Bureaucrat's dilemma

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
Former mandarin Anthony Woollard reflects on the gaps between ideals and duty that drove him out of the 'ed biz'.

Between 1980 and l995 I served in three relatively senior (assistant secretary) positions within the Department of State responsible for education. Many commentators have tried to analyse just what the Government was doing in education - and not least in its policy on my own main area of interest, the academicvocational divide - and why it was doing it. Yet its perspective is often far too coloured by their identification with the teaching profession. I share the basic values of many commentators on what might be called the broad Left; and, for all of us, the years since 1979 have been no easy ride. But I believe that a perspective from within Whitehall might offer a useful counterbalance to some views which are becoming part of a new educational orthodoxy.

That orthodoxy sees little or nothing that is positive in the developments of educational policy over the ThatcherMajor years, and is particularly concerned about the "conspiracy theory" by which Tory policy-makers lumped together the whole of the educational establishment as a bunch of anti-enterprise leftists. How does all this - and particularly the latter point - feel from the point of view of an ex-mandarin?

Let me focus particularly on the conspiracy theory, because it raises issues which impacted daily on our lives in Sanctuary Buildings, headquarters of the Department for Education and Employment. Certainly there was much evidence in my career that ministers, influenced by the Centre for Policy Studies and other ideologues, tended to lump together the educational establishment - including local education authorities (even Conservative ones) as well as the teaching profession, and indeed departmental officials and HM inspectors - and regard them as subversive of the Government's educational project. And a good deal of this paranoia was indeed bizarre. But the conventional analysis misses three fundamental points.

First, and perhaps most important, educationists often fail to understand the extent to which ThatcherMajor took up Adam Smith's argument that all professions are a conspiracy against the laity. The doctors and the lawyers too came under attack (along with the relevant Departmental officials who had "gone native" - as responsible officials, like responsible diplomats, must do to an extent if they are to do business with the "tribes" among whom they work). And no one can call the medical or legal professions a bunch of trendy lefties. In this connection I believe that commentators tend to underplay the significance of the Citizen's Charter, which, for all its naiveties and sillinesses, was in my experience a genuine if sometimes high-handed attempt to "empower the consumer". I know that "consumer" language is regarded with much suspicion in education. But the Government did seem to catch a mood in the national culture, a mood which was about "consumer empowerment", and that was the basis of its attack on the "ed biz" as on other cultures which looked like producer cartels.

For better or worse, the educational establishment was less well placed to deflect the attack than the medical or legal establishments.

The second point is related. There is a curious silence these days about the damaging industrial action by the teachers in the mid-1980s, which was widely seen in the country as a manifestation of undesirable "producer dominance". One can of course argue whether the action was justified or not, and it may be that it was an entirely understandable reaction against an already evident tendency by the Government to despise (and underpay) the profession. But perhaps one cannot entirely blame the Government, or the electorate, in concluding that the "producers" had lost their sense of professional responsibility.

My third point is rather different. The Tories' attack on the "ed biz" was not as one-dimensional as many claim. The accusation, first attributed to Keith Joseph, that the "biz" was "anti-enterprise" is not at all the same as (and is rather better attested than) the accusations about "1960s trendiness" in matters such as the importance of literacy, authority and tradition. My recollection of the department, and of HMI, at the beginning of the Thatcher years is one of old-style lower-case conservatism. (It might be recalled also that a TES poll at round about that time suggested that the majority of teachers voted Conservative). There was a great deal of attachment to quite traditional views about the nature of education, and a good deal of suspicion towards the very "trendy" ideas that the Government condemned. But some of those ideas, notably those which clustered around the demand for "relevance to real working life", were exactly the ones which the Government - through a different arm (the Department of Employment) subsequently came to promote. I well remember many practitioners - especially in FE - whose critiques of traditional academic education, which sometimes sounded pretty "trendy", were precisely what gave them the motivation to build up the "enterprise-friendly" approaches to vocational and pre-vocational education which characterised the early 1980s. The Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, after enormous and, in some measure, justified initial suspicion within the "ed biz", enabled the development of new, experiential, often interdisciplinary and modular approaches to education for all abilities. Often forgotten, too, is the paradox of how Joseph, that terrifying but ultimately honourable ideologue, came to be so committed to the GCSE, which through all its vicissitudes has done so much to encourage young people to continue in education and hence fuel the revolution in higher education - a revolution which may have a more profound effect in undermining right-wing ideology than anything else which has happened in this country for decades.

For me, part of the bureaucrat's dilemma was that I could identify with some parts of the Government project - notably the broad principles of the Citizen's Charter, and some aspects at least of the "enterprise" thrust (neither of which was all that fashionable among my DESDFE colleagues) - though deeply unhappy about others. On at least one occasion in my career I was a casualty in the "turf war" between the two great Departments of State which to some extent represented different and even divergent aspects of the Government project. Attempting to bridge two gaps - the gap between these two aspects, and the gap between personal ideals and the duty of a bureaucrat - created a considerable sense of isolation, though I was not in fact alone in that experience. The resulting, almost permanent, dilemma was between commitment and cynicism. Many of my colleagues seemed to survive on the latter (one very senior colleague once said to me: "If I really believed in what we are up to here I'd go out and hang myself tomorrow"). Maybe I just failed to cultivate the habit.

But the tensions which gave rise to this may or may not be the result of pure ideology. They may have deeper roots in our system of national governance.

Much contemporary management thinking is rooted in the idea that the day of "command and control" in the running of any "system" is dead. For example, Senge's The Fifth Discipline encourages managers to look at the total systems of which they are a part, rather than to see themselves in conflict with subordinates, competitors or customers. "Management by shared vision" is the new watchword, and the concept of a diversity of "stakeholders", promoted for example in the RSA report Tomorrow's Company, is central to that vision.

The Government - the same Government which actually commended that report in a recent White Paper on competitiveness - has failed to treat education as a system in which ministers, bureaucrats, the teachers themselves and the students andor their parents are all stakeholders, all interacting upon each other and all deserving of respect.

But maybe that is not entirely the fault of a particular administration. These new perceptions of systemic management, and indeed any serious thinking about management at all, were still barely percolating through the DFE (as it still then was) when I took early retirement at Easter 1995 - and, if few bureaucrats had taken them on board, even fewer ministers had done so (though I must pay tribute here to "my" last junior Minister, Tim Boswell). The department was still part of a command-and-control system, in which senior officials, rather than being managers of a system and partners in a vision, could easily come to feel like overworked hacks - "hired guns" in the telling phrase of one of my ex-colleagues - finding new ways of enforcing (often against their own ideals and better judgment) the will of an "elective dictatorship" on those stakeholders who were seen as the obstacle to that will.

Perhaps, if we had not lost the days when "partnership" was not yet a dirty word, we might eventually have found ways of incorporating these systemic insights into the governance of education at all levels from the national to the chalk-face. Perhaps a new deal for the governance of the nation itself (proportional representation? freedom of information? some new way of organising Whitehall?) might make the change possible in the future. Until then, the failings identified will continue to be endemic, and my erstwhile colleagues, and their "partners" in the field, and even ministers of integrity (irrespective of party) will continue to face the sort of dilemmas which drove me and others out of the Department.

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