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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border