David Thomas: Ministers must extend the free schools revolution to the alternative provision sector

19 Feb

David Thomas is the headteacher of a secondary school in Norwich, and was awarded an OBE in 2020 for founding Oak National Academy – an online school to support children during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Free schools have been a huge part of the improvement in English education over the past decade. They have shaken up schooling and injected innovation through our education system.

The top free schools have not only benefitted their own children, but children across the country whose teachers have been inspired by what these free schools have achieved.

Whilst free schools have been a huge part of increasing the number of great school places in our country, they have not been able to do this for some of the children who need them most.

Many of the most vulnerable children in the country need a place at a special or alternative provision (AP) school. These schools cater for the children who aren’t able to be educated in a mainstream school – for example, those with significant special educational needs or with behavioural issues.

It can be easy to think of these as peripheral to the system, but they’re not. If we don’t prepare these children for adulthood then the cost to the state is huge. By one estimate, each school year’s worth of excluded children go on to cost the nation £2.1 billion. Not preparing these vulnerable children to be positive members of society lets them down, and costs the taxpayer.

The consequences are felt beyond the individual child too. There is a chronic lack of places in special and AP schools across the country. When a child is not given the place they need, they have to stay in a mainstream school. This is unfair to the child, who needs the right kind of education. It is also unfair on the other children attending that school, as their school now has less capacity to improve at delivering mainstream education.

Where there is a shortage of appropriate school places, the free schools programme should step in. However, it suffers from a major restriction. You can only set up a special or AP free school if the local authority commissions it in advance – and agrees to foot a large part of the bill. This needs to change.

Many free schools have been set up with local authority support, especially in areas where there is a shortage of school places. But would we have had as many innovative schools if they had needed a local authority commission to be able to apply? Of course not. There are many reasons, from the political to the financial, why a local authority might choose not to commission a new free school. It is wrong that these should hamper the education of our most vulnerable children.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic there was a clear shortage of places in special and AP schools. Any headteacher will be able to tell you stories about children who are assessed as needing a specialist place, but who wait years to get one. There is little to no recourse for those parents.

If a parent of a child in mainstream education isn’t satisfied with the education available for their child, they can form a group and set up a free school. They do not have to wait for the local authority to find the funds and the will to commission one. Families of children with special educational needs deserve this opportunity too. Successful special schools and groups of special schools should also be able to expand in areas where they can show there is need.

The same is true in alternative provision. When a child is excluded from school they are at an extremely vulnerable point in their life. They need a great school to get them back on track. Yet many of these children end up on a waiting list for education that takes months to arrive, and is low-quality when it does. We need innovative free schools to develop and spread the best ways of helping these children turn their lives around.

As a country, we have a duty to provide great education to all our children. Free schools are helping us to do that in mainstream. It’s time to remove the barriers to doing that through the rest of the school system too. The next free school round should be open to special and AP free schools, regardless of local authority commission

Robert Halfon: Extending the school day would help children catch up after Covid – and civil society can step in

10 Feb

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.

It is encouraging that it appears, for the Department of Education, nothing is off the table when it comes to the post-Covid schools and colleges recovery programme: the school year, examinations, curriculum are all the things that, no doubt, are being considered. Will the A.C. (After Coronavirus) period lead to radical thinking or merely some incremental change?

Extending the summer term for a couple of weeks, is just that – incremental. Two or three extra weeks of teaching, while helping pupils a little, will not fundamentally rectify the lost learning and the catch-up that is needed.

One more radical option would be to extend the school day, either before or after traditional start and finish times. This is not to say teachers must work longer hours (unless properly recompensed), but, instead, civil society organisations should be invited in, to offer pupils professional mental health support, as well as sports activities and academic catch-up tuition.

It will be a virtuous circle. From a health perspective, we know that one in three primary school age children is overweight or obese, and that children living in the most deprived areas are almost twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas. This is hugely costly: physical inactivity among today’s young people is estimated to cost £53.3 billion during their lifetimes. Boosting opportunities for children to engage in sports will be crucial if we are to embed healthy lifestyles early on.

There is also an established link between physical activity and better mental health. Children and young people who participate in in-school sports clubs are 20 per cent less likely to suffer from a mental health disorder. Girls are 25 per cent less likely to be at risk of anxiety and 11 per cent less likely to self-harm. This is critical given that a YoungMinds survey of 2,036 young people with a history of mental health needs, found that 80 per cent of those children had said the pandemic has made their mental health worse.

Moreover, in 2017, DCMS found that underachieving young people who participated in extra-curricular activities linked to sport increased their numeracy skills, on average, by 29 per cent above those who did not participate in sport.

The Education Endowment Foundation looked at the benefits of extended school hours and noted: “The evidence indicates that, on average, pupils make two additional months’ progress per year from extended school time and in particular through the targeted use of before and after school programmes. There is some evidence that disadvantaged pupils benefit more, making closer to three months’ additional progress. There are also often wider benefits for low-income students, such as increased attendance at school, improved behaviour, and better relationships with peers.”

According to a study by the Royal London Hospital (published in the British Medical Journal), the most dangerous time for under-16s is after school, between 4pm and 6pm, when they are most likely to become a victim of knife crime. Approximately half of under-16 stabbings take place during this time.

With so many young people socially isolated from their usual networks of friends, teachers and support staff in lockdown, and having lost out on their learning, extending the school day in this way would be enormously beneficial in every sense.

Of course, there will be those who immediately say that it is impossible – the unions won’t wear it. Well some schools and colleges are already doing it. Even before the pandemic, 70 to 80 per cent of independent schools operate an extended school day, usually offering a programme of extra-curricular activities. It’s also worth noting that 39 per cent of academy schools founded before 2010 also have extended school hours. Others may want to do it.

Moreover, if civil society organisations with expertise in mental health, sports and tuition step in, there is no pressure placed on teachers and support staff. Dallaglio Rugby Works is an outstanding example of an established charity that places rugby coaches in schools for excluded pupils. Coaches lead weekly small groups of eight to 10 young people and support them to develop their soft skills, increase their engagement with school, and make more informed choices about their careers. Their outcomes cannot be ignored: 82 per cent of their young people are in education, employment or training 12 months after leaving school.

Extending the school day could be piloted in certain areas – perhaps starting in places with significant levels of disadvantage – to see if the extra hours help make a difference to pupils’ health and wellbeing, their engagement in the classroom during normal school hours and their academic attainment. If we want to really make a difference, to repair the damage of the last year, there is no time to waste.

We need to be much more ambitious for our children’s learning. The language of catch-up shouldn’t stigmatise children and we must be careful not to tar them with the brush of “left-behind children” during the pandemic. Instead, our language should be positive, framed in terms of “moving forward”. Catch-up alone shouldn’t just be our ambition. Let’s hope the Government uses this opportunity to set out a real long-term plan for education and change what is necessary in order to conserve what is best.

Robert Halfon: I’m not a lockdown sceptic. But I am a “school-down” sceptic – and fear for the impact of these closures.

27 Jan

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.

Media speculation in recent days has suggested that pupils may not be back into the classroom until after Easter. This is despite the previous indication that schools and colleges would reopen after the February half-term, when Lockdown III was announced on January 4.

To be clear, I am not a lockdown sceptic. In fact, I voted for all the Government measures to control the virus. However, I am a “school-down” sceptic. I worry enormously about the impact that prolonged school closures will have on the mental health, social development, academic attainment and safeguarding of children.

The Times this week published a letter from leading clinicians and paediatricians, warning that: “Anxiety, depression and self-harm are all at frightening levels” among our young people, and that: “Parents are showing signs of psychological stress and even breakdown as a result of the pressures of trying to home-school their children and sustain their jobs and businesses”.

At the end of December, Dr Karen Street, an Officer for Mental Health at the RSPCH, wrote about the harrowing 400 per cent increase in eating disorders among young people, in part due to school closures and social isolation.

Mental health is inextricably linked to children’s ability to learn and their attainment outcomes. The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing also predicted their later academic progression. For example, children with better wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage two score 2.46 points higher (equivalent to more than one term’s progress) than pupils with poorer wellbeing.

We know that education inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The IFS’s New Year Message report stated that “a long-term consequence of the pandemic will be to halt, or even reverse” the closing of the attainment gap.

So now, more than ever, children need to be in the right headspace to learn.

The Department for Education’s roll-out of more than one million devices for children on the wrong side of the digital divide will undoubtedly make a difference. But for all the laptops in the world, children need to have the motivation to open them, study independently at home, and have the support from parents, which may not always be possible if the parents are struggling with work, alongside looking after their kids. Millions of laptops also doesn’t necessarily mean we deal with the huge mental health problems now faced by many pupils.

So, what is needed? A mental health practitioner available to pupils, parents and school staff, stationed in every school, both online and in person. Place2Be, for example, worked with 33,000 children and young people last year and delivered 29,869 support sessions for parents. The charity’s impact assessment states that 81 per cent of those with severe difficulties showed an improvement in their mental health.

What’s more, those pupils receiving one-to-one support were able to keep pace academically with their peers (of the same attainment and background characteristics), suggesting that the possible negative impact of their mental health difficulties on their learning were mitigated.

While the Government has invested more in mental health, after the Coronavirus, there is going to be a radical rethink as to how children are supported with mental health and counselling.

A growing source of unease for many pupils, parents and school staff is the lack of certainty or a plan for school reopenings. We need an educational route map out of Coronavirus for schools and colleges.

No one expects a specific date for reopening. Of course, decisions should be guided by the scientific evidence on community cases and transmission rates.

However, school and college staff, pupils and their parents deserve a clear explanation of the criteria and the conditions that need to be met before the Government reopens schools, so that they can prepare.

Public Health England officials concluded this week from its monitoring of infections in schools that: “There’s a strong case for primary schools to reopen” after the February half-term, “once infection rates start falling and are sufficiently low to allow easing of national lockdown measures” and that the “evidence is building to show that primaries are a safe environment.”

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told my Education Select Committee last week that: “School children definitely can transmit infection in schools. They can transmit it in any environment. But it is not a significant driver, as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections. Rather it is the other way round, that if there is a rise in community rates, you will see a rise in children as well.”

For all these reasons, we must get schools open again and sooner rather than later. In areas of the country – or in primaries – where the science suggests it would be safe for schools to reopen, they absolutely must do so.

Regular testing of pupils and staff will be important to keep schools open safely. That is why I, alongside Miriam Cates MP, and nine other MPs, wrote to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation should also look at making teachers and support staff a priority for vaccinations – purely, on the basis it will mean schools can open sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, there is a growing coalition to get schools reopen again – not just the parent group, UsforThem, but children and young people’s charities.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has added to the calls for clarity, saying: “Children are more withdrawn, they are suffering in terms of isolation, confidence levels are falling, and some have serious issues…Families will need hope and clarity about what comes next, and that of course is what the speculation we’re hearing really feeds into, that confusion.”

It is worth noting that not all teaching unions are opposed to educational professionals being back at school. As Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Today programme on Monday: “Without anybody jumping the queue over vulnerable people… if you’re able to give the reassurance to those people working in schools and colleges that they’re not suddenly going to disappear into self-isolation because of vaccinations, starting with the staff, that would be reassuring I think so that we can get some continuity. Similarly, if we are able to do that with children and young people, the same thing.

“But, I don’t know that we need to wait for [vaccinations to reopen schools]. I think if we’ve got a very clear idea of what the scientific principles are, which then lead to the educational principles, could we not have more young people coming into school as appropriate, rather than this revolving door we’ve got at the moment?”

I recognise that the Government is firefighting in dealing with the Coronavirus, but surely one of the most important functions of the engine of the State is to get our schools and colleges open soon. The Secretary of State for Education and the Government should form an education “coalition of the willing” to get all children learning full-time again.

Philip Booth: The Government needs to get tough (with itself) on competition policy

17 Dec

Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham.

There is an old joke along the lines of “why is there only one monopolies’ commission?”. It is so lame, you won’t even see it in your Christmas cracker this year. However, there is an important point to it. When it comes to competition policy, the Government marks its own homework.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has immense powers, which it threatens to use with ever more vigour against tech firms. However, the biggest monopolies are in the provision of public services such as health and education.

In addition, many of the most important impediments to competition in the private sector come from the government in the form of regulations that restrict entry or load costs onto small businesses.

John Penrose MP is currently conducting a review of competition policy. Right at the top of his list should be competition in government-provided services and the way in which government itself, especially through regulation, impedes competition.

When it comes to public services, governments have to have a monopoly of some things – defence, penal systems, some aspects of policing and, it is worth adding in current times, certain genuine public health functions. However, experience in all these areas, especially recent experience in public health, demonstrates the limitations of state monopolies. As such, both Labour and Conservative governments have promoted school choice and also, with no discernible success, tried to promote competition in the provision of healthcare.

Just as governments of the left develop institutions designed to embed their reforms and make them difficult to reverse, supporters of competition and markets should do the same. This is especially so where competition relates to what we might regard as a natural right, such as that of a parent to choose a school for their child. Such a right is so fundamental to those of us who believe in a free society, that it needs protection in the wider political and institutional landscape.

Though most readers of this blog will probably not be supporters of the European Union, its policies in the areas of state aid and competition and public services did have some merit. They provided protection from the worst excesses of monopoly in some aspects of government service provision (though its effect was limited by the various legal exceptions).

There are two actions that the government should take. Firstly, CMA should be given a specific statutory duty to investigate impediments to competition arising from government action, especially in relation to government regulation. Crucially, such investigations should not have to relate to a specific market inquiry. For example, the CMA could examine the effect of land-use planning regulations on competition across a range of markets (education, childcare, retail etc) or the impact of GDPR regulations on the relative cost structure of small and large businesses. Secondly, it should have a like duty to scrutinise state monopolies.

Governments and barriers to entry

Regulation is such an effective bar to competition that it can be deliberately captured by incumbent businesses in order to frustrate market entry. Regulation may also be captured by the regulatory body itself which may discharge its functions by trying to reduce the risk of scandals within markets by writing ever-more regulation.

An uncosted side effect of regulation may well be to raise barriers to entry. Both market incumbents and their regulators are likely to have cognitive biases that lead them to favour regulatory solutions to problems within markets whilst ignoring the effects of competition.

Two examples are worth noting. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has a statutory duty to promote competition and yet its very existence impedes competition. The process of authorisation for a new financial adviser can take six months or more and the FCA regulatory handbook has around 1,000 sections. This kind of regulation creates a significant advantage to incumbents and makes innovation especially difficult.

Although the FCA has a statutory duty to promote competition, its other objectives will always take precedence and the FCA is never held properly to account for its failure to promote competition.

A second example relates to occupational licensing. Currently, occupational licensing and certification covers 40 per cent of all employees. This figure has grown dramatically in recent years and is much higher than equivalent figures in, for example, Sweden and Denmark. There is widespread international evidence that occupational licensing damages consumers, reduces competition, and undermines social mobility.

However, though the CMA may examine a problem such as this as a minor aspect of a particular inquiry in relation to a specific market, the issue as a whole and its cumulative effects are ignored. The CMA therefore needs wide-ranging powers to investigate such government-imposed impediments to competition regardless of whether the investigation is related to a specific market inquiry.

Government monopolies

In addition, the CMA should have a statutory duty to investigate markets where governments are monopoly providers.

The CMA has a statutory duty to “promote competition, both within and outside the UK, for the benefit of consumers”. Its mission is to “make markets work well in the interests of consumers, businesses and the economy”. It’s role and effectiveness in dealing with the impact of monopoly on people’s lives would be much more effective if these statutory duties were expanded to explicitly include the promotion of competition in relation to government-provided services, such as healthcare and education. Though current EU provisions in these areas will remain after Brexit, they will be toothless: the government would be marking its own homework.

Much government policy in recent years has involved the promotion of competition in education. This needs to be reinforced by providing families with the protection of competition law.

To begin with, parents or those establishing free schools in the case of education, or various interested parties in the case of healthcare, should be able to take enforceable action, backed up by competition law, where one government body or a layer of government is acting in a way which subverts the government’s own policy in relation to promoting competition in public services. For example, parents should be able to take action if local authorities obstruct the development of a free school. Such actions, if successful, could come with penalties imposed on the offending body.

There should also be a general obligation on the CMA to investigate situations where the government itself is restricting competition in the provision of services (for example by providing its own service free at the point of use).


Current government and CMA competition policy looks at the splinter in the private sector’s eye whilst ignoring the beam in the state’s eye. The Government needs to have a more robust policy and enforcement regime. This will counter-balance the tendency towards monopoly, protectionism and regulation that pervades governments and will ensure that a reforming government can embed its reforms more deeply in the institutional landscape.

It can ensure that we can benefit from competition where monopoly is most deeply embedded – in areas of the economy protected by government regulation and in the provision of government services.

Iain Dale: Stop this utter selfishness and pathetic whinging about not having a normal Christmas to look forward to

30 Oct

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

Again, it feels like the calm before the Covid storm, doesn’t it?

As more and more swathes of the country go into Tier Three lockdown, it’s clear that, by this time next week, most of the north and parts of the Midlands will have joined Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in that tier. It’s only a matter of time before London does too, I suspect.

This week, even Germany has gone back into a partial lockdown.  Spain has declared a state of emergency.  France has announced a further draconian lockdown – and Coronavirus in Belgium is seemingly out of control.

At some point in the next two or three weeks, the Government will be forced to take a very difficult decision. No one wants a second national lockdown, but I’m afraid it is looking all but inevitable.

We could of course, take a different pah, ignore the scientific consensus and let the virus take its course – or let it rip, might be a more accurate way of putting it. I cannot see any responsible Government taking that course of action.

In the end, we are going to have to learn to live with this virus. But until our test and trace system is worthy of the name, or a vaccine becomes available, it’s very difficult to see any degree of normality returning to our lives in the next six months – or maybe for longer.

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After the political debacle about the provision of free school meals, and yet again being comprehensively outplayed by a young Premier League footballer, the next challenge for the Government is how to counter the pathetic accusations about the government ‘cancelling’ Christmas.

Those who make the accusation claim to be those who don’t have a Scooby Doo about what Christmas is all about. It’s not some quasi-materialistic present giving binge; it is a religious festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is nothing the Government can do or will do that could cancelsthat celebration. Yes, it may mean that family gatherings are more limited in number. Yes, it may mean that we don’t do as much present-buying as we have done in the past. Yes, it will be different.

But for God’s sake, if people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation the country may be in by Christmas, then there is nothing anyone can say or do which will shake people out of their utter selfishness and pathetic whinging.

I can say that. The Government can’t. But somehow, they will need to take on the view that somehow we should all be given a free pass on Christmas Day to let the virus rip.

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Arzoo Raja is 13 years old. She lived in Italy with her Christian parents. She too was brought up as a Christian. On October 13, she was abducted from outside her house. A few days, later the Italian Police said they had received marriage papers, which stated she was 18.

Her new “husband” was 44 year old Ali Azhar, who also stated Arzoo had converted to Islam, and her new name was Arzoo Faatima.

Her parents provided her birth certificate to the Italian and Pakistani authorities to prove that she was 13. This cut no ice with the Sindh High Court in Karachi, which ruled that she had converted of her own volition, and that she had entered into the marriage of her own free will. The court even criticised the Pakistani police for “harassing” Arzoo after her abduction.

In effect, the court has validated both forced marriage and rape. There have been protests on the streets of Lahore and Karachi.

Countries like the UK cannot stand by, and trot out the well-worn narrative that we can’t interfere with the judiciary of a sovereign nation.

No, but we can turn off the aid tap. We can call in the Pakistani High Commissioner for an interview without coffee. We and other countries have both the power and influence to stop this.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has a daughter called Tyrian. He should think how he would have felt if his daughter had been abducted like this when she was 13.

Just for reporting this news on Twitter I have been accused of being islamophobic and “not understanding” the culture. Utter tosh. If we are meant to keep quiet about child abduction and forced marriage, we have come to a pretty pass. I, for one, will continue to speak out, no matter what the backlash.

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On Thursday morning we all woke up to yet another terror attack in France, with two people being beheaded and another murdered in the name of “the religion of peace”.

Apparently, it is politically incorrect to point out that while the barbarous acts were taking place, the perpetrators were joyfully shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.

Muslims quite rightly point out that these acts are ‘not in my name’, but the uncomfortable fact is that this is not the view of the terrorists.

In his autobiography, David Cameron says he regrets maintaining that these kind of terror attacks were nothing to do with Islam. He argues that adherents of mainstream Islam have tried to disassociate themselves from the attacks without ever really understanding what has driven the terrorists to assert that they do their dastardly deeds in the name of their religion. He is right.

Syed Kamall: Rashford’s campaign calls for state action – but it equally highlights the power of individuals and community

29 Oct

Professor Syed Kamall is Academic and Research Director at the IEA. From May 2005 to June 2019, he was a Conservative MEP for London.

While Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free meals for children has gained much publicity and public support, it has also come under criticism for providing meals for children regardless of need and for even nationalising parental responsibility.

The campaign is built on the assumption that state intervention is necessary to solve societal problems but equally it has highlighted the power of private individuals to affect change, as well as the dedication of volunteers in our local communities.

The campaign perhaps should be seen in the context of our country’s long history of helping those in need. As far back as 1597-8, the Elizabethan Poor Laws were administered through parish overseers, who provided relief for the aged, sick, and infant poor, as well as work for the able-bodied in workhouses. The latter would of course be unacceptable today. In the late 18th century, this was supplemented by the Speenhamland system, providing allowances to workers with below subsistence wages.

By the nineteenth century, it is estimated that as much money passed through voluntary organisations to those in need as did through the poor law. Many adults belonged to an average of five or six voluntary organisations, such as trades unions and friendly societies, offering financial protection against sickness and unemployment as well as savings societies, literary and scientific institutes.

While charitable provision was diverse, it did not reach everyone in need, which led to calls for state intervention and the introduction of state pensions in 1908 and state social insurance in 1911. Voluntary organisations began to accept money from the state, becoming complementary or supplementary welfare providers, but no longer being seen as the first port of call for those in need.

The 1942 Beveridge Report recommended a single contribution and a single state benefit agency for social insurance. Beveridge wanted friendly societies to act as state benefit agencies offering additional services if funded voluntary contributions. However, this idea was rejected by the Government and led to the post-war welfare state.

Despite the growth of state welfare, the UK maintains a mixed welfare model with thousands of local civil society non-state projects in neighbourhoods across the country, providing support and signposting for families in need, long before we saw the inspiring help that volunteers have provided during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, even within these organisations, there are some who see their efforts as stepping in where the state should be acting, rather than as part of a rich tapestry of local civil society.

This bias towards state-intervention is one that sees multi-millionaire footballers become advocates for more government action, where local community groups may already exist and even do a better job than state agencies. When I was a politician, I was sometimes contacted by constituents asking me to find a taxpayer-funded local council or national government or EU grant or hoping I could pass a law to solve a local problem. When I offered to introduce them to a project that had solved a similar problem in their neighbourhood, some were inspired while others saw this as an example of state failure.

Poverty, especially child poverty, has a devastating impact and as a society we should do everything in our power to offer routes out of poverty. But government is not the answer to every problem, and in our rush to do something, we should not overlook or squeeze out alternative solutions.

While some critics may prefer that Rashford built a coalition of other millionaires and companies to support local civil society organisations or offer to pay more tax before calling for state intervention, they risk overlooking the incredible good this young working class man has done.

Whether he sees it or not, his campaign has demonstrated the power of local civil society non-state organisations to address problems in their neighbourhoods. He has also inspired others to – In the words of Gandhi – become the change they want to see.

He is also raised the issue of corporate welfare, which in some cases has also seen money given to companies who did not necessarily need it. Is it any wonder, that Rashford and others argue spending public money on school dinners would be a better use of the taxpayer’s money, especially when so much has been splashed around?

Finally, the campaign has reignited the debate over universal provision vs targeted help and whether a better way to help hungry families would be via Universal Credit, giving families in need the money directly to make the best use of it for their individual circumstances and not to assume that parents will use the money for non-essentials rather than food.

On such an emotive subject it is easy for the waters to get muddied, for political opponents to take polarised positions and to trade accusations of being uncaring or misguided. Maybe we should instead take a moment to applaud Rashford for his actions, for demonstrating that welfare beyond the state is very much alive and for igniting a debate on the effectiveness of the solutions he proposes.

John Bald: Closing the education gap the Michaela way

8 Oct

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

The Secretary of State is rarely the most important person in education. With a few exceptions, such as Butler, Crosland, or Gove, they either don’t do much, or launch projects that don’t work or don’t last. So it is no disrespect to the present holder of the office to say that the most important person in British education is Katharine Birbalsingh. No disrespect, either, to pioneers like the late Sir Rhodes Boyson and Sir Michael Wilshaw, or to others doing excellent work. But Birbalsingh and her colleagues at Michaela have achieved the educational equivalent of squaring the circle. While Sir Keir Starmer talks about closing the attainment gap between poor and advantaged pupils, they have done it.

This gap has set the scene for educational debate since I started in the early seventies, and it has widened during the pandemic. Children with the least support and fewest resources at home, depend entirely on their teachers for opportunities to learn, and around 40 per cent have had little or no contact with them while schools have been closed. A substantial number of parents have made the problem worse. One of the few state schools to ignore union advice and provide online teaching during the lockdown reports that almost a third of pupils did not take part, and that some parents blocked its phone calls. We can’t compel anyone to pick up a phone or switch on a computer.

The gap starts at birth, and can be the equivalent of eighteen months to two years’ learning when children start school. Thirty years ago, Harvard professor Jeanne Chall showed that it widened on transfer to secondary school, as the children of highly educated parents picked up on the more complex vocabulary used in school work, while the others could not, and so fell farther behind. This makes closing the gap from a start with 11-year-old pupils even more remarkable. So, am I right in saying that Michaela has done it? And, if it has, can others do it too?

First, the evidence. Last year’s examination results, from a non-selective intake, go beyond excellence. They change our understanding of what can be achieved, perhaps particularly in Michaela’s four times national average success at the super A* Level 9. Such results show that the leftist argument, that achievement is inevitably limited by social background, is an error. Nevertheless, it is set in stone among the progressive octopus that still controls most university education departments. As Labour’s thinking is infused with their views from top to bottom, Starmer would have to ditch the whole of his Party’s thinking on education for the past 70 years in order to do it, and there is no reason to think he will do so.

I’ve described Michaela’s latest book, The Power of Culture, as the best I’ve ever read on schools education, and better than I ever expected to find. Katharine Birbalsingh’s excellent chapter, on “servant leadership”, reminds me of the late Cardinal Hume’s address to Catholic headteachers. Elsewhere, she edits, but the writing is the work of the staff. Hin-Tai Ting was the head of the Year 11 that achieved last year’s results, and his chapter contains extensive testimony from pupils, many of them with special needs, serious behavioural problems, and disturbed and violent lives outside school. Michaela has given them a future by enabling them to buy into its system and succeed. These are precisely the pupils who are failing in droves elsewhere, and Mr Ting’s work shows that there is nothing elitist about Michaela’s excellence – like other schools it uses nurture groups, but expects the same standard of work and behaviour there as in other classes.

The GCSE results were so good that the bar for sixth form entry is among the highest in the country – at least 7 A grades or above (Levels 7-9). This is the same as a typical offer from Manchester Grammar School . For comparison, the published admission criteria of Maidstone’s grammar schools are 6 subjects at Level 5 or above (girls) and a grade average of 5.5 (boys). Jessica Lund’s 6th Form chapter shows how Michaela pupils are guided towards the highest aspirations for their talents and abilities, both through the teaching and by tackling the social issues that might otherwise hold them back. Michaela streams, but without the stigma that has come to be associated with it. Streaming enables teachers consistently to pitch work at the right level for the pupils, so that all know that they are making progress. The excellence of this teaching of less academically able pupils is a key point in Michaela’s success. Every child matters, and everyone knows it.

The basis of this teaching is contained in four excellent chapters, respectively on religious education, history, geography, and art. The RE chapter, in particular, stands out as the only piece of work I’ve ever read on the subject that does not involve some kind of preaching or self-righteous cant, and the art shows how attention to technique enables pupils to work spontaneously. Deputy Head, Katie Ashford’s chapter brings many of these threads together, and distinguishes Michaela’s approach from its critics’ caricature of “rote-learning”. The big difference is in the use of context, which builds understanding of what has been learned, and enables pupils to apply it. Just as order and discipline free pupils by enabling learning to take place in peace, basing the curriculum on knowledge gives them the means to move towards independence. The picture is complete.

The Power of Culture is a long book at 400 pages, and the close argument and intensity of each chapter make it a most demanding read. It has taken me a month to complete. The significance of Michaela’s achievement makes it not only worthwhile, but imperative. If Michael Gove’s goal of breaking down education’s Berlin Wall is ultimately to be achieved, it will be Katharine Birbalsingh and her colleagues who have made the first breach. We now need to follow it up.

Ben Everitt: Why the plan for a new technical university in Milton Keynes offers a fresh model for higher education

16 Sep

Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.

We have world class universities in this country, which provide some of the highest calibre graduates around. We must maintain and protect our best institutions. But speaking to businesses in my constituency, they tell me that what they want isn’t always graduates. It’s workers with technical skills, an understanding of the industry they want to work in, and who are ready to work in teams and who can communicate.

That’s why this Government is right to be taking a hard look at the system of higher and further education in this country. It isn’t ‘anti university’ to be asking whether the current system provides the best opportunity for those going through it, for the businesses who will employ them, and for the taxpayer. It’s making an argument for a world class higher and further education system for everyone, in a wider variety of forms.

And when we think about what that looks like, we don’t have far to go. We should take inspiration from one of this Conservative Government’s proudest achievements – Free Schools. These schools, often set up in the poorest areas of the country by innovative teachers and heads, were distinctive not just because they were new, but because they offered something different.

Like the best businesses, they spotted a gap in the market and they provided a solution to fill it. And many of them – such as Michaela Community School, run by the outstanding Katharine Birbalsingh – have been successful precisely because they have maintained this focus over time, rather than doing everything.

We have some of that in higher education, but not enough. In my constituency, for example, the Open University does a brilliant job because it focuses on a specific remit – providing flexible distance learning to those who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, undertake traditional three year full time undergraduate degrees. To adapt the Steve Jobs maxim, it does not try to do everything – it does one thing, and does it well. But we need more innovation from the higher education sector, not more of the same.

It’s why I’m such a strong supporter, alongside my fellow Milton Keynes MP Iain Stewart, of the new proposed technical university in my constituency, Milton Keynes University (MK:U). This institution, modelled on the best technical universities in Germany and the United States, has identified a clear gap, which is the shortage of digital and STEM skills in the economy throughout Milton Keynes. I’m privileged in my constituency to sit in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc – a zone of immense prosperity and economic growth that is home to world class businesses and innovation.

But what Milton Keynes needs is people who can work in these businesses – and who have qualifications that are industry ready. And that’s what MK:U will deliver. By 2021, MK:U plans to be delivering degree apprenticeships in the critical shortage areas of data science, cyber security, digital technology, and management. By 2024, when the university is fully on stream, it will continue to deliver at least half of its provision via degree apprenticeships.

It will also work closely with the new South Central Institute of Technology to deliver high quality technical qualifications at what are called Level 4 and 5 – above the level of school qualifications, but quicker to achieve and more industry-focussed than traditional degrees.

The reason I’m so confident in the success of MK:U is that the team there have been overwhelmed by interest from businesses. Over a hundred major employers, who between them employ over 700,000 people in the UK alone, are backing MK:U, including top-level support from Arriva, Bosch, BT, Capita, Grant Thornton, Network Rail, PwC, Sainsburys, and Santander – who specifically cited MK:U as a key element in its decision to locate its new £150 million Digital Hub in Milton Keynes, and has committed £10 million capital funding and £20 million of in-kind support, to MK:U.

MK:U is backed by Cranfield, the world recognised postgraduate university with a long track record in scientific and business research, and another example of an institution that knows what it does and does it well. Like Cranfield, and like the OU, MK:U will keep to its mission. It won’t offer a wide range of liberal arts and humanities degrees. It won’t chase faddish new disciplines and courses merely to attract students. It will focus on driving prosperity in the Arc, and for the UK more widely.

I know that Ministers in the Education and Communities departments, and in the Treasury are studying the proposal closely as we approach the Spending Review. It has the potential to make a real difference – and to provide a model that other, ‘Free’, universities could follow too.

Tune in to our next ConservativeHome Live event – with special guest Katharine Birbalsingh

3 Sep

I’m pleased to say we have a great lineup of guests for our ConservativeHome Live events this Autumn.

I will be interviewing our next special guest, Free School pioneer Katharine Birbalsingh, next week – at 7pm on Wednesday 9th September.

As Headmistress and co-founder of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, Katharine is a fearless champion of education as a force to change lives for the better – and an equally fearless challenger of the misguided orthodoxies that have stood in its way.

Join us as we explore her Free School experiences, discuss her perspective on the recent exam crisis and the return of pupils to school, and cover other topics from freedom of expression to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Thanks to the support of our sponsor, Thorncliffe, this online event will be FREE to view. As ever, there will be a chance for audience members to put their questions to Katharine, too.

Click here to register for your free ticket.