Tuesday 29 November 2011

The Chancellor giveth what the Chancellor hath taketh away

Surely the most brazen aspect of today's rather disjointed display by the Chancellor was his announcement on school capital funding (trailed like much else in the weekend press). To recap, shortly after coming to office, Michael Gove earned his spurs with the Treasury by abruptly cancelling over 700 school building projects, loudly proclaiming his ability to achieve 'better value for money', and denouncing Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme as a 'costly failure'. He later lost a court case over a failure to consult properly.

Since then, some capital allocations were made to ensure the sponsored academies programme (the difficult bit that involves rather more than a £15-25k legal bill) was able to continue and to provide some funds to the free schools programme. There has also been some cash to help local authorities to deal with an unexpected surge in demand for school places, in part caused by a decline in private school take-up among the middle classes. Today, George Osborne gave back another £1.2 bn to be split evenly between free schools and school places.

But, the government hasn't just cancelled most new building in schools, at significant cost not just to the fabric of schools, but also to the construction sector. It has also decimated schools' ability to keep their buildings in good repair, by virtually eliminating their annual school capital grant that David Blunkett introduced, known as formula capital. There is, of course, a strong economic argument for pegging teachers' pay and reining in current spending in schools, as much as everywhere else: and with the IFS forecasting that 55% of primaries and 70% of secondaries will be losers, despite the pupil premium, that is happening.

However, there is far less justification, as Osborne now seems to allow, for the huge curb on schools capital investment. Moreover, the focus on free schools capital is particularly odd, since a much-touted attraction of free schools was, apparently, their ability to provide a presumably superior education at the same cost as the school down the road. Now, it seems that they will cost an average - and many of these will be primaries - of £6m each.

I've no problem with free schools having such capital funding, where they are meeting demonstrable need, or are genuinely helping tackle poverty. And I welcome the new specialist maths colleges (even if this is from a Government that axed support for specialist school networks). But, let's be clear: a lot of this money is at the expense of rebuilding other schools in deprived areas. And the list of free schools to date suggests that the genuine parent-promoted or teacher-led schools are being supplemented to boost the numbers by a combination of minor independent and faith schools joining the state system, Middle School/two-tier refuseniks and local authority schools under another guise. The idea that those latter groups deserve preferential capital treatment over other schools and academies is less than convincing.

It is eight months since the DFE published the not hugely inspiring James review of schools capital. When I tried to open it from the DFE website, I was informed that the 'file is damaged and could not be repaired'. Fittingly, since there is still no coherent programme for infrastructural investment (and that includes technology) yet. Instead of another Gordon Brown-style rabbit-out-of-hat exercise, the Chancellor should have given schools a clear idea of the coalition's investment plans for the duration of the parliament. Had he done so, he might have raised at least half a cheer from those upon whom he has just imposed 15-20% real terms pay cuts (including extra pension contributions) - and from the construction sector as well.

Monday 14 November 2011

Cameron is right about coasting schools, but wrong that Labour 'hid' this data

Why does David Cameron ruin a perfectly good argument with some petty partisan point-scoring? Today's article by the PM in the Daily Telegraph argues that some schools in leafy suburbs and shires perform less well than they should do, and are a bit complacent about it. All of which is true. It is also the case that the coalition are publishing more data than before, but it is nonsense to suggest that this data was deliberately 'kept under wraps' by the Labour government.

In fact, Labour greatly increased the amount of data that was published about schools, including in the league tables. It introduced measures of school improvement, as well as raw data. It also made available plenty of information to the Fischer Family Trust and other organisations that provide most schools with targets - those that strive for the top quartile in FFT are the ones that are not failing their students. With freedom of information, there was plenty of other information available too.

But there is a balance to be struck here. There is a good reason to have some limit to the number of elements in the league tables if they are to be readily understood. People should be encouraged ro read them alongside Ofsted reports. Newspapers and other media rarely publish all the data as it is. The issue for Government is to decide where the focus should be if such publication is to drive improvement. Michael Gove has already accepted the measure introduced by Labour of five good GCSEs including English and Maths as desirable for at least half of students in all schools, and as a goal for 80% of all students. This was a new measure introduced by Labour in 2005 as a way of ensuring that all pupils were entered in the basics. Together with floor targets, it has driven substantial improvement, including in London.

Cameron is right that there may be a temptation to focus on D-C borderline students. But this is not a bad thing in itself: schools certainly should ensure that students heading for a D are helped to achieve a C, as this will be worth much more to them in later life, But, of course, they should equally ensure that B/A borderline students work for an A. Any good school will do this, in part because of the revolution in data and individual targeting introduced by Labour. And Ofsted should pick up on it if it isn't happening.

But there is a separate issue about the effect of some of the new measures being introduced by the Conservatives, and it is not obvious that they have got these right. The English Baccalaureate could have a beneficial impact if it sees more academically minded students taking a foreign language, and an earlier push by Labour has already seen a big uplift in triple science, which is continuing. But while students should learn history (my own degree subject) and geography, it is by no means obvious that they will be of greater benefit to every student than engineering, technology or computer science. The only difference is that the former appear in the new league table measure at the expense of the latter. League tables can create perverse incentives no matter the intentions.

Equally, it is important that the PM's drive doesn't prevent us from seeing the wood for the trees. There is a very good reason to focus on the five good GCSE measure for weaker schools, and it has been the backbone of many academy improvements and those in London. But introduce too many measures, without any sense of their respective importance, and it becomes a lot harder for parents to compare schools. This happened with Labour's Contextual Value Added measure that the coalition is replacing with a less complex measure of value added. So, it is good that the new league tables will show us how well schools are working for pupils at different attainment levels. But let's make sure that in the process we don't substitute a fog of statistics for true focus.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Theresa May and the responsibility of ministers

Has Theresa May successfully rewritten the concept of ministerial responsibility? By constantly repeating in the Commons yesterday that she "did not give [her] consent or authorisation to any of these actions" when referring to the UK Border Agency relaxation of immigration controls during the summer, she has significantly redefined the concept of ministerial responsibility. And much as I would like to see a few more Tory scalps - especially in an area where the party shamelessly added to public hysteria, including through the theft of confidential papers from a previous Home Secretary's office - it would be a good thing for politics if it worked. However, that doesn't mean ministers are blameless in this case.

The truth is that ministers do not - and cannot - know everything that is being done in their name by officials and agencies. They rely on their private office and senior officials, as well as on special advisers, to keep an eye on things. But a good minister should ask questions, and track what's happening on key policy implementation: and it is here that May and Damian Green, her immigration minister, do seem guilty of serious shortcomings. Equally, it should be said, this is another example of the limitations of no 10: did they not ask for such updates either?

However, the idea that the minister should always carry the can for an official cock-up is not good for politics. Estelle Morris felt obliged to resign when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the exam boards screwed up over A-level test papers and marking, which are much further removed from ministerial responsibility than the immigration policy at Heathrow Airport. Beverley Hughes quit when a previous agency screwed up badly over immigration, and she unwittingly misled the House of Commons in the ensuing furore. In neither case was the minister directly responsible for a failure of implementation, but convention dictated that they should resign. If it turns out May or Green or their private offices were told more than she is letting on, they would similarly be expected to go.

But there have been too many ministerial resignations, too many good people lost in the process and too few occasions where an official directly responsible for a policy has had to take the consequences where they got it wrong. In this case, I have some sympathy with those who argue that a more proportionate response to full passport checks is good for tourism, so long as everyone knows they may be checked. But that isn't what the Tories have been saying, so May has been wrong-footed by her officials. In this case, she may be right to blame them. But if I were her, I would take an urgent look at the mechanisms her office uses to check on policy operation on a regular basis. The best ministers seek and get regular updates. The failure of her immigration minister or her private office to do that basic part of his job suggests that they may not be fit for purpose either.

Monday 7 November 2011

Philip Gould 1950-2011

Philip Gould was one of those people who always seemed to have a zest for new ideas, and an infectious enthusiasm for what he had learnt from his focus groups or his wider reading. I always found this in education, where he was a strong backer of David Blunkett's approach, helped by the popularity of those policies. Philip was undoubtedly as important to Labour's 1997 victory and to Tony Blair's subsequent two election wins as anyone. In his last year, he showed the most extraordinary courage as he came to terms with the consequences of his cancer. And in revising his indispensable guide to campaigning, An Unfinished Revolution, he has left a lasting legacy. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

A sensible retreat on staff admissions, but is it wise to allow anyone to appeal to the Adjudicator?

The Department for Education has published its final versions of the new Admissions Codes today. There are just a few significant changes (pdf). In the first version, schools could give staff preference for admissions without restriction. This has been amended to say that it can only be used either to fill a specific skill shortage or for staff who have been employed by the school for more than two years, which seems a more sensible arrangement, though they should also ask the Schools Adjudicator to monitor the impact to ensure it is used fairly.  A second change would see primary admissions better co-ordinated, which is also sensible.

There is still one aspect of the new codes that could cause real problems, but the debates on the Education Bill have made the problem even worse. When Labour established the Office of Schools Adjudicator, the right to refer admissions issues was restricted to local authorities and schools that were admissions authorities. The coalition has extended the Adjudicator's remit to academies and free schools, which is sensible. But allowing 'anyone' to refer an issue would confuse the role of admissions appeals panels with that of the Adjudicator, and cause significant extra work for schools, especially academies. While appeal panels should  refer to the Adjudicator where appeals reveal a clear issue, the Adjudicator is in danger of becoming a Supreme Court to their High Court for disappointed parents. Equally, the Adjudicator will be the new target for opponents of free schools and academies.In its wording today, the DFE has recognised the potential for chaos that the new system could cause, so it "will also ask the Schools Adjudicator to deal with vexatious and repeat objections swiftly." Good luck on that one.