Dec 2007 05

In the news today there are two more stories of dismal public sector failure.  Despite countless billions in extra spending within both the education system and the health service we are slipping down the international rankings for educational attainment and primary healthcare service standards are declining.  The Telegraph’s leader captures the reasons for this widespread failure well:

"Only the dismantling of centrally dictated, government-monopoly structures will switch control of public-service priorities from the producer to the consumer, and provide the responsive, high-quality services that modern Britons have a right to expect."

There are a number of issues here:

  1. Centralisation:  While the NHS does contain 152 Primary Care Trusts and innumerable other local bodies these are not independent local healthcare providers.  Important decisions from the selection of drugs to the allocation of resources within the NHS are made centrally.  All the Trusts are subject to targets and other impositions from above.  The Trusts are still best understood as outposts of a monolithic NHS.  The attempt to run such a huge organisation, the third largest – in terms of number of staff – in the world, as a single bureaucracy is doomed to failure.  Centralised decision making can’t take account of local knowledge and differing circumstances.
  2. Political management:  This ensures that ultimate control of these services lies with politicians who invariably lack management experience and subject knowledge.  The structural problems with these services are compounded by inexperienced leadership.  Services aren’t under the control of local staff and genuinely accountable to their users but instead under the control of a politician with a very limited understanding of what people need and how it can be supplied to them.
  3. Monopolies:  Monopoly suppliers have no competition, no threat of customer loss or bankruptcy.  Customers have no choice and no redress.  Monopolies therefore remove the basic tools of management and kill the need to innovate, improve and reduce costs.  Hence politicians set up the Competition Commission to protect the public from business – but not from themselves and their civil servants.
Dec 2007 05

Launching a new report into childrens’ educational attainment yesterday, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría emphasized the importance of education for the development of people and society: "Effective and innovative education policies open enormous opportunities for individuals….In the highly competitive globalised economy of today, quality education is one of the most valuable assets that a society and an individual can have".

So it is depressing – even more so because it is unsurprising – to see that the UK has been found to have fallen behind other countries in its levels of educational achievement. The new study, compiled by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA-an arm of the OECD), looked at the educational attainment among 15 year olds in 57 countries. Since 2000, the UK cohort was found to have fallen from 8th to 24th in maths; from 7th to 17th in reading; and in science, an area in which the UK as a whole excels, they fell from 4th to 14th. Taken as a whole the findings constitute – as a reporter on the Today programme put it this morning – a discernable slip for the UK from a premier league of industrialised countries to a first division.

Coming, as this report does, on the back of another which found reading standards among primary school children to have slipped in recent years, it seems that the government’s policy of ‘spend and meddle’ has been entirely fruitless. It hasn’t, it seems, even kept us at our previous position; we have fallen back, rather than improved. Between 1995 and 2004, driven by the mantra of ‘education, education, education’, UK Government spending on education has increased by 75%, while education spending across the OECD as a whole has only increased by 39%. Why has this surge in spending in the UK not delivered?

A close look at those countries who enjoy excellent and improving levels of educational attainment – South Korea and Finland in particular – reveals that it is not money that improves education, but the correct policy. The British government’s education policy has been misdirected from the start, entrenching problems which will take years to undo. South Korea and Finland pay less per pupil than in the UK, limit places at teaching colleges to foster genuine competition, provide well equipped specialist schools for those in need of them, and critically, devolve much of the responsibility for planning how children should be taught down to schools themselves. We have instead created a glut of second rate teachers competing for places in overcrowded schools which labour under the intense micromanagement of a bloated Department of Education and Skills. Shackled and sick it is no wonder our educational system is failing to deliver. What it needs is not more or new government policy though, but simply less government involvement altogether.

Dec 2007 05

SmallbluebinThe GLA is the epitome of what we’ve always predicted regional government would become.  It’s growing, taking more of your money in taxes and constantly creating more pitiful excuses for its own existence.  So we’re not surprised that one of the jobs to come out of the GLA is our non-job of the week.

It was laudable that The Mayor’s office has been promoting the ‘one’ London theme, that Londoners of whatever background are united regardless.  Yet in today’s Guardian, they are advertising for an Asian Affairs Policy Adviser.  The job description is as follows:

Policy Adviser (Asian Affairs)

This is your chance to join the most pioneering regional government in the UK. You will provide high level support and expertise in the devising and developing of policies and strategies, as well as playing an integral part in promoting the Mayor’s agenda for London and advising on the management of change.

You will offer advice on relations with the Asian community and the issues affecting Asian Londoners. This varied role will see you undertake research and analysis across the range of the Mayor’s policies, ensuring that equal opportunities are promoted and the benefits of London’s diversity are realised.

A successful track record in developing policy, aimed at improving services for Asian people, is essential for the role and you will be comfortable working in a complex political environment, with proven ability to present concise reports and presentations on sensitive issues to a diverse range of people. Ref: MO12.”

This job is another argument for the abolition of the GLA.  Londoners, of all backgrounds, want their taxes cut and services delivered, not meddling, patronising bureaucrats taking money from frontline services.  You can email the GLA holding them to account on jobs like this here, because it’s important we taxpayers keep up the pressure on the politicians wasting our money.

Dec 2007 05

040922a_nimrod_1375x300The replacement for the Nimrod spy plane, the Nimrod MRA4, was ordered in 1996.  Since then we have had five defence secretaries.  Michael Portillo, Des Browne, John Reid, Geoff Hoon and George Robertson.  They’ve been in post for less than three years each.  During that time the project to replace the Nimrod has suffered repeated delays.  The plane should have been in service by April 2003.  It is now forecast to arrive in September 2010 despite increases in its budget – there are even suggestions it could take till 2012.  All this we already knew thanks to the National Audit Office MoD Major Projects Report (PDF).

Now we find out that the MoD has not just failed to keep the project on track but has also failed to effectively maintain the existing fleet of Nimrod MR2 planes.  The Telegraph reports that:

"The Board investigation identified what Mr Browne admitted were key "failings":

Fuel may have leaked because ageing rubber seals cracked and withered. Despite advice from the manufacturers, the MoD had not been routinely removing and inspecting seals, because engineers were worried about having to replace them. BAe, the plane’s manufacturer advised as long ago as 1985 that such inflight over-flows were possible, but no action was taken.

Another cause of the fuel leak could have been an overflow from the plane’s fuel tanks.

After a heat-pipe malfunction on another Nimrod in 2004 melted fuel seals, the MoD rejected an RAF request to fit a warning system to the plane. And only after the inquiry into XV230 identified the cooling system as a possible problem were the cooling units of all Nimrods turned off.

The BOI found a "fire suppressant" could have given the XV230 crew a chance of surviving. In 2004, the MoD rejected advice from the plane’s manufacturer to install such a system."

All of these maintenance failures, and the lack of a replacement that we have to hope will fix these problems, have their roots in the short-termism of political management by generalist ministers only in post for a few short years each.  Each defence secretary, knowing that they will likely have moved on before the effects of today’s maintenance become clear, will focus on more immediate – but often less vital – concerns.  Their priorities will necessarily dictate the priorities of the rest of the MoD’s staff.

60pxportilloenfieldsouthgate 60pxgeorge_robertson_2  60pxgeoff_hoon_headshot 60pxjohnreidheadshot 60pxdes_browne_mp

Many of the mistakes that created the current crisis were probably made by earlier defence secretaries, and not Des Browne, but none of them have stuck around long enough to take responsibility.  Who would go to John Reid or Geoff Hoon now and take them to task for the steady falling to pieces of the Nimrod?

It would be wrong to confine our judgement to particular individuals, whether politicians, civil servants or contractors.  They all worked with the confines and pressures of the job presented to them.  The confusion and myopia of our system of government is the real cause of the failure to provide a reliable spy plane.  Fourteen servicemen and their families have paid a terrible price for that failure.

Dec 2007 05

Results not quite as promised in the original plans

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has just produced its latest batch of results. They show the UK crashing down the international rankings of educational attainment (see rankings here). Once again, it seems, the government has done the eezy peezy bit – spending the money – but failed to deliver any actual results.

Specifically, in a survey of attainment among 15 year olds across 57 leading economies, the UK slumped in all three areas examined:

  • Reading- down from 7th in 2000 to 17th in 2006, in line with the OECD average but behind for example Estonia and Liechtenstein
  • Maths- down from 8th to 24th
  • Science- England down from 4th to 14th

Overall, it’s a grim picture, especially remembering Labour’s huge increase in education expenditure. We’re currently spending £41bn pa on state schools in England alone, and according to the government that’s £5290 per pupil, up 87% in real terms over the last decade (see table 8.5 here).

The PISA surveys are based on a consistent set of student tests applied consistently across all 57 participating countries. And the results underline once again how our dumbed down exam system gives us a totally misleading view of what’s really happening to the quality of education in British schools.

And there’s another interesting aspect to this. When the first PISA study was done in 2000, there was considerable scepticism about the UK’s relatively high ranking. There was talk of nobbling, and carefully screening of participating pupils to make sure a lot of good ones were entered.

The suspicions were heightened when we failed to appear at all in the results tables of the 2003 PISA study because our "sample size was too small".

Now on the third attempt, it seems there’s nowhere left to run. Short of withdrawing from the study altogether, the commissars have had to grit their teeth and make the best of a bad job- hence the attempt to big up the Science results, where we’re still (just) above average.

PS: Prof Alan Smithers has an interesting article on this here.

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