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Next month, at the RSA, I am delivering the annual lecture of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. The speech is in draft form but it contains the observation that the framework of central prescription, repeated pupil assessment and inspection has run out of steam. So, I welcome the briefing ahead of next week’s schools white paper that the Government is moving away from the centrally prescribed literacy and numeracy strategy.

The strategies are expensive, unpopular with many teachers, and are no longer delivering any significant gains. But, even as we bury a key part of the centralising approach which has been dominant ever since the 1988 Education Reform Act, it would be wrong to conclude that the whole thing was a terrible mistake.

As I have written before, even the best designed public policy tends to end in failure. This is for three related reasons:

• The world changes. To take one example, single parent benefits which were introduced in the sixties to meet the needs of a small and disadvantaged group took on a different meaning and massively greater cost with the growth of one parent families.

• Even as policies succeed, they change incentives and generate unintended consequences. It has been alleged that in successfully meeting its four hour maximum waiting target for casualty departments, the NHS has encouraged staff to attend to the needs of people with minor problems who have been waiting three and a half hours rather than the more severe needs of patients who have only just arrived.

• But the most important reason is that if a policy succeeds, the problem it was designed to address has, by definition, diminished. In 1988, and still in 1997, there was a very long tail of terribly underperforming schools and teachers. In my own borough of Lambeth an OFSTED report in the mid 1990s not only found many pupils in higher years of primary schools unable to read or write but that teachers seemed unaware of, or impervious to, the fact. The number of profoundly failing schools is now much lower and – as a result of the changes over the last decade – we have the systems to identify failing schools and turn them round. At the same time parents have become better informed and more demanding and the quality and preparedness of teachers joining the profession has improved.

As any manager knows, tight systems of regulation are more effective at tackling under performance than they are at fostering high performance. So as the system improves the centralising approach produces diminishing returns.

Some time ago I wrote an essay about public service reform for the think tank IPPR.  Drawing on the work of Christopher Hood I offered a cultural theory (yes, back to that again!) perspective arguing that reform strategies could be broadly mapped against cultural theory’s four rationalities: the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the individuals and the fatalist. I argued that the swings between these different ways of thinking about change can explain as much of the history of public service reform as the ideologies of the Governments in charge.

Next week’s white paper will signal the end to a long wave of hierarchical management in favour of a more egalitarian emphasis on devolved control, professional values and institutional collaboration. It is the right thing to do. But one day, when this new approach has, in turn, run out of steam, there will be another new start.


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