Tuesday, 28 August 2012

End this grade inflation debate and listen to employers

Getting in to a tit for tat about whether exams have got easier consistently misses to address a wider point. To begin with, there is still a dearth of research available to definitively answer this question. The findings by Ofqual , the qualifications regulator, this year that GCSE and A-Levels in certain subjects have got easier may be hard to dispute, but we’re still a way off providing an unambiguous yes/no response.

There’s no doubt that schools seem to have turned into exams factories, with pupils better prepared than ever before. It is possible to argue that pupils are working harder because they realise the job market has never been more uncertain, which means university has become a must. But, it is also plausible that pupils are working harder and exams have got easier. This seems to me the most likely scenario.
The slimmest fall in GSCE pass rates (for the first time in its history) and top A-Level grades this year has been met with a resounding, “You see. We told you so,” by the dumbing down lobby. It seems almost perverse to welcome a (tiny) fall in marks as evidence of a rise in standards, but I understand the logic.

Those refusing to budge from heaping unconditional praise on teachers and pupils won’t find their enthusiasm shared by employers. For business groups, things have been far from rosy for a long time. Pupils may be doing exceptionally well year on year, but employers are increasingly frustrated by the sort of school leaver and graduate that greets them.
In its joint survey of 542 firms, employing some 1.6 million people, the CBI and Pearson Education found dissatisfaction levels with school leavers unchanged from a decade ago. Around a third of businesses remain unimpressed, with 42% having to provide remedial training in subjects such as English, Maths and IT.

Its findings, carried out at the beginning of the summer, found ‘structural issues’ dogging schools, with companies complaining that most graduates simply haven’t developed the right sort of self-management skills required.  This goes beyond getting the basics right in literacy and numeracy. Too many young people are seen to lack initiative, problem-solving and communication skills needed to get on in the workplace.
In other words, it’s way time we moved beyond the narrow yearly focus on grade inflation and started paying more attention to what businesses demand. Not just ‘teaching to the test.’ This means equipping youngsters with skills that can’t simply be measured in an examination. This plays neatly into the left’s hands and its view that an obsession with testing clouds other areas that schools should focus on.

The report, almost a replica of one released two years ago, emphasises that primary schools should deal heavily with reading, writing and maths, with secondaries advancing these skills, together with IT, and things necessary to get on in the world of work.
The persistence of these studies suggests something is wrong with how we’re educating our kids. Yes, results over the last two decades have been outstanding. Yes, more young people than ever are going to university. But step outside the confines of the educational establishment and a very different picture emerges. Time to ensure that exams are rigorous enough and students fully prepared for what meets them once they leave the safety bubble of higher education.  

This article was first published by Speaker's Chair on Tuesday 28th August 2012 

Friday, 24 August 2012

The Sun left playing catch up as Blogosphere one step ahead again

The Sun has gone ahead and printed the naked Prince Harry pictures. The only British newspaper to do so. For now. Unfortunately for them, all those who have wanted to have a peek at the buff frame of our third in line royal have already done so. Online. More than two days ago. Whilst the paper would no doubt like to congratulate itself on having the balls (ahem) to publish said pics in a post-Leveson world, its supposed bravery is somewhat undone by the fact it has waited until today. No doubt hamstrung by assessing all the legal ramifications because I can’t imagine the editorial meeting discussed any ethical dilemmas the photos might pose. The Murdoch Empire is still a wounded beast. It needs all the kudos and publicity it can get these days.

First published on Wednesday, by American gossip site TMZ, (no, I’d never heard of them either) whilst the UK was snoozing, and then picked up at 2.33am by Guido Fawkes, which then enlarged and reproduced them at 9.47am, the pictures have now gone around the world and back. The Sun may be in defiant mood this morning, but they are clearly playing catch up with the blogosphere.
Twitter is awash with condemnation, although I can’t help detect just the faintest whiff of hypocrisy. All those feigning anger at The Sun, how many clicked on the links two days ago for a sneaky look? I certainly did. Whilst Leveson embroiled itself with how best to regulate the British press, that “elephant in the room,” the internet, just got that little bit fatter. Lord Justice Leveson may try to grapple with the thorny issue of blogs and other online publications based in the UK, but there’s very little that can be done away from these shores. The internet is a stateless, almost anything goes, global phenomenon. We can try and regulate it but we will fail.

At the time of the Inquiry, Index on Censorship, the campaign group fighting against threats to freedom of expression, argued that Leveson didn’t really understand how to get to grips with the web:
“In May MailOnline editor Martin Clarke implored Leveson and his team to stop “obsessing” with newspapers, describing them as just one part of a wider, tangled media spectrum, and that to focus on them solely was to look backwards.

“Fundamentally, as Clarke stressed, the way we consume news has changed. “You can’t really slice and dice the Internet up into different bits,” he said. “People consume the Internet as a kind of continuous spectrum.”
“Squaring the circle is tricky when what we’re discussing is a medium built on the basis of openness and making things easier to access.

“Perhaps Leveson didn’t quite know what he had himself in for when he was appointed to lead the Inquiry last summer. He does now.”
The facts of the matter are that this could prove the start of an audacious dash by the tabloids to out-sensationalise the other, at least until we hear Lord Leveson’s recommendations later in the year. It’s very hard to argue with Guido Fawkes and its belief that:

“The old media have been scared into submission by the Leveson Inquiry. This is the third in line to the throne, the son of Prince Charles and one of the biggest names in British public life. Yet not one British newspaper is reporting the story with pictures. Nevertheless everyone in Britain will be searching online for these pictures and will find them regardless. The old rules won’t work in the internet age.”
What Leveson concludes about the internet is anyone’s guess.

This article was first published by Speaker's Chair on Friday 24th August 2012  

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Buses: the overlooked option

Certain stories tend to follow a familiar pattern. Take the yearly hike in rail fares. Yet another ticket price increase just above, or way above, inflation is announced. Government trots out the usual reasons: necessary to pay for upgrades, expanding existing fleet, cope with passenger numbers. Rail bosses corroborate this line, whilst feeling pretty chuffed at the thought of another bumper bonus on its way. Rail passenger groups respond in kind, expressing outrage: travellers being priced off the network, particularly during a severe economic downturn. BBC selects weary commuter from a busy train station in London who gives a shrug of the shoulders and probably wants to say: “same *insert a word of your choosing,* different day.”

In fact, they could all save themselves a lot of time by simply copying and pasting this story from previous years. Labour’s policy review has vowed to look again at the current structure with all options on the table, although all those hoping for renationalisation will be sorely disappointed.
It’s time to accept that the cost of rail travel will never be a priority for any party. Certainly not an election issue at any rate.

Instead we should put our energies into public transport’s less glamorous and overlooked constituent: buses. Greener Journeys is a campaign group which is working towards getting more people out of their cars and onto buses. Set up in 2009, and backed by a number of prominent bus companies, it aims to demonstrate the wider economic benefits of bus travel.
Their website reveals that over two-thirds of journeys on public transport are made on the bus. This results in about 5 billion bus journeys a year in Great Britain. Bus commuters contribute some £45 billion of economic output. One in five full time workers and 30% part time workers are frequent bus users. For 11% of workers, buses are an essential part of their lives. Without them they’d be forced to find work elsewhere. Crucially, over two-thirds of Jobseekers Allowance claimants either don’t own a car or cannot drive.

Back in March, Greener Journeys and The Daily Telegraph joined forces and co-hosted a debate looking into how investing in the bus network can help mobilise the UK workforce and economy. This came ahead of a report, “Buses and Economic Growth,” due to be published next month, commissioned by Greener Journeys, and carried out by the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds.
One of the speakers at the debate, Gillian Merron, chair of Bus Users UK, says that buses represent great value for money:

“The very reason to invest in buses is because you get such a tremendous return. For a relatively low investment, you can make a huge change. A bus network doesn’t need five to seven years to get the project off the ground – they’re ready to roll out capacity immediately to get people to work, to the shops.”  
With 40% of trips to the high street made by bus, they can play a vital role in rejuvenating our struggling town centres.

Naturally, buses aren’t immune from the spending cuts. There will be a 20% drop in the Bus Service Operators’ Grant and £54m lost used to compensate bus companies for those benefiting from concessionary fares. In evidence given to the Transport Select Committee, unions expressed their concern that cuts would have a disproportionate effect on the unemployed and cited the then Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, who once commented that:
"Social mobility and, in particular, moving people off welfare and into work, often depends on transport infrastructure. If people on isolated and deprived estates cannot get a bus or a train to the nearest city or town, they may be stranded without work and without hope."

Disabled people are also likely to be badly affected with 60% not having access to a car and using buses 20% more frequently than non disabled people.
Whilst rising train fares hog the headlines on a yearly basis, spare a thought for those bus users. It is great to see a concerted campaign under way aimed at increasing usage. And yet I return to my earlier comment on priorities. Public transport will always cede ground to the economy, health, education and crime. If investing in the rail network and widening capacity means stiffer fares, we can surely expect the same thing to happen on buses. But first this requires someone to believe they are worth investing in in the first place.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 21st August 2012

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

London 2012: "Brand Boris" marches on

As Britain returns to normality after two and a bit weeks of the best escapism one could wish for, one man must be purring with delight at how well things have gone. Not just for ‘Team GB,’ or London 2012 as a whole, but for his own brand. London Mayor Boris Johnson will surely be reflecting on a “rather jolly good fortnight”, as he’d probably put it. It’s quite good being me at the moment, he’d no doubt mutter.

And who can blame him. His stock has risen further. The world came, they loved what they saw, and Boris even managed to pull out a few party tricks to keep us all entertained. What struck me at the sight of one of the most powerful men in Europe dangling from a zip wire, legs flapping in mid air, twirling mini Union Flags, was not actually the episode itself. It was the fact that only a politician as high-profile as Boris Johnson would even dare attempt such a stunt. He did, he got stuck, he got laughed at, he came away with it smelling of roses. His team of advisers have now probably realised that trying to rein him in is pointless. Boris being Boris is a vote winner, a crowd pleaser, let him get on with it.
Us seasoned political anoraks know the dishevelled wild hair, ruffled just before he appears on camera, the bumbling fool act, is all part of a carefully crafted persona. And on Sunday, caught bopping away to the Spice Girls at the Olympics closing ceremony, like the proverbial embarrassing uncle at a wedding.

The clamour by the Tory grassroots for him to succeed David Cameron grows louder by the opinion poll. The PM is still way ahead of Boris as the preferred choice to lead the Tories into the next general election: 49% versus 18%. When he departs, only William Hague, who constantly reminds us of his desire not to take his old job back, stands in his way of the Tory leadership, if the party faithful have their way.
He’s still very much part of the anti-politics mood in vogue right now, is Boris. He’s the exception that proves the rule as far as the perennial politician bashers are concerned. The engaging, watchable, effervescent, Mayor. Jonathan Freedland humorously sums up the power of his brand as:

“The one person in British politics who passes both the Madonna test – no surname necessary – and The Simpsons test, a character recognisable by his silhouette alone.”
Say the name Boris to the most apathetic voter and more often than not he/she will know you’re talking about the Mayor of London. Say David, Ed, or Nick to the same person and they’ll think you’re talking about one of their mates.

In some respects, a Boris takeover at the top of the Tory Party before 2015 would be Ed Miliband’s worst nightmare. How to take on someone like him would be a real challenge. The leadership debates would certainly make compulsive viewing. Boris isn’t easy to pin down, as Labour found out to its cost in May. Trying to make the London Mayoral election about policies and Ken Livingstone’s record failed. London became all about the Ken v Boris soap opera, more dominated by their contrasting personalities, than policies. It would be easy to say Ken never had a chance, but a 3 point win for Boris suggests that his popularity only carries him so far.
The Economist’s “Bagehot” columnist believes he seems:

“Too chaotic to be at the centre of power. The people who want to have their pictures taken with him may not want him in charge of the NHS.”
The ‘Boris Bounce’ currently only gives the Tories a modest poll boost. Not yet a ‘game-changer,’ but something for us to chew on for a while, or until Cameron’s ratings nudge upwards again. If by the end of the year the PM is unable to get himself out of this rut, the speculation will grow and grow.

Some pundits claim that Boris’s appeal doesn’t stretch beyond London and the Home Counties, but a Sun/YouGov poll found:
“One in ten Labour voters admits they would be more likely to back the Tories if [Boris] was at the helm. This compares with just one in 100 who think David Cameron could persuade them to switch.”  

Admittedly, these are still small numbers, but could make all the difference in an election that produces another hung parliament. Irrespective of several months of good polling news for Labour, the party needs to scrap for every vote it can get. It can’t afford to have even a handful of potential voters turning blue and falling for Boris’s charm.
The always worth reading Tim Montgomerie, sums up his popularity:

“He is a Eurosceptic who doesn’t just love his country but loves its people too, whatever their politics, colour, religion or sexuality. David Cameron is comfortable with modern Britain too, but, to adapt one of Mr Johnson’s own expressions, Boris zoinks off the Geiger counter of positivity. He hugs the nation and smothers it with rhetorical kisses."
Despite his reservations on seeing him ever become PM, “Bagehot” notes that Boris has been ‘broadly brilliant at shaping how people think of him.’

An ability to persuade a party that you belong to its tribe while saying things it disagrees,’ as he has skillfully managed with fawning Tories on the right, means Boris Johnson has to be taken seriously, because you can bet that behind all the bluster and buffoonery, he has his eye on the number one job in British politics.  
This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 14th August 2012

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

London 2012 understands what it means to be British

It’s taken years of debate, controversy, misunderstanding, the rise of the far right, and more debate, yet at last it feels as if there is a Britain and a Britishness in which we can all identify and feel comfortable with. Step forward London 2012, with surely the best answer yet in the “what it means to be British” saga. And all achieved without a politician in sight. Another reminder that sometimes it’s best to leave sport to grapple with the unanswerables, which it seems to be able to do, almost without trying.

The Olympics opening ceremony, over a week ago, provided a fitting tribute to the multi-ethnic, all-inclusive island, we have become. There was something for everyone. Sunder Katwala, director of the excellent, non-partisan, British Future think tank, in his terrific summary, said it delivered a message to the outside world, as well as one to ourselves:
"The need to project a story to the world offered a catalyst for a conversation that we have needed to have here, about how we want to think about who we are, how we live together, and what we share as modern Britons.

“What the show captured is that national pride also resides in our shared cultural experiences.”
Katwala went on to point out that a ‘show, don’t tell’ principle ran through the entire ceremony. Articulating Britishness is one thing but, ‘any authentic version depends on feeling it first:’

“Yet we should now see that the answer to the question ‘what makes you British?’ was staring us in the face all of the time.
“It is Britain that makes you British.”

And so we come to our heroic athletes. If that last statement applies to anyone, it’s to the so-called “Plastic Brits,” that now notorious, grubby, jibe. On being asked by one insensitive journalist if he would have preferred to have represented Somalia, moments after his extraordinary 10,000m win, Mo Farah gave the perfect riposte:
“Look mate, this is my country.

"This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud.”
Only the most unfeeling, stingy, commentator could quibble with that. Britain’s Olympic team is enriched with talent, some of whose families hail from all corners of the globe. Some of the athletes were indeed born abroad. All have chosen to win medals for Great Britain.

The view that you have to be born and bred on these shores in order to count in the eyes of some as ‘100% pure Brit’ seems as outdated as it is preposterous. The interesting thing about Aidan Burley MP’s description of the opening ceremony as ‘leftie multi-cultural crap,’ (didn’t he really just mean ‘too many black faces?’) was how isolated it left him and how foolish it made him look. No doubt he’ll be disgusted at the sight of multicultural Britons gobbling up gold medals.
For decades now we’ve got used to the sight of sportsmen and women, from all backgrounds, representing Britain or its nations. Find me the last time an England starting XI was made up of just white footballers? Sport has adapted and moved with the times. England’s cricket team includes a sprinkling of South African born players who now reside in England and are as proud and as committed as any.

Some believe our Olympians are a triumph for British multiculturalism, an often confused and distorted term.  It would be more accurate to say it is a victory for diversity and immigration. The highly-respected social commentator Kenan Malik would have us believe this has been a victory for the ‘lived experience of diversity:’
“The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.”

Rather than multiculturalism as a political process or ideology, which has sought to ‘manage diversity,’ by putting people into rigid cultural and ethnic boxes, without room for manoeuvre.  The Great Britain team is the coming together of multiple cultures under one unifying banner.
As many observers have already said, hopefully it is also a crushing blow to Scottish independence. I can’t imagine there would have been too many SNP members thrilled at the sights of Sir Chris Hoy and Andy Murray draped in the Union Flag. Powerful images indeed.

The Olympics is an excuse for a very British patriotism: one that isn’t jingoistic or vulgar, but proud yet equally humble. The interviews with our victorious, and near victorious, rowers, cyclists, swimmers and athletes, shows a group of the most delightful and unassuming people you could ever hope to hear, basking in the glory of having achieved greatness, or apologising needlessly for having let their country down.

What “Euro ’96” did for Englishness, London 2012 has done for Britishness. Once again sport has led the way. What it means to be British is being brilliantly played out before our eyes. 
This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 8th August 2012