Friday, October 06, 2006

The Guardian tells a lie

The Guardian does not often tell a deliberate lie on its front page - that's why I read it in preference to more right-wing rags. I remember one - a story about US pollution illustrated by a factory chimney belching black smoke - except that it was, in reality, condensing steam against a dawn sky. Today - and probably for the same reason of wanting to sell newspapers - they lie again.

"Take off the veil, says Straw" shouts the headline. He said nothing of the sort - as well they know, as they print the truth later on (and I am glad to see that their website sees no need to lie).

I line up alongside Jack Straw on this one. People should within reason be free to wear what they want, but they should understand the effect that their decision has on others. None of us feel comfortable having a one-way conversation, whether it's the veil, dark glasses or 'my webcam's broken'. The "Muslim anger" seems to be mostly rent-an-extremist - blame the media and this government's preference for 'people who can deliver' for their prominence.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

One exam system for all?

The Independent today runs a leading article bemoaning the fragmentation of the English examination system, with schools threatening to break away from GCSE and A level. Andrew Boggis, chairman of the HMC, seems to be much distressed. To which I have replied:

"One exam system for all? Oh please no. Uniformity always comes at a cost, and has to be justified. What benefits would a uniform exam system bring? Universities don't need it -- they already deal with a plethora of examination systems worldwide. Employers don't need it -- they are used to evaluating a wide range of technical qualifications. If we need some common metric to enable us to understand how diverse qualifications relate to each other, then this is well provided for by both the UCAS and the QCA. Anyway, the examination system is irretrievably fragmented -- the International Baccalaureate and the Scottish system are well established here, other systems of education such as Steiner and Montessori are growing apace, and when it comes to our flourishing overseas education business it is the IGCSE that the British Council promotes. And then there is the whole vocational and quasi-vocational system.

Let us rather celebrate the enormous advantages that a diverse system of qualifications will bring to us. Parents and schools will be able to choose the qualifications that are best suited to their children and to their objectives -- control will pass from a central bureaucracy to the people who are really capable of taking the decisions. Competition between systems will result in continuing improvements in quality and fitness for purpose -- characteristics which have become steadily degraded in our moribund monolithic GCSE and A level system. Schools rather than panicking politicians will control the pace of change -- they will move from one examination to another when they are ready to do so, rather than having to live with a single system in constant turmoil.

Don't shackle the Independent -- free the state."

What's the point of having someone running the independent schools' organisation who does not like independence?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Faith schools - momentum gathers

Cameron's final speech - heartlifting - included a firm commitment to all faith schools following the Church of England's lead and admitting 25% of non-faith members. I'll be putting this to the test when we return to the education bill, and with luck we'll push the government into going along with the policy.

No link, as no speech on the party website yet - perhaps it's stuck in the queue.

Bailiffs on the run

Excellent news on the bailiff front --the Whistleblower programme has broken the stalemate, the police are looking into its allegations, and the "Association of Civil Enforcement Agents" have opened their own inquiry into the allegations:

"BBC Whistleblower Programme - Independent Enquiry
October 03, 2006
The Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies has invited Philip Evans to chair an independent enquiry into issues arising from the BBC Whistleblower programme about bailiffs broadcast on 26 September 2006. Mr Evans is a former civil servant with the Lord Chancellor’s Department who worked on bailiff law and policy. Since he left LCD in 1997, Mr Evans has worked with the UK's professional bodies representing enforcement agents; he is a founder member of the Enforcement Raw Reform Group and has chaired the Group since 2002. The Group brings together representatives of the enforcement industry, the credit industry, creditor groups and the advice sector to promote comprehensive bailiff law reform.The rest of the review panel and its terms of reference will be announced shortly. ACEA hopes the panel will be able to report before the end of October 2006.Mr Evans can be contacted on 020 8319 8888 and at . His website is ."

A truly amazing website, the bailiffs have -- pictures of happy smiling civilised people. You wouldn't know what business they were in.

If this all runs well, then I am going to have to learn to be nice about bailiffs, as we shall be working together on a way of regulating their activities.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Faith schools

Ah, government movement at last.

The title of links to the recent Department of Education press announcement "JOHNSON WELCOMES ACTION BY FAITH LEADERS TO EXTEND CHOICE AND SUPPORT COMMUNITY COHESION".

The Church of England, bless its cotton socks, has committed itself to making available at least a quarter of the places in its new schools to non-church families. I find this a most welcome step away from the religious ghettoisation which otherwise threatenes our schools if the proposed expansion of faith schools takes place. The current situation is bad enough -- almost all the Church of England schools round me are totally exclusive, the Catholics of course ditto, making for severe social exclusion because, as ever, the middle classes have learnt how to work the system.

I am going to do my best to support moves to take this further when we get back to the Education Bill the week after next. Firstly, I see no reason why this 25% principle should not apply to all faith schools -- the great Catholic independent schools already have at least that percentage of other denominations and faiths, and suffer not a whit from that. Secondly, we need to make sure that the rules can't be got round -- my local Church of England primary School, for instance, nominally allows 25% of non-church members but, in fact, you also have to qualify as being a child in care or with special educational needs, so the school ends up totally Anglican because none do.

The Catholics will squeak, not least because the shortage of good non-Catholic secondary schools in central London is a marvellous recruiting sergeant for them, but I am determined that we should not end up looking like Glasgow or Northern Ireland when it comes to religious segregation, and that Muslim state schools (to whom the rules should also apply) should be outward looking and welcoming of non Muslims, rather than turned inwards.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A cheering Conservative conference

Just back from Bournemouth. It's been a cheerful event.

The moment which impressed me most was in the first fringe I attended -- John Gummer's quality of life group presentation. Nick Hurd, rather nervously I thought, asked three quick questions of his audience -- had we seen Al Gore's film? (30% yes), do we believe that climate change is a serious problem? (80% yes), do we know how much carbon emission we are each responsible for in a year? (5% said they knew). Not that the answers have great intrinsic interest, but I felt, and I think that others felt too, that this was a process of discovery for us. We are told we have moved as a party, but of course this has been a personal experience for each of us -- what we are discovering at the conference is whether the rest of us have moved too.

The answer, I am very glad to realise, is that we have (by and large) moved in the same direction, and that as we all listened to Cameron in a hall packed to the rafters, we felt confident of the move that we had made.

It showed in other fringes that I attended too. John Hayes and Nick Gibb displaying their talent, commitment, energy and determination -- completely unshackled by any requirement to produce a policy rabbit out of the hat. As someone who is enthusiastically taking part in the policy review process, I am delighted to see this determination to take policy formation slowly.

Reading that back to myself, I can see that "cheerful" is a serious understatement of the mood that this conference has left me in.

Apart from waiting for a pass, and getting soaked in the rain today, the only bad moments have been running into UKIP outside and the Scientologists inside (they have for reasons which entirely baffle me been allowed a stand in the conference centre. Who next? The Moonies? ) I reacted like Mrs Tittlemouse encountering Babbitty Bumble: "this is an intrusion!'' "I will have them turned out -- '' "Buzz! Buzz! Buzzz!'' -- "I wonder who would help me?'' "Bizz, Wizz, Wizzz!'' Sadly, no Mr Jackson appeared.