Category Archives: Public Services

Health, education, local services and public services generally

One school’s journey 2 of 3 – what should governors do? Examine effectiveness not policies

Telferscot 1Earlier this week I posted about the school where I am Chair of Governors, Telferscot Primary School in Balham. We are celebrating our recent acquisition of Outstanding status from Ofsted. That achievement mainly reflects on the school leadership, and in particular the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin. But what of the school’s governors? I suspect hat quite a few of my readers are, or have been school governors. Our journey may be of particular interest.

What is a school’s Governing Body supposed to do? Unfortunately you will not much practical help from officialdom, local or national, well-intentioned though they might be. For them the Governing Body conforms to a bureaucrat’s dream: responsibility without power. They see the Governing Body as the corporate embodiment of the school itself. They even address Council Tax bills to it. All the power rests with the Governing Body, which then delegates it based on a many-paged document, mainly to school management.

And yet governors do not feel that they are in such a position of power. They find themselves constrained by conventions and regulations that leave them with almost no practical responsibility. The Governors can’t pay those Council Tax bills; they can politely forward them to the school Bursar for due consideration. The Governing Body is not a day to day presence at a school, and deals with decisions referred to it, rather than being some kind of controlling presence. Many involved in education, especially teaching unions, just regard them as interfering amateurs that could easily be dispensed with altogether.

The bureaucrats (and legal advisers, come to that) try to reconcile the gap between responsibility and power through the idea of management by policy, and its cousin, procedure. They think of a well-run school having bulging files of policies and procedures that tell its management and staff what to do in any situation. These policies and procedures can be reviewed at regular intervals by governors, and they can politely suggest changes here and there, and therefore assert themselves to a degree, and be saddled with responsibility if anything goes wrong. But anybody that has run an effective organisation knows that management by policy is not a very good way of doing things. At best it is a waste of effort, as policies are ignored; at worst it leads to an over-cautious, defensive style of management that undervalues the role of leadership. Policies have their place in the best run organisations, but the more there are of them, the less value they have. Managers and staff should take decisions based on context and with a strong measure of common sense, things that are almost impossible to justice to in a detailed policy.

So what should a Governing Body do? This starts with the one area where they have undoubted power: the appointment of the Head Teacher. I was a governor when Telferscot appointed Ms Martin in 2001, but not on the recruitment panel – so I can’t claim any credit for that decision. But my colleagues’ approach was interesting. They did not pick the safest, best-qualified candidate. They picked a candidate that had little experience of headship, and showed every sign of causing trouble (as one of the members of the panel told me). They were inspired by Ms Martin’s vision, and felt that the school could do with a shake-up.  It was an inspired decision, and a case of governors making a real difference. It also shows that governors must embrace risk.

But once your Head is in place, then what? The relationship between the Head and governors goes to the absolute heart of the governors’ role. In a good relationship the governors provide a first level of accountability for the Head, and a sounding-board and support. This requires some imagination on both sides. The Head needs to appreciate that opening up to governors, bad news as well as good, is the only way to build a strong, supportive relationship. Ms Martin grasped this very early, and has welcomed governors into aspects of the school that other Heads would frown on. This includes having governors on staff recruitment panels, for example. It also means pushing the boundaries of confidentiality, especially with senior governors.

But governors have to earn this sort of confidence. That, of course, means being absolutely safe with confidential details. It also means being constructive and helpful – and not getting into oppositional role-plays for form’s sake. Good humour is essential. Governors and Head (and, indeed, other senior school managers) should enjoy being together and talking about the school. Headship can be a lonely job, and the educational bureaucracy is not usually very interested in what individual schools are up to, so long as they stay of trouble. A good governing body can provide an appreciative audience. Through this openness and interaction, governors build up a picture of what is happening at the school and of its strengths and weaknesses. So when it comes to the big things, they are ready.

This softer side is at the heart of effective governance. But it needs to work within a disciplined framework. Public bodies like schools are subject to external scrutiny. Scrutinisers need to see evidence.  That means getting basic frameworks of documentation right and up to date, decisions properly documented, and for it to be clear that the governing body is informed about all relevant aspects of the school. It also means documenting challenge – something our inspectors like to see. When meetings are good-humoured and when management is open about weaknesses, then challenge can be a little difficult to document – even though the process itself is challenging. But that is a matter of learning how to frame minutes.

But the governing body does need direction and focus. Here we have been following advice from the Department of Education (DfE) to get away from some of the details that governors have in the past been interested in – when I first became governor we talked endlessly about school swimming. Instead we need to get to basics of pupil progress and quality of teaching. This means looking at and discussing data, and getting away from mountains of policy approvals.

It has been a learning curve. But this is what Ofsted reported:

Governors have a thorough understanding of the work of the school, of pupils’ performance and of the school’s finances. They bring a range of expertise, knowledge and commitment which they have shared to good effect. Since the time of the last inspection they have used these to build on the school’s strengths and success. They seek and undertake training to make sure they are clear about their roles, standards and keeping children safe. The governing body plays a rigorous role in managing the performance of their headteacher and receive information about the performance of teachers and how they are rewarded and helped to improve. This is demonstrated through the improvements in pupils’

This  gives us the confidence to move forward. We are in the process of reconstituting the governing body and changing its formal lines of operation. We will continue our move away from policy documents to understanding what the school is doing and how effective it is. We plan to reduce the  number of committees and structure governor visits differently. We do not have a vision of a small, tightly run executive board, as DfE advice suggests, but of a larger body of interested people who collectively can examine many areas of the school’s activities, and provide school management with support as well as scrutiny. By and large these interested people will be parents. And meanwhile I am in the process of an orderly transfer of the role of Chair to putative successor (I’m in my eighth year – the recommended maximum).

As the school completes its move to two form entry, and takes on a second site, the future promises to be interesting. It has been a privilege to be involved in the school’s success.

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One school’s journey 1of 3 – characteristics of one outstanding school

Over a month ago now I, and four other Telferscot 2governors at Telferscot Primary School in Balham, were interviewed by the Ofsted inspector. As Chair I managed to show a good grip of our performance statistics and the general overview. But all the governors contributed knowledgeable answers . The highlight was when the inspector asked us about the curriculum – the parent governors burst into an enthusiastic description of what the school was doing – showing not just enthusiasm, but knowledge and understanding .

It was an impressive performance. And so went the rest of the inspection. Children, parents, teachers and staff, and above all the Head and management team, each delivered an impressive display. Ofsted’s report rated the school at its top grade, Outstanding, in all categories: leadership and management; behaviour and safety of pupils; quality of teaching; achievement of pupils; and early years provision. The school had always been a good one, but at last we had caught up with the ever-rising bar to be considered Outstanding. This was thoroughly deserved. The school’s journey was very much an individual one – but it still throws light on wider issues of public policy.

Back to the beginning. Ofsted, for the benefit of my non-English readers, is England’s chief regulator and inspector of schools. Its rating system has become the benchmark by which schools, especially state schools, are judged. School managers and staff live in dread of its inspections. Telferscot is a state primary school, covering ages 4-11 (Reception to Year 6), and a pre-school nursery. It is in transition from being single form entry (with a standard class size of 30) to two form, which now goes up to Year 3. A further two forms of entry, and a second school site, are in prospect. This makes it a relatively small school (currently) by London standards, though still above the average for the country as a whole. Its children are from mixed social and ethnic backgrounds, with a solid core of middle class families, but plenty of families in more challenging circumstances. It is a bit of an “average school” in its mix of pupils, and a sort of microcosm of the challenges facing the country’s school system as a whole – which ironically makes it rather unusual – most schools are more homogenous. I have been a governor since 1999, and Chair of Governors since 2007; the previous inspections by Ofsted that I experienced were in 2001 and 2009.

The school’s operations are based on three key areas: a broad curriculum; inclusion; and hard management. These three things are driven by the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin, who took over in 2001 – but the first two, at least, had foundations that go back before that. I would like to say a little about each of these three.

The idea of a broad curriculum contrasts with the alternative of a curriculum that focuses on the basics of literacy and numeracy.  The tension between these ideas shapes much of the debate on education, which, of course, does not stop lots of people trying to advocate both sides at once. The idea of a broad curriculum in turn rests on two ideas. First is that a broad curriculum is required to prepare children for later life; children need much more than basic literacy and numeracy – they need to know how to be socially responsible individuals , how to work with other people  and to enjoy the process of learning itself. The second is that a broad curriculum provides the best context in which the “basics” can be taught. It provides the opportunity to make such learning both more memorable and enjoyable. Children shouldn’t just know how to read; they should enjoy reading and be eager use their literacy to expand their horizons. At Telferscot the broad curriculum is focused on the idea of the “Creative Curriculum” – one that incorporates the arts. This means working with a number of arts groups, including London’s South Bank.

Inclusion means drawing in children from all backgrounds and working to ensure that they all share the same experience of school and know how to be together. One aspect is the multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-cultural side of the school, which celebrates its diversity. This is wonderful – but pretty routine for London. Much more challenging is bringing along those from difficult social backgrounds, where the children tend to lack support at home, and those with special learning needs or disabilities. The school has, in my memory, made no permanent exclusion of a pupil,  and only one temporary one. Inclusion is about knowing, and working with, the wider family, and about arranging for additional educational resources for those with additional needs. It also involves keeping the school open and active outside school hours, from 8am to 6pm. This aspect of the school’s work is one its most challenging, but clearly motivates school leaders – and it is inspiring.

Broad curriculum and inclusion are lovely, liberal ideas that lots of people will agree are a good thing. But making them happen and delivering excellent results across the whole school is another matter. This requires what I have called hard management. There are no easy rides; all people who work at the school feel accountable and pushed to achieve more. The primary instigator of this is, of course, the Head Teacher, Ms Martin (or rather, Miss Martin, as she is known at the school). The Head has to be both hard on everybody (not least herself), and to provide help and support -as well as fostering a spirit of teamwork and good humour that means that people enjoy working together. There are two important things I want to add about this aspect of running the school.

The first is that the school’s success really took off after it adopted a top-heavy approach to school management, with at first three and then four senior staff completely out of the classroom (not counting the non-teaching side), save for providing temporary cover for class teachers when absent. This gives the school’s management to strength and depth to deal with all the extra things the school must do to sustain a broad curriculum, inclusion and deep accountability. It need hardly be added that these managers need to operate as a real team, so that the Head can feel completely confident of the Deputy holding the fort, and so that each member of the team can feel they are making a real contribution to the school’s progress. Head teachers need to be strong personalities; not all find the transition to being team leaders easy.

The second thing is the use of data. The data here means test results and teacher assessments which show the progress each pupil is making in the core curriculum subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. This starts with publicised results for the “Key Stages” at the end of Years 2 and 6, including the Year 6 SATS tests. But while a lot of public attention is focused on these, school managers need something much more frequent to identify potential problems before it is too late to do something about them. Ofsted increasingly uses such data to understand progress, and the school management almost obsesses with it.

Many liberal minded observers of education worry about this emphasis on data. They worry that it undermines the idea of a broad curriculum and the real needs of children, and that it sucks the living soul out of education. But such criticism neglects two things. The first is that such a focus on data really is the only way of making sure that no child gets left behind, and true inclusion. In a class of 30 it is quite easy for teachers to focus on averages and miss the needs of a small number of quiet but underperforming children. Britain has a bad record on this – of leaving a neglected “tail”. The second thing is that one of the outputs of a broad curriculum should be achievement in the basics. It really does hold the whole process to account. If the data shows weaknesses in literacy or numeracy, then this really isn’t something to be glossed over. Telferscot’s emphasis on creative curriculum has a bias towards literacy, which is easy to integrate with the arts, rather than numeracy. The focus on data exposed this vulnerability and the the development of its maths teaching has been one of the main areas of focus for the school’s management, something that has heavily influenced recruitment, for example.

I could go on. I want to write two more articles. The next will cover the field of school governance – which is the bit where I personally can be said to have made a small contribution to the school’s success, and claim a slither of actual professional expertise. And finally I want to draw out some wider issues for the development of public services.

 

 

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Polly Toynbee is right – we need more honest debate on tax and spend

I don’t approve of Polly Toynbee. She’s so deep in the Guardian bunker that she rarely has anything useful to say. She writes polemic that will entertain the left, but not persuade anybody else . So I wasn’t expecting much from her article last week Economic dishonesty is the deadliest deficit of all. I was expecting her to repeat the Labour myth that the economic crisis was somebody else’s fault, and that austerity policies have strangled the British economy. But she was making a point of value. It was that the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of the future government finance – but they were both concealing their differences.  The Conservatives do not want to spell out the implications on services and benefits; Labour do not want to look irresponsible, or to be painted as the party of high taxes.

She wrote her article before the Autumn Statement delivered by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Ms Toynbee should be pleasantly surprised at how things turned out, though I doubt that she is. The British government’s future policies on taxation and public expenditure have taken centre stage, and important differences have emerged between the political parties.

It started with some rather excitable coverage on the BBC Radio Today programme, which pointed out that Tory party plans for future spending would take it back to being the lowest proportion of national income since the 1930s. The bare statistics were factual (inasmuch as future projections can be described as factual) – but a comparison with the 1930s is farcical. National income is incomparably bigger than then – so a similar ratio of spending to income will not produce destitution that is in any way comparable. For similar reasons, the economic crash of 2008-09 is no way comparable to that of the 1930s, in spite of some of the ratios to national income being similar. Mr Osborne rather publicly objected to the coverage, drawing attention to the whole issue. Up to that point Ms Toynbee’s forecast seemed to be coming true.

In turns out that though Labour and the Conservatives are aiming at the same date to eliminate the structural deficit in British spending (i.e. cyclically adjusted spending less taxes), beyond that the difference between Labour’s spending plans and the Conservatives’ is as high as £27bn per annum. Differences on this scale are significant.

The next act in this drama was an attack by Mr Osborne on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that they had lost the plot on economic policy because their plans were closer to Labour’s than the Conservatives. Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, made a robust response about the impossibility of Conservative spending plans. Ms Toynbee, in typical Guardian bunker style, had painted the Lib Dems as indistinguishable from the Tories, so she would have been less than pleased about this – but not too upset since she no doubt thinks that the Lib Dems are a political irrelevance these days.

It is to be hoped that these spats are the beginning of a serious political debate. Up until now we have experienced manufactured political rows over the immigration, the European Union and the NHS. Admittedly the Tory preparedness to take big risks with Britain’s membership of the EU is a serious political issue – but the row is more about tactics and competence than strategy. On the other issues the politicians have very little of practical value to say. But the gap between left and right on state spending (I refuse to call it “economic policy” as most commentators do) foreshadows very different visions for how the British state should work.

The right has an economically liberal view of the state, with both state services and benefits being pared back, leaving more space for private enterprise and consumer choice. The left does not seem to have such a clear vision – much of its energy is being devoted to keeping public services and benefits as they are and avoiding serious questions about the future. That is a pity, because shifts in both demographics and the distribution of economic power point to a larger role for the state.

The problem with the debate, though, is that none of the political parties is being clear about what they want to do. It is good that we are talking about broad numbers on the size of the state – but this needs to be brought down to specifics. The Conservatives need to be clearer about what they plan to cut, and how they want to reshape benefits. Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to do this too – because their plans also involve big cuts. But they also need to talk about taxes. The Tories are quite right that the only tax raising idea that they will talk about, the Mansion Tax, is small beer.

Britain, along with most of the developed world, needs to rethink tax, state benefits and public services. I do not believe that they can be shrunk in the way the right suggests. But neither are they sustainable in their current form, as the left seems to think. That, not immigration, exactly who delivers health services, or even membership of the EU, is one of the critical issues of our time.

The more politicians debate these issues, the better. But if they obfuscate, then Polly Toynbee’s angry rhetoric will for once be justified.

 

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The Economist’s disgraceful prejudice on education policy

economist coverSome people hate The Economist; to them it is a proselytiser of that despised creed “neoliberalism” or just plain capitalism. Not me. I have been reading the Economist weekly since 1974 (from between the two British General Elections of that year), when I was just 16 and still at school. I loved its cosmopolitanism and that that it did not lets its opinions obscure the reporting of facts. It was opinionated, yes, but not prejudiced. Much of my writing in this blog has been inspired by my 40 years of readership. No other journal has come close in winning my loyalty.

The Economist has annoyed me of course. I felt a deep sense of betrayal when in 2011 it backed a No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote. My own strong support for AV dates from when The Economist itself persuaded me that it would be an appropriate and sensible reform. The chattering classes had taken against AV, and the paper followed the crowd. A perverse election result in Canada under first-past-the-post, reported in the very same edition of the paper, illustrated the case for AV perfectly. The paper’s support for the education reforms of the current government were built on similarly weak foundations, I thought, but these hadn’t strayed beyond mistaken opinion. Until this week.

The top article in the UK section, The new school rules, presents itself as a serious examination of the government’s education reforms. It reads like an article placed by a pro-government think tank, and not the original and critical journalism upon which the newspaper’s reputation has been built.

A bit of background. Under its first Education Secretary, the Conservative Michael Gove, the coalition government has driven through an eye-catching programme of reforms to England’s schools (in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland education is devolved). The centrepiece of this has been the establishment of autonomous “Academy” schools, independent of local council control. This built on the previous government’s policy, where Academies often replaced failed schools, and had to secure external sponsors to provide extra finance. This government has made it much easier to set up new Academies (referred to as “Free Schools”), and allowed existing schools to convert to Academy status without a sponsor. The government has done many other things too: established a “pupil premium” to channel extra funding to schools with needier children; refocused the school inspectorate, Ofsted; changed secondary school qualifications towards more academic subjects; refashioned the primary curriculum to something a more prescriptive and more to its political taste; changed teachers’ pay and conditions to give school managers more power; moved measurement of progress away from achieving arbitrary thresholds to measuring total progress. Given the general climate of government austerity, which has limited resources, these changes have been mainly to the good, though I fail to see the point of the changes to the primary curriculum, and the jury is out on the secondary reforms of qualifications.

But the Economist focuses almost entirely on the Academy programme, which it is claims is transforming schools and driving progress. It quotes evidence that secondary academies achieve more good GCSEs (the main secondary exam – “good” meaning achieving the grade C or above) than non-academies, even allowing for the number of pupils from poorer backgrounds. As it describes this progress it fails to mention two facts that throw an entirely different light on what is happening.

The first is that the most striking progress in recent times achieved by Britain’s schools has been in London, in the years up to 2010. Schools in apparently hopeless boroughs like Tower Hamlets pulled ahead of schools in much wealthier areas. This has been much written about and commented on – but it was achieved under the previous Labour government’s tutelage, working with councils of several political stripes. It was based on what I call “good old fashioned management”. A lot of focus was put on school performance, and where results were poor, school management was changed. Some failing schools were converted to Academies, not always successfully, but otherwise existing governance structures were used. The coalition has not undermined this achievement, which has largely continued under its watch (at least in areas I know about). But it is awkward for the article’s central thesis; the upward momentum in England’s schools predates the government’s reforms; it is far from clear whether greater autonomy has much to do with school progress.

The second awkward fact is that for ordinary schools that have converted to Academy status there is a bias towards better schools making the change. Schools who want to make the move on their own (i.e. without being folded into an externally run chain of schools) must achieve a high quality threshold. Rumour has it that one my local schools has been refused because standards aren’t high enough. Conversely schools with good performance often want to convert, in case an unexpected hiccup means that they are forced into being part of a chain. The article quotes evidence that the performance of schools that have converted is better than non-converters. Well, that is hardly surprising, but cause and effect have not been disentangled.

The article discusses the rather awkward fact that academy chains have delivered disappointing performance – I must acknowledge that it does raise difficult evidence in this case. These chains have a reputation of being brutally managed and focusing on a narrow curriculum – one reason that so many schools are anxious not to be swept into one. A bit of brutality is required in order to lift badly managed schools up to the standards of the best, and the London experience confirms that – but a broader, less performance-focused curriculum is needed to deliver the wider set of skills that the world of work (and outside it) demands. Schools have to be soft and hard both at once. It is no surprise to many that aggressively managed chains deliver at best only short-term results.

But the Economist seems to think that the problem is that management of the chains is is not aggressive enough. It suggests that one way to “turbocharge” the reforms would be to open up management of schools to for-profit companies, rather than just charitable foundations as now. If I was a cynic, I would suggest that the article was prompted by private sector company lobbying to be allowed to take over state schools – but I don’t believe that.

Unlike many I have no ideological objection to the use of the private sector in public services. But I do wonder whether the sort of aggressive performance-driven management that the private sector does well is what most state schools need. Private managers will be tempted to take two shortcuts. The first is to narrow the curriculum, which undermines the overall mission of education. At least competition might act as a check on this, as schools with too narrow a focus may be less popular. The second is more insidious: selecting the pupils by avoiding the neediest, through selective recruitment or exclusion. Whatever the formal controls against this, we can expect the private sector to find innovative ways around them, as this is the quickest way to improve margins. This then leaves a pool of needier pupils which will tend to be concentrated in other schools – when in almost all cases the best chances of meeting their needs is in schools with a good social mix. A vital social objective for state schools is to reduce the number of people who get into trouble of one kind or another later in life (crime, unemployment, poor mental and physical health). It is very important that schools handle the neediest cases well – and it is something that English schools have often been bad at. It is not something that private sector organisations have a strong enough incentive to deal with, and concentrating the problem into specialist schools is no way out.

When considering education policy in an international context, The Economist often says that teaching and management are the critical issues, and not other issues such as class sizes, money – or autonomy. English (and indeed British) education is nowhere near as good as it needs to be, and many schools and local authorities are complacent or defensive. Continued reform is needed. This needs to focus on getting good leaders in place, raising teaching standards, and ensuring that incentives and accountability are functional. No doubt academies, and even private sector expertise, has a role to play. It gives the politicians a few extra tools in the box. But to make autonomy the centrepiece of reform is a highly questionable approach, especially in a country, like Britain and unlike the US, where central government has such power over schools.

The author of the article was clearly inspired by visits made to well-run Academies. If he or she wants evidence that you don’t have to be an Academy to be a very impressive school, I am happy to offer them a tour of the wonderful primary school where I am Chair of Governors. That at least may open theirs eyes to what is possible without being an Academy.

I must allow The Economist to hold firm opinions rather sit on the fence. What is so disappointing is that this time that opinion seems based on such shallow foundations. And its discussion of the evidence and wider debate lowers the papers standards to those of less distinguished papers.

 

 

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Rethinking Liberalism 6: reinventing the state

So far in my series of essays my conclusions have been quite conventional, if a little left of centre. We need to keep capitalism in a mixed economy; the state will need to get bigger to cope with the demographic challenge; we will have to tax the rich more as middle incomes are squeezed. There’s nothing here that would upset the denizens of Whitehall unduly, notwithstanding the economic liberal tendencies of some. But I think we are badly let down by our system of government. It will have to change radically – and yet the complacency of the Westminster elite is overwhelming. Liberals must rally to challenge it.

Unfortunately one of the best examples of this establishment complacency comes from our own Liberal Democrats. Back in the 1990s I was inspired by anti-establishment rhetoric from our then leader, Paddy Ashdown. The whole system was rotten, he said; we were the outsiders and only we could change it. Then, in 1997 the party arrived as a serious force in Westminster politics.  But, somehow, under the leaderships of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg (or the brief leadership of Ming Campbell, come to that) this radicalism came to be toned down. In spite of some radical language from both of these leaders, policy was more about trimming the Westminster policy agenda here and there without counting too much controversy. Ideas, such as a local income tax, which might have meant a decisive break from the Westminster-centred way of the world, were quietly buried. By the time Lib Dems took up cabinet jobs in the current coalition, they looked very comfortable in their new Westminster ministries, with the possible exception of Vince cable, the industry minister.

And the public could sense this. My heating engineer, classic old-school lower middle-class, told me that the Lib Dems had sacrificed their principles to get their hands on the prestige of power. Mr Clegg looked as if he was enjoying themselves too much. This feels very unfair, of course. There was a national crisis in 2010, and the compromises of coalition were needed for the country’s sake. And the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives doing a lot of silly things, like cutting Inheritance Tax. But there’s a grain of truth in the accusation; what about the promise to really shake-up British politics? It’s not clear that senior Lib Dems ever wanted to do more than change the standard Westminster priorities a bit, by pushing education and redistribution up the agenda and making the odd stand on behalf of civil liberties, unless real heat got applied. If there has been any reinventing of government, it is mainly Tory ideas that are driving it. And they are about keeping the basic Westminster architecture in place, but diversifying the delivery (more private contractors and Quangos in place of top-down state hierarchies). The attempt to devolve more power to democratically accountable local bodies has been a particular disappointment. Each step forward is accompanied by at least one step back. The malign orthodoxy of the Treasury, with its insistence on a highly centralised model of power, remains unchallenged by key Liberal Democrats – or so it appears.

Why does this matter? Firstly because the pressures caused by the demographic shift have only started. I have already written about pensions. Health costs will rise too as the ratio of older people increases. And then economic growth will continue to stagnate, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing number of people entering retirement, but for other reasons too. Meanwhile the twin (and related) economic deficits of government finances and trade are unsustainable in the long run. The government has to tax more and spend less. It has to become much more efficient and effective.

The country’s direction of travel is not encouraging. Government cuts have been very painful, and the public is tiring of them. Endless privatisations are affecting the quality of service. The fiscal deficit creeps down, but it is still very large, and he trade deficit is getting worse. This shows that the underlying economy remains weak, and that growth is hardly more sustainable than it was under the last Labour government. No sooner does the economy grow, than does Sterling appreciate to undermine all the rebalancing. Meanwhile the country is sleepwalking into the breakup of the United Kingdom (even if Scotland votes No in September) and exit from the European Union, as political dissatisfaction with the status quo grows. Pulling all the usual levers of power in Westminster seems to be doing not much good.

What have liberals to say about this advancing gloom? The first point is that we want people to have as much power as possible over their own lives. That means we dislike people being dependent on the state. It is here that we differ from the socialist left, who don’t mind if the public has a permanent client relationship to state agencies, as this creates a political constituency both amongst the dependents and the employees who serve them. Liberals should recognise that in a modern society the state must play a very big role – but we also need to push back on dependency. The state should fix problems so that demand for state services reduces.

The second point is that we believe that as far as possible state structures should be fully and democratically accountable to the people they serve. The state does not devolve power to citizens, but citizens delegate power to the various levels of government. This too is difficult in the modern world. Many problems are complex and must be solved at a national and international level – and the further up power is delegated, the weaker accountability becomes.

Have we delegated too much power to transnational bodies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation – with the threat of more as part of a transatlantic trade deal? I don’t think so – these structures merely recognise the transnational nature of problems and the need to agree international standards and laws. Countries that opt out of these structures don’t seem conspicuously better off as a result. Is Australia, for example, really a better and happier place than Britain? Its recent economic success is as much down to the luck of geography and natural resources as anything else. Does having to dig up vast amounts of prime farmland to get at the coal beneath, while poisoning the great natural wonder of the Barrier Reef, really look like freedom?

No. I think the main problem is that we have delegated too much power to Westminster, and that the Westminster elite is protecting itself rather than solving the countries’ problems. It has created a series of administrative silos that perpetuate problems rather than solving them. To tackle this we need to do three things.

  1. Establish a federal system for United Kingdom, by creating a new English parliament and English government, based outside London, and taking to itself the same set of administrative responsibilities as the Scottish government has.
  2. Radically reform the way public services are commissioned to ensure that solving problems for their clients becomes their prime driving force. This will entail a radically increased role for locally accountable agencies.
  3. Reform the country’s tax system to follow this radical redistribution of responsibilities so that every level of government controls more of its own revenues – alongside a system of transfers to ensure a fair distribution of resources.

Each of these three depends on the others. Federalism is required to break up Westminster complacency; public services will only be properly remodelled if it is not controlled from Westminster; power cannot be decentralised unless tax is decentralised too. I will pick up each of these themes in future essays.

 

 

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Rethinking Liberalism 5: pensions and the state

In my previous essay I concluded that we had no choice but to tax the wealthy more, and this was the most divisive issue in current British politics. The reason for this is that state commitments on pensions and the health service, and potential commitments on social care, would force the state to expand, and for taxes to rise. The hollowing out of the economic middle meant that the wealthy would have to take up an increased share of the burden. But what are liberals to think about these state commitments? It is easy to see why socialists favour them, but less clear for liberals.

At the recent CentreForum seminar on the Orange Book, more than one speaker referred to the coalition government’s commitment to a “triple lock” on the state pension as being disastrous and illiberal. This guarantees that the state pension will rise by the higher of consumer prices, earnings or 2.5%. So as the proportion of older people grows the cost of this promise will mount. The same demographic trend means that we cannot look to economic growth to camouflage the policy’s generosity. And yet pensions are something that people should be able to sort out for themselves through saving over their lifetimes. Relying on the state just fosters dependency – and it can only be funded by increasing the tax burden, largely on people who will not directly benefit. If liberalism is about fostering self-sufficiency and independence, this is surely a step in the wrong direction?

A similar logic applies to health care for the elderly. In Britain it is widely assumed that this will remain free and funded by the taxpayer. As the population ages the overall cost rises. Greater efficiency in the state spend can only get you so far. Social care for the elderly is a similar issue, except that this is only a universal benefit in Scotland – though there it was enthusiastically supported by the Liberal Democrats.

The answer to this puzzle comes in two familiar guises: the need for a safety net, and market failure. A safety net allows people who succumb to bad luck to get back on their feet. I am sure that highly sophisticated arguments can be made in their defence, but to most people it is simply being part of a civilised society. Once families and social solidarity could have taken most of the strain, but the demands of economic efficiency have broken these institutions down; so economic efficiency, and the taxes they can generate, should provide the solution.

The safety net idea isn’t entirely satisfactory when providing for old age, however. The capacity to earn at this stage in our lives is limited, so it is rather more than a just a temporary helping hand. However, it still means that your life can’t be entirely ruined by bad luck. But everybody is entitled to the state pension, not just those down on their luck. The triple lock may be required to keep the state pension for the destitute at an acceptable level, but should it apply to everybody?

What lies at the heart of the problem is a market failure. Start with an obvious problem. If pensions are means tested, then the incentive to save is destroyed until you get past an amount that gives you a reasonable pension. Let’s use some numbers to get this into perspective. The new basic state pension will be about £7,500 per annum in today’s money. To get an annuity of this amount, indexed to RPI (admittedly a mathematically flawed measure of inflation that tends to distort upwards) would cost in the region of £220,000 for somebody of 65, the current pension age. For a forty year working life, with zero real investment returns (I’m coming to that), that £220,000 takes a saving of £5,500 per year, which is over 20% of the average rate of pay (£26,500) before tax. Average savings rates are, of course, much less than that (typically 5-10% of household income).

But surely people can earn more than o% real return on their assets? Actually most people can’t. There are two problems. First is that investment returns are very low at the moment. Central bank interest rates are less than inflation (negative in real terms). All other returns take their cue from that. The prospects for higher interest rates are bleak; that’s they way the world economy is. There are too many savings chasing too few investment opportunities. To break this stranglehold you need a combination of three things: low transaction costs of investment, an ability to take greater investment risk by spreading it, and access what economists call economic rents – income that is not earned through adding wealth to society, but by exploiting an “unfair” advantage. These advantages are usually only available to the better off. For the first two you need a decent sized starting portfolio (over £1 million, say). For the last you need some kind of economic privilege. While the economy was expanding, and before the demographic crunch, you could, in fact achieve these ends by owning your own house. Rising house prices are a form of economic rent, earned by the ownership of land, which is in limited supply. That covers an awful lot of people, but these are now a privileged elite: it is getting harder to join them.

Can’t people band together to get a better return? That is what an old-fashion final salary pension scheme used to do. Administrative costs were low (because you the calculation of entitlements is simple), and investment costs and average risk was low because there was single, large investment pot. Unfortunately such collective schemes are another victim of the drive to ever greater economic efficiency, which destroys the large and relatively stable employers who are needed to sponsor such schemes. Collective action means the state.

The state is the only institution that can take effective collective action. And, with private sector investment opportunities in such short supply, increasingly the state has access to the best investment opportunities too (consider much infrastructure investment). And they have the chance to tax those economic rents. That is the central logic behind the new triple locked state pension. A basic minimum, which the public has every incentive to improve through private saving, which will, unfortunately, rarely add up to a great deal more.

Meanwhile, the various distortions of tax and regulation that inhibit private savings can be gradually dismantled. The government has started by dismantling the rules compelling people with pension plans having to buy annuities. Personally I would start to dismantle income tax relief on pension contributions, increasingly of benefit only to a wealthy elite, and which comes with a dense thicket of rules to prevent abuse. That is a formidable political challenge, though, and can only be achieved in small stages.

Because efficient long-term savings are not accessible to the vast majority of people, especially those without access to property assets, the state must intervene to fill the gap. That makes the economic liberal dream of a low-tax society an impossibility – the alternative is mass destitution, or a needs based system that will be economically less efficient. And if you add health costs and social care into the picture, the problem gets bigger.

The state must get bigger. The question is how to do this in the most liberal way?

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Britian’s police: unprofessional conduct

Carol HowardFor once the BBC News’s editorial priority seemed to be spot on. Top story on the 7am Radio 4 news was an astonishing case of discrimination involving a black police officer, Carol Howard. Amongst other things, it showed that the Metropolitan Police were systematically manipulating evidence. Alas by 1pm the story had dropped right out of the bulletin. Instead the channel carried a story about a potential paedophilia scandal in the 1980s, based on some very thin evidence. But this story should not be allowed to drop from our attention. Indeed it raises many questions that should be very worrying both for Londoners and the whole country.

Ms Howard joined the Met’s elite Diplomatic Protection Group in 2012. She was quickly victimised by her boss, Acting Inspector Dave Kelly. Mr Kelly appears to have assumed that Ms Howard’s behaviour was dishonest, and instead of handling this in a professional manner, he is accused of hounding her with unreasonable complaints, and he then become “hostile and aggressive” when she invoked a grievance complaint. Ms Howard then went on to bring a complaint of sex and race discrimination. The tribunal hearing this complaint asked to see a report on the original grievance complaint – but the Met’s management edited out all references to discrimination, saying that they were not relevant to the tribunal. They then claimed such deletions were a matter of policy to protect the Force.

The tribunal found in favour of Ms Howard, and was understandably very critical of the Met. All the Met has done so far is to offer this very weak statement:

We are aware of the decision of the tribunal. We are disappointed at the tribunal’s finding in favour of PC Howard.

The tribunal’s decision will now to be given full and careful consideration. We will review the findings, take legal advice and take forward any learning or actions as appropriate.

In other words: zero leadership, but we’ll ask our lawyers how to fiddle with our procedures. They are clearly hoping the story will go away. To judge by the speed with which the BBC has dropped the story, their hopes appear to be well-founded. It is now up to our politicians to on their case. This is one area were the London Assembly can really show its worth. Here’s hoping.

But evidently no major politician has seen fit to take the case on so far – perhaps the reluctance has something to do with the rise of Ukip, and the backlash against political correctness, by older white males in particular. If so our politicians will be letting the majority of people in London down – of all ethnic groups.

Here are the questions I would like to ask:

  1. How is it, 30 years after Lord Scarman first identified problems in the police, that this kind of behaviour seems to be tolerated by middle management in the police force?
  2. There seems pretty good evidence that Mr Kelly’s conduct was unprofessional as well as discriminatory. He has brought the service into disrepute. Has any action been taken by the Met against this officer?
  3. How was it that an attempt was made to manipulate the evidence from the grievance complaint. Is it legal? Is any disciplinary action warranted against any officer? Or should a more senior officer take responsibility for unethical conduct?
  4. Have such deletions affected other complaints? Have they affected statistics produced to the public about the number and resolution of complaints of discrimination?

And then there are the wider issues. The Police are a public service, funded by us as taxpayers. A quid pro quo is that they should be accountable, with a culture of public disclosure and truthfulness. Instead they seem to have a defensive culture, where the public seem to be treated as the enemy, and openness as a threat. Furthermore, proper professional standards seem to be lacking, and the application of discipline highly selective. If officers are unprofessional, they should fear the reaction of their own superiors; instead these superiors seem to rally round. After each scandal, I hear that police morale has been hit, and I hope that this is at last evidence that they have got past of the denial stage of the grieving process for their old ways. But I may be underestimating their resilience.

I am going to leave the last word to Ruwan Uderwerage-Perera, a former policeman and now a Liberal Democrat councillor. Here is what he said in a Facebook post earlier today (quoted with his permission) (and please allow for the informality of that medium):

“The ‘Canteen Culture'” states Prof PAJ Waddington (himself a former police officer) “is often portrayed as a pervasive, malign and potent influence on the behaviour of officers. The grounds for this portrayal are, however, insubstantial and appear to rely more upon the condemnatory potential of the concept than its explanatory power.”

As a former officer myself I believe this aggressive and macho sub-culture that further stamps the belief of ‘them & us’ between the police and the policed is not only still very much alive and well, but has proven resilient to the three plus decades of criticism since is existence was acknowledged by the police service following the Scarman Report of 1981.

The ‘Canteen Culture’ as a result of its very existence is exclusionary and as such Women, BME and Gay (sworn) Officers (for support staff and PCSOs and the like are never fully accepted) either have to acquiesce to the egotistical, male dominated, heavy drinking, womanising and otherwise hedonistic culture which is supported by the ‘work hard, play hard’ mythology or they are cast aside and will be subjected to further abuse.

I add ‘further abuse’, for even perceived membership of the group means that if one is different e.g not white male and straight then one will be the butt of the so called humour anyway, but at least the victim is ‘one of us’ for the time being.

In my opinion the continuance of this sub-culture holds back the service from becoming a professional body, and means that the service will remain believing that it is not part of society, but somehow is on some ‘crusade’ to save society from itself.

Update: 3 July 10.40am

As I hoped, some traction is being made by London Assembly members on this issue, pressing London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson, to his credit, does seem to be taking the matter a bit more seriously than the Met’s senior management. He has said he will review 34 other cases.

According to yesterday’s Standard, the Met have denied that the deletions were a matter of policy. That always did sound like a bit of a middle management excuse to me. Also Ms Howard’s lawyers have called for a public enquiry. I don’t agree with that. What is needed is proper accountability, up to the Chief Constable. A public enquiry will merely drape the matter in more evasion, obfuscation over evidence, legalese, and lost time. The answer starts with leadership, and if no leadership is forthcoming from the incumbents, we need new leaders. Quickly.

And just to be clear. This story is about London’s Metropolitan Police. But the problems uncovered are typical other British police forces.

 

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Birmingham exposes the hollow heart of Conservative education policy

Britain is ill-served by its news media. There has been a growing kerfuffle about Muslim-dominated schools in Birmingham. The issues dominating this in media coverage are the extremism of some Muslims, and the explosive relations between the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which they assume is all to do with Mrs May’s leadership ambitions. This wantonly ignorant coverage is not only damaging community relations, but it failed to shine any light on the failure of the coalition’s Conservative-led education policy. This matters because this policy has been given nearly a free run in the media, and supported by papers, such as The Economist, that really should know better.

We must start with Mr Gove, who has been in post since the government was formed in 2010, and is one of the Conservatives’ big hitters. A journalist by profession, he has strong views on both education and extremism, which he has not hesitated to put into practice. Liberal Democrats have moderated some of his more extreme positions, but many suspect that the Lib Dem leadership (in contrast to its activists) sympathises with a lot of what Mr Gove is trying to do. Instead they have concentrated on their own pet policy, the Pupil Premium.

At the heart of Mr Gove’s policy is the idea that education should be run as a quasi-market, driven by parental choice, and without the need for much in the way of government direction – rather in the way the private sector does. Schools are being progressively pushed into being “Academies” independent of local authority control, and new Academies, “Free Schools”, are being established without much of the obstructive bureaucracy that would have strangled many of them at birth under the previous regime. These Academies were not subject to the National Curriculum, though they were subject to inspection by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, which focuses on a narrow set of core subjects (literacy and numeracy – with “behaviour” thrown in to satisfy conservative prejudices). The idea was that bad schools would fail to attract pupils, and so they would end up being closed, or management changed. Competition would impose discipline on the schools, and the whole thing would be more democratic because parental choice would not be intermediated by busybody officials, elected and otherwise.

Two other themes ran alongside this. One was the idea that existing education was not based enough on factual learning, with too much emphasis on wishy-washy “skills” and mushy “values”. Mr Gove recalled the curriculum of old-fashioned private schools and selective state grammar schools, which educated most off Britain’s elite. A second was a distrust of educational experts and officials, who Mr Gove took to referring to as “The Blob”, who watered down and undermined the reform process. The “Blob” was progressively dismantled.

In this mix we should mention faith schools. The Birmingham row does not involve faith schools directly, which has led a number of, excessively defensive, faith school supporters to claim that they are a irrelevant. But they are heavily bound up in the consequences of the row. Faith schools were not a strong element of Mr Gove’s ideas. They were rather an enthusiasm of the previous Labour government, who, it must be added, started the whole process of setting up independent Academies. Britain’s state schools have always included those run by religious foundations, in particular the Church of England in (rather obviously) England. These were joined by Catholic schools. Under Labour these were extended to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and no doubt other foundations. The Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair (a Catholic convert) had the idea that such faith schools gave children a solid moral grounding. Labour generally found that it helped their clientalist relationship with ethnic minority communities. These schools have been given a great deal of freedom to run themselves along their chosen lines. So long as you keep giving us good test scores and exam results, the suggestion was, we don’t care how you do it.

Finally in this background exposition, I need to mention Muslim extremism. Terrorist groups have successfully recruited a number of young British Muslims, and they have carried out a number of acts of violence both in this country and abroad, in such places as Syria. It is considered my many to be the biggest security threat the country faces. These extremists have very conservative instincts, such as believing in the veiling of women, but they tend to be converts and not very conversant with the actual teachings of Islam. Their extremism is fuelled by a general feeling of rejection and alienation.

In the public eye however, these young extremists have become tangled up with the conservative views of many Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. These are horrified by what they see as the laxity of Western moral values, and do not want their children to be corrupted by them. They share many of the conservative instincts of their extremist co-religionists, along with an acute sense of injustice over the treatment of Muslims abroad, especially in Israel and Afghanistan; but there the similarity breaks down. Terrorism plays no part in their outlook, and certainly not in a domestic UK context – they may view Palestinian suicide bombers more sympathetically. But the extremists hover at the fringes of these communities, and that leaves the British state with a very tricky problem. They need intelligence from the established minority communities, and so to maintain good relations with them. But they are quite unsympathetic to many of their beliefs.

Into this delicate situation wade opportunistic journalists and careless politicians, Mr Gove among them. To them there is a direct line between the terrorist threat and conservative religious values. Most of the white community assume this to be the case, and happily lap up this message. Almost no politicians attempt to put a more realistic public gloss on this.

And so when allegations emerged that conservative Muslims had taken over a number of state schools in Birmingham (as part of a “Trojan Horse” plot), Mr Gove assumed that terrorism was at the heart of it, and so did most of the public. He steamed into a delicate situation, upsetting community relations and the Home Office, responsible for policing. The schools had been rated highly by Ofsted, who had focused on academic achievement, which was strong. The inspectors were sent in again with a different agenda, found evidence of  a conservative religious agenda, and, with a bit of ingenuity, ways in which these breached requirements of state-funded schools. The schools are in the process of being transferred to new management.

But the problems have only just begun:

  1. What has been alleged is that school governors, recruited from the local community, took the schools over and forced them into a conservative religious agenda. The school populations were almost entirely drawn from the local Muslim communities. But this is surely what school governors are supposed to do? They set the direction, ethos and strategy of the school. Their actions appear to have been perfectly popular with parents (though not staff). And though not faith schools, the widespread political support for faith schools would not have suggested to them that what they were doing was a bad thing. They were simply picking up the ball tossed by Westminster politicians and running with it.
  2. The actual alleged abuses are not so black and white. Segregation of the sexes? We still have 100% segregated schools. Allowing tradition Muslim dress? A lot of perfectly respectable schools do that already – and that is surely right. The same goes for making provision for prayer, which after all can be open to all faiths. A culture of intimidation? sounds a bit like my English private school education. And surely school management has a right to make the changes it wants, and this always leads to such allegations. The were, predictably, no demonstrable links to terrorist extremism.
  3. We are now told that Mr Gove wants “British Values” to be taught at all schools. Not only is defining this a minefield, but it is a step away from the “fact-based” principles that he had been so fond of espousing. And how will “real” faith schools, and not just Muslim ones, end up if judged to the same standards as those used in the second wave of Birmingham Ofsted inspections?
  4. Sorting out this mess is going to take a lot of work. Schools can’t in fact be left just to get on with it. They are going to need help, guidance and correction from an intermediate level of officialdom. A newly recreated Blob, in fact.

And so we find that parents are free to choose, provided they conform Mr Gove’s own version of political correctness. It is very easy to understand how the local Muslim community (and no so local ones) feel victimised – judged by double standards from a society that has lost its moral compass.

The government’s reforms are barking up the wrong tree. Here in London we have an outstanding example of how seemingly hopeless schools in deprived areas can be turned round. This did not need the creation of Academies; the existing local authority structures were up to the task. What it is did need was strong and credible leadership. Politicians can lead from on high, but ultimately this leadership has to come from experts who live and breath schools. The country was lucky enough to have plenty of these. But they have been side-lined and pensioned off.

Coalition policy is hollow at its heart, and the last four years have been largely wasted. Even Labour could do a better job than this.

 

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The remarkable politcal success of Michael Gove

Shortly before the British General Election in 2010 a headteacher at a local school told me: “Well, however is the new Education Secretary cannot be worse then Ed Balls.” Mr Balls, now Shadow Chancellor, was then Labour’s Education Secretary. He had built up a reputation for political posturing and bullying, while presiding over new Labour’s muddled education policies. I have not asked that headteacher how she thinks the new education Secretary, Michael Gove, compares to Mr Balls. I don’t have to; her prediction was spectacularly wrong. Mr Gove is even more loathed by education professionals than was Mr Balls. But Mr Gove, unlike Mr Balls, counts as a political success.

Mr Gove has been in the news recently. Yesterday he gave a speech spelling out his vision for state schools; over the weekend there was a fuss over his failure to reappoint the Chair of Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate. His spin doctors have been pushing out a story of his reforming zeal against an educational establishment referred to as “the Blob” after a 1950s sci-fi movie. This has received a lot favourable coverage in the right-wing press. More neutral observers, such as the FT as well as the BBC, seem content to faithfully report Mr Gove’s spin while not openly taking sides.

All this is in stark contrast to the government’s attempts to reform the NHS, led by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The government side of this argument hardly got a look in, as the picture of chaotic reforms took hold. This negative coverage stiffened opposition to the reforms, muddling them further, so that they have ended up being the biggest blot on the Coalition government’s record – though some good may yet come out of them. There has been little public support for opponents to Mr Gove’s education reforms, however. Mr Gove, an ex-journalist, is clearly a better communicator than Mr Lansley, an ex-doctor. The education system is also much simpler than the health service. But the political skills of Mr Gove’s “Blob” are totally lacking, unlike those of the doctors and nurses opposing Mr Lansley. The teaching unions have long been a bit of a comedy act, resisting basic workforce reforms, like performance appraisal, that non-teaching professionals have long since got themselves used to. Other educational professionals rarely raise themselves beyond the minutiae to give politicians and the public a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve.

Are and were British schools in a mess? Yes and no. International comparisons show a mixture of good and bad news. Overall performance is unspectacular but not awful. We have a long “tail” of under-achieving pupils that schools give up on too quickly. There is a lot of mediocrity, especially amongst rural schools, who “coast” by getting average performance from pupils capable of much more. But over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.

The transformation of London’s schools remains one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.

What of Mr Gove’s reforms? They are a mix of good, bad and ugly. On the good side, Ofsted’s remit has been sharpened up a lot. Previously it had expanded into such areas as “community cohesion”, which are highly sensitive to context, and inspectors did not show any great aptitude. Now they focus much more sharply on the quality of teaching. This gets to the core of what drives school performance. Some older teachers hate this – but it really isn’t any different to the pressures that accountants and lawyers find themselves under. Younger teachers seem accept the much greater level of accountability that is expected – and respond well to it. (My evidence on this is rather anecdotal though – based on my experience as a school governor in a London primary school).

Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove’s Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies. My local Free School is recruiting many middle class youngsters that would formerly have gone private. No doubt some on the left see this as a sinister subsidy to the middle classes – but a much higher level of social mixing occurs at these new state schools than would have occurred at private schools. And social mixing at schools helps the poorer children achieve more. It is worth noting that this policy works as well as it does thanks to two measures insisted on by the Liberal Democrats: a “pupil premium” giving extra funding for poorer pupils, and insisting on non-academic selection. Many Conservatives want to recreate academically selective Grammar Schools. These may once have been engines of social mobility, but now academic selection is simply used as a way of weeding out pupils from poorer backgrounds and reducing mixing.

The bad: there is a lot of wasted energy on changing things that don’t need changing. That particularly applies to changes to the curriculum. Mr Gove and his supporters seem to have an old-fashioned view on what should be taught in schools, to reflect a 1960s private education. Now it is true that the Blob has developed a lot of woolly curriculum ideas that don’t seem to be of lasting educational benefit (especially in “applied” qualifications), but they were gradually sorting out this mess by themselves. Mr Gove seems to have little idea as to what modern universities and employers actually want the product of a secondary education to be. A lot of the drive to turn state schools into academies seems a bit pointless, and will probably create problems of accountability in later years. It has a sinister aspect too: the Academy chains who are the main beneficiaries are politically well connected – and it is their political connections that seem to be critical in their success.

The ugly. We are getting more religiously founded state schools. Given religiously founded schools’ role in cementing toxic community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I am very nervous about this. But it could be that making these newer schools conform to modern educational norms, and forcing them to engage with a wider civil society, will bring benefits. But I really would prefer it if our children went to schools attended by children of many faiths and none. But the alienation of some religious communities is such that they would not engage in such arrangements, and for them a state religious school is a second-best.

My verdict on Mr Gove is that he is not quite as evil as he cracked up to be. But he is wasting a lot of time and energy. What should be absorbing energy is teaching standards, establishing a broad curriculum appropriate to modern life, and establishing better systems of accountability which don’t tempt schools to game the system by neglecting “hopeless” cases. Fix these and Britain’s state schools would be world class. But alas, we are distracted by political gimmickry.

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Is there a case for complementary medicine on the NHS?

Last weekend there was outrage from The Daily Mail that Prince Charles had being lobbying government ministers to give more space for complementary medicine on the NHS. This provoked a piece on the BBC Today programme (at 0833) on Saturday morning. In this UCL’s Professor David Colquhoun made short work of Tory MP David Tredinnick, who was attempting to defend homeopathy, the target of choice of those wanting to drive complementary medicine to the lunatic fringe. Indeed, very few advocates of complementary techniques do a decent job of defending them in public forums, quickly resorting to dodgy mumbo-jumbo and dubious scientific studies. And yet there is a case to be made.

I find it a bit awkward to make this case myself. I have not used such therapies, and nor am I likely to. I am simply in too deep with conventional scientific scepticism to give any credence to their supporting patter – “energy fields”, “life forces”, or homeopathy’s “like cures like”. And without that, I suspect the techniques lose a lot of their impact. However, people I like and respect do use selected complementary techniques, and they have value.

The best way to start a defence of complementary medicine is attack. Conventional, evidence-based medicine has its own weaknesses. The technique depends on breaking health issues down into bite-sized problems, and then testing therapies to treat them using statistical tests against a placebo. Once a therapy passes this test, it then gets rolled out to anybody suffering from the condition concerned. This approach benefits from scientific rigour, and has steadily improved the effectiveness of conventional medicine over the generations. More recently the focus of the technique has been more on finding what works than necessarily why. This makes it less vulnerable to dismissing therapies that do not work in theory (as happened in some spectacular early medical failures in the 19th century over the importance of hygiene and clean water). But it has certain blind spots designed into it.

The first problem concerns placebos. The reason why this is the null hypothesis against which therapies are tested is that placebos have a measurable beneficial effect in many cases. The main scientific sceptical explanation for any benefits of complementary therapies is that it is a placebo effect. A supporter might go further: complementary therapists understand how placebos work better than conventional therapists: it isn’t just a placebo, it’s a top class placebo. But you can’t test a placebo against a placebo. Back in the 1980s a practicing GP told me how one of his favoured techniques was to prescribe harmless sugar pills to his patients, and he claimed great benefits from doing so. Surely if that sort of thing is allowed on the NHS, why can’t other placebo therapies? And the answer isn’t to ban all placebos – though doubtless that is the approach taken by conventional medicine advocates; something tells me that my GP wouldn’t be allowed to prescribe his sugar pills nowadays.

The second problem is the fragmentary approach of conventional medicine. Fragmentation has been elevated to a positive religion in the NHS. You can’t experience the service without being handed to several different professionals of different shapes and sizes, each with their carefully rationalised boundaries. Each handoff creates risks, and stories of catastrophic breakdowns in hospital treatments abound – patients left for hours on trolleys, starving to death, or forced to drink water from plant pots – and even more cases where post hospital after care breaks down. One of the few common themes across complementary disciplines is that they are holistic. Indeed the very idea of holistic treatments (now very much part of modern management jargon) was originally derived from complementary medicine, or that is where I heard it first, anyway. You see a single therapist, who gathers as much information about you and your condition as she can, integrates it, and then moves on to treatment. The diagnosis is likely to be a large part of the cure in its own right. And yet scientific testing of complementary therapies is liable to start only after the diagnosis has ended. All this proves is that if you go out to a shop and buy homeopathic remedy, you are on to a hiding to nothing. That does not prove that the complete homeopathic therapeutic process is useless.

There is a third problem. Evidence has to be gathered by using large numbers of people. In this process there is very limited opportunity to distinguish between the different needs of individuals. As a result the evidence tends to show not that the therapy works for everybody, or even most people, but that on average it is better than the placebo. The result is that lots of people are prescribed treatments that are, for them as individuals, useless. How many people do you know who complain of medication that gives unpleasant side-effects but does not seem to be doing them any good? The scientific evidence says they could be right, but is rather helpless after that. Complementary therapies are much less likely to have side effects, though they don’t have the proven benefits either. I do wonder whether for some conditions the overall cost-benefit balance of complementary therapies against conventional ones is constructed fairly.

And finally we need to address the question that few advocates of scientific method will admit to. That scientific rigour has its costs. There are areas of potential knowledge into which it is incapable of reaching. The higher your standard of rigour, the less that is capable of being revealed. The method is too blunt an instrument to deal with many types of issue. It can’t handle too many variables at a time, especially if they are interdependent; and any ideas that mess with constancy of the laws of nature are ruled out a priori. It struggles to find ways of testing mind over matter propositions, which often play a part in complementary medicine’s thinking. How many people do you know who feel unwell, go to doctor, who commissions tests that just don’t find anything? You don’t have to take on mystical ideas to see that the bluntness of conventional diagnosis leaves huge areas of illness as a mystery. And when this happens conventional medicine is worse than useless. It creates stress and frustration, and doctors start to disbelieve the patient, making the problem worse, not better. Complementary techniques are much better at handling patients suffering from these sorts of problems.

So what are my conclusions? A little more humility on the part of the advocates of conventional medicine is warranted. They don’t know everything; they are not very good of handling conditions that are difficult to diagnose; they are too sanguine about the collateral damage arising from evidence based treatments on those they do not help; and they fail to see how the fragmentary way they handle problems is bad for patient health. With this humility they might understand that once they have eliminated the nice, well-defined illnesses in their comfort zone – cancer, heart disease, strokes, bacterial infections et al – being open to patients who want complementary treatments is often the best way forward. And I haven’t even mentioned the corrupting influence of big pharma.

 

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