Curse of the amateurs

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
The civil service has been in the news recently because of future redundancies, following the Budget. Over the years I have met numerous civil servants and I shall not be cheering this development, even though I have been critical of some of their actions.

There are still many important administrative jobs around that must be done properly. The truth is that civil servants have often been unwisely deployed, not that they are superfluous.

As if to soften the blow, the Prime Minister tried to encourage civil servants by saying that they should be more creative and produce lots of new ideas. No. Absolutely not. Sorry, Tone, but you've got that wrong. To be effective, ideas must be firmly rooted in the real world in which they will be applied.

One of the greatest problems in education has been the existence of an official wheeze factory showering down unrooted ideas from an intellectual and practical vacuum. Civil servants should no more come up with novel ideas affecting classrooms than they should devise new methods of building a suspension bridge or composing a symphony.

Imagine lying on an operating table, only to be told that the surgeon will soon be arriving to remove your appendix using a technique recommended in a memo from Ms Thing in Room 342 to Mr Whatsit in Room 631.

The biggest millstone in our history is the tradition of the amateur that pervades the civil service. If you can get a good degree in classics or whatever, so the belief ran, you can slide seamlessly into anything.

A few years ago I was at a conference about teacher supply. An intelligent and charming official got up to present his department's forecast of teacher numbers. I listened in disbelief at the sheer wrongness of some of the assumptions, before taking his forecasting model apart - in the nicest possible way, of course.

Afterwards he thanked me profusely and asked if he could ring me up to talk further, as he was new to the business of forecasting teacher numbers."What were you doing before you started this job?" I asked. "I used to be in museums," he replied. No sooner had the poor beggar got to grips with the curse of the mummy than he was on to his next bewildering assignment.

On another occasion we had an official assigned to a government-funded (never again) research project I was directing. He seemed so far off the pace, I decided to take him into a primary school, partly to show him the kind of location in which we were doing the research, but mainly as a means of recycling his blood. "Gosh," he exclaimed, "I haven't been in an environment like this since I was at prep school."

One suggestion that has been made is that redundant civil servants should train as teachers, which I think is a brilliant idea. Some could return to administration later in their career, much the wiser for a spell in the location for which they hold responsibility. The only snag would be if they spoke in officialese. "Now, Amanda, what is the answer to the question whereof we spoke?" "ErI" Most of the civil servants I have met over the years have been exceptionally hardworking and committed to their jobs. It is not their fault if they are put into situations where they lack expertise, or if they offer politicians sensible advice which is then ignored.

Every senior education official should visit a primary or secondary school once or twice a term, observe lessons and talk to teachers and children, working to a proper discussion agenda.

It would be time well spent. They would see things at first hand and hear about daily realities directly from pupils, parents, heads and teachers.

Most of the barmier wheezes would probably be suffocated at birth, so the important ones could get through.

I once got a letter from a primary teacher who was recycling old national curriculum documents by turning them into papier mache models.

Just think of the sheer therapy, if you are a civil servant, of shredding official documents with a group of six-year-olds and converting them into a nodding dog (or the ideal civil servant, in the view of some politicians).

Or suppose your friendly senior officials arrived on one of their termly visits during an Ofsted inspection and you could whisper "Close the buggers down" in their ear. Wonderful possibilities.

The trouble is, ministers have two trays in their office for papers from their advisers: a small one labelled "action" and, for suggestions which might offend the Number 10 policy unit, a very large white bowl, with lift-up seat and flush, marked "pending".

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