Alex Folkes: Cornwall Council and its chief executive have serious questions to answer

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2014

Many Lib Dems will know Alex Folkes. He’s a Lib Dem councillor on Cornwall Council, and was a member of its cabinet until earlier this month, when he stood down to “deal with a personal issue”. I noticed it at the time, hoped it was nothing too bad, thought no more of it.

Then on Thursday night I read Alex’s 1,500-word blog-post, ‘The truth about why I resigned and the claims being made against me’.

It is an extraordinary account which, if shown to be true, must surely lead to the resignation of Cornwall Council’s chief executive, Andrew Kerr. It was Mr Kerr who has asked Alex to resign from the council over claims he poses a “potential risk” to children. Last week, without giving Alex any advance notice, the council wrote to all schools and youth clubs in his ward about him and issued a press release to say they had done so. Why? Here’s how Alex tells it:

In 2006 (and before I became a councillor) I was one of many people who was arrested when credit or debit card details were found which linked the cardholders to a site containing indecent images of children. I have never viewed any such images nor had I ever visited the site or any others like it. I was able to show the police that my card had been cloned at some time in the past and used illegally for various things including a hotel in Brazil. I reported that at the time and my bank refunded the money. Of course I cannot be sure, but that is how I believe my card details came to be linked to the site as it fits the time my card was used fraudulently. When details are stolen on the internet they tend to come in a package and hackers can also have access to your address, email, password, phone, IP address, etc, which can easily be cloned and used by another person to cover their own identity and make it look like the victim of their fraud is the guilty party. The police searched my computer and other electronic devices I owned.

Because I had done nothing wrong, and therefore there was no evidence against me, the police did not bring any charges and they told me the matter was closed. I cannot blame the police for investigating based on the information they received. The whole episode put me through a huge trauma but I am reassured that they took such matters very seriously and I am glad that they were able to establish my innocence as they did.

Some will remember that thousands of people were caught up in similar scams about that time — here, for instance, is a BBC report from 2007 which investigated the issue after 7,000 individuals had their card details used.

Three years later, Alex continues, he was elected a Lib Dem councillor:

In 2009 when I was elected to Cornwall Council my arrest was flagged up in an enhanced CRB check. I discussed this matter with the chief legal officer of the council. He told me that he would discuss it with the (then) leader Councillor Alec Robertson. I heard no more about this from the legal officer, Mr Robertson or anyone else. I assume that they took the view, quite rightly, that the matter was properly dealt with by the police and considered closed.

It then all turns very Kafka, with accusations made against Alex without him having any knowledge of what is alleged or any chance for him to put forward his case:

At some point within the past few weeks someone raised the matter with officers within Cornwall Council’s child protection team. Since then, anonymous letters and emails have been sent to the press and to opposition councillors. There seems to be a concerted campaign against me. Those first emails started a very difficult period in which meetings were held about me without my knowledge or involvement to discuss information and claims which they refuse to share with me. I have repeatedly asked officers for the information they received to be passed on to me so that I can refute it. They refused to do so. That limited information which has been shared with me I know to be untrue and they have not offered any evidence to support their outrageous claims. Given that they refused to share the information they had, I asked officers for time to go through the laborious process of requesting the information from the various organisations concerned which would prove their claims to be wrong. They refused to give me this time and convened another secret meeting which passed judgement. They then made deeply libellous and completely untrue statements to organisations, other councillors and the media. Nevertheless, I have started the process (which is likely to take some months) of seeking the information held and then correcting it where it is false. All they have told me is that everything relates to the original investigation in 2006 and that there have been no concerns or claims made about me relating to any time before or since.

It seems that officers are more concerned with covering their own backs than with establishing the truth. They seem to think they know better than the police did back in 2006 when they had all the evidence and were able to conduct a full and thorough investigation. On two occasions, whilst denying me the information on which they based their apparent judgement, Mr Kerr has demanded my resignation.

Alex is determined to establish his innocence and clear his name (the latter especially hard in cases like this). He has not only resigned from the cabinet but also voluntarily suspended his party membership and referred himself for investigation under the Lib Dems’ own disciplinary procedures.

Cornwall Council and its chief executive Andrew Kerr have a number of questions to answer.

If Cornwall Council has evidence of any wrongdoing by Alex that should be shared with the police so they can act on it. Has this been done? It appears not, or at least if it has the police don’t regard the evidence as meriting re-opening an investigation, according to a police statement reported in the local paper: ‘”We are not investigating him,” the force spokeswoman said. “It is an internal investigation by the council.”

On what basis, then, is Cornwall Council warning local people of a risk posed by Alex, and on what basis is it demanding his resignation? Why has Alex been given no opportunity either to hear the allegations against him, or been subject to any form of due process investigation so he can defend himself?

Cornwall Council’s press statement suggests they have based their decision publicly to name and shame Alex based on information received from the police — yet if the police have decided not to charge Alex with any crime why has the Council used its powers to pronounce him guilty as not charged?

As Mark Pack points out on his blog here:

For an unelected Chief Executive to demand without explanation the resignation of a democratically elected councillor should be a scandal. If the Chief Executive has any evidence that stands up, he should be willing to communicate it and let Alex defend himself. And if he doesn’t, it is the Chief Executive who should be resigning.

Of course councils have to be incredibly careful regarding all matters to do with child protection. But accusations must always be on the basis of evidence and charges dealt with under a proper due process which allows individuals to defend themselves. Cornwall Council seems to have acted on the basis of ‘no smoke without fire’ and that’s no basis for justice.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

New LDV members’ survey now live: your views on

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2014

imageThe new LDV members’ survey is now live. So if you are one of the 1,500+ registered members of the Liberal Democrat Voice forum — and any paid-up party member is welcome to join — then you now have the opportunity to make your views known.

Questions we’re asking this month include:

  • do you support the broadcasters’ proposal for the televised leaders’ debates;
  • would you support local pacts between the Lib Dems and Greens;
  • how do you think Ukip will do at the next election;
  • if/how increased devolution to Scotland should be reflected in England;
  • whether the decision to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should be scrapped;
  • who you want to see elected as Party President;
  • and what you think of the Coalition’s performance to date?

It should take no longer than 10 minutes minutes to fill in. All registered members of the Forum should have been e-mailed with a unique link to take you to the survey. If you haven’t received yours, or if you are signing up to the Forum now, please drop Ryan Cullen a line at ryan@libdemvoice.org. Please do check your spam folder first, though, in case it’s ended up there!

We’ll publish the results in a few days’ time. You can access the results from our previous LDV members surveys by clicking here — and you can access a Google spreadsheet of our ‘Coalition tracker’ and ‘leading Lib Dems’ ratings here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

How Lib Dems should talk about immigration

by Stephen Tall on November 22, 2014

british future immigrationThis week saw the publication of an important report from the think-tank British Future called ‘How to talk about immigration’.

Its central thrust is that the majority of the British public’s views about immigration are more moderate, pragmatic and nuanced than the polarising debate often allows:

How to talk about immigration challenges both the pro and anti-migration voices to respond to the public’s desire for a sensible conversation about immigration.

It highlights pro-migration liberals’ tendency to dismiss public concerns as simply based on misconceptions and myths, or to try to ‘change the subject’ away from immigration altogether. ‘Myth-busting’ exercises can boost the morale of those already onside but they struggle to persuade others and risk actively hardening attitudes against immigration, especially as official migration statistics are widely mistrusted – because people don’t believe the system works.

There are challenges, too, for migration sceptics pushing for big cuts in numbers. Sceptics need to move on from “why can’t we talk about immigration?” to showing whether they have a plan, with constructive answers that can work for Britain today.

The majority of people want solutions, not divisive rhetoric.

It’s well worth reading the whole report (there is a very good summary document here, too). I’m going to pick out just two aspects from it.

british future immigration - 2

First, the racism worry.

Many pro-migrant liberals fear above all that the immigration debate is just a proxy for the prejudices of those who are, in reality, racists.

Some are; but many are not. And one of the quickest ways to stop those with concerns about immigration from listening to us is to accuse them of being something they aren’t. (See also my May article, “Label the behaviour not the person”: why we shouldn’t call Ukip a racist party.)

The report is very clear on this point: “It isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long as you talk about it without being racist.” It cites data from the British Social Attitudes survey showing moderate majority in Britain today holds liberal views on race, and rejects the views of a prejudiced minority. For instance, inter-ethnic marriage concerns just 15% of Britons today. That’s 15% too many you might say; true, but in 1993 it was 44%. That’s a massive, liberal shift in a relatively short timeframe.

Tellingly on the immigration debate, the key question for many of the public is how skilled immigrants are. By 63%-24% the public thinks professional migrants from countries like Poland coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. And by a strikingly similar 61%-22% the public thinks professional migrants from Muslim countries like Pakistan coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. However, most people believe that unskilled migrants, whether they came from Eastern Europe or from Pakistan, are bad for Britain. Such an attitude may well be wrong economically and/or morally; but it’s not racist.

Secondly, how should Lib Dems talk about immigration?

The report has a section offering advice to each of the main parties about how they should talk about immigration.

Its key point for the Lib Dems is that we should be authentic in our liberal stance on immigration; but should also take seriously the political challenges and work harder to build alliances with the moderate majority, rather than be quick to taint them for holding concerns we feel to be unjustified.

That need to reach out to pro-migration sympathisers who aren’t Lib Dems is a point I made last year when Nick Clegg dropped the policy of an amnesty for undocumented migrants — a policy this week adopted by President Obama.

Liberal Democrats are inauthentic on immigration if they mute their own voice and try not to say anything at all, for fear that the other parties are more likely to be in touch with public attitudes. Liberal Democrats are authentic when they do provide a liberal voice which speaks up for the positive cultural and economic contributions of migration to British life, and could do so more successfully when they acknowledge, as democrats, that they take seriously the political challenges of rebuilding public confidence for managed migration, and handling its pressures, so as to broaden support for the values of Britain being an inclusive, welcoming and fair society. 

Given their strong civil liberties commitments, Liberal Democrats, like the Green Party, should certainly remain a clear voice for protecting Britain’s core humanitarian obligations, and in pressing for these to be reflected in practice in our immigration system. The ‘moderate majority’ analysis of this pamphlet suggests that it would be a mistake for the party to measure the purity of its liberal conscience by the unpopularity of the principled and defiantly unpopular positions it can strike. That would risk making liberalism little more than a badge of political differentiation, rather than taking seriously the challenges of building the alliances and support to make liberal change possible – as it successfully did on child detention.

So the Lib Dems should work with civic movements to build support for reform, while constructively challenging its civic allies to help find answers to address the public, political and policy barriers to creating a system that is both effective and humane. Broadening alliances for liberal reform across civic and party boundaries is an important way to maximise the chances of influencing the policy debate in other parties, or making progress if the Lib Dems should find themselves once again negotiating over coalition policies after a future general election. 

As I wrote in the summer after Nick Clegg’s most recent (and not at all bad) speech on immigration, “We need to work together, across parties, to win support for humane, liberal policies which offer the country a more prosperous future.” There’s some sound advice here from British Future about how we can do that.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 11

by Stephen Tall on November 22, 2014

Congratulations to Jon Featonby, who continues to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 11, having amassed a whopping 675 points. Not far behind is George Murray (663), then Sam Bowman (659).

A bit of a gap has opened up between the top three and the chasing pack: fourth-placed Andrew Wiseman is 34 points back. However, just 69 points separates the top whole of the top 10, a gap that can easily be closed. After all, where we work we win, right?

For information only, the bottom placed team has 205 points, dangerously close to a lost deposit.

LDV FANTASY FOOTBALL_11

There are 155 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Lib Dem Party Committee election results

by Stephen Tall on November 21, 2014

Libby - Some rghts reserved by David SpenderThe Lib Dems have this evening announced the results of the elections to its Party Committees as voted for by conference representatives. Congratulations to all elected; commiserations to those who weren’t.

The lists of those elected (and not), ordered by first preference votes, follows…

Federal Executive

Places: 15, Total valid vote: 677

Caron Lindsay 59
Neil Fawcett 57
Kavya Kaushik 43
Ramesh Dewan 38
Gordon Lishman 33
James Gurling 31
Candy Piercy 28
Evan Harris 28
Keith House 23
Dawn Barnes 23
Pauline Pearce 21
Jonathan Fryer 21
Sue Doughty 20
Martin Tod 20
Josh Dixon 18

NOT ELECTED

Jock Gallagher 23
Stan Collins 17
Adrian Trett 15
David Williams 15
Chris White 13
David Rendel 13
Seth Thévoz 13
David Buxton 12
Louise Ankers 11
Sian Reid 11
Alice Thomas 11
Iain Donaldson 10
Adrian Smith 9
Robert Adamson 9
David Hall-Matthews 8
Jane Smithard 7
Qassim Afzal 7
Carl Mayhew 7
Hugh Rickard 3

Federal Policy Committee

Places: 15, Total valid vote: 656

Sharon Bowles 46
Mark Pack 44
Kelly-Marie Blundell 37
Gareth Epps 33
Duncan Brack 31
Sarah Ludford 30
Phil Bennion 26
Rebecca Taylor 23
Evan Harris 23
Linda Jack 23
Belinda Brooks-Gordon 21
Jeremy Hargreaves 20
Prateek Buch 18
Julie Smith 18
Jenny Woods 17

NOT ELECTED

Antony Hook 18
Alec Dauncey 18
Katherine Bavage 18
Kay Barnard 13
Gordon Lishman 13
Theo Butt Philip 13
David Boyle 13
Tom Papworth 12
David Grace 12
Elizabeth Jewkes 11
Sandra Gidley 10
Humaira Sanders 9
Spencer Hagard 9
Susan Juned 8
Ruth Coleman-Taylor 7
Judith Ost 6
Qassim Afzal 6
Stan Collins 6
Robert Adamson 5
Carl Mayhew 5
Nigel Taylor 5
Jo Hayes 4
Jane Smithard 4
Simon Pike 3
Catherine Royce 3
Kirsten Johnson 3
David Buxton 3
Adam Corlett 3
Andrew Chamberlain 2
David Hall-Matthews 2
James Sandbach 2

Federal Conference Committee

Places: 12, Total valid vote: 642

Andrew Wiseman 61
Gareth Epps 60
Zoë O’Connell 55
Liz Lynne 54
Pauline Pearce 46
Chris Maines 40
Mary Reid 43
Jon Ball 39
Justine McGuinness 32
Paul Tilsley 31
Shas Sheehan 27
Sandra Gidley 22

NOT ELECTED

Joe Otten 35
Cara Jenkinson 30
Rich Clare 20
Robert Adamson 18
Jane Smithard 11
Rebecca Trimnell 10
Qassim Afzal 5
Richard Fagence 3

International Relations Committee

Places: 5, Total valid vote: 619

Ed Fordham 92
Merlene Emerson 71
Jonathan Fryer 68
Phil Bennion 61
Mark Valladares 52

NOT ELECTED

Belinda Brooks-Gordon 43
Keith House 39
Jonathan Brown 35
Iain Smith 30
Gordon Lishman 25
George Dunk 22
Rabi Martins 21
Peter Price 17
David Hall-Matthews 15
Catherine Royce 14
Turhan Ozen 13
John Innes 1

ALDE Delegation

Places: 8 Total valid vote: 608

Antony Hook 89
Jonathan Fryer 70
Phil Bennion 70
Belinda Brooks-Gordon 59
Mark Valladares 48
David Grace 47
Iain Smith 38
Ruth Coleman-Taylor 37

NOT ELECTED

Jo Hayes 31
Gordon Lishman 25
Peter Price (Wales) 25
George Dunk 21
Turhan Ozen 19
Catherine Royce 17
Mick Taylor 12

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

My must-reads this week November 21, 2014

by Stephen Tall on November 21, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

Rochester & Strood by-election: Ukip win, Lib Dems lose 11th deposit

by Stephen Tall on November 21, 2014

Mark Reckless won his bid to be re-elected an MP under the UKIP banner last night, following his eve-of-conference defection from the Conservatives. That this wasn’t at all a surprise — the swing from the Tories to UKIP was 28% — says something about the febrile dynamics of politics at the moment. Support for Labour in a seat they held until 2010 also slumped. Geoff Juby for the Lib Dems trailed in fifth place behind the Greens, having shed some nine-tenths of the party’s May 2010 vote. This was Lib Dems’ 11th lost deposit of the parliament.

Here are the votes:

    UKIP Mark Reckless 16,867, 42% (+42%)
    Conservative 13,947, 35% (-14%)
    Labour 6,713, 17% (-12%)
    Green 1,692, 4% (+3%)
    Liberal Democrat Geoff Juby 349, 1% (-16%)

    Majority 2,920 (7%)
    Turnout 40,065 51% (-14%)

It was a big night for UKIP. Rochester and Strood was low down their list of target seats and Nigel Farage’s party didn’t even contest it at the last election. They now have their second elected MP.

The margin of victory, though, was tighter than any of the four constituency by-election polls had indicated. UKIP’s 42% was at the lower end of expectations, while the Tories’ 35% exceeded all four of the polls conducted. The Tories will be hopeful-to-confident that in six months’ time they’ll be able to re-take the seat.

When Lord Ashcroft polled the seat a fortnight ago he found UKIP had a 12% lead for voting intentions in the by-election; but when asked about the general election, the Tories edged it by 1%. That finding, combined with the relative slenderness of their majority last night, suggests Mark Reckless should enjoy being an MP while he can.

For Labour it was a grim, if predictable, night. This was a seat which, under its former name of Medway, the pugnacious Bob Marshall-Andrews won in 1997 and held throughout the New Labour years. Yet Ed Miliband’s Labour was never in this contest, seemingly happy to let UKIP and the Tories slug it out.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Emily Thornberry’s spectacularly de haut en bas tweet — in which she took snarky aim at those people who drive white vans and drape the St George’s flag from their house — prompted even The Guardian to describe it as “the most devastating message Labour has managed to deliver in the past four years”. Over-the-top? Possibly, but Ed Miliband’s immediate decision to resign Ms Thornberry from her shadow cabinet post showed quite how aware he was of the damage it could do, while simultaneously amplifying the air-time one ill-judged tweet has been given.

For the Lib Dems… well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Ten times before, to be precise: that’s the number of lost deposits we’ve racked up so far. At £500 a pop it’s one other way the Lib Dems are slowly helping to slow down the spiralling national debt.

We were never serious players in this by-election. Everyone knew it, including our former voters who went elsewhere to send their message: whether UKIP to register their protest, Tory to register their anti-UKIP protest, Labour to register their anti-Coalition protest or Green to register their anti-All-of-the-Above protest.

Credit must go to Geoff Juby and his team. They knew from the start they were fighting a losing cause on this occasion, but did so with resolute pluck, aided by visits from folk such as Lib Dem chief executive Tim Gordon and peer Olly Grender. Nick Clegg’s breezy dismissal of the whole episode prompted my co-editor Caron Lindsay to have a well-deserved pop at him here.

Once again, though, we see the Lib Dem vote slump in a non-target seat. It’s a depressingly familiar story, no less so for the fact that we’ve seen it so many times before.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Good intentions are not enough. Evaluation is essential

by Stephen Tall on November 20, 2014

philanthropy impactI wrote an article for the latest edition of Philanthropy Impact magazine — now available online here — wearing my day-job hat as Development Director of the Education Endowment Foundation. Here’s what I said…

Good intentions aren’t enough. Let me give you an example. A programme called ‘Scared Straight’ was developed in the USA in the 1970s to deter juvenile delinquents and at-risk children from criminal behaviour by bringing them into contact with adult inmates to make them aware of the grim realities of life in prison.

Early studies showed astonishingly high success rates, as much as 94 per cent, and the programme was readily adopted in the UK and other countries. However, none of these evaluations had a ‘comparison group’ showing what would have happened to the participants if they had not taken part. When tested through Randomised Controlled Trials it was discovered participation in ‘Scared Straight’ resulted in higher rates of offending behaviour than non-participation: “doing nothing would have been better than exposing juveniles to the program”.(1) Yet it continues to be championed by some British police forces despite the clear evidence it actively increases crime.

What this illustrates is the importance of ‘the counter-factual’ – ie, what would have happened otherwise? This is a crucial question for philanthropists, all of whom will have greater calls on their generosity than they can possibly meet. Inevitably this means there is an opportunity cost in making a donation: whatever money you give to one charity is, of necessity, money denied to another.

All philanthropists I’ve met are acutely aware of this responsibility. But how many can confidently say their decisions to fund one charity over another are always based on sound evidence? And how many, when making their donation, also seek to ensure the work they are supporting is being robustly evaluated to ensure it’s doing the good everyone hopes it will? Put bluntly, how do you know your money isn’t being used to fund another ‘Scared Straight’, a programme developed with the best of intentions, but which inadvertently did harm to the young people it aimed to help?

At the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) we begin with the existing evidence. In our first three years, we have awarded grants for 87 different projects – often co-funded with partners – working in some 2,400 schools and involving more than 500,000 pupils. Our grant-making is informed by the evidence in the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, a synthesis of more than 10,000 high-quality research reports, that what we are trialling will raise the attainment of the pupils involved, and that it will make a particular difference for those from low-income backgrounds.

For example, the evidence in this Toolkit is that ‘feedback’ (how children’s effort and activity can best be focused to achieve their goal) can deliver high impact for low-cost. We have, therefore, funded eight projects that will give us a much better understanding of what effective feedback might look like in the classroom.

Though the EEF backs only those projects we think have the best evidence of promise that they will raise children’s attainment and narrow the gap between rich and poor, it is inevitable that not all will work out as well as we hope. We appoint independent evaluators to make sure that neither we (as the funders) nor the delivery organisation (as the grantee) are conflicted. Working collaboratively, we design trials which aim to give the project we’re funding the best chance of success in the ‘real world’ environment of English primary and secondary schools; but, crucially, which will also subject the project to a robust test so we find out if its good intentions are matched by pupils’ progress.

Too often, impact evaluations are little more than ‘before and after’ studies which will make claims such as “children’s performance increased by 67% as a result of our work”. The statistic might sound impressive, but it doesn’t tell us whether the improvements would have happened in any case: it doesn’t answer the counter-factual. After all, it’s quite possible the attainment of those children might have improved more under business-as-usual conditions or if a different intervention had been tried instead. We just don’t know. In our heads we accept that ‘correlation does not imply causation’, but it’s amazing how often we are willing to suspend scepticism and follow our hearts when offered such false confidence, even if it isn’t justified by the evidence.

The independent evaluations the EEF funds aim to build the evidence – both quantitative, mostly Randomised Controlled Trials, as well as qualitative – of ‘what works’ in improving educational attainment. All will be reported in full and in public so that schools and policy-makers can make use of the findings in their own work.

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chessExample: A fair test to find out if Chess in Schools raises attainment

Can learning to play chess improve children’s ability to develop thinking skills and boost their attainment? That’s the question being asked by one of the 87 trials the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is funding.
Delivered by the charity Chess in Schools and Communities, the programme — you can read about it here — involves children in Year 5 (ie, 9-10 year-olds) being taught chess by accredited coaches for one hour a week over 30 weeks during normal school time.
There is good evidence to suggest this might make a difference to attainment:  a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) in Italy found that learning chess can have a positive effect on pupils’ progress in Mathematics. However, we cannot simply assume the same gains will automatically apply within the English school context.
The EEF has, therefore, appointed academics from the Institute of Education, University of London, to carry out an RCT – one of 74 RCTs we are funding – designed to estimate intervention impacts by creating equivalent groups, one of which will receive the intervention and the other of which will not.
The charity has recruited 100 primary schools from a range of locations: 50 will receive chess coaching during the evaluation and the other 50 (who will act as the ‘comparison group’) will receive it two years later. In this way, all the children will receive coaching in chess, but the evaluation will be able to estimate the difference the programme has made to pupils’ academic progress as measured by their performance in Key Stage 2 tests. An online survey, in-class observations and interviews with teachers will be used to test the feasibility of the Chess in Schools programme.
The evaluation report will be published in 2016.

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We hope the EEF’s work will have widespread relevance. For example, we are currently helping design and fund five trials which will test within 8,000 schools how evidence can best be used to improve teaching. Which works best: face-to-face instruction or access to websites? Twitter chats or posting information booklets to schools? Professional development sessions or research conferences aimed at teachers? The trials will provide some answers to these questions, bringing us closer to building a system that can cost-effectively keep teachers informed about research and help them achieve the best possible outcomes for students. There are, we think, implications here for others involved in sharing effective practice in many other areas of social policy.

By no means everything the EEF does is about large-scale Randomised Controlled Trials. With Durham University, we have written an online DIY Evaluation Guide for teachers and schools. This introduces the key principles of educational evaluation – in particular the use of comparison groups – and provides practical advice on designing and carrying out small-scale evaluations in schools. It is intended to help teachers and schools understand whether the interventions they are developing are effective within their own school context.

This gets to the heart of the EEF’s mission. Our role is to support schools testing new ways of boosting the attainment of their pupils, especially the most disadvantaged. But this comes with two important professional responsibilities: for us, as funders, but also for our grantees, as practitioners. First, that this should be ‘informed innovation’, innovation that builds on what we already understand from existing evidence. And secondly, that these new approaches are robustly evaluated so we find out if what we hoped to see happening is what is actually happening. In other words, that our good intentions are leading to good outcomes for children.

(1) See Laura Haynes, Owain Service, Ben Goldacre and David Torgerson: ‘Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials’ (Cabinet Office – Behavioural Insights Team, 2012), p.17.

How did it come to this? The Lib Dems’ seven key Coalition moments

by Stephen Tall on November 19, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here yesterday. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

The Coalition hasn’t been exactly (how can I best under-state this?) kind to the Lib Dems.

My party, briefly, took the lead in some polls in April 2010. Some 6,836,248 voters marked their ‘X’ against a Lib Dem candidate’s name the following month. And now, getting on for five years later, a second digit is too rarely needed to show our poll rating. We are regularly bested by Ukip in the popularity stakes, and have seen the Greens and even the SNP edge ahead of us. Ouch.

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

First, by history. The last time the Liberals entered into a formal coalition with the Conservatives, May 1915, it triggered a string of events which very nearly destroyed the party.

And secondly, by Huhne. Andrew Rawnsley confided in his Observer column in September 2010, that “one Lib Dem member of the cabinet recently gave me his private estimate of where the opinion polls will be in about a year’s time. His forecast was … the Lib Dems will collapse to 5%.” When I last saw Chris, prior to his resignation as an MP, I asked him if (as had been assumed in Lib Dem circles) it was his prediction; yes, he confirmed. Though in reality he was both too pessimistic (we’ve yet to dip quite as low as 5%… yet) and too optimistic (if our slump had happened so early it might now happily be in the past).

So how did we get to this point? How did a party whose leader was once more popular than Churchill come to be, less than five years later, a party facing a survival election with a leader only just beating Ed Miliband?

Here are what I think have been the seven key moments for the party, in chronological order, since the formation of the Coalition.

Tuition fees: When Vince Cable stood up in the Commons on 12th October, 2010, to announce he accepted the “main thrust” of the Browne Report’s call for higher university tuition fees, he dumbfounded his party. Most had assumed he would have a trick up his sleeve, some form of graduate tax, which would enable the Lib Dems to claim their new system was fairer than Labour’s. This assumption turned out to be true — the Coalition’s fees system is a de facto graduate tax  with the poorest third of students paying less than before — but by the time anyone had worked this out the damage was done. Nick Clegg’s reputation lay in tatters (ironically, Cable’s own reputation soon recovered, and this perhaps explains the continuing frostiness between the two, culminating in the bizarre decision by Clegg to elbow Vince aside and to anoint Danny Alexander as Lib Dem shadow chancellor).

AV referendum: if fees was the moment Lib Dem innocence died, then the AV referendum was the day the Coalition died. Oh sure, it’s lasted ever since and will go on lasting until May 2015; there has never been a moment when either party would profit from its earlier demise. But that Rose Garden moment of shared endeavour, of radical, Liberal Conservative government, was the victim of the ruthless (and highly effective) Conservative assault on Nick Clegg’s integrity during the referendum campaign. Differentiation would have always kicked in at some stage during the Coalition. That it did so after just one year is thanks to posters such as this. It’s hard to know who’ll get the last laugh, though. Those Conservatives fretting about Ukip splitting the right-wing vote and letting in Ed Miliband would have had a whole lot less to worry about under AV.

Osborne’s 2012 budget: it was an unmitigated disaster, but thankfully not one which negatively impacted the Lib Dems. We could lay claim (and did) to its most popular measure, the biggest ever uplift of the income tax threshold. Meanwhile the Conservatives were forced to defend their decision to cut the top-rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000. The economics for doing so weren’t unreasonable. But it was terrible politics and has done more than any other single action to paint the Conservatives as the party of the rich, looking after their friends’ interests first. That, together with the Granny Tax, gave Ukip the perfect launch-pad for their assault on Tory terra firma, targeting those less well-off older voters who’d stuck with Cameron until then.

Health and Social Care Act (NHS Bill): Cameron famously said in 2006 that his priorities for government could be easily summed up: “I can do it in three letters: NHS.” He tried to neutralise Labour scare tactics in 2010 by pledging to ring-fence health spending. The Coalition Agreement stated it would “stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care”. All these good intentions were kaiboshed by Andrew Lansley’s bill, so convoluted even its supporters were unable succinctly to explain its benefits. It hurt the Conservatives, and inflicted significant damage on the Lib Dems, too: the party lost further voters and members just at the point when its poll ratings had started to recover a little.

House of Lords reform: if the Lib Dems do survive the May 2015 election with at least 30 MPs, as I think we will, we will have one man to thank (though he may not thank us for our thanking): Conservative MP Jesse Norman. He it was who turbo-charged the summer 2012 backbench Tory rebellion which torpedoed the Coalition’s plans to reform the House of Lords (as promised in all three parties’ 2010 manifestos). Cameron, unable to convince his own party to back him, had no choice but to renege on the Coalition Agreement, the first time either party had gone back on its word. This, in turn, left Clegg with no choice but to extract an eye for an eye, and stymie the constituency boundary review. This had been due to re-draw the political map of the UK for 2015 to the likely benefit of the Conservatives — and the potential obliteration of the Lib Dems, whose incumbency advantage it would have dashed. Thanks, Jesse: my party owes you one.

Secret Courts: Nick Clegg said in 2011: “You shouldn’t trust any government, actually including this one. The natural inclination of government is to … accrue power to itself in the name of the public good.” He was right then, but wrong in March 2013, when he up-ended the party’s opposition to the extension of Closed Material Procedures (aka ‘secret courts’) in which the accused might not be shown the evidence being used against them. As one party member who resigned remarked, ‘Kafka was a warning not a manual’. Few beyond the Lib Dems even noticed the issue; but, within my party, it destroyed at a stroke the goodwill which had been generated by victory in the Eastleigh by-election a fortnight before. The chunk of capital Nick had accrued there was cheaply spent supporting a policy which we all knew (and so did Nick) he would have opposed in opposition.

Nick v Nigel: the last roll of the dice? Most of us had assumed that, at 10 per cent in the polls, Lib Dem support had bottomed out last spring. It made sense, then, for Nick Clegg to lay down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage, to make a virtue of the party’s pro-Europeanism: ‘In Europe, in work’ was to be the party’s rallying cry, highlighting our belief that the UK’s membership of the EU is good for business (a view with which business agrees). But then a couple of things went wrong. First, somewhere along the way the party’s slogan changed (to this day no-one apparently knows how, why or by whom) to ‘The party of IN’, a vacuity which appeared to confirm the suspicions of those who think my party is full of starry-eyed Europhiles in love with the EU for its own sake. And secondly, Nick’s sure debating touch, well-deployed in his first set-to with the Ukip leader, deserted him in the follow-up. “What will the EU look like in 10 years’ time?” a voter asked: a dream question for a pro-EU reformer like Nick. But he fluffed it: “much the same as it is now,” he replied wanly. A few weeks later, my party was drubbed, losing all but one of our MEPs, and trailing the Greens. Nick survived, but only just.

There you have it: seven key moments that help explain why the Lib Dems are where we now are. All are, to one extent or another, failures. Yet there has been one success, too: the Coalition has endured. Not gladly, but it remains intact. As Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne pointed out a few weeks ago: “If the coalition was standing in the general election in May, in my view it would win comfortably.” I think he’s right, though of course we’ll never know (for which many in both parties will be grateful). Coalition government, it turns out, can work. Just as well: this one’s unlikely to be the last.

“The rising tide of UK anti-immigrant sentiment”

by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2014

aljazeeraThat’s the headline of a piece I was interviewed for, published by Al Jazeera today. Here’s what I had to say:

Few political issues have stirred the 21st century British state like immigration. As the country continues to wrestle with its place within the European Union, the influx of EU migrants to UK shores has become one of the most controversial – and thorny – topics of discussion in recent years. …

“I don’t think the debate is a healthy one at the moment,” Stephen Tall, editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, the leading independent website for British Liberal Democrat party supporters, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s good that there is a debate because there was a period of time when there was no grown-up discussion about immigration at all. There were people saying that we didn’t talk about immigration, and 10 years ago that was possibly true, but it’s not true anymore. But, in terms of whether that discussion today is braced by facts, then clearly it’s not.”

Tall said as large swathes of the British – especially English – electorate continue to show their discontent with all things European and immigration, the economic facts – one of which, according to a recent University College London study, stated European migrants contributed more than £20bn ($31.3bn) to UK public finances between 2001 and 2011 – appear “irrelevant to the debate”.

“Immigration has helped fuel economic growth in London and it’s probably [partially responsible] for the huge improvement in London schools over the last decade, making London one of the most successful educational capitals in the world – and that’s partly been driven by the ambition of the immigrants who’ve settled here,” said Tall.

“But, for a lot of people, London feels like another place – it feels raucous and busy and uncomfortable and not somewhere they’d like to live or not somewhere they’d like their towns or villages or cities to turn into.”

That last sentence is a point I briefly explored here, too: Does everyone want to live in London?

As for how I think pro-immigration liberals (surely a tautology?) need to make our case, you might like to read my recent article for ConservativeHome: My open borders immigration policy is, I admit, a fantasy. The pro-immigration case has to be rooted in reality.



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