Lament on passing of age of trust;Opinion

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Why is it so unusual to find a police officer in the street? Why is it so hard to get an appointment with a doctor at less than a week's notice? Why, in universities, is it so rare to see lecturers chatting to students in the coffee bar? The answer is that they are attending to their paperwork. Forms, checklists, reports and targets plague all professionals - not just teachers, who have voted for industrial action.

For years, politicians have argued that red tape is a bad thing. "Bureaucracy" has become a term of abuse. But the effect of thinning out the traditional layers of bureaucracy has been twofold. One is to disperse the paperwork to people who are supposedly paid to perform professional or public service tasks, such as teachers, nurses, doctors or police officers. In that sense, we are all bureaucrats now. The other effect has been to create new layers of people variously called inspectors, consultants, auditors, managers whose job is to check that the paperwork is in order.

These latter people are often better paid than the professionals and much better paid than the old-style pen-pushers. Bertrand Russell once remarked that there were two kinds of work: one involved moving matter at or near to the Earth's surface, the other involved telling other people to do it. The second was both more pleasant and better-rewarded than the first. Now, Michael Power, professor of accounting at the London School of Economics, in a recent book called The Audit Society (Oxford University Press), has noted a new gulf between poorly-rewarded doing and highly-rewarded observing.

The cause of what Professor Power calls the audit explosion - the need for more and more people to generate more paperwork on checking that others do their jobs properly - is the decline of trust in society. We no longer trust the police to act justly, doctors to make us well, the unemployed to claim benefit fairly, teachers to teach competently. The reasons are complex: the decline of family and community; the growth of specialisation; the decline of religion and ideology and the social and moral authority that derived from them.

Far from lamenting the decline of trust, or endeavouring to repair it, the leaders of the audit society are apt to denigrate precisely the relationships that underpinned it. Like-minded professional networks are dismissed as the education establishment; local authorities and their advisers are too soft and cosy; the old-style supportive HMI gave teachers too easy a ride.

Yet as Professor Power suggests, audit does not banish the need for trust. The auditors must still trust information provided by the audited professionals. Inspectors must take it largely on trust that school lesson plans, where aims and outcomes neatly dovetail, bear any relation to reality.

Paperwork abounds on special needs and free meals but schools can falsify the information. It may be possible to tighten up security on the national curriculum tests, but it is hard to see that league table compilers have any alternative to trusting schools on figures for non-authorised absence.

The trouble is that, in a society which sets such store by audit, the temptations to fiddle the relevant data are enormous. Audits may thus create reason for distrust where none existed before.

Professor Power's sub-title is Rituals of Verification. Though he does not mention schools, I cannot think of a better term for much of what now goes on in them: the long meetings, the mission statements, the action plans, the rewritten policies.

A century ago, society expected teachers to be God-fearing, church-going citizens, familiar with the New Testament. Now, we expect them to be OFSTED-fearing, in-service training attenders, familiar with national curriculum statements of attainment, literacy hour stategies or whatever fancy currently preoccupies authority.

I do not normally praise the teacher unions. But in their battle against paperwork, I wish them well.

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