Thursday, 15 January 2009

Public services, what is achievable?

Yesterday I had a little bleat about the need for public services to provide a service. I want to look at another aspect of that today and, again, it comes from simple Harriet's words: "tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds is a core function of public services". Underlying those words is the belief that "tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds" is itself a public service. In principle it is possible for a sensible person, unblinded by political dogma, to agree with that proposition provided it is clear what the words mean. For only if we are clear about definitions can we assess what, if anything, government can do.

Let's start with "socio-economic disadvantage". This can mean all sorts of things, but the joinder of "socio" with "economic" is the key. It must mean something more than just economic disadvantage (itself a ridiculous quasi-scientific term for some people having more money than others). It can only mean social disadvantages caused by some people having less money than others. To take an artificial example, if a school requires parents to pay £10,000 for their children to have access to books and computers the inevitable outcome will be that those without the money will not pay it and their children's education will probably suffer. In turn this will lead to them having fewer opportunities later in life than the children of the relatively wealthy. It makes eminent sense that imposing unreasonable financial costs will limit how much the bright but poor children get from their education and, as a matter of general policy, I have no difficulty accepting the right of government to prevent that happening. Of course no state school head teacher would dream of imposing such charges so it's purely hypothetical, but it illustrates what "socio-economic disadvantage" means.

There is a fundamental problem with seeking to identify and counter socio-economic disadvantages. It is that it is almost impossible to isolate a lack of money as the effective cause of a social disadvantage, save in an example as stark and unrealistic as the one I gave. How many children from families with modest incomes fail to achieve success at school because of a lack of money and how many because of a lack of parental encouragement? No one can tell, it is simply impossible to measure. What we can say with certainty is that some from modest backgrounds work hard at school and some do not despite being from seemingly identical backgrounds and in the very same class. The inference I draw from that is that lack of money is not the effective cause of the idle child being idle. Indeed, there are idle and hardworking children from identically wealthy families. The presence of money in the family cannot be the effective cause of industry or sloth.

"Socio-economic disadvantage" means nothing unless it means that some doors are closed to the less wealthy but are open to the more wealthy simply because of the relative paucity or extravagance of wealth. The only example I can think of that fits the bill is the scheme by which university students have to pay tuition fees and find the means to support themselves while they are studying. Those from modest backgrounds who were thought suitable university material used to receive grants to cover tuition fees and a modest but adequate amount to pay for books, housing and bodily sustenance. Not now. Now they exit university with debts of tens of thousands of pounds. The value of the grant depended on parental income with the consequence that the children of the comfortably off received little if anything and their parents had to cough-up. The same parents who could afford to pay then are paying still and their children graduate without the millstone of debt. In other words the new system creates a socio-economic disadvantage.

The reason it was created was the government's desire to expand the number of university graduates because, they said, a university education makes you more valuable in the workplace and counters a socio-economic disadvantage. When the expansion plans were headline making stuff ministers would trot out statistics such as that graduates earn on average such-and-such percent more than non-graduates, as though that meant they would always do so no matter how many more graduates there were. It was all complete nonsense but the result is a huge problem for able children from modest backgrounds. I am aware of newly qualified lawyers who have started work with debts of more than £30,000, this is a frightening figure which they will have to repay in addition to all the other costs of life. And then, of course, there are the ones who daren't risk taking on that debt even though they would derive a substantial benefit from university education.

And what about "narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds"? I will leave aside the mangling of the English language. The kindest way this awful phrase can be interpreted is as a desire by the government to reduce the effect your background has on your own opportunities in life. The Old Etonian son of a judge must be treated the same as the son of a meat market porter when the next vacancy arises for a junior porter at the meat market. I think that's what they mean. No doubt it ties-in with the hopeless new quango I wrote about a few days ago aimed at getting more people from modest backgrounds into the professions. For the reasons I gave then, I cannot see what government can do that the professions do not already do themselves.

So what is this all about? Is it just a stale government trying to appear as though it has new ideas? Is it just a bit of old-fashioned Labour class war hot air? Is it just an excuse to increase taxes on the successful by pretending the extra money will help the relatively poor? No doubt it is all those things, but I think there is probably something else as well. I think they really believe it. They really believe government has magical powers and can turn a poorly educated populace into doctors, lawyers and accountants just by saying that it must be so. And that is what makes people like simple Harriet so very dangerous. When this piece of social engineering fails, as all the others over the last eleven years have failed, it will be bolstered with more money and stronger powers to force it to happen, even though it never can.

We have seen it already with cars, dustbins and so much more. First we are invited to change our ways and we do. That results in calls for us to change our ways further and some do but some don't. That's not good enough so the voluntary code is abandoned and compulsion comes in. We have to pay double to drive our car if it emits more carbon dioxide than they like, we have to pay charges to drive on the roads we have already paid for and that we still pay to maintain. Failure to separate plastic bottles from the rest of your garbage or failure to close the lid of your dustbin incurs a more severe penalty than punching someone in the face. Smoking a cigarette (on which you have paid seventy or so percent tax) in a shop you own incurs a more severe penalty than the thief who runs off with your goods without paying. And all because the new regulations are in furtherance of an unattainable and impractical ideal. To idealists their ideal is more important than anything else.

"Tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds" when properly defined can happen. It requires four things.

First, and by far the most important, good quality education directed at bringing the best from each pupil. Bolster apparent academic ability with a concentrated academic education and ensure that those of a non-academic bent are taught the things they will need to know and the skills they will need to use.

Secondly, enforce stringently the laws against discrimination on the grounds of gender and race (this is a rare field in which government action has changed perceptions, albeit that many other factors were also involved). No able person should be shut out of their chosen career simply because of their sex, pigmentation or ethnic origin.

Thirdly, don't pretend that people can do things they can't. Be realistic. Some people are clever and some are thick. Some have an aptitude for laying bricks others are better suited cooking, sewing or working in a shop. Let people develop their own interests and find their own level.

Fourthly, don't pretend you can stop people falling through gaps in the pavement. Luck has a part in all things. History is littered with brilliant footballers who were never in the right place at the right time to catch the eye of a scout from a top team. The same applies in all fields - young professionals who would do well in practice never secure a place because they are not in the right place at the right time and excellent brickies are left mixing muck for others because there was always someone else who caught the eye of the employer first. It is unavoidable that some people will miss out through sheer bad luck, no affordable government initiative can change that.

Perhaps I should add a fifth. Base policy on practicalities not idealistic dreams because the former have some chance of succeeding whereas the latter just result in abuses of power in their ever more doctrinaire pursuit.


Bob's Head Revisited said...

“To idealists their ideal is more important than anything else.”

That's it. Whether it's the NHS, education, social mobility, or whatever, it is the intention, the objective, the dream that really counts to the idealist, not the day-to-day realities of how it's all actually working out.

When it starts to fall apart it just needs more cash. No amount is too big for their engineering project, their dream. This must work no matter what.

Approx 3,000 people die every year because of NHS fuckups. They die because the system, despite all the billions of pounds fire-hosed at it, doesn't work and cannot work. But it is a wonderful institution that we should all be proud of, because of it's intention.

Our kids' education has been debased to such as extent that it would not be an exaggeration to say that an entire generation of schoolkids have been cheated. And for what? For an egalitarian dream of equality of outcome that is neither desirable nor achievable.

But they won't stop. They'll just keep going. The ideal is all that matters.

TheFatBigot said...

Excellently put Mr Bob.