Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Flexible working for all should be the norm

In delaying the extension of flexible working to cover all employees, the government has missed a rather large trick. Omitted from the Queen’s Speech, space was instead found for legislation which will allow the sharing of maternity leave between both parents. Overly-worried about burdening business at such an unsettling time has convinced ministers to hold back for a while.

Yet many of their concerns are unfounded. A freedom of information request last year discovered that of the 218,100 claims made to employment tribunals in 2010/11, only 277 were in relation to employers not complying with flexible working laws. The negative impact of existing legislation has therefore proven to be negligible.

Under current law, first implemented under Labour in 2003 and further amended in the years that followed, any employee with children under 17, to take one example, (an estimated 10 million workers), has the right to ask for flexible working (anything from flexi time to part time work to homeworking), but not necessarily the right to have it. An employer must have a good business case for turning someone down.

Research carried out last month by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the world’s largest Chartered HR body, found that an impressive 96% of firms offered flexible working arrangements to some employees, with around three quarters of workers choosing to take them up on it. An even larger number did so in small or ‘micro’ companies. Rather than it being cumbersome, the CIPD’s report revealed that just 3% of these businesses reported problems, thus allaying the fears of those concerned about extending existing legislation.
And it is with good reason that these figures are so overwhelmingly positive. Ben Willmott, CIPD’s head of public policy, believes critics today, like those a decade ago, should look at the evidence:

“More than seven out of ten employers report that flexible working supports employee retention, motivation and engagement. Almost two third of employers believe flexible working supports their recruitment activities, while half believe it has a positive impact on reducing absence as well as on boosting productivity.”
Not only this, but studies have shown, unsurprisingly, that a happy workforce is also a healthy workforce.

It’s no wonder that older workers have complained about feeling excluded from a law which mainly benefits those with young families. More than a quarter of people aged between 45 and 54 felt their own needs have been ignored, with some saying it has led to workplace conflict.
However, there are signs that the never-ending economic woes are causing some employees to shun flexible working in favour of what has been described as ‘presenteeism;’ a feeling that being seen in the office, working conventional hours, is to be expected right now. A hardwired mindset which embraces the 9-5 office culture seems to be in vogue once again. This despite a separate study by O2 which found that four in ten businesses admitted that flexible working boosted productivity and helped to retain staff. Old habits die hard.

But, it is precisely in today’s climate that companies can ill afford to go back on the progress made over the last ten years. According to Alan Kirkham, service director at Wakefield council, government cuts are forcing local authorities, now more than ever, to look for innovative ways to economise.
Reducing running costs by freeing up office space is one such idea. This means having a more agile workforce with many being able to work from home, already leading to a 20% increase in staff productivity in Wakefield’s housing department. Kirkham predicts this approach will have a transformative effect on local government as a whole, especially when it is being asked to do more for less.

According to the CBI, one of the most obvious advantages of flexible working is still to be seen. It forecasts future success in curtailing congestion on the roads and easing pressure on public transport. According to its 2010 report Tackling Congestion, Driving Growth, changing work patterns has already coincided with a fall in the number of commute trips per person, particularly in the last five years.
Their figures show 89% of employers now offering flexible working, compared to just 30% in 1999. Rather than just concentrating on work-life balance issues, they urge bosses to see the gains that are to be had in reducing staff’s commuting time, which if replicated across the board, would have a marked impact on the transport and road network.

New technologies and huge advances in communication should make this all possible. Within 20 or 30 years, the wearing, time-consuming, commute can become the exception rather than the rule. Only ingrained cultural barriers and government hesitancy stand in our way of truly reforming the way we all work.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Monday 18th June 2012

Monday, 18 June 2012

HS2: The evidence finally catches up with the government

The future of High Speed Two (HS2) hangs in the balance. Just writing this sentence seems preposterous, considering the amount of time and effort that has gone into hyping up its supposed benefits. The government’s high speed fantasy looks like it will become just that.

This is meant to be the great transport project of our age; enthusiastically backed by ministers, dreamt up by Labour. Barely six months after receiving the official go-ahead, the wheels are starting to come off. Once vaunted, yet now being mentioned in lukewarm terms at best.
According to The Spectator, it has been told that HS2 is “effectively dead,” with “momentum draining,” and only David Cameron’s personal support keeping it on “life support.” Missing from the Queen’s speech, supposedly being held back for another year, the coalition’s solitary nod to Keynes is getting the equivalent of the ministerial cold shoulder. Several cold shoulders, if reports are to be believed.

The Spectator alleges that the current Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, was never an unequivocal backer in the mould of her predecessor, Philip Hammond. Most significantly, the man with the purse strings, Chancellor George Osborne, has apparently turned against it, citing capacity problems at Britain’s airports as a bigger priority. At least they’ve realised the folly of one idea, only to replace it with the folly of another. We shall we.
Back in January, I wrote a lengthy piece demolishing the arguments in favour of HS2. It seems the evidence has finally caught up with the government.

The cost was always going to come back to bite minsters where it hurt. With the total of the full Y-network (that’s London to Birmingham, and then on to Leeds and Manchester) nudging up from £32.7bn last year to £36.4bn this year (this is before we include rolling stock capital: £8.15bn, and operating costs: a further £21.7bn. See page 37 for a complete breakdown), and wider economic benefits falling year on year, or every other month, as has been the case this year, the government’s grip appears to be loosening with every new evaluation.
Readers of last November’s Transport Select Committee report into HS2 (of which I admit to being one such nerd), won’t be in the least bit surprised by the unravelling of the case for.

Principally, the government staked its claim on a flawed and outdated understanding of how commuters fill their time. Opponents have consistently pointed out that the government’s desire for high speed rested on the assumption that time saved travelling would mean more time at work. In the case of the London to Birmingham leg, journey times would be cut by 35 minutes, and only take 49 minutes.

However, studies conducted in 2004 and 2010 concluded that travel time is more worthwhile for passengers than ever before. Laptops, smartphones, and wifi access have meant time spent commuting can often be highly valuable.
Last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph found the business case for HS2 grossly exaggerated. An internal, unseen, Department for Transport (DfT) report from 2009, was basing many of its sums on a “1960s” interpretation of the behaviour of commuters, with 82% of their modern day counterparts admitting to doing some form of work on the train. DfT researchers found that:

"A reduction in journey time does not lead to much extra productive time overall...Sixty per cent [of business travellers] reported that they would do no work in the 'saved' time."
Which is a bit of a problem since government forecasts predict that business users (of whom 70% of HS2’s benefits are aimed at) stand to gain the most: savings of £32bn out of a total of £47bn (at 2011 prices).

The benefit to cost ratio (BCR), the amount which is to be recouped by the taxpayer in relation to government spending, has been on a downward curve since 2010. In March of that year, the BCR for the London-Birmingham route stood at 2.7 (£2.70 benefit for every £1 spent), down to 2 in February last year, before falling twice this year: 1.7 in January, and then 1.5 in April. In other words, HS2’s benefits have been almost cut in half in just two years.
As the Select Committee commented last year:

…[this] demonstrates the sensitivity of the economic case to changes in variables…These revisions [in November] were a result of lower GDP forecasts and consequently slower growth in rail demand.”
Rather worryingly, as Andrew Gilligan notes:

According to the DfT itself, any scheme with a benefit-cost ratio of less than 1.5 is officially deemed "low value for money," not to be proceeded with.”
“...the project has also been graded "red-amber" by the Government's own Major Projects Agency, signifying "major risks or issues in a number of key areas."

The government’s difficulties lie in the fact that most of their predictions seem based on shaky assumptions and overly-optimistic guesswork. As one analyst has pointed out, projections for revenues (£34bn) have been taken to cover a 60 year period, which most critics say is unlikely to be accurate:
"The government’s projections of the benefits are based on future ticket prices, demand, economic activity and how the railway line’s competitors are likely to respond. If any one of these variable changes significantly over the next few decades – and it seems inconceivable that none of them will – that will throw the assumptions completely out of whack.”

At its launch Philip Hammond urged Britain not to get ‘left behind’ and invest in travel fit for the 21st century. For its supporters, HS2 will bridge the chasm that is England’s north-side divide. But again, much of the testimony given to the Select Committee disputes this. With a rigorous examination of all the evidence, and using examples from France and Spain, Professor John Tomaney concluded that:
“…the impacts of high speed rail investments on local and regional development are ambiguous at best and negative at worst.”

“…the weight of recent theoretical and empirical academic work emphasises that high speed rail connections between cities or regions with different levels of development may favour already strong regions at the expense of weaker regions.”
It is in fact capital cities which benefit the most. The government’s own figures show that of the 40,000 jobs expected to be created, more than half will be in London, with seven out of ten confined to the South-East.

I don’t write any of this as someone who’s gleefully rubbing their hands, feeling vindicated by their stance. I started out as a passionate supporter of HS2. It was the weight of evidence against it that swayed me, nothing else. A country this size doesn’t need high speed rail, however glamorous it may sound.

If this week’s murmurs are to be believed, HS2 is heading for the scrapheap. And this will be one u-turn the government should be proud of taking. Unless of course they are merely softening us up for ‘renewed discussions’ about the merits of a third runway for Heathrow. After all, it seems that as far as this government is concerned, u-turns are infectious.

This article was first published by Labour Uncut on Monday 18th June 2012

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Left, English identity, and voting conservative

Two things caught my eye last week: Ed Miliband’s speech on Englishness, and a comment piece in The Guardian explaining why the working class vote conservative. Both are connected.

Last Thursday, Miliband put the left on nervy terrain by using the Queen’s diamond jubilee to talk about English identity. Perhaps not the best occasion, considering this was a celebration of a British, not English, monarch, with all of Britain decked out in Union Flags, and stirrings of British pride coming to the surface.
Yet with the fight for Scottish independence now under way, Miliband banked on this being the perfect time to speak up for those south of the border, increasingly calling for their own distinct voice.  As he rightly pointed out:

“...this debate about nationhood and identity should not simply be confined to one part of our country.”
He went on to talk about the left’s uneasiness in addressing this issue:

“We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We've concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
“We should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity.
Finally, we should also proudly talk the language of patriotism.”

This shouldn’t be difficult to talk about, but for a number of reasons the left has tied itself up in knots trying to (not) deal with it. On identity, it has mistakenly sought to (over)intellectualise, where the right have effortlessly made overtures to the non-quantifiables; human instincts, such as loyalty and patriotism.
For too long, the left’s hesitance, its half-hearted commitment , partly borne out of a never-ending battle with Empire guilt, and partly down to not wanting to give oxygen to the far right (which we ended up doing anyway), has allowed the right to colonise (so to speak)  this issue.

Whether exaggerated or not (in particular, in the early days of New Labour), every time someone felt they were being denied the right to fly the St George’s cross (a story always gleefully picked up by the right wing press), or express their love for being English, simply nudged them further to the right, and into the arms of the less desirables. Usually, but certainly not exclusively, the case for working class Labour voters.
Which brings me on to Jonathan Haidt’s column in The Guardian about the way the working class vote. Author of the recently published The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he uses this comment piece to explain why the political right (from all over the world) have managed to cleverly convince blue-collar voters to ally themselves with them, even when it appears to be against their own interests.

For Haidt, this represents a victory for the right in its appeal to heart over head. Whilst the left monopolises care, compassion and welfare, the right have gone straight for the gut. For them, politics is all about:
“...a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left.”

In some respects, the right have (over) simplified politics. There’s no need for detailed explanation when you have symbols and powerful rhetoric, steeped in a sense of morality:
“One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US).”

The right are comfortable enough to weigh in on cultural issues, such as identity, with the left playing catch up.

Whilst national identity isn’t as much of an issue on the other side of the Atlantic (proving your patriotism is par for the course for any American politician), it seems to be in constant flux over here. This is no doubt due to historical and cultural reasons more than anything else, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid concern for some.
Economic uncertainty, spending cuts, downsizing the welfare state, which Labour admits it would have had to do (at some point) itself, mean less tangible issues come to the fore.

People are scared, they feel vulnerable. They want a sense of unified purpose, a feeling of belonging. This is why Ed Miliband has chosen to tackle English identity a full three years before the general election. He knows that the left is more trusted on the NHS, and in looking after society’s most needy, but the fact that 4-5 million working class voters have abandoned the party since 1997, proves that this isn’t enough.
A rediscovery of its conservatism – family, order and community - as articulated by one commentator; ‘rescuing conservatism from the conservatives’, according to another:

“…many people harbour deeply conservative views on matters of value, but not on matters of justice – [this] represents both an intellectual challenge, and a political opportunity, for left-wing parties.”
Speaking up for an English identity should form part of Labour’s new conservative narrative. You can do all this whilst also standing up for a strong, nurturing, state. In the words of one writer, time for a “nostalgia of the left, based on community, social solidarity and public service.”

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Saturday 16th June 2012

Monday, 11 June 2012

More grammar schools please, but open them up

There can be few issues that polarise so violently or predictably, with England’s poor record on social mobility causing them to make headlines once again. Almost universally condemned by the left, and splitting the right. One could argue that the anger directed at grammar schools is completely out of kilter with their number: only 164 of them remain in England, versus the almost 3,500 state secondary schools, which includes comprehensives and academies.

The rationale behind its opponents states that its policy of selection by academic ability hands grammar schools an unfair advantage. The brightest pupils are creamed off, leaving their peers to go to their (not nearly as good) local comp, labelled failures at 11. It doesn’t aid social mobility, contrary to conventional wisdom, and helps very few children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and so on.

Some of these arguments I accept, many borne out in a number of studies over the years. And yet, I still find myself not only backing grammar schools, but wanting to see more of them built, and existing ones expand.

For some campaigners, selection is always wrong. There is no middle ground. Successive governments have recognised what a political hot potato this issue is, with Labour putting a halt to the building of any more grammars, and the Tories, much to the dismay of some of their backbenchers, abiding by this policy, but with a clever caveat.
What we now have is expansion by stealth; a slightly farcical situation where the government has given grammar schools the green light to set up annexes, in effect satellite schools, which they’ll be responsible for.  

It was in fact Labour who gave us a new type of selection with academies, where 10% of the student intake is accepted according to aptitude, in areas such as sport, music, or drama.
If we look at the area of social mobility, the picture is rather mixed. A major study last year which tracked the progress of thousands of adults now aged 53, found that working class children who attended grammar schools were no more likely to rise up the social ladder than their comprehensive school peers. All grammar school attendees were found to have earned slightly more than their parents.

What it did reveal was that any successes were cancelled out by losses at the then secondary moderns. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that grammar schools were bad for working class children, but that their presence had a negative impact elsewhere.
Yet, a separate finding, on behalf of the respected charity the Sutton Trust, revealed that children born in 1970 fared significantly worse, in terms of inter-generational mobility, than those born in 1958. The reason, according to one the study’s authors, Professor Stephen Machin, was the closure of grammar schools:

“Of course, the grammar school system was perceived at the time as being very elitist and a force for not being very good for social mobility. It's rather ironic that it's actually turned out that some kids from low income backgrounds did benefit from that system. And probably that system got more people through from the bottom end of the system than we currently have today.”
An extensive study of over 125,000 children contradicted other findings and found the social impact of grammar schools to be ‘negligible:’

“Grammars have a widespread, low-level, impact on pupil enrolments across the sector. A relatively small number of non-selective schools do see a significant proportion of pupils 'lost' to nearby grammars, but the research suggests that this does not damage such schools, at least in terms of academic achievement."
Where grammar schools badly fall down on is in the social make-up of their pupils. Around 2% of those admitted are entitled to free school meals (FSM), an indicator of children living in low-income households, compared to the national average of 16%. Their admissions policy, more than anything, needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.  Professor David Jesson estimates that disadvantaged pupils make up fewer than 500 of the 22,000 entering grammar schools. On top of this, 15% of its annual cohort, shockingly, comes from private schools.

“England's remaining grammar schools are currently enrolling half as many academically able children from disadvantaged backgrounds as they could do.”

The upsurge in admissions tests, to go alongside the increasingly rare eleven-plus, is partly blamed for this:
“It is distinctly possible that the under-representation of poorer children in grammar schools stems from each grammar school operating separate admissions policies and sometimes exams. This places more onus on parents to apply to the grammar school and prepare children for the tests, a process that fell to primary schools when admissions were more standard. It is possible that this more pro-active parent choice approach is leading to a gulf in access between affluent and poor children.”

For the lucky few working class children who do make it, the results are remarkable. Researchers at Bristol University concluded that:
“...the small minority of poor pupils who make it into grammar schools do exceptionally well, getting nearly eight grade points more – equivalent to eight GCSEs being raised from a C to a B... selection does work in favour of bright pupils from poor backgrounds if they can get into the grammar schools in the first place.”

In a speech last year given to the Grammar Schools Heads Association, Schools Minister, Nick Gibbs, revealed that 98% of pupils at grammar schools achieved five or more good GSCEs at grades A*-C (including English and Maths), with those claiming FSM getting an astonishing 95.6%, a gap of just 2.4%. For state schools, the figure stands at 58%, and a sad 30.9% for FSM pupils. So much for entrenching social divisions. Grammars are clearly not failing disadvantaged pupils who are more than three times successful than their state counterparts.
According to Education Secretary, Michael Gove, things are not helped by an ingrained culture of low expectations towards poorer children in state schools. Research has suggested that they begin at 11 already lagging behind their peers, and this gap only widens as they progress. It is the state system that fails those most in need.

So, what needs to be done redress the balance? The first thing is that the remaining grammar schools should be allowed to expand, with new ones built. With one large condition: they are forced, by law, to widen their intake so that at least, in line with the national average, 16% of pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Secondly, admission tests need to be standardised with all primary schools rigorously preparing their pupils to take them. In other words, a return to something like the eleven-plus system.
In 2007, the LSE found that an increase in the overall number of children permitted to attend grammar schools in Northern Ireland had a ‘net positive effect,’ with a significant boost to the results and overall performance of working class kids. Is it any wonder that 70% of people, from all social classes, support their retention, and 76% back the introduction of new ones, especially in urban areas without them?

And yet, selection according to academic ability still remains as taboo as ever. Middle class campaigners dogmatic in their opposition, whilst working class children fall further behind.

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared on Shifting Grounds on Mon 11 June 2012