Rattled by birth of a corporate baby

1st December 1995 at 00:00
The departments of Education and Employment were hastily rushed up the aisle this summer and married life in the land of management speak is proving turbulent. Lucy Hodges reports.

Once upon a time there were two departments. One was staffed by practical people who knew how to make things happen. They responded fast to ministerial commands and helped those without jobs and skills to find work and training.

The other department was a superior animal. Its mandarins - many with Oxbridge degrees - thought high-falutin' thoughts about teaching and the curriculum. They wrote clever documents and left the running of education to the local authorities. They pondered policy and had fine ideals about education for life, not work.

Those are stereotypes, of course, but they help to explain the differing cultures of the old Departments of Employment and Education. Today the dynamic new permanent secretary, Michael Bichard, who likes to call himself the chief executive, is trying to forge a new corporate culture at Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster, the home of the new DFEE.

With a cunning mixture of speed, efficiency, openness and modern management-speak, he and his board of eight, including four director-generals, are creating a structure and vision for the hapless civil servants forced together in this shotgun marriage.

Are they succeeding? Is policy being changed? Will we see any difference on the ground - in the classrooms and lecture theatres and in people's lives? Will the merger mean the end of turf wars in education? Will a coherent vocational and academic strategy emerge? Will education be refashioned to fit the jobs market better?

There is little doubt that things are changing inside the sleek DFEE building, lined with marble and its Hanging Gardens of Babylon atrium. Teachers may derive wry amusement from the fact that civil servants are having to adapt to change at the speed of light - the same way they have been expected to react for the past 10 years.

Since July 5 this year, when the Prime Minister announced the marriage, the pace has been furious and the process profoundly bruising to many individuals. No one, including the permanent secretaries and their ministers, had any idea the merger was to happen until an hour before its announcement.

It was a daunting undertaking: Employment, a vast federal structure with 50,000 staff and an elaborate network of Job Centres, had somehow to be united with the 1,700 members of Education.

Initially staff were in turmoil; today the agony has given way to general disorientation and low morale, depending on whether the staff members have the job they wanted or not.

"Wherever you went after the merger, people thought that the other department had taken them over, which only served to increase a sense of depression, " Bichard said in a speech at the time.

Within two weeks of the announcement a new senior corporate management structure had been worked out: the permanent secretary as chairman of the board with eight directors (the old deputy secretary level) answering to him. By the end of July, the directors' appointments were announced.

Once the directors were in post, they were given the task of working out their own structures. All along, the emphasis was on openness and consultation. These are the new buzzwords at the DFEE - and leave the observer gasping. Whatever happened to the secrecy and discretion of old? If the new regime is to be believed, it has gone, along with passivity, weasel words and empire-building.

The directors have also been at work on the organisation's new aims and objectives, as well as a set of values. All of which reflects the public-sector management, rather than mandarin, background of Mr Bichard. Again, staff were consulted and their views fed into the process. One director recalls receiving 30 memos from staff on the new values. The new aim "to support economic growth and improve the nation's competitiveness and quality of life by raising standards of educational achievement and skill and by promoting an efficient and flexible labour market" would probably raise few eyebrows today.

But it is a far cry from the way the old Department of Education saw itself.

Similarly, the new objectives are geared to the world of work. Many would argue that this befits a country struggling in the new global economy. But no mention is made of producing law-abiding citizens with broad liberal educations, people who are articulate and can think for themselves. These are supposed to be the recruits employers want.

Bichard felt that concentrating only on aims, objectives and structures was not enough. Hence his emphasis on values. "We were convinced that we had to begin to describe the kind of organisation we wanted to create and that would be as much about behaviour and ways of working as anything else," he said.

The values in question concerned civil servants being more service-orientated, proactive, open and democratic (not Whitehall's traditional style). Bichard was so enthusiastic about these values that he made a video of himself talking to staff about them. Employees of the DFEE are given copies - they are not obliged to watch it but many do, and the reports are favourable.

When the merger was announced in the summer it was generally welcomed. Experts thought it made sense because of the overlap on training and qualifications. Such change had long been advocated by the likes of Sir Geoffrey Holland, former permanent secretary at both departments and now Exeter University's vice-chancellor.

It is still too early to see if the merger has influenced policy but the new department is sure that it will. The fact that qualifications - including all academic examinations as well as vocational qualifications - come under a single minister (Lord Henley) and a single official (Michael Richardson) should enable a coherent policy to be worked out, for example. Similarly the fact that further education and youth training are under one roof, as well as lifetime learning and National Targets, should lead to greater consistency and direction.

The new department's first policy document is due to appear early this month. It is on lifetime learning and is being seen as an important consultation exercise which asks the public numerous questions. It should assuage critics of the old DFE such as Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts, who believes that the new department's values must be geared to the individual lifetime learner rather than the providers of education and training.

The merger also makes sense to government critics like Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, who said he hoped it would lead to a more rounded curriculum for the 14-plus age group, give those on the vocational track a broader education, and the academic pupils more grounding in the practical. However, "the fear is that the employment tail will wag the education dog," he said.

Other academics fear that the agencies created recently to run teacher training, inspections and assessment will spark new battles in Whitehall and make it difficult for the department to concentrate on raising standards and improving the quality of learning. The department appreciates this but says that with only one set of ministers' hands on the trigger, it should be easier to sort out turf wars.

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