A tsar too far: the illusion of progress

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Politicians are putting lasting solutions at risk by their futile obsession with the quick fix, says Bob Holmes

Your starter for 10. Who said this and when? "We trained hard . . . but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form in teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising - and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation."

Or put differently, the script used to go something like this: "We have a problem. We need to be seen to be doing something about it. Let's set up a working group. It can investigate and produce a report. Everyone will be happy."

Now the script is something like this: "We have a problem. We need to be seen to be doing something about it. Let's appoint a tsar. They can investigate and produce a report. Everyone will be happy."

Recently we have seen a drugs tsar, a health tsar and, more recently still, a behaviour tsar to improve the discipline and behaviour of pupils. In a different context, a tsar for transport and a tsar for terrorism are to be appointed. What next? An alcohol and nicotine tsar? Any takers for the position of sex tsar?

It is revealing that, even should one agree with such appointments, there is not a tsar for learning and teaching or for parts of the curriculum or for self-esteem - all areas, it could be argued, much more worthy of interest and attention from our political masters.

Why is it then that we focus on areas where there appears to be an obvious fault or failure: young people eat the wrong food and exercise too little; they misuse some drugs some of the time; and from time to time they behave badly? So, what's new? The deficit model is alive and well and being applied thoughtlessly.

I am not, of course, condoning inappropriate behaviour and indeed we do young people no service whatsoever by fudging issues and not giving them appropriate reference points to help them make good decisions for themselves. But would it not be better to try to discover - really discover - why young people abuse their bodies with food, with alcohol, with drugs, and why not taking exercise and living an unhealthy lifestyle is more attractive?

Obesity is a particularly good, pertinent and current example. Recently, a research scientist asserted that almost all pharmaceutical companies have teams looking for a pill for obesity. So they will produce a "cure" for obesity - and make bucketloads of money into the bargain. A pill for every ill, indeed.

As a society we respond increasingly to what we are presented with, not what is actually there - patches for smoking, the morning after pill, and so on. It's the symptom and illness syndrome, the age of quick fixes.

What about real and lasting solutions instead? Well, to begin with, it is expensive. Then, of course, it is difficult. Yet further, it can be very time-consuming. Ultimately, it demands real and sustained effort.

We need to address the issues in a joined-up way. This in turn requires us to look at our community, our culture, our values and our own integrity.

And we also need to understand change and why lots of the time change is very difficult and often does not happen. On reflection, though, I suppose that many of us still think that change is merely an action.

So, put together all the reasons for doing nothing and you have a fairly compelling case - most especially when time is taken to consider the expense. Yet this country is wealthy. The difficult choices are about what we spend that wealth on - maintaining armed services and invading other countries or the long-term benefits from health promotion and learning?

It has been demonstrated that proactive, preventative action is more effective - and more cost- effective - than any other form of intervention.

If this is the case why are we shy of investing in this way?

We should choose the difficult path. It will take time; it will not produce instant results; it will require patience and commitment from all concerned. It is a mark of a caring and humane society that we put the needs of all of our people first. We have had formal educational processes in place in this country for several centuries, yet it seems that we have not learnt this one central lesson. That may not be surprising, but it can be demoralising. It certainly is not new.

So, how did you do with the starter for 10? This statement was made almost 2,000 years ago. It was made by Petronius Arbitor who was governor of Bythnia.

Here endeth the lesson?

Bob Holmes was formerly depute rector of Hawick High.

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