Black Students Matter

Shailen Popat

Black Lives Matter.  This statement rings true in the context of violence and murder but also in terms of quality of life.  One crucial factor in quality of life is attainment at school. Over the last 40 years, black students have been attaining persistently lower outcomes at age 18 than their white peers even though both groups commence their schooling demonstrating high ability and capability (Archer et al 2007). The Department of Education School Census (2019) suggested that the gap in performance is widening and many Black students in England’s schools are not sharing the higher educational standards achieved by other ethnic groups over the last decade with less than 50% of black pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs at grade A* to C including English and Maths. This is particularly concerning given that The Tomlinson Enquiry (2008:2) concluded that ‘… the education system over the past 50 years has developed within a socio-political context in which there has been a lack of political will to ensure that all groups were fairly and equitably treated’.  This half century of unfairness has impacted upon choices available to Black students after they leave the schools system.

For example, Oxford University’s Annual Admissions Statistics Report shows that just 3.2% of all students admitted to undergraduate degrees in 2019 were ethnic British Black. An ethnic Black student applying to Oxford is half as likely to get in as a white student. Not only are not enough ethnic Black students applying, but those who do, are far less likely to get in.   There are concerted attempts by Oxford at both a college and university level to improve access and opportunities for all ethnic and social groups and reflect the national consensus to promote equality of opportunity to elite institutions. However,  Oxford University could legitimately point-out that the foundation of admission to elite universities is performance at A Levels, and therefore, if only 5.1% of ethnic Black students attained three A*-A grades at A Level in 2017 compared with 22.5% of ethnic Chinese, 15.3% of ethnic Indians, 14.3% of ethnic Irish, and 10.9% of White British pupils (Figure 1), then a larger percentage of ethnic Black students will never be able to apply.

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(Figure 1: Department for Education, 11 July 2019)

 

 

In a 2015 report by Lambeth Council in which they had looked at the problem in terms of why some pupils in their borough from African backgrounds were achieving higher attainment than other Black groups, 8 main factors were listed as perpetuating low attainment and disengagement from learning by ethnic black pupils:

 

  1. Stereotyping
  2. Teachers’ low expectations
  3. Exclusions
  4. Poor school leadership on equality issues
  5. Inadequate school support to Black parents
  6. Institutional racism
  7. Lack of diversity in the national curriculum
  8. A lack of knowledge about the diverse nature of the ethnic minorities

 

The Lambeth (2015) study identified a number of good practices that contribute to the success of some Black students, including the high educational aspiration of African parents and pupils; inspirational leadership in school and teachers with high expectations for all students. Ethnic Black pupils, particularly ethnic Caribbean boys, are often assumed to be less academic and often associated with disruptive behaviour.   In America, a 2017 Brown Center Report found that Black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, nearly twice as likely to be expelled and even Ethnic Black pre-schoolers are 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions (Loveless 2017).  Much of this can be explained by teacher expectations as to what Black students can achieve.  The Yale Child Study Center looked at implicit biases and subconscious stereotypes held by teachers which may result in them having lower expectations for Black students (Gilliam et al 2016). Yale’s study revealed these biases are directed at much younger children than previously thought, and are present in both black and white teachers.  Researchers showed 135 educators videos of children in a classroom setting. Each video had a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl and teachers were asked to detect challenging behaviour.  No such behaviour existed in any of the videos yet 42% of the teachers identified the black boy as displaying it.  Such subconscious factors are likely to be a significant contributor to the lack of progress in raising Black students attainment at the same rate as other BAME groups here in the UK too, and we need to commence a national reflective conversation as part of our commitment to ensuring that Black Lives Matter.

 

Shailen-Popat-webprofile

Shailen Popat

Shailen works as a Teaching Fellow in Public Policy and Management based in the Institute of Local Government (INLOGOV). He is also a PhD student in Education at the University of Oxford where he is a Senior Hulme Scholar at Brasenose College.   Shailen has worked for many years in children and young people services for local authorities, charities and also his own social enterprise.

 

References

Archer, L., Halsall, A. and Hollingworth, S., 2007. Class, gender,(hetero) sexuality and schooling: Paradoxes within working‐class girls’ engagement with education and post‐16 aspirations. British Journal of Sociology of Education28(2), pp.165-180.

Department for Education (2019) Statistics: school and pupil numbers.  Accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/statistics-school-and-pupil-numbers

 

Gilliam, W., Maupin, A., Reyes, C., Accavitti, M. & Shic, F. (2016). Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? Retrieved from http://ziglercenter.yale.edu/publications/Preschool%20Implicit%20Bias%20Policy%20Brief_final_9_26_276766_5379.pdf.

 

Lambeth Borough Council (2015), The underachievement of Black Carribbean Heritage Pupils in Schools – Research Project Brief.  Accessed at https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/rsu/sites/www.lambeth.gov.uk.rsu/files/The_Underachievement_of_Black_Caribbean_Heritage_Pupils_in_Schools-_Research_Brief.pdf

 

Loveless, T. (2017).  2017 Brown Center Report on American Education: Race and school suspensions.  Accessed at https://www.brookings.edu/research/2017-brown-center-report-part-iii-race-and-school-suspensions/

 

University of Oxford (2020), University of Oxford Annual Admissions Statistical Report 2020.  Accessed at https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxford/Annual%20Admissions%20Statistical%20Report%202020.pdf

 

 

 

 

A year in the life of the newly-elected Independent Council

Councillor Paul Millar

Analysis by local government academic Chris Game shows that there were a total of 45 District Councils where no one political party/grouping could command a majority after the 2019 local elections. In the majority of these cases where the result was ‘No Overall Control’, rainbow coalitions were formed. East Devon provided a rare exception to this rule, and this article explores the struggles of running a minority administrations under a Leader-Cabinet system.

In May 2019, the political composition of East Devon District Council changed. The Conservatives had controlled the Council with a comfortable majority for over four decades.   When the Council was created in 1972, the Council was independent-run. Back then, there was a utopian vision of being a non-political Council. Though this convention remains at some town and parish Councils in the area, such as Sidmouth, it didn’t last for long at East Devon District. At the 1976 election, the majority of the Independents successfully ran as Conservatives and, the Council remained Conservative for the following 43 years.

Local elections in 2019 saw gains for independents across the country. East Devon was however a particular success story, with Independent candidates elected in all 31 seats they ran in – a 100% success rate. Most independents in East Devon campaigned on local issues, championing attention for their Wards. When I knocked on doors, while there were a few residents who wanted to rebel against the Conservatives because of the Brexit limbo in Parliament, many more expressed the sentiment that it was time for a change locally, with a general feeling that the East Devon Conservative Group had become complacent in office.

Despite these gains, it quickly became clear that some independent Councillors were too independent and unwilling to work together. A common vision of the strategic running of the Council could not be united around. Broadly, the 31 Independent Councillors were split into three distinct camps. The first comprised of broadly anti-development, anti-austerity Independents who believed the Council’s sole job was to deliver universal and high-quality public services. Many of these indepedents united around the ‘East Devon Alliance’ brand. This camp felt the Council had been let down by the Conservatives, and that inappropriate development schemes had been forced through at the expense of local living standards. This camp also believed that a stronger case made for the Council receiving greater financial support from government to deliver decent public services.

The second camp was mainly made up of broadly pro-development, neo-liberal minded independents who fully embraced the idea of the Council being run as a self-sufficient business, embracing high-risk borrowing for commercial investment, while happy to reduce and narrow the provision of public services which lose the Council money. This camp unsurprisingly contained independents who had previously represented the Conservatives. In my view, often they seemed to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. In the third camp sat independents who were yet to find their political identities and had not been heavily involved in previous local debates. I was somewhere between the first and third camps.

Before 1998, Members were able to run as Independent Conservative, but the Registration of Political Parties Act specifies that political candidates who are not members of the Conservative Party but are otherwise identify with their policies and are wedded to their values, can no run under such a label. In East Devon, a few Conservatives had become Independents due to being unable to fulfil their ambitions within the local party, or personal or policy clashes within their local party associations, sometimes over local matters.

Councillor Ben Ingham was elected Leader of the Council last May and decided to run the Council as a minority of 20 Independents, cutting off 11 whose views he considered were “too left-wing” out of the administration. I, having only recently resigned my membership of the Labour Party as the party had become unmanageable under Jeremy Corbyn, accepted a position in Cllr Ingham’s Cabinet. A Conservative Chairman was elected, and generous offers of positions were made, which made me feel a tad uncomfortable. I recall being reassured at the time that the Chairman of the Council was not a political role. Later, his office became political as the Chair voted against an Annual meeting to have his position elected.

Slowly, it became clear that an overly cosy relationship with the Conservative Group which the electorate had just voted out, had been forged. My election leaflet promised change. After raising concerns with the business-as-usual approach, I was sacked from the Cabinet and I decided to quit the ruling Independent Group and sit as an unaffiliated independent.

Cllr Ingham has a long experience as a Councillor dating back to 1995, the first ten years as a Councillor as a Conservative.  He left the party after launching a leadership bid and ‘No Confidence’ vote against the Leader of the East Devon District Council Conservative Group at the time, Sara Randall-Johnson.

Running a minority Council under a Cabinet system is as unideal as it gets. Constitutional amendments and two Scrutiny Call-Ins on two key issues prevented the Cabinet from administering key policies to significantly increase car parking charges and complete a deeply unpopular and long-running regeneration project in one of its seaside towns. Under a Committee system, some consensus might have been found. By January of this year, the Independent Group lost another Member due to a Cabinet decision not to invest in saving a community hospital despite officer recommendations, East Devon District Council had the smallest number of Councillors in a ruling administration of any Council in the country, well under a third of the membership.

By March, the ruling group could not get any major policy approved by the membership and had started to fight among themselves. One Cabinet meeting descended into a row as the Leader appeared to lose trust in even his closest colleagues. Some independents, the Liberal Democrats and Greens came together in a rainbow alliance and formed a majority new administration last month, while the former Leader has returned to his spiritual home of theConservative Group.

With true colours having finally been shown, the new administration has the immediate task of crisis response. When the crisis ends, the new administration will plan to implement ambitious policies to increase democracy, transparency as well as prioritising climate change, poverty and the economic recovery from COVID-19, which is reflected in a new Cabinet and three new positions.

Councillor Paul Millar is an Independent Councillor at East Devon District Council, Portfolio Holder for Democracy & Transparency, who now sits in the Democratic Alliance coalition.

 

The Ups and Downs of Robert Jenrick

Chris Game

When I joined INLOGOV in 1979, to launch its first undergraduate degree, I was, at best, passably fluent in spoken and written ‘academic’. As for ‘professional local government’, though, I’d barely have trusted myself to speak or write a decent-length paragraph.

Forty years on, thanks to the demanding but rewarding incentive for INLOGOV academic staff to become passably bilingual, I have the nerve to open this blog with the extreme generalisation that, in my personal experience and taken collectively, local government officers and councillors are a pretty fair, credit-where-it’s-due crowd.

Unfortunately, when it comes to those ministerially responsible for the sector, the past decade’s bunch just haven’t been that creditworthy.

Eric Pickles (2010-15) would openly attack local government, its personnel, and, as a former council leader himself, just couldn’t stop interfering in local issues – bin collections, council newspapers, spending on biscuits, anything.

Sajid Javid (2016-18) virtually flaunted his boredom with the latter part of what became a Housing and Local Government portfolio, then publicly blamed the whole sector for the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, in seeking apparently to absolve his central government chums.

James Brokenshire (2018-19) had perhaps the best pedigree – son of Peter B, a council chief exec and Audit Commission director – and most instinctive positivity towards local government. Indeed, exactly a year ago he was advocating a revolutionary ‘New Deal’ between central and local government – for about five minutes until it disappeared down the gap between May and Johnson.

However, ask local government people for the best of the bunch, and my guess is that they’ll talk most warmly of Greg Clark (2015-16), who made clear both his interest in and commitment to decentralised government and, had the Treasury permitted, to serious devolution of powers from Whitehall.

There were others, of course, but none, I’d bet you, would seriously have even contemplated: (1) acting unlawfully and (2) overruling his own Government’s advice, in order simultaneously (3) to benefit financially a substantial funder of his own party, (4) to the immediate and substantial financial cost of an individual local council. Until Robert Jenrick.

Jenrick looked initially a typical Johnson-Cummings neophyte appointee: youngest Cabinet member, but at least feigning an interest in his assigned brief and an eagerness to learn.

That his sole ministerial experience was at the Treasury would have concerned some, and he seemed an unduly swift convert to unitaries and elected mayors for all. But, come February and having survived the PM’s two post-election cabinet reshuffles, he was doing OK, both the local finance settlement and his extension of councils’ audit deadlines receiving general approval. His personal Covid opened promisingly too, as an impressively early choice to front a Downing Street press briefing.

There followed a tricky patch with his lockdown travel confusions – doing ‘a Cummings’ (twice), thinking apparently that ‘stay at home’ meant interchangeably at any of his several domiciles.

Come mid-April, though, he was announcing an initially well received doubling of Government Covid funding to councils to £3.2 bn, and that “local government would have the resources they need to meet this challenge”. “Unwavering” backing to do “whatever is necessary”, echoed Local Government Minister, Luke Hall, to fellow MPs.

Except they wouldn’t. For within weeks the Minister changed his mind – or had it changed for him – telling MPs that the second £1.6 bn grant was to compensate councils for income losses as well as an unspecified list of direct Covid-related costs, and that, if they thought what they were doing was guaranteed funding by central government, well, forget it.

Bad – except compared with the next chapter. To summarise: Jenrick has publicly admitted “acting unlawfully” and showing “apparent bias” in overruling the Government’s own Planning Inspectorate’s advice and approving a highly controversial £1 bn redevelopment project, thereby saving, by 24 hours, a billionaire tycoon and major Conservative Party donor an estimated £30-50 million due as a Community Infrastructure Levy to Tower Hamlets Council.

Whereupon the beneficiary – businessman and newspaper/magazine publisher Richard Desmond – donated a further £12,000 to the party, a good day’s business satisfactorily concluded. Well, not quite. Rather than release relevant documentation, Jenrick allowed his own – though not ministerial – planning permission to be quashed.

[As a story that has unfolded quite quickly but in stages, there have been various accounts in the national and trade media. Rather than cite several, covering different sections of the story, I have picked one – not a natural choice, but one of the more recent and comprehensive]

The Conservative Party insists Government policy is not influenced by donations, and the PM insists that Jenrick “did the right thing”. However, he is currently the bookies’ 4/1 favourite to be the next Cabinet exit, overtaking long-time front runner, Priti Patel, and you could have got very much longer odds at any time over the past few months against anyone achieving that.

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

 

Central Government, Evidence and Short-Term Strategies in the Support to Businesses and Local Economic Recovery in the Age of Covid

Tom Collinson

If there has been one mantra by which government policy has claimed to have lived by during the COVID-19 crisis, it is that it has been led by, guided by or that it is following the science. Intended to strike a reassuring tone, the claim to evidence was routinely emphasised by the government as either the Prime Minister or a deputy was flanked by a member of SAGE. When questioned on his previous disavowal of experts by Sky News at the beginning of the crisis, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, noted that these were economists he had referenced in the past, it was not established medical facts; suggesting that this time was different and that this science was different.

One article by the New York-based magazine The Atlantic even went so far as to claim that ‘Britain Just Got Pulled Back from the Edge’ as ‘the institutions and positions of state were…clicking into gear.’ While it appeared to be a rosy picture at the start, with the government publishing the scientific advice online, with a gesture that it would continue to do so, this tone quickly unravelled as the Guardian reported that non-scientists seemed to be advising government; there was no list of who exactly was in the SAGE group and why there were no (publicly available) minutes of the meetings and government advice was no longer transparent. Some of this has now changed.

All this has provoked an interesting question of the relationship between science, evidence and data-analysis with policy-making in the UK. How does one affect the other? Is it possible for one to distinguish between various forms of evidence in the policy-making process and make a judgement on which is the most appropriate? To distinguish between mathematical modelling, so-called evidence-based policy-making (that which traditionally elevates the role of Randomised Controlled Trials) and place-and-people contextualised policy? Is it possible to have what Kant called a constitutive judgement in public-policy? (I.e. a judgement which is not based on any further assumptions, hypothetical conditions or suppositions, such as values, narratives and aesthetics). For the past decade or so, there has been a growing literature on all of these questions and the urgency of the current pandemic has enlivened them.

These questions are of increasing interest to academics, journalists and opposition parties in the Anglosphere. With regards to the United Kingdom, the establishment of an ‘Independent SAGE group’ has been indicative of some dissent from the government’s claim to scientific unity.

For local government, these issues have taken on another interesting dimension, one that examines the relationship between governance and the collection and application of evidence in policy responses. In a report on the global picture of city-governments, the OECD has distinguished between two types of evidence-led responses. The first discusses local governments as instruments or ‘implementation vehicles of national measures such as confinement’. The second acknowledges the experimentation of ‘more bottom – up, innovative responses while… building on their unique proximity to citizens.’

Building on this insight, we can begin to describe a temporal framework, which provides further detail to the OECD’s report on the times when local government have been able to articulate their own evidence-based response and when the information and decision-making lies more in the hands of central government.

While it is still unclear where we are on the timescale of the virus or the response to it – which indeed make the articles in this post preliminary – this framework can be outlined on the basis of the short, medium and long term response to the epidemic. Such an approach is based on how councils themselves are articulating a response (using similar language such as the ‘rescue’, ‘recovery’, ‘rebuild’ or, ‘hammer’, ‘dance’ and ‘reconstruction’ as distinct phases in the plans).

Categorising policy responses in this way has a lot of precedent in the field of economics. With regards to the economics of a crisis, the same typology has been outlined by Professor Andy Pike, who’s presentation to the ‘Major Economic Shocks Workshop’ at the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth addresses the types of policy responses available with regards to the local economy, businesses, supply chains and labour markets in the three different time periods. The important point here is that in the short-term responses are direct, and contingent on the problem, whereas long-term responses are open-ended and rely on change. Short-term employment issues for example are addressed through subsistence allowances, while (re)training and entrepreneurship should be leveraged in the long-term. The same applies to supply chains; the short-term goal is to secure capacity and jobs through say refinancing, while in the long-term diversification and innovation is required.

Focussing on short-term strategies during the current epidemic and lockdown, the measures taken have exhibited the direct qualities that Pike addresses. However, these have often been delivered by way of decisions and information collected in the devolved governments and Downing Street. While there have been ongoing efforts by local authorities to assess immediate likely impacts – as seen in Cardiff and the West Midlands – the role of councils has largely been to act as something of a lightning rod (or courier, depending on how you judge their efficiencies) for UK government policies. While there has been some contestation around these matters from local councils, for example in the early closure of parks, the wide picture has been one of convergence throughout the country in a number of areas of practice, including areas of communication and awareness rising, social distancing, confinement and taking targeted measures to help vulnerable groups. In many cases, this has been guided by national government regulations and the ‘dos and donts’ policy responses, financial backing of £3.2bn to be awarded to councils in England to ensure a continuation of services, as well as some financial restrictions or ring-fencing.

The reliance on central government publications and financial backing has characterised the issue of supporting businesses and economic recovery too, where councils are in the front line for conducting policies made primarily in London but also Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. While there may be some differences between the England and the devolved assemblies – for example on the differences in the administration of business support in Wales and England, or the degree of discretion councils are exhibiting when it comes to business support, the general theme of subsistence pay to employees, business relief and grant funding through councils has taken the same shape throughout the country, as we can see from the following examples:

  • In England, the business relief announced by the Chancellor is being paid for by councils through the Small Business Grants Fund and the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund, and reimbursed to local authorities should the guidance published by the MHCLG be followed.
  • There is £6 billion in local authority payments of the Central Share of retained business rates that were due to be made over the next three months.
  • A £500 million Hardship Fund ‘of new grant funding to support economically vulnerable people and households in their local area’ administered through existing ‘local council tax support schemes’.
  • In Wales, the Welsh Government are offering a years relief on business rates to shops, leisure and hospitality businesses, and also offering small grants. Local councils are calculated to have distributed £508m to 41,000 businesses by the end of April.
  • In Scotland, Local Authorities are administering Small Business Support Grants as well as Retail, Hospitality, Leisure Support Grants of up to £10,000 and £25,000 respectively.
  • Similarly, in Northern Ireland a grant scheme of £25,000 for Retail, Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure has been offered, should the criteria outlined by the Northern Ireland Executive be followed.

In one of the foundational texts of modern political science, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the governance structure of the ancien regime, whereby all administrative corridors in French political life led back to the King. Intendants hired by a King to administer a province in-turn hired a sub-delegate to administer canons, where the happiness or misfortune of individuals depended entirely on ‘the whole operation of the central government’. The argument for arranging matters in this centralised manner was a financial one – to levy taxes in order to guarantee the State’s safety. But this ultimately led to the downfall of the regime itself. While I’m not comparing the UK Government to the House of Bourbon, modernity offers a number of examples where centralisation – justified because of finance and security – tends towards political and social disintegration. Further examination will do well to determine whether there is a different path forward in the long-run response to this crisis.

 

Tom is a postgraduate researcher with an MA in Political Thought and a BSc in Economics and Politics from the University of Exeter. His main research interests are in modern political thought, with particular expertise in the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, on whom he wrote his thesis, rethinking the concept of political participation and civic action in modernity. Tom is now researching the role of local and central government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, inspecting how they complement and contrast one another. He tweets at @tzcll.

What Do We Miss out on When Policy Evaluation Ignores Broader Social Problems?

Daniel Silver and Stephen Crossley

With local government funding being stretched to breaking point over the last decade, it is more important than ever to know whether investment into policy programmes is making a difference.

Evaluation draws on different social research methods to systematically investigate the design, implementation, and effectiveness of an intervention. Evaluation can produce evidence that can be used to improve accountability and learning within policy-making processes to inform future decision making.

But is the full potential of evaluation being realised?

We recently published an article in Critical Social Policy that demonstrated how the Troubled Families programme evaluation remained within narrow boundaries that limited what could be learnt. The evaluation followed conventional procedures by investigating exclusively whether the intervention has achieved what it set out to do. But this ‘establishment oriented’ approach assumes the policy has been designed perfectly. Many of us recognise that the Troubled Families programme was far from perfect (despite what initial assessments and central government announcements claimed).

The Troubled Families programme set out to ‘turn around’ the lives of the 120,000 most ‘troubled families’ (characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, truancy or school exclusion and ‘worklessness’) through a ‘family intervention’ approach which advocates a ‘persistent, assertive and challenging’ way of working with family members to change their behaviours but, crucially, not their material circumstances.

Austerity, mentioned in just two of the first phase evaluation reports, was not considered as an issue that might have had an impact on families. Discussions of poor and precarious labour market conditions, cuts to local authority services for children, young people and families, and inadequate housing provision are almost completely neglected in the reports. Individualised criteria such as ‘worklessness’, school exclusion and crime or anti-social behaviour were considered but structural factors such as class, gender, and racial inequalities were not; nor were other issues such as labour market conditions, housing quality and supply, household income or welfare reforms.

The first phase outcome of ‘moving off out-of-work benefits and into continuous employment’ did not take into account the type of work that was secured, or the possible impact that low-paid, poor quality or insecure work may have on family life. Similarly, the desire by the government to see school attendance improve did not necessarily seek to improve the school experience for the child, and there is no evidence of concern for any learning that did or did not take place once attendance had been registered. Such issues were outside of the frames in which the policy had been constructed and so were considered to be outside of the boundaries of investigation for the evaluation. The scope for learning was therefore restricted to within the frames that had been set by national government when the programme had been designed.

So what can be done?

While large-scale evaluations of national programmes will still take place, local councils can add to these with independent, small-scale evaluations. These can adopt a more open approach that examined what happened locally and contextualise the programme within the particular social problems that residents experience.

A more contextualised form of evaluation can broaden the scope of learning beyond the original framing of a policy intervention. Collaboration between councils and participants who have experienced an intervention through locally situated programme evaluations can explore people’s everyday problems and the tangible improvements that have been delivered by an intervention (and what caused these outcomes to happen). Such an approach with ‘troubled families’ would recognise the knowledge, expertise and capabilities of many families in dealing with the vicissitudes of everyday life, including those caused by the government claiming to be helping them via the Troubled Families programme. Analysis of the data can be used to identify shared everyday problems and narratives of impact that show improvements to people’s everyday lives. By building up a picture about what approaches have been successful, an incremental approach to improving policy and culture within local institutions can be developed – based on the ethos of learning by doing.

In addition to learning about what works, we can also develop our knowledge of what problems have been left unresolved. Of course, no single policy intervention can possibly solve every dimension of our complex social problems. This does not necessarily mean a failure of the intervention, but rather that there are broader issues that need to be addressed. Knowing about these issues can produce useful evidence to find out about social needs in the local community that are not being met, and which the Council might be able to address or use the new knowledge to inform future strategies.

Evaluation is often seen as a bolt-on to the policy-making process. But re-purposing evaluation to learn more about social problems and the effectiveness of tailored local solutions can create evidence and ideas that can be used to improve future social policy.

 

Daniel Silver is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham. He previously taught politics and research methods at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on evaluation, social policy, research methods, and radical politics.

Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. He com- pleted his PhD from Durham University examining the UK government’s Troubled Families Programme in August 2017. His most recent publications are Troublemakers: the construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem (Policy Press, 2018) and ‘The UK Government’s Troubled Families Programme: Delivering Social Justice?’, which appeared in the journal Social Inclusion.

England’s over-centralisation – Part 2: It IS instinctive

Chris Game

There was much in Jessica Studdert’s recent blog to agree with and applaud, but one sentence particularly struck me – the one opening her fourth paragraph: “The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive.”.

So, equally instinctively, I did what even an erstwhile academic does during a lockdown – some heavyweight research, naturally. Like re-watching and content analysing the first 69 Government Covid-19 daily press conferences – one of those crisis features that, like the Thursday evening clapping, lives on because no one knows quite how to stop it.

I exaggerated with the ‘heavyweight’ bit, but I did count – sorry, totalise – the press conferences. So, first question: Which minister, Johnson excepted, was the first to front one?

No, not Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. As First Secretary of State, he stood in while Johnson was hospitalised, but was actually eighth minister to feature. Surely, then, Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock. Nope, though he and his permanent pink tie have currently clocked up more appearances than Johnson himself.

Struggling? Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak? Hardly Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – for all the considerations touched on in Studdert’s blog. Surely not Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite being apparently the only woman minister capable of reading from a lectern.

They’ve done four, five and three respectively, but the shooting star we are looking for is Environment, FOOD and Rural Affairs Secretary, George Eustice. How short are our memories. His brief includes the so-called food supply chain, and this was late March – panic-buying, pasta-hoarding weekend.

Now the seriously tricky question. How many winning elections to serve as a plain local government councillor – not London Mayor – have all 12 featured Ministers fought between them? Maybe not a huge number? One!

One four-year term of elected local government experience between the lot of them. It was served by then 24-year old Gavin Williamson, now Education Secretary, giving English primary schools his considered judgement on when they should reopen.

It’s easy to mock – really easy – but there are archive pictures of Williamson doing his thing as North Yorkshire County Council’s ‘Champion of Youth Issues’ . Making him, I believe, alone among that TV-trusted Cabinet dozen to have even minimal first-hand insight into how local government operates in the policy field for which he is responsible.

The others can tell you lots, variously, about banking (Hancock), hedge fund management (Sunak), litigation (Raab), corporate finance (Alok Sharma), corporate law (Jenrick), public relations (Eustice, Patel), journalism (Johnson, Gove), marketing (Grant Shapps), Conservative Central Office (Patel, Oliver Dowden).

But actually experiencing what they presumably aspired to do – campaigning, meeting constituents, getting elected, representing people, learning about the provision and funding of public services, the whole government and public administration thing – for some reason never grabbed them or even struck them as career-relevant.

Which today means they know virtually nothing at first-hand about some of the vital stuff local governments do, often to the unawareness of even their own publics: emergency contingency planning, air quality monitoring, water testing, pest control, health and safety at work inspection – oh yes, and communicable disease investigation and outbreak control.

Time for a brief digression on the changing meaning of the word ‘nuisance’. It was one of my mother’s favourite words, applied frequently to my sister and myself, but to almost any usually minor upset to her daily life routine. Mask-wearing and disinfecting supermarket trolley handles would be a ‘nuisance’, not the wretched pandemic itself.

Yet the etymology of ‘nuisance’ is the Latin ‘nocere’ – to harm – and its original 15th Century meaning could quite conceivably be applied to Covid-19 and its capacity to inflict serious and even fatal harm.

The mid-19th Century predecessor of today’s Director of Public Health in Birmingham, Dr Justin Varney, would therefore have boasted the title of Nuisance Inspector – his nuisance agenda including factory air pollution, small-pox and cholera outbreaks, and sanitation, with the first generation of public urinals.

Nuisance Inspectors could not by themselves transform towns and cities, but they played a huge part. As do their modern-day successors – Public or Environmental Health Inspectors. Those successors, however – the ones that have survived the past decade of local government funding and employment cuts – could and should, as Studdert noted, have been doing even more.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health reckons there are some 5,000 Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) working in UK local councils. All have job descriptions including responsibilities like “investigating outbreaks of infectious diseases and preventing them spreading further.”

That’s what they do – test, track, trace and treat people with anything from salmonella to sexually transmitted diseases – in areas, moreover, with which they are totally familiar and have networks of contacts. ‘Shoe-leather epidemiology’ is the technical term – seriously.

So presumably, as in other countries – South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Ireland – these EHOs will have been reassigned from other work and spent their time contact tracing?

Rhetorical question – we all know the answers. From early March, contrary to World Health Organisation guidelines, our Government’s big ideas were to ‘delay’ the spread of Covid-19, then develop vital (now less vital) smartphone apps.

This enabled the consequently limited scale of contact-tracing to be undertaken centrally by staff newly recruited by Public Health England – the executive agency of Matt Hancock’s Health and Social Care Department created in the ill-conceived NHS upheaval in 2012.

Insufficient, inexperienced staff doing a job crying out for the skills, knowledge and contacts of council EHOs, who instead were monitoring social distancing rules in pubs, clubs and restaurants.

There are almost always costs in ‘keeping it central’, but, as we have seen, for so many ministers, it must be instinctive. It’s all they and most of their civil servants know at first hand. The alternative would be funding and at least sharing data with pesky local authorities, thereby losing some of their precious control.

Finally, last weekend, all other options exhausted, the Government did allocate a ring-fenced £300 million to English councils to play a leading role, starting immediately, in tracking and tracing people suspected of being at risk of Covid-19.

This time, tragically, the cost of blinkered, prejudiced, self-protective government was paid in lives.