Jude D’Alesio: The Budget must be centred on young people

30 Aug

Jude D’Alesio, aged 19, is one of the youngest school governors in Britain, and is a Law student at the University of Bristol.

When I listen to my grandparents complain relentlessly about the lockdown, I cannot help but feel slightly frustrated. Frustrated, because I have sacrificed a term at university to go into lockdown to save them from this virus!

The government’s imposition of a lockdown in the UK was aimed at protecting those most vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, principally the elderly. There is no doubt that this was the correct decision, and Prof Neil Ferguson stated that lockdown should have been imposed earlier.

Over 95 per cent of coronavirus deaths have occurred in those older than 60, and 50 per cent of all deaths have occurred in those over 80 according to the WHO. It is only right, therefore, that we seek to protect the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society, from the disease, and the country is certainly united in this goal.

It is undeniable, however, that lockdown has taken a significant toll on the younger generation, of which I am a part. In higher education, lectures have gone digital, and some teaching missed altogether. This especially disadvantages final year students, many of whom will be embarking on their careers with significant gaps in their knowledge, particularly critical in professions like medicine.

There is also the immense damage caused to secondary and further education by the lockdown. At least a whole term of work missed will prove acute in those at crucial points in their education, namely GCSE’s and A levels.

Being robbed of the chance to outperform your predicted grades after months of hard work will deny many the chance to attend the best universities. This can only be negative, as we want our younger generations to receive the best education possible to enable them to pursue their ambitions.

Families with the lowest incomes will be hit hardest by the effects of distance learning; not being able to effectively participate in online classes due to a lack of technology will inevitably create skills gaps among the poorest in our society.

For all these reasons, the next Budget should be focused on, and most beneficial for, young people: their education, their skills, their opportunities.

In many ways, the pandemic has breathed fresh unity into our country as we are united in fighting the virus. It seems fair, therefore, that everyone should in some way bear the cost of the current recession. However, as the lockdown came at the cost of young people, there are undoubtedly changes benefiting young people which can be implemented in the next Budget.

Scrapping the triple lock is a great start. The triple lock, implemented by the Cameron government, increases pensions in accordance with the Retail Price Index, average earnings or 2.5per cent, whichever proves highest. This could enable savings of £8bn a year, according to a leaked Treasury document.

The current main rate of corporation tax, sitting at 19 per cent, has been stagnant since 2017. Such desperate times surely call for a cut in the rate, in line with the government’s aim to make us more competitive post-Brexit. Additionally, the government’s plan to merge the Foreign Office with DFID, whether the correct decision or not, will undoubtedly produce savings.

The proceeds of growth, merely the beginning of a range of reforms, should be reinvested heavily in young people’s education and opportunities to redress the balance caused by coronavirus. This must include the £1bn ‘catch-up’ plan to enable school children to bridge the gap left by lost teaching. However, amounting to only £80 per student (IFS), further funding once coronavirus passes should be on the cards.

This is, of course, only a starting point, and many more steps must be taken to alleviate the portentous educational, financial and social burdens which have overwhelmed my generation. But, there have been clear losers during this pandemic and the next Budget should recognise as such.

Iain Dale: Davey is the new LibDem leader. But only 57 per cent of his party’s members could be bothered to vote

28 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

So we now have two party leaders who we have to call Sir. (Can it really be long before we all have to imagine the words, ‘Arise, Sir Ian Blackford’?)

After an interminable leadership campaign, the Liberal Democrats announced yesterday that Ed Davey has been elected their new leader, walloping Layla Moran by 43,000 votes to only 25,000.

It’s interesting to note that while 88 per cent of Conservative members voted in the 2019 leadership contest, only 57 per cent of LibDems could be bothered to vote for either Davey or Moran. Make of that what you will. I wonder how much is down to the constant ‘wokery’ they both invoked, especially on Trans issues.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was announced this week that both Sally Collier, the Chief Executive of Ofqual, and Jonathan Slater, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education, are leaving their posts. Given the exams fiasco, this is to be welcomed, and the moves are an acknowledgement that those who presided over it have had to take the consequences of the crass incompetence displayed by both their departments.

But hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. If officials are despatched in such a summary manner, should not the same apply to their political masters too?

It is reported (but not confirmed) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation to the Prime Minister, but that it was refused. Nick Gibb says he thought seriously about resigning but concluded that it would be the wrong thing to do.

I like both of them, and it pains me to say it, especially in this forum, but they must know they are dead men walking. Presumably they are only still in their jobs because of the importance of what is to happen next week, when pupils go back to school.

Once that is over (whether it goes smoothly or not) the best thing would be for them to be replaced PDQ, rather than wait for an expected January reshuffle. It’s not fair on the Education Department to have two lame duck ministers presiding over it for another four or five months.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Government’s policy on facemasks in schools has not, shall we say, exactly been as clear as it might have been, but can we get one thing straight? An adjustment of policy is not a U-turn.

This media obsession with them is getting out of hand. When scientific, medical and WHO advice seems to be changing almost weekly on the issue of facemasks, can it be any surprise that the Government’s position changes too?

Yes, Nicola Sturgeon made her announcement a few days before the Westminster government did, but the London media seems to forget that Scottish schools returned ten days ago. If the phrase U-turn is to be used to characterise a reversal of government policy, let’s use it when it really is a proper reverse ferret. This is not one of those occasions.

– – – – – – – – – –

This evening, I’m appearing on Radio 4’s Any Questions which, let’s face it, is a funny think to do when you’re supposed to be on holiday.

I only found out recently that the bulk of listeners to the show listen to the Saturday lunchtime repeat rather than on a Friday evening. It’s a show in which there’s a tremendous opportunity to make a complete arse of yourself. I’ve been on it about a dozen times before and so far I don’t think I have, but there’s always a first time.

You genuinely don’t know the questions in advance, but have to be a bit of a dunce if you can’t predict at least three of the subject areas. However, this week it’s a little more challenging given there haven’t been any really dominant news stories.

– – – – – – – – – –

In related news, my own version of Any Questions is returning to the LBC airwaves on Wednesday 9 September. Cross Question also features four panellists, but they take questions/calls from LBC listeners and we also live stream it on video.

It’s a little less formal than Any Questions, although Chris Mason has introduced much more informality since he took over the presenting reins from Jonathan Dimbleby. We had to pause Cross Question in March, since we couldn’t have four guests in the studio. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to have two guests in the studio and two on giant video screens. Hopefully, it will work!

Alison Cork: Entrepreneurs can lead Britain’s recovery if we help them

23 Aug

Alison Cork is an entrepreneur, Ambassador to the British Library Business & IP Centres and founder of not for profit Make it Your Business

Faced with mounting job losses and economic stagnation, we are at a defining moment in our nation’s history.

As a lifelong entrepreneur, I believe this is also a moment of opportunity, when Britain should become a nation that champions people to start a business. Entrepreneurs are the job creators of the future, and we are going to need them.

Whilst Covid has triggered the economic challenges which have resulted in job losses, people are now much more attuned to the idea of working independently. As family dynamics shift there will possibly be an increase in the number of women wanting to work.

Whole industries such as retail and hospitality are redefining how they operate. In many ways, Covid has created a perfect catalyst to encourage self-employment as a viable alternative for people who might otherwise have stuck with traditional employment or role models.

The challenge is how we normalise entrepreneurship. Historically we have tended to view my breed as outliers, and it is true that entrepreneurs are a bit different in the way we think, view risk and spot opportunities. What we need to do now is deliver the correct framework to support that mindset, and to understand what entrepreneurship really means.

So often we focus on the huge businesses, the ‘unicorns’ of our economy. But I’m talking about the ‘acorns’ of our economy, kitchen table businesses which may only generate modest sums, but which make a material difference to the economic independence and self-respect of that person or family unit. Businesses which mean those people are not dependent upon state intervention. Margaret Thatcher got it. The daughter of a grocer, she was the poster girl of self-determination, and inspired people like me to go out and give it a shot.

Encouragingly, our current government has already made a very important contribution to this initiative. In the pre-Covid budget there was a £13 million grant to continue to roll out the British Library Business & IP Centre Network. Originated in London, the BIPC is a business advice and information service which anyone can access free of charge. Spanning market intel reports, IP advice, workshops and even one-on-one mentoring, the BIPC has an impressive track record of success, with businesses that use the resource four times more likely to succeed than those which don’t. It also returns almost £7 into the economy for every £1 of public money spent on delivering the service.

The plan is to use central and local libraries to create a hub-and-spoke model of Business & IP centres around the UK. A brand of trust, an existing physical infrastructure, an important civic building often located on or near the high street and heart of the community, libraries are the perfect impartial and non-judgemental environment from which to support would-be entrepreneurs.

In terms of levelling up, library BIPC’s can reach the parts of the country that other initiatives have never been able to reach. They also have a strong track record in encouraging women and BAME-owned businesses, both currently under-represented. Between now and 2030, we estimate the BIPC service will help establish over 150,000 new businesses, contributing over £1 billion to the economy. That’s job creation.

But if we are truly to become a nation that embraces small business, we need to look further back in the entrepreneurial life cycle, to education. Starting a business and understanding the many skill sets needed to succeed in self-employment should be part of the school curriculum. Perhaps it should even be built into our apprenticeships programme? Moreover, the recent furore over A Level results could ultimately impact on how students view career options, leading to self-employment as a more normal choice for school leavers.

Which brings me back to Margaret Thatcher. There are, of course, pieces of the self-employed jigsaw missing, and funding is one of them. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are about starting a business, personal financial risk is the factor most likely to deter someone from going it alone. So, we might do well to revisit a version of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by her in 1981.

In a nutshell, the EAS paid a sum of money monthly to anyone unemployed who wanted to start a business. You had to show some savings and a business plan, but there was no vetting of the idea itself, just a no-strings opportunity to try something out and create a job or jobs. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’,I hear you say. But research showed that it created 325,000 jobs and 18 months after signing up, 65 per cent of recipients were still in business, and 25 per cent of them were under 25. Perhaps the library business centres could also administer these grants.

In terms of business-friendly legislation, let’s also look at employment law, to facilitate hiring and firing without fear of unreasonable reprisal; maternity pay that doesn’t disadvantage the self-employed; legislation around business coaches and advice – currently not subject to regulation or insurance requirements – and greater rigour around collection of bad debts and dealing with fraud.

The good news is that we have a government taking steps to deliver on the levelling up promise of the election manifesto. The library Business Centre network is an important part of the delivery of that promise. What we need now is a comprehensive suite of services to be the foundation stone of a truly authentic entrepreneurial culture.

Phil Taylor: When 88 per cent of students got their first choice university place on results day, was a U-turn really necessary?

18 Aug

Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist and former councillor in Ealing.

Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of school leavers and their parents will have heard Roger Taylor, Ofqual’s mild mannered chairman, on the news yesterday evening, when he rowed back on the regulator’s use of an algorithm-based moderation process for A levels in favour of grades assessed by teachers. They will note his prompted apology bitterly in many cases.

Now thousands of students will have new hope of getting a university place or one closer to their heart.

The irony is that the overall automated process that links together schools, universities and exam boards had done a great job by many measures already. Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend.

Now university admissions departments will be thrown into chaos having to find new places for students who qualify, and dealing with those that want to withdraw from safety offers and pursue their original first choice. Many universities had already changed their offers to unconditional ones in anticipation of this crisis, notably Worcester College, Oxford.

The problem for those who care about A levels as a qualification, grade inflation and the ability of universities and employers to identify talent is that teachers estimated 38 per cent of exams were worth an A or A*. This means that, not only is it hard to differentiate between candidates this year, but it puts this cohort at an advantage compared to recent ones. Will fairness demand that almost 40 per cent of exams get the top grades next year?

Who is to blame? Certainly Ofqual. It came up with a technical solution to a complex problem, and was not able to convince the rest of the education sector to back its judgement. Who knows whether that is through lack of transparency on its part or an unwillingness on the part of the teaching profession collectively to accept that moderation is a valid process. The spectacle of schools publishing their own results makes you wonder if there wasn’t some professional muscle-flexing going on.

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief executive, has been notably absent from the public debate. Was a career civil servant, rather than an educationalist, the right person to lead this public body? Taylor, an entrepreneur who made his name with the Dr Foster business, has a background in using statistics to drive health outcomes, but again is not an educationalist.

This was bound to be a political hot potato, especially in August when not much else is in the news. The politics of students waving their attenuated results around was always going to be incendiary. The vast majority of them and their families will be happily planning for the start of term, but the media and the opposition were always going find enough unhappy students to make a silly season crisis. The political failure was to not realise that Ofqual had not done the necessary job of persuasion itself to make its solution stick.

Once again, we have seen an organ of the British state fail to rise to a crisis. Whether it is the Met Police in the 2011 riots, the London Fire Brigade at Grenfell, or Public Health England in pandemic planning and managing Covid testing, we have too many examples of state bodies trundling along doing business as usual but unable to flex at speed to deal with a crisis.

Nick Gibb: Fair grades for A Levels and GCSEs and congratulations to the students

13 Aug

Nick Gibb is the Minister of State for School Standards.

Today students across the country will be receiving their A level results. These results, while important in themselves, are key to unlocking the next stage in these young people’s lives – be that university, an apprenticeship or the world of work.

But these students are part of the Covid generation – they will be receiving their qualification having not sat an actual exam.

No one wanted to cancel exams this year. I certainly didn’t. We know that they are the fairest and most robust way of assessing students’ knowledge and capabilities.

The impact of Covid-19 meant that we had to do things differently. We have worked with Ofqual to put in place the fairest possible system to enable students to move on to further study or employment as planned.

The grades students are receiving today will be just as valuable as in any other year. They are based on the judgement of their teachers, and have been moderated by exam boards to make sure the same standard is applied for all students, taking into account factors such as the prior attainment of that cohort and of their specific school or college. Overall, grades will be slightly higher than in previous years, by around two percentage points at A level grade A and above.

I recognise that some have called for us to simply revert to teacher-assessed grade, as Scotland has done. But doing away with all moderation would be misguided and create deep inequities. Without moderation, there would be grade inflation of 12 percentage points at A* and A, casting doubt on the validity of these grades in the eyes of employers and universities.

There would also be severe disparities between schools. The teachers and schools that had done their best to follow the rules and guidance in awarding grades would see their students at a disadvantage, compared to those which had been more lenient. This is simply not fair.

The moderation system in England is not the same as the one that was used in Scotland – and where there were legitimate concerns about the differential impact on rich and poor. The algorithm is different, developed after a full public consultation on the principle underpinning it, and we have a robust appeal system that allows schools to appeal if they believe their historic data does not reflect the ability of their current students. Ofqual’s analysis shows that students from all backgrounds – including more disadvantaged and black, ethnic minority and Asian communities – are not disadvantaged by this year’s awarding process.

But while our approach is robust, we acknowledge that it must be fair not just at system level, but for every individual student. There is no perfect replacement for exams and there will be a small minority of students who feel that their calculated grade does not reflect their work or their ability. This may include some of our brightest young people at poor performing schools, who it is imperative we support and protect.

That is why have introduced a triple lock to give students an added safety net. If a student is unhappy with their calculated grade, they will be able to appeal on the basis of a valid mock result or sit an exam in the autumn. We will ensure all outcomes are given the same weighting by universities, employers and colleges.

We expect the vast majority of students to continue with their calculated grade, which in almost all cases will be a fair reflection of their performance. However, students who would like to use a valid mock result will be able to apply through the appeals process to do so, with individuals notifying their school or college who will provide evidence of their mock results to their exam board.

The exam boards are committed to doing all that they can to ensure all appeals that impact a student’s progression are completed by September 7 – and all others within 42 days. Universities have assured us that they will show all possible flexibility – and we have exempted students who meet their university offer following a successful appeal from student number controls, meaning universities can hold places open for them.

The system we have put in place is the fairest possible in the absence of exams, based on fairly calculated grades, moderated by exam boards to make sure the same standard is applied for all students, whichever school, college or part of the country they come from, combined with clear safety nets for students who feel that the grades do not reflect their achievements.

Congratulations to every young person collecting their grades today. We have acted to make sure everyone has confidence in your results and you can progress to the next stage of your life.