by Kevin Meagher
The answer, we believed at first, was more spending. Our dilapidated public services had become so because the Tories had run them down during the 80s and 90s. Catch-up investment was necessary. And Labour delivered it with gusto: doubling the amounts spent on education and trebling the NHS budget.
Then we realised that investment was not enough; there was a need for reform of our public services too. So we introduced performance management and targets. Resented by some public sector professionals, they were at least an attempt to iron out the differences in the quality of service provision across the country.
But we never quite got round to the last part of the puzzle in improving public services: workforce reform. This was always a no-go area for Labour ministers, even for the most swivel-eyed Blairites. Where, broadly, Brownites emphasised resources and Blairites structural reform, no-one wanted to be seen to imply that our teachers, nurses and police officers were not doing a good job.
But the evidence shows that too many of them simply are not.
Take education. Labour ministers could never bring themselves to say that the reason we had so many failing schools, against a backdrop of record investment, was simply because we have too many lousy teachers.
Yet we do. Unquestionably. Ofsted reckons there are 15,000 of them working in our schools. Think about it: an average class of 30 kids a year held back by a single failing teacher who may work, unhindered by the notion of continuous professional development, for 20 years or more. 30 kids. 20 years. 600 children with their educations damaged, per bad teacher. Multiply that by 15,000. Nine million kids affected.
In fact the general teaching council for England goes further, claiming that there could be as many as 17,000 “substandard” teachers among the 500,000 registered in the UK. Yet only 18 of them have ever been struck off for incompetence during the past 40 years.
Sir Michael Wilshaw will take up the reins as the new chief inspector of schools at Ofsted in January. He has a background in state education, dealing with an inner-city catchment in Hackney as executive principal of Mossbourne academy which replaced Hackney Downs school, notoriously described as the “worst in Britain”, before being closed back in 1995. He has revolutionised the place and the life chances of those children attending.
Unlike some other heads, who tolerate failing teachers, he has ambition for his kids. Ethos, discipline and standards matter. So does having a competent and motivated workforce. He doesn’t tolerate a culture of low expectations. After all, a poor background makes excelling educationally even more important.
His appointment is a timely one. Ofsted’s previous chair, Zenna Atkins, infamously claimed that “every school should have a useless teacher” because developing the “ability to deal with that and, actually surviving that environment can be an advantage”.
Here’s an alternative view for Ms Atkins – one from the left: failing teachers should be rooted and booted. There is no place for them in our schools, damaging the lives of children who end up spat out into a world where having poor qualifications means no chance – absolutely no chance – of a decent job or rewarding career; never mind anything as grand as social mobility.
But workforce reform must go further than our schools. Earlier this month the care quality commission found a fifth of NHS hospitals are actually breaking the law in the quality of care they offer older patients.
The transformation of nursing into a graduation occupation in recent years, has bred a culture where some nurses see feeding patients and attending to their hygiene as tasks that are beneath them. That is not to castigate all nurses, far from it, but the CQC report speaks for itself. Its chair, Dame Jo Williams, says nurses must not prioritise processes over people. “Often, what is needed is kindness and compassion, which cost nothing”.
Then we have the police. Only 10 per cent of officers are on frontline duties at any one time, according to HM inspector of policing, Sir Denis O’Connor. Some forces deploy as few as six per cent of officers during peak Friday night hours. You don’t need a degree in criminology to think that is an outrageous misallocation of resources.
All the more galling when you consider that 29 per cent of people reporting anti-social behaviour problems last year had a long-term illness or disability, and almost half of people who complained had changed their routines, fearing for their personal safety. Dealing with this sort of aggro is what we pay the police for.
Instead of ignoring these kinds of workforce failings, Labour should instead feel sorry for class load after class load of kids with exam grades halfway down the alphabet. Or the pensioner with dementia lying in a hospital bed soaked in urine and half-starved. Or the community ravaged by crime and yobbery while the police are “retreating from the streets“, as Sir Denis O’Connor puts it.
Pity, also, the many inspirational teachers let down by their failing colleagues. The dedicated nurses appalled by every tale of neglect coming out of our hospitals. The brave police officers committed to protecting our communities. They work their guts out in a belief that they are making a difference; and they are. They are the true representation of our public services.
However the presence of so many failing public servants undermines the belief that our key services are succeeding; with every bad experience depleting the electorate’s faith that the public sector can – and does – make a critical difference. This is essential as winning support for social democratic measures rests on having a public that believe they are getting something worthwhile in return for their taxes.
We have learnt that spending alone is not a magic bullet in delivering successful public services. Reform, too, is needed. But this is about more than changing organisational charts and management jargon. Those delivering services need to be swept along in a great tide of enthusiasm that theirs is a noble endeavour and phoning-in their performance simply will not do.
Those who refuse to rise to the calling should be cut adrift. And Labour ministers should have been far more robust when in government in dealing with them.
Tolerating a situation where the weakest and most needy in our society receive second rate services, despite Labour having put so much right in terms of investment and reform, isn’t socialism; it is a blinded, obtuse faith in public sectorism.
The many dedicated and effective public servants deserve our support, but the small, but no less significant, numbers failing us deserve our opprobrium. We need to be clear about means and ends. Labour should never shy away from apportioning blame and cutting out the dead wood in order to drive up standards in our public services for those most reliant on them.
We should start by welcoming Sir Michael’s appointment and wish him well as he begins his new role. He will be a busy man.
There are 15,000 P45s that need signing for a start.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.