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It's time that we started grumbling

The water was pouring through the living-room ceiling and down the bookshelves, the ones where the history books are. John Bright's collected speeches - "the angel of death" and all that - were curling at the corners. And, of course, it was New Year's Eve. Whenever you need a plumber, it always is.

I have a pre-arranged strategy for these crises: step one, panic; step two, find the Yellow Pages; step three, swear when the first number you call is engaged. The first eight I rang were either engaged or too busy ("Can't help you, guv, it's New Year's Eve" - as if I needed telling).

I want to tell you about the ninth one, Deadcert Plumbing, I think they were called. They said they were too busy, too. Then I quoted their advertisement in the Yellow Pages: "a plumber will be with you within the hour". I pointed out that the advert did not say "except on New Year's Eve".

And sure enough, a plumber was with me within an hour with all the essential plumbing equipment, including ill-fitting jeans. He fixed the hole in the pipe in five minutes flat and charged me Pounds 153.50. "No mate, there's no call-out charge but you have to pay for the first hour."

He left, and within 10 minutes, water was pouring over my history books again. I had that awful feeling of having been done: naive, foolish and my precious history books - not to mention the rest of the living room - no drier that before. I rang the Deadcert office again. "Can't help you, mate, it's New Year's Eve."

In the end, in desperation, we rang a friend with plumbing skills, who shook his head at the appalling work of the Deadcert man and fixed our pipe, refusing to take any more in payment than a bottle of Australian red. We wrung out the books and rung in the New Year.

But I hadn't finished with Deadcert. I wanted my money back. Surprise, surprise, when I rang on January 2, the manager wouldn't come to the phone. No, I couldn't be told his name. Indeed, the poor receptionist told me that she'd be sacked if she gave his name away. She read me the relevant paragraph from her conditions of service to prove it. Anyway, my complaint would have to be in writing. I wrote the letter, faxed it and was back on the phone within half an hour. Now the manager had my letter, would he come to the phone? No, he was busy . . . in a meeting . . out. The excuse varied each time I phoned. Eventually, after I threatened legal action - and set out the evidence I now had - I was told I would be refunded. A small triumph in a turning universe. But what does it have to do with education?

Before the water began to gush, I was reading James Tooley's review of my book, The Learning Game. His argument concluded by saying he hoped we didn't have to spend another 10 years trying to reform publicly provided education in the way my book proposed: instead, we should privatise the whole service right away. James Tooley is the best-read and most thoughtful of the free-marketeers. He is committed to improving schools and his review was written in the best traditions of constructive critique. But the idea that privatising a service will necessarily improve it, was washed away in my mind by that water coming through my ceiling and Deadcert's response.

The marketeers fondly believe that the market mechanism inevitably promotes quality because failure is driven out of business. Maybe in theory: but if my experiences with Deadcert are anything to go by, certainly not in practice. Not only is it possible for the shoddy and inefficient to survive for years in a market, it happens all the time. After all, when I reach for the Yellow Pages, I have absolutely no way of knowing what quality of service I will get. Nor, if I get poor service, have I an easy way of holding the provider to account. It took an enormous amount of time and sheer bloody-mindedness to get my money back, and if Deadcert's manager had been less susceptible to my persistence and threats, would I really have gone to a solicitor?

As if to confirm my doubts about the market panacea, when I turned on Newsnight a week or so later, I heard a business pundit explaining that Britain's problem, in comparison to the rest of the world, is that we have "a long tail of underperforming companies", including, presumably, Deadcert Plumbing.

Amazing. Exactly the same phrase crops up, doesn't it, every time we discuss school standards these days. If an identical problem occurs in both the market and public service sectors in this country, one has to ask whether the privatisation versus public service debate is the right one to have.

Maybe both sectors perform the way they do because of the cultural context in which they find themselves. Maybe large numbers of private companies and public sector organisations underperform because, at the heart of British culture, is a fatalistic belief that "success for all", while a cheerful phrase, is not actually achievable in the real world. Maybe the attitude which leads thousands of commuters every morning to accept treatment unfit for cattle (whether the railway is public or private, incidentally); that leads tenants in inner-city housing estates to endure - without complaining - conditions of shocking squalor; and that leads people like me, when I'm feeling less than bloody-minded, to accept the workmanship of the Deadcerts of this world, is the real problem.

After all, as Bill Bryson points out, the British are the only imaginable people on earth who answer the question "How are you?" with the immortal words "Mustn't grumble".

I say we must. Which is a long-winded way of saying zero tolerance of failure is a very good idea indeed.

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