British regional policy needs more government

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I found this week’s Bagehot column in the Economist interesting. It complains that Westminster is brain-dead, but that elsewhere there are signs of innovative thinking. This helps to raise the question of how to address the imbalance of Britain’s (and especially England’s) imbalance towards London. But it betrays some rather stale thinking.

The article itself is lightweight. It shows enthusiasm after a visit to the University of Warwick, and witnessing its projects promoting industrial innovation, and in particular the efforts of Kumar Bhattacharyya to push back against the idea that Britain’s future lies in financial services and not manufacturing. It contains no hard analysis. This is less disappointing for a political column that it was for an article a few months ago about what to do about the developed world’s “left behind places”. Towns and rural areas left behind by changes to the industrial economy. In spite of the promise of its headline, this article had very little to say about solutions. It instead seemed to encourage the further expansion of already thriving urban centres, on the grounds that this would clearly be good for productivity. This was another symptom of the the stale, conventional thinking that dominates the Economist’s journalism.

But the issue is an important one. The gap between London and England’s southeast, and other regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is problem for everybody. It is an obvious problem for the struggling regions, from Cornwall to Tyneside. It is also a problem in the prosperous regions, where the cost of housing is exacerbating social divisions. If economic prosperity could be distributed more evenly geographically, then it would be easier to distribute it more evenly between the classes and generations. Scotland, incidentally, is something of an exception, and a revealing one.

This has been obvious for a long time, but efforts by governments to do something about it have at best been only partially successful. Two things have been tried: money, and relocation of government agencies. There have been various initiatives to pump money into the poorer regions, a number of which are under the banner of EU aid. These clearly help, but the beneficiaries too often seem to be large corporations headquartered elsewhere, who simply manage to funnel the money back again. So many English regional towns are dominated by national and international brands at the expense of more local ones. The relocation of government agencies manage to disrupt local labour markets (the jobs tend to be quite well paid and put local businesses under pressure), but a bigger problem is that they fall victim to government efficiency drives which shrink them.

Where the Bagehot article is clearly right is that there needs to be more going on locally in these regions that central largesse. Centres like the Warwick Manufacturing Group clearly help. At the centre of thriving modern economies is brainpower. Universities and research are clearly part of this – as experience in other countries shows. But two points need to be made: political structures are vital, and we need to think about tomorrow’s economy rather than today’s or yesterday’s.

The lack of interest in political structures was a big disappointment in the Economist’s analysis. Political structures clearly affect the way economics is distributed geographically. Countries that are both quite large and politically centralised, like Britain and France, have more uneven economic geography than those that don’t – like Germany and Scandinavia. I think this is for two reasons. One comes from network theory, which I have advanced before. Humans can manage only a couple of hundred connections with other humans efficiently, so at the heart of any organisation, however large, there is a small network of people within it, and people that the organisation does business with. Large organisations simplify management to reflect this, which means concentrating power geographically. When government power concentrates, corporate power tends to concentrate with it, as government has such an important effect of modern business. Superficially this looks efficient – the trap that the Economist falls into, because the concentrated power centres are efficient in themselves – but that is at the cost of hollowing out elsewhere. Scandinavia may not have a centre that compares with London or Paris, but you can hardly say it is not prosperous.

The second, and overlapping, reason that centralisation of government is bad for outlying regions is the sheer dead weight of government decision making. In England most decisions involving significant money find their way back to the Treasury in London. Decisions get stuck in queues, and when they come to be taken, risk aversion prevails unless huge political capital is expended. Human progress generally demands risk-taking. The fairly obvious idea that rail links between northern British towns should be drastically improved is bogged down in Westminster politics. If the north of England was an independent country it would already be finished.

So it is not surprising to see that developed countries with devolved political structures usually have better distributed wealth than ones that don’t. Switzerland, a small country with highly devolved politics reeks comfort and prosperity almost wherever you go. As I have already alluded, it is no accident that Scotland, with its advanced level of political devolution, is the one British region that has been able to push back against the gravitational pull of the southeast. It doesn’t always work. Political devolution allows regional governments to choose incompetence; Welsh devolution has an unconvincing track record. And what of distribution of wealth within regions?

The idea that political devolution needs to be part of any solution is very gradually taking hold in Britain. Most politicians play lip service to it. But there is long way to go to change the political culture. But we also need to think about how the economy is to develop. This is the biggest gap in the Bagehot article. It bangs on about manufacturing. Manufacturing still dominates the way most economists and policy makers think about economics. But we need to move on. Manufacturing is going the way of agriculture. There is only so much stuff we can consume, just as there is only so much food we can eat – and in both cases you can argue that we consume too much already. Consuming more stuff is not what will make our lives better (though it will for an important minority of us). The more productive manufacturing becomes, the less important it will be to the economy as a whole – the paradox outlined by the economist William Baumol.

Before I develop that argument further I must qualify it. Manufacturing is still important. It is changing radically in ways that mean that we should produce more locally, and rely less on global trade. This is partly technological, and partly because the economics of importing from less developed countries changes as they, and especially China, develop. There is plenty of scope for innovation and Britain needs to keep up it. Manufacturing innovation based in Warwick, Sheffield and other places needs to be kept going. But it won’t be enough.

What we need to think about is services. The health economy will grow in relative terms, and not just because of demographics – prolonging life and reducing pain is what people want to spend money on when they get more of it. Public services such from social work to law enforcement also need to grow – or get radically better at solving problems rather than pushing them around the system. And there is care for the elderly. We shouldn’t just be sponsoring research into manufacturing into the regions, but into all these other things and more.

And it will not be lost on my readers that this means more government and not less, which has been the prevailing wisdom of most of the last 40 years. But it needs to devolved and better at its job.

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The quiet revolution in Britain’s schools.

I’m going to start 2018 on a hopeful note. I am privileged to be chair of governors at a primary school in Lambeth. This morning I attended the opening session of an INSET (staff training) day for my school’s “cluster” – a collaborative group of schools in the south Brixton area. I was a good note with which to start the year.

The area that the schools serve is a challenging one. Tulse Hill, where the event was held, gets into the headlines for the wrong reasons (recently: a fatal stabbing and hit-and-run death involving several vehicles, none of which stopped). It is dominated by large interwar and postwar housing estates, which are home to a lot of poor people. These are from diverse communities, generally referred to as “minorities”: African, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani, Portuguese, Latin American, and so on. My school is in the middle of an estate that had the reputation of being one of the worst in the country. Nearly half the children at the schools speak a English as a second language. Nearly a quarter qualify for the pupil premium, a standard of poverty that manages to exclude a lot of struggling families. These challenges continue. Benefits cuts is making housing unaffordable to the poor, who are moving to outer London. They are encouraged by developers who want to demolish the old housing (and any non-housing property they can find) and replace them with modern homes, to be sold to better off people. The area is increasingly devoid of local jobs, services and even shops. The Labour council are enthusiastic partners in this process. So the school rolls are falling and the demographics are changing – though the rolls could bounce back as the housing developments mature. Many families are trying to manage in very challenging circumstances. They live next door to increasing numbers middle class families who are demanding in a different way.

Our meeting was appropriately diverse: the teachers, and a few governors, forming veritable United Nations. The schools themselves are diverse. There is one secondary school, which is an Academy, and four Church of England primaries, three non denominational primaries (including my school), a Muslim primary, and a specialist nursery school. There was a lovely buzz as colleagues, compared notes within and across the schools. Their achievements are astonishing. SATS test results are well above the national average in spite of the challenges (though in line with the rest of the borough – their achievement is not an isolated one). If you read about schools in the papers these days, you hear of pessimism; teachers leaving; budget cuts, and so on. The financial pressures are real enough, with falling rolls local making things worse for most  schools. The positive attitude of leaders and staff in these schools is quite humbling.

What makes the achievements of these schools so impressive is that so many people outside London would consider them to be impossible. I routinely read people who claim that multiculturalism has failed; immigration places impossible challenges on public services; and that austerity has made life impossible. While there is certainly truth to the last of these claims (some services are becoming impossible, compounded by an appallingly designed new policy on nursery funding), but even here I am not finding the despair that I hear so much about elsewhere. Just be clear, I am saying this out of admiration for the positive attitude of management and staff in the face of challenge, not because I think squeezing funding from schools is a good idea. In fact the opposite: these schools have shown themselves to be such good managers of public resources that it seems a good idea to give them more so that they can achieve more.

None of this is new. I have mentioned the remarkable progress of London schools often, and tried to draw political conclusions from it. Instead, I want to talk about something else. There is a common management ethos in this diverse range of schools (shared, incidentally with another nearby school where I am a governor) that deserves much more attention that it will ever get. This was excellently articulated by the keynote speaker at our event, Mary Myatt. It was evident that she was preaching to the converted.

Mary’s mantra is “high challenge; low threat”. She says that the key to success is creating a work environment where people can and do experience high levels of challenge while not feeling threatened. That, of course, applies to the relationship between pupils and staff, as well as to between staff members. She enumerated many aspects of this idea, but one is especially important: inclusivity. Nobody, but nobody is left out. There is no child you cannot help. There is no awkward parent you don’t give a hearing to. There is no negative colleague that you don’t try to persuade. And if you do that, it is amazing what you can achieve with the team you already have. Mary is not shy about using a word that makes this all possible: love. “Professional love” she calls it, because you have to accept the tension of being demanding and compassionate at the same time. This well describes how the two schools I have been involved with have overcome challenge after challenge.

It is striking how different this is from a conventional wisdom that is still very widely held. The most effective way to challenge is to threaten; good performance is achieved by excluding the awkward; hard targets matter more than the stuff that can be waffled; and what has love got to do with it? I find it quite astounding that so many people thought that Donald Trump was an effective manager and were happy to give him a shot at America’s top job. Many people on the left and right seem to think that anger and confrontation is best way of dealing with challenge and opposition. Think of all those trolls, so mch the face of modern dialogue.

A further thought struck me this morning. The leaders who are carrying forward this revolution are predominantly female. Most of the schools where the achievements have been so striking and durable are primaries, and this is a very female dominated workplace – though I have been happy to observe slightly more balance in recent years.

The quality of management of the first school I was involved with, which became Outstanding when I was Chair, and has simply got better since, is I think the best of any organisation public or private that I have been involved with. My current school is on the same journey and its management has made phenomenal strides. It used to be said that excellent management was impossible in the public sector. Many schools are proving that is nonsense. They deserve more attention.

 

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Universal Credit is a bad idea badly implemented

Recently I complained about how government incompetence was now routine. One example of this is the government’s reform of benefits, known as Universal Credit. It is a particularly good example of what I was talking about. It is a misconceived idea, poorly executed.

Interestingly, the political conventional wisdom is that Universal Credit is a sound idea, but lamentably executed. And yet problems with execution usually reflect problems of design. Universal Credit was originally conceived by the Coalition government’s Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (known as IDS). It is designed to replace a series of benefits, including unemployment benefit, tax credits for those on low incomes, and housing benefit to help those with low incomes pay their rent. The idea is that the level of benefit is scaled back as income rises, so that it is always worth a claimant’s while to take a job and increase their hours or rate of pay. Previously many of these benefits (though not tax credits) had a cliff-edge effect: if your income exceeded a threshold then you lost all of your benefit. It was sold as a simplification that improved incentives for people to be self-sufficient, and welcomed across the political spectrum. But it is only simple in the sense that it is relatively easy to understand what your entitlement is if you know your income. There is some law of government which runs that there is nothing more complicated than a simplification.

The problem is knowing what a claimant’s income actually is at any point in time and therefore how much they should get. This faces two problems. First is that claimants are by definition poor and struggle to manage cash flow. Keeping them waiting for their money while you work things out is not a good idea; paying them an advance runs into difficulty if the advance is too high and so the clawback becomes onerous – an issue that led to notorious problems for Labour’s tax credit system. The second problem is a complete lack of trust: the idea that claimants should report their own income would not be taken seriously by any politician – probably with some reason, though the contrast with the way better off people are treated is striking; the benefit had to be linked to hard data on income. IDS’s answer to this was to link the information gathering to systems for Pay As You Earn (PAYE) for administering income tax and national insurance deducted at source. But this was a highly complex undertaking, and, since mostly PAYE works on a monthly cycle, still leaves a six-week wait for new claimants, and a monthly payment cycle, for people used to budgeting by the week.

The complexities associated with this should have been obvious from the outset, but IDS is a particularly ideological and obstinate character, and refused to accept the scale of the problems. Implementation deadlines kept being put back.  When he resigned last year, I predicted that Universal Credit would have to be killed off, along with the fact that Theresa May would be the next Prime Minister. But although Mrs May is now PM, Universal Credit lives on. But the six week wait and monthly cycle are now becoming a hot political topic. A weak government will have to give ground, and doubtless a fudge is in the works. But that fudge will lead to further difficulties.

That’s not the only problem with Universal Credit. I haven’t mentioned issues that arise with self-employed people, of which there are increasing numbers amongst low income earners (known as the gig economy). Another issue is not with the fundamental design, but the way in which the government has turned the relatively gentle withdrawal of benefit into something much sharper, undermining the incentives for people to increase income. This was part of the government’s promise to reduce the costs of welfare. That is another aspect of the self-defeating nature of austerity – savings that build up future costs.

But it is the administrative architecture that is the real problem with the benefit, and why it will never work satisfactorily. The DWP wants a giant database for everybody with all the real time information on it that you might need to administer tax, benefits and any other entitlements, which can then be automated. This is a wildly impractical idea, but promoted by IT consultants on the basis that they will be able to get out with their fees long before the inevitable collapse. To be fair, I suspect that many IT professionals are just as deluded about the capabilities of IT as the shallow think-tankers who promote this sort of thinking in government. Even in a world of massively more capable IT, trying to get accurate, real-time data on incomes in a modern, free and diverse economy is an impossibility.

Are there other approaches? The US operates a rather similar idea in its tax credit system. This is based on the annual filing of tax returns by all citizens. This means that any amount owing comes back as an annual payment – something that makes the current discomfort with six-week waits and monthly payment cycles look laughable. Poorer citizens have to borrow against the expected credit, inviting high financing costs. But whatever the virtues of the American approach, it is incompatible with the way the current British tax system works. We deduct tax as much as possible at source, and tax free allowances scoop up a host of small payments that would otherwise be within scope. Only a minority of citizens have to file tax returns, with all the hassle and expense this entails. Extending Self Assessment (as it is known) to the whole population is not an inviting prospect – though the system is much simpler than its American equivalent.

So what to do? A popular idea on the left is to replace universal credit with a universal basic income to which everybody is entitled – so eliminating the need to gather data on incomes. The problem here is that it would require a big expansion of tax if this income is going to be at the level of maximum universal credit (up to £3,800 per year). My back of the envelope calculation is that the cost would be about £200bn per annum (excluding pensioners) – about the same as the entire income tax take. This is not impossible: overall tax receipts are currently £700bn, and a good proportion is being paid out already (especially if you include the tax free allowance). But it brings with it a host of issues around consent and enforcement. And would that level of income really be enough?

The alternative is to move away from these centralised, universal systems to ones that are more piecemeal and community-oriented. That would mean that each local area would need to work out its own system for alleviating poverty, including social housing, and job guarantees as well as cash benefits. All this to be administered by one-stop-shops that are able to deal with each person’s needs in the round.

But that would require such a radical change of thinking that I cannot see any sign of it happening. Our politicians, and political activists generally, are addicted to creating giant, universal systems administered through online portals, that have failure designed into them.

 

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The Great Divide in liberalism: school holidays or basic income? @Radix_UK

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Liberal blogger David Boyle and I are the same age. We have worked together on Liberal Democrat policy. But, according to David, we are on the opposite sides of a great divide across the heart of what he calls the “radical centre”. But I don’t think we are.

David is a much more successful blogger and general activist than me, and has got as far as founding a think tank – Radix. He is an old Liberal, where I was a founder member of the SDP in 1981. But I thought we were converging – and I had regarded myself closer to the old Liberals these days than the SDP.

That was before I read David’s article in the most recent Liberator about Lib Dem tribes. That was followed by this article published by Radix, after a fringe meeting at Bournemouth, which I did not attend. On both counts it was clear that I was still a social democrat in his eyes, and he a Liberal, and that, furthermore, there was no more important division in what he calls the radical centre, and which I prefer to refer to as “liberalism”.

David set a test to show which side you are on. What is your attitude to the fining of parents who take their children out of school for holidays in term-time? He is against; I am for (though I am actually against automatic fining, which is what he posed to the Radix fringe). To him we should assume that parents know what is best for their children, and not the experts. What is needed in politics is to break the power of the experts, in his view, and  empower people to make their own decisions.

I don’t really disagree with that sentiment, but I do believe in state intervention in a number of cases, and compulsory schooling is one of them. The question of school holidays is not an abstract proposition in my case. I have been a primary school governor for 18 years or so, and chair of governors for ten (at two different schools). This issue is a hardy perennial.  The teachers insist that term-time holidays disrupt both formal education, and also the cohesion of the school community, and I have been on their side. We haven’t gone as far as fining people (or if we have that is only because regulations have become more restricted – and it is the local authority, not the schools which impose them). Instead there has been a sort moral war of attrition. I think the presence of fines is there to set the moral moral tone, and to give schools a weapon in this moral war. I’m much more hesitant about actually using them – hence my reservations about making the fines automatic. But withdrawing the fines could set in motion a disruptive free for all.

At the heart of this is an age-old battle between freedom and solidarity. Flourishing societies need both. My worry is that in modern Britain, and not least the poorer urban communities that my schools serve (alongside more prosperous ones), the elements of solidarity are breaking down. A lot of people are struggling, and worse, not really coping. The modern state would rather hide these people away. I am a deeply-believing liberal, but I recognise that liberal language can be used to camouflage hard questions. Why not say that the struggling individuals and families are free to solve their own problems, and that we shouldn’t burden others with them?

State schools are one of the most powerful forces for solidarity that we have. They can, and should, be a lifeline to struggling families, and make them feel part of a wider society. Schools also provide a a good place from which to make the sort of state interventions needed to give disadvantaged families help to cope with the stresses of society. They should also, in subtle ways at least, open the eyes of others to some of the difficulties faced by their neighbours. A well-run, socially mixed state school one of the wonders of the British state system; it would not happen without compulsory schooling, and it is undermined by an excessive emphasis on parental choice – which often leads to de facto segregation. Parental freedom on school holidays chips away at that solidarity.

So I worry that vocal Liberals are a middle-class pressure group who want to push their own families forward without regard to what is going on around them. But, of course, I know that is not fair.

I think I have a better question to divide the radical centre: do you believe that a universal basic income should an important part of the state system? I suspect that some Liberals and social democrats alike would say yes. It empowers poorer people by giving them cash to spend as they choose, and it offers a way replace a costly and divisive welfare system with universal entitlements. Others (like me) say no – it is just an attempt to hide away the needy with no-questions-asked cash so that the rest of don’t have to bother with them.

In fact I think the real choice is between grand designs to be rolled out nationwide, like UBI, and community interventions with a human face, carried out on a localised scale and based on a sense of human solidarity. I don’t know if that is Liberalism or not, but I’m sure that is what David is looking for, to judge by his railings against empty corporations (though he has said some favourable things about UBI).  There is an important line to be drawn, but I think he is drawing it in the wrong place.

Postscript:

I strikes me that my defence of school holiday fines doesn’t contradict David’s distinction between Liberals and social democrats. Social democrats are more inclined to appeal to solidarity. But social democrats also tend to like standards set nationally, and are suspicious of localised solutions. That’s where I part company. And I do that is the most important thing about trying to develop answers to the crisis in modern government.

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Why is government so incompetent?

Every day brings a fresh example of a government policy that is not working as it intended or a public service that has gone badly off the rails. It is usually accompanied by a government press release (rarely a ministerial interview) denying that there is any kind of problem, or minimising it. No wonder the public is losing faith in the political class. When human knowledge has never been greater, our education systems have never put out more well-educated people, and our technology has never been more capable, this problem should provoke more comment than it does. What is happening?

Let’s make this abstract observation more concrete with a few examples. The Grenfell Tower tragedy showed that safety regulation for the cladding of buildings had become meaningless, and consultation with residents completely empty. The only surprising thing about the recent reports of abuse of innocent immigrants in detention centres is that the scandal took so long to emerge. The implementation of the government’s new nursery care entitlement went off the rails many months ago, and will probably lead to less nursery provision, not more – and yet the government still denies it. New regulations on data protection in the pipeline look unworkable and retrograde to everybody I have met who has taken the trouble to examine them( and that is blamed on the need to comply with EU regulations, but I wonder if other member states are having such problems?).  I could go on. And on. Everybody who has direct involvement with public services or government initiatives (in education, health, unemployment support, etc.) will have an example of rampant policy madness. Sometimes these stories are ill-founded grouching by people resisting change. Mostly they are not.

But why? There some usual suspects. Politicians like to blame the other side. So Labour (and Lib Dem) ones will label this as Tory incompetence, and claim they would do better if only they were in charge. They would say that. But one of the most egregious bits of government incompetence in recent years was on the Labour watch, and they still deny it: the macroeconomic and regulatory failures that made the impact of the global financial crisis of a decade ago much more severe than in any other major developed country. Those in power tend to blame the supposedly deteriorating quality of civil servants trying to implement their clear vision – in the way that bad workmen blame their tools, or bad generals blame their subordinates. Another common complaint is that modern politicians have less real-world experience than they used to, of running businesses or commanding troops, say. And yet there has always been something amateurish about British politicians. And there is still quite a bit of real world experience on the political front benches.

For my part I can’t help recalling Tony Blair’s valedictory article in the Economist in 2007. Consider this quote:

The state today needs to be enabling and based on a partnership with the citizen, one of mutual rights and responsibilities. The implications are profound. Public services need to go through the same revolution—professionally, culturally and in organisation—that the private sector has been through.

The first bit is classic Blair. It sounds very good and liberal, but it isn’t clear what it actually means. It is used to dress up the second bit: that public services should learn from the private sector, and reflect the revolution that the private sector has been through. Well I was, in small way, a standard-bearer of that private sector revolution. I led the transformation of the various operational units I was responsible for, with massive advances in efficiency and improved customer service (certainly in the reduction of mistakes). But here’s the thing: since Tony Blair’s time that private sector revolution has shown its dark side (already evident when I was working, up to 2005). We are now being assaulted by examples of private sector incompetence that match those I have been complaining about in the public sector. The biggest by far was unfolding as Mr Blair was writing his article: the great financial crisis of 2007-2008 that climaxed with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The levels of misjudgement in so many financial firms is completely breathtaking. Governments and regulators contributed (especially in Britain), but often because of pressure placed on them by businesses.

It’s worth mentioning just a few modern examples of commercial incompetence. In Europe we are reeling from the problems at Ryanair, where changes to pilots’ holiday rosters have caused thousands of flight cancellations. This has parallels with Southern Rail’s travails earlier this year, after they played with staff rosters – with the trouble wrongly blamed by the company and government on the trade unions,who are admittedly making things worse. Americans are alarmed about massive data breaches at credit firm Equifax. It is not hard to find other examples.

Perhaps the problem is for public services and government in Britain is not that they have learned too little from the private sector, but that they have learned too much. Or they have learned the wrong things (I can vouch that they could learn many good things…). The dark side of private sector transformation might be called “simplify and exclude”. A simple business model is much easier to manage than a more complex one, and in its own terms it is more efficient. It also makes increases in scale easier to manage. And it can benefit the world as a whole by cutting out wasted duplication. I did a lot of this at work – especially when my firm took on outsourcing contracts for operations in financial services. But even then the dark side was evident. If it didn’t fit the model, you excluded it. This leads to two distinct problems.

The first problem is tunnel vision. People running large businesses with simple operating models simply lose the capacity to engage with the complexities of the real world. The public is becoming increasingly aware of this as it tries to deal with problems and engage with larger businesses – it is harder and harder to have a meaningful conversation with anybody. This increasingly marks our engagement with public services too. This isn’t helped by what Douglas Adams called the SEP field in his hugely perceptive A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – a powerful cloak of invisibility. SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. One prominent victim of the SEP field was Labour Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as the great financial crisis developed. He (or some of his apologists) complained that part of the problem was responsibility for handling finance was split between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority – though it should surely have been clear that it was his Treasury that was responsible for the system as a whole.

The second problem with Simplify and Exclude is the revenge of the excluded. This is much more of an issue with government and public service than it is with big business. The inconvenient people who do not fit your simplified service model do not disappear. Very often their needs are left unmet and they come back to deliver bigger problems later. Children excluded by schools are more likely to become drug addicts and indulge in crime and antisocial behaviour, for example. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), perhaps the biggest champion of Simplify and Exclude in government,  may celebrate that is has driven many people of their claimant rolls, but it is has no understanding of why. It has not attempted to to solve the underlying problems of worklessness – it has just made access to benefits more restricted. That just means more trouble for everybody else. Knife crime and acid attacks are rising here in London – it is hard not to think that this has something to do with the simplification of services in the DWP, as well as youth provision, employment and policing. This is closely linked to funding cuts (“austerity”) of course, but I am convinced the problem is much deeper than the lack of public funds. It is the narrow way in which public servants are approaching the problem.

At the heart of this is a trade-off between scope and scale. In order to improve the scale of services it is usually necessary to simplify the scope. But by reducing the scope you make them less effective. The answer, in public services, is to bring together services for different things around the needs of individual citizens. You can only do that by devolving political responsibility to a much more localised level. More people are realising this – but few are ready for the change in political culture required to drive it through.

 

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Mental health is about everybody

I want to agree with the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore in her recent article The lesson of Prince Harry’s grief? We need mental health services for all. And mostly I do. But I think she’s missed the most important thing about mental health.

The context of this article is in the headline. It Prince Harry’s recent interview in which he talked frankly about how he failed to deal with the grief caused by his mother’s death for a decade or more. He was bottling it all up with a stiff upper lip, with dire consequences for his life. He then sought help, and now feels able to talk about it. I applaud Prince Harry’s intervention. It is part of a general process of talking about mental health to make it less of a taboo topic. He is doing this in the best possible way: by sharing his experiences and not ramming any particular view down our throats. Mental health is one of the critical issues of our time and we need to talk about it more, and we need to be able to share more. But, alas, keeping the topic repressed for so long has left its legacy of muddled attitudes – even among the most liberal minded.

Ms Moore starts with a condemnation of the Royal Family’s lack of emotional intelligence at the time of Princess Diana’s death. In particular she feels that her two sons should not have been made to walk behind the coffin. She noticed that almost nobody showed personal warmth towards the pair during the service – so keen were they to show proper dignity and decorum. I think she’s only half right there. Some open warmth towards the boys during the service by their near relatives would certainly have been in order. But dignity and decorum have a useful purpose too. That long walk behind the coffin was not wrong in itself – it just needed to be balanced by something more intimate and informal.

Still, that isn’t the main problem I have with the article. This came as I read this:

Harry has rightly been praised for talking personally and thus destigmatising mental health issues. This is no doubt excellent. The normalising of mental health problems, which it is estimated will affect a quarter of us at one time or another, is necessary, but so too is funding. Mental health services are in a very poor state and it is almost impossible to get help. Many people in Harry’s situation would not get access to counselling and would be offered antidepressants and possibly a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy, as this is considered most cost-effective. In acute cases, people in a state of severe breakdown are now forced to go to hospitals far from their homes because there are no beds to be found nearby. This is a real crisis, and it is more visible by the day on our streets.

Yes, mental health services are neglected and need to be given a higher priority. But this will not work unless we start to think about mental health differently. Ms Moore’s article perpetuates the idea that dealing with mental health is about dealing with mental illness – depression, anxiety and so forth, and that this illnesses only affect a minority of us (even if it is as high as one in four). But mental health “problems” affect everybody. If you don’t suffer from depression and anxiety in some form regularly you are not healthy at all. It is how you manage it that is the thing – and it is something we all need to learn. And as we learn how to manage our emotions and anxieties better – and learn how to help our friends, relatives and neighbours, then fewer people will be left with the unmanageable symptoms that we call “mental illness”. And when we do suffer from those symptoms, society as a whole will be better able to deal with it.

And here’s the thing: the real problem is pretending that everything is OK when it is not – and this comes through from Prince Harry’s interview. We all know that a bit of anguish is normal. We also know, intuitively, that continually talking about our own emotions is self-indulgent and can undermine relationships with others. We also know that seeking professional help is a drastic step that you only take after other avenues have been exhausted – and is as likely to be a method for avoiding deeper issues as it is for confronting them. So it is the most natural thing in the world to weather our own problems, and then to assume that we are coping with them rather than bottling them up. But equally thinking that all you need to do when you feel down is to pop a pill to make you happy, then you are in even more trouble.

It is actually very hard. So the temptation is to try make the whole thing the exclusive domain of experts, whom we consult as required. And by trying to divert Prince Harry’s intervention into a call for more funding for experts, Ms Moore falls straight into this trap. But mental health isn’t just for experts, it is for everybody. We all need to be able to sense issues in those around us, and have an idea of what is going to help – and, of course, learn how to be more honest with ourselves, and have ideas about how we handle our own problems, beyond externalising it to a professional.

Which is why the first response to the issues raised by Prince Harry is not to rush out and boost mental health services – it is to tackle school curriculums. Above all it is at school that we learn excessive stiff upper lip (incidentally I feel strongly that stiff upper lips have their place – but that is another story). Great advances have been made here, but often in spite of government initiatives instead of because of them. The government’s recent recognition of personal, social and health education (PSHE ) is a welcome change from the bizarre antics of the previous Education Secretary Michael Gove – who dismissed such stuff as a distraction form proper academic education. This incidentally recognises something very important – that there is a strong social dimension to managing mental health.

Mental health is a positive and it is for everybody. By talking about it only when it goes wrong, and talking about the negative, we can make things worse, not better. That is what I take away from Prince Harry’s welcome intervention.

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Theresa May’s policy on grammar schools is a new phase in the class war

Chatterers on the left had a clear narrative on the class tensions running through British politics. The Conservatives were led by toffs, who went to elite private schools, had no idea about how ordinary people live, and feathered the nests of their rich friends. They shrugged as they heartlessly condemned people to food banks. The appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister does not fit that narrative, and that will make the left uncomfortable.

Mrs May is not one of the toffs. She went to a state school, and she has promoted others who were similarly state-educated, such as Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary. She has tossed out many of the toffish types, such as George Osborne, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Oliver Letwin, in charge of the Cabinet Office.  At first this drew some positive comments, to the effect that Mrs May was more “grounded”. That honeymoon is now over. Mrs May wants to bring back grammar schools.

At face value, this is a throwback to the 1950s. The brightest children were selected by exam (the 11 plus) and sent to grammar schools, while the rest were sent to secondary moderns. The grammar schools were treated as the elite of the state system, and got the best teachers, and were run with an ethos close to private schools, for whom selection was at the core of their being. The grammars were the route to advancement for many a working class or lower middle class boy or girl – thanks in large part to the vast expansion of middle class jobs in the era. They were sold as an engine of social mobility, and quite popular right across the class spectrum, though the toffs trended to sneer at them. Secondary moderns, by contrast, were neglected. The powers that be did not consider that most people needed a good education – there were plenty of lower-skilled working class jobs to go round, and even the more skilled ones did not require much formal education.

There were plenty of weaknesses in this system, which was especially hard on late-developing children. The secondary moderns were inadequate for the way in which society was developing – which required ever increasing levels literacy and numeracy, to say nothing of other disciplines. In the 1960s the Labour government drove through a move to merge the two types of school into comprehensive schools. This had broad, cross-party support. Grammars were not so popular with those that did not get into them. But people taught at grammar schools retained a soft spot for them, and they remained popular with what might be called the aspirant classes. The system lived on in a number of areas, such as Kent. The middle classes, however, increasingly understood how to game the system, so that the remaining grammars lost any aspirant working class character they might have had, and became a sort of state substitute for private schools.

Conservatives did not reverse the Labour move away from grammars, though they did experiment with selective admissions for some schools. But the grammar school system retained support amongst middle-class families who disapproved of comprehensive schools, and those who were nostalgic for the 1950s. A recent poll showed that more of the public favour more grammar schools than those who either want the system to stay the same, or who want to abolish all grammar schools. It did not help that the country’s school leaders and teachers were ill-prepared for the move to comprehensives, and, in general, made a hash of it. A new ethos is required to make a non-selective schools work. British educationalists have only learnt slowly how to do this – though by and large they are doing a good job now. But public memories are seldom up to date. And in any case the suburban middle classes are very wary of social mixing.

And into this situation has stepped Mrs May, whose secondary school was a grammar that converted to a comprehensive while she was there. She has picked up on the popularity of grammars across swathes of the middle class and now wants to increase their number, to the horror of the educational establishment. She does this amid much rhetoric about meritocracy, and insisting that, somehow, all schools will be good. As a (Labour) friend of mine recently remarked, this is a bit like Jeremy Corbyn saying that he is going to pay for his extravagant spending plans by making the economy grow faster. The fine words cover emptiness.

As a policy idea, grammars make no sense to me – I agree with Michael Wilshaw, the government’s outgoing Chief Inspector of Schools on this. But the politics is interesting. We find the politicians characterised by the left as “toffs” were quite close to the metropolitan middle classes that are the backbone of the left – some of whom have rather toffish backgrounds themselves (disclosure: I went tot he same school as Mr Osborne, though not at the same time). Mrs May is speaking for what I will call the suburban middle class, who are much more conservative. If the toffs are The Times and the metropolitan middle class are The Guardian, Mrs May is speaking for The Daily Mail. Her gender merely reinforces the stereotype: the Mail has a strong female readership.

This is going to harder for the left. The toffs were a small minority, and the left could pile on the sneers with little cost. Alas the suburban middle classes are a wholly different matter. They are numerous, and they are often close in attitudes to aspirant or better-off working classes. The sneers will come at a political cost.

Indeed this group of middle class and working class voters are critical electorally. Whichever political party secures their loyalty is practically guaranteed a close grip on power. Margaret Thatcher made them her own in the 1980s for the Tories. So did Tony Blair for Labour in 1997. The desertion of these voters in Lib Dem seats in the 2015 election proved catastrophic for the party.

So this looks like sound political strategy by Mrs May. The left – Labour and the Lib Dems -will have to work out how to craft an appeal to these voters. Opposition to grammars, which both parties must sustain. won’t help, though some lines of attack are better than others. They need to find ways of pointing out that they could damage many existing schools, knocking onto property prices and causing an influx of less desirable children…

Mrs May will be more worried about opposition from the metropolitan middle classes in her own party than anything from the left. Class could yet fracture the Tories.

 

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Academies and charter schools show the flaws in modern policymaking

Last week’s Economist carried a remarkable article about education policy. It looked at the idea of allowing independently managed but state-funded schools, called charter schools in the United States and academies here in Britain, an idea the newspaper has long supported. It reveals weaknesses in the policy. These weaknesses are very revealing.

Independent management of schools has always been more popular with policy wonks than with educationalists. Nevertheless studies were commissioned to show that charter schools and academies performed better than ordinary state-managed schools, usually based on exam results. This is referred to evidence-based policymaking. And it drives me mad. The effectiveness of such an approach depends on the questions you ask the evidence to answer – a process that always entails risks. Schools policy shows two major ones: looking at the wrong question, and making success criteria too narrow.

What’s the problem? Research is now showing that, now that the policy is becoming more mainstream, these independent schools generally perform no better, and often worse, than state managed schools, especially in middle-ranking schools. Worse, there is some evidence from the US that where improved exam results have been achieved, they have not actually improved the life-chances of the pupils. This turn of events was entirely predictable. But whereas the Economist innocently suggests that the policy needs to be tweaked to address these weaknesses, the rest of us must ask whether it was ever a good idea to make the policy mainstream, rather than just applied to a few schools to ginger up innovation.

The first problem is that the policy, and the evidence used to support it, was addressing the wrong thing. Changing management arrangements does not change the way schools are actually run. You can set your school up as an academy and carry on just the same way as before. And indeed many schools in England have done just that, so it hardly surprising that their performance is unchanged. The government’s current drive to make all schools into academies falls precisely into this trap.; schools do the minimum to comply, and so change nothing important. So what was the point?

And it is no secret what really does make a difference in schools, based on countless studies, often reported by the Economist. That is the quality of school leadership and the quality of teaching. This trumps, money, quality of facilities, and even class sizes. To be fair, policymakers advocate independent management because they think it is the quickest way to fix leadership and teaching (where it challenges the stranglehold of teachers’ unions). But they won’t necessarily do anything of the kind, and it is possible to replicate their changes to leadership and teaching in state-managed schools, once politicians understand what is to be done. This is what happened London, for example, before the academies programme got going. I could show you some truly wonderfully state-run schools near where I live – and others who are on their way there. It is really hard to see how turning them into academies is going to help.

The problem is that political structures are something that  politicians and policy wonks find it easy to talk about and comfortable to fiddle with. I have seen something similar in business management – senior managers playing with organisation structures before they have really understood what the real issues are and how they are best to be fixed. So school independence has now become the chief aim of political policy in English education, and the subject of huge amounts of political effort, which will have little direct effect on the quality of education – and could even harm it.

And public policy journalists, including those at the Economist, have egged the politicians on. They often wrote approvingly of Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary (whose remit is actually just England) from 2010 to 2014, who led the recent drive to academies obsessively, in spite of plenty of evidence that he was barking up the wrong tree. Economist articles are anonymous, but I am sure that Anne McElvoy is at the root of this. She seems to care more about her public media profile than the quality of her journalism.

The second issue I pointed to was that of narrow performance measures. This is secondary in the Economist article, but it has been a huge problem in education policy, and in many other areas too. In education the issue is a focus on test and exam results. The article reports concerns that better results achieved in charter schools do not feed through into the employment market (for example in how much pupils are paid in employment). Their focus has become too narrow on improving the scores, at the expense of life-skills. It is even reported that charter school advocates do not send their own children there. The same weakness has been alleged for English academies, though I am not sure how true this is. The system of Ofsted inspections makes England less vulnerable – the inspectors look at broader issues, especially when conferring the coveted “Outstanding” label. Now a broad education, done well, is not incompatible with excellent test results – the pupils use their improved life skills to improve their learning, and in a highly sustainable way – but it takes top-quality leadership to appreciate this and weather the short-term costs.  It remains tempting to short cut this hard road by narrowing the focus.

In fact policymakers should be thinking much harder about the best way of preparing young people for later life, and of recruiting and training top quality teachers and school leaders. And not engage in silly think-tanker debates, for example as to whether schools focus too much on teaching skills rather than knowledge, as Mr Gove was prone to engage in.

And as for school management, no doubt the old ways of state direction of state-funded schools will re-emerge in a new guise. But will politicians and their advisers ever learn the lessons for policymaking, evidence-based or otherwise? Aim directly at the key drivers of success, not just the management structures. And use numerical measures with extreme caution.

 

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English education policy: battle looms between the think-tankers and the grassroots

Every so often I see a story that the British (or more correctly English – though she sits in the British cabinet) Education Secretary is pondering a bid for the Conservative Party leadership when David Cameron stands down. I find this entirely incredible. Her career to date (she is in the second year at this job) has been devoid of either vision or political nous. The Conservatives can elect lemons to their leadership, but surely not even they are that stupid?

The first reaction to Ms Morgan’s appointment amongst the small section of the public that cares about these things was relief. Her predecessor, Michael Gove, had some good ideas, but was too full of himself, and was guided by a vision of Britishness and education that looked back rather than forwards. He annoyed teachers even more than his Labour predecessor, Ed Balls. But the transition was followed by a deafening silence; nobody knew what Ms Morgan was about.  They still don’t, but two radical ideas are being put into play under her leadership – though it isn’t clear whether she is promoting them because she really believes in them, or because she is responding to pressure from elsewhere. They are to force all schools out of local authority management to became “Academies”, and to rationalise the financing of schools so that their public funding is based on a single, transparent formula. Both are classic Westminster-bubble policies, favoured by think-tankers and journalists little tainted by the practicalities of politics.

Most of the political heat so far is being taken by the Academies policy, which was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, rather than Ms Morgan herself, very revealingly. Academies represent a new legal framework for running state schools, which do away with layers of accumulated regulations, and replace them with something more contractual, offering all concerned more freedom. That is the best bit about the idea. The politically important bit is that they are outside local authority management, and are instead run independently or as part of chains or localised groups. Many on the right, and not a few in the political centre, consider this way of running state schools to be a radical improvement, and project all sorts of benefits, such as empowering teachers or parents, onto it. I will not examine these claims in this article, though I have not changed my view that the issue is relatively unimportant, and not worth the political effort that has been put into promoting it. The question is whether the idea is practically feasible.

And here there is a basic problem. The idea, like so many neoliberal ones, is for a glorious welling up of initiative from the bottom up, from the schools who will take up the idea and follow it through. But in order to implement it across all schools, it requires a top-down process to make sure they all do it, and that it is done in an orderly way. Who is to do this top-down management? The Department for Education has not got the capacity. The academy chains are not geographically coherent, and in any case the current view is that big chains add no value. The obvious answer to this is that local authorities (LAs) will have to fill this gap. And yet the whole idea is to rubbish the role of LAs. This problem only now seems to be dawning on the government. It will require a lot of political skill to navigate, from a minister that has shown little of it to date. In the end the LAs will no doubt come to the rescue, but they will extract a price that will make the government look as if it backtracking.

Still, at least that problem looks soluble. I suspect the problems thrown up by the new funding formula will not be. “Fair Funding” as it is called is not a new idea, or even a bad one in theory. There are constant complaints that the current system, different in each LA area, favours some schools over more deserving ones. But the idea hasn’t been implemented because it, too, comes with major political snags. The essence of the problem is that a system designed to remove political discretion is, by its nature, very hard to manage politically. There will be many winners and losers from the new arrangements, and these will not fall in way that is politically convenient. It will punish friends and reward enemies. The think-tankers no doubt think the formula will punish Labour supporting  city boroughs, especially in London, while rewarding Conservative shires. Alas it will not be so simple.

We have had a trial run of this idea in miniature, when the coalition government forced local authorities to adopt a standardised formula to fund their schools, including any Academies in their geographical remit. I had a ringside seat on this, as I was (and I still am) a member of a Schools Forum, the body comprising school representatives that oversees school finance in each LA area. The first pass produced an arbitrary series of winners and losers, including some major ones. The priority quickly became to flex the formula so that the number of losers, or big losers, was reduced, abandoning any idea of theoretical principle. Other LAs did the same thing, and each has ended up with a different way of doing it. The exercise was hard enough to run at LA level; it will be yet harder to handle at national scale. Extra money could make the process more manageable, but extra money is not available.

The government seems blithely unaware of the coming storm. It has put out a first phase consultation on the structure of the formula, with the idea that the impacts of it will be discussed in a second phase, once this has been agreed. But without knowing the impact the proposal looks like motherhood and common sense, and so has raised little controversy – no doubt lulling all concerned into a false sense of security, while cutting down political room for manoeuvre.

Behind this looms an important political conflict. English schools co-opt civic society co-opt civic society to a much greater extent than any other public service. A large number of civically-minded and politically influential individuals are drawn into running schools, from PTAs to school governors. I am a case in point; it is my only civic activity that is not directly political. These individuals form the political grassroots on whom the political “ground war”, and most political careers, depends. These grassroots activists are being put in conflict with the young think-tankers for whom such low level civics is irksome, and want to change the world from the top with the sweep of a pen.

It will take real political skill to turn this conflict into a constructive tension rather than destructive warfare. My guess is that Ms Morgan and her aides lack that skill. Stand back for a political train-wreck

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The Metropolitan Police: institutionally stupid?

Some years ago London’s Metropolitan Police were accused of being “institutionally racist” by a learned judge. Recently I was talking to an experienced police officer (not from the Met, as it happens), who took great exception to this accusation. Now I have no strong evidence that the original accusation was fair (nor that it wasn’t), and neither do I feel able to comment on how things stand now on that matter. But it goes with the territory that institutional failings are often invisible to the institution’s members. This came to mind in the latest kerfuffle over the police’s investigation of child sex abuse claims.

The current row centres around accusations of child sex abuse made about Lord Bramall, a distinguished ex-soldier. Lord Bramall claims that the whole matter was bungled, took far longer than the merits of the case warranted, and was conducted without regard for the impact on the accused. Similar claims have been made about other investigations of child sex abuse, and not just by the Met (one by Wiltshire Police on former Prime Minister Edward Heath comes to mind). In response senior police officers seem unable to understand what they are being accused of, and reject the criticism as unfair, beyond the odd minor mistake. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met’s Commissioner won’t apologise, because he thinks that doing so would suggest that no investigation should have been carried out. Which his critics have never suggested.

Sir Bernard did muse, however, that perhaps the police’s policy of automatically believing accusers in sex abuse cases might not be quite right. This attracted an attack from Vera Baird, the police and crime commissioner of Northumbria, a lawyer by profession.  She suggested that any departure from a strict policy of believing all accusers would condemn thousands of victims.This entirely misses the point.

The trouble is that the sort of practices complained about by Lord Bramall are hardly restricted to the investigation of sex abuse claims on famous people. They are normal police practice. Plodding investigation (if you are lucky, that is; too often nothing is happening at all as cases never get to the top of the pile before the file is lost); vital clues ignored; complete disregard for the impact of their investigation on the people that are involved in it. In common language, a complete and utter lack of common sense – and instead blind adherence to policies and procedures that prevent context, efficiency and initiative from getting in the way. And this does not just apply to investigations; the police got into a real muddle over crowd management at the G8 summit in London in 2013. They applied “tactics” (a revealing word) that were often totally inappropriate in context, causing distress to thousands of ordinary law-abiding citizens.

But this is how many people like to run large organisations, and how, incidentally, lawyers often advise such organisations be run. The senior officers adopt sheaf-loads of policies and plans, and then tell their underlings to follow them. If something goes wrong, it either arises from a failure of an underling to follow a policy, or else the policy itself is at fault. And, of course, because the policy cannot cater for all circumstances, many failures are tolerated with a shrug, and, are not seen as failures but as just the way the world is. What is not allowed is for junior management to assess a situation, and decide the most appropriate course of action, given the organisation’s overall objectives, disregarding those sheafs of policy documents. Hence Ms Baird’s and Sir Bernard’s spat over police policy on how to treat sex abuse accusations. Neither can stand the thought of discretion and common sense entering police procedure; or rather, the idea that it might do is unthinkable. It is institutional blindness. and institutional stupidity.

Lord Bramall, as former Field Marshal, may well recognise the syndrome. One hundred years ago armies used to be run like this. The senior staff made plans; everybody else had to comply, regardless of context (even the political leaders, in the case of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan in 1914). It proved utterly disastrous as the First World War unfolded, and nowhere more so than in the order-loving German army. The shock was such that the Germans carried out a systematic rethink, so that by the Second World War they had managed to reconcile the need for local initiative and overall command. Evil though their cause was, the German army proved astonishingly effective in that war, except at its very top level of command. Right until the end they seemed to outfight their opponents man for man. Modern armies learnt from this, and local initiative is now a standard part of how the British Army works.

Alas the police have no such initiative-taking, intelligence-using, problem-solving culture, except perhaps in elite units. This seems to affect all British police forces; it just creates most damage in the Met, the country’s biggest, where senior management are most remote from the front line. A living demonstration of the problem can be seen in the recent disastrous merger of Scotland’s police forces, which was much applauded by policy wonks south of the border when it was first proposed.

It is perhaps one good reason why an outsider, from another country or another service, might be a good idea to lead the Met. But the problem is much deeper. Police middle management seem to be of dire quality, being so cossetted in a culture that favours following orders and procedure, and then sticking together under pressure. It will be a tough job making things better.

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