Monday 31 October 2011

Has the Irish presidential poll damaged Sinn Fein?

Had it not been for the beyond abysmal performance of Fine Gael's dreadful candidate for Ireland's Presidency, Gay Mitchell, who managed to amass a mere 6.4% of the votes in Thursday's election, and who couldn't be bothered to show up for the final declaration, there would be a lot more attention on the relatively poor performance of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, and on the arrogant assumptions that lay behind his candidacy.

Before doing so, it is worth acknowleding that McGuinness's intervention in last Monday's TV debate certainly secured the presidency for Michael D Higgins, although I still think Gallagher's vote was pretty flaky even before it, as a cursory look at the raw polling data showed.

However, McGuinness was supposed to garner at least 20 per cent of first preferences and place Sinn Fein's vote at least on a par with the Labour Party. And while it is true that his 13.7% is up on Sinn Fein's 9.9% in the general election, such a marginal improvement hardly justifies endangering the entire Northern Ireland government and opening up the can of worms that is the IRA's not too distant past. Sinn Fein expected Irish voters to be grateful to them for standing McGuinness, and then were astonished at the extent of their ingratitude. The renewed focus on the IRA's unsavoury past may also have lasting consequences for Sinn Fein's vote in the Republic: if their leading celebrity candidate cannot advance further than this in such a volatile campaign, what hope is there for the less elevated retired gun-runners and gullible groupies that the party puts up in more prosaic circumstances?

McGuinness made an important contribution to the final result through his interventions in the final debate, but even he must be wondering whether the damage that the whole campaign has done to his and Sinn Fein's reputation was quite the masterstroke that Sinn Fein thought it to be six weeks ago.

Friday 28 October 2011

Why Michael D Higgins is set to win the Irish Presidency

It can take an age for final results to come through in an Irish STV
election, but the country is blessed with some very skilled tallymen. And their tallies point to a clear victory for Michael D Higgins, the President of the Irish Labour Party, as the country's next president. To readers of some of the British media, particularly the Guardian which was practically wetting itself at the prospect (never a realistic one beyond the fantasies of the paper's resident Sinn Fein fan club) of Martin McGuinness finding himself in Áras an Uachtaráin after today, the new president is a virtual unknown. Readers were instead told more recently that if McGuinness didn't cut it, David Norris, an academic  and gay rights campaigner scrabbling for fourth place in the same tallies behind McGuinness, would do it.

To be fair, there have been several 'front-runners' in the campaign. And Norris was there once (though long before the Guardian piece), before he mishandled the release of letters he had written in defence of a friend convicted for underage sex. So, more significantly, was the Irish Dragon's Den entrepreneur Sean Gallagher, who led the weekend polls until McGuinness threw doubt on his integrity by highlighting some of his less savoury links with Fianna Fail. But all through this, Michael D was always likely to win through, as this blog has consistently argued. And that is because, as today's RTE/Red C exit polls confirm, people are more interested in electing someone to the Park who will represent Ireland with dignity abroad and who is of unimpeachable integrity. And Michael D not only scored on both counts, his "A President Who Will Do Us Proud" slogan exactly captured the mood of the electorate. Even if he hadn't topped the poll, he was always the most transfer-friendly.

Michael D is a long-time politician of the left, a poet and academic, and the finest culture minister that Ireland ever had. Each of the other candidates had different flaws exposed during the campaign; and each time Michael D was there rising above the fray. The only criticism made of him was his age, and that may have backfired as a younger but testier Sean Gallagher came unstuck. He fought a long game, fought it steadily with a brilliant Labour back up team. And he was there when the last of his rivals fell at the final hurdle. Since 1990, under both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, Ireland has benefited from two fine Presidents. Both in their different ways transformed what had been a tired sinecure for failed or retired politicians into a significant symbol of the new Ireland. That tradition will undoubtedly be upheld by Michael D.

Mike Leigh's Grief

The stultifying world of late 50s suburban middle class respectability mixed with the memories of wartime loss is the setting for Mike Leigh's remarkable new play, Grief, which has its first out-of-London run at Bath this week. Lesley Manville plays Dorothy, a war widow trying to bring up a 15 year-old girl Victoria (played by Lark Rise star Ruby Bentall) in a household shared with her soon-to-retire brother Edwin (a fine buttoned up turn by Sam Kelly).

The two-hour play, which runs with no interval, follows a series of events from autumn 1957 to summer 1958, as Victoria is supposed to be preparing for her O levels and Edwin faces retirement. Special days like Christmas, New Year and birthdays are intertwined with occasional visits from their friends. Each vignette takes place in the living room, where the only real communication between Dorothy and Edwin is through old songs beautifully rendered by Manville and Kelly, and where the chasm between mother and daughter grows ever wider. There are a remarkable number of scene changes, each adding to our understanding of the characters, and all leading to a terrible denouement. We were treated to an after-show discussion with Leigh and his cast last night, and the most fascinating revelation from Manville was that the set behind the stage contained furnished bedrooms to give the upstairs events that we only ever hear a firmer grip on reality. With a fine cast, this is an excellent new play.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

70% of secondaries face cuts to fund the pupil premium: but will it work?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies report on Trends in education and schools spending (pdf) cuts through the coalition's dissembling about what is being spent in education. Its findings - that most schools will experience real terms spending cuts from 2011-12 - will come as no surprise to headteachers and governors, but gives the lie to the idea that education expenditure has been 'protected' under the coalition.

Of course, after real terms growth of 5.1% a year from 1999-2009, it would be unsurprising were education spending to be frozen at a time of economic austerity. But the IFS says that it will be cut by 3.5% per year between 2011-2014, the largest cut in education spending since the 1950s. Indeed education as a share of national income will fall to 4.6% by 2014-15, its level in 1999. Of course, the coalition has been careful (most of the time) to distinguish between education and schools spending. And the IFS concedes that schools spending will only fall by 1.2% in total whereas government spending on higher education will fall by 40% as fees replace HEFCE funding, and spending on early years and youth services will fall by 20%, even though early years education has the greatest impact on a child's development. The decision to scrap EMA and reduce sixth form spending to that of colleges means that 16-19 funding - particularly in schools - will fall by 20% in real terms. Education is clearly no longer regarded as an investment in the future, and its contribution to economic growth is being actively discounted.

But it is worth reflecting further on the impact on schools spending, because it is here that that coalition has been unequivocal in its commitment to maintain expenditure. There is a cash freeze on per pupil spending, which, with inflation at 5%, equates to a cut of 5% in real terms, although this is somewhat mitigated by a freeze in teachers' pay. But the commitment to 'maintain' schools spending is only achieved through the pupil premium, which is being funded by the raid on early years (including Sure Start), 16-19 and youth services. It is clearly not being funded from outside the education budget, as the coalition claimed would happen. The pupil premium is universally regards as a good thing but the IFS drily reflects that "this will add somewhat to the already considerable additional money provided for the poorest pupils by the current school funding system." Having dropped plans for a proper National Funding Formula, the pupil premium could simply add an extra layer of funding for the very poorest schools, but will leave significant regional and local funding disparities untouched.

So, the one area of growth is the pupil premium. And it is here that the coalition is on shakiest ground. Although the premium is presented as a great Liberal Democrat advance, it was actually in the Conservative manifesto too, but what both parties lacked was a clear idea of how the premium would advance the goal of improved attainment for the poorest pupils. Some changes have been made to admissions rules to allow schools to recruit more pupils entitled to free school meals, and to show in the league tables how effective they are at narrowing attainment disparaties. But the premium suffers from a potentially fatal flaw: there are no plans to reward success or penalise failure. In other words, there is no real incentive or leverage behind it.

This makes the IFS analysis all the more important in this aspect of coalition policy. They point out that extra funding in the current system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools, funding almost double that attached to non-deprived pupils, on average. Without leverage or incentives linked to the premium, it is unclear how a premium currently worth £488 per pupil, rising to £1600 by 2014-15 will provide the right incentives. The absence of a national funding formula means that it will be some time before the existing deprivation funding is consolidated within the pupil premium, thereby allowing a more substantial identified sum for each child. Even then, the first year of the premium, where take-up was less than expected, has shown the flaws in using the FSM measure, which has a considerable stigma attached to it in some communities. If the pupil premium is to achieve what is intended for it, ministers should allow it partially to reflect success in narrowing attainment gaps, and they should look at an alternative measure for its distribution.

But what it will mean, according to the IFS analysis, is that around three-quarters of primary schools and 90% of secondary schools will see real terms cuts over the next four years, though with lower salary inflation, the figure falls to 55% of primaries and 70% of secondaries assuming the same inputs. Only those with substantial numbers of poorer pupils - especially primary schools - will see any increase. In other words, the pupil premium is partly funded by cuts in the majority of schools. This could certainly be presented as redistributive. But inputs are not enough: if the premium is to succeed, it must clearly show substantial improvements among the pupils to whom it is attached. After all, there are a lot of losers helping to fund those inputs. And the least they can ask for is that their sacrifice produces results.

Monday 24 October 2011

Michael D can still win, but needs plenty of STV transfers

Three weekend opinion polls have now given solid leads to the 'independent' business candidate Sean Gallagher in the Irish presidential election. Gallagher has clearly been unaffected by revelations about his Fianna Fail background or his patchy business record as a Dragons Den presenter. His tactic of contrasting his relative youth with the age of 70-year old Labour veteran Michael D Higgins seems to have paid off and Higgins clearly faces an uphill battle winning this week's poll. Gallagher is running at around 39-40% to Higgins 25-26%. All the polls confirmed that Sinn Fein/Guardian candidate Martin McGuinness is a distant third, with Paddy Power shifting his odds to 50/1 as a result.

But a closer look at the data behind the Red C poll suggests that it will be a lot closer between Higgins and Gallagher than the 14-point gap would suggest. For a start, if one includes only those who will definitely vote (a particularly important indicator if turnout is low), the gap falls to eight points. And then, so long as McGuinness stays in third position (as his transfers will mainly go to Gallagher), Higgins should benefit from most transfers from the other candidates, in the STV election. So there is a lot to play for in these closing days. But Ireland has a pretty clear choice: a vote for the politics that sent it into the abyss, in the form of ex-Fianna Fail member Gallagher, or a vote for a broader more outward-looking culturally astute Ireland as represented by the best culture minister Ireland has had in Higgins. It may not be as defining an election as the 1990 election that saw Mary Robinson win, but it is a pretty defining choice all the same.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Why shouldn't parents rate schools?

What does Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, do when she wants to book a hotel? Presumably given her comments today on Ofsted's new Parent View website, Ms Blower completely ignores Trip Advisor and the ratings on other booking websites posted by those who have stayed there. Her reason: they are too 'subjective'.

Ofsted's site will give parents the chance to rate their children's schools on issues such as standards of teaching and behaviour, but also on happiness and the levels of communication with parents. Now, I may be mistaken here, but isn't such a rounded view precisely what the NUT has been demanding for ages? Indeed, one might have more sympathy with their objections to the site if they were staunch advocates of objective measurement of schools. But they have opposed testing and league tables since their inception, and I can't remember them ever being enthusiastic fans of independent inspections either.

The new Parent View site may take a little time to gain the level of parental input to make its judgements valuable. There may be the occasional problem if a school faces a determined campaign against it. But, as outstanding schools are no longer to be inspected, the site could alert inspectors to potential problems: if they investigate and find otherwise, it is better than not knowing of a problem until it is too late for many pupils. And in a world where people do want to see the views of other service users, the site also has the potential to offer an additional valuable perspective for parents interested in the quality of local schools.

Labour's academy revolution bears more fruit

With schools ministers still behaving like they are in opposition, it is worth highlighting some of the remarkable exam results that have been released today. The GCSEs sat in 2011 were taken by students who started their exam courses two years ago, and their achievements reflect the significant reforms introduced by Labour in office, including sponsored academies and programmes like the London Challenge, as well as the floor targets that have been embraced and extended by Michael Gove.

A remarkable 58.3 per cent of pupils now gain five good GCSEs, including English and Maths. This compares with 35% in 1997. In London, which was well behind in 1997, 61% of pupils now reach this standard. What is particularly worth noting is that these results are not just about doing 'soft subjects'. The DFE's statistical release shows that the proportion of pupils gaining English and Maths GCSEs at grade C and above was 61 per cent. There has been a small increase in the numbers achieving the 'English Baccalaureate', though the numbers taking language GCSEs fell again.

Ministers have rightly highlighted the success of academies - with an average improvement around twice as fast as that of other schools. The provisional GCSE results for 2011 show that in academies the percentage of pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs including English and maths rose from 40.6 per cent to 45.9 per cent, an increase of 5.3 percentage points whilst in all maintained schools the percentage of pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs including English and maths rose from 55.2 per cent to 57.8 per cent, an increase of 2.6 percentage points. Their success has helped drive up the overall average significantly. Stephen Twigg has wisely started to jettison Labour's post-government ambivalence to academies: he needs to ensure that today's results are seen as firm evidence of the success of our policies in government.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

The balance of risk and regulation

Matthew Taylor has already raised some pertinent questions about the power of regulators, after a seminar that he expertly chaired at the RSA yesterday. There is a particularly interesting debate underway in government, reflecting some of the schizophrenia that surrounds the whole issue of regulation and accountability.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a transformation in attitudes to data within the public sector, particularly in schools. It isn't just about high profile league tables, though their presence has undoubtedly spurred some improvement. As important has been the ability of schools to compare their performance with others with similar characteristics, and to benchmark themselves against the best in their field with the help of organisations like the Fischer Family Trust. Familiarity with data, a rarity 15 years ago, is now universal among school leaders. For the coalition, this data is at the heart of their accountability agenda, and in an education system where many of the levers have been withdrawn and market forces are largely absent as a result of the admissions system, an ever-increasing supply of data is the seen as the biggest driver of improvement.

The corrolary of this is that regulators like Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, are expected to do more with less. Michael Gove, the education secretary, is facing growing opposition in the House of Lords to the idea that schools designated outstanding, even if that designation is several years old, should not be re-inspected unless there is a significant change in the data or substantial parental complaint. Gove has decided that such schools are low risk compared with the failing and barely satisfactory schools where he wants Ofsted to focus its resources.

There is nothing new in the idea that such interventions should be in proportion to their success. Michael Barber's phrase informed an approach to inspection that did focus resources on the weakest schools and saw inspections of the most successful reduced to short visits as little as every six years. But there is a big difference between short six-yearly visits and none at all. For a start, the expectation of a future Ofsted visit is as important as the visit itself in spurring improvement, and this is as true in successful schools as any other. Then, the evidence suggests that a significant minority of outstanding schools are less successful on re-inspection. Inspectors themselves need to know how good schools can be if they are to set their sights high enough for those that don't make the grade. And, as Gove himself acknowledged, even many outstanding schools may not reach that grade in their teaching and learning, and need to be encouraged to do so.

At the heart of all this is a debate about the balance between risk and regulation. Inspectorates are there to reveal what is wrong, but also in doing so to encourage public services to do better. Ofsted has had remarkable success in this since its inception, and has arguably been as important to the improvements of the last twenty years as league tables and other published data. Gove has set himself ambitions for England to become a world-beater in education over the next five years. In doing so, he is accepting that schools have improved, but is insisting they need to do much better. Is there a danger that he has made his goal harder by reducing pressure on those schools that need to be at the vanguard of such global ambitions? Where should that balance lie?

Monday 17 October 2011

Two candidates now vie for Irish president (memo to Guardian: neither is called Martin McGuinness)

As the Irish Presidential election enters its final ten days, there are just two candidates left standing. Michael D Higgins, the Labour veteran and former culture minister (left), is in what seems like a fairly straight fight with the former Fianna Fail member turned Independent business candidate Sean Gallagher. Two polls appeared yesterday, with each candidate leading one of them. In the Sunday Business Post, Gallagher led Higgins 39-27 while in the Sunday Independent, conducted a little later, Higgins led Gallagher 36-29. Both polls placed Martin McGuinness on around 13%. Yet, to a reader of the British media, especially the Guardian until today, all this would be a great surprise. Surely, they might innocently wonder, this is the race where Martin McGuinness is set to take the prize?

What has happened to McGuinness during the course of the campaign is fascinating. He started the campaign dubbing his opponents 'West Brits', an offensive term of abuse used by Sinn Fein in the past to suggest its opponents were not true Irish people. McGuinness has been forced to confront his paramilitary past in ways that he cannot wholly have expected. The son of an Irish army private murdered by the IRA confronted him, and he was unable to give a satisfactory answer. RTE's Miriam O'Callaghan dared to challenge that past on a TV debate last week, questioning how he squared murder with his religious beliefs, and despite bitter complaints from Sinn Fein, who like to praise their own role in the peace process without acknowledging their role in what went before, 62% of Irish people backed the feisty broadcaster over the petulant candidate.

It is true that Sinn Fein has probably gained a bit of extra support on the 10% it won in the general election earlier this year as a result of the campaign. But by being forced to confront its past in ways that had been largely ignored since the power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, it has also limited its potential for expansion. And the foolhardy decision to allow McGuinness to leave his day job as deputy first minister will have done few favours to the strength of Northern Ireland governance. Sinn Fein deserve credit for accepting power sharing with the DUP but that neither wipes out their past murderous campaign nor does it give them a god-given right to the Irish presidency.

Even though Gallagher has momentum, Michael D still probably has the better chance of winning. The election is being fought under the single transferable vote system, and he should be he most transfer-friendly of the candidates. Gallagher has been running as an Independent and enjoys fame from Ireland's Dragons Den, but his past membership of a still deeply unpopular Fianna Fail is becoming an issue as his surge brings scrutiny. But after weeks of soap opera - with a saga involving Dana's brother and a family feud providing the latest instalment - there is now a straight fight between left and right in the campaign. I trust the Guardian can now get its reporters to cover the reality of politics in the Republic rather than the wishful thinking of some of its contributors.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Fox fiasco, NHS bill chaos. Move Maude.

David Cameron's two big crises of the moment, the Liam Fox/Walter Mitty saga and the slow death of Andrew Lansley's pointless NHS legislation owe a lot to another member of his cabinet and a silly self-destructive piece of gesturist posturing. Francis Maude's obesessive opposition to political advisers in government has led Fox to use unorthodox methods to maintain the advice of his Alanticist soulmate Adam Werritty, while Lansley's ludicrous bill would never have seen the light of day had Cameron enjoyed half-decent political back-up in No 10 while it was being dreamt up.

I hold no brief for the increasingly bizarre Werritty or his politics, and some of the meetings that he set up would not have been appropriate for any political adviser. But a Secretary of State is entitled to have political advice that reflects his political position as a counterweight to the bureaucratic certainties that he will receive from his civil servants. The civil service is fine at offering what it sees as the tenable options on any issue, but it can benefit from radical challenge from political advisers as well as ministers. And the idea that ministers should not have sufficient political back-up to fulfil a democratic mandate is pretty undemocratic. I have no idea whether there is more to Werritty than a go-for for Fox: but if that is all that he is, he should have been able to work for Fox in an official capacity, albeit with fewer luxury hotel visits and first class flights. Had he done so, his role would have been properly defined.

Which brings me to Lansley's bill that is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves thanks to a re-energised David Owen and a canny offer from Andy Burnham, who has made a flying start back at Health by offering to back GP commissioning if the bill is dropped. As Camilla Cavendish points out in an excellent piece (£) in the Times this morning, the bill makes no difference to patients, it will be blamed for the next NHS crisis [which I believe will follow Lansley's equally ludicrous abandonment of targets] and it doesn't actually require primary legislation. Indeed it may even set back the private and voluntary provision already introduced as a result of Alan Milburn's reforms. But all of this was entirely predictable, and would have been seen by a half-competent, politically aware NHS adviser in No 10. Cameron lacked such a figure because the No 10 policy unit was virtually non-existent thanks to the strictures of Maude. Even today, it is filled with civil servants rather than politically astute figures, for the same reason.

Of course, Francis Maude thought he was being terribly clever when he announced a reduction in the number of Whitehall political advisers. And, funnily enough, the civil servants in the Cabinet Office cheered him on, as did the newspapers. It allowed a nice dig at Labour too. All of which would have been exchanged for a day's bad headlines had the coalition increased their number. Some ministers have created policy adviser posts for political appointees (who are subject to the strictures of civil servants on political activity) to get round the rules. But they shouldn't have to. The Prime Minister should have a strong cadre of able well-informed political advisers, and individual cabinet ministers should be able to assemble small teams of people they can trust politically to act in the interests of their democratic mandate.

So, if and when Liam Fox goes, and once Cameron finally gets rid of the disaster that is Andrew Lansley [and it gives me no pleasure to note that this blog told you so long before the election], he should also move Maude. And do a U-turn on political advice.

Friday 7 October 2011

Twigg must regain Labour's education inititiative

It is good news that Stephen Twigg, an unashamed fan of academies, has been appointed by Ed Miliband as his new shadow education secretary. Andy Burnham never really regained the initiative having started badly, although his focus on vocational education was one of a number of ways he recognised the coalition's weaknesses. But by allowing academies to be stolen by the Tories as their great initiative, he left his successor with a lot of ground to make up. Twigg must now be bold and ensure that Labour education policy has real credibility with parents, heads and teachers. He needs to be ready to outflank education secretary Michael Gove in areas such as rewards for schools that successfully overcome poverty - with a pupil premium that has real teeth - and to give a real sense of mission to academies and free schools. Whilst not disputing the need for rigorous academic qualifications, he should champion a technical baccalaureate as an alternative to the EBacc for some, but equally make clear where the Tories are simply following Labour successes on issues like floor targets and academies. Above all, he must regain the mantle of standards and diversity for Labour, making clear that a future Labour government would be on the side of today's parents and pupils, and not those seeking to turn the Labour policy clock back twenty years. It's good also to see Liz Kendall and Rachel Reeves getting much deserved promotions.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Here's the proof: Labour DID improve social mobility

One of the more persistent myths perpetrated by the government and its media friends is that, for all its good intentions in education, the Labour government achieved little beyond building some shiny new schools and paying teachers better. Anyone who has visited schools before and after the Labour years knows this to be palpable nonsense. And there has been lots of data to show it to be so: from the primary school improvements, particularly from 1996-2001 and the huge reductions in schools below floor targets at GCSE.

But evidence of the benefits to poorer children on a national scale has been more elusive: the achievements of academies, the turnaround of London schools, the outsourcing of local authority education functions or the vast improvements in literacy and numeracy in boroughs like Tower Hamlets are all treated as beside the point, or the result of dodgy vocational qualifications (even though the results excluding these qualifications have shown substantial improvements and were published in the education statistics).

So, we should be grateful to the Financial Times, and its education editor Chris Cook, for a rarity in journalism today: an analysis informed by the facts. Cook and the FT have looke solely at the sort of subjects that Michael Gove thinks children should learn - sciences, modern languages, maths, English, history and geography - and concluded that

Between 2006 and 2010, after stripping out the effects of grade inflation, the bottom of the distribution shifted upwards: the gap closed by one sixth of a grade in every one of these GCSE subjects.

This is a remarkably important finding, as such gaps may narrow quickly in individual schools, but can take a lot to shift systemically. Less surprisingly, perhaps, the FT finds that

If vocational subjects are included, the fall is more pronounced. On that measure, the expected gap between two children from neighbourhoods ten deprivation percentiles apart closed from 2.8 to only 1.8 percentiles.

Equally fascinating is the extent to which Islington has narrowed the gap far faster than neighbouring Camden, a change the FT attributes to the borough's outsourced Cambridge Education, but which surely owes much too to the impact of London Challenge and the new academies in the area.

But despite the rhetoric, the truth is that coalition ministers know that Labour's key policies were working. That's why they have expanded sponsor-led academies and taken key aspects of the London Challenge - especially the National Leaders of Education - and increased them. Still, it is good to have the evidence.