Thursday 16 December 2010

Google Analytics for 2010

It may be a few weeks early, but I'm planning to give the blog a rest until after Christmas unless something remarkable happens - and the weather allows our planned breaks.

Before doing so, I should pay a short tribute to Iain Dale's blog, which he is now ceasing. I may not always have agreed with his politics, but his blog was pioneering, well-argued and often a good source of traffic to this site. It's a shame he has packed it in, but understandable too.

Meanwhile, here are my top ten lists for the most read blog posts of 2010 on this site and the top referral sites to this blog, courtesy of Google Analytics.

The ten most read postings in 2010 were

1. The Lib Dems are the big losers in the coalition (May 2010)
2. The real question for Gove is where will the axe fall? (April 2010)
3. Eating out in Keynsham (2008, updated)
4. Private Lives (review, February 2010)
5. A graduate tax would be a mistake (July 2010)
6. A bad day for democracy (November 2010)
7. Hedda Gabler (review, February 2010)
8. Will school funding really be protected? (October 2010)
9. Christmas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (January 2008)
10. What will Osborne's education plans really mean? (October 2010)

My top ten referring sites, aside from Google searches, were:

1. Hopi Sen
2. Twitter
3. Iain Dale
4. Stumbling and Mumbling
5. Matthew Taylor
6. Blogger
7. Left Foot Forward
8. Total Politics
9. Teaching Battleground
10. Facebook

My thanks to those blogs that sent so much traffic my way.

I wish my 10,920 unique readers a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

My books of the year

I've read some great new books this year, which have been illuminating and fascinating in equal measure. Here are my top five.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

A fascinating social and political history of late 19th century and early 20th century America, Okrent takes us through the saloon bars of the midwest and the rise of temperance activism in the South, through connections with women's suffrage (which the brewers opposed) and the blackmailing of politicians to support the cause. We all know about the connections with gangsters like Al Capone, but this amazing book takes us through the role of Scottish distillers, Canadian bootleggers, Californian communion wine producers and fake rabbis in ensuring that America was kept fairly wet during the dry years. The cast of characters is wonderful, the account both scholarly and accessible. This US book is available from Amazon UK at £17.32.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

When the king of sanctimonious self-righteousness Julian Assange tells us that his leaks do no harm, he may reflect that if his revelations about Chinese movement on pulling the plug on the ghastly North Korean regime delay its inevitable occurence, he will have plenty of real lives on his hands. Barbara Demick brings the reality of life in the country to vivid life by talking to those who were fortunate enough to get out, usually to South Korea on a circuitous route through China. Their stories of hunger, medicine-free hospitals, unburied bodies in the street, frozen kindergartens and an ever present climate of fear are shocking because they are the tales of ordinary lives, and often of childhood illusions shattered. It is too easy to snigger at the ludicrousness of the North Korean leadership, but this book shows how serious its continued existence is to the lives of millions of people living in the Northern city of Chongin, well away from the relative prosperity of Pyongnang. The book is now in paperback.

The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

There were plenty of political books this year, and I greatly enjoyed Tony Blair's and Jonathan Powell's books. I also liked Steve Richards' account of the Brown years, as told by Ed Balls. But for me the best of them was Peter Mandelson's heavily reflective account of his ups and downs in the party and government. It is well-written and captures the internal struggles not only in the government, but in Mandelson's role in it. It also has a compelling honesty in recounting the major events of his life: I particularly enjoyed his accounts of the Kinnock years and the strange struggles that characterised the true origins of New Labour.

The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt

This is a great companion book to Francis Wheen's highly entertaining life of Karl Marx. Hunt tells the extraordinary story of Marx's patron and ideological foil, Friedrich Engels who took his reluctant embrace of Manchester capitalism to heart as he enjoyed a champagne lifestyle and became a keen hunter. The book is wonderful account of the relationship between Engels and Marx, the European political movements that led to Marxism and the personal traits that would lead their followers to embrace ideological purity as a virtue that would create so many 20th century monsters. Hunt tells the story with considerable panache, but underpinned by substantial original research. Although it was originally published in 2008, the paperback appeared for the first time in 2010.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada's tale of the everyday horror of life in Nazi Berlin is a rediscovered masterpiece. First published just after the war in Germany in 1947, it tells the fictional story of an ordinary couple whose son's death in the war provokes them into petty acts of defiance. These protests cause fury in the police and a determination to find the culprits. Fallada's cast of characters evoke a spirit of defiance, collaboration and compliance in the increasingly paranoid environment of the city, with the pace of a good thriller. The book was out of print for years until its reappearance in 2010 in an excellent translation by Michael Hoffman. Paperback.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Schools face big cuts not budget protection

Until I saw yesterday's schools settlement, I knew school budgets would be cut next year, but expected them to be mitigated by a Minimum Funding Guarantee, probably set at zero per cent. Having seen what is actually proposed - a flat Dedicated Schools Grant at local authority level and an MFG of -1.5% at a time when schools are likely to need at least 2% to stand still even with a pay freeze (to cover inflation, increments, 2010-11 pay rises and national insurance) - it is clear that schools that are not cushioned by a significant pupil premium will face cuts of around 4% in their 2010-11 budgets. There will be additional cuts in school sixth form funding that are not protected by the MFG.

This is not the real terms protection that the Chancellor promised in his spending review. Far from it. What it will mean in reality is that a typical secondary school with a £5-6 million budget and limited numbers of FSM pupils will lose around £200-250,000, the equivalent of around five or six teachers' jobs or 10-12 support staff. Primary schools will lose a similar proportion of their budgets, and potentially of their staff. If a 1500 pupil school has 15% of its pupils in receipt of free school meals, it will be mitigated to some extent: it will only lose £116-£166,000, or three or four teachers, or 6 or 7 support staff. Some schools may be cushioned by reserves this year and may make savings through shared services, but the impact is still likely to be harsh. There are also big cuts in funding for 'early intervention' including Sure Start, despite promises to protect under-threes funding.

Across the country, it could still mean the loss of tens of thousands of school staff, since over 80% of school budgets are spent on staffing. At the same time, schools' formula capital is being slashed with just £195 million to be allocated across all schools compared with £959 million this year, which is a cut of 80%. That is the cruellest cut of all: formula capital had allowed schools to undertake vital repairs, a crucial lifeline with Building Schools for the Future sidelined.

To imagine that schools will now joyfully be using their pupil premium for anything other than plugging the gaps in funding caused by these cuts is fanciful, especially in the absence of any ringfencing for the money. It is a bad settlement for schools, and the poorest pupils will suffer too, with fewer teachers and crumbling buildings.

Perhaps it would not have appeared quite so bad if ministers had been straight during the spending review. They weren't: they misled schools into believing that their funding would be protected in cash terms, assuring specialist schools and school sports partnerships, for example, that the removal of ringfencing simply meant they would have the chance to spend the cash as they liked. They said nothing about formula capital or Sure Start cuts. Now all we see is yet another Liberal Democrat and coalition promise broken.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Paltry premium could prove a hollow victory for Clegg

The coalition has finally come clean on the size of the pupil premium. For 2011-12, it will be a mere £430 per pupil, though it will probably increase over the new four years to over £1700 a year, less than the £2500 originally envisaged by the Liberal Democrats. The premium will be paid to pupils whose parents earn less than £16,000 a year, and will not initially be weighted, so it will be on top of existing core budgets. But Danny Alexander was mistaken on Marr to imagine that the premium will make much difference in the schools that receive it.

Here's why. At the same time as the Government is introducing the premium in April, it is also making a whole series of other changes to school funding. First, it is scrapping specialist schools cash and funding for sports partnerships. That alone is worth £129 a year to every pupil in over 90% of secondary schools, not just the minority with low family incomes. Then it is likely that a series of other grants for standards will also go, worth significantly more per pupil. Finally, while it is true that salaries will be frozen next year, schools will still face the in-year costs of this year's settlement which runs from September 2010, the increase in National Insurance rates and the cost of incremental pay drift.

More importantly, while the government has removed lots of grants it is not giving them to schools to spend as they choose - a freedom they pretty much enjoy as it is - instead it is redistributing less of the cash to local authorities to allocate according to their own formulae, which will see plenty of losers. Specialist school funding, for example, may be part of the Dedicated Schools Grant baseline but there is no guarantee the same schools will get the same amount of cash. Unless any minimum funding guarantee ensures that schools get at least 1% more per pupil - including those grants in the school baseline - and the pupil premium is on top of that there will still be plenty of cries of pain from schools next year. And here's the rub for jittery Conservative and Lib Dem MPs: the decision initially to allocate the pupil premium as a straightforward top up means that the biggest losers are likely to be high-achieving schools in their constituencies, even if they benefit in the longer term from moves to a National Funding Formula.

But that's not all. There will be a double whammy for school sixth formers, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. First there is the indefensible decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, which provides 16 and 17 year-olds from families earning below £20,000 a year with £30 a week in term time - around £1200 a year or nearly four times the pupil premium - to pay for travel, books and equipment while they are studying for A levels or BTECs in school or college. There is no pupil premium for poorer sixth formers. For schools there is also a move to equalise college and school sixth form funding (reducing the latter by £200 a year) which will add further to a picture of widespread school cuts next year. Indeed scrapping the EMA in 2011-12 covers most of the first year pupil premium costs: a case of robbing one group of poorer pupils to pay another.

So, Danny Alexander was making a huge mistake this morning trying to pretend that schools will not pay for the pupil premium with big cuts. They will, as will older brothers and sisters of those who may get the premium. Michael Gove has already conceded there will some cuts. But because ministers have been trying to underplay them, the shock will be all the greater for coalition MPs next spring. The paltry premium is unlikely to do more than plug some gaps. It will seem a very hollow 'victory' for Nick Clegg at that stage.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Alan Johnson should have stuck to his guns

Alan Johnson was right to have his doubts about a graduate tax, in today's Times (£), and wrong to have changed his minds. While he is also right to argue against the removal of teaching grants and the moves towards a £9000 ceiling, he should not have allowed himself to be dissuaded from arguing for a fairer version of the Browne proposals, drawing on his own work as higher education minister.

By contrast, there is a great piece in today's Guardian by Peter Wilby, who has long recognised the egalitarian case for fees and rightly argues that the focus of Labour's opposition should be the abolition of EMAs rather than changes to fees:

Once they look coolly at the economics, 18-year-olds make better judgments than their hysterical, ill-informed elders. To describe students as facing a lifelong "burden" of "crippling" debt is simply bizarre, particularly for a Labour leader who wants to replace the debt with a graduate tax that the rich would avoid as smartly as they avoid all other taxes.....Most bizarre of all is the argument that, because graduates of earlier generations benefited from free university education, they should not deny it to others. Should those who went to grammar school never argue for comprehensives, and those who inherited wealth never support higher estate duties? Should those who benefited from slavery not have supported abolition?.....Miliband should focus on the proposal to cut education maintenance grants, which rightly exercises young protesters more than fees. Introduced by Labour and targeted at poorer families, the grants played a vital role in getting more disadvantaged young people to university. It was at 16, not 18, that working-class dropping out from education always occurred. University fees do not deter, but a funding gap during A-level study does.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Vince Cable's extraordinary permutations

There were two options open to Vince Cable on his approach to tuition fees. The first was to battle for a credible series of concessions and support the policy that his Department agreed to. To some extent, he has achieved improvements on the existing system in the repayments schedule, but his failure to secure continued teaching funding for non-STEM courses suggests he didn't try hard enough. He had plenty of cards to play, but he chose to fold early on the final deal. Even so, he could still argue that as the minister responsible, he had a duty to support the final package. The other option is to argue that he made a solemn pledge to oppose a rise in fees - however daft that pledge was - and he should march into the No lobbies to oppose himself.

Had he chosen the first approach, with a clearer set of concessions and a fulsome apology for his party's stupidity and deceit to student voters, he may have retained some credibility. But by promising to abstain, then to vote for, then being not sure, and finally to vote for (probably) his stance looks absurd. All that is left is for him to borrow from Eamon DeValera in 1927 when he had to take the oath of allegiance to take his seat in the Dail, despite a solemn pledge not to do so. DeValera declared he was merely signing a piece of paper that had no meaning, except it allowed him to take his place in the Dail. Perhaps Cable could try the same logic on his bemused voters: he is merely voting with the Government as it allows him to take his place at the Cabinet table. It is no less credible than his shifting stances of the last week.

Friday 3 December 2010

How state pupils raise their game in elite universities

The most important piece of educational research this month, which is from the Sutton Trust, raises many important questions. The Trust, in a study originally meant to show the benefits of adopting a US-style SAT for entrance, has instead shown pretty conclusively that all other things being equal, a comprehensive school student will outperform a grammar or independent school undergraduate at an elite university. In other words, when universities award a place to a bright state pupil with just 3Bs when the same place would require AAB from an independent or grammar student, they are not 'dumbing down' but exercising both common sense and social inclusion. This is hugely important for several reasons.

First, it suggests that it can be reasonable to differentiate between the experiences of different students, where there is clearly a similar degree of aptitude. Second, it argues for the development of programmes that link academic achievement to elite university places in some schools and academies. There are still many state-educated AAA students who don't apply for or get Russell Group places. And third, we should hear no more nonsense about dumbing down from the Mail or Telegraph, when universities do make such allowances. Instead, these august organs might start to ask why independent school pupils underperform at university. Meanwhile, those who are paying the fees at independent schools might wish to drill down into the data to find which of the schools are really providing lasting benefits for their children.