Monday 31 January 2011

A new dawn for Irish politics?

With an Irish general election likely before the end of the month, how likely is it that this will be a mould-breaking election? Certainly the position of Fianna Fail had seemed precarious until the clever former foreign minister Michael Martin manouevered Brian Cowen out of his party's leadership and moved himself into the top job.

Martin is now displaying the ruthlessness expected of the party of DeValera, Lemass and Haughey, and is busy sidelining TDs and running a very tight seats strategy to make the most of the party's dismal poll showing in the Irish PR system. He has also been making smart noises about backing a Fine Gael government to keep Labour out, noises unwelcome to Fine Gael's hapless leader Enda Kenny who wants to lead a coalition with Labour. With a 16% Fianna Fail poll showing yesterday, there is every chance of that rising to 24% by polling day as Fianna Failers furious with Cowen's ineptitude return to the fold.

That said, Fianna Fail will do well to hold a third, let alone half, their seats in the current circumstances. And the likelihood is that there will be a Fine Gael-Labour government with Kenny as Taoiseach (though Labour's Eamon Gilmore is far more popular). The issue will be the respective showings of the opposition parties - and the Greens - in the final votes and seats tallies. The Greens seem likely to lose most of their seats, and Labour should at least double its seats. The extent to which they succeed, especially in Dublin where Labour should be the largest party, depends on the success of Sinn Fein, with Gerry Adams seeing to enter the Dail, and the ragbag of Trots, leftists and local independents who can expect to pick up a share of the disillusionment vote. Labour has beaten Fine Gael in some polls, but seems unlikely to do so in the vote that matters unless Kenny screws up big time - an achievement of which he is more than capable.

But will this really be a mould-breaker? While a welcome breakthrough for Labour would undoubtedly alter its position in Irish politics, not least if it overtakes Fianna Fail, any government will be severely constrained by the European austerity measures agreed by Cowen, even though Labour is proposing to backload the cuts. Sinn Fein could gain some extra seats, and may even deprive Labour of some expected gains, but is unlikely to be more than a louder voice in the next Dail. And Martin seems set to turn Fianna Fail into a credible opposition, erasing the memory of Cowen's ineptitude.

That will make it even harder for Labour is to retain its strength in Government, a feat it has not achieved in previous coalitions. After all, Labour had 33 seats in 1992 which it halved in 1997, though that owed much to an unexpected deal with Fianna Fail for three of those years. Without the demise of Fianna Fail, that mould will be a lot harder to break - even though the results seem certain to represent a historic high for the Irish left.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

This economic setback is Osborne's responsibility

George Osborne has finally been found out. Yesterday, Richard Lambert bemoaned the absence of any serious growth strategy in government. Today's ONS data confirmed what one instinctively felt: the economy has been contracting rather than growing. Of course, the weather in December will have had a depressing effect on some retail trade. But this setback is about much more than that. It reflects the absence of any serious effort by the government to promote growth (leaving aside Vince Cable's BRIC tours) and an utter ignorance about the knock-on effect of cuts that have already been made on the private sector.

That latter point is particularly important in the absence of the former. As soon as the coalition was elected, it set about breaking contracts and tearing up purchase orders across Whitehall. These were not contracts with their own public sector employees, but with firms in the private sector. They may have been in areas like communications, advertising or other consultancies. But they are a part of the economy, and their abandonment has caused a significant contraction in a service industry that relies on both public and private contracts. At the same time, capital projects including many school building programmes were scrapped, even though they were well advanced. That had a significant impact on the construction sector.

The issue is not whether or not those cuts should have been made, or even the size of the cuts through to 2015. Any government would have cut back on consultants, and probably slowed capital building projects. Rather it is the way in which the axe fell without warning or planning, and with little chance for those losing out to find alternative work. At the same time, there is no evidence that the private sector is yet ready to take up the slack for the much more severe cuts that will have an impact from April. The problem, in other words, is that the government has wielded the axe without thinking through the consequences or how to mitigate its reductions in public sector contracts. And, the less growth there is in the private sector, the greater the cuts they will make in the public sector to compensate for lost tax revenues. And that is why the coalition should take the blame for this contraction in the economy, and stop trying to blame the snow or the last Labour government. It is George Osborne's responsibility now.

Thursday 20 January 2011

The chance to get the curriculum right

Michael Gove has finally launched his curriculum review today. It is a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the education secretary is keen to promote greater freedoms for schools, with more academies and free schools. For many schools converting to academy status, the freedoms in the curriculum are an important incentive. On the other, he clearly believes that there is a body of knowledge that every young person should experience during their school days.

I find myself similarly conflicted in this debate, as a supporter of academies and someone who has seen the benefits of a more imaginative skills-led curriculum, provided it is anchored in a strong core of knowledge. Which is why Gove is right to present his proposals as benchmarks rather than a prescriptive core. The truth is that the national curriculum has always been a difficult balancing act. I worked with David Blunkett in the 2000 curriculum review when he battled to keep locational geography, key historical figures and leading Victorian authors on the secondary curriculum. The reduction in prescription that followed the more recent curriculum review arguably went too far in diminishing the entitlement to such knowledge.

For many young people, school is the only time they will experience Shakespeare or Dickens, and learn about the extraordinary history of Britain and the wider world. It is a chance to acquire a basic understanding of how the world works, and where places are located. It should be an introduction, too, to our democracy and to an understanding of scientific concepts that are a part of our everyday discourse and debate. Between the ages of 7 and 14 there should be some basic knowledge that any educated youngster should have. That knowledge will be different today from what might have been taught 25 years ago, and Gove should say so. At the same time, it is no good saying that as adults, they can look things up on the Internet: without that core, it is impossible to separate the online wheat from the chaff.

Equally, I think the last curriculum review went too far in spelling out non-academic subjects, but there are important skills and attributes that schools can and should teach. I personally worked to get cooking on the curriculum, as what was taught in design and technology would leave children none the wiser in a real kitchen. Equally, there are attributes like communication, research skills and teamwork that should be expected in schools without prescription.

The real difficulty arises after 14. Kenneth Baker's University Technical Colleges will want to teach a different curriculum from a traditional academically inclined comprehensive or grammar school. Academies serving our most disadvantaged areas succeed because they have the flexibility to mix the academic and the vocational. It was not because she despised languages that Estelle Morris removed post-14 prescription, it was because she believed learning should start sooner and that schools needed that flexibility beyond 14. The English Bac will reward schools that teach languages and history or geography as standard through to 16. But many of our best heads can tell Gove that there are also many bright technically-minded students for whom a Tech Bac - with English, Maths and Science + two technology/technical GCSEs - would be more appropriate.

If this curriculum review simply reinforces the EBacc straightjacket, it will be a retrograde step. But if it focuses on getting a consensus on the body of knowledge that a well educated young person should know by 14, and allowing a sensible and rigorous flexibility beyond that, it could prove an important educational step forward.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Monday 17 January 2011

Cameron's NHS roulette

David Cameron deserved every moment of his rough ride on the NHS this morning. For he simply lied to the electorate about his plans before the last election. No ifs, no buts. He lied and Andrew Lansley lied. They said that they would not engage in any 'top-down reorganisations' of the system. And that is precisely what they are doing.

It would be one thing if Cameron were simply extending choice by engaging more private providers, which is one more sensible part of the Lansley agenda. It might be OK if they were allowing more GPs to band together to establish fundholding co-operatives to complement commissioning by primary care trusts. That isn't what they are doing. They are forcing GPs to run the £80 billion NHS budget, whether they want it or not. That is more than a brave experiment. It is a reckless gamble with the whole health service.

I support free schools and allowing schools to become academies. I support more private choice within the NHS. But I think this experiment is profoundly mistaken because it is being imposed. It is not evolutionary, it is destructive. And it comes at the same time that the coalition are tearing up the biggest success story of recent years - greatly reduced waiting times - which could see the return of the trolleys and excessive waits. I spent some time in hospital before Christmas and saw the benefits of those changes compared with my last visit ten years before.

It is one thing to press ahead with radical reform where there are clear benefits from doing so, or there are strong structural reasons for doing so. Continuing - and accelerating - the direction of travel of Labour's reforms (as Michael Gove has done to an extent in education) would have made sense. Throwing everything up in the air and seeing where it all lands is madness. It undoes ten years of solid improvement for no obvious gain. Not only will Cameron and the coalition come to regret this. So will the rest of us.

This post also appears at Public Finance. It has been highlighted at the Guardian and Stumbling and Mumbling.

Thursday 13 January 2011

The King's Speech

We saw the leading Oscar-contender, The King's Speech, last night. The packed cinema for a midweek teatime showing certainly suggests it is already a hit. And there is superb acting throughout, from Colin Firth's credible stutterer George VI and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist Lionel Logue to the impish Ramona Marquez from Outnumbered as a young Princess Margaret. With Timothy Spall as Churchill, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop, Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, Michael Gambon as George V and Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, this is truly a feast of British acting talent. The story is simple enough: the Duke of York (prodded by his wife) turns to cheeky Aussie Logue to cure his stammer, and relies upon him for crucial speeches. Tom Hooper directs it all with great aplomb. But it is not quite the perfect film the reviews suggest either. It is a bit drawn out over two hours, the history is a bit fishy (too many references forward) and it feels at times as if it might have been better as a stage play. Even so, it is still one of the best movies likely to emerge in 2011 and definitely not to be missed.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Signs of success

The coverage of the league tables today is littered with predictable claims of 'failure' across the system, doubtless stoked by coalition ministers anxious to exaggerate the scale of their task. But one simple figure stands out: there are now just 82 out of 3200 secondary schools in the entire country where fewer than 30% of pupils get five good GCSEs including English and Maths. In 1997, there were over 1600 such schools. In anybody's book, that ought to be a cause for celebration. And for Michael Gove, it should be too. Because a lot of that improvement took place as a result of Labour policies that he has wisely decided to continue - academies and the London Challenge approach of consultant heads helping others, together with tough floor targets (they were, it has to be said, also helped by extra resources, a part of the equation largely missing these days). It is plain daft for the press to label as failing any school that doesn't meet any target set after pupils sat their GCSEs. But the fact that the 30% floor target has dramatically cut those below that benchmark suggests that a 35% benchmark can also help shift the baseline. So, today is a sign that real reform can lead to real improvements, at least for many. That's the true lesson of today's league tables.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Errors with EBacc haste

Tomorrow's league tables will contain a new measure. In addition to the core data on the number of students gaining five good GCSEs, with and without English and Maths, there will be a column for what the Education Secretary Michael Gove calls the 'English Baccalaureate'. This is not as yet a new qualification. Instead it is a reckoning of the proportion of GCSE students who gain a C grade or above in a combination of English, Maths, Science, Languages and History or Geography. As a fan both of the International Baccalaureate - which the education secretary is making easier to access - and of the use of performance tables to encourage change in the system, I might be expected to support this move. But I believe it has been seriously mishandled and is danger of having perverse consequences for the coalition's wider education goals. Here's why.

First, the decision to add this figure to the tables was formally announced just seven weeks ago, after students had sat their GCSEs for 2010. Schools were not given a chance to change their behaviour, to encourage more pupils to do history or French. So, if its purpose is to encourage such a change in behaviour, it is a big mistake to introduce the measure before anyone could seriously be expected to do so. It would have been more sensible to have linked it to the 2012 tables. That way, there might have been a chance for schools that had focused on other subjects to provide their students with a greater chance of doing languages or humanities. In other words, if the goal is to encourage a greater take-up of traditional subjects -not an ignoble aim - the result may be to create a huge wave of anger as schools find themselves 'named and shamed' for failing retrospectively.

Second, there is some perversity in the choice of subjects. For some reason, applied French and some applied Sciences are excluded. It may be that ministers believe that applied subjects are less worthy than traditional subjects. But, with languages in particular, if ministers seriously wish to see a re-engagement with modern languages (and the inclusion of Ancient Hebrew whilst excluding applied French seems especially perverse) then they should be encouraging the exam boards to develop an entire suite of rigorous but applied languages courses. After all, the best way to persuade a teenager the relevance of languages is to show that it improves their chances of working in the tourism industry, the City or business travel. And while reading Moliere in the original may be a noble aim, the revival of languages requires a bit more hard-headed business sense, with as one leading business figure said to me yesterday, a strong push on Spanish and Mandarin rather than French or German.

Third, the Government's attitude to the vocational remains unclear. It is true that some vocational qualifications have become overrated in their GCSE equivalence. But such qualifications are invaluable in engaging otherwise disengaged students to study, and many schools and academies use them as leverage to get students taking other more traditional GCSEs, including English and Maths. It is vital that ministers clarify whether or not they will have any value in future tables. By all means, cut the tariff - most heads would agree - but most are certainly not worthless and should not be so treated.

The real danger of tomorrow's tables is that the hasty move to a new measure obscures the genuine improvements that have taken place as a result of two programmes introduced by Labour that have been continued by the coalition. The first is the rapid improvement of academies in disadvantaged areas: many have remarkable scores using the five GCSEs incl English and Maths measure. They deserve the highest praise, not to be bashed by the press for failing something for which they were never invited to compete. The second is the rapid rise in results for the lowest achieving schools: it is likely that fewer than 100 schools will have less than 30% of their pupils getting the five GCSE benchmark, compared with half of all secondaries or 1700 schools when John Major left office. That owes a lot to floor targets, extended to 35% by Gove in his White Paper. Again they deserve praise and encouragement.

It is vital that ministers make two things clear when they publish their tables. The first is that schools will be judged on their new EBacc only after 2012 and its publication now is purely for the purposes of statisical comparison. The second is that schools that have exceeded Labour's benchmark deserve credit, and give a target date for achieving their new 35% benchmark. Unless they do, they will allow genuinely successful schools, including many of the academies they seek to extend, to be pilloried unfairly as a result of their ill-thought through decisions.

Thursday 6 January 2011

The expansion of academies

The government is making much of the fact that there are now 407 academies, twice as many as when Labour left office. This is not a strictly fair comparison, of course, since the secondary figure of 371 academies includes 68 where the work, including sponsorship, had already been done before Michael Gove entered Sanctuary Buildings. In other words, there are 100 secondary schools and 36 primary schools that have converted to academies as outstanding schools as a direct result of his greater flexibility. It is good that this option is now open to all schools, including primaries, that wish it, and that schools are taking it up: schools benefit from greater independence. It is also right that the best schools should be expected to show system leadership as academies, though the detail of how that requirement is being applied is a little sketchy. Schools like Outwood Grange and Greensward - both given academy status by Labour - had much stronger models of partnership linked to their status. And it is simply ridiculous to claim that the marginal governance and financial changes involved in converting an outstanding school to an academy are in any way comparable to the huge task involved in gaining secure sponsorship and leadership for a new academy in a tough area or an academy replacing a failing school.

Rather than focusing on the speed with which the programme has expanded or assuming that the Labour government's ambitious target of 400 academies in deprived areas was an 'artificial ceiling' which it wasn't, the education secretary and his Conservative colleagues should acknowledge these two very different types of academy and the challenges they present, and the hard work that his predecessors put in reaching the 271 total. There will be more academies, and that is a good thing. But what matters is their collective contribution to school improvement and social mobility as much as their overall numbers. So, the emphasis and ministerial effort should now be on encouraging more imaginative trusts, chains of schools and shared curriculum communities, with a strong drive for improvement. That could provide a genuine transformation.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

2011: The year for honest votes?

In his column today, Daniel Finkelstein (£) shrewdly recognises that the referendum on the Alternative Vote could be one of the most important political decisions of the year. At the same time, the IPPR has produced an excellent report making the case for this voting reform. As a long-time supporter of the Additional Member System (or AV + a proportional top up) I can see why some supporters of voting reform may be sceptical about this more limited change. But it is surely better to achieve one of the principles of reform than wait in vain for something more substantial: after all, the Liberal Democrats didn't exactly go out on a limb for such reform when they had their chance.

I am pleased that Ed Miliband is backing AV: doing so wholeheartedly will help to give him the definition that he has been slow to acquire. But it is vital that the case for AV is made vociferously and the decision to coincide the referendum with the local authority vote is regarded as an opportunity to maximise people's understanding of the change and to achieve a respectable turnout. Put simply, AV allows people to vote for the candidate they most want without losing the chance to vote tactically for their second best. It is a far more honest system than First Past the Post and should be sold as such. Of course, it is not a proportional system, and could even end up less so. But it does reflect voters' preferences at a constituency level more accurately.

It is interesting that when people are told precisely what is involved in AV, they support it, whereas when AV is shrouded in mystique, it has rather less support. So, the pro-AV campaign should not only promote 'honest voting', it should find ways clearly and simply to explain what's involved and its simplicity. With both those characteristics, there is every chance that 2011 could become the year when honest voting wins the day. Despite Nick Clegg.

Happy New Year