Across the opinion pages: the Master, technical schools, open spaces and prisoners

Nik Darlington 2.15pm

The Times (£) has a brilliant range of comment pieces published today, worth venturing behind the paywall to read. Opinion genuinely is one of the newspaper’s USPs, along with its beautiful and accessible multi-platform digital interface.

Tuesdays typically mean Rachel Sylvester’s unmissable column, and today she plays on a favourite theme, ‘the Master’. Often enough she has commented how Conservative party modernisers afford Tony Blair deified status, his autobiography a fixture of Tory bedside tables and playbook for the contemporary political scene. This week, however, it’s all about how everyone’s wrongly reading the Blairite tea leaves, including Ed Miliband.

The truth is that Mr Blair was authentically of the centre in a way that neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband is. He was an entryist who had taken control of his party, whereas the current Tory and Labour leaders are both, in background and beliefs, far more of their tribes. The success of new Labour was based on turning this reality into a political strategy that was pursued with ruthless efficiency and consistency. Everything that Mr Blair did and said - to begin with at least - was dedicated to demonstrating that he was more at home on the middle ground than in the Labour comfort zone…

Mr Blair took office promising new Labour would be the “servants of the people”. He lost power when the perception took hold that he wanted to be a Master of the Universe and his MPs turned on him. Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband have yet shown whether they are the servants of the people or their parties.

Rough reading for both leaders, who feel the weight of the former prime minister on their shoulders in more ways than one. And a reminder, yesterday, of Mr Blair’s uncommon talents.

Meanwhile, Lord Baker, an honorary life member of the TRG, writes about “a new wave of university technical colleges”. The Government is nearly doubling the number of these colleges, which supported by universities provide technical training to pupils between 14 and 19-years-old. Britain’s school leavers need more technical nous to compete in a challenging global marketplace.

We had a few technical schools at the end of the war but these were killed off by English snobbery. Everyone wanted to go the grammar school on the hill, not the one in the town with dirty jobs and oily rags. Germany didn’t make the same mistake: they adopted and still have the 1944 English education system and it is one of the reasons why Angela Merkel is ruling the roost. These colleges are our chance to rectify that mistake.

Under the Labour government Lord Baker, a former Education Secretary himself, convinced Andrew Adonis to trial two of these UTCs. Their expansion was supported by the Conservative party at the last general election, a pledge that has been wholeheartedly fulfilled by the coalition government.

The outgoing Director-General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, eulogises on the centenary of Octavia Hill’s death. With a theme that I also used in an article earlier this year for the Richmond Magazine, Dame Fiona writes that the protection of open green spaces is a battle still being waged, and one still very much worth waging.

When [Octavia Hill] died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members. We now have four million. While she would no doubt be impressed, she would not be surprised, and she would certainly not be complacent. She believed, as we do, that beauty, nature and heritage are fundamental to the human condition. She spoke of everlasting delight. If she were here now, she would describe the past hundred years of the Trust and what we stand for as one of enduring relevance; a cause which we must never cease to pursue.

Finally, the experienced barrister and chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, writes that Britain should give in to the European Court’s ruling to award the vote to prisoners.

Far from being harmless, giving prisoners the unqualified right to vote has positive values. How better to promote peaceful coexistence in society than to remove any sense in prisoners of second-class citizenship. It is precisely what the Government is preaching in its recent legislation on sentencing reform - namely, greater efforts to make the rehabilitation of prisoners more vigorous in penal institutions.

The right of every citizen to vote is acknowledged to be a constitutional right. It is in truth not a human right but it certainly is a civil liberty guaranteed by Article 3 of Protocol No 1 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom, which the UK ratified as long ago as 1952.

Egremont has long been favourable to the Government’s principled and correct stance on penal reform, and last year we published an excellent article by the Howard League’s Sophie Willett. The ‘bang them up and lock away the key’ school of justice is outmoded and discredited; Britain’s prisons are at bursting point. That much is true.

However, the right to vote is not God-given, as Sir Louis agrees. Nor should it be beholden on any sovereign government to afford certain constitutional rights to individuals who transgress this country’s laws and bring harm to fellow citizens.

Reform the nature of a criminal’s penance, certainly; but that penance must still be served.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

MPs and peers launch new all-party group for apprentices

Nik Darlington 11.47am

I have just been to the inaugural meeting of the APPG for Apprentices, which is to be chaired by the Lib Dem MP for Burnley, Gordon Birtwhistle.

The straight-talking 68-year-old Birtwhistle is an appropriate choice to lead the new all-party group, having begun his working life as an apprentice engineer in the 1950s.

What surprises me is why MPs have waited until now to set up such a group. Apprentices have been strong on the parliamentary radar, with the Government investing much time, effort and resources in expanding apprenticeship opportunities and numerous MPs now employing their own apprentices.

A jokey verbal joust even broke out between two of the group’s newly appointed vice-chairmen about who had been the first MP to employ an apprentice. Guy Opperman (C, Hexham) pronounced it to have been him, though this was contested by Catherine McKinnell (Lab, Newcastle-upon-Tyne North), the shadow solicitor-general. Proof that competition in the public sector is a healthy thing?

Whoever of the two is right, the number of MPs employing apprentices in Parliament and in their constituencies is large and growing, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Parliamentary Academy, an organisation set up not so long ago by Conservative MP Rob Halfon and the journalist Martin Bright.

The Government has been offering incentive payments to businesses to encourage the taking on of apprentices. The policy has created hundreds of thousands of apprenticeship places already and it is hoped further tens of thousands will be created over the next year. As evidence of the effect the policy is having, the number of people starting apprenticeships increased by more than 60 per cent in 2010-11, to a total of 457,200.

Much has been done but with youth unemployment such a concern, clearly more needs to be done. As Mr Birtwhistle said today, still too often youngsters see apprenticeships as something you do if you fail to get into university. On the contrary, he said robustly, “universities should be what you go to if you fail to get an apprenticeship!”

Information, advice and guidance about the apprenticeship route needs to be better and more widely available, something mentioned today by Stella English, a former winner of the BBC’s The Apprentice.

So an all-party group for apprentices is long overdue, and it is not quite off the ground yet, but it is a very encouraging step in the right direction and Egremont wishes it all the very best.

New figures show that Britain’s university sector is heading in the right direction

Nik Darlington 11.56am

Latest research from pollsters YouGov reveals that young people are not being put off higher education by rising tuition costs. Four in five 16-18 year olds still want to study at university and even of those who are unsure, more than one-fifth say they are still likely to go to university in the future.

The survey of more than one thousand youngsters aged 16-20 also found that they are more interested in course and teaching quality and future employment opportunities than tuition fees.

The higher education sector has been hit by figures recently released showing an 8.7 per cent fall in university applications last autumn, compared with 2010. Critics of the Government’s reforms to student finance claim that the increase in tuition costs to between £6,000 and £9,000 has deterred potential students from applying.

But when you look behind the headline statistics, you see that the actual drop in applications by school leavers is much smaller. Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said:

"The more detailed analysis of application rates for young people takes account of population changes. This shows a fall of just one percentage point in the application rate in England, with little change across the rest of the UK."

And despite prominent scaremongering, we see that there have been larger declines in applications from more advantaged groups of students than disadvantaged groups of students, whose applications have in fact held relatively steady.

Look at individual institutions and you can find real success stories. For instance, figures show that applications to Coventry University for courses starting in September 2012 are 1.24 per cent higher than for 2011 and 9.71 per cent up on 2010. It is a welcome vindication, perhaps, of Coventry’s innovative approach to pricing and marketing - policies that I highlighted on these pages nearly a year ago.

Last year, Coventry University announced fees ranging from £4,600 to £9,000 across six different packages. Variable pricing better captures students’ willingness-to-pay. On top of this, Coventry introduced bundling of products like textbooks, printer credits and field trips.

In an op-ed for the Telegraph this week, universities minister David Willetts reiterated the Government’s ambition to lift the lid on university standards:

"Applicants are responding to all this change by asking more searching questions of institutions. That explains why there are large changes in the application figures for individual institutions and individual courses within the overall total. Those institutions that succeed are likely to be those that are more accountable to their students.

Already, a huge rationalisation of courses is underway at London Metropolitan University to reflect student demand better. Manchester University is putting a new focus on the level of contact their students have with academics. And universities throughout the sector are seeking to engage more with employers, so that their students become more employable.”

Information, advice and guidance (IAG) is inconsistent and incomplete. It is difficult to compare universities with each other across important metrics such as the quality of the teaching and contact hours. Students instead rely on fuzzy hermeneutics such as history and reputation for research.

YouGov’s research found that the most important factors in deciding what university to attend are: the reputation of the university for high quality teaching (79 per cent), the appropriateness of the course (72 per cent) and the ability to move into a well-paid job on graduation (67 per cent).

Little more than one-third of young people reckon it is important that fees should be less than the maximum permitted £9,000 per year.

Do not believe the alarmists who claim that Government policies are shutting off promising futures for an entire generation of young people.

Students are becoming more discerning consumers of education and universities are becoming more responsive (and responsible) providers of education.

It is a fair concern that we are putting too much of a ‘pounds and pennies’ value on a university education, rather than the traditional view that it should be a time of holistic discovery and learning.

But we are where we are. In a moment of ill-considered flippancy, Tony Blair plucked the 50 per cent higher education target out of the skies. People who really ought to know better now calculate the life chances of younger generations according to the quantity of them going on to university.

We have an increasingly skill-based economy in Britain yet lack the well-trained minds to service it. In that sense, more university graduates are needed, without forgetting that schooling must improve as well.

There are many other life chances open to young people aside from university, such as apprenticeships (at record levels, thanks to the attention given to them by this Government) and work itself. Sir Richard Branson’s idea of offering young entrepreneurs the start-up equivalent of a student loan is a fine thought.

So whether university admissions figures go up or down should not be a concern or a celebration in itself. We need to cease this tunnel-vision hysteria.

It is why students are going to university or opting not to, and what they are doing with their time at university, or outside it - those are the things that matter.

The university sector is like a large ocean-going liner undertaking a sharp change of course. Its turning circle is naturally enormous. But on the current evidence, the sector is going in the right direction.

All prospective university students must get involved in Student Finance Day

Nik Darlington 8.25am

Monday, 14th November is Student Finance Day, a new campaign by the Department of Business, Skills & Innovation to plug the information gap between students and prospective students and the Government’s reforms to higher education. The day is being organised by the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information, the National Association of Student Money Advisers (NASMA) and the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association (HELOA).

With help from the financial expert Martin Lewis, school pupils and graduates, the Government has put together a short YouTube film (see below) on the facts of student finance.

Students going to university from 2012 to not have to pay fees upfront. Students don’t need the money, their parents don’t need the money. Subject to certain eligibility requirements, such as studying for a first degree and residing in England for the last three years, they will be eligible for a tuition loan from the Student Loans Company. Full-time eligible students are also entitled to more overall support for living costs.

Martin Lewis, Head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information and founder of, called the Government’s reforms to student finance “hugely misunderstood” and as a result “many students, especially from lower income families, are unnecessarily being put off”.

I cannot emphasise enough - and I offer no apologies for going on and on about this on these pages and elsewhere - that is vital the correct information, advice and guidance (IAG in the HE jargon) are available for young people making decisions about university. There is plenty of polling evidence showing what holds young people back is not the headline fee but the lack of awareness about financial support. A lot of support - as much as 30 per cent is the sector average - goes unclaimed.

Students also need to consider the ‘value’ of their education more than they do currently, which means asking searching questions about things like future employability and teaching hours.

The information and support is there. Students need to be proactive and get round to understanding these things themselves, but equally universities and the Government need to be reiterating this over and over again. Student Finance Day is a great initiative and I hope every university in England and Wales takes part.

Conservative MP launches Parliament’s first apprenticeship academy

Nik Darlington 6.00am

A Conservative MP and the former editor of the New Statesman have launched the first ever apprenticeship academy in Parliament.

The Parliamentary Academy is the result of months of preparation by chairman Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, and chief executive Martin Bright, whose New Deal of the Mind is driving development with the support of partners the National Skills Academy and North Hertfordshire College.

The 10-month scheme is being piloted this year with an apprentice working in the policy team at Conservative party central office and with MPs from across the House of Commons. As well as their parliamentary duties, these apprentices will study towards rigorous and well assessed qualifications, with the involvement of training partners and the MPs themselves.

Mike Crockart, the Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West, Andrea Leadsom, Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire, and John Woodock, Labour/Co-op MP for Barrow & Furness, are all taking on new apprentices.

Another MP has also taken on an apprentice independently. The Conservative MP Robin Walker has recently hired an apprentice to work in his constituency office in Worcester.

Paul Abbott, the academy’s Parliamentary Officer, said:

Politics is like journalism, there just aren’t enough paying jobs for people when they’re starting out. This is a disaster for social mobility, and it is almost impossible to get into politics now, if you haven’t been to university.

The Parliamentary Academy hopes to change all that. It’s a real credit to Martin Bright and Robert Halfon that they have made this happen, a real apprenticeship scheme, paying a decent wage, with a job in Parliament.

The response from MPs has been encouraging and we already have a pilot scheme up and running. Next year, we want it to be even bigger and better.

Follow the Parliamentary Academy on Twitter @ThePAcademy

George Osborne’s strategy is to show that Britain is open for business

Matthew Robertson 6.04am

This is the second in a series of Egremont contributors’ entries to Fraser Nelson’s Coffee House competition, with a prize of a bottle of Pol Roger for the best explanation of George Osborne’s growth strategy.

A man checked into a hotel for the first time in his life, and goes up to his room.
Five minutes later he called the reception desk and said: “You’ve given me a room with no exit. How do I leave?”
The desk clerk said, “Sir, that’s absurd. Have you looked for the door?”
The man said, “Well, there’s one door that leads to the bathroom. There’s a second door that goes into the closet. And there’s a door I haven’t tried, but it has a ‘do not disturb’ sign on it.”

This is the dilemma facing the Chancellor at this crossroad for the UK economy: regardless of which door he opens he is still in the same room of a stagnant economy.

Open door #1 and rebalance the economy between public and private sectors which will involve cuts affecting people’s everyday lives; open door #2 and cut taxes to keep the City of London competitive and risk creating another bubble; or open door #3 and ease up on the austerity measures which could disturb the financial markets.

Of course all of these are not mutually exclusive of each other - the answer lies somewhere between the bathroom and the exit via the closet door. Despite consistently iterating that the number one priority of the Government is to reduce the deficit, the Chancellor has long acknowledged that a growth strategy is of essential importance as well.

The fundamental thinking of Osborne’s growth strategy is credit. Businesses need credit to invest and grow, which in turn means more hiring leading to greater employment and increased confidence. The reason the Chancellor always returns to the deficit when asked about growth is confidence. Confidence is what makes businesses invest and individuals spend and this is the integral building block of growth.

Running a tight fiscal policy with low interest rates has allowed the terms of trade for our businesses to improve substantially with the rest of the world. This had to be the starting point for growth.

Moving on from that position, the Government has announced numerous measures to help businesses develop and grow.  The Regional Growth Fund is a £1.4 billion fund operating over three years to galvanise private sector-led employment and economic growth. The aim of this is to secure an economy that is more balanced between private and public sector, as well as harmonise growth across different regions of the UK.

Another policy to enable growth is prioritising investment in infrastructure, which has been demonstrated by the increase in capital spending of £2.3 billion in the 2010 Spending Review, and investing over £30 billion in transport projects.

All of this has already happened and could not have happened without the bedrock of a stable fiscal position. These policies are examples of an underlying strategy from the Chancellor to create jobs in the economy whilst preserving the key ingredient: Confidence.

So where will this confidence come from and how do we find the door for the exit without disturbing low interest rates and a sound fiscal position?

There is no easy answer to this question but the Chancellor has a strategy and has attempted to answer it.

Firstly, he has introduced new Enterprise Zones to stimulate private sector led investment. Through the tax system he has incentivised investment by extending the capital allowances short life asset regime for plant and machinery from four years to eight years and provided £180 million for up to 50,000 additional apprenticeship places.

These are confidence measures targeting areas, business and individuals. Critics will say these measures do not go far enough but every one of these policies boost confidence in the real economy without hindering the financial markets. The Chancellor’s strategy is not risk free or easy but is an attempt to steer the UK economy out of the hotel room he was given with as little disturbance as possible.

The strategy is plain and simple: stop the negativity, get up and show the world that the UK is open for business and use the fiscal position we have to build a better and more balanced economy. If only we could find the keys.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @FlatFootTory

Renovation Zones could do for skills and social activity what Enterprise Zones promise for economic activity

Paul Marsden 11.29am

The devil makes work for idle hands, so the saying goes. Keep people busy with productive work and activities and their is less chance of crime and general listlessness.

The term “tradecraft” is usually understood to mean a skill acquired in illegal activity. We should turn it on its head and apply it to productive activities. Unlike other community programmes, ‘Trade Craft’ would be mandatory for people who have been unemployed for six months or more. It would also be linked to benefits.

A policy called ‘Tough Learn’ would be worth 30 per cent of current benefits - a taper relief system that avoids removing benefits entirely, and similar to what the coalition government is proposing in its welfare reforms.

It is important not only to provide short-term activities but rather to design projects relevant to long-term community needs. For example, the community centre is run-down and in need of a replacement or a refurbishment, so local people would be hired to achieve these goals. Priority funding could be derived from National Lottery and local government funds and people would work under the supervision and coaching of qualified tradesmen. Training will be linked to real work that benefits the community. In the process, people could gain qualifications in short amounts of time, and then go on to complete further qualifications. Instead of a year or two years of traditional vocational training, people will be ‘upskilling’ in the space of a few months.

Another idea is to provide enthusiastic and entrepreneurial types with a box of tools to help them set up their business, such as registering it, simple guidance on business plans, basic accounting and other business activities - with no cost to that individual. Failure will be expected but we should accept this and keep encouraging people. Not everyone will become the next Richard Branson but that is not the point.

The first time a young person sells their product or service and receives payment in return will inspire them to put in more hours of hard graft and succeed. It gives them self-confidence and belief in an honest living.

Like other policies discussed in previous posts, these Renovation Zone initiatives could easily link up with the Government’s existing policy of Enterprise Zones. The latter are a good step forward for reviving economic activity. Add in the impact of Renovation Zones and you can revive social activity too.

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NEW POLICY SPECIAL: How to repair the Two Nations of Britain

Paul Marsden 6.00am

Nearly three thousand people have been arrested since the summer riots. Hundreds have been processed through the criminal justice system. Many have gone to prison for a long time.

Still we are left with a distraught and angry majority, fed up with the bad news coming from the same areas of our towns and cities.

The minority who perpetrated the trouble remain angry with the world and transfixed by instant fame, celebrities and a ‘bling’ culture. They demand respect without earning it. They refuse to tolerate others and live in fear of each other, the police and anyone in a position of authority. That fear is turned into aggression. An aggressive mindset manifests itself in groups - or gangs - of ‘honour’ with their own uniforms, music and language. If they cannot beat the system they beat each other, they rob from local shops and they mug the elderly. Every day there are over 180 acts of anti-social behaviour in the UK.

There is a small, isolated section of British society that despises traditional British society. Two societies. Two nations.

The response of politicians to the riots has been considered and firm but it has been reactive. We must be proactive. The riots present Britain with a real opportunity to turn failed systems upside down. We cannot persist with the status quo.

Britain must bridge the divide between the so-called “underclass” and the rest of society. We need to listen and understand those angry voices. Violence, threats and law-breaking are not ways to break a conflict. Dialogue is the only way to affect meaningful change.

In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli, a future Conservative Prime Minister, wrote his seminal novel Sybil, or the Two Nations. It is a story about the worsening poverty in Britain’s industrial towns and cities and the gulf between rich and poor. Its male lead, Charles Egremont, gave his name to these pages. In Sybil, Egremont undergoes a Damascene conversion from louche layabout aristocrat to passionate investigator of that widening divide between people like him, and people like the Chartists.

We now face a more subtle divide in this country. The divide is no longer between rich and poor but rather between people who generally respect others in society and those who generally rebel against society. The growing tension spilled over into violence and looting this summer and it could do so again. We need practical solutions, now.

Over the coming days, I will describe a range of solutions and policies that could be put in train right away, broadly around four themes.

'Renovation Zones' to improve skills, restore faith in communities and get people working again. Reward responsibility and loyalty.

Accelerate the removal of entrenched obstacles in our education system. Reinstate and augment the traditional factors that work, and remove the ones that don’t. Replace them with greater flexibility, particularly micro-learning.

Regenerate communities through real leadership. Replace the gang structures with street leaders who are outside the political system but inside communities.

Carry out meaningful and lasting prison and justice reform, centred around a rehabilitation revolution.

Together, they form a programme of renovation - a programme to repair the Two Nations of Britain.

Visit Egremont tomorrow for the first instalment on ‘Renovation Zones’.

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Paul Marsden was a Member of Parliament for eight years between 1997 and 2005. He was elected as Labour MP for Shrewsbury & Atcham on a crest of Blairite hope and promise but went on to oppose Labour’s foreign policy after 9/11 when he rebelled against the war in Afghanistan. In December 2001, he crossed the floor to join the Liberal Democrats. In 2002, he was appointed a shadow health minister responsible for mental and prison health, and highlighted the dramatic increase in suicide rates among prison populations. In 2005, he was disillusioned with the Liberal Democrats and became the first MP since Winston Churchill to re-cross the floor of the House of Commons, prior to retiring from Parliament at that year’s General Election.

Following stints as chief executive of a trade association and an educational charity, Paul Marsden is an international business consultant working in the UK and Brussels.