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

28 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministers and Ofqual have hospital-passed the exam fiasco to universities and colleges

17 Aug

When we wrote this morning that the least bad course, for this year’s GCSEs and the pupils who took them, was to let teacher-predicted results stand, we were confident that the Government would do precisely that.

It has been evident from the moment that Ofqal published A-level appeal advice on Sunday morning, and then withdrew it that very evening, that Conservative backbench opinion would change.

Tory MPs were divided on what to do about the algorithm-issued A-level results in principle, but began to unite about what the Government should do in practice.

If Ofqal was in chaos, they reasoned, Ministers weren’t in control – and had lost any grip on an emerging triple problem that they might once have had.

This treble hurdle was, first, A-level appeal chaos.  Second, the GCSE results coming down the track later this week.  And third, the urgent need for schools to open up in only a few weeks’ time.

It is true that by now empowering schools and pupils to pick the better of the algorithm or predicted results, Ministers and Ofqal may have set the scene for some sixth forms and colleges to wax and others to wane.

This is because there will be winners and losers from a settlement in which there are more pupils going on to do A-level than were expected, as will be the case now.

The weaker institutions stand to lose – unless the Treasury bales them out, as will doubtless be the case to some extent, especially if many of them are further education colleges, given Ministers’ focus on FE.

But this is one of the side-effects of taking that “least bad course”.  In essence, what Ministers now done is to transfer an educational problem driven by the scrapping of exams from the Education Department to schools and colleges.

Like Russell Crowe’s Jack Audrey in Master and Commander, they have cut their ship loose from the wreckage that was threatening to sink it.

We thought that they wouldn’t do so with A-levels, because results have already been issued.  We were wrong.  The same political logic has been applied, despite the difficulties that this will now cause.

“Now I have students/parents in my DMs asking if they can give back the place at their 2nd choice uni and claim their place at their 1st choice,” Sam Freedman tweeted in the wake of today’s announcement.

Expect more of that, and then some.  Obviously, Gavin Williamson, Boris Johnson and Nick Gibb will take flak in the coming days for it.

Nonetheless, our snap take is that, in crude terms, Ministers and Ofqal have picked up their problem and hospital-passed it to the universities and colleges.

There will now be hero institutions, such as Worcester College Oxford, that will accept all students with offers, regardless of their A-level results. Hooray.

And there will be villain ones, presumably to be denounced as “snobs”, who will show less compassion, or cunning, or both – and will stick to the script.  Boo, hiss.

But the general effect of the move will be like that we may see in sixth forms and colleges, but more so.  The cap on student numbers will go.  Russell Group universities will hoover up better-qualified students.

Much will depend on overseas student numbers.  But don’t be surprised if we see the outcome that the cap was put in place to avoid – namely, pressure on the weaker higher education institutions.

Again, Rishi Sunak will haul out the taxpayer cheque book.  However, we can’t help wondering whether our old friend the law of unexpected consequences may apply.

Our columnist Neil O’Brien has made the case for a rebalancing of higher and further education.  The Government sees this as part of its desire to “level up”.  Could the exam results crisis turn out to trigger such a process?

Tomorrow, we will probe the question that the media, many voters, and MPs are inevitably asking: who’s to blame for this shambles?  Ministers?  Ofqal?  Both?

In Master and Commander, it’s not just wreckage that is cut loose.  One of the seamen, Wharley, drowns.  Which politicians or quangocrats should now be dragged five fathoms deep?