John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for June, 2012

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Class of 2012: what’s it like leaving higher education now?

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

We’re putting together a snapshot of how university leavers are feeling about their job prospects, and the value of a degree

Anywhere but Westminster is about to turn its attention to the class of 2012: people about to graduate from university, who are faced with the most unwelcoming job market in decades. As part of a Guardian series on the subject, we want to give a flavour of what it’s like leaving higher education in such trying times, and how graduates think their degree will help – or hinder – their job prospects.

We want to bring out one other issue, too. Self-evidently, different degrees and different universities give graduates wildly different chances in the labour market. Underneath the hugely expanded numbers of people going into higher education, there are no end of distinctions and hierarchies – which become even more clear in times like these. So: is there one British city whose higher education institutions embody those divisions? And if so, what do the students who live there make of them?

We’re aiming to put together a film and accompanying article within the next 10 days. If you’re one of the class of 2012 and you’re interested in participating, you can mail us at anywherebutwestminster@gmail.com. Suggestions and opinions about who, where and what we should cover are very welcome, and should be posted on the thread below. We’ll be on the thread during the day, responding to any ideas.

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John Harris

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Mother whose son has SEN statement fears reforms will mean extra burdens and uncertainties

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Woman whose son has autistic spectrum disorder says: ‘The night I read about the green paper, I lay awake, worrying’

Denise Jackson, 47, lives in the small North Yorkshire village of Thixendale. Her teenage son Harry is diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Their story reflects many common frustrations with the UK’s system of dealing with children with special educational needs (SEN) – not least the fact that it took several years to get his condition formally recognised.

Harry was given a legally-binding statement of special educational needs – which the government plans to replace with single plans covering education, health and social care – when he was four, but a diagnosis of ASD did not arrive until he was seven, after his family had convinced NHS professionals of their case. Presented with Harry’s diagnosis, his local authority, North Yorkshire, agreed to fund a place at a special school.

Harry is 18 – and, says Jackson, “now it gets really difficult”. He has another year to run on a sixth-form course at his school – after which, in the absence of residential courses in North Yorkshire, his family are aiming at a college in Shropshire, which specialises in essential life skills. To get there, however, Jackson has been told that she has to go through the formality of applying for a course at a local college, which she says is eminently unsuitable. “Everybody we’ve dealt with admits that it’s ridiculous,” she says. “But you have to jump through that hoop in order to get a rejection, so you can proceed down the route to a residential college.”

Jackson recently attended a day-long workshop for North Yorkshire’s SEN Pathfinder scheme. “We were given a week’s notice,” she says, “and some people didn’t find out about it all.” The government’s proposed single plans were discussed, along with the pace at which the changes will be rolled out. “They said, ‘The single plan is going to happen quickly, so there’s an urgency behind getting these Pathfinders done,’” she says. “It does seem very fast.”

Jackson has serious concerns about the government’s plans, which chime with those of SEN experts. At the moment, if a case is taken to the special educational needs and disability tribunal (Sendist), a child’s needs are the only relevant criteria. But the government is proposing that a council’s “local offer” must also be considered, which Jackson fears may rule out her aim of enrolling her son at a college in a different county. She also fears that bringing in the single plans and introducing personal budgets will force parents to navigate their way through an unproven and uncertain system, on top of the trials of caring for their children.

“The night that I read about the green paper I lay awake, worrying, thinking about all the extra work that might be involved,” she says. “I’m sitting here with a pile of forms that I’ve got to fill in for Harry, for various things, and my fear is that all the reforms will only add to it all.”

John Harris

Denise Jackson blogs at autistickidsgrowup.wordpress.com

John Harris

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Give special educational needs changes more time, say campaigners

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Pilot schemes are not being allowed enough time to test SEN proposals, say charities, teachers’ unions and pressure groups

The government’s radical shakeup of England’s system for children with special educational needs (SEN) is facing mounting criticism from charities, teachers’ unions and pressure groups, who say pilot schemes set up eight months ago to test the proposals have yet to begin, and are not being allowed enough time before legislation is introduced.

After a green paper published in March 2011, the government’s plans for change were included in last month’s Queen’s speech. A draft bill will be published during the summer, and the Department for Education says it aims to have new arrangements in place “for 2014″.

To test the reforms’ key elements, 20 “pathfinder” schemes, involving 31 local authorities, were announced last September. At the time, Sarah Teather, the children and families minister, said her department was “proposing the biggest reforms in 30 years to help disabled children and those with special educational needs, so we need to make sure we get them right”. She was also “looking forward to seeing how the pathfinders progress over the next few months to test out how we can make our proposed changes a reality”.

Eight months later, SEN experts and campaigners warned that despite plans for pilot projects to deliver interim findings in the autumn and conclude by the end of March next year, many of them have yet to introduce their new arrangements, or even decide which families will take part.

The proposed changes will affect around 1.7 million children. They include such measures as personal budgets for special needs provision, and the replacement of the current model of special educational needs with “single plans” covering education, health and social care.

Freedom of information requests about the pathfinder projects were lodged in late March by Fiona Nicholson, founder of the home education consultancy Ed Yourself. In April and early May she received answers from all 31 local authorities involved. They showed that at least 11 had yet to recruit any families for the schemes.

Jane McConnell, the chief executive of the special needs advice service Ipsea (Independent Parental Special Education Advice), said: “We are finding it very hard to get any pathfinder local authorities to tell us exactly how many parents they have successfully recruited to which pilots.

“Even if all the planned number of families were in place by the beginning of June, that would only give children six weeks in school before the summer holidays to even start considering the effect of a single assessment, or plan, or personal budget. School would return in September. So at best, families would only have been using the piloted system for a matter of months before they are supposed to be providing evidence on which a whole new system will be based.”

She continued: “A key issue is that identifying a child’s needs, defining what additional support they need, and putting it into place takes time. Staff have to be recruited and trained in many instances, and schools have to implement change. This does not happen quickly and time has to elapse for the results to be evaluated. The fundamental thing with this group of children is that they do not learn or react to change as ordinary children do. It takes them more time. They cannot be hurried.” 

A spokesman for the Department for Education said the pathfinder schemes were “a key part” of testing the proposals, but they were “not starting from zero knowledge”, and cited past reports on SEN, and consultations that preceded and followed the green paper.

The spokesman said that “in many areas it has taken time to establish strong partnerships across services and engage parents in planning”, and claimed that “most pathfinders will be recruiting families by June”.

The spokesman went on: “We would not expect to get royal assent before 2014 – so there is plenty of time to learn from the pathfinders, drawing on the experience of families.”

Among the local authorities piloting the plans is East Sussex. The council’s pathfinder lead, Jenny Clench, said that its pilot had recruited 50 families, but would not be up and running until September.

In its freedom of information response, North Yorkshire county council said its pathfinder project – focused on young people leaving special schools at 16, and a large group of disabled children under five – was intended to be “relatively small scale, in order that we can achieve something realistic in the time available – now only 12 months”.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Sarah Teather should wait for outcomes from the current SEN pathfinders before jumping to conclusions about what will work. Taxpayers’ money is being invested in SEN pathfinders across the country. It is needlessly hasty to announce a draft children and families bill this summer.”

John Harris
Jessica Shepherd

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Our future is in the hands of men who haven’t grown up | John Harris

Monday, June 4th, 2012

In past crises our leaders had age and experience. Now they come across as dilettantes distracted by games on their iPads

Watching Jeremy Hunt’s day at the Leveson inquiry, one thought hit me like a hammer: that he looked like the perfect modern politician, and for all the wrong reasons. He seemed shaky, inexperienced and regularly out of his depth. In an office reception, I briefly watched his cross-examination with the sound turned down and, strangely, those qualities were even clearer. Really, what kind of senior minister – tipped for the Tory leadership, to boot – would not understand the meaning of quasi-judicial, or the need to minute all official meetings? Didn’t those text messages have a kind of boy-man, David Brent-ish ring to them? Anyone resident in the real world would probably not leave him in charge of a barbecue, let alone a ministry.

Yet this is where politics and power have ended up: in the hands of too many people – men, by and large – who style themselves as expert players of the game, but know far too little about the political fundamentals (Hunt’s backstory, involving time in Japan and a successful education business, might seem to set him apart, but he looks and sounds like a risen-without-trace politician straight from central casting).

The prime minister apparently has a poor eye for detail, a weakness for iPad games and no clear idea of where his administration ought to be headed. The Treasury is commanded by George Osborne and Danny Alexander, and look what has happened – not just an economic plan that is failing, but the most abject budget in living memory.

With the addition of Nick Clegg, the average age of the “quad” they make up is 42.75. The Labour frontbench has much the same age profile – indeed, since Ed Miliband began reshuffling his team, the sense of untested youth has only grown greater (witness the 35-year gap between Vince Cable and his shadow, Chuka Umunna). To be fair, Miliband’s choice of greybeards is rather limited by the massed exit of big Labour figures after 13 long years of government, their often damaged reputations, and his need to define his leadership in terms of fresh approaches. But note one recent development – the promotion of Jon Cruddas, whose singular contribution to Labour politics is down not just to being an iconoclastic free-thinker, but the insights of a politician with a rich hinterland, who has just turned 50.

How did all this happen? Part of the explanation is traceable to the cult of that other Leveson star Tony Blair, and a fatal modern mistake: seizing on the occasions when relative youth has symbolised a necessary changing of the guard (Blair in 1997, Bill Clinton in 1992), and thinking that therein lies a dependable formula for every political occasion. A lot of blame lies in the woeful modern career path – university, followed by life first as a researcher, then special adviser, a seat in your early-to-mid 30s and, if you’re lucky, a big role not long after.

But there are other explanations. Cultural historian Alwyn Turner argues in his book Things Can Only Get Bitter that Labour’s hope-crushing defeat in 1992 pushed a whole generation away from politics, leaving a huge age gap. Such big hitters as Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Darling were born between 1945 and 1954, and the generation led by the Milibands and Ed Balls all have birth dates no earlier than 1965. Look for anyone born between 1955 and 1964 and you encounter slim pickings. From Labour’s last spell in government, Turner cites only Jacqui Smith. Though a bit better off for fiftysomethings, the Tories have their own version of the same story, presumably traceable to the toxic reputation of Major’s government.

Stewardship in troubled times requires more than a smattering of grey hairs. At the height of Britain’s travails in the 1970s, Denis Healey was in his late 50s; when she began pushing her box-fresh project down the nation’s throat, Margaret Thatcher was 53. Clement Attlee became PM at 62, and his first two chancellors took office aged only four years younger. And take note: the most successful modern British politician is Alex Salmond, who is 58 this year. François Hollande is the same age. As loth as I am to write a single sentence about this weekend’s mad parade, maybe the enthusiastic celebration of the diamond jubilee underlines an associated point, that somewhere in most people’s minds, wired in since human beings came down from the trees, is an innate understanding of age and experience, and their infinite uses.

Even if there is not much they can do about it, some of the most clued-up politicians seem to agree. When Ken Clarke returned to frontline politics, I wrote an article suggesting that such battle-scarred figures were exactly what times of crisis often require. I was emailed by a shadow Tory minister of roughly my own age, who agreed with most of what I had said, and invited me to the Commons for wine and crisps. He’s now in the cabinet. We talked, as I recall, about what a turbulent time his party was bound to have in government, and the contrasting experiences of our generation and those that had preceded us.

Our mid-20s were defined by such touchstones as the European Championship of 1996, Blair, and Oasis; at much the same age, Denis Healey was a landing officer at the battle of Anzio, and Edward Heath was fighting in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Would that their generation could be called on today, when Europe and the wider world are once again full of grave threats, but the greenhorns in power are fixed in our minds as mere dilettantes, breaking from their duties to either fire off silly texts, or play Fruit Ninja.

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John Harris

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