Michael Gove, education reform and why the rise of so-called experts is poisoning national debate

Most of the people who want to change things don't know enough to do it; while most of the people who have that knowledge don’t want to change a thing.

Share
Related Topics

Don't judge me for this, but one of my closest friends is an investment banker. He's a lovely fella – kind and generous and entirely in favour of progressive taxation – but we do have a recurring argument about the best way to prevent his industry from screwing up the world for the rest of us.

And – I always lose. Because, while I'm a bright enough guy and I read and all that, I fundamentally know a lot less about banking than he does. I might very well be coming up with stupid suggestions that are utterly unworkable. Then again, he might only believe what he does because he's inside the system, and so has a vested interest in making sure the banks stay exactly as they are. Either possibility is plausible – and I have absolutely no way of knowing which is right.

The Expert Problem

Scale this up from an argument in a pub, and you've got our entire national debate about banking reform.

Call it the Expert Problem: Most of the people who want to change things don't know enough to do it; while most of the people who have that knowledge don’t want to change a thing.

That's not the whole story, of course (the dominant free market ideology plays a part, too). But nonetheless, a rational fear of derailing a major part of the economy makes it easier for ministers to leave the banks as they are. And so, by and large, they do.

Ministers feel no such reluctance when it comes to the public sector – but the Expert Problem applies there too, all the same. The BMA, which has cleverly made everyone forget it's a trade union, has historically greeted any proposal for change as the sort of granny-killing lunacy that could threaten the entire foundation of the NHS. Sometimes they're probably right – but the fact they make the same hysterical statements whenever GPs don't get a pay rise suggests that, a lot of the time, they’re just posturing. For those of us outside the health service, it’s all but impossible to know which is which.

Or consider the ongoing enmity between Michael Gove and the teaching profession. Gove rants about declining standards, and hurtles from one set of radical reform to another. The teaching unions reply that standards are just fine, and that his enthusiastic deckchair shuffling is making things worse. Are they right? Haven't the foggiest. What frightens me is that I suspect Gove is in exactly the same position.

For the likes of me, this is annoying. But for those who have to actually make policy it’s potentially crippling. You can see a problem, you want to fix it, but the people best place to tell you how also have a massive interest in things staying exactly as they are. Too often, the result is either paralysis, or terrible policy.

What to do?

So what do you do? One approach is to effectively ignore the experts and plough ahead regardless. By throwing everything at academy chains, free schools, Teach First and so on, Michael Gove is doing everything he can to create a parallel teaching profession, more amenable to his way of doing things. But it’s not clear how well this will work in education: the idea of importing a more pliant medical profession is clearly barking.

Another option is to co-opt a few experts, bringing them into government to take your side. That, though, is likely to cost: bankers won’t work for civil service salaries. More importantly, just because they now work for you, doesn’t mean they’ve changed their opinions about the best way of doing things.

That leaves you with another, depressingly common option: bring in outsiders that know more about a sector than you do but haven't been entirely captured by it. If ever you wanted to know why governments throw so much money at management consultants, this is as good an explanation as any.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee