Saturday 7 January 2012

The Accountability Myth and the new Tory answer

[Apologies, this blog has come out striped in pink and white and I don't know how to de-stripe it. Please ignore it as much as you can.]

One of the ways that Blair and New Labour got elected back in 1997 was to appear new-broomish, efficient and clean. The rump of Thatcher's government, then in the hands of John Major, had put on a very presentable show of being corrupt and inept. Those of us around at the time can remember that New Labour came in on a bandwaggon festooned with slogans about 'targets' and 'accountability'. The party that brought us the National Health Service and the first generation of universal secondary education now offered us the clip boards and spread sheets of Macdonalds trainee courses. By rebranding people and ( you know, us, human beings) as 'customers' and 'client groups', New Labour could present itself as something that would 'bring real change' etc etc. At the heart of this revolution in notepads and jotters was - and still is - the word 'accountability'.

I was reminded of its hollowness seeing a headline in today's Metro newspaper: " Schools accused of keeping bad pupils away during Ofsted inspections. Schools have been accused of bribing problem pupils to stay at home during Ofsted inspections to try to make them look better." 

This story, it seems, originates with some teachers spilling the beans this week to the Times Educational Supplement. 

O my gawd, we might gasp. Such dishonesty, such deceit. Heads must roll - preferably Heads' heads. Detentions must be dished out. 

But a moment's pause, and assuming that the stories are true, we know why such things happen, don't we? Accountability. New Labour's shiny revolution involved a wall of metaphorical CCTV cameras inside every public service. In education, it was the SATs, mock SATs, league tables, Ofsted, self-assessment, monitoring regime which they said would make teachers and schools 'accountable' to us parents. In reality, it's given us misleading information and terrified headteachers.  And with it a raft of dodges, cheats, subterfuges, fiddles, cons and wheezes which schools go in for in order to defeat the cameras. 

In 1969, two clever sods, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull invented the Peter Principle which states that in every institution and hierarchy everyone rises to their level of incompetence. I propose the Rosen-Del Boy principle which states that for every bit of accountability put in place, there is an equal and opposite dodge invented by the people who are being measured and assessed. The new broom ends up being bent. 

And yet, I might argue, the hope or desire behind accountability is not a bad one: that the services we pay for do a good job. The problem lies in the attitude to the human beings who do the work in these services. If you treat people as if the only thing that will motivate them are systems of surveillance and control, run by managers, policed by spreadsheets and competition, valued solely in terms of narrow-based measurements, the people doing the work feel undermined, controlled, powerless, de-skilled and ultimately depressed. It creates systems external to the person doing the work so that they are no longer responsible for the job they are doing. In other words it has an effect that is precisely the opposite to the one intended. 

The theory of Blunkettism (expounded in an earlier blog) stated that so long as New Labour did what the Tories did but more so, they would remain permanently electable. Indeed, New Labour built on what had already been started by the Tories with this whole accountability malarkey. Now the snag: New Labour ran it till it broke down, the Tories have rebranded themselves and let the right wing libertarians rise to the surface. Open the Daily Mail and you'll see a critique of accountability not far off mine. Here's Steve Doughty who today says that he knows what education system leads to teachers wanting to bribe disruptive pupils to stay away when Ofsted calls:

"For a start, it’s one where the merits of schools are decided by a bureaucratic inspectorate. You do not have to talk for very long to a head teacher or a social services chief to work out that very few of them hold the OFSTED inspection system in high regard.

I wouldn’t rely on the league tables for assessing a school either..."

What? But this is what 'our side' have been saying, isn't it? Haven't we been saying for the last decade that Ofsted and league tables don't help, don't tell us what we need to know? But we're in a new era, remember. The rise of the libertarian right. In this era, we're all going to be free because we all compete.

This is indeed the Doughty-Gove solution:

"In a rational world, you would allow parents to choose schools and schools to choose pupils. You would then get schools that were obviously successful, academically, in the arts, at sport, or in whatever field. They would be a modern counterpart of  – here comes the taboo word – the old grammars.
Less successful schools could be boosted with special help in terms of staff and money. The worst could be closed, and new ones opened, perhaps like the tier of technical schools that was supposed to be started in the 1950s but which never appeared.
I know Michael Gove is pushing very hard in this direction...etc etc"

Let's look closely at this, because this is the politics of now, this is cutting-edge Toryism 2012. So, schools according to this plan would be in a state of permanent opening, closing, re-opening and reorganisation. We know that would be the case because several processes come into play: the so-called good schools (according to a mix of truth, reputation, gossip and prejudice) start to attract more pupils; they become perforce selective, turning away children they don't want to educate (as happens now); the neighbouring schools start to become less popular and get into all sorts of difficulties - particularly if they have to pick up pupils rejected by the 'successful' schools. According to the Doughty-Gove scheme,  money starts flowing  in one direction rather than another so that the schools most in difficulty get the least money and, ultimately close. Now what happens is that that generation of pupils have their education disrupted as they are decanted into the neighbouring schools, or they have to wait in a kind of limbo till some new dispensation takes over on the same site. Meanwhile, it only needs a bad appointment or two in a 'successful' school and the pendulum can work the other way: that school starts to run into difficulty and away we go again with the instability. 

Meanwhile, the false charm and beauty of this Doughty-Gove system is 'specialism'. What does this mean in reality? It means that schools get a carte blanche to select a proportion of their pupils according to one or other ability - usually meaning that those pupils who specialise are children whose parents could afford to coach them in a particular ability. It also means that children are choosing at 11 whether they are more likely to be interested in languages or PE with no guarantee that in their specialist school they might get a good education in both - which, after all is the point of going to school ie that the whole of your schooling is good, not one part of it. As a consequence of all this instability and 'choice', some kids are junked and dumped, into 'failing schools' and/or sin-bins or 'off-site units' as they used to be known. All this is happening already. You only have to talk to teachers about the mysterious disappearance of children off their rolls (if they are the 'successful school') and the mysterious appearance of children on to their rolls from the 'successful' school at other schools. 

As I said in a previous post, this is about:
not treating each cohort of pupils in each locality as the responsibility of the education service; 
not treating the profession as a capable body of people able to develop their capacities and interests through inservice work and 'action' research on their own practice;
not treating parents as people who can participate democratically in their locality in the systems of selection for all local schools. 

Instead of treating people as democratic individuals acting in a locality's best educational interests, we are offered a choice between 'accountability' (with the inevitable Rosen-Del Boy dodges built in) and a Tesco-versus-Morrisons model of schooling.