Thursday, March 17, 2011

Public sector jobs disappearing more quickly than forecast

Yesterday's depressing unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that public sector employment in the UK fell by 132,000 last year. About half were central government - about half of those 66,000 were in the education sector.

Worryingly, at the macro level, the loss of jobs in public sector is running at more than twice the rate predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility. (The rate is even higher than the initial OBR estimates.) Clearly the OBR has been caught off-guard by the front-loading of the grant cuts to local government and the responses of councils. This may be only a timing effect but in these uncertain times it may affect confidence more generally.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hutton's pensions report: The Deal and the reaction

This morning Lord Hutton of Furness published his report in to public sector pension including his Deal for public service workers and taxpayers (see above). With 200 pages of recommendations and analysis but few surprises, the report arrived in time for the Radio Four Today programme.

On Today Dave Prentis of Unison responded to the report in very reasonable terms. It appeared that he was more concerned about the hikes in employee pension contributions starting in 2012 than the actual report. He did express concern that the government might cherry pick the report at the expense of public sector workers.

(I have blogged a few times about the 3% pension levy and its potential implications for the local government pension scheme. The 3% levy followed Hutton’s interim report which pointed out that increased contributions allowed short-term savings. In the interim and the final report Hutton deftly handed over the issue of contribution rates over to the government.)

There is a more militant and wider-ranging response from the Public and Commercial Services union. PCS have warned: “any increase to contributions and the pension age for civil and public servants would be an unfair and unnecessary tax on working in the public sector and will be fiercely opposed”. (Of course, the threat of less take home pay in just over 12 months is more potent in getting the brothers and sisters out and around the picket line brazier than the prospect of a year or two or three of work possibly several decades hence.)

It does look likely that there will be co-ordinated strikes over pensions - perhaps even a million strong strike. However, I suspect that Hutton is playing almost a cameo role.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The final Hutton Report on public sector pensions – more signs of unrest

On Thursday Lord Hutton publishes his final report on public sector pensions. (Strangely, the publication date was only announced at the end of February.) A shift away from final salary to average salary pensions is likely to be proposed. The increased employee pension contributions advocated in his earlier interim report are already meeting union opposition.

In yesterday’s Observer a report pointed out:

Strike laws dictate that workers can only call action over a change to their pay or conditions and pensions are the only single reform that affects all public sector workers, justifying a general walkout. Some unions are already agitating for such a move.

At a time of pay freezes pension contribution rises are particularly painful for the “squeezed middle”. To the extent that lower paid workers are protected, the greater the rises for their better paid colleagues.

In a portent for the future, last week the University and Colleges Union voted at 67 universities by two thirds for strike action and 82% voting for action short of a strike. A series of rolling strikes will take place from 21 March if a resolution cannot be found to a dispute over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

In the news: academies, free schools and university technical colleges

In today’s Guardian an interview with former Tory education secretary Lord Baker highlights his recent work with Labour’s academies programme and now the Coalition on University Technical Colleges:

He is reviving the long-forgotten technical schools, which were enshrined, alongside grammar schools, in the 1944 Education Act, but which never got off the ground. They will be grandly, if rather confusingly, called university technical colleges (UTCs). One has already opened in Staffordshire – across the road from its sponsor, the big machinery maker JCB – and Baker has government support and funding to set up another 15. But that's just the start. "I want a hundred by 2015," Baker says. "After about 10 years, there will probably be 200 to 300." At the minimum, the initial costs will be £3m each. To hear Baker talk, you'd think the words "deficit reduction" had never been uttered; his fellow ministers used to say he was never knowingly underbid in public spending rounds. He has no truck with suggestions that the colleges are experimental. "This has become a movement," he proclaims.

The UTCs will cater for 14-to19-year-olds and offer a technical curriculum. The students will undertake 40-80 days' work experience each year on top of a nine hour day for 40 weeks a year. Lord Baker claims the support of Jaguar, Rolls-Royce, National Grid, British Aerospace, Siemens and Toyota for his movement.

The UTCs have been under the political and media radar. That might well change.

Selection and admission policies are always visible. This morning the Daily Telegraph reports (or maybe warns its readers) that the Coalition will consult over changes to the school admissions code in England which would give academies and free schools the freedom to prioritise deprived children when places are oversubscribed.

Today’s Financial Times highlights the problems of the Department for Education – in particular its ability to deliver the reform policies set out in the DfE business plan (pdf available). It notes the delays in changing planning rules to allow free schools in a variety of non-educational buildings.

Education Executive reports on the Free School Kit from Partnerships for Schools which will assist parents and others in their search for a site for a new school. The Kit is available online and allows parents to explore the geographical area where they propose setting up a new school, helping them to understand more about the existing educational landscape including pupil attainment, the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals, Ofsted ratings, surplus places, etc. It is intended to find the “hot spots” of unmet parental demand.