labour spindoctor would have dared to disseminate. To imagine that a scheme that increases participation in inter-school competitions from 1 in 10 to 1 in 5 is a failure because 80% of young people are not so involved is both logically ludicrous and downright disingenuous. The clue is in the word 'competitive'.

But when the lead sports writer in the Sunday Times is as scathing as David Walsh is today (£), even Cameron's spin doctors must know the game is up. The coalition's ideological opposition to any ringfenced funding has come seriously unstuck. Now they just have to admit that there are occasions when such ringfenced funding is needed and desirable. Given that the funds are supposedly simply going to be added to the Dedicated Schools Grant, there should be nothing but a little loss of pride involved in re-ringfencing them: it should not trouble the Treasury one iota. The question is whether ministers are prepared to recognise that they have made a mistake, and effect the necessary rethink.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Building on Blair's reforms?

For all the rhetoric in the Commons today, one thing stands out clearly from today's White Paper by Michael Gove: his education agenda represents far more continuity from the reforms introduced by Tony Blair and David Blunkett than it does a dramatic change from the direction of the last thirteen years.

There is much to be welcomed in the paper: the extension of floor targets, a hugely successful drive that saw underperformers fall from 1600 to under 200 between 1997 and 2010; expansion of in-school teacher training, building on Labour's Teach First, graduate teaching programme (renamed Teach Next) and training schools (rebranded teaching schools); marginal changes to the right to discipline introduced in 2006 (with a watering down of the plan to scrap exclusion panels and a welcome pilot of giving schools clearer responsibilities for excluded pupils); promotion of synthetic phonics (Blair, 2006) with a welcome new reading test; a doubling of Labour's National Leaders of Education; a reiteration of the strategic role for local authorities envisaged by Tony Blair in his 2005 White Paper; an acceptance of an increased education leaving age. There should be little reason for Labour to oppose any of this.

The paper also reiterates the coalition's plans for academies and free schools, a pupil premium with a less than clear commitment on a national funding formula and an opposition to the extension of selection. Despite the partisan rhetoric that has accompanied its launch, there is a sensible change of tone in the paper itself, acknowledging many of the genuine improvements of the last 15 years while focusing on benchmarking with the best in the world. Where there must be cause for doubt are around some of the planned changes to the curriculum. It makes sense to reduce the league table value of some vocational qualifications; it is less clear that an expectation that every student should achieve history and languages GCSEs is the best way to address the needs of those who have a more practical set of abilities.

Moreover, today's paper comes against a less distinguished backdrop of change over recent months. The wholesale desire to scrap quangos and initiatives, including Building Schools for the Future, has created some big potential problems: Gove's slagging off of the School Sports Partnerships is shameful and inaccurate: there are far more pupils playing in competitive team games as a result of their work, as well as participating in PE. It is wrong to pretend they will survive if the money for them is devolved across all schools. This is a decision that should be rescinded until the partnerships have the chance to win new funding, not least as the National Funding Formula has been put on hold. Equally destructive are plans to scrap any specialist school funding, even though a re-orienting of such funds could secure subject excellence in science or languages, a goal of the White Paper that is promised without the levers to deliver it.

At the same time, schools will be anxious about funding until there is much more clarity over how funding is to be distributed, who gets the pupil premium and what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of pounds each currently receives for standards, specialism and capital. The money to help turn around weaker schools seems too modest to fulfil the ambitions. Simplicity may be a noble goal; its execution is rather messier. Blair's reforms crucially depended on sufficient targeted resources. There is some here: but is it enough?

Nevertheless, many of today's proposals should be welcomed. Collectively, they represent a matureness of approach that builds on much of the best of what has been developed over the last two decades rather than seeking to dismantle it.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Monday 22 November 2010

The strange death of Fianna Fail Ireland

The final capitulation by Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowan to the IMF and the European Union over a bailout must mark the last rites for his Fianna Fail party. The party founded by Eamon DeValera in 1927 had seen itself as the natural party of government since 1932, and it enjoyed a dominance of Irish politics only occasionally interrupted by coalitions of the opposition parties over the following 80 years. But all that is now at an end.

Fianna Fail scored a mere 17% on one poll last week, with Fine Gael on 33% and Labour on 27%. In Thursday's by-election in Donegal, not only are Sinn Fein set to win with as much as 40% of first preference votes, but Labour may score 15% in a seat where they barely scraped 3% before. Some polls even make Labour the largest party nationally, and it undoubtedly is in that position in Dublin.

When I was at university, we were taught that Ireland was a two-and-a-half-party system with Labour as the half-party. Now Fianna Fail may find itself in that unenviable position after an election that will now happen in January when the Greens pull the plug on their uncomfortable coalition with Fianna Fail. Why has this happened?

The most obvious reason is the economy. Fianna Fail has presided over a culture that allowed the property boom to develop, and which favoured unregulated development. Banks like Anglo-Irish were indulged, but so too were public sector trade unions as wages far exceeded the long-term capacity of the economy. The populist economic approach of Fianna Fail had a lot to do with the economic problems.

But that is not the only reason. The collapse of the Irish Catholic Church impacted on the party too: Fianna Fail was more closely in step with the hierarchy than its opponents, particularly in the 70s and 80s, and slower to embrace liberal reforms. The legacy of Charles Haughey and his cronies took their toll too. But above all, the near-death of Fianna Fail symbolises the profound social changes that have outlived the demise of the Celtic Tiger, which really gained traction after Mary Robinson was elected President in 1990.

All that is needed now is for the electorate to act as undertaker to Dev's party in the new year. The extent to which the Irish Labour Party can gain most from the remains will depend a lot on its ability to consolidate the popularity of its leader Eamon Gilmore - compared with Fine Gael's lacklustre Enda Kenny - into solid and credible policies for the age of austerity. The next two months could change the face of Irish politics forever.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Sports axe highlights key flaws in Gove thinking

Today's reports about the deep dismay in sporting circles and the Cabinet over the decision to axe funding for school sports partnerships highlights a fatal flaw at the heart of Michael Gove's approach to schools. The partnerships have been remarkably successful, not only increasing participation with the numbers of pupils getting two hours PE a week rising from one in four to four in five, and an increase in competitions. It is absurd to suggest, as Gove did on Marr, that by removing ringfencing such activities could continue, since the co-ordinators are funded specifically to work across schools not in a single institution. In any case, the money is being removed from individual school budgets and handed to local authorities which can distribute it as they choose, a decision that makes little sense if Gove is no longer planning a National Funding Formula, as he now maintains.

But this decision also exposes two flaws that are becoming starker as Gove prepares to publish his White Paper this Wednesday. The first is the wholesale removal of leverage. Gove was able to dodge Marr's questioning about the curriculum adeptly this morning. But there remains a real contradiction between his wish to see a back to basics approach and his granting of considerably more freedoms to schools. Many academies, for example, want to use more thematic teaching and some of the vocational qualifications that the Government doesn't like. It is right to want a more rigorous approach to English grammar and spelling - and that was at the heart of Labour's literacy strategy - but the only way to ensure it happens is through strong pressure and accountability. At the same time, those academies can point to real success through curricular innovations and their voice will become louder if a more prescriptive approach is adopted.

And that also highlights a second flaw in Gove's thinking. For partisan reasons, he chooses to pretend that he is starting from scratch with some of his ideas. Yet he is not. For example, the so-called 'no touch' rule does not exist: David Blunkett published guidance on the use of restraint in 1998 that has been enshrined in the right to discipline within the 2006 Education Act. The problem is not a lack of legislation, it is a fear among teachers of litigation. And it is hard to see how Gove can prevent that happening, any more than his anonymity for teachers unjustly accused of abusing children can prevent village gossips retailing the charges widely.

The fact is that he has failed to resolve inherent contradictions in his approach: between curricular prescriptions and freedoms; between local authorities controlling pursestrings and the transparency of national funding; between permissive legislation and restrictive litigation. While there may be much that is good in this week's White Paper, not least the expansion of in-school teacher training, building on Labour's Teach First and graduate teacher programme and the development of collaboration between academies, the failure to think through the wider impact of funding decisions and to resolve such contradictions could seriously undermine his ambitions.

Friday 19 November 2010

Coalition suffers again for BSF axe in Black Country

Luke Akehurst's indispensable weekly round-up of council by-election results draws attention to a stunning Labour gain, on a 16.5% swing from the Conservatives, in the Wednesbury North ward of Sandwell MBC. As the BBC regional news reports, the Tories have held this ward for 36 years.

But Sandwell was one of the worst affected by the crass handling of the Building Schools for the Future programme at the Department for Education. Not only did the council lose its vital regeneration projects, but it was told it had retained them before ministers had to contradict themselves. Nine major projects were lost - and as locals had seen the benefits of BSF already in other new local schools, they didn't swallow Michael Gove's line about it being a useless scheme. The Deputy Leader of the Conservative group, Elaine Costigan, another Wednesbury councillor, was so 'ashamed' of the decision that she joined Labour.

It would seem that the people of Sandwell have not yet forgiven the coalition for such shabby treatment, as both the Tories and Lib Dems both lost votes to Labour in almost equal numbers.

Expertise in the Upper House

The new list of peers published today could, in one sense, be seen as a cynical exercise in patronage. And it is true that it is being used by the coalition to lessen the chances of defeat in the Upper House. But it also includes some remarkable talent among the nominees who have much to contribute beyond their partisan allegiances.

The quality of debate can only be enhanced by the presence of luminaries like Labour's Joan Bakewell, Jonathan Kestenbaum (of Nesta), Prof Ruth Lister and Prof Maurice Glasman, and the curry king Sir Gulam Noon (regardless of his donations). For the Conservatives, businessmen like Sir Michael Bishop, the British Midland founder, Downtown Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, Michael Grade, Sir Bernard Ribeiro, the surgeon, and Fiona Shackleton, the family lawyer add genuine expertise to their benches. And the Lib Dems will benefit from having Sal Brinton, Jonathan Marks QC and Claire Tyler of Relate on their side.

That's not to say that there are not also plenty of semi-retired political hacks (though Oona King, Stewart Wood and Eluned Morgan are hardly typical political appointees), with donors and time-servers rewarded particularly on the coalition benches (the Lib Dems seem to have had trouble filling their quota). But it is a reminder of what could be lost - even more so with crossbenchers - if we opt for a wholly elected House to replace the current chamber. At a time when dumbing down and generalism is all the rage, we need specialists and experts to scrutinise our legislation more than ever. All parties deserve credit for recognising this in at least some of their nominations.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Irish strengths and Irish woes

There is a slight sense of deja vu watching the predicament of Ireland today. I was one of those graduates who left in the early 1980s along with tens of thousands of my contemporaries. Since then I have watched with amazement the transition not just through the economic improvements of the Celtic Tiger but towards a less hypocritical, more open society prepared to confront its demons and adopt more liberal social policies.

And while the Irish economy is in a bad away, thanks to a combination of rotten banks and a massive property bubble, not all that has been gained in the last twenty years has been lost. Ireland's infrastructure is much improved, not least with a decent motorway network and strong air connections. It still enjoys a highly educated population. And - thanks in part to the low corporation tax that finance minister Brian Lenihan is rightly keen to protect - it remains a destination of choice for modern internet, IT, agribusiness, tourism and Pharma companies. With unemployment high and emigration rising, that infrastructure is a solid base from which to recover - provided that foreign investors are not scared away by the current crisis.

But it is not blessed with great government - Lenihan, to be fair, aside - and it is doing a woeful job in selling itself, something that Irish bodies used to excel at. Viewing the country through the UK media, one could be forgiven for imagining that the country had reverted to the 1950s, with photographers presenting images that might have sold well to American tourists as early John Hinde postcards. Veteran editor and foreign correspondent, Conor O'Clery is pretty sharp on this point in an excellent piece in today's Irish Times. Ministers should take heed.

But it is about time that we started telling the positive story to the people that matter; the editors, the publishers and the senior policymakers in the powerful broadcast organisations. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Government or in the administration with the appropriate competencies has been charged with doing so.

In the early 1970s when it seemed as if the conflagration of the North was going to spill over into the Republic, when cabinet ministers were being rounded up by the special branch and when rumours of coups and crises fed off one another, the government of the day took the initiative with a co-ordinated international media campaign.

Experienced journalists and communications professionals were recruited ad hoc and sent abroad with instructions to brief editors and programme chiefs in world capitals. They worked every contact and network they had so they could get in to where policy and key editorial decisions were being made.

Irish people in senior positions in international media were tapped. A London-based media relations company with good international contacts was contracted. The results were positive. Ireland’s reputation was assailed but the wider, fuller picture was successfully put across.

Saturday 13 November 2010

The rocky road to a National Funding Formula

Education Secretary Michael Gove is right to aim for a National Funding Formula, where schools are directly funded by Whitehall. When it is in operation it will bring greater clarity to school funding, remove unjustifiable anomalies and make it easier to ensure that specific funds like the Pupil Premium get directly to schools in a manner that is fair. But getting there will be a huge problem, and the obstacles en route could derail the policy. Gove will need to model the effects very carefully - and insist that his civil servants produce such models - to ensure that as some schools gain, other schools don't have their budgets cut.

In government, Labour took several steps towards a national formula. Local management of schools was extended so that schools now typically receive 87-90% of all funding (with the remainder for local authority services) delivered through a Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG). The only reason Tony Blair did not go further was because of opposition from both John Prescott and Gordon Brown to the loss of local authority responsibilities. However, while the DSG must go to schools, local authorities have the freedom, in agreement with local heads and governors through the Schools Forum, to impose their own formula on how it is distributed between local schools. In addition, schools have benefited from other funds outside the DSG including formula funding for revenue and capital, money to improve standards and money for specialist schools. The coalition said it plans to wrap these grants into the DSG to create a single revenue pot for schools. The assumption until today had been that this money would be distributed by the local authority according to its own formula. That will still apparently be the case in 2011-12.

And that's where the trouble could start.

The coalition will have at least two years of major funding upheaval at a time when budgets are likely to be almost frozen. In 2010-11, the misguided decision to scrap specialist school and other budgets will see these funds redistributed by local authorities on different formulae, while the first tranche of pupil premium funding will also start to filter through. If the coalition has any sense it will impose a rigid Minimum Funding Guarantee so that school receive at least an extra 1% extra per pupil (jncluding the pupil premium). Otherwise, the whole raft of changes will make Charles Clarke's troubles in 2003-4 seem like a picnic.

Moving to a National Formula a year later will require much greater skill. And while head teachers' leaders may welcome the principle of the NFF, their support will be sorely tested when schools that have done well out of the existing formula start to lose teachers. Put simply, if two similar schools are receiving funding that differs by as much as £1000 a pupil, then any equalisation will require one school to lose £500 for the other to gain £500 at a time of limited funding growth. The only way to make the change will be to freeze the better off school's budget while gradually increasing that of the less well off one. That is much harder in the current climate, as there is little spare money to achieve such growth or fund any damping measures. Changes will also be needed at sixth form level, as colleges get less per student than schools, and there can be no further reason for continuing this anomaly. And then, in inner city areas which currently receive far more for poorer pupils than the maximum pupil premium, will schools see their funding slashed to equalise funding, and how will that affect coalition claims of fairness?

Nevertheless, I'm all in favour of a National Funding Formula. Labour should have introduced one in government. But there will be a very rocky road getting there. And as Sir Humphrey has no doubt advised, it is a very brave minister indeed who tries to introduce one at a time of virtually no spending growth.

This posting also appears at Public Finance.

Monday 8 November 2010

People want minimum standards not just meaningless milestones

I'm not sure what planet the PM was one when he described the series of business plans published today on the Cabinet Office website as 'revolutionary'. They are anything but. Since 'targets' are a forbidden word in the coalition lexicon, we are treated to a series of 'milestones'. For the most part these appear to be events and announcements that ensure that the government introduces its policies, but very little to hold them to account on results. Of course, Labour had too many targets, but those that set minimum standards on waiting lists and exam results were very successful. Instead of such standards we now have 'people power'. We are now responsible for ensuring that our local A&E sees us within four hours or waiting times are kept short. If they aren't, it is apparently no longer the fault of ministers, however much they cut budgets or impose untried restructuring of GP services.

But that isn't the whole story. Andrew Lansley may have abandoned minimum standards in the NHS despite his relatively protected budget. But Michael Gove has not done so in education: he told local authority officers last week that he would shortly be announcing minimum GCSE standards.
It can’t be acceptable to have so many schools in which two-thirds of children fail to secure five good GCSEs. Minimum standards at GCSE have risen in recent years, in line with the increased aspirations of parents and communities. Those school leaders and local authorities who have driven the fastest improvements deserve special credit. But given the quickening pace of school improvement across the globe, I believe it’s now essential that we demonstrate that we are stepping up our reform programme. I will therefore be finalising details of new floor standards shortly, for inclusion in my forthcoming Schools White Paper. These will apply from January 2011, when we have the verified and final summer 2010 examination data.
These are likely to extend Labour's highly successful floor targets which have made schools with fewer than 30% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and Maths a rarity (half of schools were in that category before 1997). At the same time, Gove is sharpening accountability in primary schools. But there seems to be little such understanding in other coalition departments. Today's rather pathetic business plans are remarkable similar to those we were expected to produce regularly in the early years of Labour government, and some look like they were written by the same civil servants, with the same managerial gobbledygook but with rather less on which to hold ministers to account. What David Cameron and Nick Clegg must recognise is that inputs without outcomes are pretty pointless.

And if they don't know it, the voters will explain it to them rather more cogently than today's business plans - in good time for the next election.

Friday 5 November 2010

A bad day for democracy

Today's High Court judgement that the election has to be rerun in the Oldham and Saddleworth seat won for Labour by Phil Woolas in the general election has wider implications than the need for a by-election in that seat. I have no wish to defend Phil Woolas's leaflets, especially given the judgement. But there have been plenty of other election leaflets produced over the years by all parties - especially by Liberal Democrats - that owe more to the Fox News interpretation of 'fair and balanced' coverage of opponents' views than the dictionary definition.

Now, many candidates who lost out narrowly in the general election or local council elections will be revisiting their opponents' leaflets to see whether they too can challenge the result. I'm no fan of robust negative campaigning, but it is a part of most healthy democracies, and the voters usually have the common sense to make up their own minds about it. If someone feels that a leaflet has libelled them, it would surely be better that they use the libel laws to seek redress rather than trying to overturn an election.

Today's judgement is worrying in that it now suggests that the judiciary can second-guess the electorate when a losing candidate doesn't like the outcome.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Why Ed should not oppose the tuition fees package

I've written a piece for this month's Progress magazine about how Ed Miliband and Labour should respond to the tuition fees hike announced yesterday. I have updated this version to reflect clarifications since I wrote the piece - and yesterday's announcements.

It was Peter Mandelson who commissioned Lord Browne’s university funding report, and his team were nominated by a Labour government. That explains why he has made so much effort to achieve fairness in a difficult financial environment, and why Ed Miliband should not oppose his plans – or the government’s version - when they are put to a vote.

Browne’s proposals lift the cap on tuition fees from £3,290 today to £6,000 from 2012, with universities able to charge more if they pay a levy. He has broadly retained Labour’s repayment mechanism, where graduates repay the costs of tuition and living expenses once they start to earn. However, he has introduced a real rate of interest and a higher threshold for any payments of £21,000 instead of £15,000 today. A graduate on £30,000 a year pays back just £16 a week in his system. Importantly, part-timers would be included for the first time, a huge step forward in terms of equity.

The coalition has broadly accepted the Browne package, though with a £9,000 cap on fees and a requirement that those charging over £6,000 do more for access. It is sensibly keeping the Office for Fair Access to monitor this.

The coalition was right to reject a graduate tax, as Labour did in government. As Browne points out, it would penalise low earners more (with a £6,475 threshold as that is when people start paying tax), be harder to collect from European students, not give universities the money they need now and impose a lifetime of repayments on every graduate.

Our universities need extra income to compete, and this is particularly true of our leading research universities who have welcomed these moves. However, we should not ignore the concerns of the newer teaching universities. Baroness Blackstone, a former higher education minister, argued on Progress’s website that the new system could deprive them of sufficient teaching resources. That’s because the coalition is cutting 40 per cent from the government’s teaching grant as the new system is introduced.

So, Ed Miliband should avoid the mistakes made by the Tories in opposition, when they opposed tuition fees despite having established the Dearing Review in government (with Labour support) that they knew would recommend fees. He should recognise that Browne has many of the advantages of the graduate tax he supports, without the disadvantages – not least because it builds on the system Labour developed in government.

In Progress, I argued that his support should depend on four things. First, the proposed cut in teaching funding for universities is too great and should be reduced, so that they see some added benefit from the new regime. This has yet to be addressed, particularly in the humanities. Second, there should continue to be proper monitoring and publication of how universities distribute bursaries for poorer students, with much better publicity of what’s on offer. This has partially been addressed.

Third, students should be able to see clearly how much contact time their courses provide and they should have more access to academics. This will become a much bigger issue when the higher fees are introduced. Ed should press this strongly. And there should be an upper limit on the new fees, of £7,000 or £8,000, so that students do not feel completely priced out of our top universities. The cap is slightly higher, but the principle has been accepted.

And then he should either support the government, or if he feels the final package is still lacking, abstain. He should not ally himself with Lib Dem rebels. To do so would exchange the short term discomfort of the coalition for his longer term credibility as a serious leader. The Tories did this to us in 2005, when top-up fees were introduced and Michael Howard suffered for it. They admit they were wrong. Ed should be bold enough to avoid the same mistake.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

How abolishing league tables hit Welsh standards

A fascinating new report from Bristol University shows that by scrapping performance tables, the Welsh Assembly made a serious mistake in 2001. I had already started to notice the impact when I debated the issue in the TES at the time. Now, this damning report has demonstrated that the absence of serious pressure on secondary schools has reduced the average GCSE candidate's attainment by the equivalent of almost two GCSE grades compared with their English counterparts. The report said:
We find that the reform significantly and systematically reduces school effectiveness. We find systematic, significant and robust evidence that abolishing school league tables markedly reduced school effectiveness in Wales. The impact is sizeable: a fall of 1.92 GCSE grades per student per year.

Moreover, the impact was worst on the lowest performing schools with the poorest and lowest ability ones most impacted. It was probably compounded by the absence of academies and the National Challenge. This is the strongest evidence yet of the value of performance tables and published data. As Professor David Reynolds says, the Welsh Assembly should consider their reintroduction.

And do so without delay.

Monday 1 November 2010

The Social Network

We caught The Social Network over the weekend. It is a surprisingly gripping account of the story behind Facebook, with great central performances particularly from Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg. It is far from being a nerd's movie - Aaron Sorkin's script ensures that. Instead, as told through a series of fascinating law suit hearings, it becomes a tale of class, the snobbery of elite US universities, social inadequacy, innovative genius and the cruelties of business. There's a highly entertaining scene with Douglas Urbanski as Harvard President Larry Summers giving the pretenders to the Facebook patent, the preposterously entitled Winklevoss brothers, short shrift despite their father's wealth. There is plenty of such humour, though a lot of it is of the 'did he really say that' kind, as Eisenberg ranges from disinterested abuse to cutting sarcasm. Yet the whole two hour experience is as engrossing as anything to hit the screens from the US this year. I can't imagine the execs at Facebook think much of it, not least their founder. But in the end, it is a tribute to his sheer genius (whether or not he cribbed some of the idea from elsewhere) in turning a college friendship site into a worldwide phenomenon.