Sarah Ingham: Fat is a lockdown issue

15 May

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

Thanks to the Daily Mail we know that today is not only 15th May 2021 but Day 418 of Lockdown. On Monday, the government is granting us another small sliver of liberty, but irksome restrictions will continue.

The panicked and disproportionate response by the State to the Covid-19 is the ultimate decades-in-the-making triumph for the health and safety culture which characterises the country’s public sector.

The elderly in months of solitary confinement in care homes, masked school children in playground bubbles, funeral mourners ordered to separate, police officers ruling that a takeaway tea constitutes a picnic…It’s all too reminiscent of a callous and irrational mindset that denies a last consoling cigarette to Death Row inmates about to be executed.

As a captive audience under house arrest for months since March 2020, the British public has been bombarded by Government health warnings. The country’s health honchos have bustled into our homes via our screens. Graphs, charts, statistics, variants, R-rates, two metres, tiers…but not obesity.

Given the relentless nagging over the years by state-backed quango queens on every facet of our health, their comparative silence over the links between weight and the world’s latest coronavirus has been deafening.

This time last year as Covid raged, we kept on hearing about ‘underlying health conditions’ which seemed to be further imperilling younger victims of the virus. These mysterious afflictions were never spelt out. Last month, The Lancet published a paper exploring the link between weight and Covid-19. The study, Associations between Body-Mass Index and Covid-19 Severity in 6.9 million people in England (Min Gao et al) states ‘obesity is a major risk factor for adverse outcomes after infection with SARS-CoV-19’.

In the context of the Covid crisis, the country’s corpulence has usually been the, er, elephant in Number 10’s briefing room. When the virus struck him last year, Boris Johnson acknowledged that it was his sizeable girth which landed him in hospital. Today, still more Falstaff than lean and hungry Cassius, the Prime Minister could be the ideal figurehead to lead the national charge, or waddle, back to health.

An episode of Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge asked whether anyone would trade five years of their lives for the perfect body. This provoked horror among those who are on a permanent trigger to denounce fat-shaming.

Today, we are hearing much less about the plus-size body positivity. Ministers, MPs and health officials might want to duck a difficult subject that affects that majority of voters, but the virus has highlighted the deadly consequences of being overweight.

Long before the Covid-19 arrived, the country had a hefty problem. According to the NHS’s 2020 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, the majority of the country – 63 per cent – were overweight; 28 per cent of adults were classified as obese, along with one fifth of Year Six children. In 2018/19, there were 11,117 hospital admissions in England ‘with a primary diagnosis of obesity’ and 876,000 admissions where obesity was a factor in diagnosis.

The Government spent £184 million on Covid-related comms last year, according to Campaign, the ad industry’s bible. All this expensive messaging bossing us to follow its guidance to ‘Stay Home’ has actually worsened the nation’s collective weight problem. In turn, this will worsen the impact of Covid and other illnesses for many sufferers. The best way to ‘Protect the NHS’ and to save lives, and improve the quality of life, is for us to get off the couch, into our trainers and out of our front doors. Almost five million are now on NHS waiting lists for treatment. ‘Patient, heal thyself’ is however unlikely to be a State-backed message.

Pre-vaccine, the most vulnerable to the coronavirus were the elderly. Unlike being old and frail, being overweight is a matter of personal responsibility and active choice. Or rather inactive choice, involving too little movement and too much sugar, including alcohol. Many would like to go down a few sizes but are simply not prepared for the joyless slog.

Few are like Adele, who was in the news last year not for another album release or Grammy but for losing seven stone, calling for the sort of iron self-discipline that most of us are too lazy to summon up. And anyone who simply blames poverty for excess poundage has clearly never set foot in the Cobham branch of Waitrose, Surrey’s mothership of middle-class affluence.

Right now, we have the worst of all worlds. The State continues to restrict personal freedom in a bid, it claims, to save life, while at the same time trying to avoid spelling out the risks to life caused by excess weight.

For the past year, we have collectively sacrificed our freedom, mental health, children’s education and livelihoods to protect the vulnerable from the impact of Covid-19. How far the State continues restricting our freedom of movement will be demonstrated all too vividly later in the month as football fans travel, or not, to Porto for the Champions League final. It is surely now time for those who deliberately choose to make themselves vulnerable to illness, including Covid-19, to start reflecting on their choices and their responsibilities to wider society.

Lockdown was, in part, the sacrifice of liberty to gluttony. Fat is no longer just a feminist issue, as Susie Orbach identified back in 1978, but one that all of us must confront. Without sugar coating.

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure: As the recent US election showed, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat

11 Nov

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure is the Director at FTI Consulting.

The President-elect may well come to regret his offhand comment in a radio interview earlier in May, where he joked that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black”.

In one sense, he was right: black voters did overwhelmingly vote Democrat. And yet exit poll data shows that Donald Trump doubled his vote among black women. The number of black men who voted for him increased by 25 per cent. More Hispanic American men voted for him this time round; and Hispanic American women, and American Muslims, and white women. The influence of the Cuban vote in Florida has already been the subject of extensive coverage. In an ironic twist, the major demographic shift towards the Democrats came from the much-derided category of white men.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the GOP has somehow morphed into the party of minorities. But, aside from being the highest Republican share of non-white voters in a presidential election since 1960 (quite the result for someone it’s long been fashionable to dismiss as a white supremacist), these results show that increasingly, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat.

The coming months will doubtless see much soul-searching about why the Democrats failed to make electoral inroads into these demographics. Some conclusions will be sensible and some will be ugly: already Twitter is full of depressingly predictable slurs about minorities being bamboozled by anti-socialist propaganda, attracted to the macho idea of the strongman, or desperately trying to assimilate into their new society by voting in a way their white neighbours would approve of.

The answer, I suspect, is simpler. It is that conservative values speak to minority communities in a way that the Left simply does not understand.

You cannot, of course, lump all “minorities” together. There is, for instance, a distinction to be drawn between recent migrants, such as those pesky Cubans and Mexicans that voted the “wrong” way, and communities that have been in America for centuries. And within ethnic groups there are also significant differences in culture, cohesion, and attainment. But there are also important similarities.

When we speak of “communities” this implies a group of people with shared values. And, to a lesser or greater extent, these values include patriotism (both where you originate from, and where you have settled), a belief in the family as the basic building block of society, self-advancement, education, thrift, religion, and a sense that rights also confer responsibilities.

These are, in other words, conservative values. To some they might appear as old-fashioned, even a little embarrassing. One could well make the point that there are many within those communities that have abandoned some (or all) of these values. But to many more, they are instantly recognisable as a decent set of values to live by – and to vote by.

For recent immigrants, the link is even stronger. These are often people who have taken significant personal risk to leave their old life, settle in a new place, start again from the beginning, often in lowly and glamorous jobs, and carve out a better life for themselves and their families. Many know the ugly side of repressive regimes and the evils of an all-powerful State; others have bitter and direct experience of what happens when anarchy is allowed to flourish. They have shown courage and determination to get this far, and want to succeed further. Is this not conservative?

We see much the same debate taking place in the UK. For a long time, the narrative has been allowed to develop that it is only the Left that can help immigrant and minority communities.

This is not just patronising but potentially dangerous. The implications of much of what the Left tells minorities – that we live in an endemically racist society, that we are doomed to underachieve, that we cannot meet our full potential without a great big helping hand – all of this, though often well meant, is grating at best, and at worst risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell a person they are second-rate often enough and they will eventually believe you.

It is also intellectually lazy. There are big problems existing in the UK to do with failures of integration, under-achievement in specific communities, genuine racism, ghettoisation, and the fact that a regrettable number of individuals come to the UK to do wrong. I arrived here from Romania with my family almost three decades ago, and, though I’ve been hugely lucky, I can’t claim it’s always been an easy ride.

But these problems cannot be allowed to become the entire story. Because – as in the US – the overwhelming objective, particularly for recent migrants, is to get on, make a success of your life, exercise personal responsibility, and reap the rewards in later years. And that’s what most of us have been trying to do.

There is a rich electoral seam to be explored here. For too long, Labour successfully claimed a monopoly on migrant and ethnic minority votes. Conservatives were smeared as golf-club racists, Little Englanders, or migrant-hating xenophobes. Genuine concerns about immigrant criminality, or the rate at which the UK could absorb new people, were caricatured as simply wanting to send everyone back. And, it has to be said, there was a small but vocal section within the Party whose rhetoric was hardly geared to win over ethnic minority voters.

What Labour excelled at was being offended on our behalf. When I was growing up, for instance, it was a left-wing trope to label The Daily Mail evil for daring to run stories of Romanian pickpockets. And the other Romanians I knew were, like me, furious about those stories: furious, that is, at the disgraceful behaviour of our fellow countrymen.

Beware of generalisations. But there are many, many in the UK, migrants, or the children of migrants, or from established ethnic minority backgrounds, who have a robust, common-sense approach to life that chimes exactly with conservative values.

They don’t want to be patted on the head; they’d far prefer lower taxes. They appreciate law and order being maintained, but distrust the hand of the State intruding too far into their private lives. For them, patriotism isn’t a dirty world, and they have an instinctive understanding of the importance of national sovereignty. They prize academic rigour and aren’t embarrassed by ambition or the pursuit of excellence. They would vigorously reject the notion that rising to the very top – say, by becoming Home Secretary or Chancellor – “isn’t for the likes of you”. They are natural conservatives. But, tragically, too many of them still don’t vote Conservative.

As in the US, there is some evidence of the dial beginning to turn. If upsetting The Guardian is a measure of success, then its article complaining about the “prominence” of British Indians in the Conservative Party is the most back-handed of compliments to the Party’s engagement programme. Similar efforts are gathering results with Jewish communities, which, at the last election, can only have been bolstered by the fact that we were fighting against Jeremy Corbyn.

Elsewhere, however, the “anyone but Tory” narrative still holds sway – and changing that offers an electoral prize well worth the effort. A good start would be a full-blooded programme of measures that incentivise economic growth, help the pursuit of educational excellence, reward aspiration – and challenge, at every opportunity, the toxic narrative that ethnic minorities are in any way second class.

Neil O’Brien: The virus and the lockdown. Let’s keep calm and carry on – for there’s reason to believe that a vaccine is coming soon.

2 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Sarah Thomas is a lunatic. And amazing. About a year ago, she became the first person to swim the Channel four times in a row without stopping. It took 54 hours.

Between booking her slot, and getting in the water, she survived cancer. Setting off, she was immediately stung in the face by a jellyfish. On her fourth crossing, strong tides pushed her off course, turning 83 miles of swimming into 134, forcing her to sprint-swim to break free from the current.

She’s inspiring. And swimming the channel isn’t a bad metaphor for our fight against coronavirus. Metaphorically, we’re somewhere in the middle, when you can’t see Britain, but can’t quite see France either.

The national restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday underlined that we will still be slogging through this for a while yet. Polls suggest the public strongly back his decision: given the alarming data, it is definitely the right one.

Yet everyone’s tired of the restrictions and not seeing loved ones and friends, and the good things we look forward to once this is over remain a way off.

As we go through this marathon ordeal, what can we learn from Sarah Thomas?

First, most top athletes are taught to visualise success.

Regarding Coronavirus, the finishing line is becoming more visible, with progress on vaccines looking good. The New York Times runs a Vaccine Checker which lets you follow progress.

Eleven different vaccines are in final-stage “Phase 3” clinical trials, with half a dozen or so now seeing limited use outside trials.

There were always reasons to be optimistic about a vaccine: when the whole world wants something really badly, it’s likely to get produced. Producing a vaccine for coronavirus isn’t like inventing the atom bomb or putting a man on the moon, which required oodles of new technologies. A Covid-19 vaccine is a sideways-step from existing technologies. Several categories of vaccines look like they will be ready to roll in the coming months:

  • The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is basically a weakened version of a common cold type virus, modified to carry a protein which Covid-19 also shows, so that your body can learn to seek and destroy it without exposure to the real thing. Trials found it produces a good immune response including among older people, and doesn’t have side effects. The UK, US and EU have signed for hundreds of millions of doses.
  • Other vaccines based on a similar approach in final stage tests include China’s CanSino vaccine, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and Johnson & Johnson in the US.
  • Another promising approach is based on the use of messenger RNA: a blueprint for making proteins. The Pfizer / Biontech vaccine works like this and may well be the first to go into non-trial use in the US. There was some speculation last week that we could start using it here in the UK before Christmas, which seems a bit soon, but it isn’t far off. Another similar vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute is also final stage trials.
  • Finally, there’s a bunch of traditional vaccines based on inactivated versions of Covid-19 (like the Hepatitis B vaccine, which has been around since the 1960s). China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac both offer vaccines like this – the Sinovac one is already being used outside clinical trials and you can buy it in some cities for $60. The Indian Council of Medical Research is also in final stage trials of an equivalent.

So the shore’s not so far away.

The other lesson from Sarah Thomas is about listening to the right people. She says she nearly quit halfway, but her team egged her on.

Contrast that with the British commentariat, large parts of which are dishing out terrible advice. If they’d been in Sarah Thomas’s support boat they’d have been telling her to give up, harping on about how cold it was. They’ve been hopeless throughout.

First, they dismissed the problem. Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail on March 2nd/

“My default position on all these health scares is weary scepticism. We’ve been here before. Sars, Mers, Ebola, Bird Flu, Swine Flu… All passed in Britain, at least without the catastrophic death toll the so-called ‘experts’ confidently predicted”.


Then they declared the problem over. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote in May that that, by June: “a scientist friend assures me the coronavirus will have petered out.” Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, (and who the media fawns over), predicted in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country”, which she said was “due to the build-up of immunity”.


The commentariat want to shout down wiser voices. In September, Sir Patrick Vallance faced a torrent of abuse for saying that there might be 200 deaths a day from Covid-19 by mid November. “Project fear,” thundered one Telegraph columnist. Piers Morgan blasted the Government’s “scaremongering.”


In fact we hit that grim milestone sooner, in late October, and hit 326 by the last day of October. We need to start listening to the right coaches – not hopeless people who get it wrong time and again, but face zero accountability.

Finally, top athletes learn from the best. In terms of Coronavirus, the best performers are Japan, Korea and New Zealand. France has had 19,800 cases per million people. The UK 14,800. Japan has had just 795, and Korea just 512 and New Zealand 325.

New Zealand is rural, but Japan and Korea are heavily urban. How did they do it?

Partly it’s about near-universal mask use. As the Lancet notes: “In Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the habit of mask wearing by people with respiratory conditions was already widespread before the pandemic”. Part of it is that all these countries also have tough virus border controls.

There are other factors. Japan locked down Tokyo at a very early stage. South Korea’s super-duper test and trace system uses records of credit card transactions, mobile phone and global positioning system data, to fill in gaps in what coronavirus patients can remember in interviews.

The most important lesson from Asia is that success breeds success. A low rate of cases makes it easier for test and trace staff to isolate and shut down chains of infection, and contain local outbreaks. Too many cases and such approaches are overwhelmed.

To use an analogy, it took us a long time to work out how to conquer inflation. The key discovery was that the only way to have stable inflation is to have very low inflation.

The same’s true of coronavirus. Either you are beating coronavirus, or it is beating you. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line or rise gently, but to streak exponentially upward. Korea, Japan and New Zealand have got it pinned to the floor, so can get on with their lives. Instead of surrendering, as let-it-rippers in the commentariat advocate, they’ve decided to win.

Unlike Sarah Thomas we don’t have to swim for 54 hours. But we’re all enduring hardships. To get to the other side of this we need to keep thinking straight. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s some easy way out. There isn’t.

When she was far out to sea, her team called to her: “Just keep swimming.” At first, I thought that sounded really dumb. But when you are out in the middle of the Channel, it’s not such bad advice.

Pressure rises on Ministers to publish assessments of the impact of lockdowns, restrictions – and Covid itself

20 Oct

Last week, ConservativeHome called for the Government to broaden and deepen the national conversation about Covid-19 – or at least try to as best it can.

It is essential to see the disease in the round by understanding the consequences of lockdowns, restrictions and the virus itself on both lives and livelihoods.

For livelihoods, read what’s usually called the economy, a dry term, but is actually a human story of lost jobs, lower living standards, higher poverty, damaged schooling and vulnerable sectors, including hospitality and retail.

For lives, read healthcare outcomes other than Covid-related ones.  In other words, cancelled operations and fewer treatments, as well as (for example) worse heart disease, cancer, mental health and domestic abuse outcomes.

This is why we urged the Goverment to publish –

  • A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE.

We also suggested that some think-tanks have the capacity to issue comprehensive reports.

This site originally urged this course during the spring, and is far from alone in having done so.  On which point, congratulations to the Daily Mail, which today publishes a four-page investigation into health outcomes. It finds –

  • 25,000 more people died at home during pandemic, since they didn’t go to hospital as it continued.
  • There is set to be a 20 per cent rise in cancer patient deaths because of treatment backlogs.
  • Organ transplant operations fell by two thirds while waiting list deaths doubled. More than 50,000 operations for children were cancelled.

It’s worth pointing out that some of these outcomes will have been a consequence of Covid-19 itself rather than restrictions – for example, people not going to A & E departments in order to reduce the risk of catching the virus.

The line Matt Hancock took yesterday in the Commons is that suppressing the virus is integral to better health outcomes, because the more NHS resources the virus demands the fewer there will be for other conditions.

But a question that obviously follows is whether or not the Government’s strategy, which is dependent at present on big lockdowns, is the best means of protecting the NHS.

It’s worth noting that a Department of Health analysis has said that “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.

The Mail is not alone in trying to get its readers to look at the Coronavirus in a more full context.  Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘Protect the NHS’ message led to 90 per cent drop in hospital admissions.

The Times last Friday urged the Government to be “more transparent about the economic and health costs – the same day that we took much the same view.

And a wide range of Conservative MPs are increasingly calling for the kind of action we have outlined.  Theresa May has called for more formal economic advice.  Steve Baker, writing on this site yesterday, urged Ministers to publish “serious analysis of the costs of the options they face”.

Downing Street will be reluctant to take this course, and thus indicate that the Government might change its strategy, while it is doubling down on the present one.

In political terms, that’s what our report yesterday about new LAMP and lateral flow tests signified.  Number Ten believes that these can deliver where track and trace has not (though it is not abandoning the latter).

So it is trying to persuade Tory backbenchers not to abandon the testing strategy, and transfer their support either to lockdowns and a permanent suppression plan, or to loosening and a more voluntarist approach.

We shall see whether this push pays off – and if this planned massive scaling-up of new tests works.  ConservativeHome’s understanding is that the Treasury hasn’t ruled out a big report on economic costs.

However, Government sources pointed out that much of the required data is already available (i.e: unemployment figures), and that it would be hard to disentangle the effects of restrictions from those of the virus more widely.

We also detect a concern about the consequences of publishing bad economic news: on the one hand, the Treasury has an interest in alerting voters to the scale of the economic challenge, but none in alarming them.

Iain Dale: We all want our city and town centres to return to normal. But that isn’t possible at present – so we must get used to it.

25 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

A sign of a Prime Minister in trouble is when journalists start writing articles about possible successors, and who might be the runners and riders in a leadership contest.

Given that Boris Johnson has only been the Conservative leader for just over a year, it comes as something of a surprise that he’s already being written off by some of his colleagues and commentators.

Some allege that it’s clear that he’s suffering from so-called “Long Covid”, and knows in his heart of hearts that he’s not performing on all six cylinders. Others reckon that if he gets a free trade agreement with the EU and the post- Coronavirus economy returns to something like normality, he might decide his work is done and he’ll be off to enjoy the fruits of a post Prime Ministerial career.

The truth is that no one knows. I find both these scenarios entirely plausible, if not wholly likely. It is very rare for a Prime Minister to give up office voluntarily, even when they might not be in the best of health. Tony Blair did – sort of, although a Gordon Brown shaped gun had been put to his temple. Harold Wilson did, but he knew his mental capacity was on the decline.

A party leader only serves at the pleasure of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Yes, there are rumblings of discontent but, again, this is nothing unusual. Margaret Thatcher experienced such tremors throughout her leadership, but it took the cowards 15 years to get rid of her.

I find it difficult to foresee that things would get so bad within the next twelve months that Tory MPs would get rid of the man who brought them an 80 seat majority only 10 months ago. But in politics, the unexpected often happens.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast this week, I recounted a tale from my schooldays which left him open- mouthed with horror.

Back in 1978, when I was 15  my school held an end of term fancy dress disco in the cavernous school hall at Saffron Walden County High. I decided to go as a gamekeeper, given I had all the gear.

I arrived at the do dressed up in proper ‘Seth Armstrong’ gear (if you aren’t an Emmerdale fan, you won’t get that reference), replete with flat cap and wellington boots.

But more to the point, I was also carrying a double barrel twelve-bore shotgun (my father’s) and a cartridge belt full of live cartridges. No one batted an eyelid. If I did that now, the Police would be called and I’d probably get a mention in the Daily Mail, and get an ASBO. Innocent times.

– – – – – – – – – –

I am starting a new series of 55 podcasts on each of our 55 Prime Minsters to accompany the book I am editing on the subject which comes out in November.

Yesterday, one of the contributors pulled out of recording the podcast, because his three meetings in London that were summarily cancelled and transferred to Zoom calls – so he didn’t want to come in just for one.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon had continued to urge people to work from home if they could, whereas in England we had all be encouraged to return to work outside it if we could from July onwards. In hindsight, that was wrong.

Of course, we all want to get our city and town centres back to normal, but policy cannot be guided by an understandable desire to keep sandwich shops in business. We are not yet ‘Pret a Manger’.

The thought that this could all go on for another six months is not one any of us relishes, yet I think it was quite right of the Prime Minister to say that.

In March, he was criticised for what some described as false optimism, when he intimated that everything would be back to normal by Christmas. Now he’s being criticised for being a doomster…Sometimes, as a politician, you just can’t win.

– – – – – – – – – –

There’s a new authorised biography of Diane Abbott out this week. In the index it says I get a mention on page 52. The only Dale mentioned on that page is Diane’s maternal grandmother, Dinah Dale. I wonder if we are by any chance related? Now there’s one for Who do you think you are?  It’s entirely possible we could be related, you know – I can’t count either.

John Bald: Ofqual needs a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education. If these can’t be found, we must start again.

20 Aug

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

Ofqual’s A level grades could not stand. The standard for a judicial review – that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have reached the decision in question (Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation, 1948) was met with ease.

Failing a person without even looking at their work can never be reasonable. It is equally clear that Ofsted’s Saturday night U-turn was the result of its Board, which not met since last September, deciding  that it was not going to go down with the Chief Regulator and Chairman. Ofqual should have spent the money it wasted on Public First on some decent legal advice. A first-year law student could have told them.

Last week’s dog’s dinner has been followed by a dog’s breakfast. As universities struggle with the flood of candidates deemed successful, while the smaller number who feel let down by their schools are left with no redress, schools and sixth forms are hit with a huge increase in top GCSE grades.

In fairness to Gavin Wilkinson, his instruction to Ofqual when the exams were cancelled in March, was “that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”Ofqual was legally required to do this, but instead overruled these calculations via a statistical rigmarole that took no notice of them, except where they had five or fewer candidates in a subject.

The Chief Regulator and Chairman decided to do it their way,  and so hit the rocks. To that extent, the Government is justified in saying that the mess is Ofqual’s fault, and its expression of confidence in the Chief Regulator would shame a football club chairman.  The DfE’s own failure lay in not following its instructions through to ensure that they were carried out.   The Daily Mail’s front page cartoon of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State as Laurel and Hardy sums it all up.

So, what now? First, we need to get rid of the idea that these grades are results. They are not, and cannot be relied on. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools had given borderline candidates the benefit of the doubt, but this is not quite the case.

A university source from the North of England told me that many had given the most optimistic estimate of what might have been achieved with full teaching and revision, but that some had simply entered mock results, even if these had been lower than teachers’ estimates. No appeal was available, and university places had been lost as a result.

Barton’s view is more realistic than the corruption that took over GCSE school-based assessments, but the conflict of interest can’t be disguised.  When a school gives a pupil an A, it gives itself one too, and I’ve seen unjustified top grades lead to pupils struggling and failing in the next stage of education.

Ofqual itself is an odd fish. Devised by Labour in 2009 to counter well-founded suspicions of dumbing down and grade inflation, it is, like Ofsted, notionally independent, but must “have regard “ to government policy when publicly directed to do so.

This leaves the Chief Regulator very wide discretion, exemplified by Sally Collier’s statement, after lowering A level grade boundaries in 2017, that “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant”.  If all are brilliant, all must have prizes.  In the end, Oqual’s Board meeting on Saturday simply obliged her to base judgements on Williamson’s instruction, rather than ignoring it. What the Board could not do was meet his instruction to take account of additional evidence, hence opening the floodgates.

The statute requires Ofqual to perform its functions “efficiently and effectively”. It has failed to do so, but it is unfair to judge an educational body on its handling of a pandemic. More important are its failure to ensure fair and equitable grading – leading to able pupils taking physics and languages receiving lower grades than in other subjects – and a structure that allows its chief regulator to base major decisions on personal views. Improving supervision by the Board, and appointing a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education may both help. Failing that, we need to start again.

Feel for the students and pupils who must cope with this chaos as best they can

20 Aug

It is a week and a day since our newslinks led with a Daily Mail story which we headlined “Government “rips up exam system to give pupils ‘triple lock’ on grades”.  That’s a day after Nicola Sturgeon’s apology for the debacle in Scotland.  Gavin Williamson was dashing to find an escape route for England.  We all know what happened during the next six days.

At least two bad news stories will compete today, as GCSE results are issued later this morning.  They pull in opposite directions.

One is bad for the system and good for pupils – in the very short term, at least.  There will be high grade inflation. About a third of papers will apparently get top grades, rather than the usual fifth.

But even in the short-term, there will be consequences: namely, a Russell Group University-style rush of pupils into the better sixth forms, which will have knock-on effects further down the chain.  There is talk of aptitude tests to weed out some pupils who have made a sixth form only because of the inflation.

The other is bad for system and bad for pupils.  Some are about to find they’ve received lower grades than in their last set of predicted papers at school.

Why?  Because teachers in schools will have feared that if they were too permissive with the “centre assessed grades” that they sent to the examiners, their pupils would be marked down in consequence.  So they will have tried to game the system by sending lower CAGs than those last predicated grades.

That those CAGs might become the final measure of their pupils’ performance would never have occured to them.  Furthermore, 500,000 BTEC students now won’t get their results on time.

Pearson, the exam board, first said that it would not be recalibrating the results…before saying that it will recalibrate them.  Which means that they can’t be issued this morning.  Williamson is under further fire for overlooking these students, the very type that the Government wants to “level up”.

This is unfair, but it is now open season on the Education Secretary, as it will continue to be until he resigns, is moved – or is sacked.

The Times opens up a new front this morning by reporting that Williamson was warned by a former Director-General of his department about the algorithm’s failings.  A contrast is drawn between this briefing and the Education Secretary’s claim that he only became aware of the full scale of the problem last weekend.

In Williamson’s defence, it must be said that an advance warning of a problem, from no matter how distinguished a figure, isn’t quite the same as experiencing the problem itself.

But few will feel like being fair to the Education Secretary – to whom the fatal lobby cliches “embattled” and “beleaguered” will soon be applied, if they haven’t been already.  He must now grapple with no fewer than four sets of policy and polical problems.

First, with the consequences of today’s results for sixth forms and further education colleges.  Second, with those of his decision on A-levels for universities and other higher education institutions.

Third, with seeking to follow through the Government’s manifesto commitments on the Augar Review in these chaotic circumstances.  Finally, he must try to lead the re-opening of schools in less than a fortnight.  We could write for a third day running that Williamson should be moved, but we rest our case.

Some say that the exams fiasco won’t affect the Conservative poll ratings.  For evidence, they may point to today’s YouGov poll, which sees the Tory vote holding up, despite the Party’s lead being cut to two per cent.

The rise in Labour’s standing comes largely at the Liberal Democrats’ expense, while the Conservatives have a 24 point lead among the over-65s, who are not touched directly by the exam turbulence.

However, another view is that the Government’s reputation on competence, already damaged by parts of its handling of the Coronavirus, will slide further by the time of next year’s local elections.  We hope not have to lead our newslinks with another episode of the results-and-schools-and-universities story in a week and a day’s time, but wouldn’t bet on it.  Feel for the students and pupils who have to cope with it all as best they can.

Tris Dyson: Challenge prizes can incentivise British breakthroughs and new British industries

15 Jul

Tris Dyson is the Executive Director of Nesta Challenges. This is a sponsored post by Nesta Challenges.

“In the next 100 years, the most successful societies will be the most innovative societies”, so said the Prime Minister in his recent ‘Build, Build, Build’ speech. For those of us who work in the field of innovation and R&D, there was a lot to be cheerful about; the Government is making the largest commitment to science and technology investment for generations.

The UK is a global leader in innovation. We get many things right, but there are of course weaknesses in our system. While the billions more ear-marked for R&D will enhance our position and bolster our strengths in the sector, unless we become bolder in the funding choices we make, we will also amplify those things we currently get wrong. More money does not necessarily mean better results.

In his speech, the Prime Minister recommitted the Government to “creating a new science funding agency to back high risk, high reward projects”, preluding the creation of the much-anticipated agency modelled on ARPA – the US Advanced Research Project Agency. The Government’s R&D roadmap, published the following day, has kicked off a conversation about different and diversified funding approaches that will be needed for success, including challenge prizes and competitions.

Traditional approaches to R&D funding favour giving grants to well-established incumbents to deliver “safe” solutions against a pre-agreed process rather than being tied to finding ambitious solutions to problems we face. Too often “risk” is conflated with “recklessness”, less-impactful solutions that can be delivered to a pre-agreed budget by a well-known company win out over high-impact ideas that have a greater chance of failure.

Challenge prizes have a unique ability to unlock innovation and solve large problems. They reward solutions only after they are proven to work, de-risking investment in unknown entities and allowing new ideas, companies and innovators to break through.

A challenge prize is a simple idea – incentivise innovators to develop solutions with the promise of financial reward. Challenge prizes turn the R&D grant model on its head. Where grants offer a subsidy to the team that seems best placed to solve a problem in advance, challenge prizes offer a reward to whoever first or most effectively solves that problem.

This tweak – moving from an up-front subsidy to an incentive that pays out later based on success – makes a profound difference. Because challenge prizes do not rely on deciding up-front which proposal is best, judgement is reserved until there are real results, so they are far more open.

Open to different innovators: plucky upstarts who have the skills but not the track record or connected privilege. Open to different ideas: unusual approaches, new technologies or unconventional methods. Open to change: giving innovators space to rethink and restart, because all that matters is the end result.

From the industrial revolution through to the early 20th century, Britain was a leader in challenge prizes, from the original Longitude Prize to help seafarers navigate the oceans, to the Daily Mail’s aviation prizes. Then, post-war, their popularity diminished. In the last two decades however, they are experiencing a renaissance.

In the US, the $10m Ansari X Prize rewarded the first private company to build a reusable manned spacecraft. It generated an estimated $100m of investment from the 26 teams pursuing the prize in the nascent private spaceflight industry, catalysing a sector estimated to be worth $30bn by 2026. DARPA’s multimillion-dollar autonomous vehicle challenges have produced the technologies and companies that have made America the world leader in self-driving cars.

In the UK, Nesta Challenges’ £8m Longitude Prize launched to mark the 300th anniversary of its maritime predecessor, focused on developing rapid tests to ensure the preservation of antibiotics in the battle against antimicrobial resistance.

Teams of innovators are developing diagnostics that will revolutionise the treatment of bacterial infections in pursuit of the prize with many tantalisingly close to market. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the £5m Open Up Challenge promoted much-needed competition in the small business banking sector. The 12 finalists are now recognised as some of the most important and disruptive fintechs in the UK.

Though it garnered little attention, perhaps the most important thing said in the speech is, “we won’t get everything right, we certainly won’t get everything right first time”. Particularly in a political context, to change course, even if it achieves a better outcome, often appears far worse than sticking to the original plan.

“U-turn” is hurled as an insult; plan B is paraded as a sign of abject failure. And yet, any successful innovator will tell you that failure, pivoting and changing course is an essential part of the development of every successful idea.

If we are to become the global innovation powerhouse of the 21st Century, we will need to rethink our cultural attitude to failure and iteration. Challenge prizes allow us to do this, focusing the pay-off and reward on the outcome, not the means.

Rather than playing it safe, new institutions and mechanisms should be smart about risk and reward. That does not mean being reckless, but it should mean giving innovators licence to try more radical, less orthodox approaches, or to pivot and change direction. Courage from Government can generate courage in innovators.

The Government has huge ambitions for UK science and innovation. The financial commitment and the promise of investing in new approaches must be matched by policies that truly unleash the full potential of Britain’s innovators and opens R&D funding to as broad an audience as possible.

The lesson of the astonishing speed of innovation in the last few months, shows that with the right focus, the right goals, and the right incentives, we are a nation of innovators ready and able to move quickly to face the great challenges ahead.

Download The Great Innovation Challenge: How challenge prizes can kick-start the British economy from Nesta Challenges.

Iain Dale: The Jenrick row. What would the Daily Mail have against the former owner of the Daily Express?

26 Jun

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

One of the grubbier aspects of Robert Jenrick’s woes at the moment is the position of the Daily Mail.

Yesterday, it printed four pages of bile against the Communities Secretary, with articles headlined as follows: “He sweated under the glare like a saveloy in a chip shop” – “Riddle of his £830k home makeover planners refused” – “This haughty and reckless Minister is now a drag on the Tories”.

And it’s been like that for days. It’s quite clear that it has little to do with the rights and wrongs of the case. It’s all bound up with the fact that their arch enemy and rival, Richard Desmond, is the one who stands to gain from the housing development on the Isle of Dogs.

He is, of course, the owner of the Daily Express until 2018. Now, given that the Express is hardly the paper it used to be, and the Mail’s circulation is now many times that of the Express, you might think the Mail would ignore it, in the way that Waitrose wouldn’t worry about the competition from the local independent Minimart. But newspaper owners have long memories and carry grudges longer than elephants do.

The original accusation of “cash for favours” has quietly been dropped. I wrote in this column last week that no politician is likely to be bought for £12,000, especially when the money wasn’t even a donation in the conventional sense – it bought tickets at a fundraising dinner.

The trouble is that there has been a drip of information ever since, culminating in Robert Jenrick publishing 129 pages worth of emails, texts and letters between him and Desmond, or his department and Desmond.

And on Wednesday, The Times published what it thought was a massive new angle whereby Conservative councillors in Westminster were alleged to have overturned a planning decision on Jenrick’s Westminster home in 2014. He only became an MP in June 2014, so it’s not clear what the accusation is here.

Downing Street are standing by their man, just as they did with Dominic Cummings. The letter from the Cabinet Secretary to Steve Reed seeks to close the matter down, but the fact that it was sent only hours after Jenrick released all the different communications with Desmond probably didn’t help, and it certainly hasn’t ‘drawn a line’ under it all.

Jenrick expended a lot of political capital with his parliamentary colleagues over this three home lockdown situation back in April. He’s expended a lot more over the last few weeks. He must hope that Number Ten remains staunch and that there is nothing else for the Mail to latch on to. But the warning to other ministers is clear. And, frankly, it should always have been clear to Jenrick. When it comes to Desmond, sup with a very long spoon.

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The fourth anniversary of the Brexit referendum passed this week with comparatively little comment.

On the actually Brexitversary on Monday night, I made the mistake of doing a phone-in on it. I started off by saying that I didn’t want to refight the referendum, but I might as well have saved my breath.

Remainer after Remainer phoned in, all seemingly having been to the same debating school, where they had been taught not to engage in a debate and instead just barge their way through without any recognition that there might just possibly be another viewpoint. It was like going back in a time machine.

By the end of the hour I had almost lost the will to live. In real life, my experience is that most moderate Remainers have long ago come to terms with the fact that we have left, and it’s up to the whole country to make the best of it.

I’m far more optimistic than that. It’s not a case of tolerating the new post-Brexit world, it should be a matter of embracing it. And after Coronavirus is over (assuming it ever is), I think there will be new spirit of entrepreneurialism in this country, which will able us to do great things, both domestically and internationally.

I can’t prove it, and there always will be those who attribute any bad bit of economic bad news to Brexit, but I am genuinely excited about the future.

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The end is in sight. The Government has advised those of us in vulnerable groups that we can emerge from isolation from the beginning of August.

This means I can leave the comfy confines of my bedroom and resume broadcasting from a proper studio at last. It will have been 137 days since I last did that.

I’ve rather enjoyed broadcasting from home and recording lots of podcasts on Zoom, taking part in video conferences on Teams or BlueJeans, but I am relishing some degree of normality returning.

The one thing I am certainly not looking forward to is wearing a facemask from the moment I step on to the train at Tonbridge each day. But I guess I’ll get used to it. Because it will be part of what we now have to refer to as the ‘new normal’.