16 May 2007

Thoughts on Willetts' speech

[This is a bit stream of consciousness atm - will try to tidy later]

Is Willetts right about grammar schools?
Willetts effectively concludes that because grammar schools don't take the same proportion of children receiving FSM as exist in their catchment area they must be discriminating on the basis of wealth. This assumption isn't well supported. It could equally be the case that primary education is particularly failing children from the very poorest backgrounds - and as such they are less well equipped to pass the 11+ in the first place. Willetts argument does not seem to account for this possibility. Indeed he himself highlights research by Dr Leon Feinstein showing that from affluence has an effect on attainment which kicks in "long before the age of 11", something which makes it rather hard to understand why Willetts is focusing so intently on post 11 education as a means to promote social mobility.

Another very compelling argument is that a proportion of poorer parents do not apply to grammar schools in the first place. This is certainly an area worth proper examination - there is anecdotal evidence that poorer parents are more likely to select their nearest school or express no preference at all as to secondary school. A project examining the potential correlation between FSM and non-return of secondary preference forms would be interesting. This could well be one of the factors explaining why top comprehensives seem to also discriminate against pupils in receipt of FSM in admission. The current Government certainly identified this as a problem, with the suggestion in the 2005 DFES White Paper that "Choice Advisors" be created to mitigate advantage of affluence. Willets does not examine this at all - and it is absolutely crucial to the success of his proposed solution - creating even more choice.

Willett's analysis here seems to be a solution in search of a problem. It reads like someone has decided that the party's education policy will 1) reject grammar schools and 2) reject vouchers and more intervention and that Willetts has been asked to provide the justification.

Will his solution work?
More good schools will not necessarily promote more social mobility. There is nothing to suggest that Willett's proposals as currently explained would do anything to boost social mobility in this country - as opposed to increasing the quality of schooling for all (not in itself a bad thing!). If he cannot demonstrate that increasing choice will benefit the poorest people in society as much as it does the average parent then in fact his solution would run the risk of decreasing social mobility. He must be able to show that the poorest people, who are often much less articulate, less able to navigate bureaucracy and less able to access information, will be able to navigate the new system as effectively. This doesn't seem to have been explored very much.

This is doubly so because Willett's system must include an increase in school failure as well as school success. If the marketplace works effectively bad schools will close - and before they do so they will get worse as resources and pupils flow to more successful neighbours or new schools. Children will run the risk of ending up in bad schools not only by their applying to them, but also by their becoming bad schools whilst they study there. This is, of course, possible now, in a more regulated educational marketplace - but with deregulation it would be likely to happen more often. The risk of disadvantaged children being stuck in failing schools whilst children with more savvy parents get out must also be addressed.

Another key issue is whether these proposals could work in more rural areas. Whilst in a city there may well already be several secondary schools within a 5 mile radius this isn't true in more rural areas with lower population densities. To have any choice at all in many areas of the UK would inevitably mean an expensive increase in home-to-school transport - whether funded by parents or the state - and travel times that not all will accommodate. The current Government has never properly addressed this issue in its more limited reforms - we certainly can't afford to overlook rural areas in the same way.

What's the politics here?
This policy gels perfectly with the team Cameron rebranding. The threat of grammar schools has always been used by Labour as a cudgel against the Conservative Party - and effectively. Most grammar schools were closed by 1976 - and hence only a very small proportion of the population under 40 attended one. For the rest the prospect of grammar schools, or more accurately of secondary moderns, can be intimidating. As this is the age group most likely to have children in school, it is also the age group most likely to prioritise education issues in choosing who to vote for. Equally in brand terms for many people grammar schools are old fashioned things of the past - Labour liked drawing the comparison.

In distancing himself from the grammar movement Willetts helps to draw a line under the days of the nasty party. In publicising this bold new step he also gets to challenge the old Conservative brand again - the headlines about grammar schools in today's papers may well be no mistake. Finally he gets to appeal to the crucial younger floating voter - the key people we need to win back.

However, this I would question the decision to be so critical of grammar schools. Phrases like "there is now overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it." will be thrown in the faces of Conservative councils defending existing grammar schools. It is all very well for Willett's to claim that he isn't proposing the closure of existing grammar schools - his words will be misused to call for exactly that. When Conservative councillors resist they will be accused of not following their party line.

Willett's education speech in summary

What does Willets want to do?
Willetts highlights research that shows that social mobility has declined and wants to use eduction as a means of addressing this.

What does he see the problem as?
Willets claims that grammar schools take a disproportionately low number of pupils from poor backgrounds. He highlights the fact that just 2% of their intake recieve free school meals (FSM), whereas the populations in which the schools are located have an average population of 12% of children in receipt of FSM. From this he concludes that grammar schools are failing to promote social mobility. He concludes that this means that "there is now overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it."

Willets asserts that this is because today's society is simply to hetreogenous for the 11+ to effedctively discriminate betwen able and less able pupils. Also middle-class parents now "invest far more effort in raising their kids than they did a generation ago."

Elsewhere Willetts notes that the same issue is a problem to a lesser extent with other top state schools, highlighting research from the Sutton Trust which identifies that the top 200 non-grammar state schools have 6% of pupils in receipt of FSM, whilst, of the population in their catchment area, 12% are eligible.

What options does he consider?
Willets rejects both regulating admission and vouchers. He rejects regulation because he does not believe that an effective and simple system can be developed. He rejects vouchers because he doesn't believe that they would have any effect without reforms to the "supply side" of the school system. As such he advocates a policy of creating more good schools.

More good schools
Willetts policy is essentially one of encouraging the development of more autonomous schools within the state sector by removing barriers to them being set up. He hopes that by creating more 'self-governing independent states schools", and in so doing drive quality, presumably via parental choice. Particularly he highlights City Technology Colleges and Academies as the way forward in particular.

Is there a problem with using Free School Meals (FSM) as a synonym for poverty?
Using FSM as a measure of affluence is administratively easy - the data is readily available. However, FSM are a discretionary benefit, which parents in receipt of certain other benefits are entitled to claim. Not all do - hence the measure tends to underestimate poverty levels, almost certainly not enough to affect the validity of Willet's argument, but certainly enough to give cause to pause. One could argue that cultural reasons might cause parents at certain schools to be less likely to apply for FSM - it certainly attracted stigma at the comp I attended. This could serve to reduce the magnitude of the Willet's findings enough to suggest that research using a more accurate measure of parental income could well be justified. Certainly we should be careful about identifying any child not in receipt of FSM as being affluent - this is certainly not true.

Haven't they anything better to do?

Of all the things in this country to get worked up about, voting in Eurovision is hardly top of the list. This hasn't stopped Lib Dem Richard Younger-Ross from posting an Early Day Motion on the subject, the BBC reports. Apparently he's concerned that the contest is based "largely on narrow nationalistic grounds" and consequently damaging to relationships between the people of Europe.

I'm sure that the good people of Teignbridge are overjoyed to find that they are so few issues affecting them that their MP has time to pursue this sort of key strategic issue. This is the sort of nonsense that brings politics in the UK into disrepute - the sort of student union crap that would be frowned on in district councils - let alone in the mother of parliaments.

The real kicker though is that we can't even shrug and blame the pointless Lib Dems for yet again wasting public time and money on nonsense - because Conservative David Amess has gone and done exactly the same thing. Just less successfully at the moment, at least in terms of signatures and coverage...

15 May 2007

Labour's vacant building policy just empty words

Ruth Kelly has announced that communities will be able to buy empty council buildings for just £1. These will then be available for "community use". No surprise that all is not as it seems. Councils can already discount the sale cost of properties they own when selling to the community by up to (from memory) 1/3rd - but few chose to do so. This also isn't a surprise. When councils are starved of capital funding they're not just going to give potential sources of funding away. Whilst some may want new community facilities, a lot more people want roads without holes in or schools that keep out water. Kelly is making £30m available for this wheeze - but there is no indication that this sort of central compensation will continue to be available in future. Watch out for targetting of this funding on "areas of deprivation" or more accurately "Labour marginals". Any removal of central government control on local government is welcome - and if Kelly has simply allowed councils to discount properties as much as they want to, that would be too. However CLG has a nasty tendancy to remove one set of rules and replace them with three sets of statutory guidance, BVPIs and CPA targets, so we'll wait and see. But any idea that this will lead to many new community facilities being delivered will be unrealistic without some cash to back it up.

16 April 2007

Smack-free shopping

I used to be quite a big fan of the NSPCC. Their work in preventing child abuse was a really good thing. Sadly, like the RSPCA, they seem to be more interested in PC politics these days than in actually doing the job they were set up for.

This article details their latest campaign to try to force parents to raise their children in a particular way. Having failed to persuade the Government to ban smacking, they are trying another tack - trying to persuade shopping centres to ban it instead.

What a shame that this nonsense now seems to overshadow their work in preventing genuine child abuse. Smaking a child, if done with love and not anger, is the very opposite of child abuse - but in either case I can't see how you legally raise your children as being any business of shopping centre managers.

14 April 2007

Dumb article on smart metering

The Telegraph gives a beaming welcome to the news that "Monitors showing the real-time cost of electricity use are to be provided free to homes across the UK in an effort to tackle climate change." This is, of course, followed up with a smug quote from David Milliband.

It is a bit of a shame that The Telegraph, of all papers, doesn't seem to realise that there is no such thing as a free lunch, or indeed a free energy monitor. What this announcement actually means is that everyone, no matter how energy efficient they may already be, will be forced to subsidise, through their electricity bills, the fitting of these new gizmos to every house in Britain.

Indeed, Energywatch (pdf) estimate that the capital costs will be in the region of £86m - all of which will be ultimately borne by the consumer. As such it seems a little surprising that Energy Retail Association's comments to the Telegraph seem so positive - calling for the Government to go further in fact.

However, the Energywatch report shows their game - they're trying to get the Government to force their customers to install self-reading meters -allowing them to do away with the cost of meter reading and pass the capital buck to the customer - all under the guise of climate change.

These new gadgets may be good news in reducing CO2 emissions - no doubt for some people it will help reduce electricity useage. But its a real shame that serious newspapers like the Telegraph fall so alarmingly for the DEFRA spin about just how positive this new regulation will be - and don't look at all at the interests behind it.

UPDATE: This also seems to be rather more Brussels driven than the article makes clear...