Monday, 26 March 2012

More state funding for political parties is the only answer

Suppergate may be providing further discomfort for the Tories after last week's budget ineptitude. And plenty of indignant outrage will flow from those not involved, not least at the ludicrous figure of Peter Cruddas and his attempt to sell the most expensive dinners around. Yet supporters of democratic politics can neither afford the either the comfort of righteous indignation nor the cheap laughs that the incident provokes. Once again we can see how important it is to grasp the nettle of state funding for political parties. For, the truth is that each time an incident such as this emerges it further dents party politics. And that is bad for democracy as a whole.

I have long argued that greater state funding for political parties is the only way forward, and these events strengthen my view. It is true that at least we now know how the parties are funded. All the parties have come unstuck as a result of their reliance on large donors. Of course, there's a good case for capping the amount parties can receive from a single donor - and doing so closer to £5000 than £50000; just as there's a case for capping constituency spending all year round. But this inevitably descends into party political knockabout: this time we may be enjoying Cameron's discomfort, but he is not the first party leader to face such controversy. Greater state funding must be the answer. The Labour government should have bitten the bullet on all this years ago; Nick Clegg should certainly insist that his coalition partners do so know.

And for the benefit of those who think the taxpayer shouldn't fund political parties, don't forget they already do, and on a much greater scale now than before 1997. In 2011/12, according to the House of Commons library the opposition parties received £6.5m in so-called 'Short money' with nearly £600k more for party work in the House of Lords. There are also policy development grants to help develop manifesto policies. Party funding is now worth more than three times as much per Commons seat as it was in 1997.

So, all the parties should call a truce on this issue. Labour should accept that the unions fund the party too much, and find a more direct link to individual union members. The Tories should axe big donations. And the taxpayer should pay a little more to protect something that people the world over risk their lives for - and bring an end to charades like we have seen played out this weekend once and for all.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Too see a fantastic revival of Eugene O'Neill's claustrophobic play Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Theatre Royal Bath last night, in the production that will shortly hit the West End. David Suchet is astoundingly good as the paterfamilias James Tyrone senior as he drowns the sorrows of missed opportunity and lost dreams in several bottles of whiskey. His performance is every bit as good as that of Jack Lemmon in the 80s West End version. Suchet is supported by three fine actors: Laurie Metcalf plays the drug addicted Mary with utter credibility; while Trevor White as James Jr and Kyle Soller as Edmund are both excellent, especially Soller as he faces the prospect of a sanatorium for his TB. There is much of O'Neill's own American Irish Catholic upbringing in the story, set in a Connecticut summer home 1912, and it effectively manages to combine an emigrant's rags to riches experience with the debilitation of a household addicted to alcohol and drugs. The play has been shortened to three hours in this production, but loses none of its intensity in the process. One of the finest pieces of ensemble acting I have seen in a long time.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Could the £291 Granny Tax be Osborne's 10p Tax Rate?

He rushed past it. But it could prove the most significant announcement in his revenue-neutral budget. Pensioners who have seen their incomes slashed by falling annuity rates and poor interest in savings - those who don't rely on the state for all their income - will no longer be given any extra reward for their prudence. Instead their extra tax allowance will be abolished in future in the name of simplicity, and presumably helping to fund the tax cut for high earners.

In 2012/13, a pensioner over 65 has a tax-free allowance of £10,500 compared with £8,105 for other taxpayers. Someone over 75 would have a slightly higher allowance of £10,660. Even with the new tax allowance of £9,205 from April 2013, it still amounts to a loss in the allowance of £1295 for 65-74 year olds and £1455 for the over 75s.

It amounts to a £259 cut for those reaching 65 from next year and a £291 cut in potential income for older pensioners - or £5.50 a week - and Ed Miliband would be wise to focus his outrage here as much as on the new 45% rate.

This new £291 Granny Tax may make the tax system simpler. But it could prove as big a mistake as Gordon Brown's axing of the 10p tax rate, introduced for similar reasons. And just because it doesn't apply to existing over-65s, though their allowances will be frozen, it will adversely impact those who will reach that age in the near future.

They won't be happy, and many of them are Tory voters. £290 may just about buy a decent meal in one of George's ski resort hotels. But it goes a lot further for thrifty pensioners - and they will not thank George for it.

Mobility could be a casualty of regional pay

In today’s Budget, George Osborne confirmed his plans to push through regional pay settlements for the public sector. This is likely to affect not just civil servants, but teachers, nurses and police officers, once current pay freezes have finished.
On the face of it, this makes good financial sense. Relative pay between public and private sector workers is much higher in parts of the North than it is in the South East. London already has a weighting payment to reflect higher costs in the capital, so why not have regional pay levels in every region?

But it is not as simple as that. The market for many public sector workers is not a regional one, but a national one, particularly with senior posts like headteachers or senior civil servants. It is already very difficult to move back into London if you have moved to take up a post in the regions. Now it will be harder to move between regions, making it more difficult to match the right people to the right job. This could prove an added complication when trying to rescue failing schools or respond to Ofsted’s tougher inspections, for example, or to persuade more public bodies to move out of London.

In education, there is an added complication. 1600 academies are able to set the their own pay rates, though the majority follow national guidance. They will certainly be in a stronger position to recruit the best talent if they choose to vary from the norm, potentially distorting the market and outweighing any savings from the regional pay cuts where wages are lower. And it does seem odd to be talking about regional pay at the same time as schools are all being encouraged to go it alone.

Of course, there is one group that gains from this move: the teaching unions. They will have the chance to negotiate separate deals for each region and have much more work to do with the school teachers’ review body, so will find they have more to do than ever. But I’m not sure they were the beneficiaries George Osborne really had in mind when he announced the move.

This post also appears at Public Finance

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

25 years of the Schools Network (SSAT)

The Schools Network (formerly the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. I've contributed this to their anniversary blog. 

When Lord Baker launched City Technology Colleges 25 years ago, he was creating a school brand. It was certainly not uncontroversial, and it developed in unexpected ways. Technology Colleges and their successor specialist schools proved easier to expand. They made a big difference to standards, as they focused schools on what they could do best; and in doing so, they helped thousands of schools to become better all-rounders.

When the Labour government re-ignited the CTC model through academies, its early incarnation was as much through private philanthropy as through branded chains. But as academies have grown, so have the chains. Last year, the improvements from Harris, Ark and ULT were not only in excess of the national average, they were ahead of the academies average too.

Other growing brands have been promoted by pioneering headteachers like David Carter’s Cabot schools in the West, Michael Wilkins’ Outwood model in Yorkshire and David Triggs’ Greensward brand through the Academies Enterprise Trust. With the growth of free schools and the introduction of primary sponsored academies, there is a real demand for successful chains to expand.

There are some who say that we will only really get traction with school brands when profit-making schools, as in Sweden or parts of the States, are unleashed into English education. But while profit-making may help some brands, those who make the case also ignore the entrepreneurial spirit of English heads that has been a remarkable change since the CTC Trust – that is now The Schools Network – was born.

And that spirit of entrepreneurialism, made infectious by Schools Network conferences, is destined to be more important over the next 25 years, as schools need not only to improve to match the best in the world, but also need to realise the full benefits of emerging technologies and to find ways to deliver teaching and learning in a manner more fit for the early 21st century than the late 19th century.

That’s why the ‘by schools, for schools’ model is so important. With 45% of secondary schools likely to enjoy academy status by next year, the traditional local authority model is not only being displaced by the familiar chains, it is being superseded by a host of much smaller trusts, federations and other partnerships between schools across the country.

I’ll be honest: I’d have preferred if ministers had pushed a few more incentives into the system to encourage this process along. But there is no doubt that it is happening. And that spirit of entrepreneurial headship, using the best practice that they have found to work to help others to improve will be as important a part of the new school brands as the undoubtedly excellent achievements of Harris and Ark. And if there are to be real improvements in the primary sector, ministers know that this model is the only one that will deliver 

That’s not to say that these micro-networks won’t draw on wider school brands when they need to do so. But it does offer the prospect of increased insights into curriculum delivery and ICT innovation. After all, if the most successful gaming companies rely on players for their most interesting new ideas, schools and academies should be hubs of innovation in the future of learning.

For that to happen, school leaders and teachers need to take a leaf from the Finnish book, and see post-graduate practical research as an integral part of their job. Those insights – allied to what we know works with the basics – will be a crucial part of the new school brands for the future. They can become brand leaders as well as school leaders.

In its various guises, the Schools Network has been at the vanguard of schools reform over the last 25 years: the next 25 will be the years when ‘by schools, for schools’ really helps to shape our national education system for the better.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Gove's homework muddle

Has Michael Gove started to go soft? The thought went through my mind as I heard the gleeful way in which the coalition's spinners promoted their 'scrapping' of Labour's 1998 homework guidelines over the weekend. In truth, I had not known that any school rigidly adhered to these guidelines. They were a good example of the nudge theory that the former No 10 guru Steve Hilton liked so much. They sent a message rather than setting a straitjacket. But then Hilton's off.

Nor was it their primary purpose to require schools to set a certain amount of homework. they were intended to give some helpful information to parents about what to expect as much as to encourage all schools to set regular homework - something that is part of the new Ofsted framework, incidentally.

Directgov still hadn't caught up with Gove's fit of the vapours this morning, and was still suggesting to parents that they wreck their children's childhood by reading with them for ten minutes a day. Ten more minutes for CBBC or computer games, then. However, the emphasis is on quality as much as time taken.This is how the Government's website presents the guidelines to parents:

The emphasis is on how homework helps your child to learn, rather than on whether it takes a certain amount of time.
For example, some children will work quicker than others and get more done in less time. The rough guidelines for primary school children are:
  • Years 1 and 2: one hour per week
  • Years 3 and 4: 1.5 hours per week
  • Years 5 and 6: 30 minutes per day
The guidelines for secondary school children are:
  • Years 7 and 8: 45 to 90 minutes per day
  • Year 9: one to two hours per day
  • Years 10 and 11: 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day
Your child shouldn’t be expected to spend much longer on homework than the guide times. It doesn’t matter if activities don't take as long as the guide times as long as they are useful. Schools should organise homework carefully so that children aren't asked to do too much on any one day.

The website went on to point out that 

All homework activities should be related to work that children are doing at school. However, homework should not always be written work. For younger children it will largely be:
  • reading with parents or carers
  • informal games to practice mathematical skills
For older children homework activities may include:
  • reading
  • preparing a presentation to the class
  • finding out information
  • making something
  • trying out a simple scientific experiment
  • cooking
It doesn’t matter if activities don't take as long as the guide times as long as they are useful.

In other words, these guidelines were more about giving parents a sense of what was reasonable, not imposing some straitjacket on schools. Gove hasn't been shy about telling schools to adopt uniforms, wading into local debates in Devon for example, yet giving parents a sense of what's reasonable with homework is too much because it upsets Tory luvvies like Kirstie Allsop. 

I doubt the TV presenter's children will be short of books or other educational stimulation. The guidelines weren't really for her benefit, as Chris McGovern noted in the Telegraph: "The danger is that schools will use this as an excuse to dilute the amount of homework. Middle-class children will do their homework anyway. Guidance for children who are coming from more deprived backgrounds is probably more important.”

The homework guidelines were introduced precisely for the same reasons that Gove is so keen to impose his straitjacket on the curriculum: to bring state schools closer to the expectations of private schools, and to recognise that children who read with their parents at home during primary school or who do regular homework when they are older are more likely to get on than those who don't.

So what Gove actually means when he says he is scrapping the guidelines is anybody's guess. Does the Government think homework is a passe concept? Apparently not. The DFE says that “Homework is part and parcel of a good education, along with high quality teaching and strong discipline." I'm not sure that was the message that came through yesterday. 

One can only assume his spinner was short of a story for the Sunday hacks (I know how it is: I've been there). Yet by alighting on this, he has simply delighted those who think homework is bad for you and caused potential confusion among parents. Not sure I'd call that a result.

Why Labour should celebrate academies achievements

I have contributed this piece to the Labour Teachers website:

Academies are a Labour success story. They are raising standards, typically in urban schools with high deprivation and a history of failure. They are giving disadvantaged pupils a better education than before and sending more of them to university. And they are doing so as comprehensives, often providing some of the best community facilities in their area.

The coalition has extended the academies programme, and in doing so it has conflated two types of academy. Labour’s programme was focused on the poorest areas, on secondary and all-age schools, with sponsors from business, education charities, universities and college to help develop a strong ethos of success in areas where children had for too long been written off. There are now 337 sponsor-led academies, most of them put in motion by a Labour government.

The pace of improvement in these academies is remarkable. Each year their GCSE results – five grade Cs or above including GCSE English and Maths – have been improving at twice the national average rate of improvement. In 2011, for example, Harris’s Merton Academy improved from 49 to 75 per cent; United Learning Trust’s Lambeth Academy increased by 22 points to 58 per cent; and Ormiston’s Victory Academy in Norfolk increased from 38 to 65 per cent.

Across the country, schools where less than one in four pupils once gained the basic standard level of qualifications have doubled their results. At Mossbourne in Hackney, where the Labour council actively encourages academies, 82% of pupils on the site of what was once one of the worst schools in the country now reach the GCSE standard, and seven have been accepted at Cambridge this year.

Only those who haven’t visited academies in the toughest parts of the country – from Mossbourne to North Liverpool – and seen the hope, achievement and dynamism transforming so many young lives could condemn their existence.

So, we should not criticise the coalition for extending this sponsor-led programme – Tony Blair hoped for 400 secondary sponsored academies – or for bringing the poorest performing primary schools under its aegis. Where schools are not improving as traditional local authority schools, new leadership and a new approach is needed.

What of the criticisms? They are selective, we are told. Yet, their funding agreement requires them to be non-selective. Most have high numbers of FSM pupils, and many use banding to achieve fairer intakes than many comprehensives with middle class catchments. They will lead to privatisation, we are then told. Again, they are required to be charities by law, so this is also simply untrue. Not accountable? Have you read the academy funding agreements? They are accountable to the elected national rather than local government, though here there is an interesting debate to be had around the notion of local school commissioners.

They do have more freedoms to develop the right curriculum for their students, and over pay, school buildings and issues like the school timetable than other schools. Yet it is the freedom that comes with being an academy that is more liberating than the precise freedoms. Community schools can use existing pay agreements flexibly; few do. There is nothing legally to stop a maintained school running a longer day, though most feel bound to local authority norms. Yet both are deployed by academies to provide better teachers and more learning for pupils who need them more than most.

Of course, we can argue about the priority being given by the coalition to converting successful schools to academies. Yet, Ed Balls gave academy status to two highly successful secondaries that wanted to help improve weaker schools. Where Labour should focus its criticism here is on the extent to which converter academies are being expected to work with weaker schools – a commitment made by Michael Gove, but still taken up in too few cases.

Free schools may be new in name, but legally they are simply academies too. Many would have been set up under existing legislation – and were by Labour – but we should try to see a programme develop that is genuinely responsive to parents and disadvantaged communities, as the more interesting free schools are, rather than damning the whole idea.

There is a danger that by opposing academies and free schools, we lose sight not only of the benefits of a programme started by Labour in government, but that we fail to focus on the bigger issues of teaching, curriculum and standards, where there is a real debate to be had and where Stephen Twigg is starting to develop a promising agenda.

That failure would be game, set and match to the Tories.