Yes, but is it progressive?

“Progressive” is a word with many suitors.

Labour activists use it wherever possible, apparently as a synonym for “things we like and approve of” (interestingly, they use “liberal” in precisely the same way). Friday’s Progressive London conference, for all that it was supposedly a cross-party effort, may be a case in point. Dr Pack of this parish attended, and could be heard to tweet:

Dawn Butler starts session at supposed cross-party event: “I want to talk about how we get Labour re-elected”. Hmm

And the Tories would love to get in on the act, as Stephen Tall notes. The day before the Progressive London conference, David Cameron launched Progressive Conservatism in association with Demos (or, arguably, re-launched it; he’s been throwing that phrase around for some time – maybe it just wasn’t sticking to anything).

Two soi-disant “progressive” events in one week. We recall the immortal words of Sir Humphrey Appleby: “Always dispose of the difficult bit in the title. It does less harm there than in the text.”

But we’re not here today to see how the other two parties think they measure up to their own definition of “progressive”* – instead, I want you to look at this interesting discussion on education policy from the Guardian.

It seems that Policy Exchange have today released a sort of companion piece report to their influential work on pupil premiums. The Guardian correctly notes that “the pupil premium, a suggested new funding system that rewards schools financially for admitting pupils from the poorest homes, is already official policy of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party.”

This association has been, for many, further evidence that the Lib Dem are “moving to the right”. Some Labour supporters tend to see pupil premiums voucher systems [corrected as per comments] as the devil’s own work because they reflect “marketisation” – bitten by their own government’s system of targets and incentives. But soft, what’s this? Could it be that their bluff is about to be called?

 The pupil premium is now getting attention from all parts of the political spectrum. Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP and chair of the children, schools and families select committee in the House of Commons, plans to run a seminar looking at the option. Fiona Millar, schools campaigner and Education Guardian columnist, says: “It’s basically progressive and should be a Labour idea.”

The ultimate Labourite seal of approval! Not out of the mouth of a minister, but the signs are that it can only be a matter of time.

How this filip will shake down with the grassroots remains to be seen. It’s an interesting illustration of the fact that to identify yourself with a key buzzword is to let a genie out of a bottle. Because anyone can join in the game. Once you’ve laid down the principle that all things you like are “progressive” it’s hard to argue against something that someone else nominally on your own side dubs “progressive”. At its least factual and most amusing, the resultant quarrel is based very much on the “I’m Spartacus!” principle.

But why the change of heart, I hear you cry? Surely they can’t just have been won over to the idea of pupil premiums by means of reasonable argument? For the answer, I think we need to look at that Policy Exchange companion piece.

Where the first report set out the abstract notion of pupil premiums, today’s release goes into practical detail about how it would work. Premiums would be awarded by a formula based on the MOSAIC index and:

Most controversially, Policy Exchange would scrap the middleman. It argues for a national funding body to apply the formula to individual schools, cutting out the local authority’s role. It would slash councils’ budgets by nearly 40%, a deeply controversial political move. It is an argument for the mass centralisation of the system, which sits uncomfortably with the centre right’s commitment to localism.

Aha. Centralisation and a massive database. I think I begin to see daylight.

The Guardian is right to point out the tension between this system and a commitment to localism, I think. It’s something for Liberal Democrats to consider in deciding how much of this new report to take on board. The fact that Labour are suddenly warming up to the idea is instructive.

* And in my defence, should anyone be considering the import of today’s oeuvres so far, I did not wake up this morning and think, “Hey, I’m going to have a proper few swings at those red’n’blue bozos on LDV today”. Sometimes the press monitoring round-up email makes that decision all by itself.

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  • David Morton 25th Jan '09 - 11:22am

    Great Piece. Two quick quibbles.

    1. I’m not sure i’d call Pupil premium a Voucher system at least in any defination of Voucher I have heard.

    2. Rather than look at the policy in a Centralised/Localised spectrum think Subsidiarity. Where is the power ( in this case the money) going ? Some is going UP from the council to government I admit but if you want a national scheme it needs a national administration. However most is going to pupils,parents and individual schools. ie DOWN.

    However many will equate Councils with locality just because of the size of the LD’s local government base.

  • Dawn Butler is a truly dreadful MP. Ever week she manages to do something that makes me cringe.

  • “Aha. Centralisation and a massive database. I think I begin to see daylight.”

    Of course. Being members of the Labour party they couldn’t want to do it just to benefit underprivileged children – there would have to be some evil ulterior motive…

  • Alix Mortimer 25th Jan '09 - 1:10pm

    David M, on your first point, you’re quite right and that was sheer redrafting carelessness on my part. I have made a correction to the article since the point is pretty germane.

    On the second point, that’s a much subtler way of looking at it – thanks. I intend to at least skim-read the report at which point it may all start to make more sense.

    Anonymong, that’s a rather silly comment. No-one’s suggesting Labour are “evil” or have “ulterior motives” – those words are yours. It’s not necessary to believe that at all to agree with my point. I for one have no doubt that many people within Labour are devoted to doing their absolute best in all sorts of social justices causes. I was merely highlighting the fact that their policy-making record demonstrates time and again that they invariably believe that (a) centralisation and (b) mass data collection and manipulation are the best way to do this. Surely this isn’t a controversial point?

    Ergo, it comes as no surprise to me that they suddenly start to see the point of an idea around the time those elements are introduced. It’s actually a very honest and characteristic response.

  • It amused me that Progressive London lists it’s speakers as:

    Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell and David Lammy from the government…. Labour MPs Jon Cruddas, Jeremy Corbyn, Dawn Butler and Karen Buck;


  • Alix wrote:

    It’s a shame you can’t respond to a comment from someone with a different point of view without using an offensive playground insult. Puerile yah-boo politics at its worst.

    But regarding the substantive point, of course you made your true feelings only too clear when you wrote:
    “Surely they can’t just have been won over to the idea of pupil premiums by means of reasonable argument?”

    When those in other parties change their policies, it can’t be because they’ve been won over by reasonable argument. There has to be some ulterior motive. Of course, when the Lib Dems change their policies, as they do every few weeks these days … that’s always a completely rational response to changing circumstances!

  • Mark

    If you’re at a loose end, there were some unanswered questions about your claim the week before last that the public spending review initiated by Ming Campbell in 2006 had succeeded in identifying savings of 3% in public savings:

  • Originally “progress” meant the kind of innovations (scientific, technical and economic) which happened, when the artificial obstacles to the human creativity were removed, but the socialists hijacked the word to mean the new obstacles, that they erected. 🙁

  • I’d be interested to know how a pupil premium could be based on MOSAIC. My preferred strategy would be around individual pupils’ status: more for families earning below a certain amount, for children of single parents, for those who do not speak English in the home.

    MOSAIC is a little bit messy. You can’t predict how areas of Coronation Street, New Town Materialism, South Asian Industry, White Van Culture, Older Right to Buy etc will pan out in terms of the levels of social problems. Those are the ones off the top of my head* as to the most unpredictable: they could be very poor areas or fairly resilient ones.

    I don’t know a lot, like, but I’m hoping the LD policy isn’t organised in this way as it would be a bit clunking. You’ll have to give me some business to chew on.

    *Yes, literally. I’m that sad 🙂

  • Neil Craig- ‘Liberalism’ didn’t originally mean small state. Mill believed in zero-percent growth, for example. You are thinking of libertarianism, which is something else entirely.

  • David Allen 25th Jan '09 - 7:31pm

    How about a bit of balance? If we’re so scared that Labour might possibly adopt the policy and then mess it up, shouldn’t we also worry about what the Tories might do? They, after all, are the party who have definitely adopted the policy.

    Pupil premium isn’t a voucher scheme, but if I was a cross between Sir Keith Joseph and Machiavelli, I would happily support the pupil premium. I would say “Let’s con those Libs into giving us cross-party support to get a pupil premium scheme into place. Money attached to individual pupils, that’s the thing. Once it’s all up and running, we go into phase 2 of our cunning plan.”

    The thing for the evil Tories to do then is to find a tearful Mum and make her famous. “Why is my rotten Council paying St Sink’s School all that money for my Jason, when all St Sink’s have done with it is to build a luxury staff room? If it’s Jason’s pupil premium, why can’t I take it myself, and offer it to St Cuthbert’s Oratory for Upwardly Mobile Omnitheists, who would use it properly? That’s where we really wanted Jason to go!”

    Oh and by the way, once Jason’s Mum is allowed to get her own hands on the money, why should she not be allowed to part-pay the private sector? Or to top it up herself?

    Now, I’m not suggesting that we abandon the policy just because it might get distorted into something we don’t like. But we do need to be cautious.

    Perhaps a national administration would be cheaper, less liable to allow local abuse, better able to prevent the pupil premium from morphing into a voucher scheme? And if the school is given local responsibility in the way its spends the money, isn’t that the bit of localism that really matters?

  • I (who, apparently, it suits party loyalists to compare with a sufferer from Down’s Syndrome, as a bit of cheap political abuse) wrote:
    “If you’re at a loose end, there were some unanswered questions about your claim …”

    I guess that despite appearances you weren’t at a loose end this afternoon. I suppose those questions will have to remain unanswered.

  • David Evans 26th Jan '09 - 9:11am


    Labour in the metropolitan parliamentary bubble may seem to use liberal as a term to describe things they approve of, but in the North, where we are fighting them it is a term of abuse, as in “Liberal views on drugs”.

    I think if you scratch below the surface in London, you will find Liberal often used as a term for “Things I wish I (and my party) had the courage to support openly, but the Liberals support it, so if there is a public backlash we can blame it on them, but if it is popular and a success we will drop the liberal bit and take all the credit.” Never trust politicians – you can tell when they are lying – their lips move.


  • Sam Freedman 26th Jan '09 - 10:22am

    I can’t help but notice you’re discussing my report for Policy Exchange on the Pupil Premium.

    Just to clear a few things up….

    1) We haven’t released two pieces. Just one and it was last year (October). This Guardian piece was written at the time.

    2) I would disagree that this is an example of centralisation – it is proper localism – i.e. devolving all funds to the school level rather than having central and local governments make arbitrary (often political) decisions about funding.

    3) The use of MOSAIC (or some similar geodemographics software) is not unproblematic, but I reckon it’s better than the alternatives. Free School Meals is too crude a measure. Means-testing would be too complicated. Furthermore, as I show in the report income measures (like FSM) don’t correlate that well with poor performance. More abstract family/community effects like “aspiration” need to be taken into account and programmes like MOSAIC do this well because they include culturual variables as well as economic ones….

    Good to see the idea being discussed….

    Sam Freedman
    Policy Exchange

  • Point taken, Sam Freeman. Yes, family income is a bit crude. MOSAIC has its uses, but not alone…

    My main gripe with MOSAIC is actually personal, that I can’t know for certain what my own type is as there’s no formula I know of for some member of the public to enter his postcode & be told his type. They have it for ACORN, but ACORN isn’t so much fun (they were created by the same person, interestingly enough).

    OK, you’ve shamed me into reading your actual report now 🙂

    I still prefer something based on individual scales, not only income but parents’ level of education, family structure, & what have you. A system geared towards the individual pupil would be best.

  • “My main gripe with MOSAIC is actually personal, that I can’t know for certain what my own type is as there’s no formula I know of for some member of the public to enter his postcode & be told his type.”

    I think you can find out here, but it will cost you …

  • Dawn Butler on how to reelect Labour – photoshop yourself with Barack Obama?

    Progressive is a weasel word – it was used by municipal Tories in Scotland until the 1970s when they largely ‘came out’ as it were as proper Conservatives.

    It’s about as meaningful as ‘social justice’.

  • Yes, but I doubt whether I’ll be paying. That’s the whole point 🙂

    I just read through it & I certainly don’t agree with it all, especially abbout abolishing EMA & your apparent assumption that the school leaving age will/should be raised to 18 & this should go unchallenged (a ridiculous idea if ever there was one).

    You have convinced me that MOSAIC should be used, though again I’d say that it should only be one factor amongst many. It does have the advantage (or at least I’d call it an advantage) that schools in deprived areas will continue to receive higher funding even if results improve.

    Of course the problem with all this is that we’re dealing with unpredictable human beings, & I dare say that children are more so than most, but certainly this is business that should be considered.

    The same can’t be said for Philip Blond, who should simply be stamped out 🙂

  • My comment seems not to have appeared, what’s that all about?

  • Alix Mortimer 26th Jan '09 - 12:54pm

    David A, I’m certainly not at all sanguine about how the Tories will implement this. I’m sure that’s a bridge we’ll cross at some stage. And you’re also quite right in drawing out the spending capacity as the really important element in localism – I really hadn’t made those distinctions properly at all, which was somewhat knee-jerk of me. I daresay this is because in the Great Education System In My Head, individual areas would be allowed to decide whether they wanted pupil premiums or not, but I’m happy enough with the real-life version.

    On the MOSAIC argument (thanks for stopping by, Sam), would the most appropriate balance between Asquith’s and Sam’s arguments be combining a MOSAIC (or similar) system with an extra layer of very localised context? I know MOSAIC has existing geographical patterning, but I don’t think it gets down to the level of an individual area (could be wrong).

    I.e. you could introduce, say, an income of carers measure based on individual income as a percentage of average local income. You could also weight for employment/unemployment of carers in proportion to local rates of employment (not sure how that would work). I’m putting this badly, but the idea is to contextualise each separate area of, e.g., White Van culture so that the measurements are more sophisticated than having just one formula applying to all the White Van postcodes in, e.g. Glasgow, Essex and Wolverhampton. As Asquith implies, different areas might have vastly different cultures resulting from the same raw statistics. But then I’m conscious that MOSAIC alleges to have a lot of this built in. Hm.

    Hey, I know! I could actually read the report…

    David Evans, thanks for that. Interesting point – it really is a feature of the London bubble in that case. Does that tend to mean you avoid using the word “liberal”, or you use it more in an attempt to redefine it?

  • You may like to read the original because there is a lot worth criticising in there.

    I have also cherished a personal dislike of Michael Gove for some time 🙂 is it if you like.

  • Simon R, liberalism didn’t begin from John Stuart Mill. You must look back at least to John Locke.

    And regarding to Mill, later in his life he begun to doubt liberalism. Therefore you should consider only his early works representing liberal. If a person was once a liberal, and then became something else, that doesn’t make everything he wrote during his lifetime “liberal”.

  • David Allen 26th Jan '09 - 3:18pm

    MOSAIC, I confess, is new on me. Are we saying that we, as a gvernment, will happily label whole communities with supercilious stereotypes such as “White Van Men” (or why not “Trailer Trash”?). And that we will expect all those proles, to whom we shall be handing out our pupil premiums like Lady Bountiful, to touch their forelocks in respectful gratitude?

  • David Allen 27th Jan '09 - 5:42pm


    I can see why these impressionistic categories are useful for marketing. But when it comes to handing out public money, don’t we need to use some form of objective criteria which everyone can see are fair? We will get local headmasters complaining bitterly that they got less money because some marketing nerd decided they were located in a White Van Culture area. This will not be good publicity for us!

  • Point taken, David Allen. I would prefer a system based mainly on traditional indicators like low income, single parents, English not spoken as a first language & what have you when it comes to deciding who is deprived.

    But the thing about MOSAIC, as Sam Freeman pointed out, is that it adds value to this analysis. There are very poor areas with higher aspirations & achievement than relatively well-off areas: traditional indicators don’t pick up on this as well as MOSAIC does.

    Anyway, I am not aware of this being LD policy: it was merely referred to in a report by Policy Exchange, which I gather is of the right.

    I posted the link at 1:06pm yesterday if you’d like a perusal. There are several ways in which I’d disafree with their analysis, such as the fact that they seem to want to abolish Education Maintainance Allowance, which is Camoron’s policy but certainly isn’t mine 🙂

  • Perhaps if we went back to a properly selective education system, as envisaged by the Tripartite System, and funded it, we would end the debate.

  • Is there any demand for the Tripartite System to be brought back?

    I seem to recall that the reason Thatcher took her stand against it was that the middle class didn’t actually like it all that much.

    I myself passed the 11+, & was offered a place at a grammar school some distance from my home & a scholarship to public school. I “decided” to go to the local sink comprehensive with everyone else, which was understandable for one so immature & unaware of the world outside the estate, but I can’t help regretting.

  • Asquith – its precisely because “the middle class didn’t like it all that much” that it should be brought back. All systems are most likely to be manipulated in their favour by those best placed to do so; which is usually those with the most money and education. One based on the ability of the child is less likely to be manipulated than one based on the child’s parents’ ability to buy property in a desirable area or pass a faith-based interview.

    The Tripartite System, properly implemented, equally well-funded, and with opportunities to transfer, offers the best chance to nurture and develop the talents of all our children.

    Your own (anecdotal) example exhibits precisely the problems with not implementing the full system; what you describe is a mish-mash between comprehensive and grammar schools, not the full range of schools geared towards delivering excellence in a particular speciality.

  • David Evans 28th Jan '09 - 9:32pm

    I never cease to be amazed at how many people still want to put their faith in some mechanistic computer system (apparently MOSAIC is flavour of the month now, but there was something before and someone will back something different in future). We all have our own preferences which means no-one will ever achieve a system with “some form of objective criteria which everyone can see are fair”, because people disagree, both those with particular vested interests, ‘my child has x, so x should get more’ and those without. Wishing it away is a waste of time.

    The reason these systems are so popular with New Labour types is because they can deny all personal responsibility when a manifestly stupid or unfair outcome occurs. Ultimately, all these things come down to judgement; that is what we pay our politicians for. If we don’t like it they can be replaced. Try voting out a massive database and see how far you get!

  • Alix Mortimer 28th Jan '09 - 9:59pm

    First, I think it’s odd to call MOSAIC a “computer” system. It’s got nothing functionally to do with computers. It’s a set of data and observations that has been crunched (and could have been crunched with pen and paper) to produce a set of socio-economic types.

    If it’s the typology you’re objecting to, I don’t think anyone thinks MOSAIC or any other system is perfect. You can pretty much wilfully choose to interpret the world through a different profiling system every day of the week. Nor do I think you can uncritically slap any given system on a social problem (which is why, I gather, the report seems to be arguing for a mix).

    But you can’t not try it on the basis that you might get it wrong. It’s a tool, you should see if it’s useful. Classifying people into socio-economic groups to predict their behaviour or see what they need isn’t a NuLab fad, it’s an academic endeavour with a history of a couple of hundred years. And people have been “classifying” people one way or another and treating them accordingly since the dawn of time.

    On judgement, yes, and if I had my way I suppose education would be so completely devolved that no-one would need an over-arching profiling system of any sort because they really could exercise individual judgement. But some sort of en-masse judgement based on common data is inevitable with a national system. The only question is, would you prefer it to be more sophisticated and likely to be accurate, or less?

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