Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Now I know the age of 'prevention' has begun

Harry Hopkins, the close adviser to Franklin Roosevelt as president, ran some of the key agencies of the New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration.  Roosevelt asked him to run it because of the urgent need for unemployment relief during the winter, then just weeks away, and because he was capable of getting money and jobs where it was needed within a matter of weeks.

In fact, as head of the new Civil Works Administration, Hopkins summoned the mayors and governors to see him in Washington on November 15 1933, and asked them for immediate proposals for work projects.  By November 26, nearly 50,000 were in new jobs - and that was just in Indiana.

By Christmas, he was employing 2.6 million impoverished Americans.

These days, when there are still outstanding claims for compensation for damage in the 2011 riots in the UK, we are in need of a British version of Hopkins - by skill, guile and force of personality, able to make things happen.

In my rare glimpses of the coalition in action, it seems to me that the frustration that administration moves so staggeringly slow, and so many hurdles are thrown in the path of almost any measure - whether it is imaginative or hopeless- is shared by Lib Dem and Conservative ministers alike.

It is difficult, and partly - as I've written elsewhere - because of the extreme complexity of modern bureaucracies.

So I was excited by David Laws highly effective and convincing defence on The World at One of the new free school meals policy, which is - like all imaginative policies - difficult to implement.  I was excited partly because he was so confident and partly because, of all the Lib Dem achievements in government, this one thrills me the most.

I mean, how many times do we get a bold and enlightened policy like that through the Whitehall maze?  And now even the Daily Mail has taken umbrage over some bizarre story that one primary school is going to take three hours to serve the meals.

Of course, it isn't going to be easy.  The policy was brought in for three primary school years, in only twelve months, when every effort has been made to close down school kitchens under previous governments, and to truck in meals for two hundred miles or so for re-heating at some depot.

What makes this policy so enlightened is that it marks the start of a new way forward.  A measure that is designed simultaneously to feed children healthy food, help them learn, socialise them and save their parents money, all at the same time.

The age of prevention has clearly begun, and this kind of policy with multiple, overlapping objectives is a feature of the new age.

Of course there will be difficulties in some places.  Headteachers and local education officials will have to be imaginative and innovative, and should be praised for being so.

Of course it will also cost money, and these kind of projects have a habit of bursting their budgets.  But although education budgets have been suffering, along with all the others, the pupil premium has boosted the coffers of some of the poorer schools.  So much so that the CEO of Apple pointed to the mass purchase of iPads by UK schools was a major factor in their profits last year.

This may be old-fashioned of me, but I believe that sitting down to a healthy, hot meal once a day will benefit children a good deal more than a whole truckload dose of iPads.

It isn't just a blow for health and learning.  It is a blow for authenticity too.

No comments: