Monday, 28 March 2011

Protest politics

Ed Miliband has been criticised for speaking to Saturday's TUC rally against the coalition's cuts, not least because of the fairly predictable efforts by anarchists to discredit the march with their mindless vandalism. But Ed was right to speak to a march attended by 250,000 people, though he is wrong in the message he is putting across. The 250,000+ people who marched on Saturday were not the usual suspects. They came from across the UK, and included many who rarely march. Contrary to the received wisdom of the London pundits, there are lots of Middle Englanders working in local government, schools and hospitals facing cuts and job losses over the next three years who are far from being traditional Labour voters. They include Mail readers and people who voted for the coalition last time, and Cameron and Clegg will need to find ways to talk to them as much as Miliband.

But Ed's problem lies not just in his message to the marchers, but in his and his shadow chancellor's wider approach both to the cuts and domestic reform. Labour learnt the hard way over 18 years in opposition after 1979 that effective opposition is selective opposition. That means being prepared to say much more clearly which broad areas Labour would cut - nobody wants a shadow budget - and which would be protected as a result of a slower repayment of the debt. It is not good enough, as Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, does too often, to pass over this as quickly as possible. The truth is that the voters may not like the cuts, and may particularly dislike certain cuts, but they don't yet feel that Labour has re-earned economic credibility because they see it as being responsible for some of the deficit even if they recognise the role of global banking too.

This is not just a problem with the cuts. It applies to domestic policy too, where Labour should welcome where the coalition has adopted and extended the party's approach - on academies, high speed rail or welfare reform - and be much more focused on opposing policies that go in another direction, such as forced GP fundholding or cutting frontline policing. In both cases, a clearer
honest message would be far more effective and have lasting benefits for Labour's image in the tough years ahead. After all, a three point poll lead in the midst of all these cuts is hardly the stuff of 2015 landslides.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A budget chance to promote social mobility

George Osborne's Budget tomorrow has variously been presented as an opportunity to scrap air duty, national insurance and VAT on petrol. But for thousands of young people from less well off families, its most important feature will be what it does about the Education Maintenance Allowance. Until this year, 16-18 year-olds in full time education with family incomes below £30k a year have had a conditional allowance of up to £30 a week, payable provided they attend school or college and intended to enable them to continue studying after GCSEs. The government has announced that there will no further payments, not even for those young people who started two year courses last September. There will instead be a small discretionary fund expected to be worth around £70m (though this is likely to increase after Simon Hughes's review) to replace the £490m distributed by EMA, of which most goes to young people in the poorest families. And while higher education fees have been the main media focus of student protest, the greatest injustice and potential hinderance to student mobility is the abolition of the EMA.

The irony is that its abolition was only made necessary because the Liberal Democrats insisted that their pupil premium should not lead to a reduction in overall school funding, and the Treasury insisted that the Dept for Education must fund it from within its wider budget. But the EMA is far better targeted than a pupil premium that is likely merely to provide sticking plaster for wider school cuts, and which lacks the same degree of conditionality on the recipient. Truanting or tardy EMA recipients can lose their allowance; there is no sanction as yet proposed for schools that show little to justify their premium.

So, tomorrow's Budget offers Osborne an opportunity on two fronts. The first is to restore the EMA for those students with a reasonable expectation of receiving it for 2011-12, those in the second year of A-level courses for example. If Osborne doesn't make this change, the courts almost certainly will. And I would be astonished if DFE lawyers haven't already reached this conclusion: after all, they made clear that university tuition fees could not apply to existing students when they were first introduced in 1998. The second is to introduce a much more comprehensive replacement to the EMA for new statements. Simon Hughes has certainly been arguing for this, as have many FE colleges. There needs to be enough money to cover the costs of transport, books and learning materials for all students with family incomes below the £20k where the full £30 EMA was currently paid.

Ministers make the argument that the EMA did not significantly increase participation, and that with compulsory staying on coming in from 2013 for 17 year-olds and 2015 for 18 year-olds, the scheme has substantial deadweight costs. But EMA has increased participation, especially among 17 year-olds, as the IFS has shown. More importantly, it has a conditionality that is absent from child benefit for young people over 16. And it creates a sense of responsibility in the young person that is crucial in today's mollycoddled times. Looking at the two benefits in the round together with an increased apprenticeship offer could offer a way out of the funding dilemma, but not without some additional resource for the poorest students. After all, what exactly is the point of introducing a pupil premium for under-16s only to remove an important ladder of opportunity when they reach 16. George Osborne has the chance to put things right in his Budget.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Educating the health secretary

While the battle to protect Libyans from Gaddafi continues, domestic news - bar, perhaps, this week's Budget - is unlikely to get much of a look in. But the weekend saw two further dents in the credibility of Andrew Lansley's grand plans for the NHS. First, the Observer revealed that recent polling showed record levels of satisfaction with the health service, after the reforms and investment of Labour. This information had been suppressed by the Government, which talks a lot about publishing facts but tends only to do so when the facts suit their case. In this case, Lansley apparently preferred 2006 data to more recent figures. The figures bore out the findings of earlier concerns about the government deliberately ignoring an improving trend in health outcomes. Both are shamefully promoted by Lansley. But we need to know the baseline, and trend, so we can judge his changes in the same light.

The second dent came in an article by the independent-minded GP and Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, in the Sunday Telegraph. She is particularly concerned about the impact that stripping out Primary Care Trusts and handing £80 billion of public money to GPs will have on the NHS. There should be as much concern about the premature removal of floor standards over waiting times, which are likely as budget cuts bite to lead to longer waits for treatment and a return to the trolley patients of the late 90s. As I have argued before, the issue is not whether reform is needed or even whether GPs can be entrusted with primary care budgets, but the utterly mad way in which these reforms are being introduced. There is no evidence they will work: it is all based on a hunch, which might be OK with a £5 bet at Cheltenham but not with an £80bn wager on the NHS. There is no distinction made between enthusiastic GP fundholders and unwilling conscripts. There is no proper transition with targets and primary care trusts. The whole thing has failure written all over it in large letters, and it is astonishing that neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg can see it.

The absence of any proper No 10 policy scrutiny is evident in the way these changes are being introduced. And if the new policy wonks drafted in to the PM's Policy Unit have any sense they will immediately propose several changes to the Lansley lunacy. If they want a better model of reform, they could ask Michael Gove at education who has adopted this approach with academies and free schools. First, make fundholding a gradual process available to those who want it and have the skills to deliver it. Second, retain PCTs as a smaller but important strategic oversight until there is universal fundholding. Third, keep some floor standards - maximum waiting times for treatment and A&E - and use them as part of the accountability package. Fourth, be absolutely clear that competition will be on quality with fixed prices for treatment. That is the model that Gove has adopted in education - pace but choice on academies and free schools, residual local authorities, GCSE and Key Stage 2 floor targets and fixed per student funding (still linked to area) with adjustments for poverty and special needs (albeit with spending cuts). Lansley could do worse than learn from his education colleague. The rest of us could do a lot better if he did.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Another valiant effort to address special educational needs...but is the money there?

Back in 1997, David Blunkett published a Green Paper on special educational needs. Though it has subsequently been presented as being about a 'presumption towards inclusion', it was much more about trying to address the frustrations of statementing, and to introduce alternative less bureaucratic ways of meeting the needs of those with less severe SEN. Blunkett certainly wanted disabled youngsters to have access to mainstream schools, but always recognised the need for special schools for those with severe learning disabilities or emotional and behavioural difficulties, to use the accepted jargon in the SEN world. The changes did at least allow for School Action Plus, where extra help short of a statement is needed. It too wanted more early identification of needs through baseline assessments and greater co-ordination between agencies. And it led to a significant new role for many special schools as hubs of specialist help linked with mainstream schools, a role extended as they formally became specialist schools.

Forward thirteen years to today's coalition Green Paper on SEN. There is plenty in here with which one could hardly disagree. Early identification of special needs needs to be improved. Better local information would be useful. Stronger aspirations for those with SEN is essential, and too many pupils are mis-diagnosed often being placed on School Action. Joint assessments and single personal budgets make sense too. As does mediation if people are ready for it, rather than tribunals. But while there may be some savings to be made through extending programmes like Achievement for All, the danger of this paper is that it falsely raises expectations in some of its promises. In particular, there may well be a demand for new SEN free schools, but will they have the funds needed for complex needs? Will there really be parental choice, when the Treasury has made it subject to the 'efficient use of resources'? And will there really be the great levels of local information and support when local authorities are implementing huge cuts, and schools are losing funds too? These are not mere details: they lie at the heart of delivering the ambitions of the Green Paper.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Striking the vocational balance

I am something of a fan of Prof Alison Wolf's acerbic and polemic approach to education and the labour market, which is why I invited her to contribute to two volumes of essays that I edited for think tanks in the past. And there is much that is good in her eminently readable report (pdf) on vocational education today, even if it may not all be welcomed in the exam industry. Some vocational qualifications are not good enough; quality needs to be improved. Good work-based apprenticeships need to be more widely available. A better league table balance needs to be struck. Ministers should be explicit about which qualifications will be accredited. Colleges should be able to admit young people full-time from 14, freed to respond to local labour market demand and college lecturers freer to teach in schools. All young people should be expected to work towards GCSE grade Cs - or genuine equivalent- in English and Maths if they don't get them at 16. She is also absolutely right to argue that institutions should be funded per student rather than per course (though the extra costs of some high-tech courses may need consideration).

But there is one significantly misguided asssumption in her overall prescription, and the Government will be making a mistake if it adopts her ideas unquestioningly. As was obvious from Lord Baker's dismissal of her report this morning on Today, the notion of just 20% of the curriculum for 14-16 year-olds being available for practical education runs directly counter to the need from strong vocational or practical routes available from the age of 14, including through Baker's planned university technical colleges. If we leave it until 16 before enabling young people to take a significant number of useful practical courses, they will simply disengage from education. And that disengagement could be for 4 years as compulsory participation extends to 18, not just 2 as now. Of course, they should learn English and Maths, and science - though a good applied GCSE standard qualification is needed for the latter - and there should be a strong emphasis on communication, written and oral, in English.

I have long argued in favour of pre-apprenticeships from 14 as a way of achieving this, something the Labour government started but lost interest in as the Diploma was developed. Of course, we also need a better weeding out of poor qualifications - Ofqual should be ruthless on this score - as well as a kitemarking of those that are good. But there are good BTECs and Diplomas and it would be unfair if all were tarred with the same brush (even if, to be fair, the detail of Wolf's report rather than its reporting doesn't do so, particularly at level 3). And we need to find ways to involve employers in providing worthwhile work experience that makes those on such courses job ready.

But there is a second significant misunderstanding in the Wolf analysis. Many academies and other schools use vocational qualifications not only to engage otherwise disaffected young people or even improve league table rankings, but also to encourage them to gain good GCCEs in English and Maths. (Incidentally, by using 2005 rather than 2010 data, she claims that less than 50% of pupils achieve English and Maths GCSEs by the end of Key Stage 4: in fact the latest DFE statistics show that 53.4% do so, with 57% gaining GCSE or equivalent in both subjects. This is the result of an explicit change to the league tables made by Labour in 2005. I do hope her other statistics are more robust.) They would do so regardless of the league table rankings, though there should be appropriate recognition of kitemarked vocational qualifications in the tables. By discouraging any pre-16 vocational qualifications, Prof Wolf is making it harder to achieve her entirely laudable goal of every young person achieving GCSE English and Maths. Moreover, Level 1 and Level 2 qualifications may not in themselves lead to jobs, but they can lead young people onto further qualifications that do. Progression matters too, and any kitemarking should be linked to this.

And while it is true that other countries that offer vocational education also require an academic core - including English where it is not the first language - they are also much more successful in striking the right balance, often from the age of 15. The danger in the message from today's report is that it will tilt the education system so far away from pre-16 vocational or practical education that it not only creates a large new cohort of truants but that it makes it much harder to avoid them from becoming NEETs.

So, while the Government should certainly embrace Prof Wolf's demands for higher quality qualifications and more apprenticeships, it must not lose sight of the need to provide an offer that is attractive and useful for those that would otherwise truant and those who have a more practical aptitude than others. It was good to hear Wolf lauding hairdressing as well as engineering and constuction courses on Today this morning; but we also need to find ways of preparing young people for the wide range of jobs in the leisure and tourism industries. If the qualifications there are not strong enough, they should be improved not abandoned. And there should also be a place for rigorous practical courses in subjects like languages, showing their relevance to jobs in tourism and business, as Baker's UTCs propose. None of this is to downplay the importance of academic rigour for the majority. But it is to recognise that a genuine choice of strong academic and vocational qualifications should be available to every young person - with the right independent careers advice - from 14.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Yes, Prime Minister

One of the most delicious moments in my time working in government was when David Blunkett played the episode of Yes Prime Minister where abolition of the Department for Education is proposed, to senior officials in the department after an away day dinner. The episode may have been based in the early 80s, but it resonated far too close for their comfort in the late 90s. The series set such a high standard that the new stage version clearly had a lot to live up to. It was with that in mind that I finally caught the Chichester Theatre production at Bath last night. And while it lacked the presence of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, it retained enough of the wit of the original, cleverly updated to today's fiscal crises and global warming obsessions, to entertain for the best part of two hours.

Simon Williams was a creditable Sir Humphrey and Richard McCabe a blokeish Jim Hacker for our times, as they sought to reconcile the sordid requests of a foreign minister from one of the ex-Soviet 'stans with the need for a vast oil-fuelled bailout. With the threat of a civil service act designed to remove many civil servants' perks, Sir Humphrey is persuaded to do the PM's bidding. Parts of the script simply didn't ring true, not least the conversations with the BBC, but Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn ensured that it retained enough fresh and knowing humour to remind us how much we miss such genuinely good and well-observed political comedy. The play has been on the go for a year, but the writing felt sufficiently fresh and relevant to engage the Bath audience last night. Perhaps we could have a short TV series revival for the coalition age?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A brave and sensible move on admissions

Today's Daily Telegraph reports that Michael Gove is planning to give academies and free schools the right to prioritise pupils entitled to free school meals for admissions, where it can help give them a more balanced intake. I'm not sure why a school wishing to achieve this would do so rather than going for banding or random allocation, but it is nevertheless a brave and sensible move that could help social mobility particularly if the pupil premium becomes anything more than a few hundred quid of sticking plaster for the cuts.

The Telegraph, needless to say, regards the whole thing as 'social engineering', which one supposes is not the same as buying a house in the catchment of a good school in order to gain admittance. I remember when Tony Blair was considering extending the Admissions Code to allow more banding, as well as extending choice for those entitled to free transport and the introduction of choice advisers, the Telegraph was equally sniffy. But those changes were right and necessary, especially as academies expanded, and many do use banding or lotteries. Ironically, it was a Times report on banding - where pupils are tested so they can be placed in different ability bands to achieve a comprehensive intake - that caused some very senior Labour figures to imagine that the 2005 White Paper was about increased selection. It didn't help that the Times placed an 11-plus paper on their front page to illustrate the news.

The simple fact is that good schools need objective measures to avoid becoming socially selective. It is extraordinary that some so-called comprehensive campaigners equate easy access to one's nearest school with fair admissions. With a heavily oversubscribed school, it is nothing of the sort, though it is sensible to have a balance between a neighbourhood catchment and one that is wider and more accessible. Equally, it is not enough to open school admissions up in this way. Choice advisers need to be developed in the way they were originally intended, as advocates from communities where people are reluctant to travel to good schools rather than local authority employees (though some of the latter do some good work, to be fair). Parents need active encouragement to apply.

The Telegraph report suggests that the new measure will be permissive, which is also probably sensible, though schools are required to prioritise children in care in their admissions policies. However, it is to be hoped that there is a degree of positive encouragement to good schools in urban areas in particular either to adopt this preference or to use banding or random allocation for at least a proportion of their intake. With some academies having 11 applicants for every place, it is the only fair way to ensure a more equal intake. That is not about social engineering. It is about enabling genuine opportunities for social mobility.