Wednesday 11 June 2014

The fundamentalism of Ofsted

They don’t really make the connection at the BBC, where they are not used to making connections in case it is too political, but there is a storm brewing about what we call these days ‘accountability’

The coalition inherited a vast and ferociously expensive edifice of reporting, targets, standards and inspections. They articulated a critique of it in 2010, but failed to understand their critique enough to drive through the necessary changes.

Now the edifice is coming apart. Not just in the ridiculous spectacle of Ofsted putting schools in Birmingham into special measures sometimes only months after they judged them ‘good’.

Or in the latest care home scandal, where the CQC seems to have failed to notice the abuses and administration going seriously awry in the Orchid View care home in Sussex.

In both regimes, the original idea – tick-box standards and target reporting – is being abandoned where possible, but it is too late and it isn't clear what they can be replaced with.  The logical extension of centralised inspecting on this scale, as Roy Lilley pointed out this morning, is that we need to inspect the inspectors.

There is hardly anywhere in the public sector where the systems of accountability are working, and – where they are working – they are squeezing out the innovation and wasting money, as whole organisations shift their energy to meet the targets rather than to do an effective job.

But there is an irony here when it comes to the fear of religious fundamentalism behind the so-called Trojan Horse affair in the Birmingham schools.  Fundamentalism is when – whether it is promulgated by Christians or Moslems - a few rules are granted divine status and forced to apply to every situation, regardless of their relevance, complexity or humanity.

They do so in the face of evidence that Jesus Christ regarded himself as battling this kind of fundamentalism too ("the sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath”).

But the numerical standards that are still applied to our public services, via targets or so-called 'evidence-based policy' (not actually about evidence at all), are also a kind of fundamentalism, and in the same way.  They are a pseudo-scientific kind, applying bowlderised definitions backed by supposedly evidence-based numbers.

It attempts to make the world seem simple, just as the religious bigots do,and it is just as distorting and just as inhumane.  When you try to run the world via numbers, which can only ever by an approximation of complex truth - and when you stop believing in that all-important gap between the numerical data and the real world - you are a fundamentalist.

At either end of the scale, from the world of faith to the world of scientific administration, we are beset by fundamentalism. Those of us who can still see things clearly need to be able to articulate the case for complex human truth.


Barry said...

You are so right David.

The tick box mentality in the CQC is geared to checking that the management systems of the organisations being checked are in "good" fettle. Which assumes that the so-called "service users" are OK if the system is OK.

The reality is that a care home can be judged to have none of its boxes ticked by the CQC and yet the residents may all be as happy as can be. Then along comes a new manager whose remit is to get the boxes ticked, and does so, and the individual residents, each with their own special wants, then feel worse off.

Tick boxes are just another bit of the top-down culture of all kinds of self-serving bureaucracies.

Anonymous said...

NIce post. Have you ever considered why some people get more than they deserve, whilst others deserve more than they get?

How we will account for what people deserve to get will sort out your accountability issue which for me is more of a valuation issue since it's not really about immigration or religion if we're being totally honest, it's about values and value.

A growing world population combined with diminishing world resources gives rise to the world's conflicts and tensions that are so often characterised as race or immigration issues.

Let's be honest here, all of us want a system that matches contribution to entitlement. If you drink from the well you should pay for the well.