Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness(Questions 120-141)



  120. I am very grateful for that. It is difficult to get people to give examples sometimes.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) If you want a more flippant example, the example about how quickly you got someone out of a Benefit Office was a bad target. There are two ways in which you can get someone out of a Benefits Office. The staff very quickly realised that if you threw them out they came back and therefore you hit the target twice.


  121. That is the kind of example we want.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) That is not an entirely flippant one.

Kevin Brennan

  122. I am very grateful for both examples, both the serious one and the flippant one. Leaving aside the flippant example which I am sure we will utilise later on, the other example you gave as a bad target in terms of your 17 points for designing a good target, which of those did it fail?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am not sure I can answer that.

  123. Not in terms of all of them.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The last point I made there, targets should reflect priorities, they should not fudge difficult decisions. A difficult decision is are we serious about accuracy or are we serious about speed and have we got the right trade off, that is the one.

Mr Hopkins

  124. Sir Michael, I have not heard you speak before and I must say I found myself interested in what you were saying. I am one of those people on the left who made a lot of enemies of my former friends by being critical of the teaching profession. In the 1980s you may remember the research done by Sig Prais and Claus Moser which gave horrifying comparisons between our schools and what our children were learning with other countries. We started to address that. The William Tyndale School head teacher said that "if 50 per cent of the children can read by the time they leave my school I will be quite happy with that". He was sacked. We started to realise something horrible was happening in our schools. I have focused on education, I have taught in further education myself and even recently we have had the Moser Report four years ago saying 50 per cent of our population do not understand what 50 per cent means. There is still a problem in the population as a whole but I think we are starting to address it. I think the measurement is absolutely crucial and we have to start measuring and finding out what is happening. The targets you say can sometimes be demoralising. My own feeling was that pressure was put on schools and teachers without telling them precisely what you wanted them to do. You were permanent secretary in the Department of Education in a crucial period. Was there any really serious attempt to come to grips with the fact that teachers had been fed nonsense for years about how to teach. In my view the child centre, progressive centres actually caused mayhem in schools and unfortunately a whole generation of teachers got really demoralised because they felt in a sense they had wasted their time because they had been told nonsense about how to teach. That is changing now. Nobody has faced up to that. We are having literacy and numeracy strategy and that sort of thing and publishing targets but we are not saying something is wrong. Just a final point. A very good friend of mine grew up in Pakistan, he is now a graduate. He said we can all do arithmetic in Pakistan because we are taught tables by standing up and chanting in unison. Now if I said that to a teacher in Britain they would have passed out, I think, at the thought it was so horrifying, so connective. Do we not need to address the methods of achieving the targets not just put the targets in place?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) There are a huge number of issues there. I think we do; of course, we do. Targets are just a way of measuring not a way of doing. I think probably I disagree with you that we did not. I think the literacy and the numeracy strategy which were about more than just the literacy and numeracy hours were probably the first real attempt to say how things were going to be done in the classroom certainly since the war. I think they have been pretty successful, I suppose I would say that. I think the reason they were successful was they were based on a lot of evidence which was drawn up from around the world on what was working. The literacy and numeracy strategy was coupled with increasing evidence from the inspection process about what worked in schools. I think it is quite difficult for schools now to say that they do not know what it is that makes for a successful school. I think we know a lot more now than we have ever done about what makes for a successful school and how they should behave and I think that is all to the good. This is going a bit beyond this particular inquiry but I think you pick up an issue which is related to targets and tables and which we have not talked much about and that is risk and creativity. One of the things you can criticise targets and prescription tables for is that they make people less likely to be creative. I think that is something one should be concerned about. As I said you should not produce targets which are so prescriptive down to the last detail that people lose their creativity. Teaching in a classroom requires some creativity. Now I think the best teachers have been able to use their creativity within this new framework of targets and strategies and I know that is not agreed by everyone but I think they have. You do need to be worried about that. Finally, I have just come back from Hong Kong where I was speaking at a seminar at the weekend on creative cities. Of course go to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan actually and what they look with envy at the English system for is creativity. They are concerned that they have a lot of people who are very good on standards but as they move from a manufacturing economy to a design creative base economy they do not have enough people who have the creative skills and who know how to innovate. We just need to be careful that we do not become so managerial and do not produce targets which are so prescriptive and detailed that we squeeze out risk and creativity. Good managers can manage risk as well as they can manage targets.

  125. Can I just pursue this. My next question was going to be about international comparisons. One can take the extremes of the Far East and their problems of rigidity and lack of imagination and creativity, we have new ideas and they develop them and so on but there are other examples on the Continent of Europe where they are being much more successful. I have been to Norway recently and they are very sensitive to all the problems we have had but they are way ahead of us I think in solving them. Have we looked very carefully at other systems rather than looking at just the extremes of the Far East?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I thought we were getting better at that. I think there was a lot more effort to find out what was happening in detail and to try and pick up the good practice.

  126. One more brief question. One of the problems I believe—I do not know if you would agree—is that in Britain we try to get too much out for too little input. Resources in education by comparison with other countries are much lower. The fact is in Denmark class sizes are about half what ours are. In Switzerland I understand teachers are paid the same as their GPs, I am not saying we should go to those extremes. Do we not need to think really about putting a lot more resources into achieving our targets?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think in education we were trying to do that. We did try to find ways of increasing the salaries of teachers and head teachers. I think more generally the Government has put a lot of money into public services. My great concern is whether that money will lead to improved services. The history over the last 50 or 60 years is that it does not always happen like that and that is a real worry. The point about targets surely in particular is that you are never going to have enough money. I used to say to my staff "It is very unlikely I will ever get up in front of you and you say `Fair cop, guv, we have got far too much money we do not know what to do with it'." It is always going to be "We have not got enough money". You have to use that resource as well as you possibly can. I do not want to bore you about this but targets are a way of making sure that people will focus their energy on the things which you think generally are the priorities otherwise everyone has got their own view about what they should be doing. Every teacher, every doctor, every one in every public service has got their own personal priorities. They have got good intentions. They are committed dedicated people and without some focus they will go off in all sorts of different directions and a lot of money is wasted.


  127. Can I just follow up one aspect of what Kelvin has been asking. You mentioned literacy and numeracy, this is always cited as the great shining success story of central intervention, whatever else you might think about it. I wonder how it sits with your general analysis because it was not just an outcome, it was very much a process intervention.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I wanted to pick that point up about five minutes ago and I forgot it, you are absolutely right. It was a process intervention. I should have said right at the beginning, this is not a cop out, I think there are some occasions—and they are very few in my view—when you have to take the decision to intervene in the process as well as the outcome. You only take that if you feel the problems are serious enough to merit it and there is not sufficient consensus around the process that people are confused. You do not do that very often because, one, for the Government it is a very risky strategy because it is your head on the line if it does not work and, two, it does run the risk of people feeling they are no longer in control of their own destiny and their own creativity and that can be very demoralising at the time. The evidence I was giving last year to other Select Committees was I think Government had to take a view and has to constantly take a view as to whether it continues with that degree of intervention. So be very careful about it. We thought and the Secretary of State felt that things had got to a pass where we just had to intervene on the process as well as the outcome.

Annette Brooke

  128. I would like to just backtrack a little bit and things in terms of targets might be concealing as much as they are revealing. I would like to quote from a local example but I do not expect you to speak on that. Dorset Ambulance Trust was very highly favoured a year ago. It had reached all its targets, it was within budget. It had Investors In People two years running. It has a charter mark. The CHI comes in and it is a totally different story now. You mentioned the need for an auditing process but could you just expand on that and what else one needs to have some confidence that the targets are giving us the right story?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think there is a magic wand here. What I am suggesting is a combination of internal processes and external processes. I am suggesting the external processes should not be so bureaucratic as to get in the way of the service but you do need them. Whether that is external audit or whether it is an inspection process I think you do need them. The integrity of your performance as well as the level of your performance is going to depend primarily on what is going on within the organisation. That is why things like self-assessment are so much more important in my view than external audit though I still think you need in a monopolistic situation someone from outside having a look at how you are managing and what targets you are setting and whether the information is independent that you are basing your conclusion on, whether it is reliable and whether you need to have another look at the target. All of that I think is necessary. I do not know the Dorset Ambulance Trust case at all.

  129. No, I did not want to dwell on that in particular but you had a situation where literally it had to wait for that outside body because nothing would get revealed from within despite the internal problems which were being concealed and not handled by the Trust.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) That is a worry. When that happens it is a worry. I have seen it happen once or twice. If you go through a process of IIP, you get charter marks and you have a self-assessment system and it is still not showing that level of performance failure, I do not think it happens that often but I think it is very worrying. It makes me worry with something like IIP, which I was a great believer in and sponsored for a long time, whether the assessment system there was sufficiently good.

  130. It is just, I suppose, thinking about Ofsted being over the top to start with. One hesitates to say that there should be regular inspections on all sorts of bodies but having had this situation locally it would not have come out without the CHI going in. There seems to be a case for having annual check-ups on such bodies.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It needs to be annual and certainly I think if it is too bureaucratic every year then you have got a problem. Surely what we should be trying to do is to have enough indicators in the public domain about an organisation to be able to draw some reasonably reliable conclusions about whether or not this is a high performing organisation or an organisation in difficulty. What we have begun to do now with schools is to focus the Ofsted inspection on the schools which from the evidence we have appear to be in difficulty and not spend as much time on the schools which from the evidence we have appear to be performing well. Sometimes we will get it wrong, sometimes the evidence will be manipulated or it will not throw up a cause of particular concern but I think that is the exception rather than the rule.

  131. In fact possibly you would favour something like Ofsted which went in quite heavily to start with and then stood back?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Yes. I have always supported Ofsted and I have always been in favour of Ofsted. In a monopolistic situation then you need something like Ofsted. My concern at the time and my complaint now is that it was too focused for too long on blame. An inspection system is as much about ensuring that a good practice gets around the system. For a good practice to get around the system you need to develop some ownership for it. You cannot just tell people when they get things wrong, you cannot just tell a profession when they get it wrong, you have got to tell them also when they get it right and help them to ensure that good practice is spread around the system. That was my complaint about Ofsted. I think in the more recent times that has improved significantly under the new head.

  132. I think there has been interest on the culture of inspection. Finally, I posed this question a fortnight ago, particularly on the health side. Instinctively I favour the setting of more local targets. How do we marry that with the fact the public do not like the postcode lottery?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The postcode lottery in what sense?

  133. If I live in a certain place I might get my hip operation or whatever much quicker than somewhere else and yet it might be a local priority in certain areas, that sort of thing?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) This is a difficult issue, I think. It is a wider issue than just about targets, it is an issue about how much the public are prepared to accept different levels of service around the country which is an inevitable consequence of a real devolution. My view is that the media are increasingly unsympathetic to different levels of service. We had a national media and they expect national standards of service. My belief is you get a lot out of devolution, you cannot run systems entirely from the centre. You and I are probably identifying a problem to which there is no easy answer. I would defend, however, the need for local targets so that local people can hold their performance unit to account. They are able to draw comparisons, of course, between what is happening in their area and what is happening elsewhere. That may well be uncomfortable sometimes but sometimes they may have a point. Sometimes they may be saying "Look at that authority which seems to have achieved a different level of priorities as expressed in its targets and we think that they are right. We would rather you did give a higher priority to this target and a lower priority to that target". I think that is an entirely healthy process. It can be uncomfortable and I think the delivery unit needs to be pretty mature and robust to be involved in it. What happens without it, people have no idea, do they, about what is happening in their hospitals, that does not seem to me to be acceptable either. The hospital itself has no real idea, I have said on two or three occasions, where to focus its energy and its limited resources. That is a debate which has to happen and has to end up with clearer priorities articulated in the form of clearer targets. You do need local ties. We could not have done what we did—it was not an unalloyed success but I think literacy and numeracy has been more of a success than a failure—unless we had targets at national level, local education authority level and school level because it is at the school level that you need the ownership and the target at the school level has got to be more about how do we deliver improvement on what we are doing currently. They need to know what it is that they need to do in that school as their contribution to the national target being met. If you cannot tell them that they are not interested because they have not got any influence over it. I remember part of the PSA discussion I had with the Treasury was they wanted to set me a target for controlling inflation. There is a limited amount I can do to control the level of inflation. I was responsible for the Employment Service but even so it is not a target which is designed for me to have ownership. You must have ownership at the local level.

  134. Coming back to the previous point, achieving the target in terms of literacy and numeracy for some schools meant the loss of music.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Of course in my new role I could not possibly condone that or accept it. We could have a long debate about whether that was necessary.


  135. We have just got a very few minutes so if I could sweep up on a couple of things and then ask you if there is anything we have not asked you which you would like to tell us, particularly on the recommendation side. I think we are trying to extract what we can out of you. You know the old adage about you do not make a pig fatter by constantly measuring it which you put alongside the adage which says you do not know if the pig is getting fatter unless you do constantly measure. You introduced helpfully the notion of performance indicators as well as targets, is the argument that you cannot have too much measurement in Government? We have now a great industry producing measurement in Government and volumes of performance indicators produced, there is a whole enterprise doing it. Should we welcome that simply as the more measurement the better because that just tells us more things or should we worry about that too?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think I should step back at this point and say all the things I have been saying suggest that probably we have got too many targets and too much measurement at the moment. I have been defending the concept of targets because I think they are really important but I think you can have too much of it and you can measure things too often and I think we have probably got to the point where that is the situation and then they lose their impact and become an obstacle rather than a facilitator. That is probably the point I need to get across.

  136. Let me take you back to what I started with which was the league table, this kind of test case for all kinds of things. Are we clear what these things are for? Are they to shame people? Are they to produce peer pressure? Are they to trigger resources either more or less? Are they to enable people to choose but of course, as has been said, that is often not possible? Do we know what these things are for?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think they are for a number of those. I think that is their strength actually. Whatever teachers say, whatever head teachers say, they look at those tables and they know the schools in their area or in similar areas which have similar intakes and they know whether or not they are performing well and frankly so do the governors. I am a governor now of a college and we know where we should be and whether or not our performance has improved against our peers. I think they do impose some peer pressure but they do enable also parents to ask questions. I think it is very difficult for some parents to get behind the facade which is put up by a school when you are deciding whether or not you want your child to go there. Obviously the school is telling you all of the good things and I think it is useful to have some information which enables you to challenge that a bit and to ask why in comparison to other schools or why in this particular area you do not seem to be doing well. I think frankly a head or any manager in any public service who has not got the courage to answer those questions is a pretty weak minded individual. People who are running public services have got huge amounts of power and huge amounts of information. This is just a way of encouraging them to share some of that with the clients and I do not think that is unreasonable.

  137. Just a couple more final things. You tended to talk about targets being annual things as part of business plans but then you said they needed to be constantly refreshed and reviewed.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Yes.

  138. I wonder just whether an annual cycle actually does capture strategic business planning and whether that cycle is right. Also if there is constant review and refreshment going on how on earth can you get any serious measurement of this because it is a moving target.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think you should change everything every year, that is stupid. I think you need constantly to be keeping an eye on the way in which you formulate the targets. You need to be clear that your targets are still reflecting your priorities. If priorities are changing your targets ought to change as well probably. I do not think you should be doing that constantly, changing it constantly because people do lose sight of where on earthy they are. Of course you are right in some areas, not geographical but functional areas, you should have three, four, five year targets. The literacy and numeracy target was over an extended period but it was then broken down so people were clear what they had to do year on year in their particular unit to deliver what we wanted over a five year period. We missed it at the end of the day, not by that much but we did miss it. Yes, there are some areas where you ought to have strategic five year targets. As I said people are going to be quite reluctant to do that now.

  139. You implied this earlier on but when we reach a point where a Secretary of State has to resign, at least in part, because she is attacked for not meeting a target that she announced or had been announced by the Department some years previously and she is hounded by the media for the same reason, do we not just consume ourselves coming backwards?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is a totally bizarre situation where we have the world beating a path to our door to find out how we have achieved what we have achieved on literacy and numeracy over the last five years and we regard it as a failure.

  140. Unless you have got any parting shots for us?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No.

  141. You have been extremely helpful and we shall draw shamelessly on what you have said to us. We are very grateful. I cannot promise that we shall not invite you to come again.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I enjoyed it as ever. Thank you very much.

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