Posts Tagged Government

#BigSociety Squiggles & Behaviour Change

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Just over a month ago, the very excellent @davidwilcox posted another excellent piece on “Mapping the Big Society Territory” here. I recommend it to you.

So taken was I by it that I scribbled a humble response which I’ve copied below. It touches on similar points as my response to Elizabeth Moss Kanter’s blog post on “Leading Change” back in May this year.

I really need to commit to doing what I said I would and build out this model I have in my head showing a map of considerations (anchored in empirical evidence) when designing and leading a change effort. 

Anyway – thanks to David Wilcox for his piece and the chance to articulate this. It’s a bit more generalised than I’m entirely comfortable with but it was late and Mrs C was digging me in the ribs to “turn that bloody iPhone off!!”…

@davidwilcox Interesting post, squiggles and all.

Three points only and humbly submitted. 

First, although some will argue it’s “only semantics”, the point on naming convention is interesting. Any behavioural economist worth their salt will tell you that the very phrase “Big Society” is enough to disengage (or at least barely raise the inherently self interested/motivated pulse of) the general populace.  We know from years of research that even when our own very personal (e.g. Health, wealth) interests are at risk we often remain unroused to act appropriately (rationally) in the short or long term. So, when the long term aim is as impersonal, intangible and thematically vast as a “Big Society” then people won’t be roused. They’ll feel it’s “too overwhelming”, “too big for them to meaningfully contribute to”, “clearly not a pressing priority specifically for me to act on” (the latter is oft referred to as ‘the bystander effect’ in behavioural psychology) etc. It’s a similar challenge for Global Warming…So, although “Our Society” is still a little wooly (what do we think those we’d like to see more involved interpret “society” to mean do you think? I doubt many would respond positively on instinct alone..) it at least calls to the (shared) ownership instinct in each of us via “our”. Shame you didn’t mention our very own “Co-operative Society” here in Lambeth….It’s like the Big Society but re-labeled for Red Rose Authorities. Room for one of those on the diagram?  

In it’s effort to address this behavioural challenge – in part by setting up it’s own “Nudge nerve centre” (aka The Behavioural Decisions Unit) at No 10 and trying  to encourage behaviour change among the general populace from there, the Coalition appear to be overlooking the key principle of any effective change (diffusion) initiative: those in the “Early Adopter” and IN PARTICULAR those in the “Early & Late Majority” categories adopt the desired behaviours/engage fully not simply because of WHAT they see to the left of them on the diffusion model but WHO they see. And I’d suggest that those who the Government hope to engage in the Big Society (who currently aren’t) are least likely to respond to diffusion from Government/Civic Orgs and most likely to respond to diffusion from peers and role models from the “Our Society” bubble of your diagram. I hold out most hope for the Social Enterprise community but I’m not convinced alone that we’ll get to (and sustain) those hard to reach places where society of any sort – big or small – could do with a little pick-me-up.  Hence my second point – the role of the existing “Our Society” is most fundamental to this effort and why the work the RSA piloted in New Cross to understand and leverage existing social networks and influence is vital. If Tipping Point and the myriad of behavioural economic/psychology books that followed in the last decade have taught us anything, it’s that influence is not distributed evenly. And rarely are authority or establishment gifted with the large quota they might like to believe is the case.  Should all roads on your pic therefore start from “Our Society”? I’m not sure just yet but a more considered understanding of how to harness and embolden existing activists with genuine and breadth of influence across into your “BS” bubble seems like the best bet for Gov. I’ve seen little to reflect they grasp this and the meeting you describe (the inside/out or top/down model) confirms this. The call for a more “emergent” approach is a good one – and could ultimately prevail (though do we even have high level desired outcomes?) but it need not be entirely free form as I infer above if we target resources where the greatest return in diffusion can be earned.

Finally, if there is one thing that we know works more powerfully than peer pressure to encourage behaviour change, it’s loss aversion. The final, actual reality of withdrawal of local services and the gains that were previously derived from those services may ultimately be necessary to create the incentive to engage the hereto disengaged. But I’m not convinced. Given the discussion on Big Soc has largely focused on community services such as libraries, parks, leisure facilities and some non (or lightly) regulated local authority functions, I’d hazard a guess that those most likely to feel the greatest loss aversion to their withdrawal are those who are already reasonably socially active in the “Our Society” bubble. So back to point two I guess.

Longfellow once wrote: “I shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth I know not where”. We Irish have a more optimistic take on that. As I’m often reminded: “if you don’t know where you are going, that’s where you’re sure to end up”.

I sense Cameron would prefer to locate his arrow (age of austerity etc) and I don’t think he’s a wandering Irish troubadour at heart. But without some future vision expressed in somewhat tangible outcomes for people to organise themselves around that may be his fate. At the very least the current vacuum on meaning and process was sure to open and much energy dissipated in the ensuing mudfight.

Part of me hopes for the best. Part of me fears the horse has bolted, unhoved, unsaddled and with no direction. Part of me thinks that the true discussion can only commence when we understand the gaps the big society has/will need to fill when the CSR dust settles. I know that’s not the ultimate point but it may be it’s ultimate test.

And part of me thinks he should have just published one of those “Change the World for a Fiver” books with 50 no cost ideas for contributing to the local community with a foreword which explains that research from the past fifty years suggests that levels of social connection and philanthropy are better predictors of life expectancy and mental health than most any other measure (incl alcohol and tobacco consumption). Long life and happiness you say?! Sign me up. I’ll start soon, honestly….

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Northern Ireland, David Cameron and his weapons of torture

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Posted in response to Eamonn Mallie’s piece on re David Cameron’s comments on the size of NI’s Public Sector last Friday.

Eammon has this spot on. The analysis was right, the language and timing were naive and amateurish at best.

 I’ll never vote Tory but Cameron is absolutely right in his ultimate assessment that NI must grow it’s Private Sector and reduce our over reliance on the Public Sector. We have an unhealthy imbalance and without a stimulus in the private sector – particularly in attracting a range of jobs which pay in line with and above average Public Sector jobs we are incredibly vulnerable and have been for some time to Public Sector cuts and also any increase in interest rates (likely in the next parliament) which will hit many of our overstretched “property boom” keyholders. I wonder how many interest only mortgages there are in NI held by people borrowing multiples greater than 3 against public sector wages likely to be capped/frozen in the next parliament? 

All our politicians know this is a fact. Many are on record re this in the past. The executive is on record as agreeing with Camerons sentiments on Private Sector growth – the 2009 IREP report recognised it. Many commentators and the occasional blogger like myself have been suggesting for some time that this was the real elephant in the room ( while the Executive stalled and bickered over scraps from the sectarian table. An inclusive, burgeoning private sector economy supplementing our proud Public Sector makes sense not just economically but socially and politically – any post conflict society analysis tells us that employment and it’s associated benefits has one of the biggest impacts on the process of “normalisation”. University of Ulster recently published a report telling us we probably already knew – that young people with limited job or development opportunities are more likely to engage in anti social behaviour (including political and racial violence). 

And yet our representatives on the hill have spent the last few years doing exactly what about this? Think of the time wasted while Stormont has been suspended or in sectarian stand off mode when they could have been addressing this issue given anyone with any secular political nous knew it was coming. And maybe that lack of secular nous is at the heart of this. 

 In spite of a rational if poorly executed SDLP call for a revised NI budget last year to reflect the realities of an economy in freefall nothing happened and an opportunity to stimulate a flagging economy was lost. 

More alarmingly, at a public event in Westminster before Xmas i asked a senior political NI figure (vying now for a Westminster seat and to whose political views I am broadly aligned) what he thought of IREP and his views on developing our private sector given the chances of public sector cuts in the next parliament. His response not only suggested he had barely read IREP but he actually went on to say that he “had no time for these multi national corporations coming in for a few years and then swanning off to Singapore or wherever they get a better deal. The future of our economy has to be the 1-2 person family business…”!! Seriously – you couldn’t make it up, particularly as it came 2 weeks after the great news of NYSEs support centre investment and the audience that night contained at least one potential investor from a financial MNC. It’s just an isolated example but part of a larger failure –  Politicians like that should be vilified far more than Cameron on this issue. This problem has not been addressed on their watch.

But here’s the immediate and rather sad reality for Cameron and the Tory/UU alliance. In spite of the fact all other parties agree in principle with what Cameron says, in spite of the fact they are responsible for allowing the situation to develop, all of them have the good sense to know the timing and turn of phrase he used was an act of political naivety at best and suicide at worst. It not only brings into question the nature of the Tory/UU partnership but also his own political judgement.

The scent of blood (and cuts) is in the air. In a more mature political society Cameron may have been lauded for his honesty and it might even have triggered the long overdue advent of a more secular political debate on the issue at hand. It is badly needed –  anyone who thinks a simple cut in corporation tax is the answer to our problems is surely mistaken. It’s a much more complex consideration and needs early attention. But that’s a separate debate.    

Unfortunately it won’t happen now in the mouth of an election – as Cameron should have known. And it might turn out to be a debate shaped by others than the Tory/DUP alliance, for in politics, perhaps more than anywhere else, “to the victor the spoils” and as Helmut Kohl once said: “You don’t win elections by putting the weapons of torture on display”.    

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Opening the IT Project Kimono

Interesting linked stories showing the impact US Government CIO (Vivek Kundra) and his approach to transparency and accountability across the US Government IT sector appears to be having.

Is there anything like this across UK Gov? I’m sure many UK Departments would make a deeply voilet shade of interesting reading on any dashboard here.

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(un)Easy Councils

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A few months ago there was much media interest in a proposal by Mike Freer, then leader of Barnet Council, to change the relationship between local councils and the citizens it serves with the focus being on finding and delivering efficiencies.

I read an interesting article with Mr Freer in today’s Guardian which promptd me to scrawl these thoughts…

In summary the three pronged approach proposed is thus:




  1. Offer a basic set of services with additional or prioritised services subject to supplementary payments (where allowed within law). This element of the strategy led to the media labelling the proposal as creating “easyCouncils” after EasyJet and its no frills approach to business – somewhat disproportionately given it was only one part of the “Future Shape” strategy
  2. The consolidation (in the name of efficiency) and streamlining of back office public sector functions in an area (aka shared services) and the creation of (our old favorite) a central shared citizen database to enable easier access to citizen needs across multiple service areas reducing duplication of contact and service
  3. Targeted intervention strategies for those families who are “high cost” cases including a dedicated liaison officer per family.

In principle I think all this is pretty unexciting stuff – none of it is enormously groundbreaking, particularly points 2 & 3. Although I find unpalatable in the extreme the idea of ‘levels of service’ determined by the ability to pay. That’s just not in my view an acceptable way to deliver public services.

The idea of consolidating back office functions in Government is one I have experience of. Having been around a significant number of Public Sector “back office streamlining and consolidation” or “single database” or “revised channel/service strategy” projects it’s not so much “easyCouncils” as (un)easyCouncils. 

None of these things are insurmountable to deliver but they are not insignificant areas of change (people, process and technology) particularly when trying to maintain business operations as usual.  These things require significant and sometimes extended up front and ongoing investment – financial and operational. New systems and new ways of working – across councils and departments while changing front line working practices (a change not easy to facilitate overnight). And who will foot that bill and for how long before savings are realised? And let’s not mention the legal wrangles that are sure to come or how this will impact any attempt at cross Council Service Provision comparison?

Followers of Vanguard and John Seddon would go even further and say that there is no evidence that these “shared service” models work at all:

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done to reinvigorate local government and re-empowering local Councils to find new service models is fundamental to many things, not least reinvigorating our political system. But it definitely isn’t “easy”.

I am counting down the days until we start to hear the language of the last era of Public Sector austerity – the early 2000’s – and in particular that favorite phrase of the day: “Spend to Save”. It rolls off the tongue quite nicely doesn’t it. I can hear many Consultants across the land whispering it manta-like on their way to work…”Spend to Save”…”Spend to Save”…that’s right, repeat after me….


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Government & Enabling Technologies: Evolution not Revolution

It has been a very interesting January for those of us interested in Government and IT Transformation. Among other things we’ve enjoyed:

But before I got too excited, my good friend Lee Hopkins sent me this little snippet from yesterday’s Guardian as a reminder that when it comes to technology and transformation the key word in Government is evolution not revolution. Still – I thought it was almost charming….

“Smith admitted that the government had not always been quick to embrace new technology. “Back in 1885, the civil service bought its first-ever typewriter, despite stiff resistance from in-house calligraphers. About 20 years later the government took another leap into the unknown when it invested in its first telephone, a mere three decades after the technology was first demonstrated.”

(Angela Smith Cabinet Office Minister – Guardian 28/01/10)


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A Confederacy of Dunces

Reconciliation Sculpture at Stormont, Belfast
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One of my favorite books is the wonderful “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole.  It’s a shame he cornered the market on that wonderful turn of phrase for it could oft be used to describe goings on at Stormont – no more so in the last few weeks.

How dispiriting to see the same old games of tribal/religious (don’t ever mistake what we have in Northern Ireland for genuine politics) brinkmanship played out to the familiar backdrop of Stormont and Hillsborough Castle on the, to be frank, relatively minor issue (in the context of poposed healthare budget cuts, economic fragility and the post primary education shambles) of Policing and Justice devolution.

I was ready to vent my spleen on this topic today, having climbed back on the Blogging saddle as it were but then in catching up on six weeks of Google Reader reading (?!) I came across yet another excellent post from Jeff Peel.
I couldn’t have said it better in any way, so I won’t try. You can just visit here instead and enjoy.

I’ll leave you instead with some wise words offered by JTK via his unique creation Ignatius J. Reilly – a sentiment shared perhaps by all of us watching with interest those on ‘the hill’:

“Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age,” Ignatius said solemnly. “Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books.”


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Outside the school gates…

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Been thinking more today about my earlier piece on post Primary school selection here.

Leaving the rights and wrongs of selection itself as a policy aside, I am more and more convinced that the real priority for the NI Government on education should be focused on improving the standards of primary education across the board but perhaps most importantly: improving the relationship between schooling and the local community (including parents). Particularly so in areas of social deprivation which (no surprise) are showing sustained and worrying levels of systemic educational failure.

A thought occurred to me on a bus the other day as a horde (I don’t use that word lightly) of school children rolled on in the mid afternoon.

A rough calculation suggested to me that as a percentage of total waking hours, students will spend 20% – 25%(approximately) of that time in a school environment. Yet we know from social psychologists that the ability/motivation/emotional propensity to achieve while in school is largely determined by the environment (physical, social and emotional) in which those students spend the other 80% of their time.

Selection or not, many of those students who the Government believe will benefit from the abolition of the 11+ selection process will experience nothing of the sort simply because they come from environments where there is not a culture of learning or “concerted cultivation”. Not even the greatest of schools or the best of teachers can ‘undo’ or ‘compete against’ what is learned/conditioned/encouraged by society in the majority of their time – which is spent outside the classroom.

Again – I recognise this idea of learning being as much social as institutional is a much more significant and complex approach to addressing the issues in our educational system – certainly it will win fewer headlines (and possibly votes) than the abolition of the 11+ selection tests. It will necessarily have to recognise and address real issues of social and economic disadvantage but it is, I am convinced, at the very core of what needs to be done for the longer term. Otherwise the scenes of youth violence in Belfast City Centre last week will become more and more commonplace and the dire statistics that show more and more of our young people from deprived NI communities leaving school with no qualifications will grow year on year.

This debate must be about more than just narrow issues of ‘selection’ and ‘schooling’.  This is about wider education and personal development of our young people. Schools have an important role to play but more often than not I feel they simply reflect the prevailing local culture of/attitude to learning/development rather than shape it – and given the 80/20 split pointed out above that seems only fair and to be expected.

But in partnership with community groups, parents and local/central government they can become the hubs of personal development that our small island economy/society will so desperately need if we are to prevail as a modern, inclusive and prosperous democracy in the end.

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Build it and they will come (maybe)

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It never (ever) ceases to amaze me that Field of Dreams was nominated for three Oscars.  Three. Oscars. Still there is no accounting for taste.  Lucky for Kevin K. Although I was a secret fan of Waterworld for years (good to get that out there).

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about making operational change stick in Government and related to that the rise (and rise) of Social Media/Social Technology in Government or what is currently oft referred to as ‘Government 2.0‘.  I intend to dedicate my next few posts to that but for the purposes of a late night preamble it goes something like this…

Reading some of the coverage on the application (or potential application) of Social Media/Technology one could easily come to the conclusion that this might be a panacea for the evils and short comings of modern Governance.  And while there is no doubt that new ‘social technologies’ offer some exciting opportunities for Government including:

  • Improved communication and cooperation (within and between governments and citizens)
  • Improved collaboration for service/solution co-production and participation with citizens (from participatory citizen voting, harnessing collective intelligence on matters of policy to the creation of new “Citizen centric” services built by the public using Government API data)
  • More efficient and effective options for service delivery/monitoring
  • Improved transparency and accountability (of decision making, accounting, voting, interests etc)

it is vital to remember that just “adopting” the tools and language of social media/technology in Government will simply not be enough because as Clay Shirky and may others have pointed out:

  • These technologies to do not in the main create new motivations, they are simply a means to enable existing motivations to be exercised more immediately and efficiently
  • This must ultimately be about a change in behaviour (not simply technology); a change in the way “we do things around here” (aka culture) and that sort of change is hard won and even harder sustained.

Many public bodies and officials will need to change behaviors in a way that will be more significant and anathema than learning the difference between Facebook, WordPress, Twitter and (as a starter for ten:) API.  How they communicate, legislate, consult, lead their staff and are held accountable will all be subject to significant change in a Government 2.0 operational landscape.

More importantly however, if this is to mark a meaningful new era in governance we, as citizens, will need to change our behaviours dramatically. We are seeing record levels of political apathy reflected in (for example) falling political party membership and poor voter turn out. Yet inherent in the argument that social technologies can truly transform Government (stand up Government 2.0) today is the assumption that we have a public who are ready, willing and able to communicate and participate never mind collaborate and create!   Certainly there are many – I included – who can now more easily engage in ‘new ways of working’ with my Government or Local Council – see the wonderful “Us. Now” for more examples. There is a growing body of IT developers who are trying to use Government data to build and develop new services to improve the connection between Government and citizen e.g. MySociety

But there are many – the majority most definitely – who either do not have the knowledge, means or inclination to do so…..”because these new technologies do not (in the main) create new motivations they simply enable existing motivations to be exercise more immediately and efficiently”.  We can design and put in place what I call “the enabling context” but will they come and will they be representative and responsible when they get there? Most pertinent in the context of citizen communication, participation and transactional service delivery is Martha Lane Fox‘s observation at the NESTA “Reboot Britain” Event in July that 80% of government interactions are with the poorest 25% of people who are much less likely to be online.

If the promise of social media in Government is to be realised then we must still ask the question: how do we engage “the people” again in the design and delivery of Public Services and keep them engaged when we do get them there?  If we don’t then at best we’ll have an extremely unrepresentative channel of Gov 2.0 constituents and at worst we’ll have an increasingly disengaged and disenfranchised wider populace.  Some proponents state that the mere adoption of social media technologies in Government will drive that change in citizen engagement – particularly among younger voters – but I am not so sure it will do so en mass on its own…and some recent surveys (more here) bear out the fact that we have a ways to go both in engaging citizens in the process and machinery of Governance as well as demonstrating that Social Media has a role to play therein.

Build it and they will come? Maybe (but I doubt it). Then again, apparently if I believe the impossible, the incredible can come true….

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Immigrants, Emigrants and Me

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A few weeks back, in the wake of Nick Griffin’s bizarre appearance on Question Time, there was much discussion and column writing on the failure of the Labour Party to articulate any meaningful or informed defence of immigration into the UK either on the night or in recent months. 

Given that Jack Straw must (surely?) have been aware that much of the discussion on the night would turn to the thorny topic of immigration and assimilation of immigrants into mainstream UK society I was appalled by how badly prepared he seemed to be. Beyond the emotive but passé lines that often get trotted out e.g. “my grandfather….”, “most immigrants to this country are honest, hardworking and contributing members of society” we got nothing of substance to demonstrate the real – measurable value – of immigration into the UK.

So it was with great interest that I read this sonderful post from my fellow WIP Alumni and Irish economist, Ronan Lyons.

This makes for fascinating reading and leaving aside the fact that Ronan recognises a number of assumptions / extrapolations need to be made in the absence of available data it presents a strong case – even as a snapshot – for the value of immigration to Ireland PLC.

I’d love to see something similar for the UK. Does anything similar exist? If not, why not? If so – what story does it tell?

Immigration is an emotive subject and no doubt mistakes have been made in managing the process in certain areas of the UK – both for immigrants and those already living in communities affected by larger than expected (a notable policy failure) population movements. There i also no doubt that many working class white (and traditional Labour Party) voters have felt abandoned by the traditional bosom of the Labour Party in the pursuit of free market economics with a heart. 

The new UKvisas Points Based System will help I am sure (for me Points beats a cap approach hands down when managed well), as will the implementation of the eBorders system in assisting with tracking movement both in and out of the UK – both programmes have come later than perhaps required but they are also notably “negative” policy responses to the problem at hand – both exist to reassure the public that we “have a handle” on the issue.  Where are the positive policy elelments to sit alongside these? 

This Government simply cannot continue to rely on its instinct that “immigration is a good thing” nor expect the people of the UK as a whole to do likewise – even if they share that instinct – which research suggests the vast majority do. And nor should they shy away from embracing immigration and get off the back foot when discussing the topic. But continually that is what we see and hear. It fuels the flames of the argument that “we have a problem” and does nothing to take the fight to the BNP and its like.

It saddens me to say but BNPs success is a product of New Labours failures in this area and Jack Straws unwillingness to recognise that is part of the same reason he had to share the stage with the leader of the BNP on National Television. He and many of his collagues contributed to the vacuum the BNP stepped in to fill. I fear they have neither the will, the wit or the trust of the electorate to right that wrong.

But in any event a simple and positive presentation of the facts is long overdue.  I may have missed something and if so if someone could point me in the right direction I’d be most grateful.

Until then the likes of Mr Griffin will continue to pedal their dangerous brand of divisive, fear inducing politics to a concerned and most importantly, largely uninengaged an underinformed public. 

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Selection (it’s only natural)

I have a confession to make. I’m a socialist, Northern Irish Catholic who was educated at a Secondary school and I believe in academic selection as an entry criteria for post primary education.

There, I’ve said it. Let the first stones be cast, but please be gentle with me – fleshy areas only and not the face, please, not the face….

The ongoing story that is post Primary education selection in Northern Ireland has been keeping me transfixed for over a year now. And it looks like I can look forward to a lengthy Season 2 and maybe even a Season 3 installment (unlike the poor Studio 60 – travesty!) with not a satisfactory end in sight. In fact, I read recently from Mark Simpson that positions have become so entrenched on the matter in that bastion of working democracy – Stormont – that “The Executive” will no longer even discuss the matter cross party.  Wonderful. Maybe if they all just closed their eyes, donned red shoes and twitched their noses they’d be transported to Kansas and someone else (anyone?!) could get on with the business of resolving this. If a day is a long time in Politics then surely a year is too long for something as important as our children’s education to go unresolved.

But its fascinating nonetheless – particularly because its intresting to see our political representatives grappling with actual local Policy issues at last. How this will end is any-one’s guess but here’ my tuppenceworth.  You might also enjoy the excellent pieces from Jeff Peel’s enjoyable blog and of course the omnipotent Slugger O’Toole.


If it’s not broke…..

Northern Ireland’s secondary education system (note: you can consider ‘secondary education system’ in that instance to mean both Grammar and Secondary schooling) generates a (possibly) disproportionate number of high calibre and well rounded students with school leavers achieving GCSE and A Level results well above national averages.  It is an internationally recognised fact and as someone who lives and works in England, I can testify that a Northern Ireland education (in my case at St Patrick’s College, Maghera) is very highly regarded in the marketplace.  That seems a lot to gamble with at a time when we are going to need more – not less – of the very brightest minds we can produce; minds perhaps best described by Seamus Heaney in his poem “From the Canton of Expectation”, as “intelligences brightened and unmannerly as crowbars”.  What a great phrase that is (thanks to President of Eire, Mary McAleese for introducing me to it).

A cursory galnce at the newspapers of today or the recent NI IREP Report will tell you that the coming generation of school leavers need to be perhaps the best of all, in keeping with the scale of the challenges that await them – that we rely on them to address.  Ending selection and exercising what some believe to be a ‘compassionate’ act of egalitarianism is no guarantee of better results/outcomes and ultimately isn’t that what our Government should ultimately be most concerned with – results and outcomes?  That’s not to say that they should not also be concerned with ensuring that all our children have the opportunity of education but what is key here is the idea that the nature of that education should be ‘appropriate’ and more importantly that it should be an issue addressed at Primary, not Secondary level – more on both those points later.

I have very strong personal views on education and how we need to re-define ‘success’ at secondary level but another post, another time…


Ghetto or Grammar?

Current proposals would in effect swap the pressures and associated “trauma” of selection with a postcode selection (not ‘postcode lottery’ as some call it as one can always move home to live closer to a desirable school) from which, few would benefit and potentially least of all those from our communities whose educational development these changes are proported to support. I don’t have the facts to hand but I still suspect that the upper and middle classes, if not already, will be able to (re)-locate themselves much more readily if needed (and I suspect that the current location of many of our best schools will be found in middle/upper class catchment areas anyway) to secure spots at the best schools.  Where’s the social justice in that? My family most definately could not have moved, unless of course my Da had made good on his oft repeated threat to get us onto the streets to rustle up some money!

Related to this is surely the risk of creating, or in some instances, exacerbating a ‘ghetto culture’ where our young people take all their schooling in their local community with no opportunity to move outside that geography/catchment. Hardly something we wish to encourage given our already renowned and damaging psyche of insularity and community entrenchment. For me, passing the 11+ gave me the opportunity to attend any one of three schools in the area but all outside my village. This was a seminal moment in my personal development as it exposed me to others from other communities and backgrounds to a greater extent than possible in my local secondary. It gave me social skills and a confidence in meeting, working and playing with a wider collective of peers that stood me in good stead to this day.  For many the current system provides a unique and timely opportunity for social mobility.


It’s about creating an aspirational culture

This is not about truly about “selection” which to my mind suggests an entirely arbitrary process of picking the rich over the poor, the disadvantaged over the advantaged. This is about achievement. And that is a social challenge, not a secondary schooling challenge first and foremost.

Many many students (myself included please note) come/came from families whose incomes would place us in the lower socio economic bands (as one of three children of a self employed widower I received child benefit including free school meals). My success in the 11+ provided the opportunity of entry to a school of my choice and from there — university and a well paid profession. And that was something I was made aware of by parents and grandparents alike – all of whom never had that opportunity themselves. It was something I learned early to aspire to. Something that I felt I need not be ashamed of hoping for.

That suggests to me that this is not a simple case of blanket discrimination against those in the lower socio-economic classes.  Many pupils from these groups have and continue to succeed at 11+ stage testing and their successes should be celebrated. It should also be used to ask more of communities where some fail and others do not in the same grouping. The same could be asked within schools. My school catered from everything from 11+ A grades through to a special learning needs unit with around 1200 pupils in between.  And here’s my experience – if you want to learn, if you seek out the opportunities to learn, if you are motivated to learn and put in the graft then you can and will achieve.  I left school with straight A’s in my A Levels – as good and in some cases better than friends at the local grammar but also less than a few of my Secondary school colleagues.  I just think this is about much more than the Secondary school you attend to than it might be politically convenient to suggest.

NB All this assumes that Grammar Schools treat every applicant of with the same 11+ result on their personal merits and not on socio-economic background. If hey do or provide a weighting that ounts against children from more derived socio-economic communities thenoff with their bl00dy heads.

Behavioral Psychologists tell us that much of a child’s success is determined by the environment in which they spend their formative years – in particular how their parents engage in their personal and cognitive development.  The wonderful “Outliers – The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell cites the work of sociologist Annette Lareau in coining the term “concerted cultivation” to describe a style of parenting which most effectively fosters and assesses a child’s talent’s opinions and skills; this is opposed to a style of “accomplishment of natural growth” where parents see it as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own.  Gladwell highlights that the former approach – while not without its flaws – generates a higher number of ‘aspirational’ children who are better able to reason, engage, participate, influence and succeed in the world around them.  Where Parents are unable or are constrained in adopting a style of concerted cultivation (it takes time and effort undoubtedly) then I believe that local communities should be encouraged to support and create an ‘aspirational’ culture for young children – a culture where success is seen as something to strive for and be proud of.  Many of us in Northern Ireland are familiar with how uncomfortable we and our families can be of “success”.  As someone once said to me, in Northern Ireland you should keep your head down and “aim for something slightly above mediocrity”.  It’s a undeniable shame and a cultural challenge that must be addressed because it is this and not the school of secondary education which will ultimately make the real difference – as I outline below.

Critics of selection tests claim it is cruel and unfair and I agree that selection purely through the use of a single arbitrary test is potentially discriminatory (although perhaps as much an issue for women, ethnic monorities, the elderly and while male athletes than just those in the “lower socio economic classes”). I personally would advocate the use of ongoing Primary School assessments, Annual School Reports and maybe a reduced weighting one-off test as a more balanced and effective approach to selection. But selection is an important aspiration for society, particularly so for a country as small and with such limited resources as Northern Ireland. We need our young people to work hard, to aspire to better things and to recognise that life – and hold onto your seats here – is hard, traumatic and full of tests, each and every day. Those learnings and the instincts they hone are important for society as a whole and we should recognise we cannot and should not protect our children from it ad-infinitum.


Fighting the wrong fight?

I never thought I’d be agreeing with Chris Woodhead in print but in my opinion, the selection process for Secondary education is a moot point if we are really interested in improving the educational lot and associated opportunities of all our young people. Any behavioral psychologist or neuroscientist worth their salt will tell you that by age 11 much of who we are and how we feel about education, achievement, behaviour has been set in motion. That’s not to say we’re the finished article but it is to say that the more important question here – the question Stormont should be concerning itself with first and foremost – is how to improve Primary education for those they believe are currently disadvantaged; its almost too late by secondary school.

Just a few examples of work in this area which bear out this point which happened to be conveniently cited by Matthew Taylor in October’s edition of Prospect:

  1. Elizabeth Gould, a neuroscientist, has shown in her work with monkeys that our brains can generate new neurons in a process she calls ‘neurogenisis”, however she has proven that those who have suffered stress or lack of stimulation (i.e. no concerted cultivation at home/in the community) had lower levels of neurogenisis. Therefore she suggests that the impact of nurture in early years is not simply impactful on our attitudes (which might be overcome) – but on the actual physical capacity of our brains to develop. Her work has been used to make the case for early intervention in deprived and dysfunctional families.
  2. The psychologist, Walter Mischel tested four year olds on their ability to resist eating a marshmallow and showed that childhood inability to defer gratification predicted low achievement and antisocial behaviour well into adult life.

The research on this area is significant and consistent. Primary school is where we learn the basic skills of reading and writing but it is also associated with the period in our lives when we might just be shaped the most and our ability to ‘succeed’ or ‘thrive’ determined. It is there that Government should start and place the emphasis of its schooling strategy before turning their attention to the Secondary schools.


Specialising in specialisation

One slightly more subtle concern I have about this ongoing row is that any removal of ‘selection’ suggests that all children are created alike and therefore should be streamed through the same educational process/institutions. This is a nonsense and in many ways fails to recognise that one of the great achievements of human evolution has been our recognition that to survive as a species/functioning society we have had to become a community of diverse and dependent talents. We recognise implicitly that we are not all created the same and none of us can master all things and so we specialise and diversify, thereby creating a range of services and offerings for one another – doctors, builders, teachers, chef, sportsmen, journalists, carers etc.  Without that implicit recognition in our evolution we may never have survived as individuals or communities. Diversity is at the very heart of our success as a species and so it should be with education. The idea implicit in ending selection is that if you don’t get to Grammar school you’re done for and the only real measure of success is finishing your education. That cannot be healthy. For many, becoming a scholar is neither desirable or necessary. Instead other talents can be fostered, talents required by society – just as valuable as those found in a list of white collar professions in the school careers manual.

Children are not all created equal. And let’s be thankful for that. Stormont should focus on improving the experience and personal options for specialisation of those attending our secondary schools, not treating everyone the same at a cost to many for the sake of an unproven social experiment.


Some humble suggestions

  • Stormont should focus on Primary not secondary as their educational priority
  • Provide state sponsored interventions to Primary Schools in lower socio-economic communities currently showing poor schooling performance, including engaging with local community groups to discuss how to foster a spirit of ‘concerted cultivation’ outside of the school environs
  • Delay structured primary classes until age 5 with year one adopting a Scandinavian model of learning through play
  • Split each Primary school year into two classes so that no child is ‘competing’ in a classroom with a child more than 6 months their elder (see Chapter 1 of Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ for the sound reasoning behind that idea)
  • Extend the Primary school year, shorten holidays and increase the amount of time our children have to learn while shortening the amount of time they have to un-learn – particularly those children who aren’t lucky enough to be subject to ‘concerted cultivation’ on the school breaks
  • Use a combined set of evidence for secondary school selection – including the Annual School Report to support selection
  • Worry less about secondary selection procedures for now and more about the sort of varied but strategic school system we are going to need to underpin and support the recent NI IREP report
  • Reconsider the role of our non Grammar secondary schools and assist them to offer an improved and personalised educational experience linked to a long term NI economic strategy underpinned by targeted skills development
  • Give every minister interested in education for Northern Ireland a copy of this: “Outliers – The Story of Success” as food for thought


These ideas are much less palatable and immediately implementable to a party trying to hold onto power and make early political gains.  And as with so much else in Stormont – not least the crude and irresponsible deferment of Water Charges last year – this is the issue. No one wants to talk or think strategically – no one believes they have the time. Everyone seems too busy bickering for the spoils of our recently found Executive Power that we’ve already forgotten our much longed for and hard fought for right for something more, something better, something appropriately local and something lasting.  But as with the need for a longer term, considered and sustainable economic strategy it’s a hard but true message that these things take time if we want to get them right, real time.

I’m not sure that’s a message that will be heeded sadly.  As I’ve often heard in White’s Tavern over a pint of Guinness…’Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Belfast: maybe”.

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