Governments rarely do their homework before announcing new policies. So what should their punishment be? After all, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of schools, said this week that financial penalties should be imposed on parents who allow homework to be left undone.
In the context of government, doing your homework before launching new initiatives should be common-sense stuff. It’s what the rest of us do automatically in our daily jobs as we get new products and services under way. But not the Government.
In the case of the Help to Buy scheme, for instance, under which the Government makes interest-free loans to homebuyers, the department concerned did not carry out any assessment of alternative, potentially more effective, options before going ahead. As Parliament’s watchdog committee said on Tuesday, this was a violation of Treasury guidelines – which sounds rather worse than failing to get your children to prepare for their next day’s classes.
Failure to do homework is endemic in Government – and there is a reason, as I shall explain. To take another example, the plan to outsource up to 70 per cent of probation services was originally supposed to be preceded by a series of pilot schemes designed to test the management of offenders on a payment-by-results basis. But this homework, for that is what it was, was cancelled because of the tight deadlines for implementing the outsourcing programme. Perhaps mums and dads could also be allowed to plead tight deadlines when their children’s headmaster threatens to fine them.
Then there was Nick Clegg, who suddenly announced at his party conference last year that all infant schoolchildren should be given a free hot meal at lunchtime. This was an off-the-cuff idea – only three senior civil servants in the Department for Education had any idea it was coming. So naturally nobody had had time to consider how many schools would need to upgrade their kitchens and at what cost. Then the lunch was to be hot – except that hot meals take longer to prepare and serve, and many schools simply cannot fit an extended lunchtime into their school day. Still, no doubt Mr Clegg, despite his own lack of preparation of an important policy initiative, still believes it is very important for children to do their homework.
The Independent gave a good example of inadequate preparation in yesterday’s newspaper. It reported that a Cambridge University study had found that the so-called bedroom tax was “fundamentally flawed”. The bedroom tax looks at the number of bedrooms, and not at the total available space per person. But the study found that “only 19 per cent of households losing housing benefit (under the bedroom tax) could be considered to have more space than they needed”. Comfortably housed high civil servants and ministers simply hadn’t been able to imagine that people stuck in council flats often create extra bedrooms out of very little space.
So why don’t successive governments do their homework? The short answer is that the political class lives On a different planet. Down here in the everyday world, we prepare new ventures carefully and do not expect to get a reward straightaway. In the world of politics that is no good at all. You want the reward up front in terms of an announcement that makes your party look good. So the Chancellor of the Exchequer was able to say that his government was helping people buy their own homes, which sounds inviting. But he also knew that if some part of the £10bn committed is never repaid, which is likely as some buyers have accessed the scheme with deposits of less than 5 per cent, then the reckoning will come many years hence.
In the same way, Nick Clegg felt when addressing the faithful that he needed a policy that would put his party on the side of the angels. Then they could leave the meeting proud to be Lib Dems. Afterwards he would get on with the practical implementation of his plan.
In their excellent book The Blunders of Our Governments, published last year, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe wrote that “there is at the heart of the British system a deficit of deliberation”. And they added that in none of the 10 blunders they considered, starting with Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax, did deliberation take place.
It is a commonplace that you should judge people by their deeds rather than their words. Not in politics. There the rule is that the announcement is far more important than the delivery. Homework simply gets in the way. Sir Michael Wilshaw, please take note.
Envy the French: they think, therefore they pass A-levels
French school pupils taking their baccalauréat this week - equivalent to our A-levels - started with the examination they most fear. This was philosophy, the infamous “Philo”. They quickly tweeted the daunting questions. “Is it sufficient to have choice to be truly free?” And, “Why seek to understand oneself?”
Here are other questions that have been set in recent years. Does language betray thought? Is truth preferable to peace? Is it absurd to desire the impossible? Can one be right in spite of the facts? Does power exist without violence? All French lycée students taking serious academic courses are required to study philosophy, but in British schooling there is nothing quite like it.
In 2011, British academics signed a letter to newspapers arguing that “introducing philosophy lessons in the classroom from a very early age would have immense benefits in terms of boosting British schoolchildren's reasoning and conceptual skills, better equipping them for the complexities of life in the 21st century”. And they added that “there is a growing body of evidence that philosophy can be of huge importance in opening up young minds. Reasoning skills and habits improve learning in other subjects on the curriculum”.
I remember my own reaction to undertaking a certain amount of philosophy in my university courses. At first I felt I was living a nightmare because when I started to read philosophical texts I could not make sense of them. I felt I shouldn’t be at university at all. Gradually I learnt the language of philosophy and began to enjoy the subject. It seemed to be teaching me how to think. Suddenly I said to myself - we should have been taught this at school. So I envy the French for having Philo, even if it is a four-hour exam.