Michael Gove is not universally popular. Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon. This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings. Oh yes he is.
Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan. The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets. They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies. This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose. The evidence is out there. Join-the-dots. The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate. The man must be stopped. Right?
Oh come on. Get a grip. Gove is no puppet-master. Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders. But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight. Take the playing-fields storm. Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’? Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20. Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie. It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.
I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play. This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense. Don’t forget Academies enter exactly the same exams. Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables. If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny. Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver. That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.
Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves. It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track. Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January. I took mine over 20 years ago. Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.
That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine issue in the way students had their expectations managed. And the students themselves are blameless in that. Had the change not come ‘in year’ and been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided. Conspiracy? No. Cock-up? A little bit. British policy development was ever thus.
I’m no blind Gove fan-boy. I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong. It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now. The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow. Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them! As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.
A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of praising success. Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time. There are schools out there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge. You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%. They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves. This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it. And that is no bad thing.
Watching the local TV here in Boston, I caught part of a trashy TV show that serves as the perfect vignette for the best and worst of America.
The show was ‘Minute to Win It’. The premise isn’t that important, but in a nutshell two strangers are paired up to complete 10 one minute challenges to win a million dollars. Think ‘Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Take-away’ meets ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. To emotionally connect with the contestants they throw in ‘X-Factor’ style interviews with their families explaining how the Million Dollar prize would transform their lives.
A particularly enthusiastic soul on the episode I watched explained in a matter-of-fact fashion how she used to work as an insurance agent, ‘a good job with an excellent healthcare plan’, but when the recession came along was made redundant. They could make the mortgage payments on one salary but her younger son was on specialist treatment for Asthma, they didn’t want to stop it, without the health-plan the medical bills rolled in. They lost their house.
Just wow. It hammered home to me that our society’s consensus that we treat our population free at the point of the delivery on the basis of need is golden. I have no issue whatever with innovative plans put forward to meet that consensus more efficiently, nor any particular truck with whether the actual health delivery is by private, public or third sector (and so have no philosophical objection to anything Lansley proposes, only concerns about the detail) – but if ever there was a proposal that threatened that core ideal – and could result in stories like the above – well, you could find me at the front row of the protests, entirely up for subjection to a good ‘ol kettling.
But if that story was the downside of America – the upside was there to be seen in the same lady. Behind the whooping and high-fiving, which continued even after she lost – and all the other hoopla nonsense that makes our European toes curl – there was still that relentless optimism. She had a belief to her core that with hard work, personal sacrifice, and just one little break it would all be OK. Now, faith alone aint going to solve her problems. But I have little doubt that the ‘can-do’ attitude that seeped from her every pore massively increases her chances of making herself that ‘one little break’.
That optimism seems hard-wired in the US DNA. Yes, the recession has dulled it, but even now at the pit of the downturn the level of self-belief in ordinary hard-up Americans and that innate sense that they themselves have a stake in digging themselves out of it is something I find inspiring. On a macro level, those tens of millions of souls applying that attitude will be the real driver that picks the country up by its bootstraps and gets it back on-track. If we could only somehow bottle that optimism and transfer it over here to the UK – we’d be a better nation for it. Without it, we must count the blessings we have – and I’ll start that count with the NHS.
The riots in Tottenham are hooliganism pure and simple.
For the British commentariat that is far too simple an analysis to be allowed to stand. Cue, thousands of column inches attempting to frame last night as an inevitable expression of the ‘class-war’ stoked by this Government. Please spare me that bullshit.
I’m sure that the Chinese whisper ‘on the street’ will be “cops kill family man, Mark Duggan, in cold blood”. That will have been enough for bored youths, who are no doubt suffering crappy prospects with a combination of the recession and poor education to go out and have ‘a good old fashioned riot and loot’. To some small extent they will also be emboldened by pictures of ‘Arab Spring’ that bombard our news, and to an even lesser extent be more against the Met than ever after the hackgate coverage.
Pseuds will over-analyse all the above ‘reasons’ and offer them as ‘excuses’. There will be more than a hint they are on the rioters side. In this over-analysis they will ignore the role played by the local gang leaders in stirring this up and the opportunistic criminality they engage in whilst it is kicking off.
We don’t know the circumstances of Duggan’s death – and it may well be that the police could have handled the operation far better. Someone has lost their life, he is a father, and no matter what he was up to that is a cause of sadness. Nevertheless, the fact the chap was carrying a gun and if reports are to be believed shot at a police officer, suggests the police were right to be moving in on him. Whatever, it will be far more constructive to wait for the outcome of the IPCC investigation before rushing out and burning down the local branch of Aldi.
The real damage the pseuds cause in their post-event rationalisation and politicisation of events is to foster a sense of justification amongst the riotors. There is no justification, there should only be shame.
Midway through their mammoth testimony, long before the custard pie, James Murdoch was asked if he had ever heard of ‘Wilful Blindness’? He gave an out-of-place smirk and shrugged. His father chipped-in that whilst he’d heard of it “we’ve never been guilty of it”. Hold that thought.
Later, during Rebekah Brooks testimony, she was asked how payments to private detectives were authorised. The gist of her reply was that News International set an overall budget for a newspaper, the editor would then allocate budgets downward to ‘managing editors’, they would fund individual reporters and so long as everyone stayed within their authorised threshold they were accountable for their own spend. Underlings were trusted. If you were within your limits it seems no questions would be asked. None of the witnesses had any idea as to the actual transactional mechanisms -cash, invoices or whatever – that allowed their reporters to pay private detectives (or actual detectives come to that).
Now, I’m no lawyer. I’m not clear on the line that has to be crossed in corporate governance or financial control arrangements before executives fall legally foul of neglecting their duties. However, I’m pretty sure the MPs were trying to establish if the delegated payment authorities were so piss poor as to appear manufactured to ensure there wasn’t visibility of how junior staff were spending the company’s money. Our inquisitive MPs danced around this. The questions, though never framed in such direct terms, were steering them to infer they had therefore allowed ‘plausible deniability’ to become institutionalised at the News of the World. No wonder they introduced James Murdoch to the phrase ‘wilful blindness’. In the US folk go to jail for that sort of thing. If the committee smelt blood on this point they chose not to go for the kill. For now.
Regardless, the testimony painted a picture of executives who simply didn’t grasp whole chunks of the detail you might expect. I’m happy that they wouldn’t have been in the micro-detail at the time, but troubled that given the magnitude of what has happened they still didn’t seem to have really drilled in on it since. The more mundane narrative to explain this is that the Murdochs and Brooks had a lax grip on the internal controls in their company, they delegated to the wrong people (you can delegate responsibility, you can’t delegate accountability) and they failed to assure a culture of ethics, audit and active management on a high profile part of their stable. If it isn’t conspiracy (and to be honest, on balance I don’t think it is) then there is still a measure of old fashioned incompetence. Either way, it is no wonder Rupert feels humbled.
Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’. Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian. Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head. This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then). So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’. That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’. I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’. This figure needed some sniffing.
The original report is from Save the Children. It can be downloaded here. It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs). A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.
When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution. Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.
Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time. The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face. I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham. Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy. To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous. By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.
New Labour used to do this thing. If they wanted to do something they knew would be unpopular with the Unions they would ‘leak’ that something far worse was in the planning. Once it was time to officially announce the policy they would then ‘retreat’ from the position that had been leaked to what they always wanted to do in the first place. So if they wanted tuition fees of £3000 they would first leak that they would be £6000, let people rage about it for a couple of months, and then announce the £3000 figure. Folk would think that this didn’t sound so bad and it would feel like a compromise. The passion would then be taken out of any opposition. They could then implement exactly what they had always planned. They did it again and again throughout their reign. It was quite a trick.
I can’t help but wonder if the Coalition has learned well from this technique. For months we’ve had this 40% figure of expected cuts out in the wild. Today we learned the figure is actually 19%. It really doesn’t sound that bad now does it?
The more tribal Labour supporters have had 20th October circled on their calendars for months. It was supposed to be the day that the ‘True face of the evil Tories’ would be demonstrated by these ‘savage 40% cuts’. Winter fuel for pensioners would go. Schools and the NHS would be slashed. October 20th was going to be Armageddon. If you believed the hype they have been spouting then today was supposed to be about the Tories rolling back the state all the way to Feudal times. Instead, we find out that the intent is merely to roll back the state all the way to the public spending we last saw way back in……………. 2008. Yes, for all the bluff and fluster public spending is going back to the same level it was at after 11 years of Labour rule. School spend is protected. NHS spending will increase.
The appropriate response today from all the doom-mongers should be relief and a slight feeling of churlishness. Not a bit of it. Instead a quick search of the blogosphere shows they are wallowing in a curious mix of disappointment and denial. My personal hopes that a spell of Coalition government would edge us away from our tradition of tribal politics sadly seem as unlikely now as at any point since May.
Our failure to pull everyone into a new ‘grown-up politics’ means that for our politicians the ‘X-Factor’ still matters. This is a problem for Osborne. He has little love from the press or public and his delivery today was cursed by a frog–in-the-throat that we haven’t seen since IDS was in his pomp. In comparison Alan Johnson stood up and was a Mr Charisma Snake-Oil salesman. If you were to score Osborne and Johnson you would give a 10-nil win to Osborne on substance, but you would have to give Johnson a 10-nil win on style. In 2010, for right or wrong, style impacts the voters more. We should be pleased that AJ did not stand for the Labour leadership as he has an almost Blair like capacity to get the public to trust and like him. I even, strangely, like him myself – I couldn’t help but chuckle at his shot at Clegg about his change of mind ‘between the close of polls and opening of ministerial car doors’. And on a chuckling note, I also laughed out loud at some random lefty’s ironic twitter shout that “We need these cuts so that people like the contestants in the Apprentice don’t leave the country”.
All said, the medicine has been dished and it doesn’t seem as bitter as we have been steeling ourselves for. Time will tell if we have held back too much and perhaps should have cut deeper. The challenge now having announced the cuts is to get out there and deliver them and get this country back on its feet quickly.
Every single cut is going to hurt someone. And nobody likes the ones that hurt them. I have a daughter and another child on the way. At conference today we got the news that the Child Benefit of 80ish quid we get each month is going to be stopped. We’re far from rich but as a top tax-band family we are certainly very comfortable – I couldn’t look anyone in the eye and say that we either need or deserve that money. It’s one we’ll just take on the chin in good spirit.
I suspect I’ll be in the minority in my acceptance though. The Government is living its promise to do the right thing rather than the popular thing – and I suspect that this will be wildly unpopular.
One genuine issue that people have been quick to highlight is that there is one group who this will impact more than others: This is single income families who earn just over the threshold. They lose the benefit whilst families with a double income of salaries just less than the upper threshold retain the benefit. In the very worst case example a couple who both earn 43k and so have a family income of £86k will keep the benefit, the single income family earning a fraction more the £44k will lose the benefit. This anomaly is manifestly not equitable.
That said, people who are getting on some very high horses about this need to take a step back and reflect – this same anomaly has existed for years (including the entire 13 years of Labour rule) in that marginal rates already led to the same unfairness via income tax. In the exact same examples above the couple with the single income has already been walloped at 40% for every extra pound they bring in, while the double income couple have only been banged for 25%. I make the point to give context rather than as a justification. Two wrongs don’t make a right – and obviously this new anomaly adds insult to injury for those people.
The anomaly aside (and by very definition any anomaly is an exception to the norm) George Osborne has still done the right thing. He was between a rock and a hard place – to correct the anomaly and move to a solution that took total house-hold income/means-testing into the equation would have added an administration nightmare – more forms, more IT systems, more opportunities for fraud all of which would eat away at the savings to be made – and the savings after all are the whole point of the move. The solution adopted is pragmatic rather than perfect. It can be very easily be implemented with existing tax data. Those people with double incomes just below the threshold should think of themselves as accidental winners rather than single income families just above it thinking of themselves as targeted losers. The principle that high income earners do not require welfare support from the state is sound.