Picking Winners

Has the government picked two winners in a day, today?  Not really - but they may have at least made a u-turn on two losers that, for many, symbolised the Blair era.

Firstly, Andy Burnham (the chief secretary to the Treasury) has told the Guardian newspaper that he will be scrapping all but 30 top-down targets used to vet performance.  The targets ranged from raising the GCSE pass rate to reducing the fear of crime.  The measures caused serious disquiet amongst professionals, none more so than teachers and NHS workers.  He described the change as an evolution of administrative style, not a U-turn (day two of spin school). 

This apparent change in the government's attitude is "the opening of a new chapter ... If we get this right, the style of government will feel different. We want to give out a message of more trust in public bodies."  That last part of the sentence does worry me somewhat as the problem isn't solved by pursuing more confidence on public services; it is admitting that public services aren't always best placed to deliver to the public.  He also, rather amusingly stated that the new simple approach will mean that "You won't have to know any jargon."  This was said shortly after saying "We want them to face downwards and outwards, having a dialogue with their local communities rather than with the centre."  A step in the right direction, however - these arbitrary targets were no good for anyone and proved nothing.  More often than not they created problems rather solved them, particularly in the NHS.

Secondly, a recent grumble of mine has been the growing culture of protecting children so much that they don't know what failure or competition means or what a grazed knee feels like until it is too late.  Yesterday I posted about the incredible compensation culture growing around children today.  Well, stand and rejoice because traditional playground games such as “conkers and snowball fights could see a revival under government plans to prevent today's children turning into “cotton wool kids”!  Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? - "Government to lift conkers ban".  Other cabinet new man, Ed Balls, is pushing the rhetoric:

Three quarters of parents feel that children face increased risks compared with five years ago from playing outside unsupervised,” he said. “If children don’t play outside it’s much harder to be healthy. If children don’t climb trees, it’s very hard for them to learn about risk and the safe way to do it. Kids need to learn.”

Here, here!  I am concerned however what the government actually means by all this.  It is by no means the government's place to tell parents how their children should be bought up so it will be interesting to see the government’s action on this.  It will also be interesting to see what can be done about the compensation culture that is gathering rapid pace at the moment.  However, I do welcome Mr Balls sentiment at least when calling for a bit of common sense.


So they've scrapped the target of raising the GCSE pass-rate at exactly the point that further "improvements" were not just difficult, but incredible. How convenient! I wonder if they'll also be admitting that previous "improvements" were illusory? Or will they pretend that the historical improvements were real but any future decline in insignificant? In fact, do you think they're already dusting off the claim that falling pass-rates demonstrate that GCSEs are getting more difficult?

And why is this coming from the Treasury? 

Indeed - and to say it isn't a u-turn in policy is quite incredible too.  Having said that, whilst their reasons for scrapping these targets may well be based on failed policy, at least they have made some concession to the fact they got it wrong - even if they can't openly admit it. 

It is also part of the "Brown means change" agenda, I'm sure.  In the past 10 days we've had u-turn after u-turn.  Last week it was casinos, this week targets and cannabis.  The problem is, I have no doubt that none of these changes will solve any problems, rather create new ones.

Maybe calling this post "Picking Winners" was a little misleading - though I did qualify it in the opening sentence!