Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The no-win generation

I've written this for the Public Finance blog:

Today’s GCSE celebrations – as with those on A-levels last week – will be muted somewhat by the lack of opportunities facing young people after they digest their results. Undergraduate places for UK students may have been up by 10,000 this year, but they still left many youngsters with no prospect of a university place. The youth employment market is unpromising, with many graduates struggling to find places with their degrees, and many apprenticeships and college places are hard-fought.

The lack of opportunity is an economic tragedy – and it is vital that it is addressed by the Chancellor in the Spending Review, when we should finally learn what will replace the axed Future Jobs Fund, a successful programme that had begun to help young people back to work. It is also crucial that universities have a sustainable funding system when the Browne review reports. But there is no reason to compound the difficulties facing young people with the annual sour scepticism about their achievements.

This year’s biggest raspberry must go to Civitas who chose today to launch a full-scale assault on many vocational qualifications. They may be over-valued in the league tables, but plenty of heads will testify that in disadvantaged areas they have a vital role raising the aspirations of young people so that they then study more academic GCSEs including English and Maths. But others are not immune. We are told that the ‘record pass rate’ is a sign of further dumbing down by the same people who criticise the previous government for not seeing sufficient GCSE improvement for its record investment in education.

When schools minister Nick Gibb produces his curriculum review in the autumn, it is important he doesn’t listen too much to the naysayers. He must ensure there is a strong vocational range of options not just to introduce young people to hands-on work but also to motivate them to gain further qualifications. He should allow more choice so that those who don’t want to overspecialise too soon can do the respected International Baccalaureate rather than A levels if they wish, and allow Diplomas to develop in applied subjects. And he should ensure that the curriculum allows young people to develop both the breadth of knowledge and the range of skills that will stand them in good stead at work, university or in later life.

But, for today, could we just confine ourselves to congratulating the young people who gained GCSEs and giving them the practical help and advice they need to take the next steps towards further qualifications or work?

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Who's to blame for A-level science success?

The Telegraph website reports two interesting subject stories from today's A-level results. The first is a further dip in French and German entries (somewhat offset by an economically rational decision to opt for Spanish instead) which the Telegraph blames on Labour's decision to scrap compulsory post-14 languages. There is then a report on the (further) surge in advanced Maths and Physics entrants which is largely due to a very successful Labour government initiative to improve take up in the so-called STEM subjects, driven through universities and specialist science colleges. This drive has also increased science and maths entries at GCSE and to universities. Funnily, the Telegraph has forgotten to mention the Labour government's role in this story, claiming this is entirely a result of the recession even though a 20 year-decline in physics actually started to reverse before the recession.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

100 days

Sky has marked 100 days of the coalition with a very silly self-selecting poll, admirably debunked by Anthony Wells. Chris Leslie has produced a list of 100 'regressive' things that the coalition has done. There are plenty of media cheerleaders singing their praises in contrast. But what would a balanced picture look like?

First, the fact that the coalition has emerged is itself an important event in British politics, and one not to be sniffed at. That there would be both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers in office would have seemed unlikely to many twelve months ago. While we're in a generous mood, we should praise some genuinely positive things that the coalition has done: Cameron's response to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the broad protection of the overall DFID budget and much of what is in the Academies Act - which largely updates Labour legislation - is to the good, even it is rather stymied by a lack of resources and a failure more explicitly to expect collaboration between good and weak schools. An AV referendum is long overdue (though it should be decoupled from partisan boundary changes). And David Cameron has proved better in the role of PM than might have expected (though Nick Clegg is ten times worse than even I could have imagined).

One can't argue about the need to cut the deficit, but one can certainly argue about the speed with which it is being done and some of the perverse decisions that have followed with nary a whimper from the Lib Dems. In no particular order, I think these are the ten worst things the coalition has done so far:

scrapping Building Schools for the Future projects that were already underway;
abolishing the Audit Commission;
scrapping the Child Trust Fund;
scrapping the Future Jobs Fund;
forcing reluctant GPs to take control of patient budgets;
scrapping NHS waiting time maximums - 18 weeks for treatment; 4 hours at A&E;
abolishing the Film Council;
slowing the nuclear power programme by putting Chris Huhne in charge;
scrapping life-saving speed cameras to appease petrolheads;
Cameron playing to the gallery in India (over Pakistan) and Turkey (over Israel)

I realise that not everyone will agree with this list (and I have left off several aspects of their crime and justice agenda that they will certainly come to regret). On the other hand, I don't think everything on Chris Leslie's list could have been preserved under the cuts planned by Alastair Darling, for example - so I choose these ten because they generally run counter to the declared objectives of the coalition.

Moreover, they illustrate the gung-ho nature of the cuts and a preference for prejudice over evidence in too many coalition decisions: in the process they reduce accountability; endanger children; damage the environment; limit the opportunities for young people to take responsibility for their lives; or reduce our international standing. With GP commissioning, it would have been better to develop it with those who wanted the extra responsibility first (pace academies).

That said, Labour needs to be much more forensic in its approach to the coalition. It needs to support some cuts, while opposing others, and not be ashamed of the best aspects of its own record. The coalition still has a degree of public support after 100 days, even if Labour is just four points ahead; the extent to which Labour can erode that support in the next year will be a measure of the canniness of our next leader.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Consorting with the enemy?

Alan Milburn has attracted his share of flak for agreeing to act as a social mobility adviser to the coalition. John Prescott has tweeted:
So after Field & Hutton, Milburn becomes the 3rd collaborator. They collaborated to get Brown OUT. Now collaborating to keep Cameron IN
There's a lively debate running on the Labour Uncut website too. And there were plenty of groans when John Hutton agreed to chair the pensions review and Frank Field a welfare review.

But the naysayers are wrong to complain. There is plenty of things to criticise the coalition about - Friday's utterly absurd abolition of the Audit Commission is just the latest example - but this is not one of them. Of course, there's a political calculation involved, just as there was when Labour gave roles to Tories like Chris Patten.

But this is not the same as luring Labour MPs into the Tory party as happened when Labour welcomed Tory MPs like Shaun Woodward, Peter Temple-Morris and Alan Howarth into the party. Why is there such a tribal outcry about people who keep their politics whilst doing a job that they see as in the national interest, drawing on their own past experience? Nobody argues that the Republican Robert Gates should not work for President Obama and few would disagree that the socialist Bernard Kouchner is an able French foreign minister, appointed by President Sarkozy (although his socialist colleagues have displayed their tribalist tendencies by expelling him from the party).

And by appointing them, there's also a recognition by the government that these are talented people with a contribution to make on issues of national importance, and a greater contribution than anyone in the two governing parties. That's something that has Tories like Stephen Glover and Iain Dale seething. With the coalition so schizophrenic in its assessment of the Labour years, that is a good thing.

And it is something that Labour should be happy to celebrate in opposition as a valuable counter to the all-too-successful demonisation of our very real achievements in government. If we did so, we might start to win back more independent-minded lost voters more quickly.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Efficiency and independence

The news that Sir Philip Green has been appointed as the PM's efficiency tsar may have annoyed Vince Cable. But it could cause as much angst to Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley. For, Sir Philip has one big idea for efficiency, as he indicated on Today this morning: centralised procurement. This means that local management of schools, independent academies, foundation trusts and GP commissioning are all obstacles to what he would see as the way forward. He simply doesn't understand the point of such diversity in public services.

Of course, in schools, they used to have such central procurement before LMS. It was done by local authorities. It meant that if a headteacher needed to repair a broken window, they couldn't use the local glazier but had to turn to the council's approved provider. Some schools tied to PFI deals are already limited in this way. Of course, there are savings in stationery or computers to be made from procurement: most schools are part of large procurement consortia anyway for such purposes anyway. The difference is that they choose: those that aren't should be encouraged to join them. And I don't doubt a lot could be saved in central government through consolidation of functions and joint procurement, but ministers need to be careful that they don't allow Sir Philip's uber-centralising philosophy to strangle school and hospital independence in the red tape that comes with ostensibly more efficient centralised procurement.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The right sort of cuts

David Blackburn at Coffee House highlights moves by No 10 to stop any repeat of the milk snatcher fiasco at the weekend. Apparently, ministers need to be careful to avoid any cuts that might upset the media, rather than worrying whether their cuts will damage vital and successful programmes, many of which have already faced the axe. Who said the age of spin was dead?

Monday, 9 August 2010

The dangers of a paltry pupil premium

I've written this piece for the Public Finance blog on the problems that could arise if the Government gets it wrong on the pupil premium and school funding:

Today’s reports about Departmental warfare with the Treasury over the cuts are hardly a great surprise. But what will disappoint many in schools is the suggestion in The Guardian that the pupil premium, the Lib Dems’ flagship schools policy, may be less than £1000 a year – compared with the £2500 promised in the Lib Dem manifesto – and that the Treasury is expecting the Department for Education to stump up much of the cash itself.

This should not be a great surprise at all. While ministers have set great store by David Cameron’s declaration at PMQs, early in the coalition’s tenure, that the money would come from outside the education budget, the department’s consultation on the Pupil Premium suggested that a number of existing pots currently going direct to schools were for the chop. The Treasury was never likely to allow a substantial premium without DFE paying a large part of the cost.

The July consultation document suggested that the government would ‘mainstream relevant grants’ into the dedicated schools grant, leaving local authorities to decide on its ultimate distribution. This would likely include at least the School Development Grant, School Standards Grant and School Standards Grant (Personalisation). For many schools, the value of these grants is already significantly more than the value of a likely pupil premium. At the same time, the consultation is clear that the Government wants to ensure that the real beneficiaries of the premium are outside inner city areas, where funding may be kept down over time as the government moves towards a national funding formula.

A pupil premium is a good idea, as is a national funding formula. But trying to introduce the latter and move towards the former in these cost-cutting times is a recipe for political disaster: the vociferous losers will shout louder than the relieved winners. And the row over BSF funding may pale by comparison.

Will the coalition really adopt a graduate tax?

Today's Times (£) claims that the coalition has now come down in favour of a graduate tax, following David Willetts' interview with James Landale on Marr yesterday. When I saw the Times headline this morning, I assumed I must have seen a different interview. But, no, the Times uses the following quote to justify its position:
“We do have a preference for a way of going forward that involves graduates after they have got into work,” he said. “Graduates on average earn at least £100,000 more during their lives than non-graduates. We think [they] should make a higher contribution to the benefits of the university education they have received.”
I also heard Willetts telling Landale that the Browne review was 'looking at' a graduate tax along with everything else. But Willetts was very careful, whilst soothing his boss Vince Cable's injured ego, to avoid saying anything that could be seen as an endorsement of the graduate tax.

What he was describing in his quote could just as easily mean extending the payments required under the existing system. The difference between doing that and what Cable wants is that the latter would involve graduates paying a fixed proportion of their income for life, while the former could be paid off quickly if one's earnings grew. It may be that David Cameron and George Osborne are committed to raising income tax from all graduates. But I doubt it. Which makes it rather odd to see the Times getting so excitable about some (perhaps too) clever wordplay by David Willetts yesterday.

Friday, 6 August 2010

The Good Soldier

Bath Theatre Royal's summer offering at the Ustinov - while the Main House is closed for a revamp - is Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, based on a novel written just before the outbreak of the First World War. The story revolves around an American prude John Dowell and his flirtatious wife, Florence, and their friends Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, a British couple whom they met at a German spa resort.
The cast is excellent in a fine adaptation by Julian Mitchell that makes great use of the limited space in the Ustinov, with many of the actors playing several roles. Edward is a seemingly good soldier - outwardly - whose mix of extavagant unaffordable charity and serial philandering provides his long-suffering, but calculatingly cold wife Leonora - played superbly by Flora Montgomery -with a full-time job rescuing the family finances and saving her caddish husband from himself and his romantic urges.
The relationship with the Americans provides a backdrop for a longer series of flashbacks and revelations that are delivered with extraordinary energy and pace by the cast. But for all their exuberant enthusiasm - and a very fine adaptation - the story itself is ultimately unredemptive. Fine novel it may have been - and championed by Graham Greene - but one is left wondering after a dizzying two hours what it was all about, really.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Boycotts, testing, targets and cuts

The publication of today's national primary school test results - the last taken under the Labour government - show both the limitations of the NUT/NAHT test boycott and the importance of externally validated national testing. The improvements since 1995 when the tests began have been remarkable, and this year's Maths results are the best ever. When we took the decision to make Key Stage 4 the expected rather than the average standard (ahead of the 1997 election) we faced a lot of criticism then from those same unions that felt a boycott somehow benefited students this year: they said we were being too ambitious. But using targets, particularly floor targets, combined with the literacy and numeracy hours in the late 90s allowed a big change in results. The fact that this is now a standard that can be achieved by 4 in 5 eleven year-olds vindicates that ambition. Over 100,000 more pupils each year make the grade. The schools minister Nick Gibb is right to argue that even more should reach this standard.

But he and his colleagues must be careful in what they are cutting. If Gibb wishes to strengthen the quality of teaching in primary English and Maths, he needs to find ways to incentivise schools to do so. Simply providing a cash premium on its own for poorer pupils without such incentivisation will make little difference, especially if it removes money from programmes directed at the 3Rs and improved in-service professional development. The majority of pupils and teachers defied the unions, enabling today's results to be published. But it is important that the coalition balances its welcome commitments to strong accountability and a pupil premium with the sort of floor targets and agreed ambitions that have also played such an important part in the improvements of recent years.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Why do luxury hotels behave like Ryanair?

We're just back from a great holiday in Italy, taking in the opera in Milan and Verona, great historic sights in both cities, the beautiful peace and quiet of Sant' Angelo on Ischia, and the chaotic energy of Naples. We had great food and wine, and are well refreshed. But as we stayed in five different hotels across Italy, a curious point struck me about the different attitude of different hotels: the posher hotels act most like Ryanair in their treatment of their guests.

To illustrate, we stayed in hotels in Milan and Verona, both attractive small-ish hotels where there was inclusive breakfast, free wifi and free soft drinks from the mini-bar. Or, rather, we were assumed to have paid for all these in our room tariff in the same way that British Airways didn't charge extra for our luggage and a sandwich when we returned from Naples yesterday. But when we stayed the last couple of nights at a more upmarket Naples hotel - which was very nice - the charges came thick and fast. Three Euros for thirty minutes using your own computer to access the Internet. Six Euros for a small bottle of coke or four for a small mineral water from the minibar. Thirty Euros each for breakfast if we wanted it. I know from experience that this is the norm: 3* and some 4* hotels are far more likely than 5* hotels to provide wifi and mineral water as standard.

At the very least, wifi should be free in any room and not treated as a cash cow. And mineral water should be offered where the tap water is undrinkable. After all, hotels don't charge people extra for the toiletries or TV which are included in a room price. And hotels that charge for wifi should be required explicitly to publish their charges in the same way that Ryanair (however reluctantly) has to publish its ludicrous baggage charges. There are an increasing number of great hotels that offer free wifi, while others can charge as much as £20 a day. It is time that hotels were required to spell out their extras as explicitly as any budget airline: the irony is that it is the most upmarket ones that will complain loudest when they are.