Thursday 6 December 2012

Turning the global league tables

Last week’s publication of a new global education league table by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Pearson raised some eyebrows with its claim that the UK’s education system now ranks sixth in the developed world.

After all, on the same day, the Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw was using the data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to make a case that English schools must do better if we are to match global competitors in the future.

The UK scores around average in PISA for reading and mathematical literacy, and a little above average for scientific literacy, based on tests of 15 year-olds. This places UK schools 25th for reading, 28th for maths and 16th for science, out of 65 countries.

Pearson has aggregated this PISA data with other studies from the Trends In International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which measures international trends in mathematics and science achievement of 9 and 13 year-olds, and the Progress In International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which just focuses on the reading achievement of 9 year-olds – those in fourth grade.

The Pearson Learning Curve report also includes some UNESCO data to create a ranking of countries that looks at both cognitive skills and educational attainment. For cognitive skills, they use PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS, and for attainment they use UNESCO data on adult literacy and OECD data on graduation rates at the end of secondary school and at university.

PISA and TIMSS/PIRLS measure different things and do so at different ages. The primary difference is that TIMSS/PIRLS looks at what you been taught in a particular subject and how much you have learnt, whereas PISA looks at what you are able to do with the science you have been taught. PISA is more about the practical application of your knowledge.

The Learning Curve report also draws wider conclusions and lessons for education policymakers, including the importance of good teachers, a strong pro-education culture and on the best ways to engage parents.

But how does it reach so different a conclusion from PISA on the comparative health of the UK education system? It does so quite easily, in fact, and it is all in the weightings. And in looking at how it reaches the conclusions it does, there are also lessons on how one should use such league tables.

First, on PISA, the Pearson/EIU index has fewer countries than PISA in its list, so removing those countries and only using Hong Kong for China (PISA includes Shanghai and Macao too) elevates the UK four places higher in reading and science and six places higher in Maths. The new index is more interested in a country’s relationship to the mean than its ranking, so bunching around the mean in PISA would also reduce ranking differentials.

Second, on PIRLS and TIMSS, England and Wales score significantly better on these tables (some of which exclude other major developed nations such as France, Finland and New Zealand) than on PISA. Although Scotland scores lower, the UK average remains strong. Because TIMSS has both Grade 4 and Grade 8 tests, the combined value of PIRLS and TIMSS is stronger than that for PISA.

And finally, although the UK is rated 6th overall, it is only ranked 11th for cognitive skills – those measured by PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS – and its higher rating on the overall table owes more to adult literacy and graduation rates.

Add in all these factors, and look at the weighting given to each factor in the report. The default weight for the Index is two-thirds to cognitive skills and one-third to educational attainment. Within the cognitive skills category, the Grade 8 tests’ score accounts for 60% while the Grade 4 tests’ score accounts for 40% (Reading, Maths and Science all account for equal weights).

Pearson table

 So, the PISA reading and Maths scores combined, where the UK is weakest, only account for 20% of a country’s ranking, and PISA science another 6.7%. But because PIRLS and TIMSS are available at Grade 4 and Grade 8, they will be worth 26.7% for the Grade 4 and 13.3% for the Grade 8, a total of 40%. The HE and adult literacy scores are worth a further 33.3% between them.

Perhaps a bigger issue than the rankings is what the tables do not reveal about education in the UK, particularly the absence of any measure in the Pearson/EIU table of the attainment gap or of social mobility. One recent OECD report, for example, said that only Russia and the Czech Republic had a more socially segregated schools system.

The big gaps in attainment between pupils on free school meals and their peers in GCSEs are another important indicator – other countries have narrower gaps in attainment, as we demonstrated at our social mobility summit in May.

And the rankings should also look at how well countries perform with their most able students. Sutton Trust analysis earlier this year showed that, in maths, just 1.7% of 15-year-olds attained the very highest PISA level (level 6), compared with an OECD average of 3.1%, placing England 26th out of 34 countries.

The new index is an important step forward in consolidating international data. But any such league table is dependent on the quality and range of inputs. As the Economist Intelligence Unit and Pearson develop the index, they should consider adding measures of mobility and the achievements of the most able to give a fuller picture of the success of national education systems.

This posting first appeared at the Sutton Trust blog. It was also quoted by Anne McElvoy on the Economist Blighty blog.

Friday 16 November 2012

Making the pupil premium go further

I've written this piece in my capacity as Director of Research and Communications for the Sutton Trust for the first edition of Teaching Leaders Quarterly:
Times are tough in schools, as across the public sector. But there is one element of the school budget that is growing, and is set to grow further. The pupil premium, worth £600 this year, is set to rise to £900 next year and could reach £1200 per pupil by 2015, the year of the next election. The average school receives £53,000 this year, and more than 2800 receive more than £100,000. The challenge for school leaders is in how to use that money where it will have most impact.
The premium was created by the Government to narrow the attainment gap between pupils in receipt of free school meals and their schoolmates, and to encourage successful schools to take more disadvantaged pupils. Although previous governments have provided extra resources for such pupils through extra funding to local authorities with high levels of poverty, this is the first grant that is paid to schools for each disadvantaged pupil, regardless of where the school is located.
There is certainly a real issue. England has one of the most divided education systems in the developed world.  Recent research has shown that our schools are among the most segregated in the OECD. According to Department for Education statistics, only 35 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2011 compared to 62 per cent of all other pupils. At the end of primary school, 58 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level in both English and mathematics in 2011, compared with 78 per cent of all other pupils. The premium is intended to narrow those gaps, which despite some small improvements, have remained stubbornly large over recent years.
Moreover, England is relatively unusual in having a gap that widens after the start of secondary school. The Government has not ring-fenced the pupil premium money, although schools are now expected to publish details of their pupil premium spending on their websites. The attainment of pupils in receipt of the premium will also be included in the league tables.
Nevertheless, with many budgets frozen, it can be tempting for school leaders to try to focus spending on simply maintaining or expanding staff numbers. And it is here that school leaders, including middle leaders heading teaching departments, have a particularly important role.

The National Foundation for Education Research, in a
survey of 1700 teachers in 1200 English schools for the Sutton Trust earlier this year, showed that little of the pupil premium allocation for 2012-13 – a sum worth £1.25 billion in total – was likely to be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment.
Eight per cent of teachers said the money would offset other budget cuts. 28 per cent said it would either be used to employ new staff or cut class sizes. A further 28 per cent didn’t know how the money would be used.
A more recent survey of 260 school leaders for Ofsted found that only one in ten school leaders said that the pupil premium had significantly changed the way that they supported pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. School leaders commonly told inspectors that they were using the funding to maintain or enhance existing provision rather than to put in place new initiatives. The most common use was to pay for teaching assistants.
Yet the evidence shows that simply employing more teachers or assistants, and deploying them as they have been deployed in the past, is a costly but relatively ineffective way of boosting attainment. Researchers at Durham University assessed 21 different interventions for both impact on attainment and relative cost and helped the Sutton Trust to create a toolkit which a growing number of schools are using to set priorities for the premium. The toolkit will be updated and expanded by our sister organisation, the Education Endowment Foundation, in 2013.
The Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit shows that there are three strategies that schools can undertake with a high impact at relatively low cost. Using evidence from here and abroad, they calculate that each of these strategies can provide the equivalent of between six and nine months extra learning, at a cost of around £170 per pupil.
The single most cost-effective strategy identified is improving feedback from teachers to pupils. Providing effective feedback is challenging, but it is important that it is provided well. Research suggests that it should be specific, accurate and clear – in other words, provide an explanation as well as a judgement. It should compare what the student is doing now with what they were previously doing. It should encourage and support further effort, but it should also be given sparingly so that it is meaningful as too much feedback can stop learners working out what they need to do for themselves. Importantly, It should provide specific guidance on how pupils can improve.

Ensuring that feedback is consistently and effectively provided is not a cost-free exercise, but with regular professional development, it is estimated that it would cost £2000-£5000 a year per teacher, or as little as £170 per pupil.
The second most effective approach is what the academics call ‘meta-cognition’, or programmes that teach pupils strategies to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning. This is often referred to in schools as ‘learning to learn’. These strategies involve students being aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a learner, being able to set and monitor goals and having strategies to choose from or switch to during learning activities.

The Toolkit recognises that this is not always easy. A teacher can support pupils’ work too much, so that they do not learn to manage their own learning but rely too much on their teacher’s prompts. The Toolkit suggests that a useful metaphor is scaffolding: you remove the support and dismantle the scaffolding to check that learners are managing their own learning well.

The third approach that is seen as having high impact at low cost is peer tutoring in Maths and English. This can take a number of different forms. In cross-age tutoring, an older pupil tutors a younger schoolmate. The EEF is piloting a project based at Durham University involving ten year-olds acting as tutors in maths for eight year-olds.
Peer-Assisted Learning is a structured approach for mathematics and reading with session of 25-35 minutes two or three times a week. Reciprocal Peer Tutoring sees pupils tutor and be taught by their classmates. The common characteristic is that learners take on responsibility for aspects of teaching and for evaluating their success.
These proven approaches are worth considering by schools as a way of making the pupil premium go far. By contrast, the evidence suggests that, as they are currently deployed, employing extra teaching assistants produces little impact, despite the relatively high cost, and that reducing class sizes could produce learning gains equivalent to three months, but at a much higher cost of £1000-£1200 per pupil on average.

Behind all these approaches is the recognition that at the heart of school improvement lies good teaching – how teachers do their job in the classroom, and how they enable pupils to learn effectively. Strategies focused on improving teaching feature much more highly in the Toolkit than structural changes like block scheduling or ability grouping. Nobody would argue that this is a novel insight. But it now has the benefit of being backed up by all the best international evidence.
Research for the Sutton Trust by leading UK and US academics has shown that English schools could move into the world’s top five education performers within a decade if the performance of the least effective tenth of teachers were brought up just to the average.
For middle leaders that is as much an in-school challenge as one between schools. Variations in teaching quality within schools are often greater than those between schools. So, a strong focus across all teachers on proven teaching and learning strategies could pay real dividends in how much pupils learn and on their results.
Traditionally in Britain there has been too little connection between research and the classroom. Too much research has felt remote from classroom life, and too many teachers have been unaware of the latest research where it could improve their teaching. The Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit makes research accessible as never before, and provides leaders with the tools to make the most of limited resources.
When the NFER asked teachers how their school decided which approaches and programmes to adopt to improve pupils’ learning, only 36 per cent of teachers said their school looked at research evidence on the impact of different approaches and programmes.
The Toolkit is recognised by the National Association of Head Teachers, the Department for Education and Ofsted as a good resource for schools in deciding how to spend the pupil premium. Employing its insights could ensure that the premium pays real dividends in the classroom – and for your less advantaged pupils.

Friday 9 November 2012

Valuing the vocational

I've written this post for the Sutton Trust blog

This week, the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee called for apprenticeships to be seen as equal to study at university.

As the Committee noted in a hard-hitting report, the problem under successive governments has been a focus on the quantity of qualifications rather than their quality. Many of the old Train to Gain qualifications were effortlessly rebranded as apprenticeships. This has fed an attitude in England that sees the vocational as inferior.

In their report, the MPs argue: “There remains an underlying assumption that vocational training is only for those unable to take an academic route. This is wrong and must be changed.”

They make a host of practical suggestions, including giving the academic and the vocational route equal prominence in careers advice, as well as useful reforms to the apprenticeship system.

But the problem is surely rather more fundamental in Britain. Vocational education is too often seen not only as something for those with few GCSEs, but also treated in a narrow sense that owes more to the world of 50 years ago than Britain today.

Yet a true vocational system should be about preparing people not only for crafts and trades, but for careers in business and the professions. Martin Doel, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, argued in an Institute for Public Policy Research pamphlet last year that we should create a master craftsmen role – akin to the German meister – in the UK apprenticeship programme, something that would certainly help to change perceptions.

Indeed, in Germany, apprenticeships are not simply seen as being as good as a university education; in many careers they are seen as superior.

There are two important aspects to the German system that set it apart. The first is that it has a long tradition of very high standards policed by business and the professions in a way that the Sector Skills Councils have never really been able to emulate here.

The second - more troubling aspect for some - is that they depend very heavily on a system of licensing that appears anathema in our more open economy. As Bagehot in the Economist has put it: “The bedrock of Germany's apprenticeship system is corporatism and restricted practice.”

In his speech to the Sutton Trust social mobility summit last May, the opposition leader Ed Miliband first introduced his ideas of the ‘forgotten 50%’ – those young people who don’t go to university, but for whom learning a trade or a craft used to be a strong vehicle for social mobility. He said:

“I also want to challenge some of the assumptions about social mobility. A few months ago I met a group of apprentices working at Jaguar Land Rover. They told me how lucky they felt to be working on racing car prototypes. They had found a path into a really exciting job. One where they would be trained, stretched and expected to make use of their talent.

“They were at the beginning of a career.  One which will lead to better wages, better prospects and a better life than perhaps their parents had. But they told me they felt they were the lucky few…In Germany, middle-class parents boast about their kids doing great apprenticeships. But in Britain, too often people think that if they don’t go to university, they are written off by society.”

Ed Miliband was right to say that social mobility must be about more than a good university education for those who should be able to benefit from it. It should also be about ambitious apprenticeships, top-class technical education and pre-eminent professional training.

That is why the Sutton Trust will be working with the Boston Consulting Group in the months ahead to investigate whether there are lessons we can learn from abroad that have an application here.

Of course, we will look at Germany. But, while the strengths in quality of German vocational education may well outweigh its corporatism, we accept that many aspects of a German system with a tradition that stretches back to Bismarck may not be so easy to import.

So we will also look at Singapore, a country with a similar exam system to Britain that has revamped its poorly regarded vocational system since 1992 through the creation of the Institute for Technical Education (ITE). According to the OECD, the ITE has transformed the content, quality and image of vocational education. Enrolment has doubled and ITE students now constitute about 25% of the post-secondary cohort. Pay levels and job prospects for ITE graduates are also strong.

We’ll keep you posted on what we learn.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Making the pupil premium go further

Most schools face standstill budgets, or real terms cuts. But some of the school budget is growing, and will grow further. The pupil premium, worth £600 this year, rises to £900 next year and could reach £1200 per pupil by 2015. The challenge for schools is how to use that money where it will have most impact – and there is a case for incentivising effective practice.

The pupil premium was part of both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos. It had two important roles: firstly, to narrow the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their classmates, and secondly, to encourage successful schools to take more disadvantaged pupils.

Previous governments have provided extra resources for such pupils through extra funding to local authorities with high levels of poverty. Nevertheless, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that pre-premium extra funding in the system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools. And that has had variable impact.

But this is the first grant paid to schools for each disadvantaged pupil, regardless of where the school is located. The Government decided against ring-fencing the premium, relying instead on schools publishing details of spending on their websites and extra league table measures.

But there is mounting evidence that the premium is not being used as intended (nor is there any evidence that is changing admissions behaviour). Ofsted reported last month that often schools did not disaggregate the pupil premium from their main budget, and said that the funding was often used to maintain or enhance existing provision.

The National Foundation for Education Research, in a survey of 1700 teachers in 1200 English schools for the Sutton Trust earlier this year, showed that little of the pupil premium allocation for 2012-13 – a sum worth £1.25 billion in total – was likely to be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment. Many would spend it on staff rather than improving teaching.

But there is evidence of the most cost effective approaches to improving standards. Researchers at Durham University assessed 21 different interventions for both impact on attainment and relative cost and helped the Sutton Trust to create a toolkit which a growing number of schools are using priorities for the premium. The toolkit will be updated and expanded by our sister organisation, the Education Endowment Foundation, in 2013.

The Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit shows that there are three strategies that schools can undertake with a high impact at relatively low cost. Using evidence from here and abroad, they calculate that each of these strategies can provide the equivalent of between six and nine months extra learning, at a cost of around £170 per pupil.

The single most effective strategy is improved pupil feedback, which should be an important part of a school’s drive to boost the quality of teaching and learning. Other low cost proven methods include teaching pupils to learn effectively and peer tutoring, where young people help each other to learn.

Of course, a growing number of schools are already turning to the Toolkit for ideas, and a new version will be online early next year. However, there is surely a case for the Government to help give proven ideas a further boost.

As the size of the pupil premium pot grows, why not use some of it to match fund schools’ spending on proven strategies? It is not as if the Government is opposed to ring-fencing any of the premium; Nick Clegg has used it to fund summer catch-up schools.

So, why not have a pot which schools where schools could double a proportion of their premium provided they spent it on a menu of proven activities? With a little extra incentive, ministers might find that the pupil premium went a lot further.

This post also appears at the Sutton Trust blog.

Monday 3 September 2012

Do Gove's changes add up?

I've written this column for the September edition of Public Finance magazine:

There’s little that Michael Gove and his advisers like more than crunching numbers. The education secretary is very proud of the mountains of data, previously shared only with schools, that are now publicly available.

So, the figures for academies and free schools appear encouraging. By July, 1,590 English schools – mostly successful secondaries – had chosen greater independence as academies. Another 540 will convert this term, making more than half of England’s 3,200 secondary schools academies, although just 6% of primaries.

Another 367 schools are sponsored academies, with external support, often from a school chain such as Ark or Harris, used to improve standards. Some 280 are close to approval, including 187 poorly performing primaries.

In terms of free schools – new academies sponsored by parents, teachers, charities or faith groups – 68 are opening this term, adding to the two dozen already open; 102 more are planned, some focusing on special educational needs or ‘alternative’ provision for disaffected youngsters.

But these numbers alone won’t produce better results. And this new school year will test the effectiveness of the coalition’s laissez-faire approach.

It is easier to persuade a school to convert to academy status than to transform a failing school. And while some converter academies chose independence to change their curriculum or timetable, three-quarters did so to improve their financial position and avoid budget cuts.

Nationally funded academies receive extra money for services previously provided by local authorities, often greatly exceeding their value. For secondary schools, this could add several hundred thousand pounds to their annual budget. Significantly, Gove now plans to reduce these differentials, making converting less attractive.

But he must also persuade converters to support weaker schools. Gove resisted making this a condition of their funding, so relatively few have done so. This is particularly a problem for primary schools. Some attempts to force change have attracted local opposition. A bigger obstacle is the absence of sponsors.

The big chains have focused on secondary schools. While they will sponsor a few primaries, they won’t support hundreds. Gove needs successful schools to step in, but his refusal to link such change to the extra cash has made his task harder.

His other primary problem is whether there will be enough places. The focus on free schools – some in areas with little demand for new schools – has led to a potential shortage of places for primary-age children, particularly in cities. The Department for Education gave £500m to help resolve this in April, but now estimates that 736,000 more places will be needed by 2020. Meeting this demand would cost at least £3bn extra a year.

Some schools are considering double shifts to cope. If significant numbers of children don’t have a place, the emphasis on free schools could become a political headache.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has already shifted Labour’s position from opposition to free schools to focusing new schools on meeting parental demand.

The government says its main goal is narrowing the educational gap between rich and poor pupils – poorer children perform significantly worse at GCSE and in tests at age 11 than others.

Yet without the right levers, it might fail to do so. Already, there is evidence that the pupil premium, which gives schools extra cash for pupils entitled to free school meals, is not being used where it might have most impact. A Sutton Trust study showed that 28% of teachers did not know how the cash was being used, and others were using it in ways that had little proven impact.

The government has no way to ensure that the pupil premium – which is set to absorb £2.5bn of the education budget by 2015 – is well spent or to link it to outcomes. Indeed, critics believe the premium could stand as a metaphor for the coalition’s education reforms: strong on inputs but weak on outcomes. This school year, Gove must show that his reforms can deliver results – and not just with the low-hanging fruit.

Friday 17 August 2012

The politics of playing fields

I have a small confession to make. I was the one who suggested that an independent panel should be set up to recommend which applications for playing fields should be approved and which should be rejected. The reason I did so was because such decisions are never black and white, and it made sense to involve the strongest critics in the decision-making process. So while I think he has made a serious political error, I have some sympathy for Michael Gove this morning, as he is assailed for approving five applications that the panel had rejected. But I also think the case highlights the need for far greater transparency in the whole process - and greater honesty about the issue on the part of the media.

In 1997, after thousands of playing fields had been sold off in the previous decades, Labour set a presumption against the sale of school playing fields for the first time. Schools should generally not sell off playing fields, except in circumstances where doing so would not reduce access to sport and the proceeds would be used to provide better sports facilities at the school. Around 200 applications were approved between 1997 and 2010 and in these cases such criteria were met. After 2001, the decision-making process was effectively delegated to an independent panel where critics of the sale of playing fields were included so they had to look at the reality of the issue on a case-by-case basis. The presumption against their sale was also strengthened a little.

I suggested the independent panel having spent many hours poring over the applications on behalf of ministers and discussing with officials the precise reasons for any case that they planned to recommend for acceptance. Although some such playing fields were overgrown disused patches of land, there were also cases of viable playing fields that were being sold to make major improvements in the quality of sports and other education in a school. Inevitably, however, there were strong opponents to each sale and each approval attracted widespread criticism. Hence the independent panel.

So, while I have some sympathy with Gove this morning, I think he made a major political error not accepting the recommendations of the panel. And he was also unwise to reduce restrictions on the amount of space that schools have to provide for sports. Remarkably, since the panel was established, there has been virtually no controversy about the sale of playing fields. Fields in Trust - as the National Playing Fields Association is now called - sits alongside representatives of headteachers and local authorities to act as an independent and fair-minded jury on each case. By overruling the panel, however justified he may have felt he was in the individual cases, he has re-politicised a process that had effectively been de-politicised. More importantly, the publicity around today's story may have made it that much harder for the panel to take genuinely independent decisions.

There is one aspect to the panel's workings that should change, however. They should have to publish their decisions on a regular basis. The Telegraph claims this morning that these are not made public. When I suggested the panel, I certainly assumed that their decisions and membership would be made public. There is no justification for this not being the case, as happens with the Schools Adjudicator on admissions, for example. That said, there must still be occasions - not many, it is true - when it is in the greater interest of pupils to sell a playing field to provide superior sporting facilities than it is for that land to remain largely unused. To their credit, Fields in Trust, through their participation in this process, recognised that reality. Others should too.

John Rentoul quoted from this post in his Independent on Sunday column.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Autumn challenges for Clegg and Miliband

As he contemplates the next parliamentary year from the comfort of his Spanish holiday, the Deputy Prime Minister will have plenty of time to consider the perils of coalition. With a stand-off between Nick Clegg and David Cameron over constitutional reform, it is becoming increasingly clear how little the Liberal Democrats have gained from being in power with the Conservatives.

There are two reasons why this is so. First, Clegg failed to secure unconditional support for key policies from Cameron. He won a referendum on the alternative vote, but had no guarantees that his position would not be trashed by his coalition colleagues. Instead of just having a referendum, he should have made boundary changes conditional on AV being passed, and put both on the ballot. Now, rather belatedly, he has chosen to link the constituency carve-up to the failure to get Lords reform through. It looks petulant done this way, and does Clegg few favours in the eyes of voters.

But the second failing was not to insist that the Conservative Parliamentary Party be asked to endorse the coalition agreement in the same way that Clegg gained the support of his Liberal Democrat colleagues. This has allowed many Tories to take a pick-and-mix approach to its measures. This was, of course, as much Cameron's failure rather than Clegg's, but it was a weakness of the whole arrangement.

Of course, a bigger problem for Clegg is that on measures where his party gained seats, notably tuition fees, he has accepted a position the exact opposite to that which he argued for during the election. The concessions on repayment thresholds may make the loans more attractive to some, but have made the finances of higher education less sustainable. Clegg would have been better insisting on a lower cap on fees which might have appeared less daunting to potential students in the future.

Where the Lib Dems claim some credit for policies delivered - the pupil premium and a higher tax threshold - it can plausibly be argued that they are delivering policies that most Tories willingly embrace. The pupil premium also featured in the Conservative manifesto. But. so far, its failure to link with a national funding formula and to recalibrate the much higher premium inherited from Labour, means that it is often being used to mitigate cuts elsewhere in the budget rather than for proven measures that could tackle achievement and aspirations among target students.

If he is to regain some of the credibility he enjoyed before the last election, Clegg needs to be ready to revisit the coalition agreement in the autumn, and establish some key priorities for the second phase of the government, some of which should reflect the reality that George Osborne's economic policies are not working as intended. Top of the list should be a serious investment package in national infrastructure, one that starts to have a real impact on the economy, and a stimulus to service industries that pump money directly into the UK economy, perhaps through targeted VAT reductions for tourism-related industries or a strong incentive package to boost UK education. He should also try to put a halt in both cases to the Home Office's unstinting efforts to deter tourists and students from spending their money in Britain.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has benefited from the coalition's woes, but still lacks a strong enough policy on the economy and taxation. His challenge for the autumn is to put flesh on a policy that goes further than heckling 'I told you so' at the Chancellor. Ed Balls has argued for VAT cuts, but they need to be targeted on services and industries that are largely home-grown if they are to improve growth, not add to the trade deficit. Stella Creasy has rightly argued for a wholesale bottom up review of all public spending, with value for money at the heart of it. And the focus on any extra investment must be on infrastructure - both small-scale, such as restoring individual school capital budgets, and large-scale, including sorting out London's airports. Miliband has gained stature in the last year: this autumn is the time he needs to translate that into economic credibility.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

My new role at the Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust has issued this press release this morning. I very much look forward to starting in my new role in September.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, has today announced new senior appointments to the Trust, which improves social mobility through education and provides educational opportunities for non-privileged children.

Conor Ryan will be the Trust’s new Director of Research and Communications, starting in early September. 

Conor was senior education adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2005-2007 and was David Blunkett’s special adviser from 1993-2001, covering both policy and media relations in government and opposition for the Education and Employment Secretary. He has also worked as a senior local government press officer in London in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Conor has been an independent writer and consultant since 2007, working with many national education organisations, including the Sutton Trust. He has written or edited reports for the Social Market Foundation, Centreforum and other think tanks. He has also written extensively for the national media in the UK and Ireland.

Dr Lee Elliot Major will be the Trust’s new Director, Development and Policy. Lee has led the Sutton Trust’s research work for the last 6 years, overseeing highly influential reports on social mobility and education policy. He is a trustee of the Education Endowment Foundation, and chairs its evaluation advisory group. Lee has served on a number of Government advisory bodies on social mobility and education. He was previously an education journalist, working for the Guardian and Times Higher Education Supplement.

James Turner will be Director, Projects and Partnerships, continuing with his current role and taking on responsibility for partnerships with Trusts and Foundations.  James has been at the Trust for 8 years, starting as a research analyst.  He managed the establishment of the Education Endowment Foundation by the Sutton Trust and served as its interim CEO.  James is now one of the EEF’s trustees and also sits on the board of a number of Trust-funded projects. 

Sir Peter Lampl said today: “These new appointments will strengthen the work of the Sutton Trust at a time when social mobility is the number one social issue in this country. I am delighted that Conor is joining us and that Lee and James are taking on major new responsibilities in the year that sees the Trust celebrate its 15th anniversary.”

The Sutton Trust was founded in 1997 by Sir Peter Lampl with the aim of providing educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds and improving social mobility through education. The Trust and its partners have committed over £40 million to educational projects helping hundreds of thousands of students, as well as commissioning over 100 research studies. Last year, the Government awarded £125 million to the Trust as the lead charity in partnership with Impetus Trust, to establish the Education Endowment Foundation to boost the attainment of the country's most disadvantaged children.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Will this secondary shake-up boost standards for all?

Today's Daily Mail splash on the future of GCSEs, the national curriculum, league tables and exam boards has the air of a brainstorm session at Sanctuary Buildings that has been released before being fully thought through. Nothing wrong with that, if Michael Gove spends some time thinking through all the implications of what he is proposing. But he needs to be careful that his proposals don't end up undermining a wider drive to raise standards for all.

There are some perfectly good ideas in what appears to be being considered. It makes perfect sense to have a single exam board for each exam. The effect, of course, will be to have a single syllabus in these subjects. Which makes the supposed removal of the national curriculum from secondary schools rather less radical than is being suggested: indeed it would ensure that academies and free schools work to a single syllabus. Lord Baker is right to argue that it is as important that technical subjects are examined at a high standard as well as Gove's favoured subjects like history and geography.

The second question concerns the proposal of splitting the GCSE into a CSE and O-level exam. There is a seductive sense to this idea if you believe that the only impact of GCSEs has been a 'dumbing down'. But this is a tabloid caricature. It is perfectly fair to feel that there needs to be more rigour involved in getting an A grade, but that doesn't mean writing off thousands of youngsters who could today strive for a C. There is a terrible canard in the notion that the use of the 5 A-C benchmark itself denies ambition: in fact, a C is worth far more to a child than a D when talking to employers, and the existence of the benchmark has led many schools to push such pupils towards a grade they can achieve in a way that the average point score would not necessarily do.

But there is a good argument for saying that achieving an A grade should be really demanding. With a single syllabus there is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a single exam, particularly since Gove wants to move back to linear testing at the end of two years. That is not to say there is no place for more practical exams in English, Maths and Science. Such tests should be available, however, at GCSE standard of level 2 as well as the less demanding level 1, and less 'academically -minded' students should not merely be expected to achieve level 1. It would be a serious and terribly retrograde step to move in this direction, and Gove will find that it could have as serious an impact as Labour's scrapping of an expectation that all schools study languages through to 16.

This raises the issue of league tables and floor targets. And it is here that Gove could be making his biggest mistake. The big improvements in London and by academies over the last decade have been spurred in part by ever-more ambitious floor targets based on the 5 GCSE standard. It is a realistic but relatively demanding ambition for schools to expect a majority of their pupils to reach this level, and Gove has sharply increased the demand of the floor targets. Of course, one could set a target based on the average point score, but this could have the perverse effect of lowering expectations in terms of breadth. And since there is no longer a strong incentive to use high GCSE vocational alternatives, the main concern here has been addressed. By all means publish a 5A target alongside this, though in truth the EBacc is becoming the more rigorous target here.

Gove has time to get this right. More rigorous GCSEs, particularly for top achievers, do not have to place a cap on ambition for many other students. More practical business-focused English and Maths tests should not themselves be set unambitiously. And Gove should not throw away one of the most effective drivers of improve standards for many schools in the process.

Monday 18 June 2012

Freedom, what freedom?

I recognise quite a lot of what was in the English and Maths curriculum materials issued by the Department for Education last week. They bore an uncanny resemblance to the documents that accompanied David Blunkett's national literacy and numeracy strategies in the late 90s. The expectations on spelling, grammar and punctuation were all there, as was a focus on mental arithmetic and times tables. So, the nonsense in the Tory press about this being the first time since the 1950s that schools had such expectations suggested that they were being even lazier than usual in accepting the line being spun by Michael Gove's spinners.

So far as I can see, all that is really new is that children, bizarrely in a decimal age, will have to learn their 12 times tables in case Britain abandons decimal currency in sympathy with a Greek return to the Drachma.

Equally, today's focus on synthetic phonics is not new either. Phonics were a part of the literacy strategy too, but the specific focus on synthetic phonics gained traction with Sir Jim Rose's report in 2005. This, too, was for a Labour government, for the benefit of confused Tory columnists. However, we didn't, it is true have the phonics screening check which seems to having some bizarre requirements.

So, I welcome quite a lot of this renewed rigour in the primary curriculum. I also think that most primary schools have been doing quite a lot of this, at least since the late 90s.

But I can't for the life of me see how it fits in with the philosophy of a government that insists it will set schools free. Is it any wonder that several members of the curriculum review have quit in the confusion?

Thursday 31 May 2012

Why is this man being allowed to preside over the wilful destruction of a major British export industry?

Imagine, if you will, a Government in the midst of a recession that chooses to insult investors who bring £8 billion a year into the UK economy. And it does so purely for reasons of ideology and prejudice, with little regard for the economic consequences. Such an approach would surely be the subject of widespread ridicule, and the minister responsible given the opportunity to spend a little more time with their constituents and their backbench colleagues.

That is precisely what is happening to our universities and colleges, as they strive to compete with Australia, Canada and the US for the brightest and best students in the world. This week, nearly 70 university chancellors have written to the David Cameron urging him to back UK universities in their efforts to recruit genuine international students. What other major export industry would have to go on bended knees to beg the PM's backing?

Yet the coalition's ill-considered immigration policy is turning students away. Already numbers from India have fallen, and other major countries are likely to turn elsewhere unless they see Britain welcoming international students rather than treating them like pariahs. Essentially the problem is this: the coalition is committed to reducing net migration at a time when the number of Britons migrating is falling. There are already strict controls on overseas workers, so the only way to achieve this is to cut student numbers.

Yet as the universities point out in their letter:
In an age of increasing global mobility, the number of individuals considering a university education abroad is growing rapidly. In this market for talent – and export income – the UK performs exceptionally well, with 9.9% of the total market share in 2009, and export earnings of £7.9 billion. International students also play an important role in towns and cities up and down the country, and contribute significantly to local economies. There is a clear opportunity to build on this success, with forecasts suggesting that export earnings from this activity could more than double by 2025.

Since the formation of the coalition, the Home Office has tried to cut immigration to the UK in several ways. It was perfectly reasonable to clamp down on 450 bogus colleges and prevent them from sponsoring students.The Border Agency claims that this has meant 11,000 fewer bogus students coming to the UK. At the same time, universities and colleges are licensed as Highly Trusted Sponsors to admit overseas students and must take responsibility that students will turn up to and attend courses, and that they are legitimate. Institutions that fail in this quickly lose their status, so they have a strong incentive to do so. It is not always easy, as the wholly inept Border Agency is often behind on the paperwork, but it makes some sense. 

What makes no sense is keeping students within the net migration figures: it is like capping manufacturing exports or saying we have enough tourists this year, thanks.

Moreover, the impression from outside is not that there is a sensible balance being struck between recruiting legitimate students and barring bogus ones. Rather it is that an increasingly zealous minister at the Home Office, Damian Green, the man most responsible for the chaos at the borders last month, seems hell bent on discouraging students from coming here in the first place. The Home Office has dusted down all its old wheezes and finally found a willing buyer in the once moderate and mild-mannered Kent MP. As a result, an £8 billion export industry is playing second fiddle to their fantasy targets. So much so that Green told a Policy Exchange event in February that

there is scope for further examination of whether and to what extent foreign student tuition fees boost the UK economy and, crucially, how UK residents ultimately benefit from that. 

Universities UK has argued that the total ‘export earnings’ of higher education, including tuition fees and spending by non-UK students, could grow from £7.9bn in 2009 to £16.9bn in 2025 with the right policy environment.Its research also highlighted the extent of growth in Indian postgraduates, as well as higher international student mobility from China, the Middle East and Nigeria. A recent IPPR report has calculated that current Government targets could see losses of up to £3bn a year from students: in truth it could be a lot higher if the Green message reaches those growing markets. Moreover, these students are not just an invisible export, as the IPPR adds

The difference in terms of the dynamic contribution to the economy over 20 years, in terms of losing so many young, highly qualified and motivated migrants is hard to calculate, but would likely be very large.

It is time for David Cameron to take a decisive stance on this issue, and to back British higher education. If he wants a simple solution, he could start by emulating the Australians - one of our big competitors for East Asian, Indian and Chinese students by treating students differently in the statistics. The IPPR explains:

Australia keeps a record of international students in its estimates of total net overseas migration (NOM), but these fall within the ‘temporary’ category (alongside business long-stay migrants, working holidaymakers and long-term visitors) and there are few formal caps on these numbers, although the government is able to exert some control through policy, such as by raising English language requirements.

Then he should borrow another idea from Tony Blair, and launch a major Downing Street campaign actively to promote UK higher education in overseas markets. The message should be that Britain welcomes international students - and he should show that his government means it.

Monday 14 May 2012

Clegg's premium needs a harder edge to succeed

Last week Nick Clegg renewed his coalition marriage vows with David Cameron at a tractor factor in Essex. Today, the Deputy Prime Minister has reaffirmed his faith in the pupil premium as a great engine of social mobility, at a primary academy is Islington. Nobody could seriously oppose the pupil premium - indeed, it was as much part of the Conservatives' 2010 manifesto as it was that of the Liberal Democrats - but one can reasonably ask how much difference it will really make.

The pupil premium was supposed to rise to as much as £2500 per pupil by 2015, though changes to its calculation and topslicing mean it will probably be nearer £1200 - there will only be £2.5bn available in the last year of this Parliament and £1.25bn is being spent when it is only £600 in the next school year. Yet, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, 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. And there are still huge variations in performance between them. As Clegg himself pointed out in his speech,  

There are now 440 secondary schools - one in five - where disadvantaged pupils are doing better in their GCSEs than the national average for all children.

What that suggests is that they perform worse in four in five schools, despite their existing £2000-£3000 premium. Clegg has sort of recognised that a big problem with the premium is the lack of levers to ensure that schools use it to improve teaching for disadvantaged youngsters. So he has announced details of summer school funding and a sponsored competition for the best ideas on using the new premium. Summer schools were an idea of David Blunkett's first year in government - indeed they may even have been his first initiative - and while they had some positive results, they were no panacea. The contest may spur some good ideas, but it is still likely to leave most schools using the premium to plug the gaps left by the Government's cuts in the rest of the school budgets: again, the IFS has shown that around three-quarters of primary schools and 90% of secondary schools are seeing real terms cuts, though with lower salary inflation, the figure falls to 55% of primaries and 70% of secondaries. An NAHT survey recently found similar concerns.

Clegg says that Ofsted will be reporting on how the pupil premium is used. But unless there is a link between the premium and some narrowing of the gap in Key Stage 2 or GCSE results for poorer pupils (with no loss of performance at the top end) then the pupil premium is unlikely to achieve much at all in the majority of schools and for most disadvantaged pupils. The Government already publishes a lot of this data: why not say that a significant proportion of the premium after three years is dependent on better results for those from poorer backgrounds? The premium needs such a harder edge if it is to succeed.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Clegg should demand real investment for renewing those vows

With Francois Hollande elected in France and Labour's modest triumph in the council polls, it is hardly surprising that David Cameron and Nick Clegg feel the need to renew the vows they exchanged in the shotgun wedding of 2010. But whether they should stick to the letter of the pre-nup that they signed on that fateful day is another matter. The economy desperately needs investment, and the government badly needs a sense of purpose. There are few signs that either are planned. And that reflects a failure of imagination by Nick Clegg and his improbably sidekick Danny Alexander.

The Budget was not just a disaster for the Tories, countering George Osborne's smugness with its extraordinary collection of crowd-displeasers. It was also a failure for Nick Clegg, because he failed to persuade his coalition partners that cutting the 50p tax rate at a time when the country (and Europe) has entered into a populist anti-rich rage might not be the best idea, just at the moment.

But then despite the hype there is little sign that the Liberal Democrats have gained much beyond becoming a punching bag for liberal initiatives already favoured by Cameroon reforms, such as gay marriage or even Lords reform. The Lib Dems have failed utterly to promote the sort of infrastructural investment that might move the economy from Osborne's recession into lasting growth. School building has been slashed. House building is a combination of anti-Labour spin and coalition inaction. The high speed rail will take years to materialise and Heathrow is chaotic not just because of Teresa May's passport panic, but because there is nowhere for the planes to land half the time. High speed broadband seems a distant dream, especially with BT involved.

We have seen that infrastructure can be delivered on budget and on time with the Olympic stadium. And I have no quibble with efforts to get better value for money than Labour in public building projects. But there is simply not enough action on providing the major infrastructural investment that could give the economy the kickstart it needs, boosting demand and jobs, and ensuring more people pay taxes rather than draw benefits. Rather than fighting plans for an extra £10bn cut in welfare budgets, Clegg should be seeking to cut the budget by getting people into real jobs. At present, all that's on offer is the dubious rebadging exercise known as the Youth Contract.

Within months, Europe including Germany will recognise - in part because of what's happening in France and Greece - that it needs a better balance between austerity and growth, and that investment projects are needed for the latter. The US under Barack Obama has recognised that, as has the IMF and OECD in its advice to member nations. This is not about cutting day-to-day spending, which will have to continue, though Osborne always underestimated its knock-on impact on private sector services, but about medium to long-term investments that will have a return.

So, rather than whining about Lords Reform, Clegg and his colleagues should force the investment issue with a real determination: new rail, schools, housing, airports. If he focused on that rather than the dubious achievements that he cites for his role in Government to date, the voters might even notice. By the same token, Labour should switch its arguments from the speed of the spending cuts to a ceaseless demand for more capital investment, with a strong critque of the government's enduring incompetence and inability to deliver. It too might find that a successful formula to consolidate and advance on Thursday's success.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

What lies behind the claims of dumbed down exams?

The exams regulator, Ofqual, has inherited a programme of exam standards reviews that were introduced in 1997 with the support of both the outgoing Conservative and incoming Labour governments. Yesterday, they produced a veritable collection of these reports that were duly spun to a grateful media as confirmation of a concerted dumbing down drive over the last decade.

I decided to look more closely at what Ofqual actually said. And what it does say poses rather more interesting questions than the critics would care to ask.

  • There has been a move away from essays towards multiple choice questions on some papers. In other words, a move away from analysis towards testing knowledge of facts. Now, in many ways, I happen to agree that this is a retrograde step. But isn't the tenor of what the Government has been saying that we need more facts and fewer skills. Won't the result be that we move towards more multiple choice questions like this and fewer 'more demanding' essay style questions? 
  • A big complaint of the dumbing down brigade on science was directed at an effort to make the subject more relevant and interesting at GCSE through 'How Science Works'. Fascinatingly, Ofqual tells us that in GCSE Biology "this change did not affect the demand of the qualification overall." and in Chemistry it even made it more demanding. (Earlier reports on physics and on general science had been very critical in 2009)
  • In GCSE maths, the big change that made a difference was moving from a three-tier to a two-tier qualification, set at intermediate and higher levels. But the problem with tiered papers is that teachers can under-estimate a student's ability and enter them at a tier where they cannot excel. Tiering can be an enemy of aspiration, in other words. The problem when the tiers are removed is that the exam boards reduce demand. There must be a better way to do this that measures true attainment without capping aspiration. That has always been the policy goal.
  • In several courses, OCR seems to have been more demanding than AQA, once again showing the perverse effects of having competing examination boards for the same subjects.
  • Reviewers judged A2 Geography to be less demanding because of the removal of the coursework element. Coursework - typically a 4,000-word investigation - was an effective way to assess skills by, for example undertaking and reporting on investigative fieldwork
So, let's be clear of the implications:
  • First, coursework has been removed or reduced because of concerns over cheating, and the extent to which it can be manipulated by parents or helped by teachers. It is often set now under supervised classroom conditions. But it is not a synoptic assessment in a high stakes exam setting. So, a way must be found to allow for such investigations in ways that avoid cheating.
  • Second, competition between exam boards, far from promoting 'innovation' seems to provide schools with easier options. Ofqual has set its face against moving towards a national exam board for A levels and GCSEs. But shouldn't it think again?
  • Third, we clearly need fewer multiple choice questions and more essay-style questions. That does mean more markers and more expensive exams. It also means more time devoted to learning the skills of essay writing and research. All to the good. But it needs a Secretary of State who is clear that he sees this as being as important as acquiring facts.
  • Fourth, there is not necessarily a tension between making science more relevant and maintaining standards (provided it isn't accompanied by lots more multiple choice questions).
  • Fifth, the system of reviewing standards over time seems to work. And it has existed now for 15 years.

It's always helpful to have a little context.

Friday 27 April 2012

When is a minister responsible for his SpAd?

The hand that shoved Adam Smith out of the culture department this week wasn't all that invisible. Whether or not Jeremy Hunt's erstwhile special adviser volunteered to take the whole blame for providing endless updates to the News Corporation lobbyist Fred Michel is almost beside the point. That the Culture Secretary accepted that he should take the whole blame for clearly inappropriate revelations is more important and revealing about a minister who is more usually presented as a gallant nice guy.

Of course, the special adviser should never become the story. Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan both had to go when they were doing so (though their respective contributions to the Labour government were of a very different quality) as did Jo Moore after her 9/11 email. But this case seems different. Jeremy Hunt has been an avowed cheerleader for News International. He has made no secret of the fact. There is no question that he will have been sympathetic to Murdoch's BSkyB bid, though I am sure equally that he would have wanted to be seen to be judging it with the impartiality that his office requires. So, he could never talk directly to Murdoch's people. Yet he may have felt that his special adviser could keep them informed through a discreet back channel without it ever being revealed.

It was just unfortunate that the whole Levenson business came along and the internal emails of the Murdoch empire were forced into the public domain. Otherwise, how would we have known? We can be quite sure that there are no emails from Hunt to Smith or Smith to Michel, at least on DCMS servers. Jeremy Hunt is not an idiot and nobody would be so silly with today's Freedom of Information rules. So Hunt's volunteering of his emails to his adviser is a pointless charade. But discreet phone calls or face-to-face conversations would not be recorded and would not have to be revealed in any pesky FoI requests.

In truth, we will have no way of knowing for sure whether Smith was acting like an improbable lone ranger on a solo mission to keep Murdoch's man in the loop or whether he was doing his master's bidding. What we do know is that his minister should explicitly be held responsible under David Cameron's ministerial code for what his special adviser did.

The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment. Individual Ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.

And since we also have Hunt's word that Smith is 'someone of integrity and decency' who simply 'overstepped the mark', this begs the question as to what he was asked to do, and by whom? Clearly the Permanent Secretary didn't approve any back door communications with News International, as his refusal to answer the question yesterday demonstrated. So, at some stage, the minister must have said or indicated to his adviser that he should do so, even if he left it to Smith to decide how much to reveal. That is the difference between 'overstepping the mark' and 'going rogue'.

Of course, there may well be times when a special adviser doesn't keep their minister informed of every conversation they have. And indeed it would have been prudent not to have done so in this case, given the impartiality required of the Secretary of State. But that doesn't mean that there was no initial agreement - tacit or otherwise - that the special adviser would keep the back door open. And if there was such an agreement, it was wholly improper, and the code makes it the responsibility of the minister.

So, it is simply unacceptable for David Cameron to try to sweep the whole thing under the Levenson carpet. He needs at the very least a speedy adjudication by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to get to the facts and be assured by Sir Alex Allen, the independent adviser on the code, that there was nothing ever said or indicated by Hunt to suggest that his adviser should maintain special communications with Murdoch's man during the period when the Secretary of State was required to be impartial. Indeed, Hunt should have explicitly told Smith to avoid discussing the issue with News International unless it was properly minuted and equal time was afforded to the opponents. Ministers have had to resign for far less important transgressions than this before. Unless we can have a categorical assurance that Hunt made no such suggestion or indication, the Culture Secretary should go - and do so before Levenson reports.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Bad advice: how the jerry can salesman is crippling Cameron's Downing Street

George Osborne may be taking much of the blame for the crisis-a-day budget that has spawned anger from Greggs pasty counters to charity balls. But he shouldn't shoulder the blame all by himself. There is another figure who deserves to share the credit blame with the Chancellor: Francis Maude. When last we heard from the Cabinet Office Minister, he was advising us to stock up on petrol-soaked jerry cans in our garages, in an act designed to show just what he thought of all that silly 'elf and safety advice. Since his wisdom was not received in the spirit of helpfulness with which it surely was intended, the Horsham MP has disappeared.

Cameron will hardly have thanked Maude for his jerry can sales drive, as it added to the narrative of woes that also included his own misremembered pasty-eating escapades on Platform 3 at Leeds Station. But his ingratitude should be extended more widely when it comes to Maude. For he is responsible for most of the Government's woes. Oh, I know, Andrew Lansley must take the fair share of the blame for his crazed health reforms, but since he is so totally lacking in self-awareness, he can't really help it. And Osborne really should have foregone the White House in the week before the Budget, but he knew that his quadmate Danny Alexander was there to do the Budget read-through in his absence, so perhaps he can be forgiven too.

Yet, if Cameron had some politically astute, policy-focused special advisers in Downing Street, at least they could have confined the wayward health secretary to banning labels on fag packets and getting Coca Cola to feign an interest in making fat people thin instead of screwing up the NHS. Had he got somebody wise shadowing the Treasury they might have spotted the dangers of the granny tax, the pasty tax, the charity tax and all those other delights that keep on giving from Osborne's car crash of a budget.

But the reason that he relies instead on a policy unit dominated by civil servants with little political nous is Francis Maude. For it was his bright idea to mock Labour's lavish spending on, er, 84 special advisers across government that as Neil O.Brien of Policy Exchange so shrewdly noted in yesterday's FT cost less in a year than DWP pays in benefits to dead people every week.
People worry about the expense. But peak expenditure on special advisers under Labour was £5.6m a year – less than the government pays in benefits to dead people each week. Advisers enable ministers to grip their department and cut costs. Elsewhere, their numbers are much higher: Australia has twice as many, with only a quarter of the number of civil servants. Germany’s Angela Merkel has a whole chancellor’s department to enforce her will.
Maude decreed that the coalition - especially No 10 - would be purer than pure when it came to special advisers, obviously assuming that they were all straight out of The Thick of It rather than a vital lever of power. Funny enough, the civil service were generally happy enough to encourage him in his delusions. And the result is what it is: a dysfunctional government that is still making headlines with a cost-neutral budget and a government that lacks much sense of direction or purpose despite some progress in education and welfare.

Of course, wiser ministers have simply cocked a snook at the Jerry Can salesman by recruiting like-minded folk as policy advisers or in communications roles to top up their SpAd quota. But, really, why the pretence? It is as utterly silly an issue as the debate over party political funding. Politicians think the voters really care that much, when in fact it is the attempt to raise money from other than taxpayers that causes all the problems or the chaos that comes from not biting the bullet on special advisers that creates chaos.

Here is an issue where there needs to be some common purpose between the parties. Politics and good government need to be paid for. Let them stop treating voters like idiots, and tell it to them straight.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Gove's educational challenges

I have written this column in the April edition of Public Finance.

At the Conservative spring conference in March, David Cameron pointedly praised Education Secretary Michael Gove for his free school and academy reforms.

The prime minister offered no such comfort to his beleaguered health secretary, Andrew Lansley, whose reforms have received much criticism from doctors, nurses and even government backbenchers.

Gove has scored notable successes, lifting academy numbers from the 280 planned by Labour to 1,635, by enabling successful maintained schools to convert. Twenty-four free schools, with academy freedoms, have opened with 72 more planned. And despite problems over sports and capital funding, the education secretary has encountered only sporadic opposition from the teaching unions.

Gove has trod more cautiously than Lansley. Academy status was voluntary, unlike GP fundholding (an area where Lansley has retreated). Gove has rejected newly selective and profit-making schools. And he has presented his changes as Blairite continuity rather than the clean break the health secretary claimed.

Yet the speed of school change could yet be Gove’s undoing unless he resolves urgent questions on capacity, commissioning and the curriculum.

Gove’s academy expansion has been largely through giving successful secondary schools more freedoms. Their conversion is easier than replacing failing schools with sponsored academies, as the Department for Education brokers each arrangement. Sponsors, such as the education chains or faith groups, are held responsible for improving performance. There are just 337 sponsored academies compared with 1,298 converters.

Here Gove faces his first capacity problem. When he launched primary academies, he declared that schools where fewer than 60% of 11-year-olds reached Level Four in English and maths would have to convert and be supported by other academies.

But there are not enough existing academies to support all the 1,000-plus primary schools that fail to make the grade. Gove wants successful heads to step in, yet only 37 of 1,298 converter academies have done so. And the recent row over Downhills School in Haringey, north London, where Gove has sacked the governors to ensure it becomes an academy, shows how difficult it can be to achieve such change. He needs lots more sponsors.

That’s not the only capacity issue. Demand for primary places is projected to increase by 434,000 by 2018, particularly in cities such as London, Manchester and Bristol. Yet new free schools aren’t always located where demand is greatest. The programme will need to refocus if it is not to seem like an unaffordable extra as thousands of other children are left without schools.

This is where commissioning matters, especially as local authorities have lost their education capacity. Despite academies’ freedoms, they answer to Gove through funding agreements. With almost half of secondary schools likely to become academies, Whitehall seems ill-equipped to address failure and plan new places without local intelligence.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector, thinks local commissioners could provide an early warning of failure. Others want them to co-ordinate new schools and broker new academy sponsors where existing arrangements aren’t working. Some want them to be elected, like police commissioners, or answerable to elected mayors; ministers would prefer to appoint them. Either way, the issue raises questions about the government’s commitment to localism.

The third issue could expose the biggest contradiction in the academies programme. Many academy principals treasure their freedom to offer more practical lessons to students who would otherwise have disengaged.

Ministers have already reduced the league table value of many vocational qualifications.But heads and teachers worry more about the future of practical learning. Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education said that 14–16 year-olds should spend no more than a day a week on practical subjects. Gove elevated geography, history and languages above technical subjects in the league tables. And the national curriculum review has suggested that those subjects could be made compulsory to age 16, as the status of computing and technology is reduced.

These changes would reduce head teachers’ freedoms to provide a practical curriculum; but academies fear that inspections and league tables will force them into line too.

Otherwise, such change seems pointless if half of secondary schools are effectively exempt. A new curriculum would not take effect until 2014, but ministers must choose freedom or compulsion this year. Gove’s political tact has led some commentators to see him as Cameron’s successor. His challenge now is to resolve the dilemmas that the speed of his changes has created. His success or otherwise will determine whether those leadership predictions are premature or not.

Monday 2 April 2012

Are grammar schools really on the rise again?

There was much excitement last week as Kent County Council gave the go ahead for a new 'satellite' grammar school in Sevenoaks. Supporters of grammar schools could hardly contain themselves. Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph hailed the dawn of a new era
Crosland’s ambition was never fully realised. Like the Celtic tribes that resisted Roman occupation, or the handful of monasteries that survived the dissolution, 164 grammars remain as an affront to the new order of enforced egalitarianism. And, glory be, for the first time in 50 years there may soon be a new one.
Meanwhile, opponents of grammar schools believe that the Sevenoaks move was enough to suggest that Ed Miliband and Stephen Twigg should launch all-out war on the system through their academy funding agreements. Fiona Millar in the Guardian today fulminated at Michael Gove's 'sneakiness'. 
Now the coalition's devious use of the school admissions code – introduced by Labour to bring more fairness to the system – will allow popular schools to expand without constraint or consultation. Plans for annexes to existing grammar schools have quickly surfaced and there is little to stop these "satellites" popping up all over the country. Belief in an elite education system runs like a deep blue vein through the Conservative party...... This sneaky last-minute change to the admissions code, made after consultation had closed, shows how superficial Cameron's Tory modernisation really is.
In truth, no last minute change to the admissions code was needed to allow an existing grammar school to expand. In fact, under Labour, the number of students in grammar schools increased by nearly 30,000 from 128,000 to 158,000 between 1997-2010, because it was never the Government's intention to prevent existing grammar schools from expanding. Rather the policy (underpinned by 2008 regulations) was to stop new grammars being established while insisting on parental ballots where there was a desire to end existing selection in a school or an area.

In reality, evidence in this whole debate is too often dependent on prejudice. Grammar schools score highly in league tables because they have a strong intake. A fair comparison would be with the top 25% of students in comprehensive schools, not their whole intake. And in those circumstances, the results prove pretty similar.

Where today's grammar schools score particularly poorly is on social mobility. Professor David Jesson has shown that it is a myth that grammars are true agents of social mobility: only 2% of their students are eligible for free school meals, well below the 15% national average when he did his calculations. His conclusion is that:
Out of an annual national cohort of 22,000 pupils entering Grammar schools, well under 500 of these are from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds. If these schools did offer ‘a ladder of opportunity’ to pupils in their areas we might have expected well over 2500 in this category.

This is undoubtedly a problem in wholly selective areas like Kent where poorly performing secondary moderns find it harder to compete, and where there have been a higher than average number of failing schools as a result. At the same time, since it is a wholly selective system in the county, parents whose children pass the 11+ will prefer a local to a distant grammar school, and it is hard logically to argue that those who bus children to selective schools in the county must continue to do so.

Yet the political reality for both Labour and the Conservatives is that they are neither going to abolish existing selection nor actively encourage new grammar schools. Despite the arguments of opponents of grammars there is no more evidence that Kent parents want to scrap selection than there is that people in other parts of the country want to re-introduce a system of grammars and secondary moderns. Indeed, the only time recently that parents were balloted on selection, in Ripon, they voted to keep it.

This is why it would be a wholly bad idea politically for Labour to promise a war on selection. The party has to win back seats in places like Kent to form a government, not alienate potential Labour voters. Gove is in a rather trickier position. He is far more interested in promoting new academies than he is in seeing new grammar schools, but he has a strong pro-grammar lobby in his party. Indeed, the Leader of Kent Council Paul Carter, who has backed the Sevenoaks developments, has been an opponent of Gove on academies, and there is no love lost between the two men.

However, Gove does need to be much clearer on the circumstances where he will and will not approve central funding and academy funding agreements for 'satellite' grammar schools. If he isn't, he will cause much bigger problems for his academy and free school programmes. Here, as elsewhere, the 'detoxified' Tory brand is in danger of re-toxifying.

The Sevenoaks developments could derail the education policies of both major parties if they listen to too many siren voices in this debate.

Monday 26 March 2012

More state funding for political parties is the only answer

Suppergate may be providing further discomfort for the Tories after last week's budget ineptitude. And plenty of indignant outrage will flow from those not involved, not least at the ludicrous figure of Peter Cruddas and his attempt to sell the most expensive dinners around. Yet supporters of democratic politics can neither afford the either the comfort of righteous indignation nor the cheap laughs that the incident provokes. Once again we can see how important it is to grasp the nettle of state funding for political parties. For, the truth is that each time an incident such as this emerges it further dents party politics. And that is bad for democracy as a whole.

I have long argued that greater state funding for political parties is the only way forward, and these events strengthen my view. It is true that at least we now know how the parties are funded. All the parties have come unstuck as a result of their reliance on large donors. Of course, there's a good case for capping the amount parties can receive from a single donor - and doing so closer to £5000 than £50000; just as there's a case for capping constituency spending all year round. But this inevitably descends into party political knockabout: this time we may be enjoying Cameron's discomfort, but he is not the first party leader to face such controversy. Greater state funding must be the answer. The Labour government should have bitten the bullet on all this years ago; Nick Clegg should certainly insist that his coalition partners do so know.

And for the benefit of those who think the taxpayer shouldn't fund political parties, don't forget they already do, and on a much greater scale now than before 1997. In 2011/12, according to the House of Commons library the opposition parties received £6.5m in so-called 'Short money' with nearly £600k more for party work in the House of Lords. There are also policy development grants to help develop manifesto policies. Party funding is now worth more than three times as much per Commons seat as it was in 1997.

So, all the parties should call a truce on this issue. Labour should accept that the unions fund the party too much, and find a more direct link to individual union members. The Tories should axe big donations. And the taxpayer should pay a little more to protect something that people the world over risk their lives for - and bring an end to charades like we have seen played out this weekend once and for all.