Monday, 12 December 2016

My top 15 books of 2016

For the last five years I've written down every book I read, partly for the obvious reason that otherwise I'd forget, but also because I'm lazy and it's a really easy way to keep a diary. Looking at the book I was reading on any given date gives me the context to recreate everything else I was doing then - who I was with; where I was etc...etc..

Anyway I read roughly 40-50 books a year so I've gone through this year's list and picked my top 15 in case you're stuck for some holiday reading or a Christmas present. In the order in which I read them....

1) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his son this short, emotionally-charged book looks at the history of American racism through episodes in the author's life. Inspired by James Baldwin and, I'd say, just as good as anything he wrote, it won the US National Book Award in 2015.

2) The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Coincidentally another National Book Award winner this is a history of the rediscovering of Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" and about 100 times more interesting than that sounds. I knew nothing about the original poem or about the late medieval book hunters who saved such treasures from extinction. I'd have liked a broader discussion about the poem's place in the Renaissance - the recent historiography of which Greenblatt pretty much ignores - but it's fascinating on its own terms.

3) The Iron Wall by Avi Shlaim

I've been searching for years for a scrupulously fair guide to Israeli/Arab conflict in a field where so many books are written from a deeply partisan perspective. The best I'd found before was Ahron Bregman's "Cursed Victory" but that only covers more recent decades. The Iron Wall takes us all the way from the founding of Israel to the present day and shows compellingly how the remorseless logic of Israeli politics, combined with the weaknesses of Palestinian leaders has made peace impossible. It's difficult to come away from reading it with any hope that a solution can be found.

4) Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich 

The best book I read this year. One of the best books I've ever read. Alexievich's unique style involves weaving hundreds of interviews into a complex narrative that, in this case, tells the story of Post Soviet Russia. Individually the stories are interesting and moving but somehow she turns the collective into something equivalent to the best modernist literature. It was gripping, beautifully written (and translated) and also taught me more about Putin's success than any number of conventional non-fiction books. 

5) Silk Road by Peter Frankopan

An ambitious history of the world that takes central Asia as the centre of global movements over the ages. Taught me a huge amount about empires and civilizations that aren't mentioned in the English school curriculum including the incredible story of the Turkic Khazar tribe that converted to Judaism in the eighth century and allied with the Byzantine empire against the Persians.

6) King of the World by David Remnick

When Muhammad Ali died in June reading all the tributes inspired me to read this biography of the five years between 1962-1967 when Ali, at the peak of his career, refused the draft and was banned from boxing. As well as great set piece accounts of the key fights Remnick is particularly good on Ali's relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. I also read Thomas Hauser's more detailed biography of Ali which covers his whole career. But start with Remnick.

7) On the Move by Oliver Sacks

Sacks' autobiography, completed just before he died last year, offers brutally honest insights into his neuroses and paranoias as well as extraordinary descriptions of the creative process in action. He also crossed paths with any number of fascinating poets, statesmen and scientists which adds to the richness. 

8) Revolution 1989 by Victor Sebestyen 

A great history of the most important year of my life even though I didn't know it at the time (being 8). I knew the basic story of the fall of Communism but this added lots of detail about the differences between each of the Warsaw Pact countries. The complete bafflement of East German leader Erich Honecker as his world collapsed around his was particularly memorable. He even voted for his own sacking to keep up the tradition that all votes of the East German ruling council were unanimous.

9) Submission by Michel Houllebecq

It's impossible to tell how tongue in cheek Houllebecq is being, which is one reason why reading his novels is simultaneously so uncomfortable yet so fun. Narrated by a typically unpleasant misogynist it has a Muslim party winning the French presidency in 2022, helped by the socialists who are desperate to block the National Front. Weirdly it was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, garnering it even more attention than Houllebecq usually gets.

10) The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

Another controversial French novel - this one from a few years ago - written from the perspective of a Nazi officer explaining, and excusing, his horrendous crimes. It's about 300 pages too long (1,000 pages in total) and drifts off badly towards the end, but the central section, in which the narrator sets out his experiences on the Eastern front, is as good as any war literature I've read. Don't read it on the train into work though. More than once I found myself sitting in an early morning meeting thinking more about the horrors of Stalingrad than whatever I was supposed to be concentrating on.

11) All out War by Tim Shipman

I have absolutely no idea how Shipman was able to write a fluent, comprehensive, 600 page guide to the crazy events of our political summer in a few months but somehow he did and I'm grateful. Easily the best Brexit book and particularly nostalgic for me as I worked, in a previous life, with the leaders of the Leave campaign (albeit that I was and am a Remainer).

12) A Different Kind of Weather by William Waldegrave

I only read this because John Rentoul kept tweeting sections of it but it's one of the most honest political memoirs you'll find, describing the insane ambition that drives so many in Westminster from the perspective of someone who now realises how daft it all is. It's also extremely well written, which helps.

13), 14) and 15) Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I'm reading Harris' trilogy on Cicero at the moment and it's absolutely wonderful. Harris expertly weaves Cicero's real speeches in with speculation about some of the key events in the history of Rome. Also, as the tale of oligarchs who use whip up cheap populism to smash the key institutions of the state it feels pretty relevant.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

How will GB do in Tokyo?

The performance of the GB team in Rio has been exceptional but not hugely surprising. I had projected they would be third in the medal table with 22 gold medals and 56 medals overall with good chances in over 100 events. For those of us who obsessively follow Olympic sports between games it was clear that GB would be extremely competitive in a wide range of events.

2nd place in the medal table was a bonus caused largely by China's decline since topping the table in Beijing - they've finished nine golds and around 15 medals below projections. And, over the longer term, the collapse of sports administration (and state doping programmes) in former USSR and Warsaw Pact countries.

The decline of China is something of a warning to GB. Both China and Australia followed up home games with strong performances in the following Olympics - though GB is the first to get a higher medal total - but both then declined as politicians lost interest and funding reduced.

So can GB buck the trend and continue to improve at Tokyo? A quick overview of the key sports suggests it's possible:

The athletics team will see the greatest transition as it's unlikely that Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Christine Ohuruogu will appear in Tokyo. As they're responsible for nine out of GB's thirteen athletics medals in London and Rio their retirements will leave a big hole to fill. There have, though, been enough strong performances from young athletes to make it possible. On the men's side Adam Gemili (22) missed out on a 200m medal by thousands of a second. And Matt Hudson-Smith (21) made one of the most competitive 400m finals in history. Andrew Butchart (24) came fourth in the 5k behind Mo Farah becoming the third fastest Brit in history after Mo and David Moorcroft.

On the women's side Dina Asher-Smith (21) came fifth in the 200m and her PB would have won a bronze. She also won a 4x100 bronze alongside two excellent 100m prospects - Desiree Henry (20) and Daryl Neita (19). Cindy Ofili (22) has had a breakthrough season this year and missed out on a 100m hurdles bronze by 0.02 hundredths of a second. Sophie Hitchon (25) won a hammer bronze with the two in front of her too old to make the next Olympics. Katarina Johnson-Thompson (23) clearly has the talent to get a heptathlon gold in Tokyo if she can conquer her nerves and look out for Morgan Lake (19) who reached the high jump final in Rio.

The track cycling team should be more or less the same in Toyko as in Rio bar Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. And there are a whole load of young cyclists behind them waiting to step up in the case of injuries and early retirements. Look out for Lewis Oliva (24) in the men's sprint; Jon Dibben (22) and Mark Stewart (21) in the pursuit/omnium  and on the women's side Emily Nelson (20) and Emily Kay (21). Whether GB is as dominant in Tokyo as in Rio/London/Beijing will depend on the rest of the world's ability to catch up.

The swimming team probably has the greatest potential for improvement. There are 34 golds available in swimming - 2nd only to athletics - and GB have only won three this century (Becky Addlington x2 and now Adam Peaty). GB's performance in Rio was much better that London - increasing from 3 to 6 medals and another 7 fourth places - nearly all achieved by young swimmers who should be in Tokyo. Peaty is just 21 and I'd love to see him try and develop his 200m breaststroke to give him the chance of two golds in 2020. Siobhan Marie O'Connor (20) came agonisingly close to gold in the 200m individual medley and has the potential to be challenging for 3 or 4 golds in four years time.

James Guy (20) came fourth in the 200m freestyle after winning the world championships last year and could be in the mix for 2 or 3 golds in four years time. Max Litchfield (21) came fourth in the 400 individual medley and has improved his PB a lot this year. As did Ben Proud (21) in the 50m freestyle. Duncan Scott (19) smashed the British record in the 100m freestyle and came fifth in the final. And Chloe Tutton (20) came fourth in the 200m breaststroke having broken the British Record earlier in the year (she'd have won a medal if the Russian Efimova's ban had been upheld days before the games). And look out for a few excellent prospects who were a bit young for Rio - Emily Large (just 15) in butterfly and Tazmin Pugh (16) in butterfly and backstroke.

Collectively this is the most talented group of young swimmers outside of the US and they should peak in Tokyo - potentially winning five or six golds.

The gymnastics squad probably had the most impressive Olympics of any GB team in Rio with almost as many medals as GB has won in all previous games. On the men's side the core of the team Max Whitlock (23), Nile Wilson (20) and Brinn Bevan (19) will be peaking in Tokyo. If they can find one more world class gymnast by then they could challenge for the all-around title (look out for Jay Thompson - 20 - to come through into the senior ranks). On the women's side it doesn't seem the US dominance will be challenged anytime soon but Amy Tinkler (16) - who won floor bronze in Rio - is a huge prospect. Look out as well for junior champions Catherine Lyons (15) and Tyesha Mattis (17) to turn the team into a real all-around medal contender.

The rowing team were one of the few in Rio to miss their medal target even though they topped the medal table for the regatta - so certainly room for improvement. Most of the rowers in the winning men's four and men's eight crews are young enough to keep going and should be able to maintain dominance. Helen Glover (32) and Heather Stanning (33) could just about make Tokyo if they want to mount another defence of their title. The main areas for improvement are on the lightweight side where GB won no medals this time having won three in London and sculling where Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley were our only medalists.

Elsewhere most of our Rio champions should be back to defend their titles. Nick Skelton has said he'll retire at 58; Charlotte Dujardin is certainly young enough to compete again but her horse Valegro isn't; Liam Heath is 32 so probably won't make another games; Nicola Adams will be 38 in Tokyo but hasn't ruled out staying on. Everyone else is definitely young enough to come back. Joe Clarke in kayak slalom is just 23. Double diving medalist Jack Laugher is 21 and synchro partner Chris Mears is 23. Giles Scott and Hannah Mills (though not her partner Saskia Clark) will back in the sailing. And Jade Jones (23) / Alistair Brownlee (28) will be able to defend their titles for a third time.

The overall impression is that, as long as national lottery investment continues as roughly the same levels, GB should be able to perform at least as well if not better in Tokyo. If they can maintain dominance in track cycling and push on to five or six swimming golds then a target of 30+ golds and 75 medals should be achievable.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The 10 key education headlines from the spending review


  • The Autumn Statement was published today. Overall DfE spending will fall just 1.1% over the next four years. Even in the "unprotected" areas that were expected to be cut by around 25% reductions are much lower - somewhere between 5 and 10%. While this is much better than feared it still means providers across the sector will be seeing significant reductions in spending power over the next few years.


  • The 5-16 school budget is protected in real terms. This means that the amount of money currently given to schools will increase in line with expected inflation. However it does not take into account the additional 500k pupils coming into the system over the next five years so will still mean a 7-8% cut for schools (also taking into account changes to employer pensions and national insurance). This is a slightly better deal than was promised before the election.
  • The extra cash in the schools settlement will help the transition to the National Funding Formula which will start in 2017. There will be a consultation in Jan/Feb next year but we know it will be a phased introduction so schools that lose out won't get the full hit all at once.
  • The Education Services Grant, which is currently £820m, and gives a per pupil amount to local authorities and academies to pay for a variety of services is being cut by £600m. This is the only new big cut in the DfE settlement. It will take about £90k out of the budget of a large academy. The remaining money left over will presumably be used to cover LAs statutory duties and the DfE will also look to reduce the number of statutory duties to help.
  • £1.3bn over four years will be provided for teacher recruitment and training. It's pretty hard to tell what this is being compared to. But I reckon it means funding will continue more or less in line with current spending.
  • Capital budgets are essentially flat in cash terms. So existing maintenance and basic needs grants will stay at similar levels and the Priority Schools Rebuilding programme will continue at the same rate. The 500 free school commitment will be met.


  • The base rate paid for all post-16 pupils is protected in cash terms (i.e. won't go up in line with inflation). We don't yet know if the other aspects of the post-16  formula (e.g. disadvantage) will take a greater cut. Either way it's a better outcome than many feared as this protection wasn't offered before the election.
  • Sixth form colleges will now be able to convert to academy status which means they won't have to pay VAT. This is a very significant saving for these colleges and helps simplify the system a bit.

Early Years

  • There will be an additional 15 funded hours of childcare for three and four year olds as promised in the Conservative manifesto. These hours will only be available to those families where no parent earns more than £100k and where both parents work (equivalent to 16 hours of work at the minimum wage).
  • There will be an increase in the hourly rate paid to childcare providers from 2017. The new rate swill be £4.88 for 3/4 year olds and £5.39 for 2 year olds.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

ResearchED 2015 Presentation: The 5 Big Policy Challenges for the New Government

I don't usually share presentations as I'm not sure mine ever make much sense out of context. But a few people asked for this one on policy challenges for the new Government.

(For the record I did offer a few solutions to some of the problems set out in the paper during the talk...)

Monday, 6 April 2015

The birth of a zombie statistic

Last week the "i" newspaper splashed on a startling statistic: "40% of teachers leave within one year". It has since been repeated in the Guardian, Times, Mail, Observer and probably hundreds of other places.* It was cited in this weeks' Any Questions. It's been tweeted by thousands of people.

The only problem is that it's entirely untrue. 9% of teachers leave in their first year (Table C2). It's been 9 or 10% a year every year for the last 20 years. This isn't particularly interesting; it isn't news; but it is true.

The 40% figure comes from ATL - who press released the numbers to generate publicity for their annual conference. To be fair to ATL they never claimed that 40% of teachers leave within the first year. Their claim was that 40% of those who achieve qualified teacher status (QTS) aren't teaching after a year - this includes people who qualified but then never went into a teaching job in the first place. They generated this number by adding the 9% who leave in the first year to another table showing 10,800 people (roughly a third) who achieved QTS in 2011 never started teaching (Table I2).

Even if this number was correct all the newspaper reports would still be wrong because they're making a claim about the numbers who start teaching and then leave within a year. However, the 10,800 number is also wrong because it is generated from pensions data which omits certain groups of people. The correct data to use if you want to see how many people gain QTS and then don't start teaching is here in Table 5. This shows just 15% of those who gained QTS in 2012 were either not in a teaching job or had an "unknown" status six months after completion. It was 16% in 2011 (Table 1).

This matters because the 40% figure creates a false narrative about a profession in crisis. I agree with ATL that teacher workload is too high - often driven by nonsense compliance rules around marking and planning. I agree that it's a very stressful and tiring job and that many first year teachers don't get the support they need. But the vast majority of those who start teaching do stay and succeed. Exaggerating the problem through dodgy statistics risks putting off new entrants to the profession - which we really can't afford to do at the moment given an improving economy and changes to teacher training are creating serious recruitment issues.

*Massive credit to Schools Week for being the only publication to realise there was something dodgy about the statistic.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

What we should have put in the White Paper

One of the problems with the education debate in England is the tendency to focus on the merits of individual policies - “should we decouple A-levels?”; “are free schools working?” – rather than thinking strategically about what we’d like the system to look like and then using that template for making policy decisions.

My big regret about the 2010 White Paper is that it reads too much like a laundry list of policies rather than a set of design principles for system reform. The vision of a school-led system is explicit but there’s too little about what that means. Having a clearer set of design principles would have made it much easier to explain how various policies fitted into the overall picture and would have provided a firebreak against Ministers/No. 10 inserting their own random or contradictory policies into the mix.

So what would the core building blocks for a genuinely school-led system look be? I think there are three keys elements: school autonomy; accountability and capacity-building.

Autonomy is important because it leads to: faster decision-making as you don’t have to wait for a request to go up the chain; innovation because not everyone is following the same model; accuracy because decisions are based on local information rather than aggregated information at the national or regional level.

Accountability is important because transparent information leads to: the ability to uphold minimum standards; schools being able to benchmark their performance against others and identify areas for improvement; parents being able to more accurately assess their options.

But autonomy and accountability aren’t enough. The latter creates incentives to perform well (along, of course, with teachers’ typically high intrinsic motivation) and the former gives the agency to perform well but neither give them the capacity to perform well if they don’t know how. This is why my third building block is capacity-building. A school-led system needs the institutional infrastructure to broker support between strong and weaker schools without impeding their autonomy.

At the moment we have all the elements of this system but the balance is not yet right. Autonomy is impeded by an accountability system that is too punitive and the infrastructure for capacity-building is under-resourced and patchy. The links between the accountability system and capacity-building are too weak leaving struggling schools unclear what they need to do to improve (though the introduction of Regional Schools Commissioners has mitigated this to some extent).

So what might a set of principles based on these elements, which would allow us to realign the system, look like?


1)      Schools should have authority over all their functions apart from those that require co-ordination between schools (e.g. exclusions; admissions; place planning).

2)      Where functions need to be carried out above the school level they should – where possible – be done through collective agreement at the local level.

3)      Schools should be funded consistently regardless of where they are in the country so they have the necessary resources to fulfil their functions.


1)      Accountability should be based on outputs (e.g. test results; destination data) and not inputs (e.g. whether a particular form of pedagogy is being practised).

2)      The consequences of accountability should be proportionate and in particular should not disadvantage schools with lower-attaining intakes.

3)      Accountability systems should reward collaborative behaviour where it leads to improvements.

4)      All data/information should be published (unless doing so would break data protection law).


1)      Where schools are considered to be below a minimum standard there should be immediate intervention.

2)      For all schools the accountability system should be linked to means of getting support for areas requiring improvement.

3)      Support should be available to all schools regardless of where they are in the country.

I’ve come up with these suggestions by myself and in a hurry so they’re unlikely to be right and certainly aren’t exhaustive. My aim is to illustrate the sort of discussion we should be having. Are these the right principles? If not why and what should we have instead? If they are right what would have to change in the system to ensure they were kept?

Thursday, 12 February 2015

What do Labour's spending plans mean for schools?

Last week I wrote this on the Conservatives plans for school spending. My conclusion was that over the next Parliament their plans would mean a 10.5% cut to the amount schools get per pupil (depending on inflation).

Today it was Labour's turn to announce their plans. They pledged to increase the schools' budget in line with inflation and, unlike the Conservatives, they have extended this to include early years and 16-19 provision.

On the face of it this looks like a much better pledge for schools. And for early years / 16-19 institutions it is. However, Labour haven't pledged to increase budgets per pupil. So while the current budget for schools (5-16) will increase in line with inflation it won't be increased to take account of the very substantial increase in pupil numbers over the next Parliament. I estimate this will mean a cut to the amount schools get per pupil of 9.5% compared to the Conservatives 10.5%.

Here's my working:

  • The DfE predicts there will be 566k more pupils in 2020 than in 2015. As these children have mostly been born already this is a fairly safe prediction. Average per pupil costs are £4.5k a year but there will be larger proportionate increases in secondary and special school places which are more expensive than primary. When this distribution is taken into account (see detailed working at the end of the post*) the total cost is = £2.85 billion. The current schools budget is £41.6 billion so those additional pupils represent an effective 7% cut.
  • On top of this there are upcoming increases to schools contributions to teacher pensions and National Insurance that represent an effective 2.5% cut. These are explained in more detail in by blog on the Conservatives' plans.

This is actually much easier to calculate than the effect of the Conservative plans because it doesn't rely on assumptions about inflation. There will definitely be a cut in this range if pupil numbers rise as per projections. It also means that if inflation is lower than my assumptions the Conservative plans would actually better for schools than Labour's (unless they have a sixth form). Equally if inflation rises above my assumptions the Conservative cut grows whereas the Labour one stays the same.

Either way it now looks certain that schools will have a significant cut in their budgets over the next Parliament - though probably smaller than other public sector institutions outside of the NHS. All headteachers and business managers will need to work through the implications for their schools. Austerity is here to stay.

* According to the DfE figures there will be 307k more secondary pupils; 245k more primary pupils and 15k more pupils in special or alternative provision settings. The DfE doesn't publish per pupil rates for different stages but the average primary rate (before things like pupil premium and deprivation funding are added) was just under £3k. The KS3 rate was just over £4k and the KS4 rate was £4.6k. I have assumed the additional funding on top of this is roughly approximate between schools (primaries get more pupil premium but secondaries get more of other types of additional funding). Given the per pupil average is £4.5k I've calculated an additional primary place at £3.5.k and an additional secondary place at £5.75k (to balance KS3+ KS4). I've assigned a figure of £15k per place to special schools - this is definitely an underestimate but I can't find a source for the per pupil amount and I want to be conservative in my assumptions. So:

307k secondary pupils x £5750
245k primary pupils x £3500
15k special/AP pupils x £15000

= £2.85 billion.

Because of the lack of data this is an estimate and may be out by half a percentage point or so either way.