Being partial to advise

27th August 2004 at 01:00
How concerned should we be that the Government's leading adviser on academies also takes the shilling of a headhunting firm which has been working with three of the new schools?

As it raises the issue of a possible conflict of interest, the obvious answer is very concerned indeed. But neutrality is for decision-makers, not advisers. Someone who had no background in education would not make for a particularly special adviser. Surely you want at least some of your wise counsel to come from those with a deep inside knowledge of the subject.

Inevitably, such people are not going to be coming at the issue from a totally neutral perspective.

That is why the complaints from the National Union of Teachers about Sir Bruce's position need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The NUT never objects when the Government listens to its advice, however rarely it does so. Although the unions may claim to have the pupil's best interests at heart, they work for the interests of their members, the teachers. The unions thus have as many vested interests as anyone else.

Even if, in the good tradition of the British Civil service, you appointed amateur outsiders, it would not guarantee impartiality. As the Whitehall docudrama Yes Minister illustrated, everyone involved in government has some interest which can be used by those seeking to manipulate them to make sure they deliver the desired conclusions.

The problem with advisers' potential conflicts of interest is not that they exist, because that's inevitable. Problems arise when two core principles are not applied. There must be absolute transparency. If you know what stake an individual has in a policy, you can allow for that when weighing up their advice. It is only when you wrongly believe that the adviser is totally impartial that biases can mislead.

And there has to be balance across the range of advice given. If the Government only listens to advisers with one set of interests, then policy will be skewed in their favour. But if as well as people from the private sector, academics, unions, parents and other stakeholders are also consulted, the advisers' vested interests don't matter.

The questions we should be asking about Sir Bruce are whether his private-sector interests were declared and whether the Government is balancing his views with those of others less closely associated with private-sector education service providers.

Until and unless we have reason to answer no to these questions, Sir Bruce's connection with Veredus is no cause for outcry.

Julian Baggini is the author of "What's It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life", published by Granta in September, and editor of "The Philosophers' Magazine"

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