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Some Thoughts on Dominic Cummings and Regulatory Impossibilities

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You have to sympathise with Dominic Cummings, education secretary Michael Gove's outgoing adviser, although I suspect there are many in the educational establishment who do not. He has recently produced an astonishing paper entitled "Some thoughts on education and political priorities" which, for all its breadth and depth, fails to come up with any substantive or practical ideas for how a government should go about the business of providing a public education system. And the reason for this, I suspect, is a failure to come to grips with a fundamental contradiction that lies at the heart of his thinking. A failure which, at some point, his obvious intelligence will require he has to come to terms with - hence my sympathy for him.

So what is this astonishing paper? It is astonishing for many reasons, not least the range of issues it covers as well as some of its more controversial conclusions, which have coloured its reporting in the media. It would be impossible to even present a summary of all of these, other than to describe the whole effort as a hymn of praise to scientific thinking, a homage to the market and a rail against the incompetence of politicians and civil servants and the inefficiencies of government. It is also somewhat surprising for the fact that the attention actually given to the subject its title would lead one to suspect it addresses is actually very small and the practical implications one can derive as to how to create some sort of system for the management public education are even less.

Which brings us to the contradiction: how can you talk about a system of management when the whole point of your ideology is the non-belief in a system of management, other than the management provided by the market? It is a bit like the religious repost to atheism "how can you believe in non-belief?" The conundrum is probably best expressed when Cummings poses the critical question in relation to the effective operation of schools outside of government control (i.e. academies and free schools). This question is seen as "how to get a regulatory system that deals promptly with failure and allows successful organisations to expand." The unfortunate answer to this critical question is that there is no such regulatory system that either exists or could be brought into existence. This is a problem which requires a system of management, not a system of regulation.

There is no shortage of discussion in Cummings' paper about management, but this is the management that takes place within schools themselves. The idea that there could exist some form of management above an individual school is simply not discussed - because this takes us into the realms where only markets, rather than politicians and civil servants, are deemed qualified to operate within. Interestingly, though there is an oblique acknowledgement of a need for a level of coordination beyond the individual school, but this progresses no further than a vague notion that schools can link up in chains.

Systems of regulation, of course, are what you need to manage markets and if you starting point is a belief in the supremacy of markets, it naturally follows that the ideal outcome will be a system where "the Department for Education does little more than some form of regulatory accountancy and due diligence functions and has nothing to do with the management of schools, the curriculum, exams or teacher training."

Markets, of course, can always provide an answer to the management of something like public education. The problem is that the answer they will provide is not socially acceptable. Markets require failure in order to work effectively and as a society, we have come to the conclusions that there are areas where failure cannot be tolerated as a natural by-product of the system - areas such as education, healthcare or defence. Essentially, this is why we have things called governments. Governments are there to do things that markets cannot.

Markets are also compelled to produce a range of outcomes from poor to outstanding, with systems such as differential pricing and the ability to choose being responsible for the selection for those outcomes which are deemed successful or which can balance quality with the ability to pay for it. However, the systems that you need to make markets work, don't exist in many areas of what might be termed the public realm. You can never choose education in the same way as you can choose your grocery retailer, nor is the future of the nation dependent on the equality of access to high-quality retail environments. Attempts to overcome these problems by the creation of artificial markets (in areas such as public education or healthcare) leads only to the introduction of league tables, score cards (and regulators), with the predictable (and much recorded) result that management becomes skewed towards these metrics, rather than the quality of outcome for pupils or patients. It is quite possible that the inefficiencies that Cummings is so keen to highlight actually stem from the application, albeit in more limited form, of versions of the solutions he is proposing.

You could even go so far as to say that the successful operation of a private sector within education is, itself, dependent on the existence of an effective public sector - thus providing the ability (for some) to choose to opt out, whilst having a safety net should such a foray prove unsuccessful or unsustainable.
If you break the barrier between private and state schools you will create a situation where neither can exist effectively and where you may end-up with the worst aspects of both systems.

At some point we are all going to have to accept that, as wonderful as they may be in certain circumstances, markets cannot provide the answer to every question. There is an uncomfortable requirement for politicians and, especially, civil servants to assume responsibility for the management of the provision of certain core systems, services and infrastructures. These responsibilities cannot be outsourced to contractors or markets. The way in which we manage these functions will, by necessity, be different from the way in which we manage the provision of services within the private sector. It is senseless to assume - as the previous Labour administration did - that private sector models were the best way to manage the provision of public services. Likewise it is senseless to assume - as the current administration does - that if a problem (such as the management of an education system, rather than an individual school) cannot be solved by the market, it is therefore a problem that doesn't exist or deserve a solution.

Intelligent people such as Dominic Cummings, should devote their attention to working out practical means for solving practical, management problems, rather than producing paeans to their intellectual superiority in order to justify their arguments whilst disguising their inability to come up with practical, workable solutions.