The Tyranny of Choice

July 24, 2009

‘Tyranny of choice’ is not a reference to the non-choice that faced voters in Norwich North yesterday, even if the presence of Craig Murray and the oddball new outfit of the Libertarian Party UK made the contest more colourful than most parliamentary elections.  Rather it refers to the Blairite idea of choice in public services.

The idea, which has the dual function of providing a back-door for privatisation and appealing to the middle-classes’ sense that they know better than public service providers by virtue of their BA in English Literature, is that individual hospitals, schools, GP surgeries and other service providers should be set in competition with each other, thus raising ‘standards’.

Now the issue of standards itself is a vexed one.  In the fields of healthcare and education how you define what is ‘good’ service provision depends on the values you believe a public service should be based on.

Some would argue that healthcare should be judged to the extent it prolongs life, whereas I would add that prolonging healthy life (without the sort of public health badgering we see too often today), while providing a comfortable and dignified end to life are as important.

In education the divide is even greater, between the philistines who see education merely as a preparation for employment, and those like myself that see the value in education in itself, in addition to preparing children for the world by equipping them practically and intellectually to deal with it, question it and shape it.

When compiling statistics to aid parents or patients in their ‘choice’, only those things that can be measured can be included.  This excludes matters of dignity, mental well-being, being inspired by literature, nature, space, the human condition, history, and other things which can’t be measured but are critically important and possibly life-changing or life-defining.

Only measurements that reflect the depressingly short-termist utilitarian outlook of the political establishment will be included.  This means crude statistics and targets will concern how many people can be made fit for work, or can pass an exam above a certain arbitrary grade.

A league table or other means of comparison is then constructed using these flawed measurements.  People are then encouraged to exercise a choice on this basis.  Without adequate information people cannot choose the service provider that will best meet their needs.  But in some parts of the public sector choice will be exercised, and it has a damaging impact on those without the resources and bullish confidence/arrogance of the middle classes.

In large urban areas (which, if you read newspapers, are the only places that seem to exist, outside of chocolate box villages which exist purely to provide second homes for journalists) the issue of schools is a vexed one.  The matter is made more vexed by the league tables and the spurious statistics in them.  It is a simple fact that the exam results of a school reflect the intake of pupils.

Pupils from middle class backgrounds, with access to plentiful books, a computer, the Internet, a quiet place to work and supportive and pushy parents have a much better chance of succeeding academically than those from a working class background without those factors.

Of course, there are many working class families where these things are present because of the sacrifices and hard work of the parents, and I am a grateful product of one such of these families.  But in general, working class children are disadvantaged from the outset.

The experience of choice is that schools with good results (which helps to attract teachers, and more funding and equipment from various sources) attract the middle class parents, who are able to gain entry for their offspring by a variety of means, not restricted to changing (or finding) religion, moving and pulling strings.

Choice and a market result in better schools and facilities for middle class children (the ones who don’t necessarily need it) and a worsening situation for working class children.  This has been the experience elsewhere in the world (most notoriously New Zealand).  We should be looking to Finland for their progressive educational policies, not the US and New Zealand.

So choice results in worse outcomes for working class children.  What else?  It results in a decline in quality, and not just in the sense that resources and effort are directed towards those things that are measured and valued, leading to teaching to the test and the ridiculous consequences of the target culture in the NHS.  The decline in quality comes from the fact that improvement in public services completely depends on cooperation and the sharing of expertise and new ideas, techniques and ways of thinking.

I never cease to be amazed by the story of a trailblazing school, hospital, department, teacher or doctor that has tried something new, refined it with colleagues or other instititutions, and then disseminated it, leading to an overall improvement.  There are dramatic examples to be found, for example with the invention of a simple check list for operating theatre staff to go through before a procedure, which has dramatically reduced mistakes and adverse outcomes, which has been trialled and is now being spread globally.

There are also the everyday, humdrum, innovations and resources developed up and down Britain and across the world.  The patient questionnaire developed by a hospital that helps a department improve their procedures and treatment.  The technique that helps an autistic child understand a concept or event in History that they previously had trouble with.  It is the instinct of public sector workers to spread this good practice, and it benefits us all when they do.

What puts this at risk is the idea of competition, which is a necessary companion to the choice agenda in public services.  Managers will likely clamp down on cooperation and spreading of good ideas, or at least slap a price tag on it.  This will harm us all, and damage our public services.

It is commonly said that what people want isn’t choice, but just a good, local, hospital, dentist or GP surgery, or school.  This is true in several different ways.  The first, most obvious one, is convenience.  I live in a largely rural area, and have always thought that the rhetoric of Government ministers always seemed to ignore the fact that if choice made the local hospital a danger to health, it is slightly more than a quick tube ride to the next nearest hospital.  Rather it is a lengthy journey on unreliable, infrequent, expensive and often non-existent public transport.  Even if you do live in a large city, it can be the difference between a half-day and a full day’s wages lost.

The second one is that people don’t like choice, not necessarily in a conscious sense, but in the sense that choice can leave you more dissatisfied than a lack of choice.  After all, if you choose something and it is lacking in some way, you are likely to experience regret, perhaps guilt, and dwell on the choice that you could have made that in hindsight would have been better.

If in the case of schools, choice has a toxic effect on the parents, children and schools, in healthcare the public’s reluctance to choose anything other than their local hospital and GP surgery has agitated some of the thrusting modernisers.  In the most recent issue of Private Eye, the health editor, the doctor and comedian Phil Hammond, notes that some of the ‘reformers’ want to generate more ‘churn’ in the rolls at GP surgeries.  Apparently, people aren’t chopping and changing their GPs like washing up liquid.

The mindset (rightly mocked by Dr. Hammond), that compares the long-term relationship, built on trust, mutual knowledge and respect, between a patient and their GP, to choosing an interchangable product that doesn’t require these qualities (which can’t be measured of course, and are therefore deemed worthless), sums up the philistinism, ignorance, and blind allegiance to ‘markets’ and ‘private enterprise’ that infects the managerialist half-wits that makes up the British ruling class.

I don’t want to advocate the 1945-79 social democratic, paternalist model as a perfect one by any means.  It did work though, particularly after grammar schools were abolished across most of the country (though not, scandalously, in my local authority).  Certainly in terms of overall provision to working class people, and the ability to collectively improve through collaboration and cooperation.

I would favour a system where the choice isn’t the narrow Blairite one between competing service providers, but the ability to involve yourself in the running of local services, either as a worker, a patient, or concerned citizen.  This concept of popular democratic control and accountabilty is one we must argue for, while we do the necessary work of defending universalist, publicly owned services which constituted a historic advance for the working class, and provide something that can be built on and improved through thorough democratisation and mass participation.

Battle lines have been drawn

July 10, 2009

It was bound to happen at some point.  While there is no official version of events yet, various statements and media reports suggest that, after months of ongoing, disgusting abuse, teacher Peter Harvey snapped and attacked a pupil, Jack Waterhouse.  What is interesting is the polarisation of reaction to the event.  As now seems customary, rival Facebook groups have been established, with the energetic deletion of dissenting views.

In a few groups, there is great sympathy for Peter Harvey.  This seems to be replicated on the online forums of the Times Educational Supplement, and in the reaction of many current and former pupils of All Saints’ Roman Catholic School, who intend to leaflet the school in support of Harvey at 3.30pm today.

On the other hand, there is outright condemnation to be found where the focus is on Jack Waterhouse.

I don’t wish to get involved in debating the minutiae of an event (or the events that preceded it), except to wish Jack Waterhouse a full recovery, and for the relevant authorities to be humane and merciful in their treatment of Peter Harvey, who by all accounts was a popular teacher pushed to the edge by stress, ill-health and the appalling behaviour of the pupils in his class.

I do wish to focus on what this incident, and the consequent reaction, means for the Left.  The reaction has not polarised in a teachers/adults vs pupils manner.  Rather it seems to be only a sub-group of pupils that is condemning outright Peter Harvey.  Judging by some of the attitudes on display, the view of good teaching is not dedication and the committment and ability to expand horizons and help fulfil potential.  No, “nice teachers dont assault pupils nice teachers hand out sweets and make you watch films insted of work..[sic]”.

It doesn’t do the left any good to pretend that the attitudes of a significant section of the school population stink.  The constant invokation of ‘rights’ and selfish disregard for anyone else (be they other pupils or teachers) is prevalent in many classrooms.  As is the baiting of teachers, who have little real power over pupils.

A few weeks ago, the excellent Left Luggage website drew attention to an interesting document produced by the IWCA.  In it, they analyse the rise, as a consequence of neo-liberalism, of the lumpen element, often described in the bourgeois press as the ‘underclass’.  The IWCA document identifies this group as a “new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic… that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.”

I make no apologies for quoting extensively the following:

“Why this is important politically is that once a lumpen mentality is allowed to take root over a generation or more, a pattern is set seemingly for other socio/ political relationships too. In place of civic pride, community spirit, or basic empathy and solidarity (none of which have any place in their world) there is instead an over-developed sense of individual entitlement combined with a perverse pride in subverting a core socialist tenet: ‘you only take out exactly what you’ve put in’.

It follows that outside of what affects them directly as individuals or maybe immediate family there is a malign indifference. After all what is society to them, or they to society?

All told, the corrupting consequences of the no-work ethic appear to be numerous and hardwired. A knock-on consequence is that many ordinary working class communities become blighted by a not dissimilar contagion…

…Consequently with the arrival of each new generation previously identifiable working class ideals are eroded or displaced, while ‘lumpen’ characteristics typified by a venal and brazen opportunism seem to become ever more pronounced. In some areas it already appears to be the natural condition.”

The lumpen attitude, as identified by the IWCA, of ‘venal and brazen opportunism’ and the decline of working class ideals, is undoubtedly as a result of the atomisation and decline in traditional working class organisations and institutions.  This has in turn led to a decline in the working class values identified in the quote above, to which I would add the spirit of self and collective improvement.  This does seem to have been a significant factor behind the escalation of problems in the classroom over the last 30 years.

I do have some problems with the IWCA’s analysis, which I hope to analyse in more detail in a future post, and I believe the Government’s focus on exam results as the main measurement of the quality of education and consequent policies has also had an incredibly damaging part to play.  But for now, I think the part of the IWCA analysis I have quoted enlightens and informs the debate.

Teachers face rising problems, and schools by themselves do not have the ability to deal with the social conditions breeding them.  They do try to accommodate and deal with them though, a sticking plaster which simply leaves teachers unable to teach as effectively as they would wish and pupils subjected to the selfish, destructive behaviour of some of their peers.

I don’t write this as a middle-aged, middle-class reactionary, but as a young working class man who believes that the left cannot work to emancipate humanity from capitalism if it cannot emancipate itself of blinkers.  The solution to social problems manifesting themselves in classroom problems is not necessarily to call for the expelling or disciplining of pupils (and parents) more difficult.  This is an understandable, but counter-productive response to the realisation that it may not be the ‘fault’ of the individual trouble maker that they are so troublesome, with the fault lying with the vague ‘society’.

The solution is to acknowledge that these problems cannot be dealt with in schools, but only by a fundamental change in society involving a radicalisation of the working class.  There is no solution under capitalism.  What seems most effective is a twin-track approach of building opposition to capitalism while pursuing policies within a classroom or school that ensure that the needs of the majority are not hampered or denied by the behaviour and actions of a minority.

It needs to be acknowledged that workers and their families demand fairness, the cause of which doesn’t seem to be furthered by doing little to sort out problems in the classroom (and the problem’s parents) or be seen to be actively rewarding bad behaviour with trips and one-to-one attention.  Defending this makes the Left look ridiculous, and can only benefit the Right.

The teaching unions should see the unsavoury incident in a classroom in Mansfield as a rallying call to take more militant action to defend teachers, and defend the rights of less troublemaking children to an unhindered education.  The left should see it as a way to make the arguments about why capitalism (particularly of the neoliberal variety) breeds the kind of unacceptable behaviour growing in classrooms and the streets, and why democratic socialism can deal with that.

It is a chance to put clear red water between socialists, with a realistic analysis of social trends and the real solutions to real problems, and liberals who try to deny the problem, or fob off those who want to deal with it.

Short people are inherently worthless

March 20, 2009

Well, that’s the only conclusion I can come to.  I have decided to measure people’s worth as human beings, but I found things like selflessness, generosity of spirit, honesty and solidarity very difficult, nay impossible to measure.  Height on the other hand is very easy to measure.  I might even make the league table fairer by multiplying the height score by foot size.

A ridiculous idea, of course.  But the idea that the quality of services or work be ascertained by measures and targets mean that only those factors that can either be quantified or judged to have been met or not, is ingrained throughout society.  In the public sector, this manifests itself in school league tables and targets for hospitals to reach.

What is the effect of this?  In schools, where exam performance is the key measure used, the whole culture is one of teaching to the test.  This is usually by pressure from above.  The Headteacher will feel pressure to improve exam results from the Government and the school governors, and also from parents.  The importance of school league tables lies in attracting pupils to the school (thereby securing more funding), and winning various grants from the local authority and the government, so the position in the league table is also a strong driver.  The head passes on these pressures to the heads of department, who are made accountable for their own department’s results.

The squeeze is then put on individual teachers, set in competition with each other, with future promotions and pay rises at stake, to push their pupils to the highest grades possible.  The effect of this?  In subjects like English, maths and science, deemed most important as they are ones prioritised by league tables, only subject matter that it is thought will be in exams is taught, and usually in quite a shallow way, so that the key facts are memorised, but no real understanding or appreciation can be developed.

In some cases, parts of the National Curriculum are skipped over in year 9, so there can be greater concentration on those areas more likely to be tested on, and for endless practice tests.  Some children are taken out of lessons such as geography and history to attend ‘booster classes’ in the ‘main’ subjects.

The bulk of this activity takes place in the final year of primary school, and in years 9, 10 and 11 of secondary school, when the children are aged 13-16.  In some schools the final year of primary school has become preparation for the SATs exam at 11.  Children are arriving at secondary school put off by education because they are not learning or enjoying their work, rather they are undergoing tedious coaching.  Tedious coaching for an exam which does not affect their future in anyway (it is not used for entry to grammar schools in the areas that still have them) and whose results are generally disregarded by secondary school teachers because they don’t think they are reliable indicators of talent or ability.

In secondary school, the teaching to the test occurs at the same time as when children become disaffected with everything anyway.  The tediousness and pointlessness of much of the schoolwork in this time in their lives is not going to have a positive impact on their view of education or their inclination to take it seriously.  We have many problems in society that have led to serious disaffection amongst young people, namely rampant inequality, lack of respect from other generations and a dearth of decent jobs, but the increasingly poor educational experiences must contribute.

I don’t seek to blame teachers, heads of department or even headteachers.  I know that most of them work very hard and usually have the best interests of children at heart.  But a rotten system, based on assumptions by a neo-liberal establishment that teachers and other public servants cannot be trusted and must be controlled with strict targets and statistically illiterate measures, means that acting rationally within the bounds of the system leads to irrational and adverse results.

Targets in the health service are another matter entirely, and the disgraceful former regime at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, where hundreds of people died due to inadequate care, while the Trust was rated ‘Good’ by the Healthcare Commission, for ticking the right boxes designed by some clueless career bowler-hat, speaks more of their uselessness than any couple of hundred words I can spill here.

But both the examples prove that if you cannot accurately measure the quality of something, don’t choose some half-arsed proxy measure like meeting targets or getting X% of pupils to get above grade C.  It only results in distorting what the workers on the ground know to be best practice.  The secret behind a good education system is a dedicated (and expanded) workforce, and real decision making and power in the hands of teachers, support staff, and pupils themselves.

It also requires much more investment in facilities and activities for pupils, the promise of a decent future, and the philosophy that school is about learning for its own sake and learning so that you can serve society in the future, not that school is a place to go to get qualifications to improve your chances of getting what may be non-existent jobs.

The secret of a good healthcare system is prevention first and foremost, mainly through the eradication of the vast inequality in society.  In prevention and treatment, there needs to be an increased number of well-motivated healthcare workers, who again have control over their own work, and democratic influence over the work of the hospital or surgery, and the system in which it is a part.