Budget schmudget

I’m just trying to work out the point at which I will be out of pocket because of my saintly desire to work.

I made a fundamental mistake. I’m a public sector worker. I have a pre-school child so only work part-time. On the days I work I pay for private nursery day care from 8 till 6, and a nanny to look after the big kid after school as the after-school club doesn’t finish late enough for me.

I’m sure as hell not working for the money. Which alarmingly means it must be for love. Or for fear of falling out of the job market and becoming unemployable. Yes . . . that sounds much more like it. 

As a key worker, I’m fairly sure I wasn’t part of the problem but am thrilled that I can be part of the solution.  If experience is anything to go by then we can safely assume nursery fees will continue to rise and my pay freeze (which,to be honest, I quite understand) pushes me ever closer to not covering my childcare costs. There comes a point when work stops being a ‘sensible’ economic choice for me & my family.

I’m not sure this is what Mr Osborne intended.

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Leader Schmeader

The Labour leadership hustings on BBC Newsnight http://tinyurl.com/39s8xr9 served to illustrate just how much trouble the Labour party is in. It’s a new start! The next generation! . . . . back to the drawing board.

From the start it felt desperate – opening statements showed how keen the candidates were to prove that they had learnt from Clegg – eye contact, eye contact, eye contact. But nobody had told them whether to make eye contact with the rather pointless studio audience or to make love to the camera.

(I’m just going to pause on that thought . . . ready? Let’s continue).

Dark, serious, not like the other bloke, red

Sincerity filled the air as they set upon a mission to prove that there was no topic they were afraid to address – so hoary old chestnuts like immigration and ID cards took centre stage. And yet I think it is on issues such as ID cards and civil liberties that the Labour party is the most out of touch with the electorate. The City might have been happy to hear of quick Tory spending cuts (although not unanimously), but I got the impression that many people, fearing for local jobs and services, were won over by Labour’s more cautious timings. If true, it wasn’t the economy (stupid). And civil liberties is an area where the LibDems and, sticks in my throat to say it, Tories, do much better than Labour.

But what of the candidates? David Miliband has it all to lose, but looks the most statesmanlike of the quintet . . . in a kind of seen-it-before, Blair way. Is he a good choice for a party seeking to freshen up and reposition itself? Of course, he is also the most tainted by association with the past and I’m just not feeling that comprehensive education he likes to remind me of. I thought Ed Miliband looked desperate and in-your-face, trying to score some cheap and pretty unconvincing points on Iraq. Balls tried to appear ‘common man’ but just seemed blustering and strangely ill-prepared – the biggest loser on the night? Abbott did well but sometimes her piety can come across as a tad sanctimonious. She did, however, show that chivalry is not dead and patiently waited for the men to cede time to her – it worked – I guess we should feel pleased. Burnham also did well although he needs to move on from the ‘I’m a Northerner’ spiel and learn to assert himself more – he was crowded out at times.

The debate failed to engage in the way I’m sure the candidates hoped – and much of the blame has to lie with a hectoring Paxman who dominated proceedings in a thoroughly unhelpful way. Because this should be an exciting time for the Labour party. An opportunity to ask itself what it represents, its core values and the direction it wants to take for the next 10 years (let’s not assume they’ll be back in power at the first attempt). The candidates have spoken of the breadth of the field yet struggled to make their differences clear – surely this is what people want to know. Where do you stand on a variety of issues and why.

You go first Ed!

But this didn’t really happen. So my mind wandered. As I looked at them I was overcome by two thoughts. Firstly, the spectrum of red ties available on the British high street is much smaller than you might think. And, possibly more importantly, three of them don’t blink enough. It’s just weird and disconcerting. I like my politicians to blink. It’s one of the first ways I try to relate to them. Look at Obama – he portrays himself as a risk taker but is strictly establishment – he holds till the last possible moment . . . . it’s all in the anticipation . . . then blink – the tension is relieved. Clegg understands this, even Cameron sometimes gives it a go – but you’ve got to know when to stop.

I’m afraid the most likely candidates for Labour leader just haven’t got what it takes.

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Havelock Schmavelock

 On a Sunday I like to dip into the world of the common man. But while I’ll fight for the rights of the proletariat all week, I don’t necessarily want to mix with them in a physical way at the weekend – that’s my time after all. So instead I buy a tabloid newspaper. I have no loyalties, but prefer to pick at whim, avoiding Kerry Katona where possible.

And it was during one such grubby encounter that I came across a double page spread about Havelock Academy in the News of the World http://tinyurl.com/243muqy . The report and the figures included quite clearly show this to be a shining example of the potential effect academy status can have on a school.

The remarkable transformation of failing Havelock Comp – where three years ago four out of five pupils failed to notch up five decent GCSEs – came when tycoon David Ross decided to sponsor a school in his home town of Grimsby.

The founder of The Carphone Warehouse, along with his new headteacher Nicholas O’Sullivan – a former Dominican friar – took the comprehensive over and freed it from council control.

 . . . the implication being that council control (and a nasty Labour one at that) had previously been holding it back.  But is there any basis for this?

No-one can argue with the fact that results have indeed improved. A 20% improvement in a year has to be commended – but simple changes can have big repercussions at that end of the performance table. What is more interesting is whether this school merits such a puff, when many millions later three out of five pupils fail to get five ‘decent’ GCSEs.

Havelock Academy is, by any current measure, an underperforming school. Even now. It was inspected by Ofsted in January 2010 and judged to be ‘satisfactory’. This is not a vague, descriptive term – schools are awarded a rating from 1 to 4 – outstanding, good, satisfactory or unsatisfactory (and potentially in to special measures). ‘Satisfactory’ is not ‘good’ and is certainly not good enough.

But it can be hard for schools in deprived areas to get a good Ofsted rating, so let’s look at some other indicators. The best single statistic to judge a school by is its Contextual Value Added (CVA) – are the children improving as a result of the actions of the school against national yearly progress expectations taking account of a range of socio-economic factors. A score of 1000 means children are in line with expectation – which is fine. Anything above that means the school is adding value. Havelock has a CVA below 1000, even allowing for a best case scenario with a margin of error (CVA confidence interval)  http://tinyurl.com/2wxau8z . Their CVA is significantly negative. That’s bad. With 60% of children NOT getting 5 decent A-C grades at GCSE and a significantly negative CVA, a less fortunate school may have found itself with an unsatisfactory Ofsted.

Indeed, the ‘miraculous’ improvement at Havelock is not enough to put them in the top 100 most improved schools in the country on the last available figures http://tinyurl.com/36xupx4 .  Looking through the list there are very few academies cited – just lots of rapidly and sustainably improving schools, still under local council control, and in some cases in even less favourable circumstances (eg inner city boys’ schools in deprived areas).  These schools’ achievements have been made without the much vaunted ability to pay higher wages to teaching staff (who richly deserve it), or any of the other unique benefits academy status can allegedly bring. Looking through the figures it can be seen that improvements of the scale of Havelock’s are not as uncommon as might have been reasonably assumed from the coverage given.

I don’t have a problem with Havelock’s achievements per se – they have quite obviously made significant improvements and should feel duly proud of themselves. Look back in another three or four years and they may indeed be the pudding that provides the proof. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the News of the World have mis- or over favourably interpreted the school’s figures . I don’t look to the News of the World for a rigorous approach to editorial and comment. I was more surprised to see the provenance of the story – sure enough, there was Education Secretary, Michael Gove, singing the academy’s praises to the media http://tinyurl.com/3yqaw9j .

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, may not be the best person to assess children's needs.

Now, a cynical person might suggest that the only reason Havelock Academy are being singled out for such praise is that David Ross has donated more than £130,000 to the Conservative Party and is a key education adviser to them. Of course I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. And to be fair there is no evidence of this beyond coincidence. But the extrapolation from a set of still iffy results and an iffier Ofsted that this school shows the benefits of freedom from council control is a step too far.  The interpretation is rose-tinted and misleading. You don’t have to look too closely to see that the conclusions being drawn are inaccurate.

Havelock Academy may well have benefited from their academy status – but it does not provide evidence that academy status is the best, or indeed the only way to manage long-term, sustainable improvements in education.

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Blogging Schmogging

 It seems unlikely that the world is in need of another blogger and yet my egocentricity and vanity tell me that rather than rant like a mad person to yourself it is better to rant into the ether. There are those who would suggest that a blog with no readers is the same thing . . . but I like to think there is a crucial difference – hypothetical people might, one day, accidentally when looking for something better else, stumble upon it and read these words of wisdom.

Indeed, my world doesn’t often intersect with that of the bloggerati very often. But this week I found myself in the company of a group of people whose first question was ‘what’s your name?’ and second was ‘do you have a blog?’. Apparently, by virtue of having gone to a SITP event, I was deemed to be as potentially interesting and informed as the people around me undeniably were. This was nice. I felt valued and clever. They were wrong.

If there is any difference between blogging and ranting (and in poor examples I’m yet to be convinced there is) surely it is because of the need for a point, a continuous narrative. That’s been my stumbling block so far. But you can’t keep a good woman quiet so we’ll leave that as the elephant in the room and hope that one day we’ll look back and see the blindingly obvious fact that all my posts are unified by their common . . . . (tbc?)

I do think it is pretty inevitable that there will be plenty of blogs centred around education and politics. . . the curveball may be a bit of football when I can’t resist. Give me a break – there’s a World Cup about to start.

My first blog proper will almost certainly be about a beacon of academic excellence, the pudding that is the alleged proof – Havelock Academy.

http://london.skepticsinthepub.org/

http://westminster.skepticsinthepub.org/

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