John Bald: We need an Education Secretary with an understanding of the challenges we face

12 Jul

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 Conservative Education Society has a relatively small, but very experienced, membership. We meet in a Lords committee room, and on Monday last week were addressed by Will Quince MP, Children’s Minister, who had been hung out to dry by Boris Johnson on Monday morning’s media round. The Society observes Chatham House rules, so I cannot report what he said, but it was by some way the best informed, most practical and dynamic presentation I have ever heard from an education Minister. The contrast with some of Michael Gove’s successors as a Secretary of State, who have known nothing at all about education, and made their professional supporters cringe with embarrassment, could not have been greater.

This made Quince’s principled resignation the next morning more of a shock and more of a loss. Provision for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is a mess, and the government review, of which he had the final cut, pulled no punches. Two examples of nine year olds from my own work with parents – one assessed as having a mental illness related to demand avoidance who has a year’s wait to see a psychiatrist, and another experiencing severe anxiety and refusing to attend school, despite her parents’ sustained efforts, whose absences are marked as unauthorised, and whose parents are threatened with prosecution.

SEND is by no means the only mess, or even the biggest one. We rightly criticise our opponents for basing policies on ideology, but we have some of our own, and it is doing damage. When Katharine Birbalsingh stood up and told the truth about London schools in 2010 I stood up and cheered – in my living room – and my admiration has grown over the years. Here was opportunity, an alternative to the dead hand of local authorities and what Michael Gove accurately described as “the soft tyranny of low expectations.” Alas, through the influence of Dominic Cummings, some schools were placed in the hands of incompetents, and the academy trust system that replaced them has many of the vices of local authorities, with an added whiff of corruption. It is also extremely expensive. To pay for it, while meeting George Osborne’s requirement of cuts in overall expenditure, provision in further education and in sixth forms was slashed, denying opportunities to pupils whose parents could not afford private education.

The policy of making every school an academy, and now part of a Multi-Academy Trust, was conceived before the 2010 election, but only admitted publicly some years later. It culminated in Nadhim Zahawi’s ill-fated Schools Bill, one of the rare occasions on which the Lords have exercised their powers reasonably and responsibly. Some of the most successful schools in the country are threatened with compulsory incorporation into these organisations. Some are good, but too many have authoritarian managers who think that making their word law constitutes good leadership. To put these people in charge of some of the most distinguished headteachers we have is simply unacceptable, and it must not be allowed to happen. This is wrong and must be stopped.

Smaller scandals also have their origins in neoliberal ideology. It is now accepted that the allocation of the national tuition project to an organisation without experience in the field, on the grounds that they could pay lower wages, was farcical as well as damaging. The refusal to allow local authorities to build their own schools to meet local need, including SEND schools, is anti-social, inefficient and ruinously expensive, saddling councils with fees of hundreds of thousands of pounds for individual students, with no guarantee of quality. Imposing cuts in inspection while introducing new developments was both irresponsible and a false economy – see the failure of Stantonbury Campuses under a MAT leadership, which is very good at trumpeting its “values”. The privatised exam boards, whatever their technical label, have earned an appalling reputation for arbitrary decisions, unfair competition, and cost-cutting at the expense of quality.

Finally undoing the good work of dismantling Labour’s quangos, only to create another one, five times as big, in the Education Endowment Foundation, is plain old-fashioned folly. It duplicates the work of the National Foundation for Educational Research, has a website that mimicks the format of Trip Adviser Reviews, and is very, very expensive. Nothing neoliberal about that.

Many of us rejoiced in 2010 that we would have an education department again, rather than a New Labour thinktank. We at last had a chance to tackle the errors that had beset education since Labour’s botched introduction of comprehensive schools in the 60s. Whatever the outcome of the next election, that opportunity is now in serious jeopardy. Michelle Donelly is manifestly more experienced in education than James Cleverly, and should be restored to office forthwith. We can do without another Secretary of State who doesn’t know the work.

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Emily Carver: The decision to mandate masks in classrooms is utterly indefensible

5 Jan

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

To his credit, the Prime Minister has stuck to his guns and refused to follow the devolved administrations and bring in tougher rules.

This is a rational decision. We know that Omicron has proven to be milder than previous variants, and despite a surge in the number of people in hospital “with Covid”, the speedy roll-out of booster jabs has kept the number of patients on ventilators low. Indeed, the latest data shows that the number of people in ICU has in fact fallen in recent weeks and it not tracking the rise seen last winter. While pressure on the NHS is severe, it is manageable.

Even Professor Neil Ferguson, who predicted last month that there could be 5,000 Omicron deaths a day (over three times the peak last January) has admitted that this wave is “substantially less severe” than previous ones, and that he is now “cautiously optimistic” Omicron cases are plateauing among 18 to 50-year-olds in London, the age group that has been driving the recent wave.

Yet, despite the fact we are so very far from worst case scenarios (and Ferguson’s best-case scenario), the Government has decided that it is proportionate to demand children wear masks throughout the entire school day. It is now once again “recommended” for all secondary school pupils in England to wear masks eight hours a day, with only a short break for lunch.

Politicians have argued that mask-wearing is a small price to pay to keep schools open. The opposition has also parroted this line. But they’re not paying the price. It is not office workers or MPs who are being forced to don a sweaty, germ-ridden mask all day.

And where is the evidence that mask-wearing will slow down the spread of the virus, keep schools open, or indeed save lives? Surely there must be an extremely high bar to justify a “recommendation” that will impact children’s learning and quality of life?

According to the Health Secretary, the guidance is based on two assessments. First, the evidence that Omicron, though milder, is highly infectious. And second, that an “observational” study of 123 schools undertaken by the Department of Education supports the use of face masks in schools – a study which is yet to be published.

One of the major criticisms from those sceptical of the Government’s approach is that it has failed to communicate or publish cost-benefit analyses for its ever-changing patchwork of Covid rules and regulations. You would have thought that, when seeking to intervene in children’s lives, the costs should be even more meticulously assessed?

Anyone who has ever worn a face mask will know they inhibit basic social interaction. This may not be as important in some professions, but in schools it is essential. Only in November, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam defended the Government’s decision not to mandate masks in schools. He said they can be “quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children, involving speech and facial expressions. It’s difficult for children in schools with face masks”. This will be worse for those with special educational needs, or for the growing number of children already suffering with their mental health. Has his view changed?

It seems the Government is more interested in being seen “to do something”, even if that means children are scapegoated. Indeed, in a meeting of the Education Select Committee meeting, children’s minister Will Quince admitted that there was “very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings”, but that mask mandates would be used as a “precautionary measure” nonetheless.

Considering this, it’s hard not to see this weakly-evidenced intervention as anything more than a political decision used to appease those who would rather keep schools closed. Certainly, if the decision were left up to the teachers’ unions and some councils, schools would remain shut to most pupils, and teaching would continue online-only.

We’ve heard in recent days from the NASUWT that remote learning is “the only sensible and credible option at this time to minimise the risks to those working in schools and to safeguard public health”. The leadership of the NEU has warned its members that it is not safe for them to return to school until mid-January at the earliest and has even provided template letters for their members to refuse to go back to work.

Then there’s the added problem of the Government’s own increasingly unworkable Covid self-isolation rules – rules which are wreaking havoc on our public services.

Not only are head teachers fearing up to a quarter of staff will be off work in January, but one in ten NHS workers are out of action, rail services have abandoned popular routes, and councils have scaled back rubbish collections. Economists have predicted that the impact of one million people now estimated to be self-isolating could knock several percentage points off GDP, amounting to billions of pounds.

If the Government is serious about children’s education, maintaining a functioning economy and finally learning to live with a virus that is clearly going nowhere, it must rethink these rules. It is clearly unsustainable for working people who are asymptomatic, or who are suffering only mild symptoms, to isolate for seven whole days. And if keeping schools open is the priority, sending teachers and children home for an arbitrary period if they test positive for a virus is no longer defensible. Especially when for most the symptoms are now akin to the common cold.

Considering Omicron is less severe than some feared, and the impact of staff absences is so high, the argument for shortening the isolation period has significantly strengthened.  While it looks like the Government is continuing with its painful policy of encouraging the continuous testing of asymptomatic adult and children, it must at least reconsider its arbitrary isolation rules – reduce the number of days or better yet move to a test and release system to hasten teachers and children back into the classroom.

It’s time for the Government to weigh up the benefits and costs of its Covid policies – and leave children alone.

Robert Halfon: Our national catchphrase this year is four simple words – “You are on mute”

16 Dec

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.

We three kings: From Tiger King to Burger King to Sausage King. What a year 2020 has been.

So the end of 2020 is almost (at last!) upon us. A year in which some of us have taken up central casting from The Truman Show – being ogled, googled, zoomed, teamed and even on the odd occasion ‘citrixed’. We have lived life via our computer screens as if we were part of a giant sociological experiment. Not quite a goldfish bowl, more like the giant London Sealife Aquarium – which, as it happens, is just a swim across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster.

Our United Kingdom catchphrase has become one of just four simple words: ‘You are on Mute’. Even after nine months of lockdown, semi-lockdown, tiers, semi-tiers (or is that tiers one, two or three?), we still can’t remember to switch our microphone button ‘on’ when our daily Truman Show begins.

Not only content to be watched, we have been the watchers, too – binge-watching Netflix, Amazon Prime and not forgetting The Mandalorian on Disney Plus. Lockdown started with Tiger King (who is apparently now about to get a prison pardon from Donald Trump) and ended with Brexit Series (part 4072) with Michael Gove, describing his EU counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, as “the Sausage King” because he had allowed sausages in lorries to travel around Northern Ireland (at least that is what I think he was talking about). This was all living proof that the Yes Minister episode about sausages was, of course, as real as a Panorama documentary, though this time it was the Brussels Eurocrat saving our sausages rather than the British Politician.

If it wasn’t sausages on the menu, Scotch eggs (albeit with sausage meat), suddenly flipped into our national consciousness as each Cabinet Minister, expecting to be asked about weighty and worthy issues of the day, was instead told to set out Scotch egg public policy – or even pub policy. The good news that this free commercial for Scotch eggs (whoever masterminded this advertising deserves a Nobel prize), has resulted in Scotch eggs literally being sold out around the country. In fact, news reports state that there has been a tenfold surge in demand for this culinary delight – all enjoyed, needless to say, as part of a substantial pint. One company, Scotch and Co (what else), said sales had gone up by 25% in the past month alone.

All this eating of sausages and Scotch eggs, alongside our occasional intake of lockdown alcohol (hic), meant that we all had to get fitter. Despite Joe Wick’s best efforts, this was not easy. Because, before Scotch eggs and sausages came along, our moral duty in August according to the Chancellor – was to Pig Out to Help Out. After months of lockdown, the time came to use up the Treasury’s ‘free’ (£520 million taxpayer-funded) vouchers for Burger King, Ronald Macdonald and Colonel Sanders.

By my count that makes it three Kings – Tiger King, Sausage King and Burger King: perfect for this time of year (although not quite what the Bible imagined).

Yet surely, if Sir Tom Moore could walk one hundred lengths of his garden and raise millions for the NHS, then the rest of us could, at least, get up from the sofa to turn the radio off, rather than shouting at Alexa.

Granted, we were allowed to walk across golf courses, as long as we obeyed strict Covid regulations and did not dare to touch, let alone swing a golf club.

But lockdown keep-fit clearly worked for some. The brilliant Ministerial rising star, and newly lean Will Quince, proudly announced on Twitter recently that he had lost a good few stone in weight. When I saw Quince’s Tweet one Saturday morning, I felt so fat-shamed that I immediately put away my giant tub of Haribo Cola bottles, ordered courtesy of Amazon.

Soon it will be Christmas. Our Cromwellian overlords have allowed us just a few magical days of fun. We are even permitted to see some friends and family from three different households. Exciting.

Hopefully, as we all get jabbed in the New Year, 2021 won’t be quite as mad as this one. As we resume tiering, I await with anticipation and excitement You Tube’s next instalment of Joe Wicks’ “cure your Turkey and Guinness hangover”, no doubt starting on our Truman Show on 1st January.

As this is my last Conservative Home column of 2020, may I wish all readers a most Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Philippa Stroud: The Coalition stopped officially measuring poverty – which left its successor unsightedover free schools meals

28 Oct

Philippa Stroud is Chief Executive Officer of the Legatum Institute, and leads the Social Metrics Commission.

Marcus Rashford presents the Conservative Party with a problem. No Conservative believes that any child in this country should ever go hungry, but we also want to build a society in which parents are able to earn enough to support their own children and, where that is not the case, in which there is a welfare state that supports those in need. These are our long-term objectives.

So what happens at a moment of crisis when there is a short-term need, and why has the call for the expansion of holiday provision of food and activities to support an additional 1.1 million children in the short term gathered such momentum?

In 2016, the Government abolished the old measure of poverty as an official measure. This means since that year it has been walking blind. Policy decisions have been made in a vacuum without a tool that shines a spotlight on the needs of the most disadvantaged.

The Government has made some great decisions, but without the certainty that what they are doing is hitting the target. Has poverty gone up? Is it plateauing? Until there is an agreed metric that tracks this, who can say?

That is why I launched the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) in 2016, drawing from left and right, and have proposed a new set of poverty metrics: to end the war on poverty measurement so that we could put our energy into working towards an effective poverty reduction strategy.

By the SMC measure, until the start of Covid-19, Conservatives could rightly declare that work was the best route out of poverty and, with record high levels of employment, this strategy was clearly effective, with 90 per cent of households where both adults work full time being out of poverty.

But during this global pandemic, the SMC measure also tells us it is those in deep poverty who are being most significantly impacted by the virus. Two in three (65 per cent) of those employed and in deep poverty prior to the crisis have seen reduced hours or earnings, been furloughed, and/or lost their job.

Although these numbers are not tracked by the Government, the public instinctively feels this to be the case. Locally, Conservatives know this too and are responding with short-term fixes.

The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea for example has promised £15 food vouchers over half-term for its 3,300 local children eligible for free school meals. Councillor Josh Rendall, the lead member for family and children’s services, said: “This is not a long-term solution but this is an exceptional year and we know it has been a tough one for many families.”

Conservatives have a good story to tell. Number 10 and 11 have worked tirelessly to put the entire resources of Government behind protecting the British people from Covid-19, including in the short term with increased support in the benefit system, the Job Retention (and soon Support) Scheme and, in the long term, through improved services for mental health and education, tackling the costs of housing and driving forward the levelling up agenda.

But in the absence of an effective poverty measure, we are unable to quantify the positive impact of all of these choices, gain credit for a comprehensive strategy on poverty, or identify whether there are short term challenges that still need to be addressed.

We need to be able to say that no child in Britain will go hungry on our watch – but we can’t. And we are allowing others to create a narrative for us, and in the absence of an agreed poverty measure and subsequent strategy, we always will. This does not need to be the case.

Had we had the SMC measure already in place, we would have been monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable during this time of crisis. Had we adopted the SMC measure, we would have known in May that although the pandemic is hitting everyone, it is hitting those in deepest poverty the most and that short term measures may be required to see the poorest through this time.

It was Will Quince, a Work and Pensions Minister, who first announced that the department was taking forward the SMC measure of poverty and developing Experimental Statistics, back in May 2019. But even now, when accurate and timely data is needed more than ever, the work has stalled.

I know there will be some who will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum and already won the Government much political capital. But the measure is in effect a framework. It is the best way of capturing the “who” is in poverty – the “who” we need to be concerned about and looking out for. The Government can then decide where it wants to place its effort – so at a time like this it would have focused on those most impacted.

The Government could decide to focus on those who are moving in and out of poverty and close to the labour market (the top seven million). That is in effect what the £20 uplift has done in Universal Credit.

Or, it could decide to focus energy and resources on those in deep poverty – those who are 50 per cent below the poverty line (bottom 4.5 million). This is the most vulnerable group and where I would put my energy and effort at a time of national crisis. This is who many of the public thinks of as being in poverty, which is why they are so concerned now and why Rashford has received so much support.

I know that many Conservatives, like myself, came into politics because we were concerned about the long-term drivers of poverty. We feel deeply concerned about the most vulnerable in the nation. We know that poverty is about money, but that it is also about family, education and skills, debt, housing, sickness and disability, and employment. It is about the support being there when you need it so that you can get up and onto your own two feet again and find your own way out of poverty for you and your family.

This is a moment to take action in the short term – as the Government has been doing and still needs to do – but it is also a moment to get our house in order for the long term: to adopt the SMC poverty measure and build a comprehensive poverty strategy so that now and in the future we can say hand on heart, on our watch: no child went hungry.