Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT

24 Jun

When Grant Shapps was 13 he declared: “My name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative Cabinet minister.”

Simon Johnson, now Chair of the Rugby Football League, heard him say this when they were both in BBYO, the Jewish youth organisation, and remarks: “At the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s that was a very brave thing for him to say – it exposed him to a lot of mickey-taking.”

Shapps is now a Conservative Cabinet minister. As Secretary of State for Transport, he is in the front line of the rail dispute, but well before that he was one of the few people trusted by Downing Street to put the Government’s case on the morning media round.

He continues to be exposed to a lot of mickey-taking, but mingled with that is a note of respect. As one former minister remarked this week to ConHome:

“In a normal Cabinet of quality he would be a minor chord. But in this Cabinet, where mediocrity is laced with incompetence, he’s a bit of a star.”

A serving minister went further:

“I love Grant. Pre-Christmas, when there was the possibility of a lockdown, he was completely pivotal in Cabinet in stopping it. His intervention was crucial.”

Another influential Conservative, who has seen a lot of Shapps over the years, said of him:

“I can’t help but like him, even though I wouldn’t trust him. He’s probably the Government’s best communicator in terms of the Cabinet. He exudes confidence. He’s absolutely right about the rail strike – he’s brilliant. He reminds me a little bit of Jeffrey Archer.”

Shapps is an odd mixture of ambition, boldness, implausibility, realism and professionalism. All front-rank politicians need the self-belief to recover from, or better still shrug off, what may seem to spectators like a knockout blow.

The Prime Minister possesses that quality, and so, in a different register, does Shapps. When Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, blamed the rail strike on “Old Etonians speaking Latin and Greek”, the jibe did not land on Shapps, educated at Watford Grammar School (by then already a comprehensive), Cassio College and Manchester Polytechnic, and as a teenager more interested in designing computer games and setting up small businesses than in academic work.

Class war cannot work against the classless Shapps. “He’s got much better on the media,” a close observer remarks. “He’s one of the few who talks normally.”

One might say Shapps talks blandly. He is not much given to coining memorable phrases. He makes his case in a reasonable, workaday tone of voice, which offers his opponents no weak point against which to counter-attack.

And because he has been Transport Secretary since July 2019, so for almost three years, he has had time to work out how to continue the modernisation of the railways, which began many years before he came on the scene.

ConHome revealed in November 2020 how Shapps proposed to seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to give Britain world-class rail.

The vast sums of public money which were needed to keep the trains running through the emergency meant this was a moment of central control, when it became possible, as well as morally right, to sweep away obsolete working practices.

That argument has only become stronger since. As Shapps himself put it in a speech delivered on Thursday of last week:

“These strikes are not only a bid to derail reforms that are critical to the network’s future and designed to inflict damage at the worst possible time, they are also an incredible act of self-harm by the union leadership.

“Make no mistake, unlike the past 25 years, when rising passenger demand, year after year, was taken for granted by the industry, today the railway is in a fight.

“It’s not only competing against other forms of public and private transport, it’s in a battle with Zoom, Teams and remote working. In case the unions haven’t noticed, the world has changed.

“Many commuters, who three years ago had no alternative to taking the train, today have the option of not travelling at all. Wave them goodbye and it will endanger the jobs of thousands of rail workers.

“The last thing the railway should be doing right now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike.”

The strike is about who wields the central power which has been reestablished over the railway. Lynch and his colleagues in the RMT wish to demonstrate they can bring the network to a halt, and that they will continue to be able to do so.

The union barons used to be a power in the land, a great estate of the realm, because they could shut things down. In the 1970s, neither a Conservative Government, led by Edward Heath, nor a Labour one, led by James Callaghan, could work out how to regain the initiative.

In the 2020s, the Government would have to be extraordinarily incompetent – never, admittedly, a possibility which can be excluded – for things to play out as badly as they did in the 1970s.

Shapps was born in 1968, so remembers the 1970s. He not only announced in the early 1980s that he wished to be a Conservative minister, but at that time showed precocious gifts as a campaigner by getting himself elected National President of the Jewish youth organisation to which he belonged.

In an interview given to The Jewish Chronicle in September 2010, Shapps said:

“I feel totally Jewish; I am totally Jewish. I don’t eat pork, we only buy kosher meat and we don’t mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish and I married a Jewish girl. It’s like a way of life and it’s good to be able to instil some of that sense of being in your kids.

“All of that makes me seem as though I am quite observant but actually the flipside of this is I don’t know if there is a God or not. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God wouldn’t care if you were Jewish or Christian or Muslim.”

Although there are many politicians who, while nominally Christian, Muslim or Jewish, don’t know if there is a God, few actually say this.

Shapps is not merely undogmatic on his own behalf: he says God, if He exists, would be undogmatic too.

As a politician, Shapps does not preach doctrine, but is instead keenly interested in practice. “His approach has been generally sensible in a department that isn’t sensible,” as one Tory transport expert put it.

A railway specialist was less complimentary: he feared that Great British Rail, set up by Shapps, will become “another vast government bureaucracy that no one will be able to manage”.

But most observers think Shapps has done quite well at leading a department which is extraordinarily difficult to lead. One may compare and contrast him with Gavin Williamson.

Both men were desperate to get back into the Cabinet, both were astute enough to realise that Johnson was the horse to back in 2019, but Williamson, rewarded with the post of Education Secretary, soon found himself in serious difficulties, which Shapps, rewarded with Transport, has not.

The road to the fulfilment of his boyhood ambition has been a long one, strewn with obstacles, including a car accident in America in which he almost lost his life, and a bout of cancer which could also have proved fatal.

His recreation, when he can find time, is to fly his own Piper plane, made in 1985. His department has to deal with the airline industry, formidable at lobbying though not always good at hiring enough staff or treating them properly.

Shapps, son of a graphic designer, as a young man set up a printing business, but also sought to become an MP. He failed first in 1997, when he stood in North Southwark and Bermondsey, coming a distant third, and next in 2001, when he lost by 1,196 votes in Welwyn Hatfield.

In 2005, he won Welwyn Hatfield by 5.946 votes, and threw his support behind David Cameron, whose nomination papers he signed.

Under Cameron, steady promotion followed: Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005, shadow Housing Minister in 2007, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government in 2010, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2012.

But the other Chairman was Lord Feldman, who when profiled on ConHome was described as “the more important” of the two, with much closer ties to Cameron.

There are eight references to Feldman in David Cameron’s memoir, For The Record, and only two to Shapps, one of which reads, in its entirety:

“Grant Shapps became Chairman. He was loyal, energetic, and really wanted it.”

Shapps was sometimes known to the Cameroons as von Schnapps, a nickname which perhaps suggests he was not taken with complete seriousness. He made valiant and for a time successful attempts to get Conservative activists bussed to wherever they were most needed.

But after the general election victory of 2015, he was demoted to the post of Minister of State for International Development, no longer attending Cabinet, and in November of that year he stood down because of  grave bullying allegations which had been made about Team2015, the scheme to move young activists around.

There had also been unwelcome publicity about Shapps’s business activities, touched on in this recent piece for ConHome by William Atkinson, including the use of the pseudonym Michael Green and the promotion of a get-rich-quick scheme which seemed unlikely to make anyone better off.

In October 2017, Shapps  said the Conservative Party could not “bury its head in the sand”, and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The plot was a flop and she did not resign until the summer of 2019, when Shapps backed Johnson to succeed her, and became celebrated for the accuracy of the spreadsheets which he prepared for the Johnson campaign.

“He successfully adumbrated the weaknesses and venality of his colleagues,” as one Johnson supporter put it. Shapps had again proved his usefulness, and made sure everyone knew it.

He also makes sure everyone knows that Mick Jones, lead guitarist of The Clash, is his cousin.

Johnson is a fan of The Clash, and especially of Joe Strummer, the band’s lead vocalist. In November 2005, when Johnson was asked by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs for “record number seven”, he replied:

“Right. Ah, this is fantastic. It is The Clash, “Pressure Drop”, and the great thing about The Clash, of course, was apart from anything else, Joe Strummer was towards the end an avid Telegraph reader and it was the highest moment in my journalistic career when Joe Strummer actually sent me a letter saying how much he’d admired a column I’d written, about hunting funnily enough, and he was a fantastic man, a great hero of mine, a good poet as well as a fantastic rock musician.”

The Prime Minister will be excited to have appointed a Transport Secretary whose cousin performed with Strummer. Here is not the least of Shapps’s implausibilities.

The post Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT first appeared on Conservative Home.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson dodges questions on Universal Credit and crops

15 Sep

No sign of Dominic Raab or Gavin Williamson on the front bench at PMQs. Excitable spirits wondered whether the Foreign Secretary and Education Secretary had already been consigned for reeducation at some dreaded Johnsonian college, where they would be prepared for vital roles in the supply chain, perhaps driving heavy goods vehicles or getting in the harvest.

Sir Keir Starmer began by posing an unanswerable question:

“How many extra hours a week would a single parent working full time on the minimum wage have to work to get back the £20 a week the Prime Minister plans to take away from them in his Universal Credit cuts?”

When we call this question “unanswerable”, we mean Boris Johnson could not answer it without contradicting Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who on Monday said “about two hours”, which nobody thought was right.

One could not help noticing Coffey was absent. Might she too be undergoing reeducation?

Johnson was not going to fall into the trap prepared for him by the Leader of the Opposition. “It is absurd,” he objected. “Every single recipient of Universal Credit would lose their benefits under Labour because they want to abolish Universal Credit, Mr Speaker.”

“The Prime Minister didn’t answer the question,” Sir Keir remarked.

“Wages are rising,” Johnson said, and sketched a picture of a happy land of high wages and high skills, which Labour would wreck by allowing unrestricted immigration.

Sir Keir drew a picture of an unhappy land where it would take “over nine hours a week just to get the money back”. How could anyone with children work an extra day a week just to replace the lost income?

Especially, he added, as the Government is also putting up taxes.

Johnson lamented that “the party of Nye Bevan” could fall so low as to vote against measures which would fix the NHS.

Sir Keir tried to put pressure on the Prime Minister by getting his benches to chant “up…up…up” as he mentioned tax rises.

“I see the panto season has come early,” Johnson retorted, and mocked Sir Keir for having written a 14,000 word essay about the future of socialism.

Sir Roger Gale (Con, North Thanet) brought bad news:

“On ‘Back British Farming’ day we’re in harvest time but, Mr Speaker, all is not safely gathered in.

“In three weeks, Thanet Earth in my constituency, the largest glasshouse company in the country growing tomatoes, has had to trash £320,000 worth of produce because of no pickers and no drivers.

“Because of the lack of labour force, the crops are rotting in our fields and on our trees.”

He urged the Prime Minister to “introduce immediately” a Covid Recovery Visa so this year’s crops are not lost.

Johnson declined to do so. He said the Government was “taking steps”, and the Seasonal Agricultural Scheme would be used to ensure that British farms get the workers they need.

And off he went to reshuffle his ministerial team: a measure which however comprehensive it is, might well not produce enough workers to get in the lost crops.

Ten questions for Johnson’s reshuffle

7 Sep

  • What does the Prime Minister do about economic policy?  His instinct is for government to spend a lot; Rishi Sunak’s is for it to spend less.  Boris Johnson would clearly be reckless to lose his second Chancellor in less than two years, and we don’t believe that he will try to move him. Furthermore, it isn’t at all clear who would play Anthony Barber to the Prime Minister’s Edward Heath.  But Sunak’s public pitch for loyalty over social care yesterday only confirmed the tensions between him and the Prime Minister. Johnson will be brooding over the future of the man who is favourite eventually to replace him.
  • Who runs Downing Street?  The Prime Minister frets about the unresponsiveness of the official machine.  He has lost Dominic Cummings.  He is installing a Delivery Unit.  He is beefing up his own political operation.  Does he take the radical option of creating a Prime Minister’s department?  Or the established one of relying on the Cabinet Office?  Either way, who does he put in charge?  Does he keep Michael Gove?  Move in Dominic Raab.  Or else send for Oliver Dowden – just as David Cameron’s former Deputy Chief of Staff is enjoying his own place in the sun in his own department (and perhaps eyeing Education)?
  • What about the Home Office and the Foreign Office?  Some in Number Ten share our panel’s lack of confidence in Priti Patel; Raab has been in place for almost two years.  Gove has been punted for both posts but, for all his talents, there is only one of him.  And if he moves out of the Cabinet Office, who will take the lead on Scotland?  Our bet for Foreign Secretary were the shuffle to come late would be Alok Sharma, now that he has globetrotting experience wearing his COP26 hat.  Will Johnson really promote the Cabinet League Table-topping Liz Truss, who he is bound to see as a potential rival?
  • Who does Johnson bring back and at what level?  John Whittingdale was brought back to support Dowden.  James Brokenshire was returned to help Patel.  When his illness worsened, another former Cabinet member, Damian Hinds, replaced him.  The message is: keep your nose clean, and there’s a way back.  But is the Prime Minister prepared to do the same at Cabinet level – summoning Liam Fox or Jeremy Hunt or Iain Duncan Smith or Geoffrey Cox or Robert Halfon or other members of the Alternative Cabinet?  For given the scale of the foreign and domestic policy challenges, there’s a lack of experience at the top.
  • Which women…?  The optics will be an inevitable feature of the shuffle, whenever it comes.  Johnson will want to increase the number of women at the top table.  Anne-Marie Trevelyan must be top of the list to return, but she only recently started her job as Energy Minister.  The Prime Minister will be keeping a watchful eye on the ambitious Penny Mordaunt.  Kemi Badenoch must be on any list for promotion, but is she ready to run a department?  Look out for Lucy Frazer, a potential future Justice Secretary; Chloe Smith if her health allows and, if media deployment is any guide, Helen Whateley. Will Tracey Crouch return?
  • …Ethnic minority members?… Nadhim Zahawi is being punted for co-Party Chairman, but he could also slot in at Education, where he has served as a junior Minister, or perhaps at Culture.  James Cleverly has been out of the domestic media eye at the Foreign Office and must be due to go back in it again.  Kwasi Kwarteng has only recently been appointed and will presumably stay where he is.  Lower down the ranks, Claire Courtino will go up sooner rather than later; then there is Ranil Jayawardena and, down in the Whips’ Office, Alan Mak.
  • …And Red Wallers…?  If promoting ethnic minority members is playing identity politics, so would be favouring white working class people.  MPs for the new Conservative northern and midlands seats aren’t necessarily working class – nor Red Wallers, strictly speaking – but they are yet another group that Johnson must consider.  Cabinet promotion from the 2019 intake would be drastic, and Johnson is more likely to turn to the trailblazers of 2017.  That might mean, say, Lee Rowley, the Tory Deputy Chairman, but the name most frequently raised is that of Simon Clarke, the former Business Minister.
  • P.S: what about appointment on merit?… Beware, Prime Minister, of the backlash from your average Conservative MP: male, white, and (in his view) overlooked because of political correctness.  “With one exception, those promoted in our intake have been women, ethnic minority members, or gay,” one 2019er complained to ConHome.  What about the Kit Malthouses and Edward Argars?  (The latter has had much to do as a Health Minister during the pandemic.)  Is there a quota on Old Etonians that keeps out Jesse Norman?  What about able backbenchers, such as Richard Fuller?
  • …And communicators?  The Government is short at the top of people who can get on the front foot on TV, if that’s quite the right way of putting it.  There’s Sunak, Gove, the Prime Minister himself, a more relaxed Grant Shapps, and Kwarteng.  And that’s about it.  Which is why Cleverly is due a return, and perhaps Brandon Lewis too.  He would fit in at Housing were Robert Jenrick to be moved, but on balance this is unlikely.  Jacob Rees-Mogg has been confined to the Commons as Leader of the House, and were he appointed Chief Secretary, he would be restricted to the Treasury.
  • What’s the least bad timing?  The infallible rule of reshuffles is that the anger of those sacked outweighs the gratitude of those promoted.  A shuffle this week would refresh the Cabinet before the conference season.  But one later would ease moving Raab, Ben Wallace or both: besides, it isn’t yet clear that Covid has run its course.  We assume when the shuffle comes Gavin Williamson will be moved, and at least two Cabinet members fired.  More, and Johnson will risk a “night of the long knives”.  Fewer, and what’s the point?  P.S: the promotion of the Johnsons’ old mucker Zac Goldsmith is a possibility.

Our Cabinet League Table. Raab plummets from third from top in July to fourth from bottom last month.

5 Sep
  • Last month, Dominic Raab was third from top in our Cabinet League Table, on 73 per cent.  This month, he drops by 21 places to fourth from bottom, coming in at 6 per cent and narrowly avoiding negative ratings.  It’s one of the biggest falls ever in our table – almost on the scale of Theresa May’s dizzying fall from top of the table into negative territory in the wake of the bungled 2017 election.
  • Meanwhile, Ben Wallace moves up from ninth, on 51 per cent, to fourth, on 64 per cent.
  • The Westminster story of the last week or so has concentrated on Raab v Wallace – and this finding seems to show Conservative activists taking sides.  Our take is that it’s more of a verdict on how British servicemen and the Foreign Office have reacted to events in Afghanistan; and on Wallace’s robust take on Joe Biden and, perhaps, Pen Farthing.  The Defence Secretary seems to be morphing into a politician who, like the Prime Minister himself, is seen by many people outside Westminster as authentic.
  • Boris Johnson drifts up from fourth from bottom on three per cent to seventh from bottom on 13 per cent.
  • Otherwise there’s little change in the table, but it’s worth closing by having a look at Priti Patel.  Last month, she was tenth from bottom on 26 per cent.  This month, she is eight from bottom on 18 per cent.  As recently as May, she was among the top members of the table: sixth from top on 64 per cent.  You will have your own view on the reasons for her fall.  Ours is: channel boats.

David Gauke: Who should be the next Education Secretary?

16 Aug

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.

Last week saw the fulfilment of a now routine August tradition. After months of nervous anticipation, large numbers of people could finally speculate about the future of the Education Secretary. Some students learnt of their qualification grades, too.

Gavin Williamson’s tenure as Secretary of State for Education will, surely, come to an end at the next reshuffle. He consistently ranks as the least popular member of the Cabinet according to the ratings on this website, he is not well-regarded by Parliamentary colleagues and it is clear that he has been excluded by the Prime Minister from key decisions affecting his brief. He is unpopular with teachers and parents and it is unclear that he has his own agenda in the department, other than a desire to attract headlines about questioning the value of so many people going to university and opposing cancel culture.

Within the media, it is hard to find anyone to say a good word about his performance as Secretary of State. So I will make three points in mitigation.

First, the consequences of the pandemic meant that there were no satisfactory responses to the question of qualifications. Students missed large parts of their education but the extent of this varied considerably. To award fair qualifications, one has to be able to compare across schools and colleges which means one cannot rely solely on teacher assessments. But trying to do that when different schools and colleges had very different experiences creates many injustices, plus problems arise when moderating by past results (as we saw with the 2020 algorithm).

Second, decisions appear to have been taken out of his hands. The decision not to put in place a contingency plan in September 2020 in the event of a serious winter wave of Covid was apparently made in Downing Street. Some responsibility lies there.

Third, Williamson does have some significant political skills. David Cameron found him invaluable as Parliamentary Private Secretary; he skilfully ran Theresa May’s leadership campaign and was an effective Chief Whip in difficult circumstances. As a colleague, I found his understanding of Parliamentary tactics astute. He returned to the role of organising a leadership campaign for Boris Johnson with success.

None of these points, however, should be sufficient to keep him in place.

Yes, he was dealt a bad hand but he has played it badly. There is no evidence that he properly anticipated problems, wrestled with the options, appreciated the pros and cons and worked strategically to mitigate the downsides of the choices he made. Yes, he was ignored and over-ridden by Number 10, but that was indicative of a lack of confidence in him that appears justified. And if, as Secretary of State, you are forced to pursue policies which you consider to be against the national interest, you can always resign.

As for his undoubted political and campaigning skills, these also present a problem. There is a suspicion amongst those that know him and the country at large that, for him, politics is principally a game. It is about scheming and plotting and manipulating and advancing and winning. Williamson is probably not unique in this respect, but he is uniquely obvious about it. This does not help him build trust amongst colleagues or respect from the public.

All of this means that the Prime Minister needs a new Education Secretary. What are the qualities that the Prime Minister should be looking for?

There are many factors that the Prime Minister must take into account when choosing a Cabinet. There is usually a need to reflect the balance of opinion in Parliamentary party, although in 2019 Boris Johnson prioritised clarity and unity on his approach to Brexit (which had electoral advantages later that year, it has to be said). There is also a need for a balance in terms of gender and race. But above all else, Cabinet ministers should be appointed on the basis of their ability to be effective Secretaries of State.

A decent Cabinet needs some good communicators, some bruisers to rough up the opposition, some reformers capable of driving important changes through Whitehall, some competent administrators capable of spotting problems early and diffusing them, some strategic policy thinkers and some plausible future leaders (some Prime Ministers might be nervous about this but you would not to be in a position where there is only one, very obvious successor as Boris Johnson is discovering). Of course, these qualities are not mutually exclusive but it is a rare minister who ticks every box.

In deciding his next Education Secretary, the Prime Minister needs to work out what he wants from the Department. Is he pursuing bold educational reform? This would be a surprise because he has not given any indication as to what it might be. There is certainly a need for some strategic thinking on how technology might aid classroom teaching and teacher training; and there are important questions to be answered about examinations at 16 but big structural reforms are likely to be for a future Parliament. In any event, the Gove reforms are relatively recent.

Is he looking to score political points by taking on ‘woke’ culture? We have seen a bit of this from Williamson and maybe another figure would get better cut-through but, given the challenges our education system faces, this would be an odd priority.

The most important quality for the next Secretary of State, I would have thought, is as a problem-solver/fire fighter. This involves some hard thinking about the long term issues and preparing the ground for future reforms but most importantly addressing short term challenges. How do students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, recover the schooling that has been lost in the last 18 months? What can be done to ensure that examination grades in the next couple of years are fair and robust? How will universities cope with the disruption caused by the surge in A* and A grades? Are we prepared in the event (unlikely, I hope) that a further Covid wave disrupts schooling again?

The reality is that education is a political vulnerability for the Government in the next few years. Someone who can quickly get on top of their brief, who is manifestly doing the job for the right reasons and who ca bring good judgement and grip to the role would be invaluable. They don’t have to be flashy – indeed, they should be content to be relatively anonymous – but low profile competence could neutralise a tricky issue. A Norman Fowler at the DHSS figure, if you like.

There is one further point. If a Secretary of State is going to have credibility, they must also have power. This will not work if months of patient work and relationship building gets thrown over because of an ill thought through intervention from Number 10.

The prioritisation of loyalty and subservience to the Prime Minister served its purpose in 2019 but, to get things done, a government needs Secretaries of State with the confidence and competence to devise and pursue their own agenda; consulting and collaborating with the Prime Minister, but not just following orders; someone who has to be taken seriously by their own officials and the outside world. And, whilst we are at it, the case for Cabinet Ministers being selected on the assumption that they should be capable of doing a substantial and responsible job doesn’t just apply to the next Secretary of State for Education.

As school pupils rack up devalued As, Williamson gets an F on grade inflation

11 Aug

When Michael Gove made toughening up exams part of his mission as Education Secretary, the teaching establishment wasn’t pleased. Far from offering a rigorous assessment of a pupil’s attainment, the argument ran, they distort the curriculum via ‘teaching to the test’ and fail to capture a candidate’s real abilities.

Following the Government’s lamentable but predictable capitulation over trying to generate reasonable results algorithmically last year, we have now had two years to see what the alternative is. And the answer: ‘rampant grade inflation’. From yesterday’s Times:

“Almost half of Tuesday’s A-level results are expected to be at A* or A in a second year of rampant grade inflation. The Times has learnt that about 19 per cent of the qualifications are likely to be graded A* this year and a further 30 per cent are expected to be given A grades. The results come after last year’s exams fiasco when 38.6 per cent of A-levels were graded A or A*, up from 25.5 per cent in 2019.”

Worse still, this may not even be the end of it, with the papers reporting that substituting teacher assessment for actual assessment could be back next year, as apparently two and a half years won’t be enough for the Department of Education to find a way to hold exams safely.

In the short term, this has led to university places being once again oversubscribed, with top-flight universities already restricting places available via the clearing system. There are also reports that they might start expanding the use of entrance exams, in order to differentiate between the mass of A-wielding applicants and try to reduce the need to provide remedial teaching to get students up to the level needed to start higher learning.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to let all the blame fall on the teachers. Debbie Hayton argues that it is impossible for them to foresee which pupils would have fluffed their exams on the day, although this has the effect of shifting the blame back onto exams as a system of assessment. One can also see how easily relying on predicted grades could produce a race to the bottom, with conscientious teachers not wanting to put their charges at a disadvantage relative to those of their more generous colleagues.

But there is no doubt that the ideological preferences of the education establishment are also at work. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, told the Times that inflated grades will “become the new norm”, and is quoted as saying that: “The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades, justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered.”

Both Smithers and Hayton think this is a mistake: he suggests it amounts to “killing with kindness”, whilst she spells out how grade inflation rebounds on everyone:

“But what about the students who would have achieved straight A*s in any case? For better or for worse, exams are used to discriminate between students. There is already talk that leading universities will need to set their own entrance exams to do the job that A levels have failed to do… It’s not just the current 18 year-olds who have been let down. I sat A levels so long ago that my results are now a historical curiosity; I’m no longer judged against them. But those in the early stages of their careers will now be relying on grades that suddenly don’t look so impressive when compared to this year’s bumper results.”

Nor are the long-term results likely to be progressive. Whilst in the immediate prospect universities might use the glut of top grades to squeeze out better-off pupils, as Lord Lucas warned yesterday, such a trend will not survive sustained grade inflation. As and when universities are forced to use other criteria to sift candidates, be that entrance exams or the older methods of interview and extra-curricular achievement, the ball will be back in the wealthy’s court.

(That doesn’t mean that universities should be prohibited from setting entrance exams. Far from it: having the ultimate barometer of schools’ achievement set independently of the schools themselves might be the best structural reform for bringing grade inflation under control permanently. I have also written elsewhere that the Government might also consider introducing CV-blind entrance exams for public sector employment, in areas where a specific technical qualification is not required and degrees are simply being used as a first-stage sieve for candidates.)

Finally, it is worth pointing out that moving away from exams appears to have given fresh power to teachers’ prejudices about how the sexes learn, with the long-standing attainment gap between girls and boys, so recently closed, now wider than ever.

All of which is why this spike in grades deserves more than a dismissive “so what?”

But who is going to do anything about it? From being one of the boldest and most radical parts of government under the Coalition, today the Department for Education seems drained of all energy and authority. It has been rightly excoriated for its lack of pandemic contingency planning, and appears to have spent the last year doing nothing at all to try and prevent a second (and perhaps even a third) year of grade inflation.

It is no surprise that our survey finds party members giving Gavin Williamson truly stygian ratings, month after month after month. The best he could muster yesterday was to say that pupils “deserve to be rewarded” after a year of disruption. How many, in the long run, will actually thank him for this Weimar pay-rise? In a properly-functioning system, an unusually difficult year would lead, however sadly, to unusually low attainment. Not the opposite.

Education has never been Boris Johnson’s top priority. The 2019 manifesto was extremely light on proposals for schools, and he has not favoured the Department since taking office. But if the Government is serious about ‘levelling up’ or driving cultural change, let alone both, it has to take schools and universities much more seriously.

From self-isolation to score annihilation – Johnson drops 36 points in our Cabinet League Table.

1 Aug

Last month was a trying month for the Government, featuring as it did two unexpected by-election defeats and the resignation of the Health Secretary. How does this month compare? Badly.

  • Both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak u-turned over trying to avoid self-isolating – but with very different results. The Chancellor’s score is down a bit but he still enjoys his silver-medal position. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has shed more than 35 points, and is only just in positive territory.
  • Another minister who’s had a bad month is Priti Patel. The Home Secretary has lost 20 points, almost half her June score. The ongoing failure to stem the flow of boats across the Channel seems the most likely explanation.
  • Liz Truss and Dominic Raab round out the podium, in exactly the same positions they held last month and with basically the same scores. Lord Frost is again in fourth place. The UK’s external policy seems to be broadly popular with the grass roots.
  • Although the explanation could simply be broader stability at the top, as Sajid Javid and Jacob Rees-Mogg also hold their positions.
  • At the bottom of the table, Gavin Williamson continues to burrow his way into the depths, whilst Amanda has dropped properly into the red too. Robert Jenrick’s efforts to get some houses built, on the other hand, are (just) a net positive for a change.
  • Overall, the air has gone out of the rest of the scores a bit – unsurprising in a month which has seen a fair amount of political wear-and-tear and a row over vaccine passports.

Universities have a nerve to complain about vaccine passports

28 Jul

Before I get started, let me say this: I don’t think vaccine passports are in any way a good idea. I hate the way they’ve been debated with all the seriousness of a local council deciding when to schedule a Zoom meeting. And even if the Government is just using them as a threat to get young people jabbed, it is not a very nice threat.

Even so, it was rather astonishing to see universities and unions kick off at reports the Government wants students to be double jabbed – as a condition to attend lectures and stay in halls. Vice-chancellors suddenly discovered their libertarian streak and warned that this would be a “terrible infringement on personal freedom.” Never mind the “infringement on personal freedom” that took place last year when students were locked down in their halls

Worse was the response of Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), who said: “Sadly, this looks and smells like a Prime Minister trying to pin the blame on students for not yet taking up a vaccine they haven’t been prioritised to receive.” The only thing that smells, though, is the rank hypocrisy of unions, which have constantly advocated for tough measures – only to whinge when they get their way.

After all, was it not the UCU which, five days earlier, wrote to Gavin Williamson to demand that all students should be double vaccinated before the start of their term in September? And wasn’t it the UCU that warned that universities should also “provide and mandate” the wearing of face masks, along with the rest of its long list of things the Government should do? If young people prove hesitant about getting the jab, how does the UCU think ministers – trying to meet its inexhaustible demands – should act?

The Government is clearly trying to gather momentum – so that students can be back on campus in September, hence why it has become so stern about the plan. It is even said that Boris Johnson was impressed by the way Emmanuel Macron increased vaccine uptake about the young in France, by threatening a “health pass” for restaurants, bars, trains and planes, and has thus taken inspiration.

Someone more cynical might question whether universities even want to see students in person again. Earlier this month, it was interesting to note Russell Group Universities announce they were moving to a “blended” model of education. This will involve face-to-face teaching and virtual learning for the price of £9,250 a year. One wonders if the Government’s push for vaccines is rather throwing a spanner in the “blended” plan…

Either way, it is extraordinary that universities and unions, which have been some of the most zealous about Covid safety measures, kick off at the Government for caution of all matters, with the UCU calling the situation “appalling”. They make Keir Starmer look decisive in his Covid plans.

Emily Carver: The Government’s plan to make exams easier will be devastating for this country’s education system

21 Jul

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

In the midst of the media frenzy around vaccinations passports, the “pingdemic” and the long-awaited “Freedom Day” (which turned out to be no such thing), one story that has hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny is what’s going on in our schools.

We all know that students have faced significant disruption over the past 16 months. On-off school closures, months of virtual-only learning, plus the farce that has become the “Covid bubble” scheme, have plunged many schools into crisis territory. It was reported yesterday that last Thursday there were over a million pupils off school, including 774,000 as a result of children being told to self-isolate. Some schools have been forced to close altogether.

It’s hard to overstate the impact this level of lost learning will have on children, yet the Government has consistently failed to put children first over the course of the pandemic, while the unions have warned against – and continue to stubbornly oppose – any easing of restrictions. Now, with the summer holidays fast approaching, pressure is mounting on the Government to find ways to claw back some of what has been lost.

It is regrettable that schools were ever forced to close, but there have since been some sensible recommendations made, including funding for extra tuition, and catch-up classes for those who have fallen behind. Predictably, when offered an extra £1.5 billion for such measures, the response from union officials was one of outrage at what they deemed to be a derisory sum.

Of course, it’s likely no amount of money will be enough to fix the level of damage that Covid restrictions have reaped on schools – there is no way of going back in time. But the Government’s education recovery commissioner has also proposed practical changes that will cost far less, including longer school days and changing the structure of the school year – both common-sense ideas that an IEA paper advocated earlier this year.

These suggestions were met with equal pushback, with teaching unions straight out of the traps to claim a 30-minute extension of the school day would do “more harm than good”. This, despite the fact longer school days have been shown to help disadvantaged pupils the most.

You would have thought – or naively hoped – that those dedicated to representing teachers, would rally around measures to help pupils. Instead, they’ve pushed for the strictest interpretation of Covid measures every step of the way, acting as a thorn in the Conservative government’s side. ‘Twas ever thus, I suppose.

However, there is one area where the unions have got on board with the Government: plans to make exams easier next summer. Proposals published by the Department for Education and Ofqual, which aim to address schooling disruption by “reducing pressure” on students and “freeing up teaching time” essentially amount to making examinations easier to pass.

They will do this by narrowing the scope of the curriculum that will be subject to examination and giving teachers the greenlight to tell students in advance what specific topics will be covered in their GCSE and A-Level exams.

Sure, shrewd students have always analysed past papers to discern which topics are most likely to reappear in their exam. But this effort to make exams easier will do nothing but create a false illusion of success. This may serve the short-term interests of teachers, students, parents and the Government, who will benefit from a perception that educational achievement has remained stable, but the longer-term consequences of this are deeply concerning.

Some may argue that this is little different from shifting the grade boundaries to reflect the relative difficulty of the paper, as happens every year. However, the consequences of manipulating results by limiting the scope of the exams themselves are of far more troubling consequence.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said it is “right that next summer’s arrangements take into account the disruption young people have faced over the past 18 months”. But isn’t this a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Should we not assess pupils as rigorously as normal years? Only then can we understand the impact of Covid on educational outcomes. It seems the Government and some teaching representatives would rather sweep our problems under the carpet to save face.

In the next few years, we may find that we have large numbers of pupils leaving school without any real, in-depth knowledge of their subject. The knock-on effect on universities will be significant. School will send students off to university, knowing full well they have gaping holes in their understanding of what should, in normal times, be the basics. Will students spend the whole first year of their tuition catching up to A-Level standard? Will there be a need to extend the duration of the degree? Will universities now have to dumb down degrees to make up for lost time?

The impact on young people, the economy and wider society, of manipulating students’ achievements will store up big problems for the future, not least setting them up for deep disappointment when they realise their qualifications are worth less than those taken in previous years. Employers will also know full well that GCSEs and A Levels taken during the Covid years aren’t of the usual standard.

It is widely recognised that New Labour’s educational reforms made exams less rigorous. Some on the left still continue to dispute this for ideological reasons, but for anyone like me who has seen an O-Level French paper and a GCSE French paper side by side, there is no doubt.

It is understandable that the Government would want to ease the pressure on students during a pandemic, but if these planned changes to exams go ahead next summer, they may well take far longer to reverse. Why would it be in the interests of the unions, teachers or some parents to make exams harder once again?

It would be devastating for this country’s education system if, after Michael Gove spent so much time and energy attempting to reverse the legacy of the Blair years, Covid caused standards to slip once again.

Making it easier for students to pass their exams won’t reduce educational disparities in this country; grade inflation will encourage children to have a false sense of confidence in their own academic ability, and the buck will be passed to universities and their future employers.

Pressure must be put on the Government to restore exams to pre-pandemic standards as soon as possible, for the benefit of students, dedicated teachers and the wider economy.