Monday, 20 December 2010

I have seen the future and it is hatred

Let us praise Ed Miliband for doing something useless writes Jackie Ashley in today's Guardian. Quite. Her solution? Not forwarding new policy ideas or re-interpreting the way forward or painting that compelling vision of where Britain needs to be. No, just re-directing Labour's hatred - from the LibDems to the Tories. Simple really. Why didn't we think of it before?

Anthony Howard 1934 - 2010

Very sad to hear of the death of Anthony Howard who provided some of my earliest memories in politics. Along with Bernard Levin, I have always thought of these two giants of political journalism as providing the backdrop to politics of the late twentieth century. He will be greatly missed.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

License to drugs

Bob Ainsworth suggests we should de-criminalise all drugs. Probably right, but a step too far for most.

What should be considered is the licensing of heroin and it's derivatives so that Smackheads at least can be registered, offered rehab, kept clean - needles, smack etc - and away from some of the more revolting dilutants, not to mention the vast and pervasive low level crime that so characterises drug culture.

Some estimate that drugs fuel nearly half of all crime in the UK - mostly theft, burglary, car crime & muggings - in order to support the vast sums required to fuel the drug habit.

Given Ken Clarke's stance on rehabilitation rather than punishment, licensing heroin and its positive effects on crime levels should be a no-brainer. And the fact that our troops currently control Helmand province in Afghanistan - centre of the world's heroin production - should mean we can effectively control access. What are you waiting for?

Traditional Bleak Christmas

Snagsby, Carboyce, Dedlock, Somerson, Jealaby, Jarndyce and Tulkinghorn. The list of delicious Dickensian names continues. We started to watch Bleak House last night. Again. At what point does annualised Christmas behaviour become a tradition?

Monday, 13 December 2010

Pupil premium

Pathetic says Chris Dillow of the £430 pupil premium suggesting the correlation between school spending and attainment is weak (pdf), and from that he extrapolates that around £100,000 per poorer pupil would need to be spent to equalise opportunities to the levels achieved by Nick Clegg and his privately educated Coalition partners: remember that public schoolboys have the advantages of high expectations, social contacts and good role models, whilst many of the poor have family circumstances not conducive to learning.

But the combination of higher expectations and good role models is exactly what educationalists should be responsible for. Teachers may not be able to provide social contacts, but since when did these enable students to understand calculus? And as to family circumstances not conducive to learning, that is why pupils spend seven hours a day away from their family, in an environment that is designed to be conducive to learning.

Perhaps that pupil premium could be used to further that all-important environment through homework clubs, personal tutors or 1-2-1 tuition? Now that's what I call a premium education on the level of Westminster School. It is also all about teachers, not buildings and expensive resources, where Labour spent our money. And it certainly wouldn't cost £100,000 per pupil per year.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Bottom-up tuition

I know from my own time at university, undergraduates were expected to study five chosen units within their degree area in each of the three years to gain a qualification. The units and their content varied between subjects - and no doubt universities - but in general, each of those five units was taught to students through two one hour lectures and an hours tutorial (a group of around 8 students meeting a tutor) each week. That's 15 hours of formal tuition - well under half of a normal 40 hour working week. And I have certainly come across courses with considerably less tuition time. Its true we were expected to produce a number of essays and took exams at the end of each year, but managing our time and the way it was used was left entirely up to students. But then of course, our three years at university was free. Full grants covered both tuition fees and modest accommodation - usually something resembling a squat - and we were grateful. I never heard of any complaint throughout the time I was there. How things will change.

If students are to directly repay up to £9000 for each year of tuition they receive, they will certainly be demanding value for money. Universities will need to respond. Firstly through a range of more flexible degree courses designed to suit the lives of their learners - not university lecturers. From distance learning, to two year intensive timetables without the usual 20 weeks of holiday, universities will need to offer students what suits them if they are to attract the students to pay for undergraduate studies.

Secondly, within those courses universities will need to offer a level of content that the Facebook generation find both fulfilling and stretching. £9000 should buy you an extensive and highly personal curriculum combining lectures (from senior Professors rather than PhD students obviously) with at least half an hour of open Q & A at the end, at least some 1-2-1 tutorials, personal tutors aimed at matching time management with the universities resources - libraries, archives, laboratories etc - as much as general pastoral care, regularly organised presentations by students to peer groups after research work into specific areas of deeper study within courses, and perhaps even multi-disciplined (across faculty) weekly discussions and debates undertaken by student groups looking at academic issues from differing perspectives. They might even move to the American system of grade point averages whereby grades for each individual assignment throughout the year contribute to the student's overall mark. This ensures both efficient time management and consistent effort throughout the year - not the ubiquitous eight months of alcoholic haze followed by  four weeks of intense revision for an exam.

As students remain content to demonstrate about their having to repay up to £9000 of tuition fees, universities have time to consider the implications. Sometime soon, universities are going to have to start thinking seriously about what that might mean.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Is the BBC a threat to plurality & independence?

State-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy claimed James Murdoch to widespread derision from the mainstream media in his MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2009. Today we might begin to understand what he meant.

Right across the BBC - numerous TV channels, more than thirty radio stations & volumes of online content - the agenda continues unabated: who will rebel against the government on tuition fees? And you would be forgiven for thinking that the outcome will alter all our lives irrevocably for the worse. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ordinary people up and down this country think it's a no-brainer. Students, who benefit enormously from a degree qualification and will be earning over £21,000 before they are asked to pay something back, should shoulder a greater amount of that cost than the low paid. The low paid of course, currently pay for that degree and will never have the opportunity to earn that amount in their lifetime. Its called fairness, and its about time the BBC began to reflect what ordinary people think. Not just the sectional interests of a small but vociferous minority which fits their way of thinking.

A year ago at the Copenhagen climate conference, an army of correspondents dominated news bulletins reporting every last disagreement and suggesting that without an agreed outcome, the world would come to an end. A year later in Cancun, the BBC report nothing. Nothing on climate change that is. Only that Chris Huhn might vote against tuition fees. From Mexico.

Could this have anything to do with the coldest winter for 30 years and records showing no global warming has occured over the last 15 years despite increasing levels of CO2 emmissions?  No? That's just 'weather' not 'climate' right? Or is it just another example of editorial group-think? Similar to the much-criticised group-think amongst bankers that led to the greatest financial disaster for sixty years?

The power of the BBC is enormous. Its involved in every major area of our lives, setting the environment in which events are reported, discussed and decided upon. We need to be constantly questioning whether the BBC is reporting news in an unbiased and honest way. Or does it have an agenda set by group-think? Is it involved in a form of social engineering for its own sectional interests?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Organised hypocrisy

Determined to stay on the wrong side of this argument, Ed Miliband continues his slow car crash on tuition fees at PMQ's.

'An organised hypocrisy' counters Cameron in a really devastating line showing the duplicity of Labour in firstly introducing fees when they had pledged not-to in their previous manifesto - where have we heard that one before? - and in rejecting the recommendations of the Browne report they themselves commissioned in a cross-party consensus when in government.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Opposition & Labour

Even with incredulous-looking poll ratings Ed Miliband's position seems tenuous. Labour blusters furiously for a couple of hundred million ring-fenced for school sport whilst its MP's practise the new sport - bullying the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, the most radical government for a century takes apart - brick by brick - the old centralised, bureaucratic state that built Labour. 

The opposition have yet to realise just how radical this Coalition really is. The largely spent and thinly typecast cries of 'Thatcher's children' betray the irrelevance of Ed Miliband's position - testament only to his continuing politics of the twentieth century. A futile clinging to the nakedness of old labour's tax & spend that brought us to near destruction. A leader of vision is needed to move Labour on, engage and begin to contribute to the new political settlement.

The glue that binds this Coalition is a smart, de-centralised, bottom-up agenda that unifies the Cameron/Liberal tradition across the full spectrum of government. Even the Thatcherite right - so hated in Labour's caricature of laissez-affair and social stigma - remains mercifully irrelevant.

Ed Miliband increasingly finds himself on the wrong side of each radical reform - the latest being tuition fees, without which universities have no long term future (thanks to Labour's deficit) whilst the settlement is both progressive and enhances fairness - despite the obviously selfish arguments of the 'kettled generation'. What is more interesting is how vociferously students reject debt when it belongs to them. In the public sphere, only Labour it seems, so dismissively believes in debt.

This Coalition is effectively beginning to question the reason behind Labour's existence. The central tenet of the Coalition's agenda - progressive fairness - coupled with putting people at the heart of government, will become increasingly and deeply compelling, the further it progresses. Labour needs to be there.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Balance & the BBC

What have the following people in common?

BBC Director General Mark Thompson, Labour shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper, a left wing lawyer defending Neil McKinnon against US extradition & latterly taken on by WikiLeaks and finally, Annie Lennox, UN campaigner for AIDS in Africa?

They were all guests on The Andrew Marr show this morning.

No political bias there then...

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Today's articles...

Three really good pieces in today's papers from Peter Oborne (on the chilling prospects of Ed Miliband as the invisible Labour leader), Charles Moore (how the Eurosceptic analysis was proved right all along) and Matthew Parris (in praise of the courageous Nick Clegg) in the Times(£). Well worth reading.

The LibDems need to take the argument to the people, not abstain from it

LibDem talk of abstaining or voting against increased tuition fees is just wrong. If you believe in something, then you need to take it to the people and argue why it is right. And this proposal for university funding is right in so many ways.

Firstly it puts the funding of our universities on a stable and sustainable basis for their long-term future, something which successive governments - unwilling to make courageous decisions that require robust and intelligent arguments - have ducked over many years. This proposal allows us to build and sustain world class, research-based universities which are essential to the country's future.

Secondly, it is not about tripling the cost of higher education as so many naive freshers seem to think. The cost of university education is not changing. We are simply deciding how that education should be funded. Whether it should be from general taxation by all taxpayers irrespective of means, or increasingly by students, who are substantial and lifelong beneficiaries of a university education, not least in their earning abilities.

This proposal goes to the heart of a fair society. It is about students accepting greater responsibility for their good fortune by shouldering a higher proportion of the funding from their enhanced earnings. Starting above £21,000 per year. Well above the pay of dinner ladies who currently pay for the university education of our largely middle class children.

Both students and the Labour opposition are on the wrong side of this argument. Not only are these proposals fairer - ensuring that those 'with the broadest shoulders' provide proportionately more funding - they are also progressive. Far more progressive than the current arrangements introduced by Labour. They enhance the participation of poorer students, cover part-time courses and ensure that as tuition fee's move towards their highest permitted levels, wider engagement is actively sought. 

Like so much else that is now being re-evaluated of Labour's thirteen years of expensive, centralised, statist orthodoxy, the most we can say is that they may have had the right intentions. But lazy, self-righteous hysteria against anything proposed by this Liberal-Conservative Coalition who represent 59% of the electorate, is worth fighting. Not abstaining from.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Morality, indignation & Labour

...we have to be humble enough to accept that we do not exclusively own truth and morality... says former party chairman Peter Watt in a perceptive piece for Labour Uncut. He explains,

But there is an arrogance at the heart of our politics that is going to make it difficult to really understand why we lost. It is an arrogance that says that we alone own morality and that we alone want the best for people. It says that our instincts and our motives alone are pure. It’s an arrogance that belittles others’ fears and concerns as “isms” whilst raising ours as righteous. We then mistakenly define ourselves as being distinctive from our opponents because we are morally superior rather than because we have different diagnoses and solutions. It is lazy, wrong and politically dangerous.

If you think that I am being harsh, just think about what we say about our opponents. We assume that they are all in it for themselves, that they are indifferent to the suffering of others. In fact, that they are quite happy to induce more suffering if it suits their malign ends. What we don’t think is that they may want the same things as us, but just have a different approach. Instead, we cast high-minded aspersions on their morality and humanity.

Well worth a read.

By the left

Charles Moore - chairman of the innovative think-tank Policy Exchange - talks of the BBC's coverage of such organisations in his column for this week's Spectator:

It has three descriptions of think-tanks. One is 'respected'. This is only ever applied to a think-tank which tends to the left and represents the producer interest, such as the King's Fund. The second is 'independent'. The third is 'right-leaning' (the phrase 'left-leaning' is never used). If a report by Policy Exchange finds favour with the BBC, it is called 'independent'. If it is disapproved of, it is 'right-leaning'. One is not allowed to be respected, independent and right-leaning.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Prescott on climate change

Just heard John Prescott loosing his cool on the Daily Politics while being questioned by Andrew Neil about the Cancun climate change conference.

When asked why he was such a lousy role model for climate change - two jags, large eater, global-jetting carbon footprint etc. - Prescott answers that its about world poverty and social justice and the billions of people in developing nations living on less than $1 a day.

And there was me thinking it was about climate change.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Pot, kettle, black

Is this the winter of LibDem discontent? writes Left Foot Forward with as much self-satisfied glee at the misfortune of the LibDems as possible. And this from the party who promised no tuition fees in their 1997 manifesto, then introduced them once they came to power. Ah, but that's not a pledge is it? Just a manifesto commitment.

Ednostic therapy

Vacuous was the term that came to mind at Ed Miliband's performance this week, both at Labour's National Policy Forum in Gillingham and his attempted promotion in the media, but the description Ednostic used by Observer journalist Rafael Behr - will do. Matthew d'Ancona describes him less charitably as Gordon Brown 2.0

Why would anyone think this guy was a reformer? Ed Miliband is neither compelling in his oratory, nor does he display the intellectual or passionate conviction of a committed reformer. This man is a healer, an agnostic - one without the 'fierce urgency' implicit in the zeal of true reform. In one word, Ed Miliband offers therapy, not leadership - a succinct comment made by Charles Powell this week. In Tony Benn's well used phrase, he is a weathercock not a signpost.

And every ditheringly contrived performance reminds me that this is not a believer, but an agnostic - one who doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Lords reform needed

We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive but for those on benefit there is every incentive. Well that's not very sensible. Says new Conservative peer Howard Flight in today's Evening Standard.

I don't know why anyone would make this idiot a peer, and I hope there are not more like him. Lets hope the Coalition get their Lord's reform legislation through extremely quickly so we can get rid of people like this.

VAT is progressive - IFS

We believe that increasing the standard VAT rate in the current system is mildly progressive when examined on a lifetime basis. The intuition for this is that, over a lifetime, poorer households spend a higher proportion of their (lifetime) income on goods that are zero or reduced rated in the current VAT system, such as food, children’s clothes and domestic fuel and power, and hence a lower proportion of their lifetime income on items that are subject to the standard VAT rate.

Looking over the lifetime as a whole, what matters is whether the lifetime-rich or the lifetime-poor see a larger share of their lifetime resources taken in VAT, and on that basis VAT is progressive because necessities (consumed disproportionately by the lifetime-poor) are typically subject to zero or reduced rates of VAT.

Thanks to LibDem Voice.

The colour of Wednesday has changed

Labour’s woeful cockup of the public finances is now demonstrably more toxic than Cameron’s marginal involvement in Norman Lamont’s day of shame. So it’s official. The ghost of Black Wednesday has been exorcised writes Lloyd Evans reviewing PMQ's for the Speccie blog

He refers of course to Ed Miliband's jibe at Cameron in PMQ's that, as a young spad on Black Wednesday, the Prime Minister was responsible for the momentous events which took place. As if.

But the more interesting view comes from the comments below the blog, where 'tb' points out that had it not been for Black Wednesday, we'd be in the Euro by now. Ouch.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The politics of selfishness

Really sad scenes in Whitehall today as students - whose intelligence would suggest that they should know better - protesting at increased tuition fees in a package that is not only far more progressive than present arrangements, but nearer to NUS demands than anything Labour enacted in thirteen years of government. Moreover, the 1997 manifesto had promised not to introduce tuition fees.

Students really need to convince the country through reason and argument exactly why people on modest incomes - dinner ladies on ten or twelve thousand say - should pay for the education of students whose degrees will enable them to earn vastly greater sums. This is the politics of selfishness that intelligent students should feel ashamed of. How sad.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Coalition must tell the truth

Interesting post from Douglas Carswell on UK's contribution to the Irish bailout. Despite the Chancellor, George Osborne suggesting on Radio 4's Today program this morning that the UK was acting because Ireland was a 'friend in need', it now seems that article 122 of the Lisbon Treaty requires us to contribute to any bailout, under the European Stabilisation Mechanism.

This mechanism is about granting financial assistance to a Member State in difficulties or seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by exceptional occurrences beyond its control. This financial assistance shall take the form of a loan or of a credit line granted to the Member State concerned.


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Phonetic politics

Interesting blog from Teacher Talks on phonics - or rather how naive Gove and Cameron are to blindly suggest synthetic phonics are the solution to teaching children to read.

My better half - who has taught phonics to 2 1/2 to 5 year olds for more years than is healthy writes:

No single method works by itself. Many four year olds leave my nursery being able to read words and sentences using phonic methods. This is a mechanical and a useful starting point for children who respond well to and enjoy this method. With only twenty six basic letter sounds to begin with, children can read, spell and write hundreds of three letter words. Its like a logical starting kit. Children sound out the three letters and if capable, blend the sounds into a word. However, this method has its limitations. The logical sequence of moving from one word to a phrase or sentence is limited by the lack of range inherent in only twenty six letters - or their sounds. We vary this and make it more interesting by matching words and pictures, objects and words, and creating 'secret' and 'magic' words to engender enthusiasm and encourage them to want to read in the true sense. We make individual reading books for each child based on their own interests. These could be about Batman or a dragon - and anything in between.

Some children are not ready or interested. No method works well by itself and it is the job of the teacher to match different types of learners with tools to suit. Teachers also need to introduce children to the pleasures of stories - for depth, emotion and sheer interest - and poetry - for rhyme, metre and rhythm - all of which stretch their imaginations, vocabulary and the child's longing to read by themselves.

I think it unlikely a teacher would stick to just one method of learning to read. Pretty much common sense really.

Janet Daly on Coalition reforms & Big Society

Two truly radical initiatives were announced by the Government last week argues Janet Daly in a convincing piece for today's Sunday Telegraph.

The first, an attempt to widen educational excellence - 'best practice' in the jargon - by Michael Gove in allowing poorly performing schools to link with highly rated ones in order to gain Academy status. And the second an announcement by Francis Maude - fast becoming the Coalition's minister for the Big Society - that public sector workers can set up co-operatives (the John Lewis option) to run their own areas of expertise as independent enterprises, giving them a real stake in their own future.

She concludes the article with the words, From its welfare and education reforms to a revolution in the running of public services, the Government has a Big Idea which involves personal freedom within the bounds of community responsibility.

Now the personal freedom part may well be a Big Idea, but the concomitant community responsibility side sounds remarkably like Big Society to me.

PostScript: Gove appearing on Andrew Marr's show this morning, explained that school funds specifically allocated for sport, about which the Guardian (and Ed Balls of course) is predictably outraged, will now no longer be silo'd but available for spending as educationalists want. That's government trusting teachers. What a breathe of fresh air.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The great leader is angry

More revelations from today's Times on new Labour - this time the behaviour of one Gordon Brown.

The Times leader(£) comments "When someone comes to write an epic poem about those years, they will run out of words that rhyme with bonkers." Priceless.