Workforce reform will support not attack our public services

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.

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13 Responses to “Workforce reform will support not attack our public services”

  1. JW says:

    I think one of the problems here is actually the nuance. The police need workforce reform because they are ‘the great unreformed public service’, they haven’t been through the revolution (both the bad and good of it) that took place in the last 30 years – it means they maintain some of the good things that have served this country for more than a century, but actually they are not ‘fit for purpose’ – being a police officer needs to be both less special and more special, we need to end jobs for life, we actually need to reform the criminal justice system etc etc. As for nurses the problems that you cite are actually worse as a result of Labour’s NHS reforms and investment (something can have good and bad consequences? Shurely not!?) – the targets you mention in the article made things better, but they also made some (far fewer things I would argue) worse, one of them is the dehumanisation of patients – it’s easier to leave a dehuman in its own piss. How do we solve it? Absolutely workforce reform, but not the same reform that the police need – sadly for Blairites it means banishing ‘the market’ from public health provision too, the NHS is a moral crusade or it is nothing. And teachers? Actually, 15,000 of 500,000 is good – hear me out here – statistically there are going to be some shit ones. The problem is whether they remain shit, and while they are shit where they end up. I think your instincts are right here, it’s actually about leadership in schools and therfore probably headteachers. How do you get good headteachers, more money? More freedom? Wait until the good teachers we just trained become experienced enough to head schools? Workforce reform? Certainly, but certainly not in the same way as the police or the NHS.

    Turns out running the country is pretty complicated.

  2. swatantra says:

    Introduce competition and everybody is fighting for the same share of the Market; billions wasted in promotion and advertising to win contracts and custom. Its all a complete waste of time and effort. Instead of working together co-operatively all are trying to do their competitors in. We’ve had it on the High Streets, in our schools, transport, energy and the outsourcing of essential services. Is all a complete nonsense and a wase of money.
    And now the Govt is taking us into Payment by Results, in the Justice System Probation Prisons, just about everywhere. OK we need a abit of Performance Related Pay but PBR is more extreme than that.
    Instead, reduce the choices and concentrate on improving the delivery of those services, and regulate rigourously. Thats the way to do it.

  3. Nick says:

    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.


    There was bugger all investment. The double of money went on wages, and on the future pension bill.

    20-80,000 a year deaths a year where the NHS is a contributer to the death. NHS’s own figures.

  4. Gary says:

    And that differs from Tory policies in what way?

  5. Don Gately says:

    It’s worth pointin g out that the majority of good public sector staff can also be angry and often disillusioned by those who perform poortly. In a previous role in local govt I’d often hear colleagues wondering aloud whether it was worth actually trying when others didn’t have to and often were paid more due to salary increments gained through time served.

    There are two problems though – when workforce reform kites get flown often the measures mooted are so heavy handed they cause fear amongst good workers rather than reassurance. You can’t drive this kind of workforce reform centrally it needs local leadership if it’s going to be successful and I’ve not seen a labour leadership that really understands the need for devolution from the centre, despite being happy to use the term in soundbites.

    the other is a factor you haven’t mentioned – the public sector unions have opposed any hint of a change. This has become worse with the growth of the combined superunions, all of which have some public sector workforce membership and many have seen public sector membership grow whilst private sector membership declines.

    imho labour are the only party who could possibly deliver workforce reform with any compassion and real understanding of the complex issues (although I’m not sure the current set of senior politicians are up to scratch on this) but unless the unions support a process which will see their members lose jobs then labour aren’t ever going to be able to bring this about.

  6. It’s right in any workforce to challenge poor performance.

    But even at the GTC figures it’s less than 3.5% of teachers who are failing, I wonder what the comparable figure is for other industries? And while I accept that teaching and policing is a bit different to say PR, or Retail and we should expect more from our teachers do we know why it is that teachers are failing?

    I doubt anyone chooses teaching for an easy life – because it’s not. So are the recruitment procedures letting the wrong people through? Should PGCEs filter inappropriate people out? Do bad heads and bad heads of department create failing teachers further down – because if they do surely the subordinates deserve a second chance for being let down by their seniors? Are we sure the CPD and line management procedures are robust enough to deal with poor performance before a teacher becomes a ‘failure’.

    It’s all very well getting rid of failing teachers (or other public servants), but in all public services prevention is better than cure. Lets be sure we’re doing all we can to stop producing failing teachers, police, nurses, doctors in the first place.

    It’s cheaper for the taxpayer, better for service user, better for the individual who then doesn’t end up failing on the job and better for their colleagues.

  7. aragon says:

    More resources:

    Yes a sudden flood of money, like rain in the dessert, most of it runs off into the wadi’s and is not used as effectively as drip irrigation.

    In the case of the NHS going in wages to the people with the greatest leverage, Doctors with a 20% rise resulting in pay in excess of 100K p.a.

    So just opening the money taps is not a good solution, versus long term stable funding.

    Performance management is potentially useful, making explicit the objectives, but it can quickly deteriorate into micro-management and goal displacement.

    Where the swivel eyed fear to tread, Kevin Meagher rushes in.

    Blame the workers !

    The simple truth is that most people do the best in the circumstances they find themselves. Even the most ineffectual are often struggling with problems they can not resolve. You have heard of empowerment.

    This is not to say that some are ineffective or incompetent, but there is not much scope for changing jobs or retraining at the moment.

    We should be strengthening employment rights, it is desirable to strengthen employment rights and job security. Then we might devote more effort to solving the real problems and not shuffling the deck chairs (staff).

    But Kevin’s night of the long knives is not the solution.

    It would destroy moral and be very unfair on many staff making the best of a difficult situation, not to mention been arbitrary. This is not the way to treat people and potentially illegal.

    Lets hope Sir Michael (what, who ?) is much more nuanced, and hasn’t been reading the same bad management books as Kevin, for whom the solutions to all problems are apparently simple.

    The Tories are stupidly suggesting making it easier to sack people (to incentiise the working and enhance the power of management), would help the economy. At the same time out of work benefits have to be reduced to incentivise the workless. But management 50% compound pay rises (we are all in it together – workers the shit, management the clover).

    Bring back slavery !

    Let’s not pretend that the majority need more than the most basic sustenance, so the rich can enjoy their rightful rewards.

    Kevin when you are more extreme and punitive than the swivel eyed, and are aping the Tories, perhaps you should pause and reflect that you might be seriously wrong, if not unhinged.

    Insecurity rather than security; Intolerance rather than understanding; Authoritarianism rather than mentoring.

    Someone people need to reflect on their values system, and if they would like to work for someone with these values. Of course it doesn’t impact them as they do a brilliant job, it’s other people who are the problem, So we can be extremely punitive without fear of the consequences.

  8. Henrik says:

    If only. Unfortunately, the very folk you’re castigating are the same folk who vote for you. good luck with that conundrum, comrades. If you cease to be the political voice of the State sector, that only leaves you the feral underclass and the elite urban media class as your electorate and one of them doesn’t generally vote and the other is actually a tiny percentage of the country as a whole.

  9. Roger says:

    Is this a job application for the Daily Mail?

    And for someone who criticises failing teachers you clearly weren’t paying much attention in maths.

    For instance other than in Hollywood movies no teacher teaches just one class so multiplying 15,000 teachers by 30 pupils and twenty years to get 9 million (which incidentally is rather higher than the total school age population of England which is only 8.4 million even if you include all the 16-18 year olds) is ridiculous.

    Given that most teachers will be exposed to many more than 30 pupils in any given year the actual number would be much higher – but this is meaningless given that none of those pupils will be taught by just one bad teacher all through their school careers.

    Plus 15,000 is a big number but so is 500,000: and 15,000 is just 3% of 500,000.

    So looking at it that way if the schools were open today just 3% of the 8 million or so pupils would actually be facing a substandard teacher right now.

    And even if the pupils are exposed by say ten different teachers per year the chance of them encountering one and having their knowledge of one subject compromised would be 30%.

    The question also is just how ‘substandard’ are those 3%?

    Logically some will be good teachers who are often quite literally in a bad place (and bad teachers generally PAY by having even more stressful jobs than the good ones as they are likely to be even less in control of classes), others may be just marginal and redeemable by training and experience and only a minority of a small minority will be so bad that they should be sacked.

    Sure that minority is way bigger than the 18 teachers who have actually been struck off in 40 years (but is striking off the only way in which bad teachers are made to leave the profession? – doesn’t the ability of employers to just not give a bad teacher a job or the fact that bad teachers are rarely happy teachers and are quite likely to leave of their own volition count for anything?) but it is also certainly far lower than 15,000.

    The CQC stats on treatment of older patients are indeed a scandal but do you really think that nurses being lacking in compassion is the only factor responsible?

    Compassion does cost money – if you are overworked and under-resourced and your support staff are minimum wage contractors who do nothing not in their contracts then you just do not have the time to treat every patient as they deserve.

    As for their only being 10% of police officers on duty at any time, again just do the maths.

    There are 168 hours in a week and taking into account holidays, sick leave, training etc the real average working week for a constable is probably closer to 30 than 40 hours.

    So even if every officer spent every hour on front line duty there would logically be less than 20% of the total workforce on duty at any one time (I am making no distinction between night and day here as criminals generally don’t).

    So while it is valid to ask why the figure is only 10% (and a major part of the answer will be the managerialist nonsense that New Labour was so addicted to imposing) the optimum number you are comparing it to is not 100% but more likely be something like 18%.

    The infuriating thing is that I actually agree with your conclusions – but you clearly have no idea of how to convince anyone who is not already a Mail or Telegraph reader of them.

  10. Anon E Mouse says:

    Kevin Meagher writes an article that seems based in fact. Am I dreaming here?

    Roger – Those Daily Mail readers you describe were the reason that Labour could win elections. The editor, Gordon Brown’s big buddy, let him down in the end but they spoke for the country.

    With the most successful leader in Labour history godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children isn’t it time party activists grew up and offered policies that would make the party electable again….

  11. Cameroon Uncut says:

    Incredible. This site really is the pits of the blogosphere. Don’t worry, I’m not sticking around. I just dip in and out of this site every few months to laugh at you. To every Labour politician involved with this website. When you’re done fellating George Osborne, do something dignified and retire. I don’t care if you end up on the board of Barclays. Just get out of a profession where you serve zero purpose to anybody, least of all Labour.

  12. Cameroon Uncut says:

    “And that differs from Tory policies in what way?”

    Alas, near enough every article on here begs this question. I appreciate that you lot consider yourselves realists. I’m sure you wouldn’t even mind the accusation that you want power at all costs. Certainly as far as shameless, almost fanatical capitulation is concerned, no price for power is too high for you.

    But what exactly do you want to APPEAR to represent? This is what puzzles me. I have never seen you oppose a single government policy. More to the point, what is your idea of a capable opposition leader? Blair at least differed from the opposition back in the day in supporting gay rights, equality legislation, etc even though he was very much to the right on crime and stood to the right of the Tories on the economy. Cameron is pretty much a clone of Blair. What then do the likes of Kevin Meagre, Peter Watt, Dan Hodges and Tom Harris represent now?

    I genuinely would love an answer to this, but I won’t get one, because you don’t have one.

  13. Mike Homfray says:

    Hilarious. Indistinguishable from Tory policies – we really do need to read this blog and then do the opposite to what is suggested. Usual right wing nonsense. You don’t improve services by further demoralising and creating a climate of fear in the public sector.

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