Editorial: Targets work, not silly edicts

Without a relentless focus on minimum standards, public services tend to slip back

In 1997, when New Labour unveiled its five most important promises for that year's election, we marvelled at their modesty. The first was to "cut class sizes to 30 or under for five, six and seven-year-olds". Yet those pledges turnedout to be surprisingly hard to deliver.

Class sizes for the youngest primary-school children were indeed reduced by the time Labour went to the people again in 2001. But, despite a huge majority and buoyant tax revenues, another promise on the pledge card, "halving the time from arrest to sentencing... for persistent young offenders", was not delivered until a year later.

Twelve years on, as we report today, even the modest achievement of smaller class sizes for what is now known as Key Stage 1 is rolling back down the hill. When the coalition government came to power, 2.2 per cent of this age group were in classes of more than 30; new figures reveal that this proportion has now risen to 4.6 per cent, which means 72,000 children now being taught in a less than ideal setting.

The aim of smaller class sizes is a good one, although it is not the only thing that matters. Good teaching is more important; and the rise in numbers of teaching assistants, recently reversed, has made a big difference. But without that class-size limit, everything else becomes harder.

Our purpose here is not to make again the case for smaller classes, however. The importance of the new figures is that they expose the folly of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat attacks on Labour's so-called "target culture". As with waiting-time targets for accident and emergency departments, without a relentless focus on national minimum standards, public services tend to slip back into doing things for the convenience of local providers and making excuses for poor performance.

On primary-school class sizes, the policy of the Government did not change after the 2010 election, but because the Tories and Lib Dems had made so much of how terrible Labour's "top-down targets" were, there has been a natural tendency of heads and school governors to allow more "emergency" or "temporary" increases in class sizes.

The problem is greater in the NHS, because Andrew Lansley, the former health secretary, abolished Labour's targets with some fanfare, while replacing them with "benchmarks" more quietly. Thus one of the problems contributing to the present crisis in A&E is that, for nearly three years, the four-hour maximum wait was not taken as seriously as it had been.

The Independent on Sunday accepts that poorly chosen targets are a menace and can distort the priorities of any organisation, public or private. But, generally, targets are a necessary discipline and a spur to better management. The evidence collected by Sir Michael Barber, who was head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit in Tony Blair's second term, is that services that meet well-designed targets tend to be better at everything else that they do.

Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and secretaries of state for all other "delivery" departments should read Sir Michael's book. They should stop trying to distract people with silly edicts about packed lunches and charging foreigners to use the NHS. And they should concentrate on delivering the few important indicators that guarantee decent standards for all in public services.