Bureaucratic cancer and the sabotage of A Level reform

‘Bureaucracy is cancerous in head and limbs; only its belly is sound and the laws it excretes are the most straightforward shit in the world… With this bureaucracy including the judges on the bench we can have press laws written by angels and they cannot lift us from the swamp. With bad laws and good civil servants one can still govern, with bad civil servants the best laws cannot help.’ Otto von Bismarck, 1850.

‘I had the agreement in principle of my colleagues; I had the agreement in principle of the entire Landtag; and yet, although minister-president, I found myself absolutely unable to bring the matter one step further along. Agreement does not help me at all when passive resistance – from what direction in this complicated machine is impossible to learn – is conducted with such success that I am scarcely in a position after two to three years to answer even the most basic questions.’ Otto von Bismarck, 1878.

If the most effective political operator of the modern world frequently complained about the difficulty of enforcing policy against a hostile bureaucracy, we should not be surprised if similar problems recur over and over again.

Here is an interesting example of how education policy is made and how Whitehall works.

In 2012, we announced that the DfE would step back from controlling A Levels and give universities control. (Allegra Stratton ran the original story on Newsnight.) The main mechanism was ALCAB. It was a nightmare to set up partly because although subject experts very much wanted to be involved the administrators who control universities wanted to stay out of the controversy and said to us in the DfE ‘we don’t want to have to say publicly that A Level papers are bad’.

We forced ALCAB to be created. MG and I spent a lot of time in awful meetings forcing it through. Its main role was supposed to be an annual review of specific A Level papers so that professors XYZ could say ‘hopeless question in the Edexcel physics paper, it gets the definition of entropy wrong again, it fails to test XXX’ etc.

The DfE has closed this committee down. It emerged via this Times Higher Education story.

I pointed a few hacks to it. They have called the DfE press office and spads. Both of those entities were given a line from officials saying ‘ALCAB’s work is done, no story here’. (Cf. Forsyth’s blog here.)

This is a lie. The main role was an annual review process. This should have been conducted this year and 2016 in preparation for new A Levels in 2017. It was envisaged as a permanent role. Interestingly, the letters completely elide this main role out of existence and present ALCAB as having only a temporary role.

Now this annual review won’t happen.

This is almost a Jedi-level operation from DfE officials. The DfE hated giving away control, obviously, and hated ALCAB. The very point of the process – a sword of Damocles in the form of eminent professors saying ‘crap questions’ each year – was supposed to force the DfE, exam boards, and Ofqual to raise their game. You can imagine how popular this was. Now the situation will revert to the status quo – the DfE firmly in charge and those pesky professors who point out things like – specific papers do not test the maths skills in the specifications – are happily excluded, with no ‘unhelpful’ public scrutiny of standards.

I very much doubt that poor Nicky Morgan Nicky Morgan [*see end] realises what she has done. It was probably a letter buried deep in her box weeks ago that she had no reason to suspect meant she was being used to subvert reform and entrench Whitehall’s power. It is impossible for a new minister to spot all such things – you don’t know what you don’t know. We can also safely bet that No10 has not the faintest idea about what ALCAB is or what the annual review process was supposed to do.

This is how Whitehall closes down threats to its power. Although it is systemically incompetent viz policy and implementation, its real focus is on its own power, jobs, and money. To these, it pays careful attention and deploys its real skills.

It is possible that the hard struggle to improve A Levels and remove politicians’ and Whitehall’s grip of them is now substantially lost, without the MPs having a clue as to why and the details lost in a miasma of untraceable decisions and discussions.

Nicky Morgan and her spads should ask Rose (head of private office) and Wormald (Perm Sec) not just ‘how did this happen?’, but also ‘why were we and the press office given lies to tell the media?’ They would also be well advised to make clear that a repetition of this fancy footwork will mean someone fired. But of course this will have little effect. The officials are lining up their holidays and their own plans for the future, safe in the happy knowledge that whoever ‘wins’ the election, they will remain in charge. The MPs of all parties are largely content for this situation to continue. In the focus groups, swing voters will continue to say ‘they’re all the same’ with much more accuracy than they realise, but few in Westminster are really listening and even fewer know what is to be done…

I will blog a few reflections on No10’s ‘schools week’ tomorrow. NB. notice how, just as I wrote in The Hollow Men, this No10 ‘schools week’ is like all the others – two days of rubbish gimmicks, a self-inflicted cockup (‘real terms cuts to the budget’), followed by silence such that by Friday the 8 people who knew it was ‘schools week’ have themselves forgotten? Plus ca change…

Ps. If you want details on the devaluation of exams since 1988, and therefore why the annual review process was so important, read THIS.


 

UPDATE. Some have asked ‘how much confidence did you have in ALCAB doing a good job?’ Answer? Initially not much. They are all under huge pressure to say everything is fine. Initially for example, despite physics departments across the country  complaining about the removal of calculus from Physics A Level (complaints that practically none of them will repeat publicly because of fear of their VC office), it did not look like ALCAB would be much use and they rejected calls from various professors I know on this subject. There is massive political pressure to focus exclusively on the numbers taking an A Level rather than the quality  of the A Level.

But my hope was that by creating something that would be seen as the ‘voice of the university subject experts’, they would have to listen and adapt in order to maintain credibility and avoid embarrassing challenges. There are more and more enraged academics fed up of VC offices lying to the media and misrepresenting academics’ opinions. I thought that creating something would push the debate in increasingly sensible directions where the emphasis would be on the skills needed on arrival at university. Now, everything to do with A Levels is dominated by political not educational concerns about the numbers doing them and ‘access’. This has helped corrupt the exam system. If we had professors of physics, French, music etc every year publicly humiliating exam boards for errors, this would soon improve things from a low base and make it much harder for MPs and Whitehall to keep corrupting public exams.

[* I wrote ‘poor Nicky Morgan’ with the feeling – poor her, I know what it’s like to be pottering around in the DfE dealing with all sorts of problems before the horror of Question Time then someone walks in with a new bigger problem… But a few people email to say it sounds patronising which was not deliberate, hence deletion…]

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8 thoughts on “Bureaucratic cancer and the sabotage of A Level reform

  1. Dominic – it is unfortunately people like you who create the problems, not the civil service. Please move on and leave education to people who know what’s best – the educationalists!

    • Thanks for the advice but…

      People like Adair Turner and Ken Clarke told me in 1999 ‘don’t worry about the euro and Greece, it’s going to be great, you’re crazy’.

      So although I’m a pain in the ass, plenty of work shows that cognitive diversity (properly structured) is useful so I’ll keep giving my view, no obligation to listen…

      NB. It’s hard to see how a review process by subject experts could be a BAD thing.

      Best wishes
      d

    • The story above suggests that education is in the hands of pretty much everyone BUT the educationalists. In any case, to suggest that anyone “knows best” in an area so little illumined by empirical research seems hopeful at best; commissioning Goldacre’s report on how that might be changed looks like a serious attempt to solve problems to me!

  2. If accurate that Civil Servants misrepresented facts to either the communications officials and, even more so, to the Minister that is a clear breach of their obligations under binding codes and should lead to at least immediate suspension. If the line to take was agreed as a damage limitation exercise with a clear exposition of the facts then that is a political rather than administrative matter – and access to such briefing papers would of course be needed to make the case.

    That said the ALCAB site has the correspondence setting out the founding of ALCAB – as accepted by then SoS Gove (also on the site) including the phrase ‘We envisage this being a fixed term and limited contribution to A level Reform’ and that ‘OFQUAL has commenced a longer term process to ensure that new qualifications are reviewed each year’.

    Can you support the claim that it was an annual permanent process ? It would be instructive to identify when the circumlocution occurred.

    I would be very interest as misguided pedagogic attempts to remove mathematics from physics has lead to widespread misguided choices and advice to students for decades. I was shocked to find the practice has spread and advice on subjects such as economics is not highlighting dependence on core mathematical skills.

  3. Poor, poor Dominic. Maybe one day we will have a chance to meet and I’ll try and explain your shortcomings and flawed understanding of English education over the last years, face to face? You really have not ‘got it’ yet, even after your retirement. Different paradigm old chum.

  4. Pingback: Education secretary pulls plug on Michael Gove’s exam reforms | Your high education waits for you!

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