Sunday, 1 February 2015

Reading, writing and electoral arithmetic.. from The Red Box

Raise a glass, mark the day. Some of us never thought we would see it. But on this, the first day of February, in the Year of our Lord MMXV, the Tories did stop talking about the economy. After trying to bore voters and journalists into submission with the party's long term economic plan, David Cameron is giving everyone a break tomorrow with a speech on education.

Education week (because government grids require themes) is launched with an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show by Nicky Morgan, the education secretary. The Sunday Times splashes on the announcement she is due to make: new tests for 11-year-olds to ensure that they can all master a 12 times table, handle complex multiplication, long division, read a novel and write a story. 

This sounds familiar since claims of a comeback for times tables are a hardy perennial. What's new here is a plan to force schools to ensure that every single pupil passes specific questions in these areas. Schools that fail two years in a row will be sent new leadership teams to take them over and face being forced to become an academy.

Morgan has been criticised for ditching much of Michael Gove's agenda, but this is straight from the Gove playbook. But she has faced some examination of her own, the Independent on Sunday reports. A Downing Street source tells the paper that Gove, now chief whip, continues to receive detailed Department for Education paperwork in his nightly red boxes, channelled to him by allies in the department - and is not shy about sharing his thoughts, much to the frustration of Morgan and her colleagues. 

A Gove spokesman describes the claim with his usual elan: "This is total nonsense, as usual. I'm surprised a paper which employs the brilliant John Rentoul would print rubbish like this." What is not nonsense is that Morgan feels Gove's beady eye over her shoulder. Some Tory MPs will regard that as a good thing.

But back to election politics, rather than internal politics. This week's PMQs saw David Cameron answer nearly every question about the NHS with a jibe about Labour's management of the NHS in Wales. Today the Tories broaden this line of attack: Welsh secretary Stephen Crabb gives an interview to The Sunday Times attacking Welsh Labour's record on education. 

Crabb claims that the decline of schools during Labour's 15-year reign in Wales is a "much bigger scandal" than its handling of the health service. More pupils in the principality got five good GCSEs than in England when education was devolved to the assembly in 2000, but that situation has reversed.

"If Ed Miliband brings into Downing Street and government in Westminster anything of the approach we have seen of Welsh Labour in Cardiff, parents in England have got good reason to feel very concerned," he says.

Labour hit back, saying that latest GCSE results show schools in England going backwards.