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Councils not trusted to raise standards alone

Ministers are anxious about hitting literacy and numeracy targets. Frances Rafferty reports

EDUCATION ministers do not have confidence in all local authorities to deliver the literacy and numeracy targets they have staked their jobs on.

Michael Bichard, top civil servant at the Department for Education and Employment, said that David Blunkett has risked his position on reaching literacy and numeracy targets.

Neither David Blunkett nor his ministers can sit back and expect them to be delivered because they are not confident that all local authorities will raise standards on their own.

This is why, he said, despite the Government's intention to devolve more powers to schools, the DFEE has to play a direct role.

The DFEE's senior civil servant was delivering a speech for the Public Management and Policy Association in London. He said policy-making has been stifled by the "gradist" or hierarchical mentality of the civil service. He said there must be co-operation across government departments, but admitted that spin doctors and even permanent secretaries - not him of course - occasionally briefed against ministers in other departments.

He said there must be more research-based policy-making and willingness to consult and bring outside agencies into the process. For example, the Sure Start programme, for deprived children aged under three and their parents, involved health and social security departments.

The real world often does not allow such a considered policy process, he admitted: "Often policy is the result of pure politics."

It is no coincidence that his department has to hit most of its targets by 2001 - before the next general election.

He said tackling the real issues, for example social exclusion, needed a modernised policy process cutting across departments.

"Our failure to tackle effectively the big issues of the day often escapes censure because we focus our audit activity on how well expenditure is controlled. Rarely do we ask penetrating questions about the success of several Government departments in tackling the big social issues of the day which inevitably range across bureaucratic boundaries," he said.

The civil service faced its stiffest test in a long time. The Labour Government had arrived with a well-developed set of policies ready for implementation. "But we have now reached the point when the Government is wanting to move to a second wave of policy capable of taking New Labour up to and perhaps beyond the next election."

He recalled the Australian department for education and employment's mission statement "to remain the Government's preferred supplier of policy advice" and suggested his department could also adopt it.

The civil service's hierarchical structure made change difficult. He said people should be respected for the ideas they have and not their status:

"Creative organisations tend to be non-hierarchical. They encourage ideas to flow easily horizontally as well as vertically. People network effectively and feel able to make and unmake informal groups to develop thinking or tackle problems. Change happens fast."

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