Tuesday, May 16, 2006


...and then three come along all at once.

Journalists were spoilt for choice by a speech from the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell yesterday. He decided to say so many controversial things all at once that many of us were left stunned, caught in the headlights of his unstoppable double-decker.

It was not enough to say that kids may have to be taught "British values" in school to counter the threat from suicide bombers. Universities are teaching impressionable young Muslim students an extremist version of Islam which "condones" terrorism, he added.
That would have been plenty to keep most hungry hacks fed.
But the minister decided to have a swipe at the politically correct notion that universities have to meet the every need of religious groups by providing prayer rooms and timetabling lectures to avoid their hours of worship. Such demands are "unreasonable", he said, and student religious groups should pull themselves together.

Treading on egg shells? He was ploughing a bus through the chicken farm.


But well done, Bill, I say, for being bold enough to take on such a collection of incredibly difficult issues. He's certainly provoked a debate - and sensibly has not pretended to have all the answers.

Read the full speech here: http://www.dfes.gov.uk/speeches/index.cfm

Friday, May 12, 2006


So welcome aboard to Alan Johnson, international man of mystery.
We met when the new Education Secretary took his first tour of a couple of schools in the hot sunshine of Hackney on Thursday afternoon.
Disappointingly, he wasn't wearing those fetching shades, pictured on the front of The Times the day after Blair's reshuffle.
But he was no less enigmatic without the dark glasses.
The former postman and union boss was asked whether he was the first Education Secretary not to have a degree. He replied: "And I might be the only Secretary of State who was on free school meals."
Impeccable left-wing credentials, you see.
Yet a little later, he had a blunt message for those comrades at the eastern outposts of the Labour Party: he would not be watering down the Education Bill to please them.
In fact, he seemed more interested in keeping the Tories on side.
As if to prove the point Johnson went on to lavish praise on his Conservative counterpart, David Willetts. David, he said, is a "talented" politician with "bags of integrity". Many would no doubt agree.
But as for Johnson, he seems to be a man who might be able to appeal to the old left and the bright young things in the progressive centre of British politics at the same time.
Perhaps all those commentators tipping him for the highest office in the land may have had a point after all.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Maurice Smith, the current chief inspector of schools, has told the TES that children and parents must realise hard work is the only way to get good grades (http://www.tes.co.uk/2216235).
Schools, he said, are not "fun palaces".
Indeed not. Too often they're not even fun places.
Teachers are under too much pressure to deliver creative lessons while pupils are being drilled to pass tests rather than given a chance to enjoy school life.
The NUT will be debating the demise of play and how this harms children's emotional development at next week's annual conference in Torquay (general secretary Steve Sinnott has promised to bring his bucket and spade).
But if they think it's bad in schools, they should take a look at what's happening to nurseries.
The Government is introducing a new "national curriculum for babies", with nurseries and childminders being forced to monitor toddlers' progress against a set of standardised criteria.
From the birth to the age of five the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) will be compulsory from 2008.
But later this year childminders will be able to monitor toddlers for their progress in literacy and numeracy. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4878942.stm)
The Government said the EYFS will see young children "learning through planned, purposeful play".
Sound like fun?

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Since the first city academy was conceived in the mind of the Prime Minister's policy advisors, there has been a good deal more heat than light in the debate about this divisive scheme.
According to the caricature, academies are run by religious fundamentalist car dealers who force children to study Creationism and flog their dodgy old bangers in the staff room.
Recent media coverage, based on Ofsted reports and league tables, also paint a picture of the schools as continuing failures.
Poor comps were closed down and replaced with shiny glass “palaces” but the results remain just as awful as before.
Yet some of the schools have been improving, as the latest tables show.
Last year, nine academies out of the 11 which were reporting national curriculum test results for 14 year-olds were in the table of the worst 200 schools in the country.
But this year the figure fell to seven - and there were more academies reporting their test scores this time.League tables will only ever tell part of the story.
A succession of inspectors' reports has also suggested that many academies are showing signs of improvement.
The reports also revealed that several academies still had serious problems in key areas, and, crucially, exam results remain exceptionally low.
When Ruth Kelly is asked why she won't evaluate the academies which are already open before pressing on with creating 200 at a cost of £5 billion, she replies that children in the poorest areas just can’t afford to wait.
But with results showing some signs of improvement in many academies (ministers claim by three times the average rate of other schools) the question may soon become not whether the programme works, but whether it is working fast enough.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Where did they go? I thought you had them? They must be around here some place...
Not so much as a hint.
Tony Blair's plans for a brave new breed of independent "trust schools" vanished without trace from the Education and Inspections Bill when it was finally published on Tuesday. Or the phrase "trust schools" did at any rate.
The Government insisted this did not mean that trust schools had been abandoned. The term is simply a way of re-branding an existing type of school.
You don't need new laws to create trust schools. A trust school is "a foundation school with a foundation", the Department for Education and Skills said. There are dozens of these already up and running.
At Downing Street on Monday, the Prime Minister invited a few journalists round to explain to the world why everyone should back his Bill.
We asked him whether he could name any really new powers that trust schools will have which are not already available to schools. He couldn't. All he said was that the powers which some schools have now will be made available to all those who want them.
There had been "evolutionary" change over recent years, resulting in things like foundation schools and academies with the kinds of freedoms over their own affairs he was hoping to give trust schools.
But the "revolutionary" bit will come by giving all schools the chance to have this autonomy and the opportunity to enter a partnership with a business or university "as of right", he said.
We also asked him how many trust schools he imagined joining this "revolution". Neither Mr Blair nor Ruth Kelly wanted to put a figure on it.
Given that trust status is only going to be an option for existing schools, not a compulsion, and given that there are very few new schools opening every year, you can begin to see why.

Monday, February 27, 2006


The waiting is nearly over. Tomorrow, at long last, it is Pancake Day, and the Government will publish the education Bill, setting out their final proposals for reforming English schools.
We will know then how much ministers have been forced to change their plans in the face of some of the longest running and most vocal opposition Tony Blair has encountered since the Iraq war.
One of the questions you will not hear ministers ask in public, however, will be "are these reforms really worth the hassle?"
Newspapers are claiming this morning that Ms Kelly's career as Education Secretary is at stake over the reforms, and there are fresh mutterings that the PM's own job could be in doubt if he fails to get the plans through Parliament.
(See the Times, for example: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2060541,00.html)
Even if the Bill does become law, Mr Blair's position at the head of the Labour Party will be decidedly tricky if he secures his great education legacy only with Tory votes.
And that is just the beginning of the endgame. The White Paper has caused a huge amount of political grief for the Government already.
John Prescott, Estelle Morris, Neil Kinnock and about 90 Labour MPs, along with all the major teachers' and headteachers' unions, all thought the White Paper was a really bad idea.
We have had a select committee report, an "Alternative White Paper", a lot of angry meetings, and letters offering "clarifications" (that means "concessions", just to clarify).
When it was published at the end of October, ministers were promising a Bill "early in the New Year".
By Christmas Ms Kelly was telling friends she expected the Bill "in the first few days of February". That slipped fairly quickly to some time "in February" once the scale of Labour opposition to the proposals became clear.
And sadly for them, the Government were getting no favours from the calendar. February has once again turned out to be rather a short little month and tomorrow, the 28th, is the last possible day when ministers could get the Bill out and claim they have stuck to the original timetable.
Half-term has been and gone and most schoolchildren worthy of the name will have an eye on all the Easter eggs piling up enticingly on the supermarket shelves.
Soon, however, we will know the final shape of the Bill.
Have the Government's promises of more freedoms for schools, choice for parents and influence for private backers survived all the sweeteners offered to Labour MPs? Or will they be as hollow as some of those chocolate eggs?
Still, some ministers may find a hollow chocolate egg preferable to other options when the time comes...

Monday, February 13, 2006


Monday February 6:

Tuesday February 7:
The Times: "Egg on her face, and that's before the U-turn"
The Guardian: "Shell shocked: minister hit by egg"
Express: "The Yolk's on Kelly"

Thursday February 9:
Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly host seminar in Downing Street for businesses and other organisations interested in backing their White Paper plans for "trust schools".
The PM tells the audience: "Ruth has been very busy doing a Cabinet presentation and Question Time. The only eggs we have got are in the sandwiches today."
Initial inquiries suggested that there were indeed eggs in the sandwiches. And cress, too.
But Ms Kelly's officials remained tight-lipped over what the minister had for lunch.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


So ministers have put forward their "clarifications" to the schools White Paper (no "concessions" or "compromises" please, spin doctors may take offence).
They hope all the clarifying will win over the critics on their own side while insisting that the core elements of their "historic" plan remain intact.
Yet there was something approaching a shrug of resignation in the Prime Minister's tone today, on one key point at least.
Ministers acknowledge that middle class parents too often work the current system to their advantage, colonising the best schools and leaving the worst to those with less influence.
The Government has consistently claimed that the White Paper will help children from the poorest families in the most deprived areas of the country.
But Mr Blair told MPs at this morning's Commons Liaison Committee meeting: “Whatever system you put in place, middle-class parents will try to do the best for their kids.
"You can move house in the end, and who could blame them?
“We all want to do the best for our children."
(Incidentally, he was also questioned over his own decision to send his two eldest children to the Catholic London Oratory school, which won a legal case to continue interviewing prospective parents but will lose this right thanks to the concessions - I mean clarifications - announced last night.)
Ruth Kelly detailed the package of changes to the White Paper in a late night letter to Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the Commons education select committee, yesterday.
But while Ms Kelly agreed to a surprising number of demands from the committee for altering the plans, she refused their most direct suggestion for getting more working class children into good schools - quotas.
Or "benchmarks" as the committee called them.
Just as universities are set "benchmarks" for the proportion of state school students they could reasonable be expected to admit every year, so schools should also be given such loose targets to aim for, the committee said.
Mr Blair dismissed the idea of "social engineering" to break the stranglehold of the middle classes on the best schools.
And Ms Kelly said "quotas" would not be appropriate.
But there is another option which has won some support in influential circles.
Getting into a good school has been described as "a postcode lottery". Why not make it a real one?
The select committee proposed making admissions "anonymous", hinting at the idea of a ballot to allocate places in over-subscribed schools.
One of Mr Blair's confidants and a consistent champion of disadvantaged children, Sir Peter Lampl, publicly backed the ballot idea two weeks ago.
Now that really would be a bold and radical gesture towards making school admissions fair to all families, not just those well educated and wealthy enough to work the system - perhaps a little too fair. Maybe a shrug in this direction is all the Government can afford.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


So it looks like universities are starting to get their acts together in preparation for the new "market" that top-up fees will bring.



What sort of statutory rights do customers in this new market need? And how will these rights be protected?

Monday, January 23, 2006


It's all in the details.
When Ruth Kelly stood up in the Commons to make her "do or die" statement on sex offenders in schools last week, the eyes of the world were watching.
Unfortunately, what those eyes couldn't see - until long after she'd finished speaking at any rate - was the text she was reading from.
While we heard the words and caught something of those finely diced numbers, what we missed was the punctuation.
If it seems like a minor issue, the effect was far from small.
It meant that Ms Kelly was able to complete her statement without ever saying how many individuals on the sex offenders register the Government had cleared to work in schools.
After confirming that ministers had personally approved 10 people on the sex offenders register to work with children since 1997, this is what she said:

"I have asked officials to look at the similar decisions by officials; and decisions by ministers and officials on cases since 1997 where the relevant offence were committed prior to the sex offenders register. This has identified a further 46 cases."

Notice that little semicolon: "similar decisions by officials; and decisions by ministers and officials..."
When she read it aloud, you couldn't tell that the punctuation was there, so the words all ran into each other. This left many people wrongly convinced that all these "further 46 cases" referred to ancient history - offences committed before the sex offenders register was introduced.
In fact, that semicolon makes clear that some of these 46 involved people who were on the register (the "similar decisions by officials" - similar to those 10 decisions taken by ministers).
So there were more than 10 cases where the Department for Education decided not to bar people on the sex offenders register from working in schools.
What Ms Kelly didn't tell us is just how many more, which means we don't know just how effective - or otherwise - the system and the register have been.
You could argue that this is all just so much picking nits, especially when we have a confirmed overall figure of 88 people - both on and pre-dating the register - who have not been barred for one reason or another (although this is not a figure Ms Kelly has ever volunteered, her officials have confirmed it is accurate).
But Ms Kelly also told the House that there were 210 individuals on List 99 - the Government's "blacklist" of adults barred from working with children - who had not been given full bans.
They are, then, still allowed to work with children in certain circumstances. But since List 99 also contains people who are guilty of fraud and other crimes, how many of this group of 210 were sex offenders?
If the Government can identify 210 people with partial bans, it must know what offences led to those bans.
On both issues (how many on the sex offenders register and how many sex offenders on List 99 have not been barred) we have asked the Department for Education repeatedly for clear figures. But they still won't say.
Just before she silently delivered that semicolon, Ms Kelly told MPs how frank and open she was being: "I have been determined to go further to provide a more complete analysis."
She did go "further", yes. But the analysis is either "complete" or it isn't. Even the minister, it seems, knows she's keeping something back.