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

28 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linden Kemkaran: Our pop-up Summer Academy has been a roaring success. Let’s hope others can follow.

30 Jul

Linden Kemkaran is a writer, broadcaster and was the Conservative candidate for Bradford East in 2019.

In just three short weeks, a group of parents and teachers from Kent has achieved what most schools struggled to do in four months of lockdown: create from scratch, a free, daily, online, live, fully interactive tuition service for children aged six to 16, accessible via laptop, phone or tablet.

It’s not designed to get children ahead, its purpose is simply to plug the gaps in the core subjects and go over work that our children would have been doing, had they been at school.

Our aim is to use the next five weeks to get them ready and confident for September. It’s called the pop-up Invicta Summer Academy and we’ve tried our darndest to reach those children who need it the most. On our first day, Monday of this week, we educated 1199 children and on day two, 1250 joined our live lessons.

We did it without any help from government, local or national, and we built everything from scratch including our website and social media presence.

During the 21-day planning phase we’ve been meeting regularly via WhatsApp and Zoom while simultaneously working our day jobs either full or part-time, and juggling childcare; some of the team have used up precious annual leave. The level of hard graft and commitment from the founders and team members has been nothing short of extraordinary.

We raised funds, recruited a team of volunteers that included Zoom and tech experts, project managers, barristers, teachers, journalists and community champions, and set about organising timetables, and writing press releases.

We began with a simple idea and now, at the start of the first week of live lessons, we are totally over-subscribed – our scheduled 20,000 spaces went within days of our booking page going live – and are turning away desperate parents on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Wanting to educate hearts as well as minds, we are also running a weekly Wednesday “aim high” live showcase session featuring stars such as Lizzy Yarnold, the double Olympic champion, and, Mark Sargeant, the Michelin-starred chef, to encourage kids to ask questions and never give up on their dreams.

Even after extending our lesson capacity to 25,000, 600 parents are currently on our Zoom waiting list. The fact that a very ordinary, if hardworking, bunch of local people has pulled this off from a standing start, begs the question, why wasn’t this level of interactivity and learning happening anyway?

It all started in mid-June with a simple conversation over a socially-distanced cuppa in my friend Anna Firth’s garden. She told me how every weekday morning during lockdown, her privately-educated son had been up, dressed and at his desk at 8.20am for registration, followed by Zoom assembly, and a stringent timetable of live, interactive lessons in all his key subjects.

My jaw dropped as she described how his PE teachers even held competitive sports sessions against other schools using Zoom. Anna had naturally assumed, until she observed my gaping mouth, that all other children had been doing much the same.

I then saw on Facebook an end-of-term post from a teacher friend of mine, about how her fee-paying school had successfully completed its final Zoom lesson of a full timetable including end of term exams, and a parents’ evening, and how teachers and students alike were now anticipating a well-earned rest over the holidays.

All this was worlds apart from the lockdown experience of my grammar school daughter, and many of her state-educated peers, almost all of whom had been without a rigorous daily school structure and had had little or no live interaction with teaching staff.

I realised that since schools shut in March, I had been watching my daughter slowly lose all motivation and it was clear that she was finding it harder and harder to just get up every morning due to the complete lack of interactivity with her school and such low expectations that had been set.

A Year nine student, she would typically receive an email on a Monday morning, containing a list of tasks to be done, some with no deadlines, and others to be emailed back but which were frustratingly, hardly ever marked.

For the first two-and-a-half-months of lockdown there were no live lessons at all and when some were introduced, it was a one-way street in terms of visual interaction due to a bizarre “safeguarding” policy that I still fail to understand; on screen the child may see the teacher, but the teacher is not permitted to see the child, and the children can’t see each other.

I know that child safeguarding is really, really important and to that end we have put in place strict guidelines in our pop-up academy to pre-empt any issues. However, I still cannot get my head around the fact that from the age of four, my daughter has been physically present at a school, five days a week, 40 weeks a year, in the sole care of teachers.

These teachers, of which there have been many over the years, have been competently and cheerfully in loco parentis while I have sometimes been geographically miles, if not continents away from my daughter due to work commitments.

I simply don’t get how it is suddenly a safeguarding issue for the same trusted teachers to interact with her via a webcam for the duration of a virtual school lesson – with her parents physically in the next door room.

I poured all my frustration out to Anna Firth who shared it via a Zoom chat, with a formidable primary school teacher called Stephen James. Between the two of them they said, “we can do something about this”, and so they did and our little team was duly formed.

Our pop-up summer academy is now being rolled out in four other locations: Oxford, London, Lancashire and Surrey and I’ve just taken a call from a friend in Hampshire who wants to set up there.

The feedback so far from re-engaged pupils has been that “the lessons are fun” and parents are genuinely scratching their heads and asking why on earth their own schools, with a team of paid teachers and a ready-made register of pupils, haven’t been doing this all along.

I personally suspect that politics has played a much bigger part in this sorry episode than it should have done and there have been a number of powerful hands working the levers of the various teaching unions, attempting to disrupt Downing Street’s plans as much as possible. If state-schooled children lost out during the process, it doesn’t seem to have bothered them in the slightest.

Education is the surest way to lift children out of poverty and it seems grossly unfair that those who need the most help, have received the least during the Covid crisis. Our attempt in Kent to put this right is a start, and we hope that others will follow our lead and try to close the gap where they live too.

Shockingly, the Department of Education warns that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to the pandemic and a poll by YouGov found that 51 per cent of teachers had pupils who had “dropped out of education altogether” during lockdown.

What’s the betting that these are the kids for whom a decent education is their one shot at a chance of a better life?

“If universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, said Williamson in February. He meant it.

20 Jul

For a long time, the UK’s silent majority has been quite clearly concerned about “cancel culture” – which describes when people are demonised or sacked for having “the wrong views”. This concern partly explains why Labour suffered such a big defeat at last year’s election. The result was not only down to its confused stance on Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the party’s woke worldview.

Unfortunately, cancel culture since seems to have accelerated, particularly during lockdown, when the nation watched statues toppled, innocuous TV shows like The Mighty Boosh removed for being “offensive” and an author even fired from her agency for Tweeting support for JK Rowling.

There have been growing calls for the Government to intervene before it gets too late; something which it’s not always easy to do, but last week Gavin Williamson announced a policy that could make a sizeable difference. 

Titled the Higher Education Restructuring Regime, it essentially incentivises English universities – many of which are struggling as a result of the Coronavirus crisis – to tackle censorship on campus in order to receive a Government bailout.

Williamson’s restructuring regime is broadly focussed on three areas. First, it asks universities to reduce administrative costs, including vice-chancellor pay, to focus resources “on the front line”. Second, it asks them to cut courses that lead to poor employment outcomes –  with the Education Secretary wanting to strive for “great value for money” as part of his commitment to levelling up Britain. And third, it requires institutions to “demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech”.

An independently-chaired Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board will be established, and Williamson will draw on its expertise to assess which universities should receive bailouts, by way of repayable loans.

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, has strongly criticised the move, suggesting that the Government is exploiting Covid-19 to “impose evidence-free ideology”, and there have been similar objections. But one suspects that this will be an incredibly popular policy with taxpayers, for a number of reasons.

For starters, it has been said repeatedly that there are now too many young people going to universities, due to Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent attendance (the figure hit 50.2 per cent in 2017-2018). Williamson has said he will stand up for the “forgotten 50 per cent”, paying more attention to skills training, and other parts of the further education sector

This is great news; the UK needs qualifications and training to be better tailored to the economy, and there’s increasing evidence many undergraduate degrees aren’t providing a return on investment. As Neil O’Brien has written for ConservativeHome, “poor-value degree courses… waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.”

Then there’s the universities’ free speech issue. Censoriousness has become so prevalent that Amber Rudd was “no-platformed” at the University of Oxford in March. There are numerous examples of universities banning speakers, as well as political hostility to those who hold Conservative/ Brexiteer views. Last year I wrote for The Telegraph about the amount of insults young people had been subjected to on campus because of these.

Williamson’s intervention is clever because it doesn’t tell universities how to combat this problem, and they have the option to do nothing; it simply motivates them to promote free speech. One way they could do this is by adopting the Chicago Principles, which are widely recognised in the Government and elsewhere, as best practice in this regard.

These were developed in 2014 following a series of incidents at different universities in which students tried to ban speakers deemed controversial. Academics at the University of Chicago drafted a statement that made an “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

Another way universities might tackle this is by trying to improving safety measures for speakers – so that they cannot be no-platformed, or maybe even interviewing students on their attitudes to free speech before offering them a place. There’s lots of ways in which the issue can be approached.

Some will not be surprised about Williamson’s announcement. In February he wrote for The Times that “If universities don’t take action [to promote free speech], the government will.” Strangely enough, it was the Coronavirus crisis that allowed him to stick to his word. Let’s hope that his policy gives other ministers some ideas for how to fight cancel culture too.