Emily Carver: Free speech is in peril at universities. But the Government has gone too far in trying to police the issue.

5 May

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The doctrine that “speech is violence” has gone mainstream. The notion is troubling and nonsensical in equal measure, yet it has wormed its way into UK universities, and now sits at the heart of renewed efforts by institutions up and down the country to clamp down on “offensive” speech.

This week it was reported that Edinburgh University has issued speech guidance to its staff on transgender issues. This includes asking lecturers to include their preferred pronouns in emails, wear rainbow lanyards on campuses, refrain from using potentially offensive labels such as “man” or “woman”, and to avoid using such phrases as “all women hate their periods”, which could be deemed to be a “microaggression” to some students.

It’s remarkable that “microaggression” has become part of our lexicon. But this nebulous term, which was coined specifically to describe acts of racism in 1970s America, now seemingly inspires the aforementioned guidance, which will see universities attempt to dictate the parameters of acceptable speech. And Scotland is not a unique case: several other Russell Group universities have also issued similar advice.

Those in favour claim that this measure will protect minorities and foster a more tolerant society – but they fail to acknowledge that the restrictions could backfire. It doesn’t take a seasoned historian to recognise that such aggressive attempts to limit speech may end up breeding a culture of suspicion, rather than one of openness and tolerance (I imagine it is now near impossible at some of our supposedly world-class universities for academics to express their objections to such guidance fear of reputational and professional damage).

Even if most lecturers at Edinburgh University will gladly abide by the rules, guidance such as this should not become the norm. A central tenet of a free society is freedom of expression; those who hold unpopular opinions to express themselves just as much as those whose views fit the du jour, progressive, shibboleth. It is troubling that anyone might feel coerced to put their pronouns in their email signature, or to wear a rainbow lanyard, for fear of ostracisation.

Such attempts to control speech in our universities are symptomatic of a culture that has become increasingly hostile to opinion that challenges certain world views. It’s hard not to see this most recent guidance issued by one of the UK’s top universities as anything other than a concerted effort to further one set of approved ideas over others.

Fundamentally, that lecturers – who last time I checked are paid to teach and encourage critical thinking – should be put in a position where they are afraid to “misspeak” is nothing short of an affront to a liberal democracy and poses a fundamental risk to academic freedom.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto contained a promise to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has in recent months substantiated this, with a series of proposals to do just that, including the appointment of a “free speech champion” to investigate potential infringements, such as the wrongful dismissal of academics for political reasons. Further measures include a new pledge to make free speech a condition of being registered as a higher education institution and for being able to access public funding.

While it is of course welcome that the Government intends to support academics who lose their jobs due to political discrimination, attempts to impose further bureaucracy on universities may end up doing very little to remedy the problem.

There is a real danger that overregulation of the education system could lead to a loss of institutional autonomy, and freedom to criticise government policy, which is vitally important if we are to sustain a culture of academic freedom. The Russell Group of leading universities has expressed legitimate concerns over the additional bureaucracy and constraints new regulations may impose, which should not be dismissed.

Practically, as Marc Glendening of the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, the Government may well find itself hamstrung by already existing legislation, rendering top-down attempts to protect freedom of speech futile.

In order to uphold free speech in this country, the Government could start by reviewing the Equality Act 2010, which makes universities subject to its “harassment” provision. This provision is nebulously defined as words and actions that violate a “person’s dignity” and have the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.”

While (hopefully) few people would wish to create such an environment, these terms, in law, are dangerously vague and are identified by the effect they have, not the intention of the perpetrator. The Education Act 1986 also gives license to universities to ban speakers “likely to express unlawful speech”.

Governments will always be tempted to add more laws to the statute book. Indeed, many politicians see it as their sole raison d’etre – a way to show they’ve made a tangible change. But if this government is serious about restoring free speech in our country, it should start by doing away with is to do away with legislation that is actively curtailing freedom of speech.

Emily Carver: Covid has exposed the flaws in our education system. It’s time for a radical rethink.

24 Feb

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Over the course of this pandemic, J S Mill’s “harm principle” has been used to rationalise the decision to lockdown. At first glance this appears reasonable, however, it rests on the assumption that the harm caused by the virus exceeds that of lockdown. It will be many months before we fully comprehend the impact of the restrictions, but the former assumption may be flawed when applied to education.

The Prime Minister has now confirmed that schools will reopen in March, which will no doubt come as a relief to parents up and down this country. But the temporary school closures, and the disruption of nearly a whole year of education, have severely affected children’s well-being and educational progress – the impact of which will be felt for many years.

The toll on mental health is already recognised. In a survey of over 10,000 parents, over half said they had seen a negative change in the mental health of their children since lockdown. The rates of probable mental disorders among children have risen considerably, increasing from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July 2020. Anecdotally, parents are reporting a rise in disordered eating, anxiety and loneliness.

Far from being a leveller, the pandemic has, inevitably, impacted disproportionately the education of the already disadvantaged. During the first lockdown, primary age children from the richest third of families received four and a half more hours of learning time compared to those from the poorest third of families. This has compounded pre-existing inequities and is nothing short of a scandal.

Months on, children from middle-class households are still, on average, spending considerably more time learning than those from working-class households. Regional inequalities are also stark, with children in London and the South East spending more time on schoolwork, both online and offline, than those in other parts of the country.

The Government plans to give schools a cash boost to fund “catch up” classes during the summer holidays, and to pay staff to work additional hours to support children who have fallen behind. Such interventions are welcome and should hopefully go some way to mitigating the impact of the last year on pupils’ progress.

However, this will be little more than a sticking plaster unless the Government addresses the broader, more structural problems in our schooling system. It is no secret that our education system is failing many children in this country; you only have to look to the international league tables to see that the UK is underperforming compared to Asian countries, as well as a number of European nations. This should be a national embarrassment.

While it is certainly true that our elite schools, in both the independent and state sector, are some of the highest performing in the world, too many are lagging behind. If the Government is as serious about education as it claims to be, there needs to be a renewed effort to address the system’s failings. It is simply disgraceful that somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of our young people may be “functionally illiterate” when they leave school!

So, where do we go from here? A new paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs argues this could be the time for a radical rethink of our education system.

To begin with, why do we insist children start school by age five? This is earlier than in most other developed countries and actually dates back to a time when the majority of children left school at ten. Considering that teachers have reported that significant numbers of children are quite simply unprepared to start school at this age (another scandal), it may well be the case that children would be better off entering school a little later, when they are more ready to benefit from formal education. Of course, this will have an impact on pre-schooling arrangements which, at present, greatly advantage the better off. It also seems inexplicable that we have children entering reception classes with almost a year between the oldest and youngest in the class, which has been proven to disadvantage summer babies.

Longer school days have been mooted by politicians over the years, including by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, but little has changed. If additional classes help those falling behind now due to the pandemic, why not be bold, and extend this into the future? Not only would this allow more scope for extra-curricular activities – something that has been sorely missed during the past year – but the extra hours would allow for homework to be replaced by supervised class work – a welcome move for those pupils who struggle to work from home and a way to improve the educational outcomes of the less advantaged.

However, such policies could prove difficult to implement. The teaching unions have been very resistant to government policy over the course of the pandemic and could present a rather stubborn obstacle in the way of any radical reform of the school year. In order to pursue any meaningful change, the Government would need to amend the national contract, which is tied to the traditional school year, and which the unions may perceive as an existential assault on their influence. Of course, the majority of teachers are not as intransigent as their union representatives and may be more flexible in their attitude towards change, if well-argued.

Successful academies, independent schools and free schools have provided useful models for a way ahead. Free from the restrictions of the national contract, such schools have been able to innovate with their education provision, experiment with the length of the school day and diversify their curricula. It is interesting that many of these institutions serve less-advantaged children and are led by headteachers who advocate “traditional” methods of knowledge-based learning, discipline and pride in the institution itself. Further academisation may provide the flexibility we need to boost standards significantly.

And why not offer parents more choice? The Government currently pays schools a “pupil premium” to support disadvantaged pupils. This amounts to £1,345 for every primary age pupil and £955 for those in secondary school. However, parents have no say in how this is spent. We know how much private tuition can benefit children’s learning, so why not place more power in the hands of less well-off parents and redirect this money in the form of vouchers, which could then be used to hire tutors or for other educational purposes?

It would be naïve to suggest that there are quick fixes to the myriad of challenges facing any secretary of state for education. However, it is clear that this pandemic has shown up fundamental fault lines in the provision of schooling in this country. If the Government is really serious about levelling-up, there has to be a reconsideration of the way in which we provide education; it is neither moral nor sensible to congratulate ourselves on our elite schools and universities when so many children leave school ill-equipped to enter adult life. It is in the interests of everyone to have a well-educated, workforce at the heart of a successful, vibrant economy.

Protecting free speech. University legislation will help. But ministers need to speak out more.

16 Feb

Today the Government will unveil bold legislation to promote free speech at universities.

It includes proposals for a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion, who will highlight the importance of free speech and investigate when it’s been infringed in higher education, fines for universities that fail to uphold free speech, and the widening and enhancement of academic freedom protections at English institutions.

This is an important step in protecting free speech at universities – places that have arguably become more famous for censorship than student curiosity in recent years. Take last year when Oxford University cancelled Amber Rudd for an event (as part of a “Trailblazer Series for International Women’s Day). That the former home secretary could be “no platformed” was a wake-up call to say the least.

Furthermore, research suggests that the current climate is having an impact on students’ learning experience. Last year Policy Exchange found in its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, that only four in 10 leave-supporting students felt comfortable to discuss their Brexiteer beliefs in class (versus nine out of ten for Remain-voting students), along with other examples of people being “stifled by a politically-homogeneous culture”.

The Department of Education has said it wants to stamp out unlawful “silencing” on campuses; in short, its proposal is designed to ensure every student and academic, from Marxists to Brexiteers to otherwise, has an actual “safe space” to discuss their politics.

It is not the first time the DfE has tried to protect free speech at universities; in July 2020, Gavin Williamson warned “if universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, and brought out a policy that required English universities to tackle censorship in order to receive a Government bailout (to help with the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic).

Will the latest legislation do the trick? It should be said, first of all, how terrible it is that we’ve got to the point where institutions need reminding of the importance of free speech, which is central to learning. It does not bode well that the next generation of civil servants, lawyers, doctors and everyone else spends three years in institutions that have normalised groupthink and fear of Amber Rudd.

But here we are – and the legislation should, in theory, stop the problem getting any more out of hand – giving new protections to academics over their right to free speech. Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure the legislation does not become a form of cancel culture in itself – inhibiting university’s decision-making abilities – and it must be carefully applied.

It’s worth looking at how the free speech legislation fits into a wider context, too, in the Government’s unofficial “war on woke”. Although Boris Johnson has been keen to stick out of the culture wars – when he was recently asked if Joe Biden was woke, he looked like he wanted to run a hundred miles away – Munira Mirza, Director of 10’s Policy Unit, is highly engaged on these issues, and we have started to see some powerful rebuttals in the culture wars.

Take Liz Truss, who recently attacked “identity politics”, in her recent “Fight for Fairness” speech, and writing for The Mail on Sunday, warned of people “behind pernicious woke culture (who) see everything in terms of societal power structures”. Kemi Badenoch, too, has been incredibly brave – warning of the dangers of Critical Race Theory and its reductive assumptions about people.

This may seem far away from the university debacle, but it shows that the Government is taking the culture wars seriously – and has tools up its sleeve to combat some of the most illiberal ideas in our society masquerading as social justice. Many voters have been delighted to see a fightback – Badenoch won our speech of the year, and Truss was not so far behind, in a sign of how much this matters to Conservative voters.

Even so, the Government must go even further in defending free speech and the Enlightenment values. A lot of the culture wars cannot be “legislated out of”, but are about stating one’s position over and over again – to make others feel safe to do so also.

Indeed, part of the reason we have seen cancel culture accelerate is because people have become scared to stand up to proposals they do not like. Recently, for instance, a Brighton hospital told its midwives to call “breastfeeding” “chestfeeding”, and I counted one Conservative speak out about it. And so the radical agenda continues, without an opposition. Yes the university legislation will help, but we need more voices too.

Mark Lehain: The Government has got it right on next year’s exams

3 Dec

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

In spite of the impression that the media may have given at the time, the exam mess this summer wasn’t unique to the UK – many other countries struggled to agree on what to do. This isn’t surprising as there are lots of different views on what qualifications are for and how best to award them.

So we can perhaps forgive making it up on the hoof this year, but there is no excuse for being like that in 2021. Giving advance notice of how things will work next summer is one of the most important steps politicians can take to make the whole situation less daunting.

However, making the right kind of decision is even more important. This is why today’s announcement by Gavin Williamson about exams going ahead in England is such good news for pupils, and why the choices made in Scotland and Wales are so disappointing.

Amid the Covid chaos, it’s vital we remember the reason why the UK has the kind of exam systems that it does. Bear with me for a minute, as it’s a bit geeky – but super important. Sadly it seems to have been forgotten by some nationalist politicians, and it’s the poorest kids who are going to get hurt the hardest as a result.

There are loads of different ways of testing people. No form of assessment is perfect. Whether we use teacher grades, interviews, open book tests, unseen exams, portfolios – they all have strengths and some major drawbacks.

Over time, though, we have come to understand that for the UK’s school systems standardised national assessments are the best and fairest way to measure what pupils have learnt, and how different schools or groups of pupils are performing.

This means we want our assessments to be as accurate as possible – that is to say, we want them to be the best reflection of what pupils know and can do. And for this, we need them to be as valid and reliable as possible.

By valid we mean the assessment actually measures the thing we want to know about, not something else. And by reliable we mean that it measures it consistently, so that the same pupil would get the same result over time, or two pupils with the same knowledge would get the same result as each other.

The big advantage that national standardised exams have is that we can make them more valid and more reliable than any other method of assessment. This is why sticking with exams as far as possible for 2021 is so important. It is a question of fairness.

With this in mind, the measures announced today for England’s GCSEs and A-levels are sensible moves to address the uncertainty and unavoidable disparities that Covid has created for schools and pupils.

As well as delaying exams to provide more teaching time, giving advance notice of some of the topics that will be covered will help kids that have missed more lessons and are struggling to catch up in time. Allowing more exam aids, like formulae sheets, will reduce the memorisation pressure for some. Having a set of additional exams as backup for pupils who miss the main papers due to illness or self-isolation is a simple but very reassuring measure that also maintains accuracy of assessment.

Even allowing some grade inflation like that we had this summer feels reasonable now – think of it as a sort of Quantitative Easing for exams: not ideal, but a necessary evil for now to get through things.

Overall then, next summer I think England’s 16 and 18 year olds will get the best deal possible given the unprecedented circumstances they’ll have been through.

But boy do I feel for pupils and teachers in Scotland and Wales, where politicians have abandoned exams and moved to teacher-assessment and other approaches. Not only are these much less valid and reliable, they’ll cause more interruptions to school life across the academic year, and create even more work for hard-pressed teachers already dealing with Covid disruptions.

However, we are where we are, and at least everyone knows what is going to happen. Now we need to get behind teachers, pupils, and their families, and support them through the rest of the academic year. High-stakes qualifications are stressful enough at the best of times, but in 2021 they’re going to be even more so, whatever steps are taken to mitigate things.

Hopefully by the time next summer’s results are awarded, life will be largely back to normal and we can get back to business-as-usual: bickering over discipline in schools, or why girls do better than boys. Bring it on!

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.

Edward Peck: The Government is right to set its sights on technical education. But it needs serious investment too.

1 Sep

Professor Edward Peck is Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trend University and a member of the Augar Review.

The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education have made bold statements about their commitment to revolutionising post-18 education. They want to open new opportunities for all those who do not attend university and, indeed, for some of those that do. There has been talk of a German-style system, boosting both the number undertaking technical education and the status of further education qualifications.

These speeches have been widely welcomed. Many employers are desperate for applicants to have the skills to drive up their productivity. Many adults are keen to gain those skills to boost their employment prospects, income and security. Many experienced providers of technical and vocational education, both universities and further education colleges, stand ready to offer more flexible routes to skills-based qualifications. There is the potential for an alignment of demand and supply that could deliver the revolution the Government seeks, driving economic growth, in particular in those seats in the Midlands and North where it has promised to “level-up”.

What could possibly go wrong? A repeat of the piecemeal and half-hearted approach to funding skills-based education and training that has undermined serious progress in this area for decades. Past generations of politicians have identified the importance of the issue but have baulked at the level of investment necessary to back good intentions with significant interventions.

What would work? The adoption of the proposal to introduce Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts, which was the cornerstone of the Augar Review into the future funding of post-18 education. These accounts would enable adults from the time they leave school up to pre-retirement age to access loans for fees and maintenance for approved skills programmes on the same terms as those available to undergraduate students.

Flexibility would be central, based on the needs of learners and employers. The loans would enable study for sub-degree qualifications, encompassing short accredited courses as well as longer apprenticeship-style programmes taken over several years. They would enable adults to study part time, to complete their studies over a period of time that fitted around their other commitments, to take the credits they had achieved already to another provider.

There is strong evidence to suggest that this approach would encourage adults to borrow to invest in their own future. The sharp increase in enrolments following the introduction of loans for postgraduate study in England has shown that the financial support package available to learners is crucial to unleashing demand.

Furthermore, research on the recipients of these loans shows that they were taken in roughly equal proportions across all social groups. This demonstrates an appetite across society for individuals to invest in their own future and that of their families.

Large numbers of universities and further education colleges provide the one day per week educational component of apprenticeship programmes funded under the Apprenticeship Levy. Much of this provision is moving online as apprentices return to work, more evidence of the responsiveness to the market that characterises much of our post-18 system.

Increased future flexibility in the ways in this levy could be utilised, in particular being deployed alongside employees’ own loans, could produce a new model of co-investment in skills developments that benefits both parties. This would also result in a better balance between state, employee and employer responsibility in the developing the key skills that the economy needs.

The Government has acknowledged the requirement for it to meet its part of the bargain, announcing a £2.5bn national skills fund. The opportunity is to commit this money to both meeting immediate skills needs through training grants and modelling how a new long-term approach based on Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts could be phased in over the lifetime of this parliament.

The Government is working on a White Paper that it is anticipated will set out a far-reaching and joined-up package of measures to transform technical and vocational education in this country over the long term.

However, without a similarly ambitious approach from the Treasury, history is in danger of repeating itself. This has held back growth and productivity in our economy in the past. Regrettable then, in the times of Brexit and Covid-19 recovery, it may well turn out to be disastrous for businesses, voters and politicians alike.

Labour’s hypocrisy over A Level results

18 Aug

Almost every publication, including this site, has been critical of the Government’s U-turn on school exams in England.

Gavin Williamson’s decision to move from Ofqual’s model, which resulted in 40 per cent of predicted marks being downgraded, to teacher-assessed grades for A Levels and GCSEs (unless the grades produced by the algorithm are higher) caused chaos among students and teachers.

Now it’s universities who’ll have to deal with the consequences, given that many teenagers have different marks to before and want to change which one they go to.

As you might expect from the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has been scathing about the recent events. On his Twitter feed he is particularly fond of one word – “incompetent/ incompetence”, which he has accused the Government of being seven times since Sunday (heaven forbid there’s a thesaurus at Labour HQ).

After teacher-assessed grades (predicted grades) were accepted, he declared the changes a “victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week.”

Of course, it’s very easy for Labour to take the high road in these times, but its own position on exam results hasn’t been clear exactly.

In April, for instance, Angela Rayner, the party’s Deputy now, but Shadow Education Secretary then, criticised predicted grades, telling FE News:

“we have always said predicted grades are not always accurate, and can disproportionately affect the children who need the most support”.

In August 2019, she also said:

“Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions.

Similarly, Kate Green, the now Shadow Education Secretary, was sceptical about predicted grades – and argued for grades to be standardised in July:

“Labour has argued for years that predicted grades already create significant challenges for disadvantaged students, and without fair standardisation and appeals many more students could be unfairly affected by calculated grades. The Government and Ofqual must urgently act to ensure that young people from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds do not lose out under this system”.

However, she has since called the results a “farce that is incredibly cruel to young people”, adding that teacher-assessed grades were the right way forward.

Indeed, she celebrated their implementation, Tweeting: “Well done to all students, parents and teachers who have campaigned for this u-turn. I am so pleased GCSE & A level results will be on basis of teacher assessment as you and @UK Labour called for.”

For all the horror about England, too, some have pointed out the party’s silence over results in Wales.

On Good Morning Britain, Rayner said the fact that 40 per cent of students had their marks downgraded was “completely unfair” and “completely flawed”. Starmer, too, launched a video which said “The Tories’ incompetent handling of this year’s exams” was “robbing a generation of their future”.

But given that 42 per cent of grades were downgraded in Wales, as a result of a similar algorithm, where was the video about Welsh Labour robbing futures?

For some Tory MPs, Labour’s complaints are too little, too late. 

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told me: the “opposition parties mostly accepted the grading system that the Government and Ofqual had chosen, as did the trade unions. It’s easier to jump on a bandwagon after the event, but there were very few who were actually calling this out from the beginning.”

His colleague Jonathan Gullis echoed this sentiment, saying: “As a member of the Select Committee, we had spoken with Ofqual, and as I remember there were no serious concerns raised other than making sure that grades would be handed out as fairly as possible in exceptional circumstances.”

Speaking of Starmer, he added “[he] once again jumps on any bandwagon going. We heard nothing from him in the build up to results day about the system; in fact, the Shadow Education Minister, now Deputy Leader, was in favour of what Ofqual was doing. But once again Sir Keir Starmer is more interested in trying to please the people of Twitter and the mainstream media.”

Perhaps the Labour leader knows more about “incompetence” than he thinks…

Iain Dale: Butler and the police, and why Williamson will be feeling anxious this week

14 Aug

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

I have no problem in saying I am concerned at the number of times law abiding black people are stopped by the Police just because they happen to be driving a nice car, or indeed, for seemingly no apparent reason than the colour of their skin. There’s no point in pretending we don’t have a problem here because we do.

However, we’re getting to the point where individual police officers now feel they can’t stop someone who is black for fear of being accused of racism.

Take the example this week, when Dawn Butler, the Labour MP, complained that she was in a car which was stopped because (she thought) the driver and she were black. She released a video she had recorded on her phone to try to prove her point. She had no complaint about how the police spoke to her, but nevertheless made it all about race.

The police patiently explained that the car was stopped because the officers had mistakenly typed the registration plate into the national computer and it came up with the fact that the car had come from North Yorkshire. Once they had realised their mistake and typed in the correct number, they apologised and Butler and her friend went on their way.

She then released the video on social media, and there then descended a vicious war between those who defended the police and those who defended her. The police have been quite robust in defending the officers concerned, and have pointed out they could not have stopped the car due to their racial profile, given the car had tinted windows. And so the debate goes on…

– – – – – – – – – –

I can imagine how anxious Gavin Williamson will have been this week. The last thing he will have wanted is to go through what John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary, has been through in Scotland over the release of exam results.

Only 24 hours before the A Level results were released, the Education Secretary announced a major change and said that if a student was unhappy with their grades they could either resit the exam in October or take the result of their mock exam. What he didn’t do is say that they could accept the predicted grades from their teacher.

This has caused outrage. Teachers have said that they are best placed to predict grades, and in some cases they may well be right, but not in all. Just at a human level, teachers will tend to give higher grades rather than lower ones. Is a teacher really going to want to fail anyone? If they did so, it would reflect on them and their own teaching abilities. But in real life, people do fail.

I sympathise wholly with anyone who hasn’t got the grades they were expecting or felt they should have been awarded. The trouble is, there is no perfect system. OfQual has released figures which demonstrate that the overall grades this year are on a par, or even slightly better, than the last two years.

However, it appears that 35 per cent of grades have been downgraded from the teachers’ predictions. That’s slightly less than in Scotland, but still a massive number, which will give the Government’s opponents a lot to chew on.

The students I feel for particularly are those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be at a higher risk of being underestimated because of the fact that their schools might not have had such great results in the past.

I genuinely hope universities and colleges are as flexible as they can be and will still accept those students who results might not quite have been what had been expected. It’s scant comfort to those who didn’t get the grades they thought they would get to say that this happens each year.

Understandably, those who didn’t get the grades will seek to blame Covid. My advice, for what it is worth is for them, to work bloody hard over the next two months and resit the exams in October. I hope schools will provide every support for them to do so.

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Reshuffle speculation is always rife at this time of year, and at least it gives political journalists something to write about during August.

They can rest their pens this summer, though. I am hearing that a reshuffle is being pencilled in for January and not before, on the basis that it will be quite clear by then which ministers need shifting or removing.

I doubt whether the names on the chopping board will change in the meantime, but I reckon there will be at least eight cabinet ministers who will be experiencing a few months of “squeaky bum” moments between now and then.

With less than a month to reopen schools, Johnson needs Labour to back his message

10 Aug

Perhaps no one saw it coming, but the battle to reopen schools during the Coronavirus crisis has been one of the hardest for the Government. This is partly as a result of the teaching unions, which have done everything they can to obstruct the plans, even telling schools not to engage with governmental proposals in June.

More recently the 450,000 member-strong National Education Union (NEU) has compiled a 25-page “workplace checklist” for schools, consisting of 200 demands. The document has been criticised for being “impossible” to meet, with ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening saying that the “NEU needs to focus on finding solutions, not problems.” Hear, hear.

With little under a month to go until schools are due to reopen, the extent to which Boris Johnson is concerned about the situation was obvious this weekend in his article for the Mail on Sunday. He warned that keeping “schools closed a moment longer than is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible”, adding that “social justice demands” their reopenings. 

It was a dramatic plea to parents, and Labour, spelling out the damage closures are doing, from socioeconomic to health implications.

While a recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the British public thinks that schools should fully reopen over the summer holidays, a firm 25 per cent answered that they shouldn’t, and 18 per cent said “not sure”. So Johnson is right to push the issue – today he is expected to visit a school, in which he will repeat his pledge that they must reopen, and there will also be a PR drive from the Government.

In general, the problem the Government has is trying to emphasise encouraging statistics to the population, in regards to risk. It has found it much easier to convey the dangers of the virus – and subsequent need to “stay home” – than the rationale for getting life back to normal.

In regards to schools, a lot of media coverage has focussed on a Lancet study, which said that without a proper track and trace programme, there could be a huge second wave of Covid-19. This was a worst case scenario assessment, yet it seems to have stuck in the nation’s mind, as have the predictions of scientists such as David King, formerly chief scientific adviser to the Government, who warned that “we are nowhere near the point” where school reopenings “can be done safely”. This made several strong headlines, despite the fact King has been shown to oppose the Government generally

The more in-depth evidence suggests that schools are one of the safest places to reopen in society. Data indicates that children have extremely low risk of getting ill from Coronavirus; a study of over 55,000 hospital patients found that only 0.8 per cent were under the age of 19, and crucially they do not seem to transmit it in the same way as adults. Research of Covid-19 in the French Alps showed that a child who tested positive for the virus did not give it to over 100 people they had contact with while having symptoms.

One reason Johnson has to feel particularly confident about school reopenings is extensive research carried out by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health across 100 institutions. It showed that “there is very little evidence” of Coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned, and corroborated a separate review of 35 studies from around the world showing that children and schools only play a “minor role” in the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, there is the fact that many schools in Europe successfully reopened. The UK was incredibly lucky in that it did not go first in this process, and thus could respond to data coming from other countries; if there had been mass outbreaks, you can bet that we would have heard about it. That Europe has been successful in reopenings has largely been ignored in the media – and by the opposition.

Which brings us to one of Labour’s role in the schools crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people had hoped for a more united front between the two main parties in fighting the virus. But Starmer has always schools as an opportunity to undermine the Government, recently telling ministers they have a month to fix the Coronavirus test-and-trace system in readiness for reopenings.

Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has already refused to say whether schools were safe, despite adding that it was “essential” for them to reopen – at a time when many parents and teachers need reassurances from all political sides. Labour clearly thinks that this approach makes them look caring – extreme caution will always appear the most righteous route – and yet it ignores the evidence that schools can reopen safely, as well as how devastating these closures will be in the long-term.

With the Government having published extensive guidelines to get schools open, alongside the increased data on children’s low transmission, there really should not be a delay in pressing ahead now. And if Labour has objections, to echo Greening’s words, it must focus “on finding solutions”. Surely that is not too much to ask.

The Government toughens up on school reopenings

3 Jul

Public compliance has been essential in the Government’s fight against Coronavirus, and although it has arguably been successful in imposing lockdown, getting life back to normal looks rather more challenging. Case in point: the enormous difficulties the Education Secretary has had in trying to reopen schools.

After months of confusion and resistance from parents, teachers, unions, the Labour Party, and seemingly everyone with an opinion, Gavin Williamson put his foot down earlier this week.

On LBC, he said that parents who would not send their children back to school in the upcoming academic year (beginning September) would be fined, unless they have a “good reason” or subject to a local spike. It’s the first time the Government has exerted real authority on the matter. 

Crucially, the Government substantially enhanced its guidance for how schools can reopen safely. Some of these steps include administering Covid-19 tests to all schools and colleges, creating “bubbles” between year groups so that they have different lunch and break times, and adapting classrooms, so that windows are open and tables are facing the same way.

Even so, one suspects that the unions still won’t be happy… One of the worst parts of the school saga is that it was completely hijacked by their noisy selves. At every step, they polarised the issue to deeply unhelpful levels, including telling teachers not to engage with planning officials, in doing so obscuring the voices of those who wanted to work through perfectly reasonable concerns.

One worry was simply about consistency in health advice. As one headteacher told ConservativeHome a few weeks ago: “it’s quite worrying when the Government guidance goes from ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives, do not go anywhere near anybody’ to then suddenly ‘actually you don’t really need to socially distance with little ones anyway, so it will be fine’. That doesn’t feel like a confidence-giving statement.”

Many felt that the guidance had not gone far enough – and lacked a realism about young children’s ability to socially distance.

Moreover, the headteacher said that the Department of Education had been poor in terms of educational resources, adding: “nowhere… does it say what schools should be doing to provide online provision for children who are not at school. So every school in the country has translated that differently and is offering something different, and it becomes a pure lottery.”

Such concerns – that the schools closures were highlighting inequalities in the educational system – became central to more recent debates on reopening schools. There’s a sense that the focus has shifted, with the societal consequences of staying off school (domestic violence, mental health, parents’ inability to work, and the rest) outweighing the direct health risk of Covid-19, hence why the Government has now offered a £1 billion Covid catch-up package – in addition to £14 billion being invested over the next three years.

Much of the Government’s insistence on schools going back is no doubt directed by health experts’ increasing belief that children do not transmit, or pass, Covid-19 to the same extent as adults; a phenomenon increasingly highlighted through the safe reopening of schools elsewhere in Europe.

But, as with all things Coronavirus-related, there are no certainties, so the Government cannot reassure teachers and educational staff in the way it would like. Ultimately it’s worth remembering, though, that it cannot legislate around every difficulty that this virus might bring, and at some point we are – not just schools – simply going to have to get on with things.

Labour, too, has to take responsibility for the difficulties in reopening schools. The party saw the issue as a political football from the start, allowing the unions to dominate the Left’s response. For all who hoped of some national solidarity during a pandemic, watching these unhelpful criticisms – especially given the socioeconomic damage leaving schools closed will cause – was deeply depressing.

Even now Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, has laid into Williamson on fines, warning that they will affect poorer patients. But faced with some of the biggest resistance in the Covid-19 crisis – and an issue that’ll leave all children worse off for years, the Education Secretary simply had to get tough. “About time,” many will think.