Thursday, 31 July 2008
It is always good to see MPs speaking on their specialist subjects.
Wednesday, 30 July 2008
Monday, 28 July 2008
There is much to admire in Kemal Ataturk's secularist philosophy. It opened Turkey to new ideas and a greater tolerance for western ideas. It gave a greater equality to women than in many European countries. But Turkish secularism has itself become a rigidly conservative form of intolerance. The AKP, in its first term in power, did rather more than adopt a more pious Islamist approach: they opened up the economy and, arguably, did more to advance women's rights than any other government in recent years. It is true that they have become more defiant in their second term, with the head scarf decision and the promotion of a moderate Islamist as president. But they fought and won an election making clear they intended to do so.
This is why it is so intolerable that the intolerant 'guardians' of secularism should feel able to flout the democratic will of Turks. By no stretch of the imagination could anyone believe that the AKP are a vanguard of Saudi Wahabbism or extremist Islam. It hasn't helped the AKP's credibility that European Union membership has been effectively blocked by France and others. But this week the EU could make clear that if Turkey's 'guardians' of secularism mount a constitutional coup, then Turkey has no chance of EU membership; while, at the same time, being much clearer about the rewards that await a country that continues along a democratic and economically liberalising path. This week is a moment of truth for Turkey.
Friday, 25 July 2008
So, please email your Top Ten (ranked from 1 to 10) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Order them from 1 to 10. Your top blog gets 10 points and your tenth gets 1 point.
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It is good that Gordon Brown is taking a decent holiday this year. But he needs to make it a holiday, and stop sending lots of emails to his staff and trying to micromanage events from his Southwold holiday home. Instead he needs to reflect on how to start the party's recovery in the autumn. Of course, the economy will be crucial: Labour can have little hope of recovery while people experience double-digit food and fuel increases, and see their home values diving.
But, an economic recovery of itself will not be enough. Brown's problem is not just a lack of empathetic engagement - though that is a problem for a modern politician - it is also a fear of spelling out a clear sense of purpose, including just how radical his government is being, which hides notable successes in aspects of the public services such as health and education (marking fiascos aside). Public satisfaction with the NHS is now at record highs; this is thanks to the investment and reforms introduced by the Labour governments, which has meant more frontline staff, much lower waiting lists and better equipped hospitals and surgeries. Yet, in polls, the public say they trust the Tories - whose main policy is to dismantle Labour's successes on orders from the BMA - more than Labour on the NHS. On education, a daft decision to create 'distance' from Tony Blair on academies in the first months of Brown's premiership has obscured their subsequent rapid and hugely popular expansion. Crime is falling fast - as even Tory commentators acknowledge, even if they want the credit given elsewhere. And the government has been radical on welfare reform this week.
Yet, there is no sense that Labour is making the political weather. The Tories, whose policy differences with Labour on the subject are relatively small and draw heavily on academies, are seen as having all the ideas on education. Even on welfare reform, where the work had been done before any Tory policy commission was born, many commentators were persuaded that Labour was just copying their ideas.
That's where the big change is needed. Tony Blair was very good at developing and disseminating a clear political narrative. With Gordon Brown, there is no such narrative, so nobody from the commentariat to the common voter can understand what's happening. This failure may owe something to the schizophrenic attempt to create novelty in the first months of Brown's tenure. If so, the time for real clarity is overdue. That means selecting half a dozen very clear goals for the government, on which Brown devotes most of his energy. He should leave the micro-management to his ministers, and where necessary, to his policy aides, but work relentlessly on those goals. These goals should be spelt out at the party conference in September, and he should devote considerable energy and the time of his delivery, strategy and policy people to seeing them being delivered. Any reshuffle should be done with this in mind, ensuring strong ministers who can communicate effectively leading on these goals.
None of this will require a huge change in policy direction. The last few months have, ironically, been the most productive and radical of Brown's tenure to date. But they will require a big change in approach by Brown and his team. Brown should enjoy his holiday, despite the Glasgow East result, and leave the day-to-day business to Alastair Darling and Jack Straw. After all, when he returns, he needs to be physically and mentally refreshed if his to defy the psephologists and establish the clarity of purpose that could - with an economic upturn - start to restore Labour's fortunes.
Thursday, 24 July 2008
Wednesday, 23 July 2008
Karadzic was no fool; he spoke the diplomats' language, and, in return, Britain, France and the UN led the prevalent international policy of calculated refusal to stop him, thereby advancing his aims. The governments of Britain and France especially - as well as the United Nations leadership - saw in Karadzic not the war criminal they call him today, but a fellow politician with whom to do business. Karadzic dealt - directly or indirectly - with Lord Peter Carrington, Malcolm Rifkind, Lord David Owen, Cyrus Vance, Douglas Hurd and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones as an equal deserving full diplomatic protocol. A recent book by the lawyer Carole Hodge finds Karadzic, in return, praising Britain's "refined diplomacy". To the private hilarity of the Serbs, western diplomats accepted Karadzic's endless, empty guarantees and his posturing and fleeting "ceasefires". They agreed to turn back aid to the desperate safe areas" declared but betrayed by the UN. They connived in maps and "peace plans" that gave Karadzic everything he had won by violence and tolerated the siege of Sarajevo, which he is accused of personally overseeing.
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
But contrary to the argument advanced by Michael Gove in today's Guardian, this doesn't mean that responsibility for what ETS did - or didn't do - lies with him. After all, the Conservatives decided to create an arms-length agency responsible for the qualifications and curriculum system; Labour has kept that agency. Of course, government advances strategic policy - on Diplomas, for example, or even on whether there should be an A* - but since neither Ed Balls nor this government has yet made any significant changes to the key stage tests, it is absurd to argue that their policy decisions are responsible for the ineptitude of a company supposedly experienced in managing tests and exams. The QCA has the responsibility of managing its contract with ETS, which is being paid a lot of money to do what ought to be a pretty straightforward job; and to his credit, its director Ken Boston has accepted that responsibility and apologised for the authority's and ETS's failings.
Estelle Morris resigned when an exam board screwed up a few years ago. I'm not sure she was right to do so - the problems were grossly exaggerated by the media and private schools - but there were very clear policy changes, on AS levels, that were at least in part responsible for the issues that year. No such comparison can be made with this year's late marking problems. This is a case of a company that has not done what it was paid to do; it should lose its contract immediately and not receive a penny more for its trouble this year. After all, that's supposed to be the benefit of contracting out such activities (though government is poor at extracting it). But while Ed Balls should answer to parliament and apologise for the failings of his agencies, it is hard to see how the fiasco reflects on his ministerial decisions
Instead, he should ensure that externally marked testing is fit for purpose in the future - not least by radically modifying plans for single level progress tests, a disaster waiting to happen -but ignore the calls for him to quit.
Monday, 21 July 2008
Sunday, 20 July 2008
Friday, 18 July 2008
Thursday, 17 July 2008
There are, however, serious issues about the future of the tests which go beyond the immediate question of the ETS incompetence. The first is whether the current plan for progress tests - where pupils sit 'level tests' that can only be passed to that level - should continue, and whether a simpler form of flexibility might not make more sense? Plenty of schools enter their pupils for Key Stage 3 tests at 13 rather than 14. Why not encourage the same flexibility in primaries where they want it, but keep the existing tests. The system would simply find it too hard to deal with the currently planned progress tests.
And there may also be a need for a more fundamental look at the content of the English and Maths tests, in particular, to ensure they are testing what we need to test, and giving secondary schools the information they need (too many feel the need to use the London reading test to supplement key stage tests). But above all - as this blog has argued before - we need to be clear that testing is here to stay, because of its importance to accountability and pupil progress. On that, there should be no compromise.
Wednesday, 16 July 2008
Monday, 14 July 2008
Sunday, 13 July 2008
In Karlovy Vary, where the 43rd film festival was in full swing, the attractive spa town tells the story of the Czechs' changing fortunes in microcosm. The Festival itself started in 1946, but went through a dreary phase until the early sixties when it reflected the opening up of Czechoslovakia under Dubcek, before reverting to a shared staging with Moscow until the Velvet Revolution. We saw two excellent films introduced by the directors: Marion Lane's Un Coeur Simple with a riveting performance by the wonderful Sandrine Bonnaire in Flaubert's fable; and John Sayles's Honeydripper, with Danny Glover also in attendance. Though both films have had their UK premieres already, it was great seeing them in very glamorous festival settings. The town itself has long been a Russian favourite, and the relationship has continued since 1989. Parts of it are ridiculously over-priced, but the best meal in town by far was at the Embassy restaurant, which was also probably our best meal of the holiday - authentic Czech food at a fair price.
And money is the biggest change in Czech society. For a British pound-spender, the prices are often absurd as the Koruna has become even stronger than the Euro. But it is also the attitude of many to making a fast buck which seems different. Unless you use a reliable company like AAA in Prague, taxi drivers will rip you off with dodgy meters. And the mark-ups in many restaurants make Italy in August seem like a bargain. That said, there is so much that remains attractive about the Czech Republic that one hopes such attitudes don't deter visitors. After all, there are few cities that can match Prague in Europe for their sights.
Tuesday, 1 July 2008
But I wonder whether all this is not beside the point. As one who enjoyed history and economics more than physics or chemistry, I always found the latter subjects harder. But their questions are also usually less subjective. It is harder to measure - and agree on - what makes a good essay than whether a formula is correctly applied. This is not to say that Ofqual shouldn't try. However, if the Durham team and their sponsors are really more concerned about incentivising students to study the subjects, and government wants more people studying those subjects, wouldn't it simply make more sense to award extra credit to good grades in physics and chemistry on those grounds, rather than trying to prove their innate superiority?