Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Layer 100 Justice, Democracy and Accountability

Interesting news from Greece - the cradle of democracy. It looks like people are in revolt against their government - taking to the streets and rioting. It seems the police can’t contain the situation - there are too many people who are clearly very angry with the government. A sign of the times? And of things to come? Power to the people?


I’ve changed my mind about Christine Gilbert. Last week I wrote a couple of blog pieces about the way in which Ofsted had totally failed to make the correct judgment about the effectiveness of Haringey’s children’s services, and the fact that Gilbert admitted that Ofsted must take ‘some’ of the responsibility for the death of Baby P. I also said that I didn’t really care whether or not Gilbert remained in post as long as the Ofsted regime was reformed root and branch.

Well, actually, I DO care. I now realise that I care a lot. Gilbert has continued to say that the last inspection of Haringey’s children’s services was right to judge them a ‘good’ and effective local authority - she says it’s only that the quality of their work has gone down since that inspection.

Does anyone believe this, outside of the self-serving ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ circle of senior bureaucrats who run government departments and local authorities?

The reason Gilbert deserves to be sacked is because those who live by the sword should be prepared to die by the sword. Thanks to the regime she’s been responsible for, there are a great many decent and dedicated people who’ve been thrown out of their posts because Ofsted decided that their schools weren’t hitting arbitrary targets, and that there’s ‘no excuse for failure’.

Leaving aside the issue of whether those schools were indeed ‘failing’ because their targets weren’t being achieved, the point here is that natural justice and proper process demand that people who are accused of lacking competence should be given the time, opportunity, encouragement and support they need (we all need) in order to improve, and only if they fail to apply themselves diligently, conscientiously and energetically to improvement should they be recommended for dismissal.

Since this no longer happens in a pseudo-macho world where aspirational careerists like Gilbert have no time to waste in their determination to prove their value to the world by ‘driving up standards’, then neither should it happen when the advocates and drivers of the current system are seen to fuck up badly themselves.

Did Gilbert and Ofsted help to prevent Baby P’s death? No. Did they fail to identify Haringey as a failing local authority? Yes, of course. Is Gilbert now appealing to all local authorities to come clean and admit to failings that Ofsted itself has failed to spot? Yes. Is the Ofsted inspection procedure bureaucratic and lacking in rigour? Yes. Does anyone have any confidence that Ofsted has made correct judgments about other local authorities they’ve inspected, or about quite a lot of schools for that matter? NO.

Gilbert is a lame duck, and I for one want to see her dead in the water. After a short suspension the director of Haringey children’s services, Sharon Shoesmith, has been summarily sacked. Fair enough - if she was in fact directly responsible for the fakery and bullshit that was only discovered when inspectors finally got round to looking closely at what went on, or didn’t go on, within her department. Or indeed if she failed to make herself aware of what was happening. Now it’s time for Gilbert to go.


I slipped the following web reference into yesterday’s blog even though this piece wasn’t officially published till today.


SATs are indeed the elephant in the room, as Jim Rose says. In an age of accountancy and ‘accountability’ we live and die by numbers. The number crunchers rule. Facts and figures are what’s needed, as Dickens might have said. Give these people nothing but facts and figures. These alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.

Thomas Gradgrind would be proud of Ed Balls, our esteemed Minister of State for Education, etc. Dear Ed, ‘the scrote’ as he’s becoming known, has made up his mind that we need to adopt another great American idea - giving grades to schools.


‘Every school in England could be rated on a scale of A to E under plans published today to introduce a New York style "report card" for schools.’

New York style eh? So that’s it then - reduce everything to a single letter in order to describe an entity as complex as a school. How fucking dumb can we get? What a great wheeze to appeal to idiot voters who need everything to be SIMPLE. Is the electorate so stupid as to welcome such a thing? Well, New Labour wouldn’t be New Labour if it hadn’t already run this one past some ‘focus groups’, so we have to assume it’s a runner.

Would any parent be happy to have their child categorized as a B, a C or a D? Would anyone feel comfortable with hanging that label on a child, knowing that the sum of its parts cannot possibly add up to a single letter?


Will New Labour never understand that the age of dumb-arse neo-conservatism is OVER? Stupid solutions to complex problems will no longer be tolerated. Obama is putting in place a team of intellectuals and experts. Could New Labour possibly do the same? Could they hell.

To the contrary - Brown is bringing back Mandleson and no doubt some of the old crew who screwed things up in the first place. Which speaks volumes about the bunch of supposedly bright young things that he promoted to the cabinet when he became PM. None of them have a clue about what’s now needed to deal with the issues of the day. They’ve been brought up in the age of Thatcherite and neo-conservative orthodoxies, and they have no other frames of reference, or ideologies or sets of beliefs. There’s no real wisdom or enlightenment in their thinking - just management-speak and business-school orthodoxies. There’s no capacity for creative thinking either. A useless bunch.

Interesting that Frank Field wrote a column in the Guardian yesterday suggesting that a government of national unity might be a solution to our problems.


He’s of the opinion that this is the way to show the rest of the world that our political class is united in its outlook and its economic policies. In principle a government of all the most able politicians from the various parties sounds quite attractive, but not when they all occupy the same middle ground with the same middling ideas and none of them has a real clue about what’s actually needed in order to forge a better and more prosperous society where fairness, social justice and equality are the guiding values.

My betting is still on a hung Parliament next time. (No more scrote jokes, please.) In which case it may make sense to try to build consensus through bringing together a cabinet of all the talents, and letting them debate issues properly before making policy. That at least would be better than letting the Tories take over and run amok.

The Commons itself would then have to do a damn decent job of scrutinizing the Executive. And we’ll need an elected second chamber that’s also seen to be an effective body with real powers of scrutiny and challenge. And we do need proportional representation.


Returning to my opening paragraph, there are two columns of note in today’s Guardian.

1. In his, Terry Eagleton notes that John Milton was born in Cheapside 400 years ago today. “Our great dissident poet who did more than just hymn the praises of revolt.”

At the heart of Milton's political vision lay a belief in liberty and self-government. Pressed to an extreme, this doctrine could appear anarchic: grace freed humanity from law and authority.

Milton did more than hymn the praises of revolt, as Blake and Shelley did. He was also a political activist and propagandist, an architect of the modern liberal state. As a militant ideologue in the defence of liberty, he assisted in the revolutionary upheaval that brought modern Britain to birth - a revolution all the more successful for us having quite forgotten that it ever happened.


2. Polly Toynbee’s usual excellent column focuses on incomes, social justice and tax policy:

The hard truth is that a middle-class child is 15 times more likely to stay middle class than a working-class child is likely to move upwards: birth is destiny more than people know.

Thirty years ago people had a clearer idea of where they stood in the social hierarchy. The politics of class described the nature of social injustice. Widespread membership of trade unions and noisy public pay bargaining ensured that most people had some understanding of the distribution of incomes and the unjust inheritance of power. But once Labour - in need of the middle-class vote - abandoned the cloth cap for the illusion of classlessness, it stopped spelling out inconvenient class facts.

Instead Britain has absorbed the great American Dream - anyone can make it, opportunity is there for the taking. The celebrity culture encourages that statistical myth, with its images of Cheryl Cole or Alan Sugar, who made it against the odds. If religion was once the opium that kept the people in their place, the celebrity fantasy does it even more effectively now. If you don't escape a poor background, that's your fault for lack of talent: nothing structurally wrong with the chances you had. Without the politics of class, people are left to internalise their disadvantage: it's personal, not political.

Richer people simply [do] not believe that 90% of the population earn less than £40,000, or that the middle fifth of the population earn around £20,000. If people don't know these facts, how can they judge what's fair?

So if Labour wants to make fairness its guiding light, it will have to make up for lost time by the energetic explaining of some essential facts. Ignorance, even among the supposedly well-educated, is greatly underestimated by politicians. A few in the group who started out thinking the new top rate of 45% might be too steep revised their opinion greatly once they understood it. The more they knew about how incomes were distributed, the more they were inclined to opt for a progressive system.

Researchers working on these focus groups over several months note a marked change of opinion since the credit crunch hit. In recent weeks attitudes not just towards bankers but to all the rich have hardened into real anger about the greed that now puts jobs, homes and pensions at risk. Labour politicians have rightly sensed that change in mood. They have left it late; they are on the back foot now with polling data showing them not trusted to put across facts and figures honestly. How different it would have been had they talked more openly from the start about the unfair distribution of money and power. But better late than never - if that's what they mean to do.


PS Yesterday I forgot to mention two excellent letters to the editor in the Guardian:

From Ross Sutton:

Christine Gilbert, head of Ofsted, now seems to be admitting what many workers in social services have known for a long time - Ofsted is incompetent, naive and not fit for purpose (We failed over Haringey - Ofsted head, December 6).

Successive governments have persistently signed up to the philosophy that every service provided can be evaluated in the same way as the sale of groceries, started, unsurprisingly, by Thatcher, but they are seriously mistaken. The government culture of avoiding risk at all costs while leaping to allocate blame has systematically eroded the professional judgment, confidence and optimism of the workforce in local government, and the health and education services.

Christine Gilbert appears unwilling to take responsibility for the serious failings of Ofsted, and likewise the government is much more inclined to blame the poorly paid, overworked and largely unsupported workers rather than accept any culpability for their part in the wasteful and delusional inspection process. Since the government stands four-square behind the inspection service, all stick and no carrot, why has neither the home secretary nor the children's minister resigned, and why is Christine Gilbert not considering her position?

From Ian Willmore
Former Deputy Leader, Haringey Council

Christine Gilbert's defence of Ofsted is a little more sophisticated than Haringey council's early efforts in that she is at least willing to appear to acknowledge responsibility for failure, but it is ultimately no more convincing. In particular, there is no good reason to accept her claim that Ofsted's 2006 review, which gave Haringey a three-star rating, was accurate. This is yet another shocking parallel with the Victoria Climbié case, where it emerged that the Social Services Inspectorate (Ofsted's predecessor) had only the year before Victoria died given Haringey a positive review. Until the Laming inquiry began to ask difficult questions, the inspectorate continued to claim that there had been a sudden deterioration in performance between the review and Victoria's death. This claim was rapidly exposed as nonsense.

Ms Gilbert's own remarks expose the truth of Ofsted's performance in the Baby P case. As long as inspectors took council officers' assurances at face value, everything seemed in order. As soon as individual case files were examined, multiple failures rapidly emerged. Of course, Ofsted had no choice but to conduct a review after Baby P had been killed. The issue Ms Gilbert and ministers need to address is how inspections can be improved so that problems are exposed before a disaster occurs. This is unlikely to happen as long as Ofsted continues to pretend that its previous inspections were accurate. So far, Ms Gilbert is simply accepting responsibility in theory while denying it in practice. At least Haringey's council leadership had the decency in the end to accept their failures and resign.


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