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Exams algorithm ditched, data not dates for Boris roadmap out of lockdown and council tax reform - it's all in a week of politics


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Another algorithm bites the dust, Boris sets out his routemap, and is there any alternative to the council tax?

Our political editor Paul Francis casts his eye over the stories of the week.

Exams have been scrapped and so has the algorithm - teacher assessment will be used to grade pupils
Exams have been scrapped and so has the algorithm - teacher assessment will be used to grade pupils

Algorithm dropped

This time last year Education Secretary Gavin Williamson found himself waiting outside the head teacher's office for a dressing down after making a bit of a hash over the cancellation of GCSEs and A-levels.

His handling of the decision was what teachers characterise as ‘careless’ - a subtle way of rebuking someone for failings that could have been avoided.

The Secretary of State back then dibbed in Ofqual - blaming it for the fiasco involving the complicated algorithm that was supposed to be being used to determine grade boundaries.

That algorithm was dropped at the eleventh hour and this year Mr Williamson has decided, for a second time, that the GCSE and A-level exams be abandoned.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The minister, who has the uncanny knack of disappearing under everyone’s radar when problems pile up, has been in media overdrive for a change.

Like an over-eager puppy, he has been busy setting out his exam masterplan.

It's partly designed to convey that he is in charge and that he has taken the initiative; partly to rehabilitate him as a serious political player.

He’s also trying desperately to convey he is a likeable human, which is arguably more challenging when you can come across as the child snatcher in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Still, at least schools haven’t been plunged into an eleventh hour crisis like last year.

Council tax bills have risen at a disproportionate rate
Council tax bills have risen at a disproportionate rate

Tax rises

As councils tighten their belts yet again and try to balance their budgets in the face of unprecedented pressures, the subject of council tax increases was centre stage this week at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The PM and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer engaged in one of those pointless exchanges, each citing examples of councils where bills were going up.

These skirmishes were entirely designed to provide the parties with some pre-election ammunition, with councils going to the polls in May.

There is a bigger issue, which is that council tax needs fundamental reform with household bills rising each year in a way that is unsustainable.

Currently the system calculates banding based on a property's value in 1991
Currently the system calculates banding based on a property's value in 1991

Average bills when the council tax was first introduced in 1993 were £568. Last year, the national average was £1,818 for homes in Band D. Over the period that represents a 220% increase.

The key political issue is that reform may be necessary but no party wants to go anywhere near it: the tax you pay is based on property values set in 1991 and any shake-up would undoubtedly lead to fears among householders that they will end up having to pay even more.

As we reported this week, the Covid-19 crisis has heaped even more pressures on councils who have taken money from their reserves to cover shortfalls.

In Kent, county councillors recently agreed to write a letter to the local government minister Robert Jenrick outlining the case for reform.

It hasn’t yet been written but is on the leader’s list of things to do, we are told.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Dates or data?

For a Prime Minister who says that it is the data, not days that matter, Boris Johnson seemed to be over-riding his mantra rather liberally in setting out his routemap out of the coronavirus crisis.

There’s March 8 for schools to return; March 29 for the new rule of six; April 12 for haircuts and non-essential retailers; indoor hospitality and some larger events outdoors from May 17 and - hurrah - the end of all social restrictions on June 21.

All these come with a caveat, of course: that in the event of surges in infection rates in local areas, the Prime Minister says he reserves the right to impose mini-lockdowns.

So, it’s a plan that is cautiously irreversible, except when it is not.

The party whip has been returned to two rebel Tory county councillors
The party whip has been returned to two rebel Tory county councillors

They're back!

Good news for two rebel Conservative county councillors suspended from the KCC group for opposing the 5% council tax hike.

Paul Cooper and Gary Cooke, both representing divisions in Maidstone, have had the whip restored. Which leaves them free to stand in the May poll.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

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