Archive for the ‘Local Democracy’ Category

Reflections on Rotherham: part 2 of 3

September 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Introduction to part 2

In part 1 of this critical engagement Professor Alexis Jay’s report on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham, the focus was mainly on the factors which drove the upsurge in CSE in the late 1990s and 2000s, rather than the council’s and other agencies’ response to that upsurge.  Clearly, though, the way in which those ‘external’ factors took effect during the period had an effect on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the response by those agencies.

In part 1, I made two main points in particular about the weaknesses in the Jay report in respect of these factors.  Here in part 2, I’ll expand somewhat on the implications of these, and of how the reports interprets them, before moving on to the ‘internal’ institutional dynamics of the agencies response to CSE, and will again suggest that the analysis by Jay is inadequate, and indeed potentially counterproductive at a national level, given her new role as adviser to the public inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse announced in July.

In part 3, I’ll move on to what I think is the biggest conceptual flaw in the Jay report – the failure to grasp what community development actually is  – and I’ll finish with an assessment of what does actually need to be done to stop and prevent the growth of CSE (and child abuse more generally), and offer some suggestions on how we might move in that direction.  Needless to say, these suggestions won’t involve manadatory reporting, which is at best a distraction, or fabricating evidence so that staff can be disciplined, as the MP for Rotherham is now apparently suggesting.  Sadly, Labour has been utterly useless in its response so far, and this is my attempt to help it respond better, before it is too late.

Ethnicity and political correctness

In part 1 I suggested that the report lacked the courage of some of its convictions about the “issue of ethnicity” (as one of the report chapters is entitled), with Jay going to lengths to say that ethnicity cannot possibly be seen as a predictor of child abuse perpetration, before backtracking and accepting that future work to combat CSE may have to confront ‘cultural issues’.  I then set out an alternative way of approaching the matter, in a way that not only allows for a ‘race-blind’ approach to tackling CSE, but which is actually more effective because it is race-blind i.e. it is not caught up by extraneous issues of ethnicity, but focuses on the actual material circumstances which are predictive of CSE [1].

This is important stuff because, if we accept that race-blind intervention to stop and then prevent CSE is not only possible but more effective than ethnicity-focused intervention [2], much of the criticism, itself based in the report on little more than hearsay, that police, council staff and councillors betrayed children because they weren’t courageous enough to ‘take on political correctness’ – becomes an irrelevance.

Maybe, just maybe, the managers and councillors were correct in their approach. Maybe, just maybe, being politically correct can be correct in terms of lived outcomes as well as votes.

That’s not to say that sending the Home Office researcher off on diversity training course for using the word ‘Asian’ in a report was the correct thing to do; this does sound cack-handed, as it is pretty well impossible to imagine a Home Office researcher into CSE having anything other than a good understanding of diversity issues, and therefore open to a reasonable debate, based on the kind of evidence I produced in part one about circumstance being the overriding predictor, about whether her approach was reasonable.   Her mistreatment, though, may have more to do with the dominant masculine managerialism referred to in the Jay report (and which I analyse below) than with the fact that she was right and they were wrong about the fundamentals of the best way to tackle the CSE epidemic.

Maybe it was the other way round.  Maybe the managers were right.  Maybe she was wrong.

Let”s be blunt, then. Even though the report hedges it is bets – “Recommendation 14 reads: The issue of race should be tackled as an absolute priority if it is a significant factor in the criminal activity of organised child sexual abuse in the Borough)” – this very hedging means that the media and popular reaction to the report has focused on the need to overcome political correctness and focus on ethnicity a way to prevent further abuse.

The Jay report may therefore end up doing children currently being exploited and at risk of exploitation more harm than good.

The perfect storm: external meets internal

Also in part 1, suggested that a key weakness in the Jay report – though this may have more to do with the terms of reference and timescales than Jay and her team’s own capacities – is the failure to assess why the incidence of CSE has risen.  My own answer to this question is linked to the argument above about circumstance over ethnicity, and argues that the rise of mobile and social media technology, plus the easy availability of internet porn as a progressively misogynsing factors [link to Us article], creates both the ‘motivation’ and opportunity to develop exploitative techniques.  Jay’s relative failure to assess the surge in incidence feeds into the over-emphasis on ethnicity.  It also incidentally allows her a route out of commenting properly on the horribly inequitable funding of the council as a whole; while she notes the 33% loss of spending power in Rotherham in comparison with 4.8% in Buckinghamshire (para 12.14) , there is no recommendation as to what might be done about such clear inequity.

But this is just one part the ‘perfect storm’ that hit those principally and statutorily responsible for protecting children – frontline social workers.   The other factors which hit children’s social care staff in the crucial period were understaffing – I’m not sure how any council department might be expected to operate with a vacancy rate of 43% (para 12.2) – and the rampant managerialism which took hold of public services delivery in the 1990s and 2000s.

I should be clear what I mean by managerialism, a term not used in the Jay report itself but which I use here to reflect the kind of events she describes (but doe not fully analyse) in her report..  I mean the ideologically-motivated assumption that if public services (indeed services of any kind) are subject to improved management targets and controls, then the quality of that services is bound to improve.  This assumption, as Chris Dillow has set out on his blog and in his fine book New Labour and the folly of managerialism is wrong, not least because what may be gained through ‘efficiencies’ is lost through diminished professional/worker autonomy.

This we can see from the Jay report, is precisely what happened in Rotherham in the 2000s.   The account at paras 6.21-6.24 about how social worker time was remorselessly squeezed away from both preventative and vital followup work is not just an account of understaffing.  When I asked frontline social workers in my area about this section, they actually burst out laughing at the idea that there might not have been downward pressure to increase “throughput” (the beautifully managerial term used by Jay at para. 6.23); of course frontline professionals would deny that they had submitted to such pressures, they told me, as that would make them look unprofessional in the eyes of Jay’s team (and therefore open to disciplinary measures for loss of professional standards), but of course they will have submitted to pressures – how, if there were no such pressures, would have the question of such pressure have arisen in the first place?

Perhaps even more revealingly, Jay covers the role played by Barnardo’s in the removal of professional autonomy, through the introduction of a “numeric scoring system” (para 6.38).  Jay detiails how, while managers may claim otherwise in their interviews (again, understandably in the view of possible sanctions), frontline social workers make it quite clear that there was little room for them to exercise professional judgment and override the scoring system where they felt the scoring was underplaying the actual risk at which children found themselves.

Again, I asked experienced children’s social workers, with whom I come into contact for me work, what they thought of these paragraphs in the Jay report (they had not read the report at that stage, so I paraphrased Jay but referred specifically to the Barnardo’s scoring system, which is well-known and in widespread use.  These colleagues answered to the effect that the Barnardo’s scoring model is deficient not just because it doesn’t, of itself, allow for professional judgment alongside the scoring, but that professional judgment is actively excluded by the insistence on the need, within the scoring process, for concrete evidence.

The (recent) example I was given of a teenage girl who had been found by police (involved in other crime detection work) on an edge-of-town caravan park, miles from home, and in a place unfamiliar to her family.  There was no evidence that she was on that night subject to sexual exploitation and so, despite the putting of two and two together by social workers, the risk assessment as scored downplayed a risk obvious to pretty well everybody involved in the case.

It is not always thus.  One of the local authorities that my work connects with had looked at the Barnardo’s mode in the mid-2000s and, because they remained open to some real frontline social worker interaction, had chosen not to go with the ‘best practice’ Barnardo’s model, but instead asked frontline social workers to develop their own model for standardised assessment.

What to make of all this?  Well, the first thing to mention is the level of control that Barnado’s, a voluntary sector organisation dominated by a controversial Chief Executive, appear to have had not only over Rotherham but across a swathe of local authorities in England.  While a voluntary organisation in legal definition, Barnardo’s size and capacity to undercut smaller organisations and in-house provision, combined with its clever marketing means that it has become something of an untouchable. Even here, where the finger has been pointed at Barnardo’s for the introduction of a scoring model which is demonstrably not ‘best practice’, or even good practice, the (otherwise very good) Rotherham Council response to the Jay report continues to refer to it in these hallowed terms, and to make clear that it use will continue.  Here is not the place to delve in detail into the relationship between Barnardo’s (and its arc-rival NCH) and the state, but it is worth stressing that if you are going to act effectively as an arm of the state,  then you really need to be held to the same standards as the state.  On this occasion, at least, this hasn’t happened.

The second, broader, point to make about this section of the Jay report is that, while Jay set out well the way frontline social worker were subject to managerialist influences to the detriment of their professional judgement [3], she probably fails to reach the correct conclusions on the basis of these findings.  Instead of pointing out how the managerialism which spread across local authorities in the 1990s and 2000s at the expense of professional autonomy – some of this because of contracting out to bodies like Barnardo’s – may have caused the practice failures she uncovers, Jay instead opts for another broad explanatory factor: the aggressive. ‘macho’ culture which dominated the council in the same period.   Yet no direct link is apparent between this macho culture and poor practice outcomes for children.

It seems to me that a more indirect explanation is brought forward while an indirect one is ignored, either because it is inconvenient or – I suspect more likely – the idea that managerialism night be a problem lies beyond Professor Jay’s conceptual paradigm of how a local authority should operate.  This is not to say that councillor and senior officer misogyny and aggression did played no part in what happened, but it is also possible that this cultural aspect of the council’s failure was fed and watered by the ideological and institutional factors which came into local government from Thatcher onwards, whereby management efficiencies become more important than professional relationships in a way which then fostered ‘black box’-style – I don’t care how the target is met, just meet the target – approaches to management [4].

Again, this is not just esoteric wondering about the background causes to the Rotherham failures; establishing why the failures happened is essential to ensuring that they don’t happen in future.  If the public eqnuiry on which Professor Jay will act as a key adviser and is chaired by a key proponent of privatization, accepts her analysis that macho, male-dominated councils are at the heart of the problem, then the solution will lie in human resources practice to ensure that more women are in top positions and /or that macho practice is trained and developed out of people.  If, as I contend we should, the key problem is actually that professional autonomy has been stripped away from professionals (and from professional training), then the answers lie elsewhere.  This will be a key battleground in the inquiry process, but at the moment the managerialists hold the higher ground.

That’s enough for part 2.  Part 3, covering the key conceptual failure of the Jay report, and recommendations for action on the part of those willing to think and act in the interests of children, as opposed to the need to be seen to be angry, will follow soon.



[1] There is a straight analogy with the application of English law here.  The basic principle is that an offender is prosecuted for an offence, not for the type of offender s/he is, although when assessing the level of offence it is leigtimate to take into account other offences committed to establing an offending pattern.  It seems odd therefore, for people interested in ‘British values’ to be arguing that there should be a focus on offender profiling rather than offence profiling when it comes to CSE.

[2] Another question arises here about the ‘issue of ethnicity”:  if CSE were in fact ethnic culture-driven, rather than circumstance-driven, what would we actually do about it?  Is Jay actually suggesting that priority should be given to changing culture in some way, over and above measures to intervene tactically in the circumstances which we know actually create CSE opportunities?  If so, this would seem to be anti-PC gone maaaad, a desperate attempt to paficy the Islam-correlates-with-rape crowd at the expense of children’s futures?

[3] It occurs to me that this may seem like too strong a defence of frontline social workers.  After all, whatever managerialist influences they were subject to, they are still professionals, with professional standards, so should n’t we have expected them to stand up better to their bosses.  The answer to this question is yes, we should, but my argument here (as elsewhere) is that moral condemnation of staff – and their sacking – does nothing about professional competence in the long term; we need to establish why and how professional didn’t feel able to act up to professional standards, and a failure to do so will be a like act of gross political failure (as well as failure in social work training, which i’ll cover in part 3)

Here is not the place to go into loss of professional ethics and standards in detail, other than to say that there is a rich seam of ressearch literature on the subject, for those politically professional enough to engage with it.  It’s called, broadly, Implementation Studies, and starts with the seminal work of Michael Lipsky (1980), which details how frontline professionals move, in certain circumstances, from autonomy and advocacy towards alienation and disregard for their clients as whole human beings.  It ends, for me at least for now, with this detailed qualitiative study of how even Finnish welfare professionals are subject to managerialism and see their work get worse as a result.

[4] The best read I know on this post-Thatcher trend, other than Chris Dillow’s book, is Gerry Stoker’s (2004) Transforming Local Governance: From Thatcherism to New Labour.  Here’s how he summaries managerialism:

Managerialism……..began in the 1980s and 1990s to take an increasingly strong hold in local government.  This ideology saw political leadership as important in setting direction but beyond that a potential source of inefficiency.  Politicians should set goals but not dictate the means to achieve them. The key to managerialism is its emphasis on the right of managers to mange against inappropriate interference from politicians or, for that matter, the special pleading of professional groups (p.13, my italics)



The early institution building of a new NHS

March 25, 2013 2 comments

The NHS is dying, pretty well exactly as I said it would  some two years ago now:

Some scandals may emerge in time over ‘backhanders’ paid by the private hospitals to the private commissioners, and in some circumstances it will turn out that the people doing the commissioning are simply commissioning themselves in another name – the whole inefficiency of which the provider-purchaser split was supposed to stop – but it will all be a bit esoteric and complicated for people to understand, and there won’t be much of a fuss.

In fairly short order, we may get these new commissioners creating two tiers of provision from within GP surgeries, with one level of care for those not paying, and those who just happen to have signed the relevant insurance policy forms, which just happen to be in the GP surgery.

Insurance-based healthcare, and the exclusions that this brings, will come not through a government announcement,  but by the surgery backdoor……

The consortia [now called CCGs] will end up being led by two or three ‘movers and shakers’ in each area, whose job will be simply to negotiate a decent deal for their colleagues and let the private commissioners get on with the rest.   There will be no revolt in primary care, and in secondary care no-one will actually notice till it’s too late.

Two years on, it’s being more widely recognised that, as of 1st April, the NHS privatisation will being quietly but in earnest, as the section 75 regulations kick into gear, Clinical Commissioning Groups with often overwhelming direct financial interests in private providers put services out to the market, public provision withers on the vine or simply goes bust, and private insurance arrangements start to become the norm, initially for (the more profitable) elective healthcare, and then for the rest.   As Lucy Reynolds from the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine rightly notes, what comes next in this wildly ‘imperfect’ market is market abuse and health cost inflation.  This inflation around the ‘cherry-picked’ services, Lucy might also have noted, will lead to the stripping of resources from the less profitable services – no health budget ring-fencing will protect that.

So what is to be done?  By 2015, if and when Labour regains power, the promise of a repeal of the Health & Social Care Act (and the accompanying Section 75 regulations) may be a welcome statement of principle, but it will not significantly change the way in which services have already been privatised, seemingly irrevocably.  In many cases, there simply won’t be the public services to transfer them back to, and the incoming government is likely to consider the full-scale implementation of NHS II a little too much of a fiscal challenge, even if the recreation of the cumbersome institutions of 1948 were desirable.*

What Labour can do, though  – and needs to start thinking through now – is to tackle the local institutional architecture, in a way which creates the platform both for the establishment of local democratic control of both the type and quality of provision.  If it gets this right, this might actually lead, in the medium term, to a better health service than we currently enjoy – as I’ve noted before, it does not become Labour to gloss over the very clear health and social care failings caused by the managerialist ideology that has held sway for the last thirty years.

More specifically in terms of local institutions, the Labour government-in-waiting should first consider retaining the Clinical Commissioning Groups. but diluting the power of GP practices within them by making theirs a minority voting position, through the introduction of members of Foundation Trust governing councils (increasingly focused on quality standards if the Francis Inquiry recommendations are carried through) along with elected councillor representation in keeping with Councils’ new public health function.  The immediate impact of this is likely to be presumption against private sector provision where other options still exist (they won’t in many places).

Second, the Labour government in waiting should commit to ensuring that these new-style CCGs adhere both to the letter and spirit of the Public Service (Social Value) Act 2012 under which all CCGs (and the NHS Commissioning Board), have a duty to consider:

(a) how what is proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area, and

(b) how, in conducting the process of procurement, it might act with a view to securing that improvement.

(Oddly, this is Tory legislation, aimed primarily at breaking the perceived monopoly power of local authorities, but can be used to the same effect against private sector dominance in healthcare provision.  That will really piss off the Tories….)

These two relatively simply steps will set the direction of travel back against wholesale privatisation, although of course attempts to terminate contracts are likely to result in lengthy and quite likely unsuccessful legal battles, so early progress is likely to be quite slow.

Nevertheless, institutional change at local level by government, especially if accompanied by moves within the Labour party and the broader movement to re-energise Trade Councils, in a move away from the vapid Tory ‘consumer localism’ and towards a quality-oriented ‘worker localism’**, could provide early impetus for the creation of a properly socialist health and social care system – a system fit for the 21st century (whether or not this is tax-based or progressive social insurance based doesn’t really matter as long as it provides for equitable provision) , with private operators increasingly steadily cleared out in favour not just of direct NHS Trust delivery, but also a new surge of worker co-operatives (although charities and social enterprises may also play a valid part).

* It is always worth remembering, in the context of the fetishisation of the 1948-style NHS, that until very late in the day a radically different – and I would argue preferable – NHS structure was being argued for. This was a much more decentralised and locally accountable system, rather than the monolith we grew to love despite it tendencies to managerialism (and I would argue that this is why service standards have declined in the NHS faster than in local authorities, say).  See Rudolf Klein’s seminal The Politics of the NHS for more (the later edition is called The New Politics of the NHS but the early chapters are the same).

** This is not to argue for the introduction/retention of localised terms and conditions.  Trade unions should of course be encouraged to negotiate at national level, and a properly brave/strategic Labour government would use the need to ‘renationalise’ the NHS, and to invest quality in the hands of its staff (as opposed to its bosses) as a rationale for the relatively painless (in terms of reactionary public opinion) repeal of restrictive trade union legislation.  Frankly, I’m not holding my breath on this one.

Is this the next stage of the NHS privatisation plan?

January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

The online social enterprise community – of which I may now well be an honorary member – has had some debate about the importance or otherwise of the Secretary of State for Health’s recent definition, for the first time in English law, of what it is to be a social enterprise, which I covered here, and originally here.

David at Beanbags and Bullshit gives links and a good overview of the debate, which boils down to different views on whether the definition set out in the new Healthwatch regulations will come to act as precedent, replicated in other legislation and  in broader NHS (and other departmental) policy, or whether it’s strictly focused on the very narrow, and relatively unimportant issue (given their lack of real power) of who will get to run Local Healthwatches.

To date, my own position on this has been simply “I don’t know”.  On the one hand, it has been difficult to work out how exactly this new definition might be used as a lever for privatisation of NHS services.   On the other, it’s  a puzzle as to why the Department of Health would go to so much trouble expanding the usual conception of social enterprise to include private firms as long as they don’t take out more than 50% from profits in any one financial year, unless there was some kind of plan to expand its use beyond the financially unimportant Healthwatch scheme.

However, the news emerging about Monitor’s Fair playing Field recommendation, that private health firms should become exempt from corporation tax on their NHS profits, has me leaning a little towards the latter interpretation, namely that the Healthwatch regulations form part of some devilishly clever scheme.

I find it difficult to believe that Osborne will find it politically feasible to stand up at the next budget and announce this new tax break in the face of a popular swell against tax avoidance, however much it might be sold on the grounds that Any Qualified Provider private firms currently suffer from unfavourable cost terms when compared with the NHS itself.  That would surely be too risky as a confirmation of whose side the Tories are on.

But if the tax break is dressed up as an incentive for social enterprise, tapping into the government fairly well developed narrative on the virtues of mutualism and pointing to existing ex-NHS staff mutuals as an example, but conveniently leaving out the detail of how social enteprises are legally defined nowadays, Osborne,  Hunt and the private health lobbyists may well feel its worth a go as part of the pre-election scorched earth strategy.

Or maybe that’s a conspiracy theory too far. I still don’t know.

If I’m right, you heard it here first.  If I’m not, then it’s simply the usual omnishambles, ok?


ps.  I ‘m thinking of doing a Freedom of Information request on the consultation responses and meetings which fed into the Healthwatch regulations, to try to ascertain to what extent the private health lobbyists were at work.  Has anyone else reading this done one, or are they interested in doing so?

The SWP meltdown, institutional legitimacy and the broader lesson for the left

January 14, 2013 6 comments

Laurie Penny thinks the SWP’s handling of rape allegations reflects badly on all of us, and that the SWP are only different because they are more open about their misogynist structures:

Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.

Actually, there’s no “seem” about it.  The leadership being above the law is written into the rules of the SWP.  That’s what makes it a self-declared Leninist revolutionary socialist party.  As SWP head boy Charlie Kimber makes clear in his comments at Harry’s place:

We live in what remains a profoundly sexist society, as is shown by the sex abuse scandals and cover-ups in mainstream institutions such as the BBC and the police. However, the SWP is not an institution of capitalist society but fights for the overthrow of the system. Our party has a proud tradition of fighting for women’s liberation, as is shown, for example, by our consistent campaigning over the decades to defend abortion, and by our criticism of George Galloway for his remarks about the Julian Assange rape accusations. Reflecting this tradition, our internal structures seek to promote women to leading roles and deal rigorously with any action by any member that is harmful or disrespectful of women (my emphasis).

That is to say, the SWP is committed, as a point of founding principle, to not engaging with the criminal justice system, but to handling “harmful or disrespectful” actions through its “internal structures”, which it regards as inherently superior to the legal institutions of the capitalist state.   Phil at AVPS makes the point very well:

[T]his crisis was precipitated entirely by the SWP’s own actions, but from the off they were caught in a bind  provided by their own revolutionary conceit.  If you’re in the business of  prosecuting class struggle to the point of the overthrow of capital, and you believe it is your party’s destiny to lead the working class in revolt, as far  as behaviour, misconduct and crimes committed by party members are concerned the  party is the sovereign body for pronouncing on questions of truth and guilt, of  sanction and punishment. Within the terms of party morality and the closed-loop  universe of the SWP’s particular form of revolutionary identity politics, they did the right thing investigating the allegations.

To be honest, I’ve never quite got how this works in practice, as there seem to be an awful lot of capitalist institutions that the SWP membership does engage with.  Rumour has it that it’s got a large property portfolio, and I’m pretty sure SWP members get around on Virgin Trains and the like.  Which institution it’s legitimate to engage with while organising for its downfall does seem a bit selective.

The key point, though, is that the SWP is not falling apart now because it didn’t call in the police; it’s falling apart because the justice system it used instead of the capitalist one apparently proved to be completely useless, in both senses of the term.  That is, it apparently wasn’t very well run (I won’t repeat the contended details here) but, even if it had been, the problem would still have remained that, in the event of a guilty verdict, there’d have been no way to mete out appropriate justice; the usual sentence for one of rape is one of imprisonment, but as far as I know the SWP don’t have any prisons.

In other words, the SWP has set out its stall as being a kind of state, operating within and against the capitalist state, but lacks most of the things that go to make up a state.

Now you can argue (as Laurie Penny might if she understood a bit more what does make the SWP different from other groups), that it is the very selectivity about what bits of the capitalist state to opt out of which betrays its misogynist heart – and I do wonder whether the party would have the same courage of its own institutions if the accusation had been, say, child abuse rather than rape.  That’s fair enough.

But I also wonder if there’s a wider learning point for the radical left in its anti-capitalist struggle, whether it be via “revolutionary” or “evolutionary” means.

What this sad episode, and the likely fall out shows us clearly enough is that, unless credible institutions which command widespread respect and are therefore seen as legitimate are in place before the borgeous institutions are torn down (or bypassed), then those same bourgeois institutions are likely to return in strengthened form, and with increased popular support.  There’s a glimpse of that in Laurie Penny’s own appeal to the sanctity of the law – not something you’d normally associate with her radical leanings – when it’s juxtaposed to the SWP’s own tawdry process.

This is not, of course, a novel insight.  We see fine solidaristic principle, followed by failure of legitimacy, and then mutual recrimination and lessened solidarity, everywhere we look.  The power of financial capitalism has been strengthened-by-scapegoat since the crisis, because there was no alternative system ready to replace it.  The anti-cuts campaigns have failed to date because there is not sufficient legitimacy in an alternative decision-making process to ensure that both elected representatives and officials have both the duty and the backing to deliver an alternative that sticks.  People going to job centres are treated poorly because unions have not yet been able to make their calls for solidarity with the workless more legitimate than the managerial directives imposed on staff.

All of which leads me to conclude that, ultimately, the left will only be any use at the grand scale if it gets over the self-imposed distinction (and accompanying hatreds) between revolution and evolution, and accepts that the quiet building of legitimate socialist institutions* in parallel with capitalist institutions, ready to replace them when the time comes, as just as much part of the struggle, and that the devotees of GDH Cole and RH Tawney are just as revolutionary, in their way, as those of Trotsky and Lenin.

*As a quick personal note: I was a member of the SWP briefly in the mid-1980s, taken in by the convincing rhetoric and (to me) new analysis of some very eloquent speakers and writers. I left when I was told that I needed to move my trade union stewardship focus away from the nitty-gritty of supporting workers in their workplace to defend their terms and conditions, defend them at disciplinaries etc.., in favour of more “revolutionary” activity.  When the time came to strike, the hospital I worked and organized at had a much bigger turnout than other places supposedly more under SWP inflluence.

A short history of variable benefit rates

January 6, 2013 1 comment

Economist commentator Daniel Knowles seems surprised:

This is bizarre – do Tories not understand that housing benefit is ALREADY determined by geographical location? …

He’s referring to the Telegrpah’s coverage of new report to Osborne from the Tory righwing 2020 group Agenda for Transformation, in which:

One of the report’s most controversial suggestions is introducing different levels of welfare payments around the country. House prices, travel fares and some other living costs are significantly higher in London and the South East  than elsewhere.

I’m not sure why Daniel’s so suprised, other than the obvious reason: he’s not been taking much notice.  The proposals for variable welfare payment rates across the board date back at least to 2009, when Tory Essex County Council submitted a formal proposal under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 for devolution of benefit eligibility- and rate-setting powers to local government level.  They submission argued:

As this proposal seeks to tackle worklessness it will be essential that control over the eligibility criteria and payment rates for Job Seekers Allowance, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance be transferred to ECC. This would put us in a powerful position to tailor the most important work-related benefits to local market conditions and ECC skills and training programmes.

The 2020 group’s recommendations are simply an attempt to push through this long-desired localisation of all benefits.  As Carl has predicted (though I think he might have been copying), 2013 will see the rise to real power of the far right within the Conservative party, as electoral defeat looms, and Gove and his allies set their agenda for opposition.

This shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s been coming for a while.


Tory minister: local councillors must be independent of means

December 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Brandon Lewis, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, gives his reasoning for the decision to bar local councillors from the Local Government Pension Scheme

Robust local scrutiny of council spending requires councillors to be substantively independent of means

I wonder if there’s any evidence of councillors not being robust because they’ve had pension rights.

Interestingly, this requirement does not apply to Boris Johnson, who gets to keep his pension rights because he’s full-time.

Ofqual’s smokescreen

November 5, 2012 2 comments

On Friday, the regulator Ofqual released its 133 page report into what happened with GCSE English this summer.  I skim read it then, but couldn’t quite believe my eyes at some of what I skimmed, so read it more thoroughly over the weekend.  I now believe my eyes; it’s Ofqual I don’t believe.

Ofqual argue, in essence, that thousands of students got lower than their predicted GCSE English grade this summer, not because grading boundaries were radically and unfairly revised between January and June 2012, but because teachers tend to “overmark”.  This is the key graph Ofqual uses for that argument (this one is for the AQA exam board but the one provided for the other boards are similar:










The sharp spike just to East of the assumed pass mark (based on January grading), says Ofqual, shows that teachers were deliberately “overmarking” assessments to ensure that their little darlings hovering around the C/D borderline got over that line. This assertion has been translated into teachers “cheating” in the popular press, or “massaging marks” in the more restrained version offered up by Chris Cook at the FT (who also uses this graph as the starting point for his analysis).

Unfortunately for Ofqual, the graph shows nothing of the sort, because there is a perfectly valid alterative explanation for the spike East of C: very good teaching.

Thus, as I noted in my comment on Chris Cook’s piece:

The reader [of Chris’s piece] may be left with the impression that  teachers in England did actually cheat (or “massage marks”).  There is simply no  evidence for this, and there is an obvious counter-explanation for the rapid rise to the East of the C line in the graph.  That is that teachers are getting  very good at using relatively new tracking systems to identify before the controllee assessments  where each ‘borderline’ pupil needs to get to in order to get the C (or B, or  whatever) and then works hard – using 1:1 TA resources etc – to identify what is  needed to get them over that line.  This is not .’massaging figures'; it’s  massaging CA performance.

I know that’s what happens in the school where  I’m English link governor – perfectly honest and actually very commendable,  though, as you suggest, all part of a crazy system.

In fact, this is acknowledged) in Ofqual report (para 6.12):

In many schools the prediction process is supported by data analysis which is updated frequently. In a typical school marks from student class work and mock exams in Years 10 and 11 were fed into the tracking system every six weeks, and senior management met every two weeks to discuss them. When students were not making enough progress to achieve their target outcomes, interventions were arranged. This process of targeting teaching and learning support to secure target grades has in many schools been successful in previous years, which added to schools’ surprise when this year’s results were not as predicted. Teachers commonly said that they were used to their predictions being “spot-on”.

Yet, despite the acceptance that such targeted interventions have been “successful in previous years”, they are then totally ingnored as a possible explanation for students’ performance “spiking” just after the point where teachers thought they’d gain a C.

Ofqual seeks to back up this overmarking assertion with two other key pieces of data.

First, it compares the ‘East of C’ spike referred to above a similar spike in graphed data from the Year 1 phonics test first used in the summer of 2012:

The “pass” mark of 32 was made available to teachers before they administered the check. The graph shows how teacher scoring was affected by knowledge of the threshold.  The graph…shows how many pupils were given each score: fewer than 10,000 were given a score of 31 compared with over 40,000 being given a score of 32 (paras. 6.73-6.74).

If this “spiking” happens even in such “low-stakes assessment”, says Ofqual, then it’s proof that teachers pre-warned about grade boundaries will always overmark to ensure pass rates are higher.  This is, again, nonsense.  A perfectly valid alternative explanation for the spiking in the phonics assessment case is that they are indeed “low stakes assessments”, seen as bureaucratic nonsense imposed by the government and at worst (as Michael Rosen has argued powerfully) simply invalid as tests of children’s reading ability. In such circumstances, the urge to simply add a mark or two and move on to the real job of teaching must surely have been tempting – an expression of professionalism in the face of DfE unprofessionalism, indeed – and it really tells us nothing about how secondary school teachers operate in very similar corcumstances.

The second set of data used by Ofqual to corroborate its key “teachers overmarking at the root of all our problems” claim comes in the form of sample data from AQA (the biggest exam board for English) showing how teachers marking differed from moderators marks within the well-established 6% “tolerance” (within which limits schools’ marking will be accepted).  The two key tables are below:

As regards the data, it’s important to see it in the context of an important note in the Ofqual report’s supporting information (Appendix 2, p.115):

 [T]he tolerance limit is normally no higher than 6 per cent of the total raw mark for the unit/component, rounded to the next whole number above (for example, 4.1 and 4.8 are both rounded to 5).

Now, anyone with a basic knowledge of maths knows that this is not the way we normally round; normally if it’s above 0.5, we go up, and down if it’s below.  This is not to say the exam boards agreed to do the rounding back in 2000 is incorrect, as the intention was probably around adding an extra bit of ‘rigour’ into the system rather than using the data for later analysis.  Nevertheless, using rounding in this way for the core raw data on which the analyisis is built has significant repercussions.  This is most easily shown by readjusting the data on the assumption that half the mean scores in the graphs above should have been in the column to the right (a proxy given the lack of raw data in the report, but one which probably underestimates the real change given the shape of the assumed distribution curve).

If you do this exercise for the top graph, you get a very different result from the one shows.  For percentage variances in the way they are normally understood, we suddenly find a much smaller skewing towards ‘overmarking’, with 20% of schools actually undermarking, and 70% of schools marking lower, equal to or at only 1% above the moderator (rising to 86% up 2% above, and 96% up to 3% above).

Standing back and looking at this again, you get a quite different picture; nearly all schools mark within 3% of the moderator, even though the tolerance level – established in the first place because of the inherent subjectivity of marking subjects like this – is twice that.   That’s actually quite impressive, and teachers should be congratulated, not condemned.

Then there’s the question of who’s getting the marking ‘wrong’.  There is an assumption within the report that if teacher and moderator marking is out of kilter, then it is the teacher who is wrong.  The report is careful not to blame teachers personally, focusing instead on the pressures they come under, but pressures operate both ways.  There is no consideration at all in the report of potential pressure on moderators to ‘undermark’, even though we know perfectly well that exam boards themselves are under pressure to become seen as ‘hard markers’, or lose out in the coming tenders for single exam boards for each subject.  It is at least arguable that the pressure on moderators to undermark might be as great or greater than any pressure on teachers to overmark.  This isn’t to say that no teachers at all knowingly overmark – it would be as foolish to assert that as it would be to assert that most moderators undermark – but to take only one side on the potential pressures to do either is not acceptable.

Ultimately, this is a cleverly worded whitewash of a report (and it is clever).   All the talk of poor practice in Controlled Assessments, for example (which I won’t cover here for relative brevity’s sake) is little more than a smokescreen, and ignores the fact that the legal action now being taken against Ofqual relates not to a Controlled assessment, but specifically to AQA ‘s ENG1F’s, which saw a 10% rise on the C/D grading boundary between January and June; this has a written paper, not a Controlled Assessment (see p.120 of the Ofqual report).

Perhaps most important of all – and the biggest weakness – is that the Ofqual report fails to address in a satisfactory way the key question of whether ‘comparable outcomes’ are an acceptable mechanism for running the whole exam system.  As Chris Cook has also shown, Ofqual have largely ignored the possibility that this process, which effectively limits the number of pupils who can achieve each grade, might be unfair because it has failed to take account of real improvements in learning and teaching in schools over the last few years, even though they acknowledge that it is an important variable.   Yet in this report, Ofqual simply rejects any notion that they might have some responsibility in this area:

There are also suggestions that this approach does not recognise genuine improvements in national performance in a subject. That is not the case. If exam boards had evidence that the level of performance was at odds with the statistical predictions (either because performance was better or worse than expected) we would expect them to be able to provide evidence for us to consider. In the time we have been using the comparable outcomes approach, there have been some examples of this – for example in AS level World Development and A level Critical Thinking.

And that’s it!  Two example of changes in two relatively obscure AS/A levels, and they feel their job is done.  No sense of how or why exam boards, beset by the kind of pressures to downgrade that I’ve referred to above might be even vaguely interested in upsetting the GCSE apple cart by acknowledging that children might be better taught than they were a few years ago.  Does Ofqual really expect the exam boards to be pro-active?  Of course they don’t, but it gets Ofqual off the hook.

Frankly, this is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility, and coming as it does at the very end of the report, it acts as a handy summary of what the reports really about – blaming everyone else for what’s gone wrong.

And of course, behind the Ofqual screen of supposed independence, sits Gove, smiling at the latest success in his masterplan.


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