Thursday 26 May 2011

How Labour should respond to Gove

I've written a feature for the June issue of Progress magazine on how Ed Miliband should respond to the coalition's key school policies.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, sees himself as Blairite school reformer. By expanding academies, maintaining minimum exam standards for schools and strongly embracing school standards, he is certainly echoing many of the themes that characterised New Labour's approach to ‘education, education, education'.
But he has also downplayed Tony Blair's linking of investment to reform. And while this may be harder with fiscal restraint, the coalition can be challenged on its stated objectives. It is here - rather than in attacking its main policy planks - that Labour should focus its opposition.

Gove's education reforms have three main elements: structural reform with more academies, including new ‘free schools'; a drive on academic school standards; and a pupil premium - extra cash for pupils in receipt of free school meals - to fight poverty. Only the last was a key Liberal Democrat policy, but all were central to the Tories' manifesto. Gove is essentially implementing a programme developed for him in opposition by the Policy Exchange and Reform thinktanks.

Blair aimed for 400 academies by early this decade. But these were primarily replacing failing secondary schools or providing new opportunities in disadvantaged areas. Gove has allowed primary and special schools to become academies, and any school can apply for academy status, with those rated ‘outstanding' or ‘good with outstanding features' by Ofsted able to do so almost automatically without a sponsor. This, rather than an expansion of sponsor-led academies in deprived areas, supported by universities and educational charities like Ark and Harris, is what has led to an expansion from Labour's planned total of 272 academies in September 2010 to 629 in April 2011.

At the same time, Gove is promoting ‘free schools'- parent-promoted, faith-led or sponsor-led new academies - but has been hampered by the groundwork and funding. At most, a dozen seem set to open this year. So far the initiative has produced few radical new ideas: most planned schools could have opened under Labour and some are simply resisting local authority reorganisations.

Labour needs a careful, subtle response to those policies, perhaps employing a three-pronged approach. First, it should query the balance of government resources being used between sponsor-led academies in deprived areas and helping good schools convert. The really hard work lies in getting weaker schools to become academies with good sponsors. Only with the recent appointment of former academy leader Liz Sidwell as schools commissioner has Gove turned his mind to this tougher task.

Second, Gove has said that when outstanding schools become academies they should be required to work with a weaker school. Labour should press for strong partnerships, like those being promoted by the headteachers' and principals' organisation, the National Leaders of Education, but they should be a clear part of academy funding agreements.

And third, Labour should use the free school model, refocusing it on transforming curriculum choices for all and providing better schools in deprived areas. At present, as with academies, it has become too much of a numbers game.

Gove's approach to standards and the curriculum has been strongly academic. His promotion of a league table measure that he calls the ‘English Baccalaureate'- awarded to pupils gaining good GCSEs in English, maths, science, languages and history or geography - has shown that only 15 per cent of pupils nationally reach this standard. However, the proportion gaining good grades in English and maths has risen from a third in 1997 to 55 per cent thanks to Labour reforms. But rather than criticise efforts to toughen standards which parents support, Labour should champion a tough ‘technical Baccalaureate' as an alternative that rewards practical and vocational success alongside English, maths and science. Gove is surely right to acknowledge the need to improve standards faster to meet international competition; Labour should help develop consensus on what this means in practice, challenging the narrowness of the education secretary's measures but not his ambition for higher standards.

Finally to funding, where the coalition is weakest. Its much-trumpeted pupil premium is worth only £430 per pupil on free school meals this year, barely replacing other cuts in schools with large numbers of poorer pupils. Despite promises of no cuts for schools, shadow education secretary Andy Burnham has shown average per pupil cuts of 3.9 per cent over the next three or four years alone, with another National Association of Head Teachers survey showing as many losers as winners. Labour cannot easily promise to restore such revenue cuts, but it can reasonably question the government's approach to the pupil premium and schools capital.

Labour has failed to quantify the extra help it provided to pupils in poorer areas, and its impact -the reduction in schools with fewer than 30 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs in English and maths from 1600 in 1997 to fewer than 100 today. The party should embrace the concept of the pupil premium but set higher expectations for its use. Schools should receive a higher premium where they successfully improve overall results and narrow gaps in achievement. Those that fail to do this should see their premium reduced.

With capital, nobody could oppose efficiency efforts, but Labour should criticise the demise of formula capital, as proposed by the recent James review. By providing a typical secondary school with £150,000 a year to spend on maintenance and smaller development projects, school independence and responsibility are enhanced. This year's cuts to on average £25,000 a year greatly reduce those freedoms. Labour should champion independence here while holding the coalition to account on its wider plans for school spending.

Burnham has successfully tackled key Gove failings, including the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, where there has been a partial U-turn. But his tougher task will be building on New Labour's education reforms to show clever, strategic and forensic opposition to an education secretary whose stated ambitions may be Blairite, even if his execution is otherwise.

Separating the truants from the cheap holiday seekers

The schools minister Nick Gibb greeted the latest truancy figures by blaming Labour for failing to get to grips with the problem. And it is true that despite giving schools and local authorities much tougher powers to tackle what is called 'unauthorised absence' the absentee numbers seem relentlessly to be on the rise.

But this is too simplistic a picture. One measure that had a remarkable effect was targeted action on schools with the highest levels of truancy, where such concentrated effort reduced the numbers of days lost to absence in the schools concerned, though it didn't dent the overall figures. This week's statistics (pdf) show that these measures, introduced by Tony Blair in 2006, saw the number of persistent truants (those missing 14 or more days a year) have fallen from 336,935 in 2006 to 260,740 in 2010 with the harder core (those missing 32 or more days a year) falling from 48,080 to 26,750. That is the single most impactful measure on truancy in decades.

But that success story has been obscured by an important change that was made during Labour's time in office to the focus of the data. Instead of simply focusing on unauthorised absence schools were urged to clamp down on term-time holidays, and to reduce overall absence figures, including authorised absence. The result was to drive many cheap term-time holidaymakers into the truants' corner. Indeed a look at the actual statistics (pdf) here confirms this, as the increase is unauthorised absence broadly mirrors the fall in authorised absence. A fifth of all unauthorised absence is due to family holidays. And there has been a fall in secondary school absence with a rise in primaries. I personally was against this change, because I believed the focus should be on persistent truants. But it has driven the data since.

However, the coalition does not appear to be continuing the work on tackling persistent truancy that had this big impact, as it is sceptical of such targeted work. Instead it imagines that the measures in its Education Bill combined with Ofsted inspections will do the trick. Among heads, only the permission for same day detentions is given a thumbs up - the rest is seen as window dressing (as, to be fair, were many similar Labour measures). But there is nothing here that will make the slightest difference either to the number of hard core truants or to the holiday plans of families in search of off peak bargains.

Next time, the coalition will have to start taking the blame if absentee data don't fall significantly. And when the time comes, we need to take a close look at the persistent absentee data. Those are the ones that are likely to become tomorrow's NEETS.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Garret FitzGerald 1926-2011

Garret FitzGerald, who died today, was Ireland's first post-nationalist Taoiseach, and in that role he laid the groundwork that has culminated in this week's extraordinary visit of the Queen to the Republic. He was not, truth be told, a hugely successful Taoiseach in policy terms, but his contribution to Irish life far outweighed any of his achievements as head of government. He set a tone of integrity that stood in marked contrast to the corruption of Charles Haughey, his main Fianna Fail opponent. His leadership of Fine Gael and the coalition government marked a sea-change in Irish life, as an intellectual who, while getting elected through the clientilist system, managed to transcend such narrowness to embody what President McAleese called the characteristics of the Renaissance man. An economist, his politics were those of the European social democrat - albeit sometimes at odds with a Fine Gael party led by the ultra-conservative Liam Cosgrave during the 1970s - rather than the scion of a party born of obscure Civil War arguments.

It is a tribute to this intellectual giant that he continued to contribute wise economic and politics analysis to the Irish Times every week until shortly before his recent illness. But the respect he earned was genuine and widespread. In truth, his Anglo-Irish Agreement lacked the subtley to transcend the sectarian divide, but he had understood the need to move forward politically, which would lead in time to the Good Friday Agreement. His social agenda, too, proved premature, and it took time - and the election of Mary Robinson in 1990 and the 1992 coalition with a strong Labour presence - for the advances he supported in areas like divorce to be realised. But as his highly readable autobiography demonstrated, it was not for want of trying. Ireland today is a very different place socially and culturally than it was when Garret FitzGerald entered politics. And that it is owes no small debt to his sense of what it could be.

Friday 13 May 2011

Lessons for Life

There was a great turnout in the Commons last night for the launch of Lessons for Life, a collection of 50 interviews with education, business and government leaders that I conducted for HTI, the education leadership charity, to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Estelle Morris hosted the event.

Among those giving their views on education - and remembering their own schooldays - are Sir Alex Ferguson, Michael Gove, David Blunkett, Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir Michael Barber, Lord Baker, Digby Jones, David Puttnam and Yo Sushi! founder Simon Woodroffe. Education leaders interviewed include Sir Michael Wilshaw, Dame Sue John, chief inspector Christine Gilbert, Dame Ruth Silver and Sir William Atkinson, who spoke at last night's launch.

Sir William, who has transformed the Phoenix High School in West London, tells me in the book of his own remarkable story after he arrived in 1957 in the UK with his mother and older brother:
"The teacher, because my mother spoke with a very broad Jamaican accent, took into his head that my brother was aged 7 and had not been to school, whereas I was aged 9 and had been to school for two years. Therefore, it was unfortunate that I couldn’t read and write and he was a mini-Renaissance man,” recalls the headteacher whose leadership was the inspiration for the Lenny Henry character in the BBC series, Hope and Glory.

“So, I spent two years in a remedial class, which initially had a profound effect on me, with other children who were not having a good time at school, learning that I was not terribly bright and not terribly good at school. As result, I managed to fail my 11-plus at 9 when they thought I was 11. It was only then that they discovered my age. By that time, I’d internalised a number of very negative things about myself as a learner. So two years later when I took the 11 plus, I failed again. Most people only fail it once!”
But that early setback didn’t deter William. And he owes a lot to sixth form head at Battersea County school, Ray Sanders, who helped him gain the O levels he needed – after an unsuccessful first attempt. “Ray decided that I had potential that I didn’t think I had,” he says. “He got me to realise that I was capable of doing far better than I thought I could. He was also the person who made me want to become a teacher; not only Ray, but also the young teachers working in that comprehensive school. For me, they appeared to be good role models; these were people who really wanted to make a difference before it was fashionable.”
"Lessons for Life" is being sold in aid of the Inspire programme which promotes mentoring for disadvantaged young people. Copies are available from HTI at £25 each.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Back to the university drawing board

I know the Government is getting desperately confused in its higher education policy, but the answer is not to introduce a two-tier fees system for home students. Instead, the Government needs to examine the problems it has created for itself in its higher education policy. The most important mistake was in getting the pricing wrong, assuming that universities would not charge £9000 while it was cutting their teaching budgets. This was a false economy, as the Government has to pick up the tab for the extra loans, which although attracting some interest are now only repayable when earners exceed £21k in income. It looks like there was no proper modelling done which included the likely impact of abolishing all state funding.

Perhaps now is the time to look again at the inter-relationship between several aspects of the new system: the size of the maximum fee and the availability of loans, the loan repayment terms, the extent to which government and universities underwrite those loans and the level of HEFCE grant for non-science subjects. A better balance could certainly be more manageable - and fairer- than allowing rich kids to indulge in a spot of arbitrary queue jumping. Vince Cable - if he can refocus on his department for a moment - and David Willetts need to go back to the drawing board.

Monday 9 May 2011

The morning after

Were it not for Scotland, Ed Miliband could claim to have had a good night. As it is, the extraordinary SNP surge will overshadow some genuinely impressive achievements: potentially gaining a majority in Cardiff (providing a lesson in the benefits of coalition for the larger party), routing the Lib Dems in cities like Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Hull and Stoke, winning back Gravesham and good results in places like Telford and Luton. Yet Labour also lost ground in key seats like Gloucester and Dartford. Of course, results have still to come in many areas. But the fact that one cannot say it was an overwhelmingly good night for Labour is a measure of the uphill struggle that Miliband still faces.

For he is the leader of the party in the whole of Britain, not just England; and he can't accept credit for Cardiff without also accepting the embarrassment of Edinburgh. He needs now to work to ensure that there is a root and branch reorganisation of the Scottish Labour Party, with the persuasion of a heavy hitter to position him or herself to do an Alex Salmond on the whole Scottish Labour party. After all, Salmond had the confidence to stick his name on every Scottish ballot paper.

In England, this is a better result than it might seem, because Labour has once again become the largest party in votes cast. This is important with the Tory gerrymeander still set to be introduced despite the failure of AV. It is a mark of the ineffectiveness of Nick Clegg that he didn't insist that the two measures were dependent on each other, thus forcing Cameron and crew to restrain themselves over their No enthusiasm. The Liberal Democrats are facing potential revolts over key coalition policies which will strain the partnership, and should certainly scupper Andrew Lansley's barmy NHS plans (if not restoring those waiting time targets that had been a huge success for patients) and may force speedier Lords reform and turn the pupil premium in schools into a meaningful incentive to attract poorer students. And while the Tories will be pleased not to have seen their vote drop significantly, they may find that this is the last time they can feel so smug: as Lib Dem councillors disappear, voter anger will find a new home.

For Labour, it is vital that the party does more than sort out Scotland. The extra councillors should help consolidate the party organisation. But Miliband needs to show some policy mettle too, and not wait until his various reviews have pronounced. Voters don't know what he stands for, and he needs to pick some strong symbolic policies on which to take a stand: that might mean outpacing the Tories where their policies are potentially popular, like on academies and free schools, and providing radical alternatives where they are getting it wrong, including on crime and prisons. He should not let the Lib Dems take the initiative on constitutional reform, but he needs a clear and credible economic and social policy that appeals to working class and Middle England voters alike. Of course, he should not unveil all - or even most - of his policies now, but he does need to show where he stands. Otherwise it will be difficult to turn last night's genuine gains into an election winning strategy for 2015 - or before.

An updated version of this posting appears on the Public Finance blog.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

The wonders of Jordan


We spent Easter in Jordan, visiting the major sites and relaxing by the Red and Dead Seas. Our original planned trip to Syria as well was cancelled - later than I had expected given the appalling events there - just days before our departure, but that didn't take from the wonders of Jordan. We ended up with the Cox and Kings 'Splendours of Jordan' trip, which was a fast-paced but excellent overview.
From our Amman hotel, close to the Ministry of the Interior, the noise of a crowd chanting seemed to grow ever louder. Jordan had, after all, not been immune from the Arab Spring: King Abdullah sacked his government in response to some protests, and on the Friday before we arrived, dozens of police were injured after Islamist extremists demonstrated in Zarqa - or so the Jordan Times reported. But these were no demonstrators: the hotel had laid on two giant screens by the swimming pool for a late evening soccer match. Those who cancelled their visits to Jordan because of Syria or Egypt are missing out. Amman is an extraordinary mix of old and new, and felt entirely safe though all the big hotels had airline-style security. We had a great dinner at the famous Fakhr el-din restaurant and spent time visiting the wonderfully preserved amphitheatre and the Citadel with its remarkable city views. We took in the Franciscans' Mount Nebo where Moses saw the Promised Land and the great crusader castle at Karnak. Petra with its stunning Treasury, tombs and Siq is as awe-inspiring as one would expect; and Jerash - old Antioch - is a remarkable Graeco-Roman city.  Wadi Rum has all the echoes of Lawrence of Arabia that one would expect; while Aqaba is a splendid city to relax (with cheaper taxes than elsewhere in Jordan too) especially staying in the centre.
Petra sunset
But the Jordanians are worried about growing cancellations as a result of the Arab Spring. True, over Easter there was little sign of tourists staying away, especially in Petra and Aqaba. But there is a real concern that people will stay away in the autumn or next year, as people consider their options. Syria and Yemen may be out of bounds for now, but Jordan is not. I hope people don't allow the troubles of neighbours to let them miss out on the wonders of this remarkable country.