Knife crime requires local action and resources, not national grandstanding

England is suffering a serious epidemic of knife crime, with a high proportion of teenagers amongst both the victims and perpetrators. A few months ago a teenager was a murder outside my local Tube station; some fresh flowers marked the spot as I walked past it this morning. Many others are similarly finding the epidemic is coming uncomfortably close to home. Two further murders over the weekend have provoked a national political kerfuffle. But much of it misses the point.

The biggest problem in English politics is that too many decisions are taken by the UK government in London, with a weak regional layer (comprising a few city regions based on large conurbations such as London and Manchester), and local government that lacks powers by comparison with any other large country. A striking aspect of this is that different public agencies, such as police, health services, schools, social workers and so on, do not cooperate as much as they should. Each of these agencies reports up to a politician in Westminster, who grandstands to national media agencies according to a news agenda that is set nationally. Leaders of local agencies don’t have the power or incentive to make local cooperation work, and they are liable to have their funding squeezed anyway to make way for for headline-making projects. Any yet so many problems are complex, and require just such local coordination.

It isn’t so bad in Scotland, which has devolved government and Scots-level media, though there are issues there with local government being hollowed out. Wales, which also has devolved government, doesn’t seem to be any better run than England. I don’t know enough about that country to know why, but my impression is that Welsh politicians are quite conservative, and have used their powers to resist reforms that have been taking place elsewhere in the country. But I think the Welsh are slowly learning the implications and responsibilities of devolution the hard way.

Knife crime has complex roots. A lot of it is related to youth gangs, many of which feed on the trade of illegal drugs. Too many teenagers are drawn into these gangs, apparently to make up for the lack of any other community to belong. Gangs find the use of knives is the most cost-effective way of asserting themselves. Many young people feel that they need to arm themselves for their own protection, as well as status. What lies behind this, and has led to the rise youth crime, after a long period when it fell, is, to my mind, the hollowing out of local public services. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 pumped quite a lot of resources into local institutions, especially after its early austerity years. They did not really believe in local empowerment, and their efforts were clumsy and inefficient. Many of the resources went into the pockets of expensive but superficial management consultants; many agency managers spent time in interminable inter-agency meetings that were slow to take responsibility; anybody involved in public services had to wade through reams of waffle worth nothing more than an education in buzz words. Some reforms, such as those to the probation service, suffered hugely from political grandstanding. There was a tendency to nanny and lecture people rather than empower them.

But for all that a lot of good work was done, which, in some areas at least, achieved a lot. Schooling improved and its scope widened to early years and providing beyond the school day and term time; they were encouraged to work with other agencies. The police established neighbourhood policing teams, which gathered local intelligence, and had the time to deal with antisocial behaviour and work with other agencies. Youth crime fell sharply.

Then came the financial crisis and the push to make cuts to government resources. This went up a few gears with the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015. Incoming ministers rightly bridled against the inefficiency of Labour’s public services, and felt that they could do better with less. They drove through drastic cuts. At first this seemed to go quite well. There was indeed a lot of waste to be stripped out, and statistics, including those for crime, appeared sho little if any damage. But they too followed an over-centralised modus operandi. The Lib Dems did try to moderate this – and they helped the creation of city regions to better coordinate agencies in the bigger cities – but it hard not to be overwhelmed by the Westminster way. The cuts were driven from the top by the Treasury on national departmental ministers. Furthermore many ministers followed a flawed model of outsourcing to save money, which fragmented services further and focused them on inward looking performance targets. The big idea for many of the outsourcing agencies was to de-skill services, reducing their ability to deal with complex problems. Experienced, problem-solving professionals were replaced by junior box-tickers. They became unable to facilitate solutions by working with other agencies, so problems were passed on rather than solved. This became even worse after 2015 when the Conservatives governed on their own, and drove the fiscal squeeze though even further. Childrens Centres and youth facilities were closed down; neighbourhood policing was eviscerated; probation and prison services engaged in a battle for survival with little time to help solve society’s wider problems. The epidemic of youth crime followed.

At last England’s political class realises that there is a problem, and is starting to panic. But once again they are reaching for national solutions, or using the crisis to advance national beefs, like police powers. A popular solution is to create a knife-crime “czar”. Others call for a national strategy driven forward by the Prime Minister. All these are tried and tested approaches which rarely acheive more than short term gains on narrow criteria. What is depressing is that it isn’t just politicians that are calling for this sort of approach. One of the leading advocates is Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the former head of police in both London and Manchester. But people like Sir Bernard are part of the problem, not the solution. He was one of the leading advocates of the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing to make way for headline-grabbing specialised regional and national squads.

A few more perceptive commentators point to a more successful approach. Glasgow used to have a huge knife-crime problem – but a coordinated and devolved multi-agency approach reversed it. This is referred to a “public health” approach, to which some politicians are paying lip service. Whether or not this nomenclature is helpful I am not sure. But what needs to be done is to push resources into regional and local multi-agency teams, with the power to rebuild the local institutions that have been so callously swept away and make them work properly. Unfortunately this will not be quick, though it would help with a lot more than knife-crime. The problem was many years in the making and it will take many years to solve.

That is not to say that there are not national aspects to the problem that could do with a bit of a national shove. One of the developments are the “county lines” developed by city gangs going into small towns and rural areas, and connecting the problems in both. But even here we should note that it is in such small towns and rural areas that local institutions are at their weakest, where austerity and economic trends have combined to suck wealth out of local economies. The city gangs are pushing at an open door.

But our over-centralised way runs too deep. Even those who advocate a more decentralised approach rarely seem to understand its full implications. It will take more than this panic for people to understand just how dysfunctional our governing institutions have become.

Child Maintenance: an epic failure that should be a lesson to government

Last week The Economist published a short article about the failure of Britain’s reform of child maintenance collection. The article highlights the human consequences but does to point to any wider lessons. And yet our political class needs to see what was wrong-headed about the idea, or else we are destined to keep repeating the mistake.

The original reform was in 1993, when the Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up. The problem it was designed to solve was that of absent parents (usually fathers of course) not contributing to the maintenance of their children. The idea was to replace a haphazard and costly system enforced by family courts with a centrally enforced system run by the new agency. Single parents lost the right to chase ex-partners through the courts for arrears; the agency would do that. But the CSA soon became overwhelmed, and it was closed in 2012 with arrears then amounting to £3.7bn. A new agency, the Child Maintenance Service, then took over. They are now close to writing off nearly £2bn. In many cases no serious effort has been made to collect the arrears at all. Apparently the new agency doesn’t even try unless it is provided with information by the partner to whom the money is owed – a tall order for often very stretched people. The government’s legal obligation to collect has been tossed into the bin, to the benefit of shirking parents, who may only have had to shrug off a standard letter or two, if that.

This is often what happens to attempts to reform public services. Reformers see a messy system involving a lot wasted or duplicated effort, and dream of something much simpler and more rational. They hope to achieve greater effectiveness at a lower cost. But the reform involves sweeping away the human efforts of, and information possessed by, many thousands of people and replacing them with a void. Failure is nearly inevitable.

This is just one example. Right now we are witnessing the slowly unfolding calamity of Britain’s Universal Credit (UC) system. Even now, many people assume that is simply a good idea delayed by cack-handed implementation. They can’t see that the whole idea is deeply flawed. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015 seemed particularly vulnerable to this sort of mistake, with not just UC, but a misguided set of reforms to the National Health Service, the trashing of the probation services, and a deeply flawed idea of “payment by results” for outsourcing public services. The Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron, seems to have been particularly susceptible to such half-baked schemes (most notoriously “the Big Society”), and, to be honest, his coalition partner Nick Clegg, wasn’t really any better. They were both products of a political system that did not value true administrative experience.

The previous Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do not have such a dire record, though Mr Blair was as susceptible to the same sort lightweight thinking – for example launching the ill-directed Academies reforms of schools. Instead Labour liked to smother its reforms in layers of bureaucracy and masses of meaningless verbiage that had the effect of reserving things to an elite class of bureaucratic waffle-merchants. (You will sense some bitter memories coming through here: I bumped into this as a school governor, as well as my interest in the NHS in the vain hope of getting a job there). The Labour government’s flagship identity card system was heading the same way as UC before the Coalition sensibly killed it. The problem was similar: excessive centralisation of decision-making in Whitehall, with political leaders too easily seduced by lightweight ideas from political think tanks, made flesh by armies of overpaid consultants. Implementation was always somebody else’s problem. Ministers and consultants alike would move on to their next job before the consequences became apparent.

And it’s not just in Westminster where such disasters occur. The Scottish Government under the SNP has been trying to centralise local services and wipe out the human interfaces by which such services work. The reforms to the Scots police services were the most notorious. Northern Ireland has its own example of astonishing incompetence with renewable energy schemes, and doubtless there are examples in Wales too. The problem infects the entire British political class. I can’t see much sign of this changing. Instead I see hopes (as usual) being placed in new technology. But Artificial intelligence and machine learning will not solve the core problem that centralised institutions do not understand the problems they are trying to solve because too much of it is outside their remit.

So what direction should we be taking? Services should be drawn around the needs of individual people, allowing solutions to be tailored that will actually solve problems rather than perpetuate them. That means drawing together services related to physical health, mental health, education, social services, policing, justice, housing, benefits and so on. And that means two things in particular: empowered intermediation, and decentralised authority. In turn these almost certainly mean devolved political accountability.

By empowered intermediation I mean capable professionals meeting with services users (physically and not through IT interfaces), establishing their needs and making arrangements with the necessary service agencies to take things forward. There are plenty of examples of such intermediaries: social workers, teachers, and general practitioners. But the tendency is to disempower them, and to replace them with less skilled people with narrower briefs. The hollowing out of probation services is a particularly dire example of this. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), responsible for both UC and the child maintenance fiasco, is no so far down this culture of de-skilling that it probably needs to be abolished.

The need for decentralised authority is easier to see perhaps. In order for service providers to respond to the generalist intermediaries, they need the power to adapt flexibly. That is impossible in highly centralised administrative silos, which pin managers down to tight procedures and inflexible budgets.

That this leads to the need for greater devolved political accountability is also an obvious step. Attempts to make decentralised agencies accountable through the use of Key Performance Indicators, and the like are clearly a mistake. It is much easier to game the indicator that solve the underlying problem, which often makes things worse in the short term. This is where political accountability for the overall results should come in. But there is a trap here. It is tempting for politicians to think that political reform is the key step, and not the much harder job of re-engineering of public services into models that interact positively with users and collaborate productively. In fact devolved political administrations can get trapped in their own conservativism and become captured by local vested interests. British devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot be seen as an outstanding success.

And yet the failure of our public services is becoming more apparent. For now “austerity” gets the blame. I live in hope that people will start to understand that the issue is much deeper.

 

 

Tax or efficiency: making sense of the politics of the NHS

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Radio 4’s Moral Maze on the NHS yesterday didn’t start well. The first witness raged at the institution’s inefficiency and how people were using its supposed moral integrity to justify it. Tens of thousands were dying as a result, he said. His interlocutors provided no real challenge. I switched off. This is symptomatic of the very poor quality of political debate about the NHS here in Britain. I don’t suppose debate in other countries about healthcare is any better.

There are two things that are not well understood about the NHS. People on the right fail to appreciate that the NHS’s inefficiency is a function of the complexity of healthcare, and not its “socialised” funding model. People on the left fail appreciate that the effective state monopoly of healthcare means that we get less of it than people really want.

It was the first point that the Moral Maze‘s witness was running foul of. The only evidence he quoted was that private hospitals in the UK spend much less on administration and management than NHS ones. But these private hospitals only offer a narrow range of services to a select few clients, and so are much simpler to run. International surveys consistently show that the NHS is less wasteful of funding than pretty much any other nations’ system. These systems have the complexity of operating insurance records and administering claims; they do not prevent expenditure on ineffective treatments or wasteful breakdowns of communication between different parts of the system.

I know something about how this happens. Apart from being an accountant, the core of my professional career has been as a general manager whose mission was been to manage systems as efficiently as possible. In that role I have been responsible for some pretty dramatic improvements in productivity. At one point I even looked for a career in the NHS, though nobody in the service was prepared to take the risk of taking on somebody without a track record in health services, or at any rate not without the kind of hard-nosed bullying persona that many in the NHS seem to think is what effective management is about. I have thought quite a bit about how you might make the service more efficient.

That there is monstrous waste is not in doubt. As a patient you spend a lot of your time waiting around, and then repeating yourself to the myriad different people you are handed on to. A lot of the NHS is in fact very efficient; the problem is fitting the various bits together so that the right treatment is delivered to the patient at the right time. And that’s before the question of how to ensure that less people need healthcare services in the first place.

This failure to get things to fit together is a familiar problem. Understanding this was at the very heart of what I tried to do as a manager. My technique was quite simple in principle: to make processes as simple as possible, and focus them on what the customer needs. A simple idea that was quite revolutionary in the 1990s, when it was usually labelled as “business process re-engineering” (or BPR).  It went against a production line approach borrowed from manufacturing, where workers would specialise in a single task. The technique required fewer specialists and more generalists. Or, to put it another way, it required workers to specialise on the customer that they were serving, and not in a particular functional skill.This usually entailed not just the retraining of workers, but a redesign of information technology.

BPR is now largely played out in the world of commercial services, with automation and artificial intelligence taking over. But the BPR revolution never really got going in healthcare. No doubt this was partly down to the vested interests of those that worked there. But I have to realise that there is a much deeper reason. The complexity of health services requires the use of specialists to a much greater degree than in pretty much any other activity that I can think of (another notoriously inefficient sector, defence systems, is comparable). Healthcare is crying out for patient-centred treatments, and yet this is very hard to do efficiently because you need to involve so many specialists. The field is riddled with what economists call “information asymmetries” which undermine all attempts to put consumers in charge using market mechanisms.

Which is why nobody does it well. And why trying to restructure the NHS to make it more efficient is always likely to fail. The Coalition government’s attempt to do so by putting general practitioners in charge is generally regarded as a costly failure. The current trend in the NHS towards “integration” is a bit more promising, but pitfalls abound. Trying to bring market mechanisms into play helps solve some problems but creates others.

But if this line of criticism of the NHS – that it is inefficient because it lacks market mechanisms – is misplaced, it obscures a more valid critique. It is that the NHS restrains the level of health spending, meaning that people get less healthcare than they want. If you could wave away the information asymmetries with a magic wand, and find a way of allowing poorer people to meet their basic needs, how much healthcare would we buy in a market ststem? Lots. Healthcare promises longer life and less pain. It is an unmatched consumer proposition. Everybody wants more of it. Britain tends to spend less on healthcare as a proportion of its income than other high income countries. And much less than the most unrestrained healthcare market: the United States.

One example gives a good illustration. A number of very expensive tailored cancer treatments have been developed by pharmaceutical companies. These don’t prolong life by very much, or at any rate there is no convincing base of evidence base of this. So the NHS often bans them; the money will secure greater benefits if it is spent on other people. But if you are the cancer sufferer that could benefit, and you have the money, you might want to have it anyway. The NHS does not allow you to pay extra (co-payments in the jargon), because it is deemed morally wrong that a patient “in the next bed” with the same condition does not have the same treatment. In principle you could transfer to a non-NHS facility in the UK or elsewhere. But this is usually impractical, and brings with it additional costs. This is such a difficult problem that politicians try to camouflage it with special slush funds. But this is just an extreme example of a more general problem. Lots of us would happily pay a bit extra to get better treatment.

The obvious solution is to ramp up overall spending on the NHS to the sort of level that a perfect market system would lead to. But that means much higher taxes, and the evidence that people are willing to pay that much is weak, to say the least. Most people say they are happy to pay a bit more tax for a better NHS, but this willingness melts away when you start raising the amount. The problem is that there is  no personal link between the taxes you pay and what you get. It always seems as if the money is benefiting somebody else.

This, of course, is precisely the dilemma that the current government is stuck in. It has announced plans to increase NHS funding but it is unclear about how it is to be paid for. The Labour Party are little better. They hope a lot more tax revenue will be available from rich companies and businesses; but they also want to end “austerity” in many other parts of public services, limiting the amount available for health.

What’s the solution? I think taxes should go up. I also think we need to find acceptable ways of allowing people to spend more of their own money on healthcare within the NHS system. And we shouldn’t just give up on the idea that healthcare should be delivered much more efficiently. As regular readers of this blog will know, I think that means more localised management and more integration with other public services, and a stronger focus on the needs of users. Alas I hear very little of such ideas in the cacophony that is the political debate on the NHS.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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.

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.

 

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.

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.