John Denham – Communities Secretary and the most surprising success of the June reshuffle – has ordered the Audit Commission to investigate the problem of council 'boomerang bosses'. (BBC News, Telegraph).
The local government 'boomerang boss' has become a ubiquitous feature in the TPA's annual Town Hall Rich List, the report which really propelled this issue to national attention. At the top of our most recent list are numerous Council Chief Executives who, for reasons that too often go unexplained, leave their very well paid job at one council, taking away with them hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation for 'loss of office', only to then slide into another generously rewarded Chief Executive position at another council just a couple of months later.
The practice has provoked concern among councillors and council taxpayers, as compensation agreements for the early departure of an executive – often thrashed out in secret and protected by confidentiality agreements – have run to astronomical levels. One Chief Executive took away nearly £500,000 for losing their job, yet finding another even before the year was out.
That concern has now been picked up by the Government, with John Denham's announcement confirming the DCLG's commitment to tackling the problem of Local Government pay. Pledges to far greater transparency in town hall remuneration, and suggestions that councillors should err on the side of restraint rather than generosity when agreeing contracts, mark a real step change in the Government's attitude to Local Government spending, and one which all taxpayers should welcome warmly.
As an interesting footnote to today's annoucement, when we (the TPA) raised the issue of boomerang bosses at the Public Administration Select Committee's inquiry into public sector executive pay, the head of SOLACE (a local government executive association) dismissed our claims as overdone. It wasn't a serious problem Mr Clark argued, just TPA sensationalism. Seems the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government doesn't agree.
Today the TaxPayers' Alliance has released a new press release with the Competitive Enterprise Institute attacking the waste of taxpayers' money by the Carbon Trust trying to expand around the world. The Daily Mail have reported the story and written in their leader that, as Gordon Brown is under pressure to identify cuts: "He should start with the Carbon Trust." They are absolutely right.
Unfortunately, Carbon Trust Chief Executive Tom Delay doesn't appear to be getting the message. Here is his response to the Daily Mail story:
"They are barking up the wrong tree. We do not lobby governments wherever they are in the world, we help business reduce carbon emissions now and in the future. Our work overseas is funded by overseas companies and governments and our support for this represents 1 per cent of our UK budget."
Let's take that bit by bit:
"We do not lobby governments wherever they are in the world"
The job advert for the Head of Carbon Trust USA called for someone who could "establish and maintain key relationships with internal and external stakeholders, including elected members, policy makers and advisers"; build "trusted relationships with the Administration and key elected members in Washington/ States"; and "carry out visits arranged by the British Embassy/Consulates in the US and the British High Commission in Canada to meet and present the Carbon Trust model to high-level government and business representatives. There may also be a small number of similar visits to South American countries." If that doesn't qualify as lobbying in the mind of Tom Delay then it's difficult to know what would.
However, it doesn't end there. The Carbon Trust also expends considerable effort lobbying in the United Kingdom. The latest Association of Professional Political Consultants register (PDF) shows that they have contracts with Grayling Political Strategy and Weber Shandwick, two of the biggest lobbying firms in the country. The Carbon Trust's accounts boast that:
"Back in 2005 we published a major review of the UK’s policy framework focused on energy efficiency in the business and public sector. This work, in particular, highlighted a gap in policy to incentivise change in the large, less energy-intensive organisations that contribute up to 10% of UK-wide emissions. We suggested that a new, mandatory trading scheme could fill this gap, and in 2007/08 this work came to fruition. The UK Government decided that a mandatory scheme was the correct approach. It consulted on the detailed design of the proposed new scheme, and currently plans to put it into place in 2010."
That is an organisation promoting its political importance, similar to the way countless other political groups will promote themselves. Only, the other groups aren't funded with the money of ordinary taxpayers who will end up paying for this new trading scheme the same way they pay the price for the existing European Union Emissions Trading Scheme.
"Our work overseas is funded by overseas companies and governments and our support for this represents 1 per cent of our UK budget."
This is deliberately misleading. The story was about their using our money lobbying to expand abroad. The market they're trying to capture is, indeed, foreign taxpayers' money. They are lobbying for the funding to establish clones of themselves in a range of countries. However, the money they are using to do that lobbying is ours. We didn't know how much they were spending but 1 per cent of their UK budget is about £1 million, that money could – and should – be returned to UK taxpayers.
Of course, they are right that this is only a small part of their overall budget. But, and here's the real kick in the teeth, we just don't know how they spend most of the hundred million pounds a year that they are given. As an "independent" company they don't have to respond to Freedom of Information requests and there is very little information in their accounts. What information the accounts do provide is often a bit dodgy. They only list two executive directors in their remuneration report (the account of how their directors are paid that all companies and public bodies – except councils – have to produce), presumably because they've hived the others off to subsidiaries, making their operations even more opaque.
The Carbon Trust should be abolished. Even if that can't be achieved, they should at least be made subject to FOI so people can know how their money is being spent. If they've got nothing to hide, that shouldn't scare them in the least.
The Carbon Trust, a British environmental pressure group, is establishing a presence in the United States, underwritten by British taxpayers’ money.
The Carbon Trust was created as an independent, but taxpayer funded, company by the British Government in order to encourage firms to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. It received £93.6 million ($154.4) in taxpayer funding in 2007-08. Its other income was just £4 million ($6.6 million) in that year, the vast majority of which was interest. Carbon Trust CEO Tom Delay was paid £223,109 ($368,018) in 2007-2008.
The company has now established an international arm. As its website notes, “In June 2009, the Carbon Trust Board approved the establishment of Carbon Trust International Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Carbon Trust to further its international objectives.” It has established separate websites for the original UK organization (http://www.carbontrust.co.uk) and Carbon Trust International (http://www.carbontrust.com).
With support from the British government, the Carbon Trust is working on developing relationships with state actors outside the UK. It has signed Memoranda of Understanding with a Chinese “national investment corporation” and with the State of Florida. Its objectives seem particularly ambitious in the United States. It is recruiting for “Head of Carbon Trust USA.” The successful candidate is supposed to work at establishing similar organizations throughout the U.S. to engage in substantial lobbying.
Carbon Trust International and Carbon Trust USA mark a considerable expansion of the Trust’s scope. Such an expansion takes the company far beyond its initial remit and the organisation is now attempting to influence the democratic debate in the United States, an extremely questionable use of British taxpayers’ money. Its website notes:
“[The] Carbon Trust envisages that over the next 2-4 years there would be: 1-3 Carbon Trust style entities with a range of energy efficiency, low carbon customer offerings; 1-3 international low carbon innovation accelerator projects; 5-10 early stage low carbon investments; trusted relationships with the Administration and key elected members in Washington/ States.”
“To focus in particular on those opportunities where the Carbon Trust is more likely to establish operating entities to reduce carbon emissions; [...] to explore, and [...] develop opportunities, including private and public sectors and NGOs, potential public and private funding providers”
“[Carry] out visits arranged by the British Embassy/Consulates in the US and the British High Commission in Canada to meet and present the Carbon Trust model to high-level government and business representatives. There may also be a small number of similar visits to South American countries.”
“To establish and maintain key relationships with internal and external stakeholders, including elected members, policy makers and advisers.”
As a result, policy experts in both Britain and America have strongly criticized the Carbon Trust’s expansion.
Matthew Sinclair, Research Director at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:
“It is shocking that an organisation funded by British taxpayers is trying to expand into new territories as if it is a multinational company. The Carbon Trust has always been among the worst examples of unaccountable government bureaucracy, financed with taxpayers’ cash but not subject to public scrutiny through vital democratic tools like the Freedom of Information Act. Now it’s trying to export that model to other countries, using British taxpayers’ money to lobby foreign politicians to fund its new franchises abroad. This attempt to use the power of the British Government to build a corporate empire overseas is reminiscent of the old East India Company, not a public service agency. The Carbon Trust should be abolished and a stop put to this kind of abuse of taxpayers’ money.”
Iain Murray, Director of Projects and Analysis and Senior Fellow in Energy, Science and Technology at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said:
"Given that the British government lashed out at a backbench Conservative politician for expressing doubts about the National Health Service while on a visit to the United States, it should think twice before using British taxpayers’ money to try to influence the energy debate in the U.S. The reaction to the Waxman-Markey bill following its passage by the House of Representatives suggests that Americans are extremely skeptical about the cost to America of emissions reduction. I suspect they will be even more annoyed if their Representatives listen to the British Government rather than to them. Last time it was tea, this time it could be carbon credits."
The fact that more than 60 per cent of students – a record number – last week secured the grades they needed for their choice of university is a cause for celebration. For those students who received the desired grades, congratulations to them. For those facing clearing, the best of luck.
But celebrations must be muted. The latest round of examinations this summer has reinforced worrying trends. Of those A-level students who took their exams this summer, 135,114 of them failed to obtain the required grades. A quarter of primary school children failed to reach the required levels in reading and writing. Despite the Government’s aim to get 50 per cent of young people into University, it’s predicted that there could be as much as a 50,000 shortfall in university places. Billions of extra funding has been spent on education in the past 12 years, but the results suggest that much has been wasted.
This summer’s figures do is give substance to the suspicion that this Government’s ‘commitment’ to young people has been illusory. There is currently a record number of NEETS (young people not in employment, education or training). Some of these will fall within the listless category, poorly served as they were by an inflexible comprehensive school system. There will also be those who went to university or college on the premise that a job would be waiting for them upon graduation. That drive to see every young person in further or higher education has left many indebted, jobless and with no immediate path of recourse.
This brings us to a well known and poignant fact: that joblessness and a lack of qualifications is a substantial factor in the propagation of crime and anti-social behaviour. By not getting the education system right, the Government is seriously hampering social mobility and the fight against poverty. If a person has never worked or is long-term unemployed they are more at risk of violence than someone in a professional occupation. Moreover, those without adequate training are almost certain to earn less throughout the course of their lives. Add this to the fact that households with the lowest income (less than £10,000) are the most at risk of violence – and that the risk of being a victim of violence is twice as high for those individuals living in the 20 per cent most deprived areas in England. An education system that can deal with the needs of the more challenging areas of the country is needed now more than ever.
Government spending on education has, in real terms, increased three and a half times in the last eight years (£16,786m – £57,846m). We have been bombarded by initiative after initiative, scheme after scheme, and project after project. Yet the only benefit is a marginal and dubious increase in attainment. This Thursday, GCSE results are expected to leave a shortfall of places at sixth-form colleges. Partner this with the dilution of ‘core’ subjects (see earlier comments), and the Government’s commitment to ‘education, education, education’ now seems little more than an empty promise.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research (cebr) yesterday gave their assessment of the costs associated with the recent fall in public sector productivity (see here).
Needless to say the amounts are staggering. But before turning directly to the figures, let’s put the story in context. The Office for National Statistics released a report back in June outlining a 3.2 per cent decline in public sector productivity from 1997-2007, about which we blogged on here at the time. On the 14th August, they discreetly issued a correction notice to this report, revealing the true figure to be 3.4 per cent.
Either way, the conclusion was that despite the enormous increases in public sector ‘investment’ over the past decade, the sector has actually become less productive. The total amount of output might have increased, but the ‘cost per output’ (as it were) has increased too. Indeed the fall in productivity is closely linked to the wholesale budget boost, as more money has simply been pumped through unreformed and unimproved systems.
Back to yesterday’s cebr report; they estimate that around half of our annual income tax receipts are spent solely on the inefficiencies of the public sector. £58.4 billion to be precise, a staggering amount which, when compounded with public sector net borrowing figures, underlines the importance of radical public service reform.
Money has too often been mistaken with ‘commitment’, and inefficiency is the consequence. Quite rationally, public sector bosses (whether civil servants, quango heads or local government chiefs) aim to maximise their annual budgets. The risk that those budgets may be cut if there is an under spend haunts finance directors. Instead, public sector bodies should be encouraged (and to some extent rewarded) for making genuine efficiency savings. Which means doing more than banning colour printing, but rather thorough system reform, and, in many cases, increasing the number of hours some staff work at the same time as letting go of some of those who are non-essential. If front-line services are affected for the worse by ‘efficiency gains’, then management has done a poor job.
It’s worth noting that in the same ten year period (1997-2007) market sector productivity rose by 27.9 percent. No doubt examples of unproductive private sector businesses can be found, or ruthless management putting efficiency before job protection, but the simple truth is that private business are genuinely aware, much more than the public sector, of how important efficiency is. Money lost in inefficiency is money lost, profit not made. In the public sector, money lost in inefficiency is a heart operation not performed, a special education class not provided, followed by the tired refrain that their is just not enough money coming from the taxpayer. And just to underline this point, it is the most efficient private sector business (i.e. those ones who do not tolerate waste, or keep on employees when they are not an essential part of the system) that do well, grow, employee more people, generate more wealth.
The main political parties have talked a lot recently about ‘making tough decisions’ and ‘reforming public services’. When one looks at the frightening figures the cebr have produced, both yesterday but also in July (see here), it’s clear that both parties have to translate talk into action. Significant cuts need to be made now to save the country’s finances from a debt burden that could sink us, and bold reforms made to return public services to productivity.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, the Ministry of Defense has hit a new low. The NAO has refused to sign off the Departments annual accounts due to “insufficient evidence to support the existence" of kit valued at around £6.6bn. The equipment includes £1.25 billion of machineguns, encrypted radios, night vision goggles and body armour, as well as more than £5 billion of raw materials and spare parts for equipment and vehicles. With the conflict in Afghanistan intensifying – and the death toll rising – that the MoD can be so careless is deeply disturbing. It is a shame that such blunders are now common place.
The Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which is responsible for supplying £14.1bn worth of materials and equipment to the armed forces, failed spot checks by NAO staff in just under a quarter of cases. The audit report found 'unexplained adjustments' in the records where staff had tried to make figures match up. What the NAO actually describes here are accounting activities that are borderline fraudulent. It is obvious that if staff are forced to invent figures the MoD’s procurement and storage management procedures are now beyond repair.
The official auditor insists that the MoD is in need of a “good quality inventory management system” to provide adequate logistical support. Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “it is more important than ever for the Ministry of Defence to have accurate records of where its assets are, and how much stock it has”. I concur, the misplacing of equipment has more than tripled since last year and poor book-keeping is clearly to blame. A system is due to be introduced next month but budget constraints have forced the MoD to abandon plans for an upgrade to its IT systems. The latter may, however, be somewhat of a blessing (see earlier comments on Government IT projects).
What the Armed Forces really need is a system of supply that enables them to do the job effectively. To do this they need equipment swiftly and in the right quantities, in this the Forces have clearly been let down. Further, if already sparse kit in effect goes missing, then a bad situation is made much worse. The recent debacle with the choosing of the ‘Future Lynx’ over ‘BlackHawk’ helicopters is an example of a similar procurement failure. Here the MoD could have given the go ahead for the purchase of 60 Sikorsky BlackHawk helicopters but went for the more expensive ‘Future Lynx’. It is perhaps of note that a former Whitehall Mandarin is on the Board of two companies that benefited from the deal (see here).
The MoD – and of course its paymasters at the Treasury – need to ensure that logistical problems are reduced to a minimum, to do otherwise is a dereliction of the duty owed to service men and women. As U.S General Tommy Franks, the Former commander in Afghanistan, said, "Forget logistics, you lose”.
Today on his blog John Redwood MP discusses the Local Government Association proposals to increase competition and choice in school uniforms, through a series of measures including making school branding and insignia available to convert the affordable clothes found in supermarkets into acceptable school uniforms. Simple free-market measures like these would benefit hard working families who are feeling the pinch of the ongoing recession and should not be asked to supplement their children’s schools’ funding by forking out for uniforms at high prices thanks to a supplier monopoly.
Mr Redwood takes this a step further:
“So why can’t Councils apply this logic to some of their own services, where the monopoly service can be both expensive and not of the quality we want. I look forward to the day when I can choose from a range of car parking providers using Council land for car parks who compete on price and service, and to being able to select a refuse disposal service that meets my needs at a sensible price. I am going to have a long wait.”
That’s a good point.
From the off, let me state emphatically that this is not post about domestic violence. Due to its stimulus – a Today programme interview on the subject of domestic violence – some may misinterpret what follows as an attempt to downplay the severity of the problem or marginalise the suffering of its victims. This post is anything but. Domestic violence is a hidden evil that destroys the lives of thousands, with consequences that go far beyond broken bones and bruises. Society must do everything it can to ferret out its perpetrators, and shelter its victims. But the manner in which our society goes about dealing with its consequences is a genuine a matter for debate. As with many other social ills we are presented with a strange choice: are the consequences something for the state to deal with, or civil society itself?
Lets begin with the obvious observation that the criminal aspect of domestic violence is of course dealt with by the state. The police and judicial system should be empowered appropriately to punish those who met out abuse and protect their victims. News today that victims will be able to get greater protection from the courts falls within this.
Sandra Horley though, from the charity Refuge, made the point this morning that while greater protection is welcome, the real problem is a lack of provision for the victims. In other words, dealing with the consequences of domestic violence. Shelter places, almost universally offered by charities such as Refuge, are severely limited, and services are thin on the ground. The state, Ms Horley asserted, must dedicate resources to fix this.
And here's the rub.
Ms Horley is right in her analysis that more resources should be dedicated to helping the victims of domestic violence. Provision is thin on the ground. But is it really the state that should fill the gap? Ms Horely believes it should be the state because currently, to quote: "abused women in this country, a civilised country, are forced to rely on charity". Moreover, Refuge (the charity) is "providing what should be state-funded services".
Two hints at what is – I suspect - a widely held if unquestioned belief: if there is a problem, the state is responsible for fixing it. The flip side of no state provision being, as Ms Horely stated, a reliance on charity. Is that reliance such a bad thing though? If this logic was extended beyond domestic abuse, should we demand the Government dedicate more resources to hospice care for terminally ill cancer patients? State provision in that area is again poor, over-subscribed and widely considered below standard. Many people therefore rely on charities to provide them with end-of-life care, which even the Government concedes is often much better than what it can manage. Indeed widening charitable hospice care is at the centre of the Government's 'working with the third sector' strategy.
It is not a bad thing to rely on charity. If anything UK society needs to rely more on charity. As the state gets called upon to address every social concern, fix every problem, the consequences are – as we see today – a massive fiscal crisis and patchy provision of inadequate services. Hearing Ms Horley this morning, one's sympathy for Government grows: an eloquent, impassioned and reasonable demand for action on an important issue. If the Government doesn't act it looks heartless and remote. Yet Government just cannot afford to deal with all of society ills. It is limited. Indeed it cannot begin to deal properly with the thousands of things it has already turned its hand to.
But this is not just about money. Although that is a critical consideration (on which the Government would have to concede its hands are tied – it's bankrupt after all), this is also an issue of which level can best deliver a service. And in the case of sheltering and helping the victims of domestic abuse, just as with many other problems (some of which the Government already ham-fistedly tries to address) that level is civil society, with part of that being charity. Refuge does great work, and society should do all it can to enable it reach more people and provide more help. The same goes for the local hospice, homeless shelter or special needs play group.
Where the state can play a part is in helping to incentivise greater charitable giving. Rather than feeling, as many people do, that you have paid your bit for society through taxes, so the rest of your pay packet is for you, tax and charitable structures should be changed so that we do not automatically feel that 'giving' is an extra burden after tax. The state has the scope to incentivise much more than it currently does (Gift aid being a just a small step in the right direction). Charities should be focused less on getting the Government to give it money or set up services, and instead put pressure on it to help people to give more themselves. The state is not the answer to all of soceity problems. Society itself must take some responsibility for them too.
According to an interim report by the NHS Health and Wellbeing Review, NHS staff work absences are affecting patient care. The review, headed up by Dr. Steve Boorman, suggested that high rates of staff sickness and workplace related stress were to blame. The report found that annual NHS sickness levels are 10.7 days a year per employee – higher than the public sector average of 9.7 days and 50 per cent higher than the private sector average of 6.4 days.
The cost of sickness to the taxpayer totals at around £1.7 billion a year. If sick days were cut by a third, this would result in an extra 3.4 million working days a year and an annual saving of £555 million. The Review also found that one in five staff smoke, one third of the workforce are in moderate to very poor mental health, about 40 per cent undertake exercise less than the Government’s three recommended occasions a week, and at least 300,00 workers are obese.
Dr. Boorman, who is himself an occupational health expert, is adamant that by improving the health of 1.4 million NHS workers the Government could make significant savings and improve outcomes for patients. This belief echoes the findings of the report: more than 80 per cent of the 11,337 NHS staff who took part said that their state of health affects the quality of the patient care they deliver. Dame Carol Black, the Government's national director of health and work, gave her support to Dr. Boorman. She insisted that the interim report establishes a “clear link between staff health and the quality of care they provide”. This is the same Dame Carol Black who last year headed up a national workforce review in which she stressed the need for NHS staff reform.
What the report makes obvious is that the NHS needs to do much more to keep down staff absences. The Government cannot hide behind working conditions to excuse itself from its failures. The huge difference in absence rates between the public and private sector render this argument invalid. The Governments approach to talking this problem should be two-pronged: firstly, staff should be encouraged back to work by reforming the overly-hierarchical and target-ridden management system; secondly, those who take unauthorised absences or flout the rules should be caught and punished. This would ultimately lead to greater transparency and accountability. The taxpayer deserves to have this bloated and burdensome organisation reformed.
The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) has today released a report on the affect quangos have on schools. Culling some bodies and reforming others would yield savings of over £630 million, according to the CPS. But this is not about simply abolishing quangos to save money; there is an arguably bigger conclusion to the paper. With schools under so much central control, these bodies do nothing more than enforce Government whims.
Take Becta, for example – it oversees IT procurement for schools across England and Wales. Schools are fully aware of how much IT equipment they need, and what the best software for their children is. As such there is no need for this body. If children are not taught enough IT or need to improve their facilities then Ofsted – who the CPS suggests slimming down to an inspector-only role – should make these recommendations. Ultimately schools must decide on their own procurement strategy, and be free to buy equipment in an open, competitive market. This would allow them to make the best choice according to their budget and to suit their children.
The same applies to the Schools Food Trust. Children should indeed be served nutritious meals, which doubtless help to combat obesity and improve performance. Schools should make these choices however, and having them truly accountable to parents would help to ensure that they make the right ones. The CPS suggests that the Schools Food Trust could survive as a charity; this is an eminently sensible idea as it has admirable intentions. Providing tax breaks for this charity would help too.
The paper goes in to further detail, like abolishing the QCA and letting schools decide their own curriculum, for example. The common thread in the CPS’ findings – and in our past education blogs – is that these quangos place an unnecessary burden on schools. They should be free to control their own budgets and make their own choices. This would mean that headteachers could go about providing the best education possible for children in their own school. Every child is different and the best people to cater for this are their teachers, not extended arms of Government.
George Osborne once again laid out the Tory’s ‘progressive’ vision for the public sector yesterday. In his speech held at the Blarite think-tank Demos – a calculated choice of venue – the Shadow Chancellor described how the “the torch of progressive politics” has now been passed to the Conservatives. "By pursuing a course of illiberalism, centralisation, fiscal incontinence and opposition to meaningful public service reform, the current leadership of the Labour Party has abandoned the field."
Conservative plans for schools are genuinely progressive. Not as full throated as some would like, but radical and positive none the less. Elsewhere Tory reforms are little less developed, but the commitment to localism and decentralisation are solid foundations.
The devil is in the details of course. Plus, with health and international development already ‘ring-fenced’ – two key areas of public spending in need of reform – Conservative hands are less free than they might be. But as a statement of intent, or at least a reiteration of intent, it was promising. To enable the Government to lower taxes, while ensuring that provision of services remains (or in many cases improves), radical reform of many services is needed. Governments have often used the existence of tough economic conditions as an excuse to put public sector reform on hold. But the time for bold ideas, that will upset vested interests and challenge accepted orthodoxies is now.
Of course Osborne used yesterday’s speech, in the main, to attack Labour and its attitude to public sector management: “…there is nothing progressive about out-of-control spending that the poorest end up having to pay for, and nothing fair about huge national debts that future generations are left having to pay for”.
News emerged over the weekend of Government plans to ‘head start’ disadvantaged pupils in the scramble for university places (BBC, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph). The plan – to be presented in the Higher Education Framework released in the autumn – will see applicants from schools in disadvantaged areas (high proportions of children on free school meals) given a two grade advantage over their peers from more affluent schools. In other words, a standard ABB threshold will be lowered to a BBC threshold for poorer applicants.
To a former state school pupil who believes in equality of competition, the plan originally smacked of misguided positive discrimination. But once one picks beneath the headline, the proposal is not quite as clear cut as it first seems. At least that is, if the Government actually thinks before it acts.
The proposal is based on the experiences of trial schemes run by Leeds University and two London medical schools. At St George's Medical School the standard requirements for a place to study medicine is three A’s at A-level. However, candidates can be given grade offers as low as two B’s and a C if they have outperformed their school average by 60 per cent.
It’s this last part that really makes the scheme interesting. Outperforming a school average by 60 per cent – even if the schools average is depressingly low – is a significant achievement. In successful, predominantly middle class state schools, higher average grades (majority of pupils getting A’s and B’s) surpassing the school average by such an extent would be impossible. But in a struggling state school, mirred in a poor area with low levels of employment and high levels of delinquency, the achievement is only possible by the brighteset and most committed. Perhaps such achievement should be acknowledged.
It is worth noting that the system deployed by St George’s still demands that pupils study Chemistry and Biology at A-Level. The widely panned General and Media Studies courses won’t cut the mustard. Furthermore, all students are interviewed before offers confirmed. At Leeds, eligible applicants must also pass an introductory course before winning the place. There is little ammunition to the argument that ill-equipped, uncommitted and weaker educated candidates would be blindly accepted by universities over more suitable traditional background ones. Indeed, on paper it appears that the system pretty thoroughly separates the wheat from the chafe.
However, all that said, there are some big unanswered questions. For one, is this type of system suitable for the whole of the British university sector? So far schemes are in use for two small, specialised medical schools and only one large institution, Leeds University. With the tight controls placed by St George’s and Leeds replicated, the scheme could well ‘widen participation’, but statistically its impact will be negligible. Allowing an individual to get the best education and escape poverty (such as grammar schools did) is only a good thing, and should be considered. But as a tool for fostering greater social mobility this proposal will not count to much. The tough criteria would have to remain in place for the scheme to be credible, but only very few school pupils would be able to pass through such tests. It’s likely that the Government’s plans will do away with these candidate checks and pre-requisites, making the whole thing a bit of a sham.
There is also a danger that some of the worst – but bureaucratically appealing – bits of current schemes could replicated. For instance Kings College has an arbitary allocation of 50 places set aside for lower income students from London and Kent, with reduced grade requirements. Though they then have a catch-up year before joining the main medicine course, the fact that they are automatically allocated places is the aspect that most University application managers are fearful of; Government backed ‘quotas’ for every university.
Finally, top universities and top courses do demand A-Levels in certain subjects. A major problem for many pupils is that their schools just can’t provide the teaching to the appropriate standard. These new proposals should rectify the problem a little in terms of university applicantions, but they continue to address just one small symptom of a much wider malaise. University is not the be-all and end all, and the Government is being cowardly in its efforts to shift responsiblity for social mobility on to those who decide who gets into a university, and who does not. What goes on in the primary and secondary school class room, is much, much more important for the general educational, economic and social well being of people. Critically, unlike universities, these are parts of the process that the Government has direct control over. Funny then they run away from dealing with the root causes of low university uptake among poor pupils.
Understandably, the media has boiled down Lord Mandelson’s comments to the bare essentials, leaping to conclusions before the detail is out. But they are working from experience. Good schemes, such as those at St Georges, are beaten out of shape by the Government’s tireless pursuit of headlines, and inexhaustible capacity to duck tough choices in education.