Why is Williamson fighting so hard to prevent schools breaking up early for Christmas?

15 Dec

Of all the own goals and missteps the Government has inflicted on itself during the pandemic, the exams fiasco was one of the most embarrassing.

Having taken the decision to cancel end-of-term examinations months before – and watched the Scottish Government run aground on the very same reef a couple of weeks before England was scheduled to do so – the Department for Education sailed blithely into disaster.

Gavin Williamson, having struck a tough pose against grade inflation, was swift to capitulate. With a second round of more-generous results anticipated in 2021, a decade of Conservative attempts to toughen up school standards risks becoming another victim of Covid-19.

And all of this followed a prolonged battle between the Government and the teaching unions about getting schools open in the first place, with the latter accused of setting deliberately impossible safety conditions on any return to work.

So one can see why the Education Secretary might feel he has something to prove, and thus why he has chosen to take an extremely muscular line against several London councils which had planned to close their schools early for Christmas in view of rising coronavirus cases. Williamson issued Greenwich with a ‘temporary continuity direction’, a new power afforded him by Covid-19 legislation, to force the local authority to reverse course.

Two more, Islington and Waltham Forest, had issued similar directives and likewise face a confrontation with the Government if they don’t back down.

Ministers followed up this move with the announcement that they will roll out mass rapid testing in secondary schools in the New Year, in what Williamson called a “milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all”. However, the unions claim that schools have not been provided with adequate staff and training to make use of the tests.

Furthermore, if the tests are going to be rolled out in January it isn’t immediately obvious why allowing schools to break up for Christmas a week early would be such a disaster – the last week of term is seldom one in which many critical lessons are taken.

A couple of possible explanations present themselves. First, that the Government wants to avoid councils such as Greenwich setting a precedent for school closures that could come back to bite it in the event that the new testing regime and the vaccine rollout don’t bring the pandemic under control as quickly as hoped in 2021. Second, that Williamson has simply spied an opportunity to square off on favourable terms with the teaching unions and some Labour-led local authorities.

School reopenings. Public attitudes are more relaxed this time. But the battle is not over for the Government.

12 Nov

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, one of the most difficult issues the Government has had to face is whether to keep schools open or not. During the first wave, a combination of backlash from teaching unions and parents hurriedly removing their children from classrooms arguably forced ministers’ hands into ordering closures around the country.

In September, after a summer in which the Department of Education was lambasted over an A Level grading system designed by Ofqual, millions of children finally made it back to school, albeit they were subjected to new measures with a view to stopping the spread of Coronavirus.

In spite of all the guidance – from staggered times to one-way systems to children having to socially distance – there are signs of more trouble to come. The National Education Union (NEU) is already pushing for schools to close during lockdown, a demand which has been endorsed by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor.

Labour, too, although currently supportive of keeping schools open, has indicated that schools should be at the front of the queue for mass testing after NHS and social care staff. It remains to be seen how much of an issue it will be if the Government does not go along with that idea.

Then there’s the Welsh Labour government, which has recently cancelled exams for 2021 – in a move that has prompted questions to be asked about why Number 10 has not done the same in anticipation of difficulties next year.

In short, in spite of the fact that schools are now open, it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good. Things might change very quickly, as we’ve seen happen during this crisis.

How concerned should the Government be about being pressured into fresh calls for a second round of school closures? What should it do in the interim by way of preparing a response to mounting demands of this nature?

The first thing to say is that public confidence in school openings seems to have changed considerably since the start of the year. As of November 2, the Children’s Commissioner found the attendance rate in England had gone from 17.5 per cent in July (the post-lockdown peak), to 80 per cent in September, with nine out of ten children now back, indicating that parents are relatively content with the current direction.

Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich and a member of the Education Select Committee, agrees that something has shifted, and believes unions are “going to struggle in their argument”, adding that “I think there’s much more of a sense that we should keep schools open” among the public.

Teachers, too – at least, by and large – appear to support reopenings. A survey from Teacher Tapp suggests that 46 per cent believe that schools should stay open.

But here comes the more troublesome part; 39 per cent supported closures for this lockdown, and that’s a sufficient constituency for the unions to be able to argue that they have a mandate to insist upon change. Given that there have been teaching strikes in France and elsewhere, the DfE cannot afford to be complacent.

One fear is that the unions will move away from the idea of closing schools, to suggesting a more nuanced approach, but one that would equally prove disruptive to students’ education.

The NEU, for example, has proposed for schools to move to a rota scheme, whereby students spend one week at school, followed by one week at home – hardly the easiest arrangement to roll out. Yet, it may have legs. According to the Teacher Tapp’s survey, this is a strategy teachers would prefer to be adopted should the current Covid outlook not improve.

Of course, if the current lockdown does not lead to better Covid statistics, it will be that much easier for unions to make the case that schools should no longer be fully open, but should close or move into rota systems, or something different.

There are other matters on which the unions might agitate. The possibility of a vaccine soon arriving has prompted questions to be asked as to why teachers are not being prioritised. Until then, unions might argue that schools should remain subject to tough restrictions.

The DfE has already made contingency plans – lest there be a move to more homeschooling. For instance, it has been working with mobile operators to provide temporary access for free additional data, which will give families the ability to use online educational resources at no cost. In normal times, of course, the cost of data could be prohibitively expensive.

The perennial problem has been that of communication. The Government, and in particular Gavin Williamson, has not been a forceful enough advocate of the case for keeping schools open. They have been on the defence throughout. 

The shame is that there is plenty of data to use to show why it matters to keep schools open. Some points to note:

  • The Office for National Statistics’ found that there were no differences in the rates of positive cases between teachers and other professionals working outside of the home between September 2 and October 16 (in which case, why should teachers be prioritised for mass testing above, say, a delivery driver?)
  • The Children’s Commissioner reports that “confirmed Covid cases at school remain very rare. There are just 8,000 (0.1%) pupils reported to be off school with a confirmed Covid case out of a total school population of 8.2 million”.
  • A recent study suggests that schools should have never shut in the first place. No doubt this criticism will get stronger as we get to see the impact that the original closures had on children.

Furthermore, the Children’s Commissioner points out that the average school sends home 62 pupils for every child who tests positive for Covid. Because of overreactions of this sort, it can lead to outbreaks at schools looking worse than they are.

In essence, it is crucial that the Government and DfE keep making the argument as strongly as possible that there should be no further closures at schools, nor any tinkering which might in any way disrupt children’s further future education. 

One possibility is that the Government sets up a task force, led by somebody like Kate Bingham, who can make the case for schools remaining open. 

Whichever way, the Government cannot afford to be complacent about this area. It needs to be proactive, on the offence and as noisy as the unions in its push for reopenings; everything it hasn’t been so far. Or else further trouble will be inevitable.

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

Mark Lehain: “The Government stands unequivocally against critical race theory.” The significance of Badenoch’s speech this week.

22 Oct

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

On Tuesday, towards the end of an otherwise run-of-the-mill debate on Black History Month in the Commons, Kemi Badenoch said the following:

“I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory… We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

And boom: there it is – the clearest statement yet that the Government is serious about taking on some of the hard-left ideas that have taken hold of large chunks of the public and private sectors in recent times.  You can see the whole of Badenoch’s speech above.

Her words build on guidance released by the Department for Education last month, which contained a reminder for schools of their legal obligation to “offer a balanced presentation of opposing views” when covering political issues.

The requirement for schools to be impartial on such matters is longstanding including private schools and academies – but you wouldn’t think this was the case judging by the reaction of some people. Even John McDonell popped up to claim it was more evidence that a “drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace”, bless him.

Reminding people of a law that growing numbers are ignoring is important, but not in itself enough.

My campaign group, The Campaign for Common Sense has been tracking the issue of biased schools for a while now, and we’ve four simple, low-effort, suggestions as to how schools can be helped to get back on track.

First of all, the Department for Education should work with the Headteacher unions to develop further guidance and exemplification on the kinds of issues that are tripping schools up. (Sadly, there’s no point talking to the big teacher unions as they’re completely in thrall to Critical Race Theory and other leftist ideology.)

Next, Gavin Williamson should write to the Headteacher and Chair of Governors (or Trustees) of every school in England. He would remind them of their obligations to impartiality, and share the results of the union collaboration to assist with compliance.

Third, schools are already obliged to publish curriculum details on their website, and we propose that they add to this a statement from the Headteacher confirming one thing: that they have checked the curriculum programme and resources and are satisfied that pupils will received a politically impartial education. (They should be doing this already, so this is literally two-minutes work for them.)

Finally, Ofsted should spot-check for impartiality as part of their inspection process; this could be whilst evaluating the “Quality of Education” or “Personal Development” areas. If non-compliance meant a school’s all-important “Overall Effectiveness” judgement couldn’t be “Good” or better, you can be sure political balance would be restored very quickly indeed.

These steps would go a long way to improving things for pupils, but it raises questions about the wider public sector.

The previous Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education was particularly keen on Critical Race theory and other “woke” ideas, but even though he has been moved on the department still runs “Project Race”, and has civil servants who act as “Race Champions”. Much time and money is also given over to other politically correct initiatives including gender identity, unconscious bias, and so on. And of course, this is happening across all departments, not just education.

Stopping civil servants from allocating precious resources to these kinds of things is vital if politically contested ideas are going to be removed and the Civil Service depoliticised.

It probably shouldn’t stop there, though – after all, lots of public services are provided by quangos, third sector organisations, and charities. Obviously, how these organisations spend their own or other people’s money is absolutely their own business. But future public sector grants and contracts should insert a clause that the money that comes from them cannot be spent on politically contested ideas and practices.

All of the above would make a big difference to the focus and quality of lots of our public services. However, these changes would pale into insignificance if the government got the right people into key roles.

Consider how Liz Truss has taken the heat out of the issue of transgender rights and self-ID. Or the way the Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities is moving the issue of racism away from emotions and onto evidence & practical improvements.

And look at the impact of a quiet letter to museums about historical displays places previously under pressure to remove objects are now standing firm.

The bad ideas we’re challenging are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – point out how wrong they are, and they quickly fall apart.

Marvel at the impact Badenoch made with a few words in parliament. Now imagine a government filled with similarly clear-sighted souls. We could quickly get back to common sense issues and improving everyday lives. Here’s hoping that Badenoch’s speech in parliament marked the start of a concerted push, and not a chance blast in the dark.

Robert Halfon: We should be pro-private enterprise, anti-mega corporates. How have we allowed these to plunder the taxpayer again and again?

21 Oct

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Lessons from New Zealand

The re-election of Jacinda Ardern, winning an overall majority and so overcoming New Zealand’s complex proportional representation system, shows that, even in the age of centre-right populism, there is a route back for social democracy.

It could be that alongside her emotional intelligence, which she displays in abundance, in this new Covid era, what voters yearn for is competence and security. A feeling of safety first.  With both her handling of the terrorist atrocity in 2019, and her extraordinary success in dealing with the virus, is it any surprise that voters have given this remarkable politician the thumbs up?

No doubt our own Labour Party will be trying to pull off the same trick here, as will many other centre-left parties around the world. Conservatives should be doing everything possible to learn from her victory and thus forestalling the same thing happening over here.

If Joe Biden wins the US Election in two weeks time, it could just signal that the pendulum is swinging leftwards once more. If Trump gets an unexpected victory, then perhaps Ardern’s result will be seen as a swim against the tide.

The Corporatist State

I am as pro-genuine private enterprise as most Conservatives. But I don’t understand why our governments never get to grips with the mega-corporatist state.

How it is that we have allowed, time and time again, big corporations to plunder the taxpayer – whether it be through failed procurements, or permitting ginormous consultancies to charge £7,000 a day for their services in terms of track and trace.

Why is it that a noble £85 million laptop computer procurement programme for disadvantaged pupils, announced by the Department for Education in the height of lockdown, took months to deliver – by the time many children were already back to school? A school in my Harlow constituency told me they had only received the laptops recently, whilst others had arrived without the relevant logins et al. Would a better option not be to just give schools vouchers, after negotiating a good deal with Currys and Asda etc, and allow the teachers to purchase the computers themselves?

Of course, I appreciate this is a national emergency, which perhaps makes these vast sums going to consultancies more understandable. But, somehow, it seems pretty grim that the businesses profiting most from Covid-19 are these mega-corps consultancies.

Moreover, it is not as if these issues started in the pandemic.  It has gone on for some time, and books have been written about the monies these consultants make and the failed procurement schemes that lay in their wake,

The left, naturally, describe all this as ‘vulture capitalism’ – but this is as far removed from genuine capitalism as it is possible to be. Capitalism is about the free exchange of goods and services and fair competition.  The corporatist state is neither. Some of these companies are so big and intertwined with government departments that they become indistinguishable from the government departments themselves.

In the reform of Whitehall that Number 10 is currently planning, perhaps the wisest maxim might be “small is beautiful”.

Taking back control of VAT

Whether we leave with or without a deal by the end of the year, one of the key arguments for Brexit was that we took back control over our taxes.

Indeed in May 2016, during the EU Referendum campaign, both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove said that energy bills would be lower because EU rules meant that Britain could not take VAT off those bills. In The Sun, they wrote:

“The least wealthy are hit particularly hard. The poorest households spend three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households spend. As long as we are in the EU, we are not allowed to cut this tax.”

Both were absolutely right. Now we need to live up to that pledge by reducing the five per cent VAT rate for energy bills, and cutting the cost of living for millions. The Brexit dividend must mean cuts to the cost of living.

In a question to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on this last October, I asked:

“In Harlow, we have already seen the NHS Brexit dividend, with a brand new hospital. The people of Harlow will feel that those who vote against this excellent deal really just want to stop Brexit completely. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, once we do the deal and leave the EU, we will gain control of our tax rates and be able to reduce VAT and energy bills for our hard-working constituents?”

The Prime Minister replied:

“Yes. Not only will we be able to reduce VAT in the UK, but we will be able to do it in Northern Ireland as well.”

Andy Street: Our experience in the West Midlands shows how skills drive economic success

7 Oct

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Covid-19 has hit the West Midlands hard. Livelihoods and life chances have been impacted by a pandemic that stopped our economy in its tracks – but we are determined to do what we can locally to get people back into work. Improving the skills of our people will be vital if we are to fill the new jobs we create.

The Conservatives have always been the party of opportunity – encouraging ambition and social mobility. We must return to that guiding principle and drive a revolution in skills and training to rebuild our economy.

I was encouraged last week when the Prime Minister put skills front and centre of the Government’s agenda, with a commitment to provide free courses for those without A-level or equivalent qualification. This commitment came alongside a package of other measures, including expanding the “digital bootcamp” concept pioneered here.

In the West Midlands, we know how improving skills can help build a strong economy. Before the pandemic struck, our economy was growing faster than any other part of the UK other than London. We had record jobs numbers and were setting records for housebuilding and productivity.

A significant part of this economic success was down to improving skill levels. Much work has been done to turn around a skills gap that, in 2007, branded us the worst qualified UK region. Back then, a fifth of young people here left school with no qualifications at all.

When I became Mayor of the West Midlands, this was an unacceptable situation I was determined to put right. As the work of the Social Mobility Commission has shown, an individual’s skills determine their long-term social mobility. What’s more, poor skill levels can lock families into disadvantage for generations. As someone who grew up here, this issue gnawed at me. I have tried to provide business-like leadership to tackle the problem head-on and deliver real results.

Our seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton have worked together to address the skills issues we faced. While we still face challenges, the improvement has been marked.

By last year, more than 50 per cent of local people were qualified at level three. In the Black Country, where the gap had been the most pronounced, more residents are now educated to degree level or above than ever before. The percentage of people with no qualification continues to reduce.

As we work to create new opportunities and jobs in the wake of the pandemic, the UK must take a similar approach. Because as the economy resets, those new jobs will emerge – and they will often have new requirements in terms of skills.

Our digital bootcamp, now backed by a further £1.5 million of funding, provides twenty-first century skills for thousands of people. Launched in September, the free to all ‘School of Code’ bootcamp is full-time and takes a learner from novice to software developer in just 16 weeks – before helping them find their first role in tech.

In a similar way, we are determined to ensure local people have the skills to benefit from jobs created by major investments like HS2 and the Commonwealth Games. We have set up our “Construction Gateway” which is training people to build the transport infrastructure and homes needed for our region’s future. The Gateway provides recognised qualifications and work experience to join the construction workforce as we Build Back Better.

One of the most notable successes of the West Midlands’ skills resurgence has been apprenticeships. Here, we use unspent apprenticeship levy from big businesses like HSBC, Lloyds Bank and Enterprise Car Hire to fund apprentices at smaller businesses. This unique arrangement means instead of unspent levy disappearing back to London it stays in the West Midlands, growing businesses and helping them ‘skill up’ local people.

Young people are among the hardest hit by the economic effects of Covid-19, which is why we are also launching six youth hubs, working with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to link employment and training services to make sure they target young people. In just a few weeks, the first job placements for 16 to 24 year olds under the Kickstart Scheme are likely to begin. Kickstart, and our hubs, can provide direct and tangible help, providing work and teaching skills.

Of course, to deliver these skills, we need a properly equipped higher and further education sector. While our colleges have been backed by guaranteed funding throughout the pandemic, we have also pressed ahead with developments like the Institute of Technology in Dudley and Wolverhampton’s National Brownfield Institute.

Funding of almost £12 million will start to rejuvenate our existing college buildings too – but this represents only the first down payment of the five-year £1.5 billion capital investment announced by Gavin Williamson in March. I will be lobbying to ensure the West Midlands gets its share of this vital funding.

While our colleges work brilliantly together – and have been at their responsive best throughout the pandemic – the West Midlands is also lucky to have a remarkable higher education sector. Behind almost every economic success story lies one of our universities, which lead the way in all kinds of emerging sectors, from electric vehicles to life sciences. They will play their part too.

And, as we invest in the bricks and mortar of training and education, we are also embracing the lessons of lockdown – and the growing importance of online learning. We’ve teamed up with provider Coursera to offer 3,800 online courses, offering top class skills and qualifications to anyone who is unemployed, recently made redundant or furloughed.

The West Midlands Combined Authority has owned the devolved Adult Education Budget, ensuring every pound delivers more qualifications that employers actually want. Now we need to see more of these funds devolved. We have shown what we can do.

These are just some of the ideas that helped turn the West Midlands from the worst qualified area in the UK to the nation’s fastest-growing regional economy. When I was 18, this was a place that talented young adults often felt they needed to leave to realise their potential. Now, well qualified individuals want to move here. We are proof that better skills drive economic success.

Our focus, right now, must be on driving down the infection rate to defeat Covid-19. But as we plot our economic recovery, we must show we are the party of opportunity, and provide people with the skills needed to rebuild our economic fortunes.

Robert Halfon: Johnson’s coming Party Conference needs to show voters that we’re on their side

23 Sep

What is conservatism for?

As we grapple with new measures to help us climb down from ‘Coronavirus Everest’ (and weather a few Covid storms along the way), our virtual Party Conference next week is an important opportunity to redefine what being a Conservative is all about.

The Government talks about ‘levelling up’. But this is not always easy to pin down. Ask anyone what it means to them and you will get some very different answers. One person questioned if it is about money for potholes. Another asked if it was a new level on a Nintendo Switch game.

Similarly, Tories often mention ‘social mobility’. But to those outside Westminster, this has little resonance – resembling more a strapline for a new Vodafone commercial than a proposal to extend the ladder of opportunity.

Of course, the Government’s messaging about new hospitals, more police and increased funding for our schools is welcome, but as so often with such announcements, it comes over as a kalashnikov firing off initiatives, with nothing linking it all together; a series of bullets without a target.

In order to make a case to the public, surely the first thing to do must be to signpost Conservative values. That way, even if policies go awry, if they need to be changed or the Government faces problems, there is more chance of the public giving us the benefit of the doubt (at least for a time).

At present – perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic – it is hard to know whether Toryism is for freedom or for authoritarianism, for individual aspiration or family and community, for fiscal conservatism or ending austerity. The only thing in which there is certainty, is Brexit. But this is not enough in itself.

I hope Boris Johnson will use his speech for the Conservative Party Conference as a means of setting out what his brand of conservatism is. Of course, we need a bit of ‘boosterism’ to lift our spirits at this time. But how about a definition of Conservative values for the times we live in? Something we can explain on the doorsteps to an anxious electorate. A conservatism that really shows people we are on their side.

Watch Starmer

In the Commons Tea Room a few days ago, while I was chatting with a down-to-earth, rising star Conservative MP, he made a very eloquent case as to why the Labour Party faces insurmountable challenges at the next election.  His argument was Keir Starmer’s lack of charisma, the incoming Labour civil war and the electoral hurdles the party must overcome, mean that the Opposition is unlikely to win in four or five years time.

Sadly, I don’t agree with my esteemed colleague. Starmer is slowly climbing in the polls: the latest YouGov showed level-pegging to the Tories. Even if this is because of the Coronavirus, it does not matter. Once up, is it really likely that Labour polling figures will go back to Jeremy Corbyn levels?

By stealth, under the cover of Covid-19, he is changing the Labour Party, moving it to one based on social democracy, rather than red-blooded socialism.

In his own conference speech yesterday, Starmer has moved to slay the Corbyn shibboleths. Taking on the mantle of patriotism, appealing to workers, is a pretty big repudiation of Corbynism. His Chief Adviser, Claire Ainsley, wrote a book about Blue-Collar Britain entitled, ‘How to win hearts and minds of the new working class’.

Expect more of her ideas to be reflected in the development of Labour policy. It is notable that the Shadow Chancellor has not committed Labour to any tax rises at present, nor big public spending programmes. This will make it harder for Conservatives to attack the Opposition on grounds of more borrowing, more spending and more debt.

On television, Starmer comes over as reasonable, rather than dogmatic. However, the flip-flopping on policy, his ‘Captain Hindsight’ persona, the “forensic analysis” that does not see the political wood for the trees, are all flaws that can be exploited by the Tories.

In addition, Labour’s refusal to make any hard choices in terms of cutting Government spending – and the continued presence of many hard-left activists in the constituencies – could act as a real brake on the party’s progress.

The public, who are weary and exhausted from Coronavirus, might just vote for Labour, just as they did in 1945. After all, in four years’ time, Conservatives will have been in power for nearly 15 years. “Time for change” might be a mantra that the public can be persuaded by, especially if voting Labour doesn’t frighten the horses.

My MP colleague may be right and the electoral maths may make it impossible for Labour to win next time. But with a volatile electorate and the option of a social democrat party on the ballot paper – with which most of the public’s economic views align – they certainly could present a real challenge to the Tories.

A book on the Cameron years you should read

I am not talking about Sasha Swire’s tome on “the County Set meet Notting Hill”, but a brilliant memoir by Baroness Fall on the Cameron years: ‘The Gatekeeper. Life at the Heart of No 10.

This is a book about the mechanics of politics; it is like reading about the engine of a sleek car, rather than the story of the car itself. You learn a lot about the workings of a Prime Minister’s Office and it is well worth a read.

My favourite part, so far, is the account of former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, crashing his automobile in the Department for Education car park, trying to put his car into the vehicle lift to get to the parking space.

I know a little about this lift, having had the same thing happen to me when I was Skills Minister (although, I just scraped mine, rather than denting) and have concluded that it is seemingly only built for drivers of Lewis Hamilton’s calibre. I found the whole experience quite terrifying, since it reminded me of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the cave walls close in. I never used that car lift again.

Williamson’s fight against grade inflation will be long and painful

14 Aug

From the moment the Government decided that this year’s school exams would not take place, it had set itself a horribly complicated challenge fraught with political danger.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to see what the ‘right’ answer is. Trying to hand out grades based on cancelled exams is like trying to issue medals for a cancelled Olympics. No matter how clever the maths is, people are going to be unhappy.

Few people, if any, seem to have grasped in advance the scale of the problem. If anything, Gavin Williamson and his team have caught a lucky break in that the SNP administration in Edinburgh ran spectacularly aground on this same reef right in front of them.

Cue some frantic tacking, with ministers unveiling a(nother) ‘triple lock’, with pupils able to choose between their awarded grades, the results of their mock exams, or to sit the actual exams in the autumn.

On the face of it, this is an improvement on Nicola Sturgeon’s response, which was to spend the best part of a week defending the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to adjust grades based on a school’s past performance (essentially dooming bright children from disadvantaged areas) before capitulating completely and simply accepting the implausibly rosy estimates offered by teachers in full.

But it’s far from perfect. There are allegations that the system used for estimating grades favours private schools, with their smaller cohorts. Then there’s the mind-boggling fact that because individual schools are being graded on a curve, a successful appeal against poor grades by one pupil has a knock-on effect on every other pupil at that school.

(It really is almost impossible to overstate how insane that last part is.)

The potential for political toxicity is enormous. At its worst, this story could become a sort of antimatter version of the usual blondes-jumping-for-joy stories that usually accompany results day. As the Scottish Nationalists have discovered, defending the overall integrity of the system creates lots of concrete losers whilst abstracting the gains – the ultimate losing formula.

And whereas the Scottish Government could at least bring a guillotine down on the issue by capitulating, the Prime Minister may not have such luck. Pupils are going to have to wait a week to even find out what the appeals process is – it hasn’t been designed yet – and it will be overseen not by a single qualifications body but by several exam boards. Then we potentially have to repeat the whole saga for GCSEs.

Given that these exams were cancelled months ago, it isn’t unfair to suggest (although acknowledging that nobody really seems to have grasped how big a problem this would be) that the Department for Education should have worked out a plan by now. When the dust finally settles, this will join the flailing effort to get schools open on the long, long list of failures of the state to be picked over post-pandemic.

But from where we are now, what can Williamson do? On the one hand, the current arrangements seem to hold so much potential political pain that some adjustments (or u-turns, as you prefer) seem likely.

Yet the Education Secretary has come out very hard against grade inflation, which would make it extremely difficult to copy Sturgeon and simply swallow predicted grades wholesale. Ofqual has claimed that without a standard benchmark different schools have been applying different standards, with a minority submitting ‘vastly inflated’ predictions. According to the regulator: “A rare few centres put in implausibly high judgments, including one which submitted all A* and A grades for students in two subjects, where previously there had been normal distribution.”

This is precisely what happened in Scotland, where SQA were responding to predicted grades which suggested a year-on-year improvement in Scottish school performance of 20 per cent. When Sturgeon said this wasn’t ‘credible’, she was correct.

There are more or less charitable interpretations for why predicted grades are so high. Sam Freeman suggests it is because “teachers’ are assessing their view of capability and exams assess actual performance”, so teachers are offering what they think is the upper bound of the grades their pupils will accept – a position which itself demands some form of moderation.

A more cynical view, which underpins the neglected cause of Conservative education reform, is that this is what usually happens when the ‘Blob’ is left to mark its own homework, which is why much of the education establishment is so bitterly opposed to such exams in the first place. For this reason, Ministers will likely be unmoved by those calling for the return of coursework and the AS Level, which might have provided a broader evidence base from which to respond to a once-in-several-generations pandemic but otherwise simply increase the year-on-year opportunities for educators to put their thumb on the scales.

Simultaneously doing right by individual school-leavers whilst defending the overall integrity of the results system proved beyond the wit of the Scottish Government. We’ll now find out if Westminster skill, or the will, to do any better.

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.

Julian Brazier: The time is now for university reform. Here’s how we fix Britain’s broken institutions.

28 Jul

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

The public debate about the future of universities has moved a long way in the last year or two. Michelle Donovan’s excellent recent speech was an important step: the first time a spokesman for any British government has acknowledged that university is poorly serving a substantial proportion of students.

It has since been underlined by a strong statement from Gavin Williamson. The concerns expressed by think tanks, individual writers and the House of Commons Education Committee, which concluded that only half of recent graduates were in graduate level jobs, have been brushed aside unanswered by the university lobby.

Instead, apologists for the universities repeatedly cite statistics about the value of degrees, based on averages which mix the highest performers with those struggling at the margin. Worse, they focus on high participation rates around the world, simply ignoring the two major ways in which the UK is out of line. First, in almost every other country, most students study from home, roughly halving the cost of a campus-based course, and, second, and more importantly, most students in those countries with high HE rates study vocational subjects.

These two factors make comparison with HE participation rates abroad misleading. It is interesting, however, to look at Switzerland and Germany because both are, in one important respect, like us and unlike the majority; they deliver the bulk of their vocational education outside universities, making their statistics more comparable to ours than say France, Italy, Spain or indeed America. Germany and Switzerland have much lower HE participation rates than the UK and both have low unemployment – and exceptionally high productivity.

The Government understands this. As it moves towards reform, a model is emerging based on a shift towards vocational courses at universities, combined with more FE and apprenticeships. More vocational courses are being floated by government as the gateway (along with cuts in vice chancellors’ salaries where appropriate) to assistance from a new bailout fund.

But that limited lever can only apply for the duration of the Covid crisis and only to those institutions seeking financial help. Yet, the crisis is driving record numbers of school leavers into applying for HE this year, despite the Government’s laudable efforts to sustain the sagging jobs market and build up positive alternatives like apprenticeships.

The tanker is drifting further off course. So, the urgent question is, how can the Government enforce its laudable aims without fatally compromising the independence of universities?

My suggestion is that they formally split courses into three categories: two academic, STEM and Arts/other, together with a third, vocational category. Then a set of minimum admission standards should be applied within each of the three categories for eligibility for student loans and other government support. This would leave universities free to control their admissions, but effectively block them offering places to those below the relevant national standard. There could be a limited system of exemptions based on foundation courses for mature students.

The setting of standards would be controversial, but the following broad approach would be a significant improvement on the existing “money for old rope” approach. STEM courses should require a good A level grade in mathematics – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to benefit from a degree in engineering or computer science without a sound mathematical base. In a few cases, like the biological sciences, a minimum overall A level combination might substitute for a maths result.

At a time when the economy desperately needs more STEM graduates, it is in nobody’s interests to allow youngsters to study subjects which they lack the mental capacity to master. We need better maths and science teaching in schools – and more more pupils, including more girls, studying STEM subjects – not to offer false hopes afterwards, as many universities are doing. Too many good universities are already spending the first year of physics and engineering degrees on remedial maths.

The hardest to set nationally would be the arts sector. The Government might wish to avoid the temptation of comparing classics with PPE or geography, to choose three subjects entirely at random, and just set a minimum standard across the board, say three Cs at A Level.

Finally, standards for vocational courses could be set in consultation with industry. Such consultation might suggest that FE or apprenticeships are more appropriate, except for those with the strongest academic base. Certainly, most students should study in their local city or town (other than those living in the most remote areas), to keep costs and debt down.

In her speech, Michelle raised concerns about universities recruiting school leavers for courses that do nothing to improve their life chances. These split into two categories – those on the wrong course and those who should not be at university. Introducing national standards would rescue the most vulnerable group, the latter category, and, incidentally, make permanent the laudable recent ban on unconditional offers. It would have a second important effect too – many of the non-vocational courses would wither because of the paucity of applicants likely to achieve the new standard.

None of this would interfere with universities’ independence, but the package would stop a minority of universities cynically exploiting those most unable to benefit, by shackling them with a lifetime of debt and lost aspirations. It would also save the taxpayer a great deal of money as most student loans are unlikely to ever be fully repaid.

The standards could also be applied to overseas students, so that our doors remain wide open to the brightest and the best – but not to low achievers who currently automatically qualify for a two-year additional stay.

The Government also has an opportunity to drive good leadership by vice chancellors in a quite different way. The honours system sends powerful messages, and two filters could be applied to applications for senior university staff, apart from the obvious main category of awards for academic and research achievement.

First there is an opportunity to highlight those VCs like Karen Cox at the University of Kent, who have acted unilaterally before the government guidelines were published. She announced a large personal pay cut – and imposed the same on her senior colleagues – while protecting low-paid staff. That is real leadership.

The second filter is highlighted by the contrast between Oxford University, on the one hand, where Louise Richardson has consistently resisted Chinese investment with compromising strings. She has also defended dons like Nigel Biggar against woke lynch mobs.

At Cambridge, on the other hand, Stephen Toope, the Vice Chancellor, has presided over the creeping takeover of critical parts of his empire by cheque-waving Chinese organisations and turned a blind eye to the impact on academic independence.

At the same time, he has taken a strong stand in favour of a BAME academic who published profoundly racist material, citing the importance of free speech, and yet allowed a don to be ejected for disagreeing with the woke mob and Jordan Peterson to be denied a visiting professorship, because he was once photographed with a student who was wearing an offensive tee-shirt.

Making Louise Richardson a Dame – and blocking any efforts by the HE Blob to get an honour for her Cambridge counterpart – would send a clear message that Conservatives believe in academic freedom.

We have a great deal to be proud of in our university sector, with the highest-ranking institutions in the world, alongside America, but – in the interests of the rising generation – elements of the system badly need reform. At last, we have a government willing to take action. Here are some ideas for a plan.