Rachel Wolf: We must learn from the New Schools Network, the charity that helped make education better

19 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Last week, New Schools Network (NSN) – the charity I founded thirteen years ago – announced it will close. It achieved its central mission: to make the Free School programme happen, and successfully. Neither of these, as anyone who has worked in government will know, were guaranteed.

Through NSN, we (my own team, and my successors) delivered an immensely controversial policy, rapidly and against expectations, with successful outcomes: Free Schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted and are more popular with parents. Many of the top schools in the country exist because of its help; countless thousands of pupils are getting a better education because of those schools; and Free Schools like Michaela, or Reach Feltham, have changed the debate about what standard, and what kind, of education is possible.

Why was NSN successful? Because it was an obsessively focused, mission driven, non-governmental organisation. It applied some basic principles that should be used in Whitehall more generally (and, in my experience, almost never are). Others have written generously about NSN’s legacy. I want to focus on what I think policy makers should learn.

1. Speed. Before Free Schools, new schools took years and years to get off the ground. One former Cabinet Minister confidently predicted we’d get, at most, half a dozen open in a parliament. We knew that wasn’t an option: unless we got a decent number of schools open, the policy would be too easy to reverse, and each individual school would be the focus of huge national attacks by unions and other opponents. Critical mass was essential.

For the first year of NSN’s existence (before the 2010 election, and entirely funded by charitable donations) I spent most of my time identifying and cajoling groups who might want to found schools. They were inevitably nervous, and many of the teachers came under immense pressure and opposition. We tried to ensure they were ready to put in an application for a school, with demonstrable support from their community. It meant that by 18 months into the new parliament, over 80 schools were open, and almost 300 within a parliament.

2. Failure. The programme recognised the risk of the status quo rather than just the risk of change. Did all the schools work? No. But the ones that failed were closed much more quickly than is normally the case for schools, and the programme adapted fast.

3. Communication. We talked, endlessly, to the point of screaming boredom, about what was happening and why it was working – over local radio and broadcast. Our parent and teacher groups were featured in the national press. Why? Because we knew that was how you attracted more people to set up schools. New programmes need a sense of momentum.

4. Motivation. There were excellent civil servants who worked on the early Free School programme – as is often the case, the exciting ideas attracted many of the best people. But NSN was staffed by people who wanted Free Schools to happen, not who were dutifully implementing them. For that, you need a non-governmental (or at least not classically governmental) organisation.

5. Implementation. NSN was not a think tank. It was solely interested in the practical design and delivery of the programme. We created the application system for new schools, down to writing the questions on the forms, and asked people who had run similar programmes in other countries to check them. We held training sessions and conferences several times a year for those who wanted to found new schools – which helped them find like minded allies. It meant we were constantly in touch with people on the ground.

I wish I could see replicas of these ideas across the government, but I can’t. NSN was only possible because Free Schools were a priority for the government. The zeal for school reform has unquestionably disappeared. But there is a more general challenge – the energy and implementation capacity for public sector reform has faded since the Blair and early Cameron years. There is no shortage of ambitious targets, but an insufficient ability to make things happen fast or innovate. The vaccine taskforce was a rare blip of brilliance.

The same is true for Labour. A serious government in waiting should have its own social entrepreneurs and detailed ideas. What is the Labour NSN?

Can we do better? Yes. I will give one example. Michael Gove’s latest department is, as usual, a good bet. The Government appears semi-serious about levelling up, and he has entrepreneurial MPs like Danny Kruger and Neil O’Brien around him. Levelling up, like Free Schools, relies on communities acting and having the ability to do so. The Department also faces the most challenging headwind of all: time. Several years were wasted.

There is a perennial delusion in politics that an announcement, a piece of legislation, or even substantial funding, constitutes change. For the first few years, levelling up mostly consisted of random pots of money; it has been impossible to tell what any of it was achieving, and on what time scale. More recently, we have had serious and exciting policy proposals on planning and devolution; R&D; local pride; and skills.

They all rely on local action, and delivering them requires us to implement the lessons I set out above. What exactly is happening to the money? What is appearing, where? Which community groups are doing things, and why aren’t we interviewing them? Where is everyone?

It is easy to imagine an organisation, not exactly like NSN (different problems require different design) but with similar principles. It would probably require several local chapters with decision making power, and it would need to be focused on a small menu of improvements in each of those areas. It is also easy to imagine an NSN-type organisation focused on any number of other government challenges. While Covid, Ukraine, and the cost of living dominate headlines, they are not the focus of every department, every minister, or every official.

Despite the recent negative headlines, this is a government with an 80-seat majority, and an electoral imperative to deliver change. In these conditions, it should be possible to deliver tangible change – especially if everyone involved remembers the lessons we learnt in the early days of school reform and remembers why we all battle so hard to get into government in the first place.

Michael Crick: The Royal Borough of Barrow-in-Furness. How does that sound?

8 Oct

Michael Crick is Political Correspondent of Mail+

It’s just a thought.  At a Policy Exchange fringe meeting at the conference on Monday, Sebastian Payne was discussing his new book on the Red Wall with Michael Gove, the new Levelling Up Secretary.  Gove explained that when he was Education Secretary and trying to improve state schools, the whole atmosphere and impetus could be often improved by apparently superficial changes – such as a new name, a new school uniform, or introducing a house system.

Such changes can be quick and cheap, but also signal a new departure – a change of ethos.  These are examples of what Payne called “hanging baskets” improvements.  On the same day, Rachel Wolf cited hanging baskets as a good sign that a place is being looked after.  

It got me thinking.  What other “hanging baskets” could the Government introduce in the Levelling Up areas, pending more substantial structural and economic changes – investment and improvements which may take years to make a tangible impact?  

I suddenly thought of creating a few more royal boroughs and towns.

Remarkably, there are only nine communities in England which have royal status that has been conferred by the monarch by royal charter or letters patent.  (Scotland used to have 70 royal burghs, but these were officially abolished in the 1970s, while Wales just has Royal Caernarfon). 

Not surprisingly, most of the English-designated royal locations are leafy, middle-class communities, far from areas likely to be targeted by the Levelling Up agenda.  And they are very much southern phenomenon.  None is further north than the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield, in north east Birmingham.  It was conferred with royal status back in 1528 by Henry VIII, giving the town a real boost after a spell during which its economy had seriously deteriorated.   

Windsor achieved royal status in the twelfth century under Henry I, and Leamington Spa became a royal borough in 1828.  Yet the other six English royal areas have all been created since 1900: Kensington (now with Chelsea) (1901), Tunbridge Wells (1909), Kingston upon Thames (1927), the County of Berkshire (1957); and, more recently, Wootton Bassett in 2011, and Greenwich (in recognition of the Queen’s diamond jubilee).

Most of these are examples of the genteel, prosperous conservative England of tea-shops, old maids and Georgian buildings – not rough, grimy, working class communities which once housed the heavy industries which kept the empire going.

So let’s change all that.  The Royal Borough of Barrow-in-Furness would be an excellent start.  Its new royal handle could be given in recognition of the town’s important role in Britain’s defence over many decades.  The Queen must have visited the Barrow shipyard during her reign to launch nuclear submarines and warships.

After that, perhaps we could recognise a few more towns associated with old heavy industries to which this country owes so much – Scunthorpe or Consett for steel; Doncaster (mining or railways); Sunderland (shipbuilding); Redcar (steel and chemicals); Grimsby (fishing); north east Lancashire (cotton); and Whitehaven (nuclear).  The new royal charters would be granted not just as nostalgic thank yous to a bygone age, but as statements of respect and intent for the local communities.  

Of course, you can’t just confer royal status on a single day in these places, have Her Maj up for a big jamboree and leave it at that.  The new royal charters would have to be followed by genuine long-terms programmes to boost and reorientate the local economies with investment and special measures. 

In many cases – Barrow, Grimsby and Doncaster, perhaps – the towns might be boosted by the creation of new universities, especially if they concentrate on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.  The role of higher education in generating business activity and giving a kick-start to local economies, has long been obvious, from Silicon Valley to the hi-tech communities around Cambridge and Oxford.

In the interim, ministers should get on with the royal boroughs idea – though they should seek approval from the Palace first, of course.  And I’m told that a fringe event event on Tuesday, the new Party co-chairman, Oliver Dowden, endorsed the idea. 

Toby Lloyd: Two years since Johnson promised to level up Britain, has the detail proven better than the spin?

27 Jul

Toby Lloyd is a former special adviser to Theresa May and Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission on prosperity and community placemaking.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two years since Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street for the first time and promised to “level up” the country. I missed the speech, as I was slipping out of the back door of No 10 at the time, having been stripped of my pass, phone and laptop, along with the rest of Theresa May’s advisers, as part of the brutally clinical hand-over ritual that each outgoing PM must go through.

To us policy hacks, regrouping in the sweltering heat of a nearby bar, “levelling-up” seemed like one of those sound bites that would be quickly dropped, to join May’s “burning injustices” and David Cameron’s Big Society in the pile of unifying concepts that never quite worked.

After all, few people know what it means, and many of those that do actively dislike the idea, as Rachel Wolf pointed out on this site – and even ministers have been accused of a “complete lack of understanding” of the agenda. In the wake of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the logic goes, it’s time to drop all this nonsense and pivot back to the base.

But instead of dropping it, the Government has doubled down on levelling-up. There’s a £4.8 billion government fund bearing it’s name. The appointment of Neil O’Brien to lead the development of the forthcoming levelling-up white paper shows real commitment to the agenda – not just lip service to an electoral strategy. And Johnson chose to speak for a full hour on the subject recently. Clearly, levelling-up is here to stay.

Which makes it even odder that it’s still not clear what it actually means, and no agreed indicators to measure success or failure by. Last week Johnson seemed to imply that disparities in life expectancy were the best indicator of regional inequality, and even that he had single handedly raised the life expectancy of all Londoners in his term as Mayor.

Life expectancy is an excellent proxy for all sorts of things, and a very robust data point – so if the Government is making that it’s central metric of levelling-up it could silence the carping of the wonks.

And it’s obviously a good policy aim to level up life expectancy across the country. Given the new shift in electoral geography it may be smart politics too. But it’s not necessarily great comms to tell your new voters that they’re going to die sooner than your traditional base – especially if you don’t have a really good plan for how you’re going to change this.

In this regard, Johnson’s latest attempt to flesh out the vision was rather thinner. Much of his emphasis was on crime, big transport infrastructure, better broadband connections, and education. All of which are excellent subjects for public investment – but it’s hard to see how they will turn around the sense of neglect accumulated over decades in some of our most left behind places. HS2 is certainly not about to increase life expectancy in seaside towns that have seen better days.

Part of the problem is that whenever Johnson – or anyone else – tries to explain levelling-up, they have to grapple with big economic structural forces at the same time as hyper local factors; hard infrastructure as well as a more intangible senses of pride and community.

While big national kit is expensive, and often controversial, it’s at least something clear you can announce and eventually, hopefully, cut a ribbon in front of. Dealing with local issues from the Prime Ministerial pulpit can seem incongruous at best, patronising at worst. Although all politicians love a positive message of national pride for all, with or without implied criticism of all other nations for being just not quite as good as us, the resentments between different parts of the country are much harder for a PM to speak to.

The result can be vague, even incoherent, and easy to ridicule: you’re not going to reverse 50 years of deindustrialisation with a few quid for removing chewing gum from pavements. But despite all these vulnerabilities, it is the right approach, because the problems of left behind places, and of geographic inequality more broadly, really are both big and small, hard and soft, at the same time.

The dog mess and graffiti that spoil the local park really matters – as does the damage to town centres wrought by 1960s urban motorways and the decline of seaside tourism. Levelling-up, and left behind places, work as concepts precisely because they speak to both dimensions at once.

If you want proof that being left behindness cannot be boiled down purely to economic data, look no further than the Brexit referendum. The Index of Multiple Deprivation, an excellent source of data on poverty, tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of a place voting Leave or Remain.

By contrast, the Community Needs Index, formulated by Local Trust to identify which places really are left behind, has a strong correlation with voting leave. Poverty matters, hugely, but it doesn’t describe everything. We need a more subtle, more human, understanding of why some parts of the country feel neglected. Elected politicians often have a better nose for this sort of thing than policy wonks like me.

The politicians also have an answer to the technocrats’ critique that levelling-up lacks a precise metric. Goodhart’s law states that once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is because individual and organisational behaviour adjusts to hit the target, but frequently misses the point. This iron law of policy surely applies to concepts as messily human as levelling up: there can be no simple measure of levelling-up – but we’ll know it if we see it.

More serious is the risk that such a broad agenda creates the perfect conditions for waffly speeches with impressive but context-free numbers, and reports celebrating nice things happening in diverse places.

These are invariably a means of avoiding difficult decisions and trade-offs. Isn’t it lovely that this community group has got a grant to bring that abandoned Victorian workhouse building back into use as hub for local business and community activity! No need to ask why it had been left empty for decades, raise the spectre of tricky tax changes, or to worry about the future viability of those lovely new micro-enterprises.

The solution to these tensions is to return to the beginning. The entire levelling-up agenda is about place: places that feel left behind, people who live in places that have been poorly served by state and market alike for too long. Here the Government’s strategy is better than Johnson’s speech. There is real money on offer for improving town centres, for local transport, for communities to take ownership of the assets they need to shape change. To make this investment work, it has to be combined with a coherent attitude to localism, as Paul Goodman argued.

I would add that Whitehall also has to start trusting local people and, yes, local government a bit more and get over its addiction to competitive bidding for time limited pots. These waste huge amounts of energy as councils and community groups complete endless bids promising subtly different outcomes for the same projects – and inevitably mean that those best at playing this game win at the expense of the others.

This is no way to overcome division and level up. Better to follow the call for “localism on steroids” from Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of multiple high street business, and empower local communities to redesign their town centres to meet the needs of the 21st Century.

This is the territory that the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Behind Commission is exploring – and in the next few months will be proposing real reforms and investments to turn the good intent into reality. The real test of the levelling-up agenda will not be how it scores on socioeconomic metrics, but whether it can start a process of empowerment, improvement and investment that makes left behind places look and feel better. for the communities that live in them.

Richard Ritchie: The climate crisis – and this pandemic – have made the case for a carbon tax stronger than ever before

15 Oct

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

There is something in the air, and it’s not just carbon or virus emissions. Earlier this month, ConservativeHome carried a piece by Rachel Wolf, championing carbon pricing – that is the polite way of describing some form of carbon tax. Then, the influential economist Dieter Helm published in September a new book, Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change, which explains in detail the rationale behind a carbon tax. And from The Times, we’ve learnt that the Chancellor is considering such a tax for his next, Covid-19 budget.

It’s not a new idea. When I worked for BP and climate change first entered the political agenda – before, the main worry was that oil would run out and become too expensive – thoughts on how to price carbon were already in circulation. The oil and gas industry saw some merit in the concept, but favoured emissions trading over a tax, correctly identifying this as a less expensive, Europe-inspired fudge. Now, the combination of a pandemic and climate crisis gives the idea of a carbon tax real traction.

The political implications are important. Climate change and Covid-19 have much in common. Both require us to “follow the science”, although in neither case is the science unanimous. Both are manna from heaven for those who wish to “shut-down” the economy, and limit personal freedom. Both provide excuses for expanding the state. And in both cases, the cure can prove worse than the disease.

There can be little doubt that, so far, global policies to reduce carbon emissions have failed. This won’t worry those who are sceptical of the causes of climate change. But if one believes a failure to act now is to bequeath a catastrophe to future generations, then those on the “right” should be as concerned as those on the “left”.

Where we differ will be on the remedies. So far, “left-of-centre” remedies have generally been the norm. The Kyoto Protocol in 2007 and the Paris Agreement in 2015 have been little more than an opportunity for governments and lobbyists to parade their compassion. Whatever Trump’s motives may be surrounding climate change, his analysis of the Paris Agreement is basically sound. Some of course think its failure is due to inadequate targets; but their targets would make the economic consequences of Covid-19 seem trivial in comparison.

So the question is whether there is a policy which would reduce carbon emissions effectively, in an economically rational way. This is surely one reason why Rishi Sunak is attracted by the idea of a carbon tax as a means of reducing carbon consumption.

In Dieter Helm’s view, the word “consumption” is pivotal. It is no good concentrating solely on industrial emissions, as these won’t necessarily have any global effect – it simply drives emissions abroad, frequently to China. But a carbon tax which crucially incorporated a carbon border tax on imports would, by targeting attention on everyone’s personal carbon footprint, incentivise many things which probably make sense in themselves anyway.

There will be many Conservatives who will argue that all taxes do harm, and that the introduction of a “new” tax is incompatible with Tory beliefs. But unless one is totally sceptical of the science, and dismissive of the need to balance the books, there is much to be said for taxing “bads” rather than “goods”.

Of course it is open to many objections. For example, does the Treasury regard a carbon tax as an emergency measure to raise revenue, or a longstanding instrument to influence behaviour? If it is to serve its purpose, it will eventually yield less revenue.

Equally, if applied in the wrong way, it could merely make this country less competitive. Without care, it could prove regressive. Indeed, if the Paris riots over fuel duty are any guide, it could also prove politically impossible.

Then, for it to work, there must be alternatives for consumers to choose from. Not many will choose an electric car, for example, if there is no guarantee that it can be charged along the journey. (Although mention of electric cars also serves as a reminder that not everything is at it seems – an electric car takes twice as much carbon to produce than a conventional one. A carbon tax would sort that out too).

On the other hand, if properly devised a carbon tax has the capacity both to raise government revenue and to reduce carbon emissions, and even to incentivise other countries to follow suit. Matters to be decided include how the carbon price is fixed and at what level it should be introduced. Should it be levied on consumption or production? Does the tax provide sufficient time for consumers to adjust?

This is the political danger. Carbon taxes could come to the rescue of a cash-strapped Chancellor, because they hold out the prospect of raising new revenue without breaking a manifesto commitment not to raise existing taxes. But if the carbon tax is set too high at the outset, it will be counter-productive. If the Treasury is following Helm’s advice, “the trick is to start low, but credibly signal that the price is going to go up as high as is necessary to achieve the (carbon reduction) target.”

There is no painless way of reducing carbon emissions. Those on the “left” will embrace a policy which involves “picking winners”, nationalisation, subsidies, exemptions, regulation and illiberal compliance. A lobbyist’s paradise. The alternative is to incentivise new technologies, create new markets and provide practical signals to consumers. This is the purpose of a carbon tax. It will never be “popular” because the costs of transforming the networks, communications and transport of this country to facilitate lower carbon emissions are enormous.

But compared with the alternatives, a carbon tax is at least rational and addresses all the major sources of carbon emissions, namely agriculture, transport and electricity. Moreover, it produces a new source of government revenue at a time when it is desperately needed.

Any new tax is depressing to a free market Tory. But climate change, like pandemics, raises issues which are more important than economics. If it is a whole load of nonsense to claim that today’s climate change is man-made, then we are free to carry on as we are.

But if not, Tories have an obligation to advocate alternative solutions to those of the socialist “greens”. The market is the best way of allocating scare resources effectively. But in a time of war, the market cannot tell us how much to spend on butter or guns. That is a political choice, and it is the nature of the choice presented by climate change, if most scientists are to be believed. On so many levels and for so many reasons, it is hardly surprising if Sunak is pondering one.