Cosmic shift sparks debate

21st March 1997 at 00:00
There was probably never a golden age of educational management and governance, but to many in the system the present seems much more stressful than anything in the past. Some folk, especially those at the top of the management and governance trees, often say they enjoy the new environment and think it works better.

Many others, especially those at the bottom, feel they are being overworked and over-regulated to the point where they cannot do their job properly and hanker for the days when teachers and lecturers taught while administrators cocooned them. Since that old world will never come back, a new journal, the Stakeholder is published this week to help people debate these issues, with articles, among others, by Lord Nolan and politicians about their plans for the public services after the election.

This change in culture is not peculiar to either educational institutions or to Britain. It is visible worldwide in the fields of health and housing as well as education. The vast command economy public sectors of the world, often established in the 19th century on military models, are now beginning to wilt. A global process of atomisation seems to be at work. Here at home it has been politically driven over the past two decades by competition, market testing and league tables and a determination to reduce the power of 'producer' trade unions. At the root of it all is a phenomenon, common to all western countries, of a fossilised tax base which has become permanently capped because of a fear among politicians of middle-class revolt if they increase it: in Europe this is made more acute by Maastricht rules on borrowing which inhibit them doing so anyway and the twin burdens of structural unemployment and increasing longevity which swallow any surplus. Our present government has opted for a competitive and managerial solution to it all. They see how new management has made massive 'efficiency' gains in the white-collar private sector - building societies, banking and insurance. Why not, they say, in the white-collar public sector also?

This new culture has brought with it profound problems of political legitimacy. Forty years ago the political culture of education was comfortable: teachers, heads, education officers, ministry officials, exam boards, HMIs would complain about each other but all had their place in the cosmic order of the education service. Now that old cosmos has disappeared, they all have to fight for their own separate legitimacies. Roles are often confused and stress gets worse as financial stringency bites a little harder each year. There are no easy alibis for these insoluble problems. Partial solutions are left to local stakeholders - managers and governors, heads and principals, union officials, senior management teams, parish councillors, concerned parents. It is a cultural situation somewhat akin to post-cold war Russia and post-Maoist China.

It is to try to meet some of the needs in this situation that the Stakeholder has been established with help from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It is (currently) a bimonthly journal, designed to help governors and managers of all public sector organisations develop new guidelines and a new culture for the conduct of public life in Britain. It is founded on the proposition that there is an overwhelming need for widespread debate about the standards and values appropriate to public life in the 21st century. The Nolan Committee was set up to lead this debate because parliament and the Government had clearly fallen down on the job. But the succession of Nolan reports which are appearing can do no more than provide a few principles and a sketchy outline. The debate needs public participation if it is to mean anything: and, as government and local authorities withdraw from the actual problems of management and content themselves with league tables, strategies and rigid financial budgets, it is in the schools, colleges and universities, which now form the largest element of publicly funded institutions in Britain, where this debate can be particularly effective.

Christopher Price is editor of the Stakeholder available from Dawson Building, UCE, Birmingham B42 2SU; phone 0121 331 6608; fax 0121 331 6622.

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