A blurred distinction between the civil service and politics

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Just what are we to make of the speech by Michael Bichard? The text is significant not only for its new age of Labour optimism but also for its insight into the changing nature of the civil service.

For here we have the spectacle of a bureaucrat from the highest circles of power delivering a tantalising vision of future government policy - perhaps even briefed by Messrs Blair and Blunkett personally. Why, in that case, did they not come themselves?

Although the report suggests that the speech carries "greater weight" because of the "apolitical status" of Mr Bichard, this is contradicted by the description of the permanent secretary as one of the "government's most powerful civil servants". I always understood that the civil service was not "the government's" - or anyone else's for that matter.

The truth of the matter is that discussion of educational issues has become entirely politicised - and to speak of education as a forum where, like the teddy-bears picnic, teachers, administrators, and policy-makers sit down together, is to believe in pure fantasy.

To leave it at that would be bad enough, but then, Michael Bichard casually implies that teachers are to blame for causing - in some runic fashion - the low status of the Department for Education and Employment itself. Where does that leave him in professional terms? As permanent secretary in a department which he admits is playing second - or even third fiddle - his future career movements will be watched with considerable interest by informed observers of the Whitehall merry-go-round.

Faced with such a woeful scenario, my colleagues and I could well deduce that the fragmentation of education policy-making has reached such a pitch that even politicians can't be trusted with delivering the goods. Instead, the permanent secretary is sent out to stump the country as chief proselytiser for the government's new crusade.

Finally, if Michael Bichard believes that criticism of Chris Woodhead is mere "personal vendetta" then either he is culpably ignorant of the truth or is being actively misled by his own officials. The omens, I am afraid, do not look good.

KAROL J GAJEWSKI Taxmere Close Sandbach Cheshire

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