Thursday, 16 December 2010

Google Analytics for 2010

It may be a few weeks early, but I'm planning to give the blog a rest until after Christmas unless something remarkable happens - and the weather allows our planned breaks.

Before doing so, I should pay a short tribute to Iain Dale's blog, which he is now ceasing. I may not always have agreed with his politics, but his blog was pioneering, well-argued and often a good source of traffic to this site. It's a shame he has packed it in, but understandable too.

Meanwhile, here are my top ten lists for the most read blog posts of 2010 on this site and the top referral sites to this blog, courtesy of Google Analytics.

The ten most read postings in 2010 were

1. The Lib Dems are the big losers in the coalition (May 2010)
2. The real question for Gove is where will the axe fall? (April 2010)
3. Eating out in Keynsham (2008, updated)
4. Private Lives (review, February 2010)
5. A graduate tax would be a mistake (July 2010)
6. A bad day for democracy (November 2010)
7. Hedda Gabler (review, February 2010)
8. Will school funding really be protected? (October 2010)
9. Christmas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (January 2008)
10. What will Osborne's education plans really mean? (October 2010)

My top ten referring sites, aside from Google searches, were:

1. Hopi Sen
2. Twitter
3. Iain Dale
4. Stumbling and Mumbling
5. Matthew Taylor
6. Blogger
7. Left Foot Forward
8. Total Politics
9. Teaching Battleground
10. Facebook

My thanks to those blogs that sent so much traffic my way.

I wish my 10,920 unique readers a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My books of the year

I've read some great new books this year, which have been illuminating and fascinating in equal measure. Here are my top five.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

A fascinating social and political history of late 19th century and early 20th century America, Okrent takes us through the saloon bars of the midwest and the rise of temperance activism in the South, through connections with women's suffrage (which the brewers opposed) and the blackmailing of politicians to support the cause. We all know about the connections with gangsters like Al Capone, but this amazing book takes us through the role of Scottish distillers, Canadian bootleggers, Californian communion wine producers and fake rabbis in ensuring that America was kept fairly wet during the dry years. The cast of characters is wonderful, the account both scholarly and accessible. This US book is available from Amazon UK at £17.32.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

When the king of sanctimonious self-righteousness Julian Assange tells us that his leaks do no harm, he may reflect that if his revelations about Chinese movement on pulling the plug on the ghastly North Korean regime delay its inevitable occurence, he will have plenty of real lives on his hands. Barbara Demick brings the reality of life in the country to vivid life by talking to those who were fortunate enough to get out, usually to South Korea on a circuitous route through China. Their stories of hunger, medicine-free hospitals, unburied bodies in the street, frozen kindergartens and an ever present climate of fear are shocking because they are the tales of ordinary lives, and often of childhood illusions shattered. It is too easy to snigger at the ludicrousness of the North Korean leadership, but this book shows how serious its continued existence is to the lives of millions of people living in the Northern city of Chongin, well away from the relative prosperity of Pyongnang. The book is now in paperback.

The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

There were plenty of political books this year, and I greatly enjoyed Tony Blair's and Jonathan Powell's books. I also liked Steve Richards' account of the Brown years, as told by Ed Balls. But for me the best of them was Peter Mandelson's heavily reflective account of his ups and downs in the party and government. It is well-written and captures the internal struggles not only in the government, but in Mandelson's role in it. It also has a compelling honesty in recounting the major events of his life: I particularly enjoyed his accounts of the Kinnock years and the strange struggles that characterised the true origins of New Labour.

The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt

This is a great companion book to Francis Wheen's highly entertaining life of Karl Marx. Hunt tells the extraordinary story of Marx's patron and ideological foil, Friedrich Engels who took his reluctant embrace of Manchester capitalism to heart as he enjoyed a champagne lifestyle and became a keen hunter. The book is wonderful account of the relationship between Engels and Marx, the European political movements that led to Marxism and the personal traits that would lead their followers to embrace ideological purity as a virtue that would create so many 20th century monsters. Hunt tells the story with considerable panache, but underpinned by substantial original research. Although it was originally published in 2008, the paperback appeared for the first time in 2010.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada's tale of the everyday horror of life in Nazi Berlin is a rediscovered masterpiece. First published just after the war in Germany in 1947, it tells the fictional story of an ordinary couple whose son's death in the war provokes them into petty acts of defiance. These protests cause fury in the police and a determination to find the culprits. Fallada's cast of characters evoke a spirit of defiance, collaboration and compliance in the increasingly paranoid environment of the city, with the pace of a good thriller. The book was out of print for years until its reappearance in 2010 in an excellent translation by Michael Hoffman. Paperback.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Schools face big cuts not budget protection

Until I saw yesterday's schools settlement, I knew school budgets would be cut next year, but expected them to be mitigated by a Minimum Funding Guarantee, probably set at zero per cent. Having seen what is actually proposed - a flat Dedicated Schools Grant at local authority level and an MFG of -1.5% at a time when schools are likely to need at least 2% to stand still even with a pay freeze (to cover inflation, increments, 2010-11 pay rises and national insurance) - it is clear that schools that are not cushioned by a significant pupil premium will face cuts of around 4% in their 2010-11 budgets. There will be additional cuts in school sixth form funding that are not protected by the MFG.

This is not the real terms protection that the Chancellor promised in his spending review. Far from it. What it will mean in reality is that a typical secondary school with a £5-6 million budget and limited numbers of FSM pupils will lose around £200-250,000, the equivalent of around five or six teachers' jobs or 10-12 support staff. Primary schools will lose a similar proportion of their budgets, and potentially of their staff. If a 1500 pupil school has 15% of its pupils in receipt of free school meals, it will be mitigated to some extent: it will only lose £116-£166,000, or three or four teachers, or 6 or 7 support staff. Some schools may be cushioned by reserves this year and may make savings through shared services, but the impact is still likely to be harsh. There are also big cuts in funding for 'early intervention' including Sure Start, despite promises to protect under-threes funding.

Across the country, it could still mean the loss of tens of thousands of school staff, since over 80% of school budgets are spent on staffing. At the same time, schools' formula capital is being slashed with just £195 million to be allocated across all schools compared with £959 million this year, which is a cut of 80%. That is the cruellest cut of all: formula capital had allowed schools to undertake vital repairs, a crucial lifeline with Building Schools for the Future sidelined.

To imagine that schools will now joyfully be using their pupil premium for anything other than plugging the gaps in funding caused by these cuts is fanciful, especially in the absence of any ringfencing for the money. It is a bad settlement for schools, and the poorest pupils will suffer too, with fewer teachers and crumbling buildings.

Perhaps it would not have appeared quite so bad if ministers had been straight during the spending review. They weren't: they misled schools into believing that their funding would be protected in cash terms, assuring specialist schools and school sports partnerships, for example, that the removal of ringfencing simply meant they would have the chance to spend the cash as they liked. They said nothing about formula capital or Sure Start cuts. Now all we see is yet another Liberal Democrat and coalition promise broken.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Paltry premium could prove a hollow victory for Clegg

The coalition has finally come clean on the size of the pupil premium. For 2011-12, it will be a mere £430 per pupil, though it will probably increase over the new four years to over £1700 a year, less than the £2500 originally envisaged by the Liberal Democrats. The premium will be paid to pupils whose parents earn less than £16,000 a year, and will not initially be weighted, so it will be on top of existing core budgets. But Danny Alexander was mistaken on Marr to imagine that the premium will make much difference in the schools that receive it.

Here's why. At the same time as the Government is introducing the premium in April, it is also making a whole series of other changes to school funding. First, it is scrapping specialist schools cash and funding for sports partnerships. That alone is worth £129 a year to every pupil in over 90% of secondary schools, not just the minority with low family incomes. Then it is likely that a series of other grants for standards will also go, worth significantly more per pupil. Finally, while it is true that salaries will be frozen next year, schools will still face the in-year costs of this year's settlement which runs from September 2010, the increase in National Insurance rates and the cost of incremental pay drift.

More importantly, while the government has removed lots of grants it is not giving them to schools to spend as they choose - a freedom they pretty much enjoy as it is - instead it is redistributing less of the cash to local authorities to allocate according to their own formulae, which will see plenty of losers. Specialist school funding, for example, may be part of the Dedicated Schools Grant baseline but there is no guarantee the same schools will get the same amount of cash. Unless any minimum funding guarantee ensures that schools get at least 1% more per pupil - including those grants in the school baseline - and the pupil premium is on top of that there will still be plenty of cries of pain from schools next year. And here's the rub for jittery Conservative and Lib Dem MPs: the decision initially to allocate the pupil premium as a straightforward top up means that the biggest losers are likely to be high-achieving schools in their constituencies, even if they benefit in the longer term from moves to a National Funding Formula.

But that's not all. There will be a double whammy for school sixth formers, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. First there is the indefensible decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, which provides 16 and 17 year-olds from families earning below £20,000 a year with £30 a week in term time - around £1200 a year or nearly four times the pupil premium - to pay for travel, books and equipment while they are studying for A levels or BTECs in school or college. There is no pupil premium for poorer sixth formers. For schools there is also a move to equalise college and school sixth form funding (reducing the latter by £200 a year) which will add further to a picture of widespread school cuts next year. Indeed scrapping the EMA in 2011-12 covers most of the first year pupil premium costs: a case of robbing one group of poorer pupils to pay another.

So, Danny Alexander was making a huge mistake this morning trying to pretend that schools will not pay for the pupil premium with big cuts. They will, as will older brothers and sisters of those who may get the premium. Michael Gove has already conceded there will some cuts. But because ministers have been trying to underplay them, the shock will be all the greater for coalition MPs next spring. The paltry premium is unlikely to do more than plug some gaps. It will seem a very hollow 'victory' for Nick Clegg at that stage.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Alan Johnson should have stuck to his guns

Alan Johnson was right to have his doubts about a graduate tax, in today's Times (£), and wrong to have changed his minds. While he is also right to argue against the removal of teaching grants and the moves towards a £9000 ceiling, he should not have allowed himself to be dissuaded from arguing for a fairer version of the Browne proposals, drawing on his own work as higher education minister.

By contrast, there is a great piece in today's Guardian by Peter Wilby, who has long recognised the egalitarian case for fees and rightly argues that the focus of Labour's opposition should be the abolition of EMAs rather than changes to fees:

Once they look coolly at the economics, 18-year-olds make better judgments than their hysterical, ill-informed elders. To describe students as facing a lifelong "burden" of "crippling" debt is simply bizarre, particularly for a Labour leader who wants to replace the debt with a graduate tax that the rich would avoid as smartly as they avoid all other taxes.....Most bizarre of all is the argument that, because graduates of earlier generations benefited from free university education, they should not deny it to others. Should those who went to grammar school never argue for comprehensives, and those who inherited wealth never support higher estate duties? Should those who benefited from slavery not have supported abolition?.....Miliband should focus on the proposal to cut education maintenance grants, which rightly exercises young protesters more than fees. Introduced by Labour and targeted at poorer families, the grants played a vital role in getting more disadvantaged young people to university. It was at 16, not 18, that working-class dropping out from education always occurred. University fees do not deter, but a funding gap during A-level study does.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Vince Cable's extraordinary permutations

There were two options open to Vince Cable on his approach to tuition fees. The first was to battle for a credible series of concessions and support the policy that his Department agreed to. To some extent, he has achieved improvements on the existing system in the repayments schedule, but his failure to secure continued teaching funding for non-STEM courses suggests he didn't try hard enough. He had plenty of cards to play, but he chose to fold early on the final deal. Even so, he could still argue that as the minister responsible, he had a duty to support the final package. The other option is to argue that he made a solemn pledge to oppose a rise in fees - however daft that pledge was - and he should march into the No lobbies to oppose himself.

Had he chosen the first approach, with a clearer set of concessions and a fulsome apology for his party's stupidity and deceit to student voters, he may have retained some credibility. But by promising to abstain, then to vote for, then being not sure, and finally to vote for (probably) his stance looks absurd. All that is left is for him to borrow from Eamon DeValera in 1927 when he had to take the oath of allegiance to take his seat in the Dail, despite a solemn pledge not to do so. DeValera declared he was merely signing a piece of paper that had no meaning, except it allowed him to take his place in the Dail. Perhaps Cable could try the same logic on his bemused voters: he is merely voting with the Government as it allows him to take his place at the Cabinet table. It is no less credible than his shifting stances of the last week.

Friday, 3 December 2010

How state pupils raise their game in elite universities

The most important piece of educational research this month, which is from the Sutton Trust, raises many important questions. The Trust, in a study originally meant to show the benefits of adopting a US-style SAT for entrance, has instead shown pretty conclusively that all other things being equal, a comprehensive school student will outperform a grammar or independent school undergraduate at an elite university. In other words, when universities award a place to a bright state pupil with just 3Bs when the same place would require AAB from an independent or grammar student, they are not 'dumbing down' but exercising both common sense and social inclusion. This is hugely important for several reasons.

First, it suggests that it can be reasonable to differentiate between the experiences of different students, where there is clearly a similar degree of aptitude. Second, it argues for the development of programmes that link academic achievement to elite university places in some schools and academies. There are still many state-educated AAA students who don't apply for or get Russell Group places. And third, we should hear no more nonsense about dumbing down from the Mail or Telegraph, when universities do make such allowances. Instead, these august organs might start to ask why independent school pupils underperform at university. Meanwhile, those who are paying the fees at independent schools might wish to drill down into the data to find which of the schools are really providing lasting benefits for their children.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Time for a rethink on school sports

At the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in Birmingham this week, the strongest applause from the audience during the speeches of schools minister Nick Gibb and shadow education secretary Andy Burnham came when mention was made of the coalition's bizarre decision to axe the school sports partnerships that have revitalised PE and competitive sports in schools. Needless to say, the 2000 heads and school leaders were not applauding the rather thin defence being offered for the decision, nor did they buy the shameless spin that has accompanied the axe,

Today's Observer reports that ministers are frantically seeking a way out of the problem, which has already wrongfooted David Cameron at PMQs and threatens to undermine any hopes of a serious Olympics legacy among young people. Heads and pupils already threaten a national campaign that will embarrass even the most thick-skinned coalition MP. The fact that the SSPs have doubled participation in competitive team games and increased PE participation fourfold is dismissed by Cameron with statistics that no Labour spindoctor would have dared to disseminate. To imagine that a scheme that increases participation in inter-school competitions from 1 in 10 to 1 in 5 is a failure because 80% of young people are not so involved is both logically ludicrous and downright disingenuous. The clue is in the word 'competitive'.

But when the lead sports writer in the Sunday Times is as scathing as David Walsh is today (£), even Cameron's spin doctors must know the game is up. The coalition's ideological opposition to any ringfenced funding has come seriously unstuck. Now they just have to admit that there are occasions when such ringfenced funding is needed and desirable. Given that the funds are supposedly simply going to be added to the Dedicated Schools Grant, there should be nothing but a little loss of pride involved in re-ringfencing them: it should not trouble the Treasury one iota. The question is whether ministers are prepared to recognise that they have made a mistake, and effect the necessary rethink.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Building on Blair's reforms?

For all the rhetoric in the Commons today, one thing stands out clearly from today's White Paper by Michael Gove: his education agenda represents far more continuity from the reforms introduced by Tony Blair and David Blunkett than it does a dramatic change from the direction of the last thirteen years.

There is much to be welcomed in the paper: the extension of floor targets, a hugely successful drive that saw underperformers fall from 1600 to under 200 between 1997 and 2010; expansion of in-school teacher training, building on Labour's Teach First, graduate teaching programme (renamed Teach Next) and training schools (rebranded teaching schools); marginal changes to the right to discipline introduced in 2006 (with a watering down of the plan to scrap exclusion panels and a welcome pilot of giving schools clearer responsibilities for excluded pupils); promotion of synthetic phonics (Blair, 2006) with a welcome new reading test; a doubling of Labour's National Leaders of Education; a reiteration of the strategic role for local authorities envisaged by Tony Blair in his 2005 White Paper; an acceptance of an increased education leaving age. There should be little reason for Labour to oppose any of this.

The paper also reiterates the coalition's plans for academies and free schools, a pupil premium with a less than clear commitment on a national funding formula and an opposition to the extension of selection. Despite the partisan rhetoric that has accompanied its launch, there is a sensible change of tone in the paper itself, acknowledging many of the genuine improvements of the last 15 years while focusing on benchmarking with the best in the world. Where there must be cause for doubt are around some of the planned changes to the curriculum. It makes sense to reduce the league table value of some vocational qualifications; it is less clear that an expectation that every student should achieve history and languages GCSEs is the best way to address the needs of those who have a more practical set of abilities.

Moreover, today's paper comes against a less distinguished backdrop of change over recent months. The wholesale desire to scrap quangos and initiatives, including Building Schools for the Future, has created some big potential problems: Gove's slagging off of the School Sports Partnerships is shameful and inaccurate: there are far more pupils playing in competitive team games as a result of their work, as well as participating in PE. It is wrong to pretend they will survive if the money for them is devolved across all schools. This is a decision that should be rescinded until the partnerships have the chance to win new funding, not least as the National Funding Formula has been put on hold. Equally destructive are plans to scrap any specialist school funding, even though a re-orienting of such funds could secure subject excellence in science or languages, a goal of the White Paper that is promised without the levers to deliver it.

At the same time, schools will be anxious about funding until there is much more clarity over how funding is to be distributed, who gets the pupil premium and what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of pounds each currently receives for standards, specialism and capital. The money to help turn around weaker schools seems too modest to fulfil the ambitions. Simplicity may be a noble goal; its execution is rather messier. Blair's reforms crucially depended on sufficient targeted resources. There is some here: but is it enough?

Nevertheless, many of today's proposals should be welcomed. Collectively, they represent a matureness of approach that builds on much of the best of what has been developed over the last two decades rather than seeking to dismantle it.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The strange death of Fianna Fail Ireland

The final capitulation by Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowan to the IMF and the European Union over a bailout must mark the last rites for his Fianna Fail party. The party founded by Eamon DeValera in 1927 had seen itself as the natural party of government since 1932, and it enjoyed a dominance of Irish politics only occasionally interrupted by coalitions of the opposition parties over the following 80 years. But all that is now at an end.

Fianna Fail scored a mere 17% on one poll last week, with Fine Gael on 33% and Labour on 27%. In Thursday's by-election in Donegal, not only are Sinn Fein set to win with as much as 40% of first preference votes, but Labour may score 15% in a seat where they barely scraped 3% before. Some polls even make Labour the largest party nationally, and it undoubtedly is in that position in Dublin.

When I was at university, we were taught that Ireland was a two-and-a-half-party system with Labour as the half-party. Now Fianna Fail may find itself in that unenviable position after an election that will now happen in January when the Greens pull the plug on their uncomfortable coalition with Fianna Fail. Why has this happened?

The most obvious reason is the economy. Fianna Fail has presided over a culture that allowed the property boom to develop, and which favoured unregulated development. Banks like Anglo-Irish were indulged, but so too were public sector trade unions as wages far exceeded the long-term capacity of the economy. The populist economic approach of Fianna Fail had a lot to do with the economic problems.

But that is not the only reason. The collapse of the Irish Catholic Church impacted on the party too: Fianna Fail was more closely in step with the hierarchy than its opponents, particularly in the 70s and 80s, and slower to embrace liberal reforms. The legacy of Charles Haughey and his cronies took their toll too. But above all, the near-death of Fianna Fail symbolises the profound social changes that have outlived the demise of the Celtic Tiger, which really gained traction after Mary Robinson was elected President in 1990.

All that is needed now is for the electorate to act as undertaker to Dev's party in the new year. The extent to which the Irish Labour Party can gain most from the remains will depend a lot on its ability to consolidate the popularity of its leader Eamon Gilmore - compared with Fine Gael's lacklustre Enda Kenny - into solid and credible policies for the age of austerity. The next two months could change the face of Irish politics forever.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Sports axe highlights key flaws in Gove thinking

Today's reports about the deep dismay in sporting circles and the Cabinet over the decision to axe funding for school sports partnerships highlights a fatal flaw at the heart of Michael Gove's approach to schools. The partnerships have been remarkably successful, not only increasing participation with the numbers of pupils getting two hours PE a week rising from one in four to four in five, and an increase in competitions. It is absurd to suggest, as Gove did on Marr, that by removing ringfencing such activities could continue, since the co-ordinators are funded specifically to work across schools not in a single institution. In any case, the money is being removed from individual school budgets and handed to local authorities which can distribute it as they choose, a decision that makes little sense if Gove is no longer planning a National Funding Formula, as he now maintains.

But this decision also exposes two flaws that are becoming starker as Gove prepares to publish his White Paper this Wednesday. The first is the wholesale removal of leverage. Gove was able to dodge Marr's questioning about the curriculum adeptly this morning. But there remains a real contradiction between his wish to see a back to basics approach and his granting of considerably more freedoms to schools. Many academies, for example, want to use more thematic teaching and some of the vocational qualifications that the Government doesn't like. It is right to want a more rigorous approach to English grammar and spelling - and that was at the heart of Labour's literacy strategy - but the only way to ensure it happens is through strong pressure and accountability. At the same time, those academies can point to real success through curricular innovations and their voice will become louder if a more prescriptive approach is adopted.

And that also highlights a second flaw in Gove's thinking. For partisan reasons, he chooses to pretend that he is starting from scratch with some of his ideas. Yet he is not. For example, the so-called 'no touch' rule does not exist: David Blunkett published guidance on the use of restraint in 1998 that has been enshrined in the right to discipline within the 2006 Education Act. The problem is not a lack of legislation, it is a fear among teachers of litigation. And it is hard to see how Gove can prevent that happening, any more than his anonymity for teachers unjustly accused of abusing children can prevent village gossips retailing the charges widely.

The fact is that he has failed to resolve inherent contradictions in his approach: between curricular prescriptions and freedoms; between local authorities controlling pursestrings and the transparency of national funding; between permissive legislation and restrictive litigation. While there may be much that is good in this week's White Paper, not least the expansion of in-school teacher training, building on Labour's Teach First and graduate teacher programme and the development of collaboration between academies, the failure to think through the wider impact of funding decisions and to resolve such contradictions could seriously undermine his ambitions.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Coalition suffers again for BSF axe in Black Country

Luke Akehurst's indispensable weekly round-up of council by-election results draws attention to a stunning Labour gain, on a 16.5% swing from the Conservatives, in the Wednesbury North ward of Sandwell MBC. As the BBC regional news reports, the Tories have held this ward for 36 years.

But Sandwell was one of the worst affected by the crass handling of the Building Schools for the Future programme at the Department for Education. Not only did the council lose its vital regeneration projects, but it was told it had retained them before ministers had to contradict themselves. Nine major projects were lost - and as locals had seen the benefits of BSF already in other new local schools, they didn't swallow Michael Gove's line about it being a useless scheme. The Deputy Leader of the Conservative group, Elaine Costigan, another Wednesbury councillor, was so 'ashamed' of the decision that she joined Labour.

It would seem that the people of Sandwell have not yet forgiven the coalition for such shabby treatment, as both the Tories and Lib Dems both lost votes to Labour in almost equal numbers.

Expertise in the Upper House

The new list of peers published today could, in one sense, be seen as a cynical exercise in patronage. And it is true that it is being used by the coalition to lessen the chances of defeat in the Upper House. But it also includes some remarkable talent among the nominees who have much to contribute beyond their partisan allegiances.

The quality of debate can only be enhanced by the presence of luminaries like Labour's Joan Bakewell, Jonathan Kestenbaum (of Nesta), Prof Ruth Lister and Prof Maurice Glasman, and the curry king Sir Gulam Noon (regardless of his donations). For the Conservatives, businessmen like Sir Michael Bishop, the British Midland founder, Downtown Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, Michael Grade, Sir Bernard Ribeiro, the surgeon, and Fiona Shackleton, the family lawyer add genuine expertise to their benches. And the Lib Dems will benefit from having Sal Brinton, Jonathan Marks QC and Claire Tyler of Relate on their side.

That's not to say that there are not also plenty of semi-retired political hacks (though Oona King, Stewart Wood and Eluned Morgan are hardly typical political appointees), with donors and time-servers rewarded particularly on the coalition benches (the Lib Dems seem to have had trouble filling their quota). But it is a reminder of what could be lost - even more so with crossbenchers - if we opt for a wholly elected House to replace the current chamber. At a time when dumbing down and generalism is all the rage, we need specialists and experts to scrutinise our legislation more than ever. All parties deserve credit for recognising this in at least some of their nominations.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Irish strengths and Irish woes

There is a slight sense of deja vu watching the predicament of Ireland today. I was one of those graduates who left in the early 1980s along with tens of thousands of my contemporaries. Since then I have watched with amazement the transition not just through the economic improvements of the Celtic Tiger but towards a less hypocritical, more open society prepared to confront its demons and adopt more liberal social policies.

And while the Irish economy is in a bad away, thanks to a combination of rotten banks and a massive property bubble, not all that has been gained in the last twenty years has been lost. Ireland's infrastructure is much improved, not least with a decent motorway network and strong air connections. It still enjoys a highly educated population. And - thanks in part to the low corporation tax that finance minister Brian Lenihan is rightly keen to protect - it remains a destination of choice for modern internet, IT, agribusiness, tourism and Pharma companies. With unemployment high and emigration rising, that infrastructure is a solid base from which to recover - provided that foreign investors are not scared away by the current crisis.

But it is not blessed with great government - Lenihan, to be fair, aside - and it is doing a woeful job in selling itself, something that Irish bodies used to excel at. Viewing the country through the UK media, one could be forgiven for imagining that the country had reverted to the 1950s, with photographers presenting images that might have sold well to American tourists as early John Hinde postcards. Veteran editor and foreign correspondent, Conor O'Clery is pretty sharp on this point in an excellent piece in today's Irish Times. Ministers should take heed.

But it is about time that we started telling the positive story to the people that matter; the editors, the publishers and the senior policymakers in the powerful broadcast organisations. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Government or in the administration with the appropriate competencies has been charged with doing so.

In the early 1970s when it seemed as if the conflagration of the North was going to spill over into the Republic, when cabinet ministers were being rounded up by the special branch and when rumours of coups and crises fed off one another, the government of the day took the initiative with a co-ordinated international media campaign.

Experienced journalists and communications professionals were recruited ad hoc and sent abroad with instructions to brief editors and programme chiefs in world capitals. They worked every contact and network they had so they could get in to where policy and key editorial decisions were being made.

Irish people in senior positions in international media were tapped. A London-based media relations company with good international contacts was contracted. The results were positive. Ireland’s reputation was assailed but the wider, fuller picture was successfully put across.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The rocky road to a National Funding Formula

Education Secretary Michael Gove is right to aim for a National Funding Formula, where schools are directly funded by Whitehall. When it is in operation it will bring greater clarity to school funding, remove unjustifiable anomalies and make it easier to ensure that specific funds like the Pupil Premium get directly to schools in a manner that is fair. But getting there will be a huge problem, and the obstacles en route could derail the policy. Gove will need to model the effects very carefully - and insist that his civil servants produce such models - to ensure that as some schools gain, other schools don't have their budgets cut.

In government, Labour took several steps towards a national formula. Local management of schools was extended so that schools now typically receive 87-90% of all funding (with the remainder for local authority services) delivered through a Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG). The only reason Tony Blair did not go further was because of opposition from both John Prescott and Gordon Brown to the loss of local authority responsibilities. However, while the DSG must go to schools, local authorities have the freedom, in agreement with local heads and governors through the Schools Forum, to impose their own formula on how it is distributed between local schools. In addition, schools have benefited from other funds outside the DSG including formula funding for revenue and capital, money to improve standards and money for specialist schools. The coalition said it plans to wrap these grants into the DSG to create a single revenue pot for schools. The assumption until today had been that this money would be distributed by the local authority according to its own formula. That will still apparently be the case in 2011-12.

And that's where the trouble could start.

The coalition will have at least two years of major funding upheaval at a time when budgets are likely to be almost frozen. In 2010-11, the misguided decision to scrap specialist school and other budgets will see these funds redistributed by local authorities on different formulae, while the first tranche of pupil premium funding will also start to filter through. If the coalition has any sense it will impose a rigid Minimum Funding Guarantee so that school receive at least an extra 1% extra per pupil (jncluding the pupil premium). Otherwise, the whole raft of changes will make Charles Clarke's troubles in 2003-4 seem like a picnic.

Moving to a National Formula a year later will require much greater skill. And while head teachers' leaders may welcome the principle of the NFF, their support will be sorely tested when schools that have done well out of the existing formula start to lose teachers. Put simply, if two similar schools are receiving funding that differs by as much as £1000 a pupil, then any equalisation will require one school to lose £500 for the other to gain £500 at a time of limited funding growth. The only way to make the change will be to freeze the better off school's budget while gradually increasing that of the less well off one. That is much harder in the current climate, as there is little spare money to achieve such growth or fund any damping measures. Changes will also be needed at sixth form level, as colleges get less per student than schools, and there can be no further reason for continuing this anomaly. And then, in inner city areas which currently receive far more for poorer pupils than the maximum pupil premium, will schools see their funding slashed to equalise funding, and how will that affect coalition claims of fairness?

Nevertheless, I'm all in favour of a National Funding Formula. Labour should have introduced one in government. But there will be a very rocky road getting there. And as Sir Humphrey has no doubt advised, it is a very brave minister indeed who tries to introduce one at a time of virtually no spending growth.

This posting also appears at Public Finance.

Monday, 8 November 2010

People want minimum standards not just meaningless milestones

I'm not sure what planet the PM was one when he described the series of business plans published today on the Cabinet Office website as 'revolutionary'. They are anything but. Since 'targets' are a forbidden word in the coalition lexicon, we are treated to a series of 'milestones'. For the most part these appear to be events and announcements that ensure that the government introduces its policies, but very little to hold them to account on results. Of course, Labour had too many targets, but those that set minimum standards on waiting lists and exam results were very successful. Instead of such standards we now have 'people power'. We are now responsible for ensuring that our local A&E sees us within four hours or waiting times are kept short. If they aren't, it is apparently no longer the fault of ministers, however much they cut budgets or impose untried restructuring of GP services.

But that isn't the whole story. Andrew Lansley may have abandoned minimum standards in the NHS despite his relatively protected budget. But Michael Gove has not done so in education: he told local authority officers last week that he would shortly be announcing minimum GCSE standards.
It can’t be acceptable to have so many schools in which two-thirds of children fail to secure five good GCSEs. Minimum standards at GCSE have risen in recent years, in line with the increased aspirations of parents and communities. Those school leaders and local authorities who have driven the fastest improvements deserve special credit. But given the quickening pace of school improvement across the globe, I believe it’s now essential that we demonstrate that we are stepping up our reform programme. I will therefore be finalising details of new floor standards shortly, for inclusion in my forthcoming Schools White Paper. These will apply from January 2011, when we have the verified and final summer 2010 examination data.
These are likely to extend Labour's highly successful floor targets which have made schools with fewer than 30% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and Maths a rarity (half of schools were in that category before 1997). At the same time, Gove is sharpening accountability in primary schools. But there seems to be little such understanding in other coalition departments. Today's rather pathetic business plans are remarkable similar to those we were expected to produce regularly in the early years of Labour government, and some look like they were written by the same civil servants, with the same managerial gobbledygook but with rather less on which to hold ministers to account. What David Cameron and Nick Clegg must recognise is that inputs without outcomes are pretty pointless.

And if they don't know it, the voters will explain it to them rather more cogently than today's business plans - in good time for the next election.

Friday, 5 November 2010

A bad day for democracy

Today's High Court judgement that the election has to be rerun in the Oldham and Saddleworth seat won for Labour by Phil Woolas in the general election has wider implications than the need for a by-election in that seat. I have no wish to defend Phil Woolas's leaflets, especially given the judgement. But there have been plenty of other election leaflets produced over the years by all parties - especially by Liberal Democrats - that owe more to the Fox News interpretation of 'fair and balanced' coverage of opponents' views than the dictionary definition.

Now, many candidates who lost out narrowly in the general election or local council elections will be revisiting their opponents' leaflets to see whether they too can challenge the result. I'm no fan of robust negative campaigning, but it is a part of most healthy democracies, and the voters usually have the common sense to make up their own minds about it. If someone feels that a leaflet has libelled them, it would surely be better that they use the libel laws to seek redress rather than trying to overturn an election.

Today's judgement is worrying in that it now suggests that the judiciary can second-guess the electorate when a losing candidate doesn't like the outcome.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Why Ed should not oppose the tuition fees package

I've written a piece for this month's Progress magazine about how Ed Miliband and Labour should respond to the tuition fees hike announced yesterday. I have updated this version to reflect clarifications since I wrote the piece - and yesterday's announcements.

It was Peter Mandelson who commissioned Lord Browne’s university funding report, and his team were nominated by a Labour government. That explains why he has made so much effort to achieve fairness in a difficult financial environment, and why Ed Miliband should not oppose his plans – or the government’s version - when they are put to a vote.

Browne’s proposals lift the cap on tuition fees from £3,290 today to £6,000 from 2012, with universities able to charge more if they pay a levy. He has broadly retained Labour’s repayment mechanism, where graduates repay the costs of tuition and living expenses once they start to earn. However, he has introduced a real rate of interest and a higher threshold for any payments of £21,000 instead of £15,000 today. A graduate on £30,000 a year pays back just £16 a week in his system. Importantly, part-timers would be included for the first time, a huge step forward in terms of equity.

The coalition has broadly accepted the Browne package, though with a £9,000 cap on fees and a requirement that those charging over £6,000 do more for access. It is sensibly keeping the Office for Fair Access to monitor this.

The coalition was right to reject a graduate tax, as Labour did in government. As Browne points out, it would penalise low earners more (with a £6,475 threshold as that is when people start paying tax), be harder to collect from European students, not give universities the money they need now and impose a lifetime of repayments on every graduate.

Our universities need extra income to compete, and this is particularly true of our leading research universities who have welcomed these moves. However, we should not ignore the concerns of the newer teaching universities. Baroness Blackstone, a former higher education minister, argued on Progress’s website that the new system could deprive them of sufficient teaching resources. That’s because the coalition is cutting 40 per cent from the government’s teaching grant as the new system is introduced.

So, Ed Miliband should avoid the mistakes made by the Tories in opposition, when they opposed tuition fees despite having established the Dearing Review in government (with Labour support) that they knew would recommend fees. He should recognise that Browne has many of the advantages of the graduate tax he supports, without the disadvantages – not least because it builds on the system Labour developed in government.

In Progress, I argued that his support should depend on four things. First, the proposed cut in teaching funding for universities is too great and should be reduced, so that they see some added benefit from the new regime. This has yet to be addressed, particularly in the humanities. Second, there should continue to be proper monitoring and publication of how universities distribute bursaries for poorer students, with much better publicity of what’s on offer. This has partially been addressed.

Third, students should be able to see clearly how much contact time their courses provide and they should have more access to academics. This will become a much bigger issue when the higher fees are introduced. Ed should press this strongly. And there should be an upper limit on the new fees, of £7,000 or £8,000, so that students do not feel completely priced out of our top universities. The cap is slightly higher, but the principle has been accepted.

And then he should either support the government, or if he feels the final package is still lacking, abstain. He should not ally himself with Lib Dem rebels. To do so would exchange the short term discomfort of the coalition for his longer term credibility as a serious leader. The Tories did this to us in 2005, when top-up fees were introduced and Michael Howard suffered for it. They admit they were wrong. Ed should be bold enough to avoid the same mistake.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

How abolishing league tables hit Welsh standards

A fascinating new report from Bristol University shows that by scrapping performance tables, the Welsh Assembly made a serious mistake in 2001. I had already started to notice the impact when I debated the issue in the TES at the time. Now, this damning report has demonstrated that the absence of serious pressure on secondary schools has reduced the average GCSE candidate's attainment by the equivalent of almost two GCSE grades compared with their English counterparts. The report said:
We find that the reform significantly and systematically reduces school effectiveness. We find systematic, significant and robust evidence that abolishing school league tables markedly reduced school effectiveness in Wales. The impact is sizeable: a fall of 1.92 GCSE grades per student per year.

Moreover, the impact was worst on the lowest performing schools with the poorest and lowest ability ones most impacted. It was probably compounded by the absence of academies and the National Challenge. This is the strongest evidence yet of the value of performance tables and published data. As Professor David Reynolds says, the Welsh Assembly should consider their reintroduction.

And do so without delay.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Social Network

We caught The Social Network over the weekend. It is a surprisingly gripping account of the story behind Facebook, with great central performances particularly from Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg. It is far from being a nerd's movie - Aaron Sorkin's script ensures that. Instead, as told through a series of fascinating law suit hearings, it becomes a tale of class, the snobbery of elite US universities, social inadequacy, innovative genius and the cruelties of business. There's a highly entertaining scene with Douglas Urbanski as Harvard President Larry Summers giving the pretenders to the Facebook patent, the preposterously entitled Winklevoss brothers, short shrift despite their father's wealth. There is plenty of such humour, though a lot of it is of the 'did he really say that' kind, as Eisenberg ranges from disinterested abuse to cutting sarcasm. Yet the whole two hour experience is as engrossing as anything to hit the screens from the US this year. I can't imagine the execs at Facebook think much of it, not least their founder. But in the end, it is a tribute to his sheer genius (whether or not he cribbed some of the idea from elsewhere) in turning a college friendship site into a worldwide phenomenon.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The devil is in the detail

The coalition is in trouble on several fronts. Boris has started his re-election campaign with a vengeance, out-Kenning Ken on the curbs on housing benefit. The plans to restrict child benefit to basic rate taxpayers are proving rather more complicated than they were presented. The politics of both policies is probably right, despite Labour's objections, but the government have erred because of a fundamental weakness: their inattention to detail.

I started to notice this in some of the consultation papers they issued, notably that on the pupil premium. The consultation paper says very little about the detail of the premium, leading the TES and John Howson to assume today that it will benefit some schools to the tune of £1 million while leading to many losers. The same inattention to detail compounded the agony of the Building Schools for the Future and GP fundholding announcements.

Had they thought things through with their housing benefit changes, they would have put a higher cap for inner London or applied the policy only to new applicants, and that would have forced Labour to say whether or not they opposed a change they long wanted to make themselves. At the same time, they would have applied sanctions for continued unemployment to JSA rather than housing benefit, something they could only have done if they guaranteed them at least one job offer or a community alternative. Instead, they have succeeded in giving Boris Johnson a fillip and uniting Lib Dems, Labour and inner London MPs against a policy that sounds harsher by the day.

There are similar problems on child benefit: for parties that criticised the complexity of Gordon Brown's tax credits to apply new layers of expensive bureaucracy - which will be trebled with separated couples - is bizarre. But it suggests that they have assumed that if they have an idea, they just need to announce it and the details will worry about themselves. With six years experience as an adviser in government, I can share a little secret: they won't.

Which brings me to the pupil premium, the next accident waiting to happen. I think a pupil premium is a good idea. But, let's not forget that in practice Labour shifted large sums to schools - far more than the maximum premium - with large numbers of pupils on free school meals, which is why their budgets are already significantly higher than others. If funding for schools were rising across the board and there were a genuinely open admissions system, it would make sense simply to have a pupil premium starting at say, £1000 a year, rising to £2500 a year for every FSM pupil by 2015, as the Liberal Democrats envisaged it. Since it isn't, this could cause chaos in coalition constituencies.

For not only is funding not rising, but the government has slashed a host of grants including specialist school funding and school development funds upon which all schools relied. The local authority is to be allowed to redistribute this money (with the local school forum) as it sees fit. Local formulae already build in significant premiums for poorer pupils. So the only way to avoid complete chaos in the school system and an uprising among government backbenchers that would make this week seem like a picnic, is to build in a minimum funding guarantee assuring all schools that they would get at least a standstill per-pupil budget (bearing in mind the teachers' pay freeze) for the next four years. And even then, the likelihood is that schools will simply see the premium as a replacement for other cuts and it will have no effect on narrowing the attainment gap, unless there are other levers and sanctions, such as published data on FSM pupils' achievements by school and financial penalties for those not improving poorer pupils' results.

Either the government opts for simplicity - earning education secretary Michael Gove his inner Aneurin Bevan as the editor of the TES has it - or complexity that keeps restive backbenchers and anxious headteachers happy. This week should have taught the coalition a lesson that they seem not to have learned before now. The devil is definitely in the detail.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The right economic approach for Labour

There's plenty of gloating about a leaked internal document from Labour (£) where insiders recognise that the party lacks economic definition yet and needs a clearer approach to tackling the coalition cuts. Such gloating is premature. If anything it suggests a degree of real understanding about the potential weakness of the party at a time when it has just overtaken the Conservatives on today's Populus poll but growth figures are better than predicted by a gloomy city (albeit down on Labour's last quarter). And that is a good thing. Labour needs to box clever not only the economy - where it has failed to allow a narrative to emerge that blames the party for the size of the deficit and ignores the penury into which millions of savers would have fallen had Labour allowed the banks to collapse as George Osborne advised - but also on health and education. A first step in doing so is recognising one's weaknesses. A second step, which some frontbenchers including Alan Johnson and Douglas Alexander on welfare have already recognised, is to fight the coalition strategically and not wholesale. The third one is having the right policies for the next election. So, embarrassing though this leak may be, it is a sign that the party is not retreating into an opposition comfort zone. That approach needs to be followed through across the front bench - without the leaks, perhaps.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

What will Osborne's education plans really mean?

George Osborne has been trumpeting his plans to protect school budgets. And by the standards of some other departments, Michael Gove has had a good settlement, even if the logic of Osborne's budget should be that education is more important than health. But he shouldn't be surprised if his plans are not received with enthusiasm at the chalkface once schools see their budgets.

The reason is that, as Osborne admitted, per pupil funding and Sure Start funding will only be protected in cash terms, not in real terms. As Charles Clarke discovered when he tried to reform the distribution of funding in 2004, therein lies a recipe for grief further down the line. With the likelihood that local authorities - bizarrely - will be able to reorder priorities for several key grants, including specialist schools funding, there will be many schools worried that local authorities will choose favourites and penalise the very independent-minded leaders most likely to become academies. The details of how the pupil premium is distributed are crucial - and it is funded from the 'real terms' increase in school spending.

And, the scrapping of education maintenance allowances will remove a real incentive for learning from the poorest young people. If a more targeted fund administered by schools and colleges is introduced, it is important that it is strong enough to ensure that those who should stay in education can do so. EMAs were better at this than 16-18 child benefit. It is good that some new schools will be built in future, but the 600 planned over four years will include primaries as well as secondaries, suggesting a rate of progress that is relatively slow and doesn't even deal with the 700 lost BSF projects. It represents a real terms cut of 60% in education capital.

The addition of new apprenticeships is welcome, but there is nothing new to improve the skills of adults who we need to be able to adapt to the changing global environment, as Train to Gain is scrapped and the adult FE budget is slashed. And, in higher education, it looks like the huge cut in the teaching grant has been built in. All in all, education may have fared better than it might have, but there remain huge questions over the real impact of this review at the frontline.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

The loss of specialist leverage

The news - not entirely unexpected - that the coalition is scrapping specialist school funding and handing the money to local authorities to distribute as they choose illustrates a central failing of the government's education policy. It is unwilling to support the means to achieve its goals. A wise government would have recognised that the levers in specialist schools could be harnessed to achieve many of its goals - a tougher rebidding process could have made schools more businesslike, while the specialist networks could ensure that the academic subjects ministers wish for were actually delivered. Its modest funding could have had significantly more impact than the pupil premium, which in the absence of any accountability will simply become a prop in schools to compensate for the wider cuts. Instead, a programme that has direct links to Kenneth Baker's CTC programme and which - contrary to what Paul Waugh claims - was actually created by the Tories in 1994 - even if Labour greatly expanded them - is to be dropped for the sake of ideological consistency. This is a big mistake and a huge loss of the leverage which was crucial to higher standards over the last 15 years. Michael Gove will come to regret it.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Will school funding really be protected?

The coalition's spinners have been claiming that schools will be protected from the Chancellor's axe on Wednesday. I hope they are right. But anyone seeking to get behind the spin might ask the following five questions first, if they are not to be surprised when many schools suggest otherwise once they see their budgets.

1. Will schools have their total revenue budgets protected at least in real terms, including funding for specialist schools (worth £129 a pupil) and the school development and personalisation grants? A July consultation paper proposed allowing local authorities to impose their own formulae on this funding, creating winners and losers.

2. Most schools rely on a range of external services, often delivered by the local authority, to support the poorest pupils. These include pupil referral units, truancy officers, special needs support and free school transport. Will these be protected or will schools have the funds to provide alternatives? After all, many local authorities have already starting axing them?

3. Will schools continue to have their own formula capital funding to allow them to make repairs and undertake improvements without having to ask the local authority?

4. Is there provision made for an increase that allows for demographic changes - primary rolls are rising again, and per pupil funding needs to be increased to recognise this if school funding is genuinely not being cut?

5. Understandably, teachers' salaries are being frozen next year. Has the equation assumed no increasing in teaching costs, and a 'real terms' calculation being made that way. If so, how do schools cover incremental increases and performance threshold rises?

Additionally, we await real details of the pupil premium, which will average less than £2bn a year. Will the extra money be provided equally on a per pupil basis to all those on free school meals, or a comparable measure, or will it only be provided in reality to FSM pupils in areas that had gained less from Labour's increases? While this could both be justified and happily benefit Tory and Lib Dem constituencies, it would not narrow the gap between rich and poor, particularly if inner city schools lose some of the infrastructure on which they depend.

The reality is likely to be that schools will be better protected than most public services. But if the government is not to suffer disillusionment in schools when the reality of the funding settlement is reflected in budgets, it would be wise to be totally honest about what will survive - and what won't - on Wednesday.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Exaggeration and academies

It is good that a significant number of outstanding maintained schools wish to become academies. I hope many others choose to do so. But the Education Secretary Michael Gove and his media briefers should stop pretending that the speed with which an excellent school goes through a relatively simple legal process is somehow comparable with the task of replacing a failing school with something wholly new and with strong sponsorship, or establishing a business-sponsored city technology college. Indeed, the danger of Gove's approach is that he ignores the hard graft required to turn around those schools that are failing and which remains essential to school reform. We need to hear what's happening with those schools - which were the main focus of Labour's academies drive for good reason.

Browne's imaginative proposals

Today's report from Lord Browne on university funding offers an imaginative set of proposals to a difficult problem at an impossible time. By setting a partial cap at £6,000, with a tapered cap linked to student affordability above that, he has gone a long way to satisfy the universities, including those in the Russell Group who want to charge more without having the taxpayer subsidising the higher fees. Including part-timers in the loans system is a big step forward that reflects contemporary student realities. It also makes sense to increase the starting point at which students pay loans back to £21,000, which means a £16 a week repayment for those earning £30k a year, and to add interest to the loan: that will reduce the taxpayer's subsidy of student living expenses. There is also a larger grant for poorer students, though I wonder whether it would have made more sense to focus those resources on much larger targeted bursaries linked to getting poorer able students onto economically valuable courses.

For the graduate, the package would mean higher debt, but repayments would be lower initially and his proposals reflect the good sense of the graduate repayment system introduced in 1998 (contrary to popular mythology, the level of student loans rose in 1998 by the same amount as the new £1000 tuition fees although they were given for living expenses, so 'upfront fees' were never actually required). Lower earners would do better from this new system.

We must await the government's detailed response. But they would be wise not to tamper too much with what seems like an elegant and fair solution. More important than tinkering with the repayment formula is ensuring that some of Browne's other proposals get implemented. The first is to increase undergraduate places. The second is to ensure that careers advice is radically improved, particularly at a time when cuts could threaten its extinction. Students must have a better teaching and tutorial experience while at university. And universities should use the availability of loans to sell the part-time route more effectively to those in work who could benefit from higher education.

For Labour, John Denham has issued a sensibly cautious response, drawing attention to the likely cuts in government support for teaching: it is important that ministers are clear about the extent to which graduates and taxpayers pay for universities now and in the future. The Browne proposals should not simply be a substitute for HEFCE grants - the must support expansion, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses. And there may be more to do in targeting support to able disadvantaged students. But how Labour responds to the final package will be a test of its seriousness. Browne has shown why a graduate tax would not work (indeed Labour found the same in government, as Tony Blair reminds us in A Journey) and the report explains how this proposal is fairer to low earning graduates. Provided that the final package is also fair, Labour should support it in a Commons vote. Doing so would do far more for its political credibility than propping up a Lib Dem rebellion.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Why should most undergraduates live away from home?

Today's newspapers suggest that the cap on university tuition fees is likely to be completely removed, if Lord Browne has his way, paving the way for fees up to £12,000 a year. That would be a mistake: it would be more sensible to lift the cap to £7000 a year, the figure sought by Universities UK. At the same time, as predicted by this blog, the silly notion of a graduate tax has been abandoned in favour of a more income-related version of the current graduate contribution. But what seems absent at a time when we are fundamentally reviewing our welfare state is any questioning of the idea that undergraduates should be expected to live away from home while they study.

Let's be clear about this. It is not the norm in most countries - including in Ireland, where I gained my degree cycling to college from my Dublin home - to study in another city when one's local university offers the course one wishes to pursue. Given that we provide subsidised loans - with subsidies worth 23% of the value of the loan - for three years simply to enable largely better off young people to pursue a 'rites of passage' experience, surely we should start to question whether this should be the norm for a third of all young people. Adults who increasingly study as mature students don't expect it, so why should young people? Fair enough for those from poorer backgrounds who win a place in a Russell Group university or on a rare specialist course in another university - indeed, decent non-repayable bursaries should be provided for those students - but can we really afford to continue subsidising this experience for everyone else?

That's the sort of question that Ed Miliband should be asking as he seeks to stake out a credible alternative to the coalition ahead of the Spending Review. He could argue for lower fees instead of automatic living expense subsidies. But, having adopted the graduate tax in his leadership campaign, he chooses instead to play games with Lib Dem backbenchers. He may even win a Commons vote by doing so, but he will do so at the expense of his own credibility as a serious leader. Living expenses are certainly something the Treasury should be challenging instead of seeking to cut programmes with far more genuine impact on social mobility that benefit toddlers of school students. Instead, we are left arguing about the size of tuition fees and their repayment, whilst ignoring this extraordinary - and unusual - subsidy that has far less to commend it than universal child benefit.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Enron and Eric

To see Lucy Prebble's wonderful Enron last night. The staging is brilliant, the cast great and the exposition of the way the company operated electrifyingand worryingly revealing. Prebble's story, brilliantly realised under Rupert Goold's direction, relates the rise and fall of Enron as a story not only of greed, but also of I watched this stunningly good play at Bath Theatre Royal last night, I found one of extraordinary hubris. Particularly poignant was the way Enron's staff were encouraged to invest in such dodgy stock. But there was one episode that seemed particularly chilling and of contemporary relevance: as the firm's accountants endorsed their fraudulent scheme, they declared their willingness to provide their customers with whatever they wanted. For some reason, I couldn't help thinking about the plans by the ludicrous Eric Pickles to replace the independent integrity of the Audit Commission with a system where local authorities shop around for auditors likely best to meet their needs - and tell them what they want to hear. Enron Eric - I offer this to his new opponent, Caroline Flint, free of charge.

Friday, 8 October 2010

A good start in the shadow cabinet

Ed Miliband has chosen wisely in making Alan Johnson (left) his Shadow Chancellor, rather than Ed Balls or even Yvette Cooper, whatever her undoubted talents. She is an interesting choice as shadow foreign secretary, and her big success in the PLP vote deserved such a reward. Johnson has a sounder understanding of how to take on George Osborne and the coalition, and his humour should do wonders to prick Osborne's pompous sense of his own self-importance. Ed Balls has the chance to provide the Tories with the opposition they deserve on crime and justice policy, provided he is ready to reflect the views of ordinary Labour voters, and overcomes his own instinctive opposition to the sort of measures that have helped reduce antisocial behaviour and crime while Labour was in government. With Ed Miliband's loyal lieutenant Sadiq Khan shadowing Ken Clarke at Justice, this may be more difficult.

Andy Burnham's Blairite instincts should return some sanity to the party's schools policy, and he needs quickly to reclaim academies as a Labour success story, while ensuring that he develops a distinctive but constructive critique of the Tories' version. At health, John Healey needs to regain the initiative in challenging the destructive reorganisation of the NHS and reminding voters at every turn how the Tories ditched A&E and waiting time targets, as the consequences of Andrew Lansley's madness come home to roost. Jim Murphy is a good pick at defence, and Caroline Flint needs to find the right riposte to Eric Pickles at communities. By picking John Denham to shadow Vince Cable, Ed Miliband is ensuring that his mistaken graduate tax plans are advanced. Douglas Alexander is a good pick on work and pensions, and should be able to provide the constructive positioning needed on the issue. Interesting that he also wisely ignored the PLP, by giving Shaun Woodward Northern Ireland and Peter Hain Wales, pushing his shadow cabinet up to a hefty 27 places. Liam Byrne is a bit wasted shadowing the cabinet office unless he is explicitly taking on Nick Clegg (which Harriet Harman will do as deputy leader).

But there are big promotions - and a real test - for Mary Creagh shadowing DEFRA and Meg Hillier taking on Chris Huhne at environment. With Harriet Harman also shadowing International Development, Patricia Scotland as shadow Attorney General, Rosie Winterton as chief whip, Angela Eagle as shadow chief secretary, sister Maria at Transport, Ann McKechin covering Scotland and Tessa Jowell keeping her cherished Olympics role, Ed Miliband now has a record 12 women in his shadow cabinet, a vindication for Harman's efforts to achieve greater equality. The new shadow cabinet has many new faces. Now their challenge is to get the response to the Spending Review right. With AJ, there is a better chance that they will do so.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Don't scrap social mobility benefits

There is some logic in Chancellor George Osborne's clawing back of child benefit from better off families through the tax system, whatever the practical difficulties involved. The idea of a universal credit is also a good idea, though more difficult in practice. But there is absolutely no sense in scrapping child benefit and education maintenance allowances for the over-16s as suggested in the weekend press.

Legislation will soon compel young people to remain in training or education beyond their 16th birthdays. Their choice of what to do - school, college, a training programme, apprenticeship or work with training - should be informed by their ability not their ability to pay. If families and students lose child benefit and EMAs (worth up to £200 a month combined) even the brightest students from poorer families could find themselves forced by financial considerations to take a paid training programme or job with training, rather than a school or college course, and give up hopes of university (where, despite the rhetoric around a graduate tax, it is graduates not students who pick up the living costs through loans). Moreover EMAs are one of the few successful conditional benefits we have. At the very least, they should stay for the poorest students.

How could Vince Cable, with his enthusiasm for easing graduate burdens, support an end to opportunity for poorer young people aged 16+? And how could Michael Gove, with his passion for social mobility, countenance the removal of the funds that enable these young people to continue their studies? Martin Narey is absolutely right on where these funds should be prioritised. He should be heeded on this issue.

Made in Dagenham

Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham has received some deserved rave reviews. Sally Hawkins is really superb as the Ford seamstress who leads a 1968 battle for equal pay with the semi-skilled men at the Dagenham factory. Their battle received national attention and highlighted similar inequities before 1970s Equal Pay legislation. Miranda Richardson is great as a feisty Barbara Castle, too. There are moving performances from Geraldine James and Roger Lloyd Pack. And there's a great story, a reminder of equality battles past and a pro-union plot with potential wide appeal. But the film has serious flaws, too. Many of the cast - excepting Hawkins and Richardson - are cast in cardboard cut-out roles, two-dimensional and talents wasted. This is certainly true of the men, including Bob Hoskins playing himself and a shop steward, but is equally true of many of the women in the cast including the ubiquitous Andrea Riseborough. The script is terribly formulaic, like so many such British movies - including Calendar Girls - which may provide mass appeal, but holds back many of the fine cast. Nevertheless, this is a significant movie that makes some important political issues accessible in a way that Ken Loach never could.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Town

To see Ben Affleck's fabulous new thriller, The Town, a claustrophic tale of Boston bank robbers. There are great performances from Affleck as Doug, the robber who wants to escape his blue collar roots, Rebecca Hall as his unwitting victim turned girlfriend and Mad Men's Jon Hamm as the FBI agent determined to break an ever-more audicious gang. The film is gripping from the start, and despite some very violent scenes and its fair share of cliches, manages to provide a story surprising in its depth. There are plenty of great action scenes, chases, explosions and comic book shootouts, but this is ultimately a stronger film than the sum of those parts. Affleck - whose Gone Baby Gone was equally rewarding - is becoming as strong an actor/director as Clint Eastwood. Don't miss it.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

After a shaky start, Ed must pick the right shadow cabinet

There are two good things behind that paywall in today's Times, David Aaronovitch's excellent column and Sam Coates's tips for the shadow cabinet (page 11).

Unlike David Aaronovitch, I watched Ed Miliband's speech on TV, and gave my instant verdict on this blog - a clever speech but one that begged questions. But David A is right that Ed needs to show a desire to lead: he should have said he would campaign for AV, not just vote for it. His hard sections were quickly softened by crowd pleasers. Second, while I share the view that he probably had to address Iraq, I agree with David A that Ed M was utterly wrong in his characterisation of Tony Blair's foreign policy, and his passage would have been far more credible had it recognised how a Labour government saved tens of thousands of lives in Kosovo or Sierra Leone. Waiting for the UN - for which, read the principled leaders of Russia and China -to act is a recipe for genocide, as the people of Rwanda and Cambodia know only too well. Such positioning made it impossible for David Miliband to stay in the frontline.

Ed Miliband has the makings of a credible attack on the coalition's cuts, but he must avoid any repeat of last night's interview on Channel 4 News where he sounded too enthusiastic about tax (he needs a better way to express his plans for banking levies, and he should heed Nick Pearce's advice about the effect of focusing too much on redistribution rather than having a broad tax base to tackle inequalities). I know it is early days, and the switch of Chief Whip from Nick Brown to Rosie Winterton suggests a welcome steeliness. Yet to end Labour Party conference with a 'new generation' leader two points behind the Tories in the latest Yougov poll must be worrying.

But if Ed wants to move on from what has been a pretty inauspicious first week, he needs to get his shadow cabinet right. He could do a lot worse than the excellent suggestions for a well-balanced team made by Sam Coates - assuming they all get elected, and recognising that more than six women are likely to be in the team, as Harriet Harman and Rosie Winterton are there by right. Douglas Alexander or Liam Byrne would be right for shadow chancellor, Caroline Flint and Yvette Cooper would be great in education and health, Ed Balls (provided he is allowed to oppose the Tories properly) would be a powerful shadow home secretary and Pat McFadden deserves a big job like shadowing Vince Cable or Eric Pickles. Jim Murphy would be right for defence and Andy Burnham good at transport. Tessa Jowell should have Olympics. Coates proposes Harriet Harman as shadow foreign secretary, a just reward for her renaissance as acting leader and Alan Johnson to tease the increasingly pompous Nick Clegg. I doubt that Ed's advisers could do much better.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A clever first speech, now for the hard part

Ed Miliband's first speech as party leader was clever and well-constructed, though it suffered from an as yet limited sense of what it all means in practice. Nevertheless, he met the tests set for him by the tabloids. He couldn't have been clearer about his support for fiscal responsibility and reducing the deficit, but he wrapped it in a great phrase about true patriotism being about reducing the debt burden for our kids, as well as about building an economy and a society fit for our kids to live in. He was clear what he supported from Labour's legacy, as well as starting to set a clearer sense of where he wants to go - graduate tax, tax breaks for a living wage, work-life balance, sensible welfare reform, civil liberties - but was sharp in reminding the unions of the 'book of historic failures' and that he would not support 'irresponsible strikes'.

His is a style where he lays the hard choices out clearly, but softens them to please his audience: backing being tough on crime, pro-business, changing clause 4 but finishing with all-women shortlists. He is also unclear where he stands on some of Labour's most important reforms: his tale of tackling a failing school should have been followed by support for Labour's successful academies. Instead it was used to talk up government. It was also fascinating how muted a response he received from the conference floor for his criticism of the Iraq war. (Note, by contrast, the stronger applause he got for his support for Palestine).

Where he is on strongest ground is on democratic reform - with a clear pledge to support the Alternative Vote and reform the Lords - and on the need for intelligent cross-party thinking (a promise to go soft on Ken Clarke and Theresa May must rule out Ed Balls for Shadow Home Secretary, then). But his speech lacked a clear sense of where Ed Miliband will take the party, though given how little time he had to prepare this speech, this is excusable this year. This was a well crafted first speech, confidently delivered, not least in his repudiation of the "Red Ed" label and his shaping of Labour as a party of optimism. He has passed this first test: the big challenge comes in translating all this into practice in a way that genuinely wins back many of the five million New Labour voters lost since 1997.

This post has been picked up by Left Foot Forward and Iain Dale.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Wise words for Ed

Alan Johnson has some good advice for Ed Miliband in the Independent on Sunday, including on his unwise obsession with a graduate tax:

Think "out of the box" (as I believe they say in management-speak). The very existence of the coalition has demonstrated that the public is willing to accept new and innovative thinking about how we manage government in the UK. During your campaign, all candidates spoke regularly of not returning to the old ways. Now show you mean it. Breathe new life into our education policy; define localism and community activism in a way that is not a metaphor for filling gaps in public services; understand that the public does not want to see a reverse in the progress we made in tackling crime. Oh, and for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees. Students don't pay them, graduates do, when they're earning more than £15,000 a year, at very low rates, stopped from their pay just like a graduate tax, but with the money going where it belongs: to universities rather than the Treasury.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Now Ed must show real leadership

I didn't vote for Ed Miliband as leader. But now that he has been elected, I congratulate him and will join other party members in giving him my support. But he must also show the country that he has what it takes to win their votes. That means a rather more outward-looking agenda than has been apparent during the leadership campaign. It means a selective and coherent critique of the coalition, which starts from an acceptance of what we would have cut and an indication of what we can support - some welfare and education reforms, for example - followed by a strong and clear critique of those coalition cuts and policies that are bad for Britain. It means a recognition of the issues that matter to those voters who elected us under Tony Blair three elections in a row, and a conscious abandonment of those parts of the Brown approach that contributed to our defeat. I don't share the silly characterisation of Ed Miliband as 'Red Ed', but the challenge for our new leader is to show the voters that it is just that. We need surprising, innovative and vote-winning ideas in Tuesday's leader's speech and in the months ahead. Not least because we have had precious few of them during the long leadership campaign.

Friday, 24 September 2010

New leader needs to speak to the voters again

Whoever wins the Labour leadership election, one thing is very clear from today's Times/Populus poll: the public, especially Labour voters, want the new leader to follow the outward-facing approach of Tony Blair. They don't share the leadership candidates' predeliction for bashing Blairism. The poll finds that 60% of all voters and 70% of Labour voters believe that the new leader should adopt a similar approach to that adopted by Tony Blair. Of course, that doesn't mean no changes to policy: but it does mean developing policies with broad appeal and seeking to rebuild the coalition of voters that won Labour three elections.

In his first speech, the victorious Miliband would do well to follow Philip Collins's sage advice (£) in today's Times - support some government policy so that your wider critique is heard:
The new leader would be [well] advised to find an area of policy on which he intends to support the coalition — education is the obvious example — and then, in the slipstream of this concession, go in hard on Andrew Lansley’s chaotic health plans, vague Hague’s international retreat and the absence of a coalition plan for law and order.

Culling quangos

It is a strange notion that because an organisation is a quango, it is inherently worse than something run by the civil service. Yet that seems to be the sole rationale for Francis Maude's zealous cull of these arm's length bodies. Reading through the list leaked to the Daily Telegraph, an organ guaranteed to back Maude over timid ministers, one is struck not by the absurdity of many of the bodies to be axed, but by their obvious usefulness.

Baroness Deech provided an elegant defence of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on the Today programme this morning, quietly correcting a sneering John Humphrys over her remuneration for chairing this august body: a modest £8,000 a year (and many other chairs are unremunerated despite bringing huge experience and expertise to the subject that most certainly does not exist in the Civil Service). The HFEA has allowed an honest independent scientific and ethical analysis of some of the thorniest dilemmas of recent years, far more usefully than had it been left to the civil service or ministers.

But look beyond the HFEA to the School Food Trust, under Prue Leith's leadership transforming school dinners or the Audit Commission, offering independent assessments of council standards. The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts - which is largely funded through a ten year-old endowment rather than recurring government funding - has a global reputation for its championing of innovation, something key to our economic recovery. Some quangos certainly may usefully be merged, scrapped or their functions absorbed by others: but if that is so, then we must hope that the final list is rather more explicit about what is really happening than the gung-ho tone of Maude's letter to Nick Clegg on the subject, also published in today's Telegraph.

For example, the Legal Services Commission may be unloved, but someone will need to administer Legal Aid, and the functions of the General Teaching Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency will both be absorbed into the Department for Education or other agencies, as they will have to continue.

When the government - so committed to transparency and value for money - publishes its final list of axed quangos, perhaps it could provide the following information for each quango
* What it did and why
* What it actually cost and what remuneration was paid to its board, if any
* What functions, if any, will tranfer elsewhere
* The genuine net cost or saving from abolition of each quango, after redundancy and the cost of delivering services elsewhere
* An independent analysis of the net wider economic, social, cultural or other costs of abolishing the quango

Simply because the generic abolition of quangos appeals both to right-wing newspapers and to civil servants (who always disliked them) does not make each individual case right. But perhaps we will have to wait until their absence is lamented to realise that.

This posting also appears on the Public Finance blog and has been picked up at Stumbling and Mumbling.