Monday, December 19, 2005

Suspend logic; Prescott about

In my earlier post about the Education White Paper, I mentioned that Tony Blair was certain to face opposition from his party. The reactionary element of the Labour Party reared its ugly head yesterday in an interview given by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, in which he launched a philippic against the proposed reform, depicting the debate as class struggle.

Brevi praecidam; this is a man who typifies everything there is to be said about class envy. For example, during the debate to outlaw fox hunting, he made it clear that his support for the ban was nothing to do with 'animal welfare' (the convenient figleaf adorned by many of his colleagues), but more to do with punishing what he saw as a privileged minority.

Anyway, he has now gone public with his opposition to trust schools. Nothing wrong with that, but we should hear his reasons. He claims that this would lead to a two-tier system in education provision. Genuine concern, but would Mr Prescott rather all schools suffered under the dead hand of local government control, than that some were set free to breathe and blossom? In any case, Mr Blair's vision is for all schools to become trust schools in five years, so that would, in theory at least, put paid to the idea of a two-tier system.

Mr Prescott being who he is, sees the debate purely in terms of class. We have been told how he failed his 11-plus exams, and was therefore denied a place at grammar school and a bicycle by his father. His brother, who passed, went to grammar school, and received a bicycle. His girlfriend also passed; he sent her a letter at her new school, and she returned it to him, with all his grammatical errors highlighted. Such painful childhood memories can influence one's outlook. Despite this, Mr Prescott still obtained a university degree, and has now risen to the post of Deputy Prime Minister. Time to let go of the bitterness of many moons, methinks.

Mr Prescott argues that if you set up a school, and it becomes a good school, the 'great danger' is that many people will want to go there. How this can be termed a 'danger' is surely one of life's imponderables. Prescottian logic therefore dictates that the solution is to have uniform mediocrity.

Not content with that stunning display of gargantuan ignorance, he then went on to comment on the recent election of David Cameron as the Conservative Party leader. He was pleased with the election, he said, because Mr Cameron went to Eton, and this shows that the Conservative Party is now run by what he called 'The Eton Mafia'. He is happy about this, he says, because he always feels better fighting class. He feels that it brings 'the spirit back into the Labour Party'.

The foregoing paragraph alone should render further comment superfluous, but one more point: Prescott's comments have been welcomed by Angela Eagle, a Labour MP, who stated that he has only voiced what many in the Labour Party were thinking. I don't know whether to be relieved or alarmed by this. Relieved because at least such poisonous views are now out in the open, so we can better deal with them; or alarmed because the people espousing them are those to whom we have entrusted the running of the country, and the education of our children.
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Lunacy of the Week

I am rather a fan of the National Audit Commission (NAO), so it is with a heavy heart that I award them this prize.

Last week, the National Audit Commission published a report dealing with employees' workplace skills. They found, to no-one's great surprise, that today's employees fall short on basic matters of literacy and numeracy. So far, so uncontententious. The report then went on to state that while employers expect their workers to be literate and numerate, they are unwilling to fund or release them for basic skills or level 2 (ie GCSE equivalent) training.

Needless to say, the employers are not taking this lying down. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has pointed out to the NAO that it should be the duty of the Government, and not employers, to teach people to read and write. While the CBI acknowledge that employers need to ensure skills training for their workers, they quite rightly point out that this should not extend to teaching the 3RS. I know we do not expect much from this Government, but surely to expect employers to provide basic education is nothing short of monumental cheek. This, on top of the heavy tax and regulatory burden they currently bear.

The sad part is that the NAO is aware of all this. They are bright people, these NAO geeks. Perhaps having acknowledged the true depths of the problem, they have concluded that the best hope of remedying it lies with the employers, and not the State, on the basis that the former at least have a stake in the productivity potential of their employees. In any case, if the State has failed to teach them to read and write throughout their years of primary and secondary school, perhaps the NAO thought it was time to explore other options.

They still get the award.
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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Joy in Witney

Conservative Party members in Witney are exceedingly pleased with the Northern Ireland minister. Yes, you read that right. It is not everyday that a Labour minister gives such pleasure to Conservative Party members. And they are not alone in their jubilation. I will explain.

In 1997, a young man called Shaun Woodward stood as the Conservative Party Parliamentary candidate for Witney. Witney is a true-blue Tory seat, and Woodward seemed to fit the mould. Married to a wealthy heiress, he had that 'ideal son-in-law' look about him so beloved of traditional Tories.

Mr Woodward won his seat, but the Conservative Party did not do as well on the national stage. They suffered a devastating defeat, and the Labour Party went on to form the Government.

Mr Woodward was not happy to find himself on the losing end of things. He announced that he was switching parties, and joined the Labour Party. We now hear that he was promised a ministerial job by Tony Blair. As one would expect, the Conservative Party was livid, more so as he refused to do the decent thing and step down as the MP for Witney. He held on in that seat until the General Elections of 2001. A man of principle would have stepped down and triggered a bye-election.

Come 2001, and Tony Blair found a new seat for Shaun Woodward. He was imposed on the safe Labour seat of St Helen's. This traditional Old Labour constitutency found it hard to accept a multimillionaire ex-Tory as their Parliamentary candidate, much less one who employed a butler! I remember one of the tabloids hired a butler to follow Mr Woodward as he went canvassing around the constituency. He was not amused at the stunt, but it provided much hilarity for others. Labour held on to the seat, and in 2005, about four years later, Tony Blair finally kept his promise and made Shaun Woodward a minister in charge of Northern Ireland affairs.

Meanwhile, back in Witney, the Conservative Party got on with the task of choosing a new Parliamentary candidate. They felt betrayed, and who could fail to empathise? No one wants a turncoat MP, and they must have wondered what they had done to deserve that. Anyway, they chose a new candidate. He was a personable young man with a record of serving the Party. His name was David Cameron.

Forward to 2005. That young man was today elected leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. He beat his rival, David Davis, in a ballot of the party's members. The results were announced amid great fanfare, and there is an upbeat mood about the party. The future seems brighter for the Conservatives, and the contrast with the tired politics of the Labour Party could not be more stark.

The Witney Conservatives gathered in their constituency office to watch the announcement of the leadership results. They had some champagne, and offered a toast to their former MP, Shaun Woodward, for had it not been for his betrayal, we may never have got Cameron.
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Monday, December 05, 2005

Let us pray

Apparently the Queen has refused permission for the Duchess of Cornwall to be mentioned by name in the state prayers for the Royal Family. These prayers are normally said in Church of England services. That ugly word 'morganatic' comes to mind, particularly bearing in mind that the late Diana, Pricess of Wales was mentioned in the prayers until her divorce from the Prince of Wales. The speculation is that the Queen is worried that including the Duchess in the prayers would upset church-going folk who frown upon the latter's adultery with the Prince of Wales which led to the collapse of both their marriages. Is that right? If that were the case, I would have thought that, given a list of people supposedly 'worthy of prayer', surely an adulterous old divorcee should come somewhere nearer the top? Whatever one might think of the Duchess of Cornwall, she is married to the future King of England, and should be given all the rights and benefits that go along with that. Yes, and that includes taking the title of Princess of Wales, and eventually, being crowned Queen.
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Gordon Hood?

The UK Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has just delivered his Pre-Budget Report. Quite apart from the fact that he has had to substantially revise downwards his growth forecasts, he has now conceded that he will have to increase public borrowing. Naturally, he has blamed this on the increase in oil prices. What he doesn't explan is how Britain, an exporter of oil, has been affected worse than some other European countries which are importers of oil.

He also announced changes to the corporation tax rates. The zero per cent rate for the first £10,000 of profits for small companies is being abolished. It was only a matter of time before this happened. When he introduced this relief a few years ago, many existing businesses changed their business structure and became companies in order to take advantage of the relief. Subsequent anti-avoidance legislation only complicated matters, so he has now decided to scrap the relief. So much for certainty in taxation. Small companies will now face a bigger tax bill as a result.

Also, proof, if any were needed, that with this Government, private property has ceased to be sacrosanct. Gordon Brown has announced that unclaimed money in dormant bank accounts will be recovered and used by the Government to fund youth schemes. He may feel that the use of this money for a worthy cause justifies what is plainly theft by the Government of private property. It does not. The principle of the sanctity of private property forms part of the foundation of civilised society. On it, the laws against theft were founded. I am surprised that this announcement has not been condemned by the Opposition. In fact, George Osbourne, the Shadow Chancellor, in his response to the Chancellor's speech, stated that the measure was supported by the Conservatives! My, my, whatever next. Perhaps in doing so, George Osbourne thinks he is picking his battles, but I suggest that this is one particular battle he should have fought. For implicit in that policy is this Labour Government's belief that it is entitled to every penny of our money, and that we will only keep what it allows us to keep.

The supplementary charge on North Sea oil has been doubled from 10 per cent to 20 per cent. However, even the Government's assurance that there will be no further increases for the life of this Parliament has failed to assuage feelings. The Scots are furious. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, has warned that this move threatens Scottish jobs. The Government has obviously chosen North Sea oil to bear the brunt of its desire for increased tax revenue. It dare not, at this time, impose a 10 per cent increase on any other tax.

The Chancellor also announced consultation on plans to slap taxes on profits made by landowners on areas gaining planning permission. Of course, he hasn't called it a tax. It goes by the rather deceptive name of 'planning gain supplement', and is being marketed as an opportunity to give local authorities a share in the profits made by the landowners. Quite why they should be given this 'share' in the first place is not clear. The Chancellor definitely knows how to pick his victims. He knows that not many people are likely to protest at what is in effect, double (or even triple) taxation of the landowners. In addition to the 'supplement, if the Government revaluation on properties in England goes ahead, such landowners may also face increased council tax. If they then come to sell the property, any increase in value will be subject to capital gains tax, notwithstanding that such an increase has already been taxed as a 'planning gain supplement'. Let us see how this will unfold.

The Chancellor made other announcements besides the above, but these are the ones that have caught my attention. I may return to this topic in future.
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Education policy: three u-turns and counting

The past few months have witnessed a revolution in education. No, I don't mean the publication of the Government's White Paper (of which more later), but rather the public admission that education policy in some areas over the years has been dreadfully wrong. I set out below three policy u-turns.


First was the admission in June by Baroness Warnock of Weeke that the policy of including children with special needs in mainstream classes was a big mistake. Lady Warnock was the leading proponent of that policy. From 1974 to 1978, as Mary Warnock, she chaired the Committee of Inquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, as it was then known. The main thrust of Lady Warnock's and the Committee's thinking was that disabled pupils merely had 'special educational needs' (SEN) which were different from those of mainstream pupils, and that these needs could be addressed by means of a 'statement' of their needs. Such statements would then be prepared for each pupil, and with the help of that, special needs pupils could be included in mainstream schools. This recommendation was accepted by the Government, and for about 30 years, the majority of children with special needs have been educated under the 'statementing' policy.

The drive to include even more SEN pupils in mainstream education continued apace as this Government introduced legislation aimed at closing down more of the few special schools remaining. Some figures: the Daily Telegraph (9 June 2005) reports that the Government has managed to close down ninety-one special schools, and the remaining 1,148 are catering for 89,540 fewer pupils despite a steep rise in the number of children diagnosed as having special educational needs.

However, as teachers and parents of disabled children have known for years, 'statementing' was not effective in meeting the educational needs of the affected children. It did not ensure the best learning environment for SEN pupils, and in most cases, it led to confusion among the other pupils in the classroom.

Thirty years on, Lady Warnock has changed her mind. She now believes that inclusion may not necessarily be ideal for schools. She acknowledges the isolation that vulnerable SEN pupils can feel in mainstream schools. She accepts that statementing was not a very good idea, and that it was too bureaucratic and unresponsive to parents.

Synthetic phonics

Last week, Jim Rose, a former OFSTED official, published a report on the Government's national literacy strategy. Its findings were dire. One of its recommendations was for teachers to return to the traditional synthetic phonics method of teaching children to read. Currently, pupils are taught by a mix of methods, including the highly dubious 'look and say' method where a child is taught to recognise words by their shape.

Synthetic phonics is the method by which people learn to read by mastering the sound of the letters of the alphabet, and using that to work out the words. An earlier study had revealed that children taught with phonics performed a lot better than those taught using the methods recommended by the national literacy strategy. The study, which was of children in Clackmannanshire taught by the phonic method, found that on average, they were three and a half years ahead for their age in reading and one year and eight months in spelling by the age of 11. All credit therefore, to Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, for accepting Jim Rose's recommendations without reservation.

Government White Paper

The Government published its Education White Paper two months ago. At the time, Tony Blair loftily pronounced that he intended for every secondary school to become an independent self-governing academy within five years. The new trust schools Mr Blair wants to create will be free from local authority control, with parents given more say over the syllabus. This is all very interesting, and some might even say it is yet more evidence of Mr Blair's 'reforming zeal'. But wait. Haven't we been here before? These trust schools sound very similar in concept to the old grant-maintained schools which were abolished by our very own Mr Blair when he came into office. So what was wrong with grant-maintained schools that merited their abolition in the first place? I don't think we will get a satisfactory answer from the Government. The grant-maintained school system was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She wanted to create a system whereby state schools could opt out of local authority control. Such schools could be allowed to select on the basis of specialisation, somewhat similar to Mr Blair's special academies. As expected, Tony Blair's pronouncements were greeted with enthusiasm by the Conservative Party, and hostility by his own party. He will probably get his reforms through, but if he does so, he will have been helped in no small part, by the votes of the Opposition party. Curious.

And now?

Seriously though, the above shows that we have let our children down very badly. When Governments play around with education policy, it is the children who suffer.

Who can count the number of special needs pupils who have suffered incalculable harm as a result of statementing? How on earth can a statement have been adequate to cater for the needs of such children in a mainstream school? It is not too late for the Government to halt its harmful policy of closing down special schools.

As far as reading is concerned, literacy levels have been falling for years now. An alarming percentage of children leave primary school having not learnt to read. This is in large part attributable to the scrapping of traditional teaching methods, such as synthetic phonics.

On the matter of trust schools, it is a step back in the right direction. It is heartening that Labour have recognised their error of abolishing grant maintained schools in the first place. Schools can only flourish away from excessive government control. For example, last week, the headmistress of the primary school at the top of the league tables admitted that they achieved this by ignoring most of the Government's advice. Independence and the right to select can only be a good thing. Maybe I am asking for too much, but I look forward to the day that the Government of this country (whether Labour or Conservative) will be brave enough to scrap teaching in age groups, and introduce streaming by ability. It may sound radical, and would no doubt offend leftwing opinion, but therein lies the way to success.
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Friday, December 02, 2005

More money to the EU

We are informed this week that our dearest leader, Mr T. Blair, has gone one step further in his mission to sell British interests down the river. Not content with outsourcing our immigration policy to Europe, the British rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984 is now under threat.

Some background: in 1984, Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, negotiated a £3.2bn rebate from Britain's annual contribution to the European Union, to compensate for the fact that Britain only received a small share of farm subsidies. The subsidies, paid out under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), mainly benefited France and Germany. Last year, even taking the rebate into account, Britain still paid two and a half times more to the European union than France. Over the past few months, Jacques Chirac, the President of France, has been putting pressure on Tony Blair to surrender the rebate. This pressure has intensified in recent days, with moral blackmail applied from all quarters. Following the latest Treaty of Accession, ten smaller, poorer European countries have joined the EU. The point is that if Britain holds on to the rebate, it will be paying a relatively smaller portion of its 'share'. Up until recently, Tony Blair has insisted that there would be no deal on the rebate without reform of the CAP. This is a fair compromise.

That all changed in the last few days. The Prime Minister has now 'signalled' a willingness to cut the rebate by between 12-15 per cent, but without a corresponding deal on the CAP. This is capitulation, plain and simple. Blair is no doubt trying to paint himself as the great statesman, acting in the interests of Europe rather than in the parochial interests of one small country. I am sorry, Mr Blair, but that won't wash. Jacques Chirac has stubbornly refused to give an inch on the CAP. Bullish, obstinate, maybe, but at least he is acting in the interests of his country. As I have mentioned before, Tony Blair is keen to secure some sort of political legacy. His time is now running short, and he will settle for any sort of legacy. He is not choosy. Any legacy will do, even if it is that of the man who sold out his country's interests for a chance at grandstanding on the international stage. Obviously he will not see it quite that way.
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