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Prepare for deflation, it’s A-level results day


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Good Thursday morning from a dragon-festooned hotel near(ish) Brecon. This is Dan Bloom on the Playbook tour.

DRIVING THE DAY

DEFLATION NATION: Hundreds of thousands of 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are waking up to A-level results — and they’re lower than last year’s after a push to reverse COVID-era grade inflation.

Timings for today: UCAS admissions data is published at 8 a.m. … the main results and UCAS clearing data are out at 9.30 a.m. … and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is visiting a school in north London with a pool clip at 10 a.m.

Media blitz: Keegan and her Labour shadow Bridget Phillipson are both on the morning round … Skills Minister Robert Halfon will be responding to the results at UCAS HQ from 9.30 a.m. … and Schools Minister Nick Gibb is on the BBC’s World at One.

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What they’ll be saying: Average grades are lower than last summer because it’s the second in a two-year plan to return to normal grading post-COVID. In theory, a student in England should be as likely to achieve an A, B or C now as they would have been in 2019. Vocational and technical qualifications are also expected to be lower than in 2022.

WORST YEAR EVER: Many of today’s 18-year-olds haven’t sat full-blown exams for years as their GCSEs took place during COVID. As student Guy Martin puts it to the Telegraph: “We’re expected to do these exams under normal conditions when we haven’t had a normal education.” Experts warn the i there’ll be a “huge number” of appeals.

AND THEN THERE’S UNI: The mad scramble for spare spots on 30,000 courses through the clearing system will begin. Lee Elliot Major at the University of Exeter tells the Mail today is “one of the most nerve-racking days in recent university admissions history.” PA analysis suggested there were slightly fewer courses available in clearing than last year, though the Times then reported a late surge of new additions on Wednesday night.

Lest we forget: This all started of course in 2020, when teachers were asked to assess their students’ grades during COVID. Many were on the precipice of two grades. Their teachers couldn’t assume which way it would’ve fallen on exam day, so often awarded the higher grade. A “mutant algorithm” tried to correct for this but was so wildly unpopular it was scrapped altogether. The long shadow of lockdowns has not retreated yet.

Figures to have to hand: Last year 35.9 percent of results were at A or A*. In 2019 it was 25.2 percent. 

Worth watching: The gap between state and private schools. A grades at independent schools shot from 44.7 percent to 70.4 percent during COVID teacher-assessed grades … but a more modest 22 percent to 35.3 percent at sixth form colleges.

School’s in: Keegan has given an interview to the Telegraph saying more young people have “lost their confidence” and are spending long stretches away from school. “Please come back,” she tells them.

MAKE IT STOP: A-level students will be muting X/Twitter this morning to avoid the flood of politicians, journalists and Jeremy Clarkson offering well-wishes/memories/thinly veiled boasts/unsolicited advice. Some have already broken cover, including Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting (“I can still remember the nervousness like it was yesterday”) and Lib Dem Munira Wilson (who immediately segued into a thread about why “Rishi Sunak owes you an apology.”)

MEANWHILE, IN THE ECONOMY: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been busy talking up Wednesday’s falling inflation figures — despite “core” CPI remaining at 6.9 percent and the IFS saying his target to halve inflation this year is “in jeopardy.”

You’ll have never have it so good: The Times splashes on a Steven Swinford interview with Sunak, in which the PM says “I passionately believe” people will feel better off in a year’s time.

Well … not *that* good: In the same interview Sunak rejects calls to cut taxes “right now.” 

Other lines: Ahead of setting out a wider vision in the fall (the i’s Hugo Gye says skills reform could be part of it), Sunak says his five pledges are not the “limit of my ambition” … and he refuses to “speculate” on whether the U.K. could leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

Coming attractions: Sunak is back in No. 10 today, but also spoke to regional media on Tuesday. Your author didn’t spot any write-ups overnight, so it’s possible there’s more to come.

Newsfest: In an earlier interview with ITV’s Robert Peston, Sunak also … batted away calls for a referendum on net zero … said the government is “committed to” the triple lock, even if it sends pensions rising 8 percent (the Guardian splash says that would cost £10 billion) … and said pay rises should be “focused on rewarding productivity.”

Just don’t tell Scotland … where junior doctors are getting a 12.4 percent pay rise in a deal with the Scottish government. But it’ll be funded from existing budgets, reports the Beeb.

POSTCARD FROM BRECON AND RADNORSHIRE

ACTUAL POSTCARD AGAIN: I’m late because I had to stop on the mountain road for a phone call, and an Aussie couple can’t fathom the parking machine. Pen y Fan is behind the glittering river. Jazz weekend has just ended. Sun-kissed army personnel are strolling past the art shops. Yep — I’m in Brecon. It’s a hard life.

Triple threat? The home of 97-day Lib Dem MP Jane Dodds, who won a by-election before losing to Tory Fay Jones in the 2019 general, this seat is a rare one where all three main parties might decide they’re a contender after boundary changes. More of that later.

BUT FIRST: Forgive the navel-gazing — I’m at the Brecon and Radnor Express. My joyous introduction to journalism was at my local paper in Kent. I revealed a great postbox robbery, interviewed Richard Branson in kite-surfing gear and covered a wake for Sparky the squirrel, electrocuted on a power line. It was ace. So I wanted to see a seat through its paper’s eyes.

All change: At first I don’t spot the gold lettering on the Georgian window. Since cutbacks and COVID, the Express has vacated the ground floor. There’s a chiropodist on one side and an advice center on the other. The half-a-dozen-ish people on the editorial floor today (Brecon’s edition has three writers, plus two more for Abergavenny) are all enthusiastic under-30s.

All humanity: Luke Williams doesn’t have a favorite local news story, but if he did, it’d be Monty the terminally ill Labradoodle. His owner took him for one last “walk” up Pen y Fan in a wheelbarrow. “It went absolutely bananas,” says the 27-year-old news editor. “The next morning we got phone calls from American TV networks and the Philippines.”

Running theme: Mountain rescue stories are staple fare. A cow was retrieved from a river last week by three fire crews. Metal detectorists found a hand grenade … But other stories are more far-reaching. Farmers are worried about funding (see Postcard from Monmouth). There’s a row over the Welsh government buying the site of the Green Man festival. Not to mention sewage dumping just downriver, and rural school closures.

Tradition  means something to people here. There are “people who if we put something online, will ask ‘where was it in the newspaper? I wanted to see my granddaughter’s picture,’” says Williams. And web stories are done with caution: “If you put up stuff that is click-baity or not local to the area, people are going to lose trust in the brand.”

And the future? Local papers are shutting and scaling back, leaving a gap in accountability. Williams began in 2020 and was put on furlough months later. But for him and his young colleagues, the “buzz” is still real. “It’s the old thing of, ‘when you get up in the morning, you don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

SEAT RECAP: Labour for decades until the 70s, it’s been a tug-of-war between the Liberals (later Lib Dems) and Tories ever since. Tory Chris Davies was removed in a 2019 recall petition over an expenses scandal. The tapestry of Beacons, sheep farms, military barracks and Hay-on-Wye is the second-largest constituency in England and Wales (10 bigger ones are in Scotland, obvs) and will soon be 70 miles end to end. Labour was squeezed to only 9.5 percent of the vote in 2019.

But but but … Boundary changes — which will add 17,000 people from parts of the Swansea valley that lean to Plaid Cymru and Labour — mean some in Labour are eyeing the new Brecon, Radnor and Cwm Tawe seat. It “could be quite tasty for us,” says one.

Case in point: The Senedd member is Conservative. Local Powys council was run by an Independent/Tory group until last year, when a Lib Dem/Labour one took control. “We had no problem creating an agreement” and they work together well, says Lib Dem council leader James Gibson-Watt. It’s easier at local level, when the politics focuses on leisure centers and bin collections.

MEET THE LIB DEM CANDIDATE: David Chadwick arrives in tan chinos and a black shirt at a Boots that used to be a chapel. Raised in Gloucester, the 31-year-old history buff had an aborted attempt at the army intelligence corps — he “got run over by a car and broke my leg” two weeks before training. Since then he’s had a very Lib Dem CV. After university in the Netherlands and Oxford he worked at a Brussels public affairs firm, as a cybersecurity consultant in Antwerp, and at IBM.

Walkabout: Keen to kill my first impression that the Georgian town center is a wealthy idyll, Chadwick takes me on a tour of closed shops and restaurants. One restaurant shut when the energy bills became too much. The HSBC has closed — the nearest is in Merthyr, over the mountain — and the Barclays is following suit in eight days. Even a pub called The Bank is gone. 

Brain drain: Powys loses 1,000 young people every year, says Chadwick. He says “the next big task is housing for our generation.” Ex-Lib Dem MP Roger Williams — who is waiting for us on a bench reading the Guardian arts section — agrees: “The level of income is very low here, but property prices are pretty high.”

MEET THE MP: “I got engaged at Christmas and I can’t get married until November — there isn’t a spare weekend free,” Fay Jones tells me, down the phone from her (presumably brief) summer holiday. “There are so many shows and events — about nine weekends on the trot.”

On the doorstep: “It would be silly to say that I’m going to have an easy time to get back in,” says Jones — but she’s not convinced about a three-way split either. Go to Labour-backing Ystradgynlais and, while some people “really don’t want to talk to me,” others say “it’s good to see you because nobody cares about us down here.” Labour is “going to have to work for it.”

Different diagnosis: Like Chadwick, Jones mentions the age profile — but also says “you’re never going to make it Silicon Valley. Anybody that comes in promising hundreds and hundreds of jobs, it’s just not going to happen.” Instead, she says, the focus should be to make the seat “world-class” at what it does already.

PLAYGROUND FIGHT: Jones admits some constituents are “fed up because they’re irritated with the Conservatives at a national level.” But she also raises a local issue — the closure of small rural schools.

Blame game: Gibson-Watt encouraged people to vote Lib Dem in last year’s local elections if they “wish to see our village schools retained.” But in January the closure of a 295-year-old primary was approved, prompting two Lib Dem councilors to resign the whip. Jones tells me the Lib Dems “U-turned on their promise.” Gibson-Watt insists his party had not promised to stop all rural school closures — instead saying it would consult more widely than the Tories, and proposed new clustering arrangements.

For his part … Chadwick admits: “I think some naive promises were made during the local election campaign that when we came to power, were not able to be delivered.” There was no easy answer, he adds, given demographic change and the amount of funding from the Labour-run Welsh government … which in turn is funded by the Tory-run U.K. government. The triangular standoff continues.

TODAY IN WESTMINSTER

PARLIAMENT: Nuh-uh.

ENVY OF WESTMINSTER: Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer is jetting to Australia today to watch England play Spain in Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final. Playbook hears she’s not a die-hard football follower, despite her keepy-uppy skills. But with England in its first World Cup final since 1966, as one official puts it, “how can you not be a Lionesses fan?”

Hold the calendar: So far Downing Street has no plans for a bank holiday should the Lionesses bring it home, however much Labour leader Keir Starmer and the TUC might want one. A government spokesman said “we’ll find the right way to celebrate” if they do win. Sunak has no plans to attend the final.

TWO WEEK WARNING: The NHS’ heavily trailed/leaked decision to chop its 10 cancer targets to three was confirmed overnight and starts in October. The big target that’ll vanish is ensuring 93 percent of patients who are “urgently referred for treatment for suspected cancer” are seen within two weeks. NHS England says the two-week measure is “outdated.” 

Those new targets in full … Three-quarters of cancer patients referred for urgent checks should be diagnosed or given the all-clear with 28 days (rising to 80 percent in 2025) … 85 percent of suspected cancer patients should start treatment within 62 days of referral … and 96 percent should start treatment within 31 days of a decision to give it. Fine print via the Mail.

What the press release headline says: “Widespread Clinical Support For Reforming NHS Cancer Standards To Speed Up Diagnosis For Patients.” It contains 12 supportive quotes including from Bowel Cancer U.K.

What Labour says: The party has put out House of Commons Library analysis saying more than a million patients had a delay in their cancer care since Sunak became PM. It’s given heft in the Guardian. One party official accuses Health Secretary Steve Barclay of “waving the white flag” in the war on cancer.

DAY 2: The Telegraph has more from its interview with Barclay — who says progress is being made on cloud-based GP phone lines that can offer patients a call back, rather than relying on the 8 a.m. scramble.

Nothing to do with me: Barclay has distanced himself from a former media aide who has said “we need to privatise our NHS,” reports the New Statesman’s Rachel Wearmouth.

STATS DUMP: Annual figures on births in England and Wales are out at 9.30 a.m., as are regular stats on the GP workforce … the prison workforceknife crime sentencing … and economic inactivity and social change.

COMING ATTRACTION: The i’s Paul Waugh has spotted MPs will get a vote on the “vehicle mandate” which forces car makers to ensure 22 percent of their new cars are zero-emission from next year. The government says this statutory instrument vote is simply a standard requirement under the Climate Change Act. But could the scheme be watered down before it gets to tetchy MPs?

IRA IRE: As Joe Biden celebrates the first anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act, Britain is resisting calls for a similar vast investment program, my colleague Stefan Boscia writes. A minister tells him “the money just isn’t there” and the existing Contracts for Difference scheme will be used instead to boost green investment.

SAUDI ROW INCOMING: Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman is expected to visit the U.K. this fall for the first time since journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, says the Times on its front page. The story has not been denied by No. 10 and the FT reported similar last month.

NEWS ON THE NEVER-RESHUFFLE: Keir Starmer is now not expected to mirror Rishi Sunak’s government reorganization in his shadow Cabinet reshuffle, PolHome’s Adam Payne hears. Reminder … Starmer has been thinking about this for longer than Science Secretary Michelle Donelan’s entire mat leave.

00 TO ZERO: After the arrest of three suspected agents for Russia, my colleagues Jamie Dettmer and Annabelle Dickson have a fun look at the various options for spies once they’re unmasked.

DISABILITY RIGHTS: Disabled people are continuing to face discrimination — and recommendations made years ago to improve their lives have still not been addressed, an Equality and Human Rights Commission report warns.

GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND: Environment and climate change is named third-most often as an important issue facing the country, More in Common polling found. That’s 1 point above asylum seekers crossing the Channel, which 24 percent of people mentioned. The cost of living (72 percent) and supporting the NHS (42 percent) were top.

LAWYER UP: Political attacks on “lefty lawyers” could lead more legal professionals to be abused, Bar Council Chair Nick Vineall said — via the Guardian.

BARE NECESSITIES: Nearly three in 10 people are finding essentials difficult to afford despite shopping around, a Social Market Foundation report found.

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BEYOND THE M25

NEAR THE M25: London Mayor Sadiq Khan is still trying to get Surrey, Kent and Hertfordshire councils to put up ULEZ warning signs on their side of the border, 11 days before the enlarged zone takes effect, according to the Telegraph

WHERE’S NADINE? The good people of Mid Bedfordshire have been instructed to call LBC’s Nick Ferrari if they’ve seen local MP Nadine Dorries — in a full-page local newspaper ad taken out by the radio station. Dorries has at least found time to rescue hedgehogs and write about the time she crashed her car.

SEE RED: Motorists in Wales have been tying red ribbons to protest the Labour government’s plans for a 20mph speed limit in all urban areas from September 17 — the Times has more.

HIT THE GAS: U.K. government oil and gas revenues increased four-fold to £11 billion in 2022/23, according to IFS analysis.

IN NORTHERN IRELAND: A 39-year-old man has been arrested in connection with last week’s Police Service of Northern Ireland data breach — via the Belfast Telegraph.

SPANISH LIMBO: Spain’s parliament convenes today after last month’s inconclusive election — and starts trying to work out if a fresh poll is needed, my POLITICO colleague Aitor Hernández-Morales reports.

NATO WAR WARNING: Moscow risks sparking a direct war with NATO by intercepting ships in international waters and seeking to impose an economic stranglehold on Ukraine, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis has warned. He told POLITICO that escalations at sea could force Kyiv’s partners to intervene — Gabriel Gavin has more.

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