John Swinney must stop digging and climb out of the hole

John Swinney must stop digging and climb out of the hole

by Eben Wilson
article from Monday 27, March, 2017

SOMETIMES, but unfortunately too rarely, the wall of dissembling bluster in public policy evaporates.  You never know quite why or when, but the general incentive that develops is that the political risk of digging an even deeper hole through a failing policy programme becomes greater than the risk of actually taking action and inducing change. 

Such a moment may be happening in Scottish education.

For a government that has set itself to do better on education, John Swinney’s recently remarks following about Argyle Council’s schools inspection are interesting.  He says that he cannot ignore the revelation that educational outcomes are poor and he believes the quality of support for schools is sometimes failing. Crucially, he also declared this critical viewpoint to be a nationwide problem and pointed the finger in no uncertain terms at the educational establishment itself – which he says is strongly resistant to change.

In England they called this confronting ‘the blob’.

Argyle Council’s Executive Director of Community Services has responded that local children are getting “a good foundation for learning” and are “well equipped to build happy, prosperous lives”. She claims that the blame for the report’s conclusions lies in the inspection process.

So we have one highly paid local official at loggerheads with other highly paid central officials and contradicting a democratically elected minister’s own view; and so actually reinforcing Mr Swinney’s observation that there is huge resistance to change.

What’s going on here? As so often is the case the political philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek offers insight. Political economy tells us that central planning – that’s the way Scottish education is organised – will fail. But Hayek tells us more than that, he explains that this failure is not immediate or singular; but rather that central plans falter with repeated attempts to glue them back together again following serial failure.  In the real world, this process generates repeated initiatives, re-justifications and revised goals; usually involving both de-structuring and re-structuring of institutional arrangements. 

The incentives for those in charge of the plan favour preserving their vision of how things should be done – that’s where they earn their daily living.  Confirmation bias abounds in the interpretation of data, and virtue signalling is used to re-emphasise the aspirations of the plan. Change that destroys anything, as would happen through the creative destruction of normal economic markets, ossifies; mission sclerosis follows as the inner circle of the planners fight over who is right or wrong.

That is what we are now witnessing.

The error in all this is what Hayek calls rational constructivism, the driving belief that if only a better plan can be found, it will be possible integrate multiple agendas and goals such that good intentions meet the good ends of well-meaning people. This ignores the fact that those well-meaning people do not have and cannot share all the knowledge required to make such a plan; the real world of children from diverse home backgrounds with different talents, character and distractions simply cannot be planned into a coherent approach; ask any class teacher.  Human lives are muddles.

The Education Scotland report on Argyll tells us the real story of Scottish education at work. Let me thrill you with the following – bear with me and, yes, you can scan this list quickly:

Shared Risk Assessment process, Crerar Review, Local Scrutiny Plan, European Framework for Quality Management, Education Scotland’s Principles of Inspection and Review and Code of Conduct, Community Services, Performance Review and Scrutiny, Audit Policy and Resources committees, Maritime Skills, Skills for Work, Modern Apprenticeship, Foundation Apprenticeship, National Qualifications, Skills Development Scotland, Further Education Colleges, Learners’ Experiences, Improvements in Performance, Meeting Learning Needs, Improvement through Self-evaluation, Professional Learning Community, Getting it Right for Every Child, Care Inspectorate Services for Children and Young People, Well-Being Application working group, Additional Support Needs, Educational Psychology Services, Looked After Children, Community Leaning and Development Management Information System, Adult Learning and Literacies, Young Services, Young Leaders Programme, Curriculum of Excellence and Personal Learning Planning, Early Years Strategy, Secondary Performance Reporting Group (now the Attainment and Achievement Group), Literacy forum, assessment forum, health and wellbeing group, budget working group, Index of Multiple Deprivation, Our Children, Their Future.

That list is taken from only one third of a twenty-three page report. There will be more. Can you see what this soup of institutions, plans and initiatives tells us?  It’s that the plan has become bigger than the planned. A four year old beginning schooling has this sclerotic mish-mash of re-hashed, and often politicised intrusion, rumbling along in the background of our desire to enable them to read well, write well, count and think with insight; the real mission that does not change.

Now, a lot of this may well be valuable, in part, but how do parents know? The central state has taken away any choice that parents have had to decide how their child should gain good learning. And it is there that Mr Swinney has the chance to break the controlling mould because he has the power to change the contractual relationship between parents, local schools and the army of advisers who lord over teachers.

The answer is to give the money to schools. Not some of it, all of it.  Every single person in the non-teaching educational establishment needs to be put on notice that from here on their jobs depend on their offer of expertise being requested by local schools and paid for by them. That includes services of the local Council – from janitors to sustainability and diversity officers. 

My preference would also be for teachers then to be re-professionalised by using the vast saving in public money to give them an additional stipend over and above their salary to spend in the way they wanted as professional educators. They could choose to buy goalposts for the soccer pitch, or copies of Aristotle as they wished. We need to trust the producers of learning who actually do their production in schools – the classroom teachers.  This would put the knowledge of each child where it belongs; within the local contracted relationship between parent and teacher.

A paradox of so called progressives is that they are so often deeply conservative. Scotland’s governance is imbued with ideas harking back to the mid-1970’s – a time that took its idealism from socialist central planning of the previous fifty years. 

Shaking this faction out of its intellectual torpor is very difficult; across Scotland’s public sector the tyranny of the status quo persists; there is a huge incentive to retain the highly paid lifestyles on offer from shared collectives proffering stale and empty backward thinking.  

For political economists what are described as the public choice imperatives of politicians have taken over; spending on social goals trumps everything because it purchases votes. Aspirations to “fairness and equality” drive policy actions and communication because there is always support from the false knowledge of experts, political profit to be made, and elections won.

Eventually, however, the truth comes out, not all voters can be fooled for ever.  In Scotland, there is a change in the air.  Take hope.


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