Fans of the classic 1980s comedy Yes, Prime Minister may remember one of the many great exchanges between PM Jim Hacker and Cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby.
Hacker feels that so far his premiership has been a great success, and says to Sir Humphrey: “I have been asking myself: ‘What can I do to continue this run of success?’”
Sir Humphrey replies: “Have you considered masterly inactivity?”
Hacker is having none of it. “No, Humphrey. A prime minister must be firm,” he replies.
“Indeed,” says Sir Humphrey. “How about firm masterly inactivity?”
I was reminded of that exchange this week by the pause to government business during the official period of mourning for the Duke of Edinburgh. It has produced an unexpected oasis of calm: a week in which the normal daily deluge of guidance, tweaks to guidance and various announcements has virtually ceased.
And what a relief it has been.
Covid and schools: A break from endless government announcements
Schools, colleges, leadership teams and staff have had a period free of the endless verbiage that Whitehall feels compelled to churn out – a period in which they haven’t had to read documents written in leaden and convoluted prose late into the night.
If ever there was an advert for the benefits of “masterly inactivity” on the part of government – a time in which doing less is more beneficial than frantic activity – then this is it.
To be fair, the government has had to put out a lot of information over the course of the pandemic, and the changing nature of the pandemic inevitably necessitated updates. But I think it’s fair to say that Whitehall’s strengths do not lie in brevity and clarity.
At times it has managed the combination of producing guidance that is extensive at the same time as being utterly confused. The guidance on face coverings, for examples, tells secondary schools and colleges – in the course of one document – that their use must be implemented but is not mandatory.
At other times it has tinkered unnecessarily. One such example is a change in rules to base pupil premium allocations on the October census instead of the January census.
As a result of this change, schools have missed out on funding for children who became eligible for pupil premium support between October and January.
The rationale for this change is to “bring the pupil premium in line with how the rest of the core schools’ budget is calculated and will provide both schools and DfE with greater certainty around future funding levels earlier in the year”.
It’s an explanation of which Sir Humphrey himself would have been proud.
Ill-considered tinkering with the pupil premium
The fact is that this sort of administrative rule change was hardly the most pressing of priorities in the middle of a pandemic. Moreover, there was bound to be an increase in pupil premium eligibility between October and December because of the financial impact of the pandemic on so many families.
It would surely have made more sense to make any change after the pandemic and – whenever it occurred – with mitigation in place to stop schools from losing out on badly needed funding.
Doing nothing at this point in time would have been a much better course of action than the shambles that the government has created by its ill-considered tinkering.
The downside of this week’s unexpected period of inactivity, of course, is what next week might bring when the normal rules of engagement resume. Can we expect a blizzard of documentation and guidance that Whitehall has been holding back? We shall see.
Let’s at least hope that there is something of a lesson here. We accept, of course, that government must produce information and guidance, and that this is a perfectly proper function. But it also needs to exercise more care and precision in its execution of the information it provides.
Briefer, clearer and more sparing documentation is infinitely more helpful than a relentless diet of verbose and weighty tomes. School and college staff have had to spend far too much time over the course of the past year wading through and making sense of government guidance.
Nobody expects, or wants, masterly inactivity – but let’s hope for a new default mode now, so that government activity is a help rather than a hindrance.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders