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Public policy news this week has retained the general upbeat tone of 2016. We started off with the Casey Review which harangued us for turning a blind eye, brushing under the carpet, so on and so forth our manifest failures as a nation to integrate socially and (mainly) culturally. Then came the PISA scores. Basically, the UK hasn’t improved its scores in a decade. And then, today, we find from a JRF report that the UK has achieved the staggering milestone of shifting households from out of work to in work poverty when work was supposed to be the cure all. So failure after failure in other words.

The failures in educational and welfare policy have similar hallmarks. The Casey Review is a rather different case to which we’ll return. It is particularly noteworthy that in both education policy and welfare very narrow, quantifiable goals were pursued. In welfare, the aim was to increase the employment rate in order to reduce poverty. In education, the target was narrowly focused on literacy, numeracy and science international test scores. And the system couldn’t even achieve these modest aims. The relentlessness of policy failure is a theme oft-visited by the RSA.

Education and welfare policy are failing

Let’s step back for a moment and contemplate the enormity of the failure. In education, a decade of investment, policy initiative, Ofsted regulation (and, indeed, pontification), the standards agenda, major structural reform, has basically resulted, in aggregate, in pretty much no improvement. At an individual school level or area level, there have of course been some very significant improvements. But at a system level, there has been no discernible improvement. Fret not, we’ve taken it in our stride. We’ll carry on as before without even the faintest reflection as to why the current model of educational improvement is failing. Of course, some may argue (myself included) that the narrowing agenda is one root of the problem. But on the terms as laid out by successive Governments, north and south of the border, we have failed.

Welfare and employment policy bears the fingerprints of successive Governments also. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all have a hand in the current system. About two decades ago, a consensus that work was the best route out of poverty emerged and so, as in education, the goals of a national system narrowed too. It seemed like common sense. The entire welfare state is now constructed around this premise.

Don’t get me wrong, work is important and one critical contributor to human development and dignity. But the premise didn’t argue that. It stated that work was the route out of poverty. A couple of decades into this systemic approach and we discover, as reiterated by JRF today, that in fact, whilst we have succeeded in coaxing and cajoling more people than ever into work, poverty is at the same level. We have not succeeded in taking working age people out of poverty in aggregate. We’ve simply moved them from out of work into in work poverty. And we know that, whilst there is a great deal of churn in incomes at the bottom end of earnings ladder, the vast majority in low pay and so at risk or in poverty now will still be in low pay in ten years’ time. But again, we will just carry on, believing the dodgy premise, and pretend it’s all just fine.

There are many common factors in our failure on education and on welfare and poverty. Both approaches had narrow commonsensical goals. Both relied on national, hierarchical systems as their model of change and assumed that both those who provided services and used services would click into place. Both areas responded to early failures by doubling down rather than reassessing and iterating. In neither arena was there any real attempt to mobilise critical stakeholders behind change. Educational professions were dismissed as a ‘blob’ and marginalised. Those in poverty were labelled as ‘scroungers’. And in neither case was there any real attempt at systemic change where a range of factors, some oblique, were taken into account. The JRF report is clear that failures in housing policy are one of the major drivers of poverty yet the single club deployed was conditional welfare. But we’ll carry on regardless.

Integration in Britain is a success story

All this brings us onto the Casey review into ‘opportunity and integration’. On Monday morning, we all awoke to the predictable headlines about segregation, cultural divisions, complacency, problems with race relations being ‘swept under the carpet’, and so on. For something that has been ‘swept under the carpet’, it’s been a rather familiar refrain for the last decade. The society that was being shown to us was in a shocking state of division, oppression and discord. Surely this is the biggest systemic failure of the lot?

Actually, the reality is rather different. Digging into the report, we discover on p12 that 89 percent of respondents to the Community Life Survey consider their community to be cohesive and, what’s more, the same proportion feel an attachment to Britain. The reality, lurid headlines aside, is that Britain is actually a remarkable success story when it comes to integration (social integration is a somewhat different story- as the education, welfare and work pictures show). Research shows that, in the main, where there is contact between different groups, there is a sense of trust and attachment. The UK has largely avoided the pitfalls of US ethno-centrism in community relations (hence segregation and antagonism) and French assertive secularist assimilation (hence both segregation and resentment).

Is this complacency? Not at all. There are ideologies of hate, there is abuse, oppression, violence and some localised segregation of cultures. These present enormous challenges for civil, religious and state institutions (not least education and law enforcement). A proper, comprehensive and relentless harm reduction strategy is required. To remark upon the reality of a society that is coping well with diversity and integration in the main, is not to brush anything under the carpet. In typical fashion, the Casey report links a failure to respond to these serious challenges as causal in the rise of the extreme and far right. Again, in a localised sense, this is correct. However, the broader narrative around a society failing to cope with diversity when the opposite is true creates a grand narrative for such antagonism also.

This master narrative is becoming acute. Upon the publication of new data showing decline in white British numbers in some inner city areas, claims were made that this illustrated increasing segregation (even reported as such in the liberal Guardian newspaper). In fact, common sense tells us that such change might equally indicate increasing diversity. We are so primed to look for signs of segregation, we even see it where in fact the opposite might be taking place. ‘Ethnic minority’ is treated as if it is one community as opposed to a myriad (as indeed is ‘the white British’ community).         

The paradox in all this is that where we are actually failing, we carry on as before. Narrow national education initiatives will continue to flourish (grammar schools anyone?). Welfare policy will continue to pretend that work is the route to all virtue and will act in that vein. And we’ll continue to pretend that we are culturally fraying when, in the main, we are growing together. So we are likely to harm some of the good we are doing by creating an unnecessary sense of encompassing crisis. The problem is quite simple: we hide our successes and ignore our failures. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the NHS.

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