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?

Dinah Glover: Why I’m standing for Vice President of the National Convention – and why it matters.

17 Aug

Dinah Glover is Chairman of London East Area Conservatives and of Bethnal Green and Bow Conservative Association.

Listening to a dedicated and well tuned-in Party activist the other day, I was struck by something he said. Despite his activity, he had barely heard of the National Convention and its officers, let alone what they did. It is highly probable that many of you reading this now would be in the same position. That, to me, signals a problem.

So what is happening? The National Convention is made up of all the association chairmen and other area, regional and CWO officers across the country. Every year they get to elect a chairman, president and three vice presidents. These people sit on the Party board and can have a significant impact on the Party. But still barely half of the electorate participates in the election. This is local association chairmen remember, not disinterested voters. So why is this?

In my view this is down to a fundamental disconnect between the officers and the voluntary Party. Tom Spiller (former president) provided a very powerful insight recently when he said that it did not really know what it is for. We need to be clear about what the National Convention represents and that is why I am standing.

Politics for me has always been about democracy from the grassroots up. It is so important we empower our members so they are enthused to help us build a better future for our local communities. It was, after all, the idea behind David Cameron’s Big Society.

I am standing on a platform calling for empowerment, transparency, accountability and democracy. Not for its own sake, but because this allows greater engagement by all and will deliver a political offering that is even more attractive to the public. Look at what was delivered last December when we were in tune with people. The breakthrough in the Red Wall seats was because we were in touch with what voters wanted. We connected.

The Party needs to provide more engagement for its members. When it does it succeeds. We saw this in action last year when we had an unusual opportunity for the members to choose the next Prime Minister of the UK. The Party managed a fantastic nationwide leadership contest with packed out hustings held around the country. That was a credit to Andrew Sharpe and CCHQ. It was thanks to the two excellent candidates that we had an intelligent and respectful debate that really engaged the members and opened up genuine discussion. This demonstrates what can be achieved when the members are involved. I wonder why we can’t do similar for the National Convention? With this in mind I will host a zoom Q&A for those interested.

I want to serve on the board of the National Convention because I believe in this Party; it runs through my very veins. We have so many talented activists and I am not sure we always use them to their best advantage. I believe every process should be measured in terms of whether it is empowering, accountable, democratic and transparent for members and associations.

Certain processes do need to change and be improved. We should have consultation periods from the ground up through associations to seek their ideas. Ultimately the board has to decide – we can’t function by committee, but we need to be open to ideas.

There are several CCHQ committees that need to be opened up to have a two-way conversation. I would like to see members of these committees reporting to the regions. Why not have the regions voting for their own representatives on these committees, which would mean there is a ready made communication channel?

I do not want to fix what is not broken and I know the team under Sharpe’s leadership have been making improvements where they can but much more needs to be done. If we fail to make this change then that disconnect will impact on our ability to deliver for our new and old voters. That is why I want to play my part to ensure that does not happen. So if you have a vote, please use it and please vote for me.

A Government U-turn on exam grades is set for this afternoon – as backbench criticism swells

17 Aug

There will be an announcement on exam grades this afternoon.  Will the Government “do a Northern Ireland” – clinging to standardisation for A-levels, but chucking it for GCSEs?  Or “do a Scotland” – i.e: ditch it for both?  Or something else entirely?

George Grylls of the Times is keeping a useful – and growing list – of Tory MPs calling for a rethink (see above). It’s worth noting that the unhappy tweeters include Penny Mordaunt, a senior Minister.  Whips are now telling backbenchers that the Government “is in listening mode”.

As we wrote yesterday, “Ofqual U-turn over appeals was a shambles, and will register on the Conservative backbenches”.  That – and the sense it confirmed that Ministers are not in control of events – is driving the pressure on Number Ten and the Education Department.

The political question isn’t whether or not a reverse ferret is coming.  Rather, it’s whether the Governmen U-turns or V-turns: i.e – whether Ministers toil away at making the appeals system work for A-levels…or try to slash themselves loose from the wreckage entirely.

Newslinks for Monday 17th August 2020

17 Aug

End exam shambles, Tories tell Boris Johnson

“Boris Johnson has been warned by Conservative MPs that they will go on the warpath unless he tackles the “unfairness” of England’s A-level grading system. The threat of rebellion came as the problems surrounding the exams deepened at the weekend. Ofqual, the exams regulator, issued advice on lodging appeals that contradicted the government’s position, only to withdraw it hours later. The confusion, and an apparent lack of leadership, was criticised by students, parents and teachers, some of whom took part in demonstrations yesterday. A growing number of Conservative MPs have complained to their whips about the “Kafkaesque” computer algorithm used to determine this year’s results.” – The Times

  • Scrap the algorithm and return to teacher’s predicted grades, says Tory MP Robert Syms – Daily Mail
  • Ofqual “blindsided” government by revoking A-level appeals process – The Guardian
  • Senior Tories demand that GCSEs be postponed – Daily Telegraph
  • GCSE creator calls for delay in results to repair flawed system – The Times
  • Thursday’s GCSE results “will surely decide” Williamson and OfQual’s fate – The Times
  • Students from Williamson’s Staffordshire constituency to march from the school gates to his office in protest – Express & Star
  • Appeals fiasco threatens school reopenings – The Times
  • Anger boils over after regulator drops guidelines within hours – The Times
  • Grades by algorithm face legal test – The Times
  • Labour calls for Johnson to cancel planned break… – The Guardian
  • … as the party finally backs school reopenings, “no ifs, no buts” – The Sun

Halfon: Accepting all predicted grades may be our only way out of this mess

“Conservatism is supposed to be about individual achievement and meritocracy. Yet Ofqual has created an exam system that seemingly favours the collective. It’s algorithm prioritises collective school records over that of the pupil’s personal efforts. At a time when the agenda of the Government is all about levelling up, how is it possible that the Ofqual Standardisation Model appears to penalise Further Education colleges that have been steadily improving in recent years, whilst benefiting private schools pupils  We now know according to education datalab that private schools saw a rise in their proportion of A and A* grades that was more than double the increase for any kind of state school.” – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 1) Public Health England: Testing strategy was never our job, says scrapped body

“Public Health England has suggested that the Department of Health was responsible for failures over coronavirus testing in the early stages of the pandemic as ministers prepare to axe the organisation. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, will this week announce a merger of the pandemic response work of Public Health England with NHS Test and Trace, as revealed in The Times on Saturday. The merger will see the creation of a new body called the National Institute for Health Protection. Earlier in the pandemic Boris Johnson complained that the response had been “sluggish” in comments that were interpreted as a criticism of Public Health England.” – The Times

Coronavirus 2) Burnham: Lockdown could be “relaxed in a few days” in the North

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has suggested that coronavirus restrictions could be relaxed in the north ‘in a few days’. Residents in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and West Yorkshire were ordered not to mix with other households in private homes or gardens on July 30. The move by public health authorities was taken after contact tracing data showed the infection was being passed through people visiting each other, and that there was a spike in cases in the regions. But, after viewing the figures, Andy Burnham said he was ‘hopeful’ that restrictions could soon be relaxed because cases are ‘flattening’.” – Daily Mail

  • Lockdown “will mean fewer healthy years for many” – The Times
  • Lucky day for punters as casinos reopen – The Times
  • Cancer care is an unfolding disaster, warns top oncologist – The Times

Coronavirus 3) Greece and Croatia could be next on the quarantine list

“British tourists returning from Croatia and Greece could face quarantine measures after an increase in the number of cases in the past week. In Croatia the number of cases per 100,000 people has risen above 20, a key benchmark. Last year 875,000 British people went on holiday there. The infection rate in Greece is lower, at 13.8, but there has been a significant rise in the number of new cases, from 202 a week ago to 226 yesterday. Ministers are particularly concerned because Greece is such a popular destination, with more than 3.5 million Britons visiting last year. Boris Johnson has said that the government would be ruthless about implementing quarantine measures if there is a rise in numbers.” – The Times

  • Japan suffers its biggest economic slump on record – BBC
  • Calls for “digital passports” to help beat travel curbs and open economy – Daily Telegraph
  • Britons quarantining after holidays to France are allowed one supermarket trip on way home – Daily Telegraph
  • France fights Coronavirus second wave with masks in the office – The Times
  • Success starts to slip in Japan and Korea – The Times
  • Partying Germans bringing virus from Spain – The Times

Coronavirus 4) UK looks to extend bailout loans to private equity-owned groups

“The British government is trying to find a way to offer state-backed loans to debt-laden companies owned by private equity groups, in the hope of rescuing a swath of the British high street. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department (Beis) wants to help private equity-backed groups that employ large numbers of people, such as PizzaExpress, Prezzo or Merlin, the owner of Legoland, without breaching EU state aid rules, according to four people involved in the process. They cautioned, however, that there is no guarantee the government will find a solution. PE-backed companies typically carry high levels of debt to reduce their tax bill, resulting in statutory losses even when they are generating cash.” – FT

Only one in seven civil servants working at the Cabinet Office are back at their desks

“Just one in seven civil servants at the ministry reporting directly to Boris Johnson have returned to the office, the Mail can reveal. The number of employees back at the Cabinet Office could even be as few as one in ten, a Freedom of Information request has disclosed. On August 4, around 10 to 15 per cent of staff at the department travelled into work. This woeful total comes despite pleas from the Prime Minister for people to stop working from home in a bid to boost the economy.  It follows fears that city centre shops and restaurants – which rely on footfall from office workers – face ruin if more employees do not return. Last month the Mail revealed that just one in five of the 430,000 civil servants had returned to work by the end of July.” – Daily Mail

Government accused of stoking “diplomatic row” with France over migrants and quarantine

“The Government has created a “diplomatic storm of its own making”, MPs have warned, after Priti Patel suggested migrants were making channel crossings to escape France because it is “racist”. A “war of words” between the two nations broke out on Sunday, as Paris gears up to impose reciprocal quarantine measures on British travellers. French politicians accused the Home Secretary of spreading “hateful claims” in a “callous manner”, after her comments emerged on Sunday. In the frank discussions between Ms Patel and MPs last week, the Home Secretary reportedly said that migrants were crossing the Channel because they believe France is a “racist country” where they may be “tortured”.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Home Office apologises after “error” led them to housing asylum seekers in Patel’s constituency – Daily Mail
  • Channel migrants should be quarantined on cruise – Daily Telegraph

 

 

 

Truss leads Tory hawks trying to derail TikTok’s London HQ plan

“A last-ditch attempt to prevent the UK government from endorsing TikTok’s plans to locate its headquarters in London is being mounted by China hawks who accuse the app’s parent company of cooperating with authorities in Xinjiang province. Downing Street is keen to encourage TikTok to move from Beijing to London, but faces a rearguard action led by the trade secretary, Liz Truss, who is anxious about some of the demands being made by the business. TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, wants a public statement of support from a senior minister that it will be welcome in the long term so that it does not face what happened to Huawei, which last month was banned from supplying 5G technology to the UK from 2027.” – The Guardian

Legal threat over ‘unfair’ Brexit deal on customs

“Trade bodies have threatened legal action against the Government’s new Brexit customs system, claiming it will unfairly distort competition. In a heated meeting of HM Revenue and Customs’s expert customs panel, industry groups said the new Trader Support Service, which will enable the Government effectively to act as a customs agent on behalf of traders, would destroy businesses that provided customs brokerage services themselves. Last week, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, announced that the TSS would be free at the point of use and operational from September, with the goal of protecting trade flows across the Irish Sea when the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union.” – Daily Telegraph

  • EU warns city it faces longer wait for market access after Brexit – FT

News in brief:

This week’s GCSE results. The least bad course now is to let predicted grades stand.

17 Aug

Exams are the least bad means of grading students.  True, a pupil may mess up on the day, and not show his real capacity.  And, yes, a test crammed into a short period of time, rather than assessments carried out over a longer one, favours some temperaments over others.  Those who can adapt to sudden death penalty shoot-outs win out, as it were, over those more comfortable with attritionally climbing the league table.

Some would prefer teacher assessment.  But whether these critics are right or wrong, exams are a known feature of our educational landscape.  They have, in a rough and ready way, popular consent.  But a computer’s algorithm alone was never likely to possess the missing authority of an examiner’s pen – especially when it tampers with some 40 per cent of suggested grades.

In a nutshell, last week’s A-level results, and this week’s coming GCSE ones, pit different unfairnesses against each other.  Nick Gibb’s article defending the Government on this site last week viewed justice from the top down.  Simply awarding pupils their teacher-assessed grade, he argued, would reward schools who have inflated their suggestions at rhe expense of those who did not.  And unfairly advantage this year’s students at the expense of next year’s.

Gibb was right.  But, as his piece implicitly acknowledged, justice must also be viewed from the bottom up.  And the long and short of it is that, at a macro level, the algorithm did what it was meant to do – that’s to say, allow grades to rise slightly while at the same time keeping their inflation in check.  But what works for the macro doesn’t necessarily work for the micro.

What the algorithm produced last week is rather like a picture that looks flawless from a distance but, when viewed close up, turns out to be marred by blotches, chips, and reworkings.  Perhaps other variants would have worked better.  But it seems to us that the algorithmic logic of standardisation was always likely to produce individual and collective injustices, as it crunched its way through the numbers.

It was therefore stupifyingly insensitive for the Education Department, in a rebuttal document published last week, to say that “in 96 per cent of cases grades were the same as submitted by teachers or were just one grade different”.  A single grade can be the sword that separates a pupil from the University place he had been conditionally offered.  And if he isn’t going on to higher education, a lower grade could imperil his career prospects.

In the absence of exams, and the legitimacy that they supply, August thunder-clouds were always going to gather for Gibb and Gavin Williamson.  In one sense, this makes them and in another mars them.  It makes them, in that there is no fair substitute for exams, just a trade-off between different sets of injustices, as any fair-minded observer should acknowledge.  In another, it mars them – and deeply.

Wisdom after the event is journalistic stock in trade.  Few of the commentators who are now lashing Williamson and Gibb to the railway tracks were warning, during the last few months, that a slow train called Algorithm was chuffing down the line.  It is none the less true that the vehicle’s rumbling and grinding will have been picked by Ministers and officials months from the moment when exams were cancelled, or should have been.

Some events in the life of a Minister are unpredictable.  For example, Grant Shapps can’t have known last week that a real-life train would crash in Aberdeenshire, with fatalities.  But A-level and GCSE results are the main outward-facing events in the yearly cycle of the Education Department, comparable to the place that the Budget and pre-Budget Report hold for the Treasury (and the same goes for their equivalents in the devolved institutions).

As we write, Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp groups are buzzing with the question: what went wrong?  Why did the Department rush out its plan to take “valid” mocks into account only after the Scottish debacle?  How come Ofqal tore up advice that it had issued on the same day?  Why the pause over whether or not appeals would be free?  Could not the public have been softened up for the perceived advantage that the algorithm gave to private schools?

At some point soonish, answers to these questions, and others, will begin to emerge: it is too early, as events continue to develop, to find them now.  What matters most now is patching up the A-level wounds; heading off this week’s coming GCSEs from trouble, and restoring credibility to a department and a Government that must succeed, during the coming weeks, where it failed this summer – that’s to say, in getting schools to open.

With A-levels, the die is already cast.  The showboating and bandwagon-jumping of Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner is no more than that: manoeuvering for position.  The option of Doing a Scotland, and reverting to the teacher-recommended grades, no longer exists – at least, not if the stitching-together of places which the universities have begun is not to be unstitched, with all the new injustices that such a move would threaten.

That leaves, very broadly, the options of either standing by last week’s results or by-passing them via the appeals system.  There is little doubt which one Ministers favour: they will be hoping that the appeals process will apply balm to the algorithm’s wounds.  There are at least three major problems here – even assuming that the system is not swamped by more appeals than the Education Department expects.

First, a successful appeal may well come too late to matter, at least as far as the pupil’s original offer is concerned.  Second, it isn’t at all clear whether the appeals bodies will play ball; Ofqal’s dynamiting of Ministers’ position on mocks suggest that they may not.  Finally, those for whom an appeal is not successful, and who are not going on to higher education, will have the algorithm’s verdict as the last word on their academic record, in many cases.

In any event, the Government should grease the palms of the universities, thus enabling them to take in the extra students that the appeals process will wave through.  With GCSEs, the choices range wider.  Ministers could simply let the teacher-assessed recommendations or previously predicted grades stand.  Or, as Ken Baker is suggesting, pull the results altogether (with students sitting exams during the autumn).

We end where we began.  There is no perfect option open to the Government – only a choice between imperfect options.  Yes, letting predicted grades stand would risk the injustices of which Gibb wrote. And there would be knock-on funding consequences for some colleges, sixth forms and FEs if others take more than their planned number of pupils.

But grade inflation is less dangerous at GCSE – since many pupils go on to further and higher education and to further assessments and exams – than it is higher up the educational food chain.  Letting predicted grands stand is the most reliable way of body-swerving this week’s elephant trap, and allowing the Education Department to channel its energies into getting schools open this autumn.  Without which much of the economy will stay shut.

Richard Holden: My young constituents want to pay less tax and afford a home. We must lift the University debts that hold them back.

17 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Chatting to a group of “empty nest” parents in their fifties and sixties when out for a post-work pint recently, I was struck by the political split between them and the views of many of their children.

The children who’d stayed in and around County Durham, most likely after pursuing further education vocational and technical courses, tended to hold similar views to their parents. Those who’d gone away to university were, politically at least, politically detached.

This manifested itself even more strongly post-graduation for many as they moved often to graduate jobs in cities Post-election polling from IpsosMori backs this up. We Conservatives need to understand this graduate group better in a variety of ways, especially given the fact that, at the 2019 election, 18-24s (especially students and graduates) were one of the few groups among which Conservative support fell, despite a widespread swing from Labour to us elsewhere.

Ask left-wing agitators why they feel this happened, and they’ll argue that these voters who swung behind them did so out of belief in the socialist ideals of Comrade Corbyn, or at least support for the magnificence of Keir Starmer’s second referendum policy.

I am not convinced. On the contrary, I’m increasingly certain, from the anecdotal conversations that I’ve had with both these voters and their families, that they voted on two over-riding issues: housing and tax.

Deep down, many recent graduates were voting in line with clear self-interest. It’s not that they didn’t care that the Labour Party was riddled with anti-semitism. Nor is it that they didn’t care that Corbyn and his cabal had supported every enemy of their country who had crossed his path.

It’s just that they didn’t care as much about these issues as they did about getting what they thought might be a chunky tax cut from Labour – in terms, from what is in essence a nine per cent tax levied on graduate incomes above £26,575 a year, on top of being forced to spend a huge chunk of their remaining income on rent.

With 20 per cent income tax, 11 per cent National Insurance and nine per cent student loan contributions for recent graduates, a 40 per cent marginal tax rate kicks in at £26,575. This margin rises to 51 per cent if they earn over £50,000 down the line.

When you throw in the living costs of cities where graduates tend to go for work, together with high rent, it’s hardly surprising that many graduates feel squeezed – and that, when Labour offered jam today for which everyone else would pay, it can hardly be a surprise that many jumped at the offer.

Which leaves us Conservatives with some big questions if we want to re-engage with this group of voters. Crucially, these graduates with hangover student loans won’t come back to us when they hit their 30s. Furthermore, given that they’ll be paying that extra nine per cent income tax until their mid-50s, I can’t see them doing so for a very long time.

What’s the answer? Well, Robert Jenrick’s look at housing and housebuilding, particularly in brownfield site areas, is a good start. We’ve got to get homes built, reduce the cost of housing and get these people on the property ladder. Aged 35, I’m literally in the process of buying my first home, something my (I’d imagine) equally hard-working parents and grandparents were able to do the best part of a decade before me and well before most of my peers – at least before most of those who haven’t had deposits provided by their families.

But, secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally – because it cuts across so many different things from productivity to tax – is we’ve got to have a proper look at post-18 education and training.

It’s clear that Covid-19 is going to cause at least some short-term recruitment issues, and that the Kickstarter Scheme – another really sensible move from Rishi Sunak – will doubtless really help get some young people into work, and prevent some of the worklessness issues that in the past have caused so many issues.

However, the change we need to see is much broader. We have ended up in a right pickle. Because of the rapid expansion of universities, taxpayers are still paying roughly 50 per cent of the cost of sending people to Higher Education (about £10 billion a year).

This is roughly the same as the entire Home Office budget, covering policing, counter-terror, borders, etc. At the same time, we’re also giving graduates a notional debt of tens of thousands of pounds, and so also gifting them what are high tax rates at which they have to pay it.

And, most importantly, for many young students we’re selling a false promise. According to the IFS, 71,000 students last year (some 20 per cent of the total) undertook university courses although they’d be better off not having gone to university.

That’s not good for taxpayers, it’s not good for an increasing number of young people being sold a fantasy, and it’s not good for the UK’s productivity, either. Taking people out of work for three years at huge expense to themselves and to taxpayers, and for them then get jobs in which they end up earning less in that if they hadn’t gone to university, is clear economic madness, and politically toxic too.

The solution to this is already, in part, being trailed by some of our biggest companies increasingly in the service sector at the top end – degree apprenticeships at work. It is, in essence, a return to what happened a long time ago. (I remember my first Conservative Party Agent, a solicitor who’d done his articles as a clerk and never been to university.)

Crucially, with our high-end firms increasingly reaching into this area, they’ll also start to pass the “parents evening test” too. If young Joanne has got herself a solid paid apprenticeship with degree level options at Deloitte, BAE, or Goldman Sachs (yes, all offer them), during which she gets paid to work while studying with a top employer and a Russel Group university with a job at the end of it, then what’s not to like?

The core other policy element is to revolutionise our Further Education offering more generally as a similar step up and into employment too for post-18 as well as post-16. We need to value properly what is done in this sector better, as many of our successful continental cousins do. Derwentside College in my constituency does great work as do colleges across the county, but their whole top end (level 4 and 5 – that is, HNCs, HNDs one and two year post-18 courses) have been cannibalised by some of universities offering degree level courses to essentially anyone who wants to go.

Rather than students getting good one or two year local courses, tied to local employment, they’re off to “university” for a three year course that will leave them in a worse position than when they left. There are other facets, too, but what I’ve outlined here is the fundamental start. Our obsession with kids going to university is increasingly costing taxpayers a fortune, harming Britain’s long-term productivity and crucially selling those young people a false dream.

Electorally, it’s also a complete disaster and the gift that keeps on giving to Labour.  Our next generation are natural Conservatives – they’d like to own their own homes, not pay eye-wateringly high taxes and be part of a community that supports them and each other. It’s up to us to show them that we’re on their side too. Taking on the new University Establishment won’t be easy but crucially, it’s the right thing to do.

Christian Wakeford: The transition period’s end will give us real independence. So let’s bring in a fur ban as an early Brexit benefit.

17 Aug

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South.

Since we banned fur farming almost 20 years ago, people are often surprised to hear that the UK still imports tens of millions of pounds worth of fur each year. This equates to roughly two million animal pelts killed for their fur each year ending up on the UK market, despite fur farming being outlawed in this country.

The scale of fur imports has become particularly incongruous when you consider the fact that fur is deeply unpopular with the British public. A YouGov opinion poll commissioned by HSI UK shows that only three per cent of people in the UK currently wear fur, and that almost three quarters want to see the Government ban its sale. An estimated 83 per cent of people in Britain have never worn fur – which is reflected in the fact that almost all UK high street stores are now ‘fur free’.

So, given current public and business sentiment, the question remains: why do we still import so much fur? Numerous media exposes in recent years have shown that consumers are sold real fur masquerading as fake fur with alarming regularity; the fur trade has made a return under the radar, damaging consumer confidence in fake fur and costing animals their lives.

As it stands, current regulation includes a ban on the import of cat, dog and seal fur from commercial hunts, but there is no ban on the import of fur from other species. Bearing in mind the terrible conditions of fur farms overseas (whether in Asia or in Europe), this seems like an illogical protection of some species over others.

The Government has previously indicated that, under EU Single Market rules, a ban on fur imports or sales would not have been possible. However, with the UK heading towards the end of the transition period of its departure from the EU in January, we will very shortly have the opportunity to be a global leader in animal welfare standards, and implement a full fur ban.

That deadline is fast approaching – so it is essential we get the wheels in motion to ensure that we are ready to demonstrate the UK’s animal welfare credentials against fur at the earliest opportunity next year.

Brexit represents a new chapter for the UK in its trading relationship with the rest of the world: banning fur will send a strong message that we intend to use this opportunity to be leaders in animal welfare. Last year .California became the first US state to implement a fur ban, with several other cities and states now wanting to follow in its footsteps. In 2000, the UK became the first country in the world to ban fur farming; we now have an opportunity to blaze a trail as the first country in the world to ban the sale of this outdated and unnecessary product.

In addition to public and business support towards a fur sales ban, there is mounting evidence that fur farms could act as reservoirs for Covid-19 through infected mink. Around one million mink have been recently culled in the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain due to outbreaks.

The Government has already said that here will be an opportunity, once we have left the EU and the nature of our future trading relationship has been established, to consider further steps such as a ban on fur imports or a ban on sales.

So now is the time to signal our intent to put an end to our association with the cruel, outdated and unnecessary fur trade, and to end the double standard of outsourcing cruelties that we have already banned in our own country. A call for evidence would allow government to design legislation that would minimize impacts on businesses, and allow pragmatic exemptions where necessary.

Shona Haslam: Advice from Scotland on getting schools reopened

17 Aug

Cllr Shona Haslam is the Leader of the Scottish Borders Council

It’s back to school in Scotland and for thousands of pupils (and parents) it has been a looooong summer…

Local councils have been planning for two different scenarios.  The first: “blended learning” with a combination of in-school and home learning, using technology. The second: a full return with Covid measures in place.  The Scottish Government told us that they would announce which model we were to go for, and Covid containment measures, on 30th of July.  The Government also announced that pupils were to return to school on 11th August, which was a week before we had planned to bring our pupils back in my local authority.

This gave us 12 days in which to put everything in place that was required. It was a mammoth task.

In the Borders we have 16,000 pupils, 68 schools, and 2,500 staff.  All of our schools had to be risk assessed, one way systems put in place, additional cleaners and cleaning measures implemented, additional cleaning materials purchased (including wipes for every classroom and pupil), extra ventilation measures etc etc.

The Scottish Borders is a rural authority, almost half of our pupils travel by bus to school; this was a major headache for our school transport teams.  Again the guidance from the Government came out on 30 July: buses were to be viewed as an extension of the school estate and therefore users would not need to wear masks or socially distance. However, we also have children who use normal service buses for transport to school. We have had to commandeer these buses for schools transport and take them out of service.  Windows have to be open all the time, fine in August but what happens in January in Scotland? We had to turn around bus passes for all the children in record quick time with staff working solidly for 12 days in order to get everyone the information that they needed.

Our poor children who were going into their first years of primary and secondary had missed out on any transition and were obviously worried – and the poor parents were only getting information days (and in some cases hours) before the kids were returning to school.

And none of this is cheap: our antibacterial wipes bill for next year is £2.5 million and we are a relatively small authority.  The strain on local council budgets as a result of Covid cannot be underestimated.  Just to put this into context: in the Borders, a one per cent Council Tax rise generates £500,000 of income.  So the wipes bill alone would require a five per cent Council Tax hike.  Governments must step up and help local authorities cover the full cost of our Covid responsibilities, so that we are not forced to push the costs onto taxpayers.

But, we did it.  All of our kids returned successfully on Tuesday morning at 8.45 and in the words of the first year in my house, “secondary school is awesome”.  We do have to remember that our kids are resilient and will get through this and often it is the parents who are more anxious than the children.

So here is my advice for our English neighbours as they return to school. Make sure you get more than 12 days notice of what measures are required. Get information out to parents as quickly and as simply as possible. Five emails on five topics are better than one long email with lots of information.  Work with all of your staff, teachers, cleaners, support staff they are all important.  In Scotland our support staff felt ignored as the Government only spoke to teachers unions and not our support staff.  Reassure parents as much as possible but don’t make false promises.  There will be Covid outbreaks, be clear how you will handle them when they do happen.  And finally show your working.  Be clear how you came to decisions that you have come to and be as transparent as possible.

Calling Conservatives: New public appointments announced. Board of the Charity Commission – and more

17 Aug

Eight years ago, the TaxPayers’ Alliance reported that “in the last year, five times more Labour people were appointed to public bodies than Tories”.

It currently reports that almost half of avowedly political appointees last year owed their allegiance to Labour Party, compared to less than a third for the Conservatives.

Despite the selection of some Party members or supporters to fill important posts, over time, the Conservatives have punched beneath their weight when it comes to public appointments.  One of the reasons seems to be that Tories simply don’t apply in the same number as Labour supporters.

To help remedy this, each week we put up links to some of the main public appointments vacancies, so that qualified Conservatives can be aware of the opportunities presented.

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Home Office – Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and of Fire & Rescue Authorities

“HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) is an independent body that inspects and reports to the public on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces in England and Wales, fire and rescue authorities in England and national law enforcement agencies. It aims to ensure that the public and their elected representatives can hold inspected organisations to account by monitoring trends, challenging practice and identifying areas for improvement, and making performance information accessible. The principal role of HMICFRS is undertaking the all-force inspections of policing in England and Wales, and of all fire & rescue authorities in England; providing the public with a clear, consistent and independent view of the quality of services in their local area.”

Time: Full-time.

Remuneration: £175,000 per annum.

Closes: 17 August

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Joint Nature Conservation Committee – Chair

“Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Framework Document provides the legal, administrative and financial framework within which the Joint Committee operates and the specific functions of the Committee and the Chair. As Chair you will be responsible to the Defra Secretary of State for the leadership, direction and effectiveness of JNCC in line with strategies and plans agreed with Defra and the Devolved Administrations. You will be the primary contact with Ministers for the Committee. You will provide visible leadership and vision for JNCC, setting strategic and operational direction, ensuring good governance and, together with the Joint Committee, holding the executive to account.”

Time: 2.5 days per week.

Remuneration: £40,059 per annum.

Closes: 03 September

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Environmental Standards Scotland – Chair/Members

“Environmental Standards Scotland will be established, initially, on a non-statutory basis from January 2021.  It will transition to a statutory, independent body over the course of 2021. The Board will initially comprise of the Chair and two other members.  Once Environmental Standards Scotland becomes established as a statutory organisation, further board appointments are expected. Members of the Board of Environmental Standards Scotland will shape how the Board performs its role, including by exercising judgement on what information to monitor; selecting environmental concerns for initial review and for detailed investigation; resolving these through agreement with public authorities, where possible; and, highlighting any significant issues to Ministers.”

Time: 8-10 days per month initially, ~4 per month thereafter.

Remuneration: £300/£200 per diem.

Closes: 03 September

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British Film Institute (BFI) – Chair

“This role is therefore an extraordinary opportunity for an individual who is passionate about the success of the BFI and the wider British film/screen industry, and who has a track record of board leadership, to support the next chapter of British film and the continued success of the screen sectors. The selected Board Chair will be expected to work alongside the recently appointed CEO in shaping and delivering an emerging vision for the sectors’ recovery from Covid-19, and long-term success thereafter. To do so, the selected Board Chair must have achieved leadership stature in the film industry, business, a major charitable or cultural  institution, or government.”

Time: Up to two days per month.

Remuneration: Expenses.

Closes: 05 September

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National Lottery Community Fund – Chair of the Board

“The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is seeking to appoint an outstanding individual to be Chair of the National Lottery Community Fund. Applications are welcomed from underrepresented groups to ensure the National Lottery Community Fund reflects the diverse society it serves. The Fund is currently supporting communities across the UK to adjust to and recover from the coronavirus crisis. It is also a time when the Fund has gone through a period of investment and development, making it well placed to deliver our ambitious plans to achieve the Fund’s purpose: supporting people and communities thrive. The Fund has many of the building blocks in place to add even greater value to civil society and public life. Our contribution is as varied as it is vital.”

Time: Up to two days per week.

Remuneration: £40,000 per annum plus expenses.

Closes: 07 September

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Charity Commission – Board Member

“The Charity Commission has a clear purpose: to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society. To help us meet that purpose, fulfil our proud commitment to represent the public interest in charity, and meet the challenges we face, in the autumn of 2018 the Board set an ambitious five-year strategic plan… The Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden MP, wishes to appoint a Board member to the Charity Commission for England and Wales. A vacancy for a Non-Executive Director will be created when one member completes their term in October 2020. This is a senior role requiring someone with the necessary experience and non-executive skills to support the Chair in providing strategic leadership and oversight of the Charity Commission. ”

Time: Approx. 24 days per year.

Remuneration: £350 per diem plus expenses.

Closes: 13 September

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Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate – Chief Inspector

“Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service is supported by an inspectorate: Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI). The inspectorate provides independently assessed evidence about the operation, efficiency, and effectiveness of the public prosecutors (the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO)). The purpose of this is to provide the evidence needed to allow the public prosecutors to be held to account and to improve, thereby strengthening the public’s trust in the prosecution process. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector and the inspectorate may inspect other prosecuting authorities by invitation.”

Time: Full time.

Remuneration: £125,000 per annum.

Closes: 14 September

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Home Office – Forensic Science Regulator

“The Forensic Science Regulator ensures that the provision of forensic science services across the criminal justice system is subject to an appropriate regime of scientific quality standards. They are responsible for: identifying the requirement for new or improved quality standards; leading on the development of new standards; and where necessary, providing advice and guidance so that providers of forensic science services can demonstrate compliance with common standards. The successful candidate will ideally have a substantial background in operating at a senior level in a relevant field, encompassing at least one of the following: leadership in a forensic, or related, scientific discipline; the development and application of quality standards in a scientific or technical environment; the regulatory process involving scientific standards; or the criminal justice system.”

Time: 3-4 days per week.

Remuneration: £96,000 per annum FTE.

Closes: 14 September

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Department for Education – Children’s Commissioner for England

“The Commissioner operates as a corporation sole, sponsored by the Department for Education and is appointed by the Secretary of State for Education. The Commissioner’s primary function is promoting and protecting the rights of children in England. The legislative basis for the office of Children’s Commissioner is in Part 1 and Schedule 1 of the Children Act 2004. This establishes the independence of the office and the six year tenure of the post holder. The legislation relating to the Children’s Commissioner is permissive, allowing significant flexibility for the Commissioner to determine how best to carry out his or her primary function of promoting and protecting children’s rights. The Commissioner is not an Ombudsman and, in general, cannot conduct investigations into the case of an individual child.”

Time: Full time.

Remuneration: £120-130,000 per annum.

Closes: 18 September

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Innovate UK – Chair

We are seeking an inspirational leader with extensive business experience, international standing and a proven track record to lead Innovate UK as its Executive Chair. The central priority of Innovate UK, under a new Executive Chair, will be to transition from a grant funding body to an agency focused on transforming the UK’s innovation capacity and capability, taking full advantage of its considerable growth in budget. The new Executive Chair will be expected to actively strengthen the organisation’s position within key markets, providing impactful thought leadership to the UK’s innovation system. As the pivotal funding body for business R&D, especially for start-ups and SMEs across the country, the Executive Chair will be expected to develop and implement system wide strategies for investment that promote the UK as a global leader in R&D and technologies of the future.”

Time: Full time, ‘other arrangements considered’.

Remuneration: £180,000 per annum base, up to £37,500 performance-related.

Closes: 28 September