Spoil sport

I suspect Queen Polly is right on this one. History may well judge David Miliband to have lost the leadership election at exactly this point, with Mandelson foolishly attacking Ed Miliband and Blair almost certain to come out in support of David, although I suspect Blair will be rather more subtle in his approach in this, his book launch week.

In fact, it seems to me so obvious that the endorsement of Mandelson and Blair is unhelpful to David Miliband, one might well ask oneself, why do it? Are they trying to ruin it for everyone? That’s one rather novelistic take on it. Far more worldly Labour friends of mine take a different view; they think the intervention of the Old Guard might well swing it for David. Either way, silence about one’s successors is usually a wise course. Very rarely does a figure like Neil Kinnock come along, with the largeness of spirit to support a more successful later leader but the political courage to criticise his policies.

Interesting how our final judgement of political personalities so often comes down to values, and not how much money or glamour or fame or even how many votes they won.

But therein lies the paradox, for a successful political leader must, of course, win power.

That’s one reason why I am supporting Ed Miliband. He has decent personal and political values, is a warm man, genuinely interested in listening to others, a hugely underrated quality in politics, and has, I believe, the courage and self awareness to withstand the terrible pressures of power and leadership, political triumph and possible disaster: ‘to treat those two impostors just the same.’ Just as importantly, over the past few months he has set out a credible if modest stall for social and economic change.

In other words, I think he, too, can win power. And do something significant with it.

The Miller’s Tale

The opening sentence of Jane Miller’s new book is stark. “I am old and I feel and look old.” In person, however, she seems anything but. As we saunter along Kings Road in London, she in her light grey Converse trainers and short black coat, I am struck by how raffishly youthful she appears. A deft emailer with a razor-sharp mind and an unusual openness to life’s more uncomfortable truths, Miller, now 77, swims every morning in her local pool and is currently reading War and Peace for the third time, this time in Russian, taking “three pages slowly and carefully each morning”. If this is what 77 looks and feels like, I think, in a selfish burst of late-afternoon cheer, there’s a lot to look forward to…….

For the rest of Melissa Benn’s interview with Jane Miller in Saturday’s Guardian, please read on here.

Free Schools: not for turning.

Below, an amended version of Melissa Benn’s latest blog on the Public Finance website

So it looks like only a handful of Free Schools will be opening in 2011, and some high profile projects like Toby Young’s West London Free School might be delayed for a year or two. Following on from the PR disasters of the BSF funding announcements and the widespread criticism of the way that the Academies Bill was pushed through the Commons in late July, it looks as if the Coalition’s flagship education policy is in trouble.

Not a bit of it. Gove got off to an unsteady start and the summer break will surely lead him to reflect on his department’s manner of policy presentation, if not its substance. This autumn, I suspect we will see a rather more sober Gove, emphasising caution and caring at every turn.

Clever politician that he is, he might even argue that the slow start to the Free Schools project is actually a good thing, indicating that government is playing it by the book and that the new schools are subject to the same financial and planning strictures as the maintained sector.

And yesterday’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report showing that the government’s austerity drive is going to hit the poor the hardest will only confirm to Gove and co the need to keep arguing that their education policy is there to help the disadvantaged.

The pupil premium will be introduced in the coming months; who knows, perhaps around the time of the potentially restive Lib Dem conference? But whatever the timing, expect much to be made of it, even though many hard-pressed headteachers I’ve spoken to say that even in their schools, with high numbers of students on free school meals, its introduction is unlikely to make up even a fraction of the shortfall left by other cuts.

But for all this, there will be no change of heart or direction from government on the schools front. The so called Free Schools and the new ‘outstanding’ academies are at the heart of the Coalition’s determination to break up state provision and introduce private initiative and finance at all levels of the welfare state.

Of course, a few schools will flourish; backed by corporate capital, powered forward by influential figures, drawing on the most talented pool of pupils, how can they fail? And of course, they will include in their ranks some of the country’s poorest but most talented pupils whom you can be sure, come results day, like yesterday, will be pushed to the front of all publicity photographs.

But what about the schools in those areas decimated by economic changes of the last few decades, struggling with polarised and deeply pessimistic communities? Will they be able to generate the same sparkling transforming institutions?

Slashes to the mainstream education budget will hit local schools in poor areas, and the increasingly marginalised local authorities, losing central finance to the new academies and free schools, will be hard pushed to offer them the support they need.

This is the real story of this government’s education policy. It’s got nothing to do with Latin in state schools or celebrity journalists turned wise old pedagogues. It concerns the right to a decent education for the poorest citizens of our nation.

We should judge the Coalition and the success of their education policy by the future and fate and of these citizens and these communities. Whether the Free Schools fling open their doors next September or the September afterwards matters very little to that central question.

Melissa Benn is a writer and journalist. Her latest book on education in the modern age, The New Class Wars, will be published next autumn by Verso.

Indeed they do….

‘Stop knocking comprehensives. They work’.

Bloody hell.

That was my first thought on discovering the author of this spirited post on comprehensives on the Guardian website. I don’t agree with everything in it but it’s such a rare genre, the pro comprehensive piece, that I have to reproduce it, even if it does come from a strange stable, politically speaking.