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.