Bureaucratic cancer and the sabotage of A Level reform

‘Bureaucracy is cancerous in head and limbs; only its belly is sound and the laws it excretes are the most straightforward shit in the world… With this bureaucracy including the judges on the bench we can have press laws written by angels and they cannot lift us from the swamp. With bad laws and good civil servants one can still govern, with bad civil servants the best laws cannot help.’ Otto von Bismarck, 1850.

‘I had the agreement in principle of my colleagues; I had the agreement in principle of the entire Landtag; and yet, although minister-president, I found myself absolutely unable to bring the matter one step further along. Agreement does not help me at all when passive resistance – from what direction in this complicated machine is impossible to learn – is conducted with such success that I am scarcely in a position after two to three years to answer even the most basic questions.’ Otto von Bismarck, 1878.

If the most effective political operator of the modern world frequently complained about the difficulty of enforcing policy against a hostile bureaucracy, we should not be surprised if similar problems recur over and over again.

Here is an interesting example of how education policy is made and how Whitehall works.

In 2012, we announced that the DfE would step back from controlling A Levels and give universities control. (Allegra Stratton ran the original story on Newsnight.) The main mechanism was ALCAB. It was a nightmare to set up partly because although subject experts very much wanted to be involved the administrators who control universities wanted to stay out of the controversy and said to us in the DfE ‘we don’t want to have to say publicly that A Level papers are bad’.

We forced ALCAB to be created. MG and I spent a lot of time in awful meetings forcing it through. Its main role was supposed to be an annual review of specific A Level papers so that professors XYZ could say ‘hopeless question in the Edexcel physics paper, it gets the definition of entropy wrong again, it fails to test XXX’ etc.

The DfE has closed this committee down. It emerged via this Times Higher Education story.

I pointed a few hacks to it. They have called the DfE press office and spads. Both of those entities were given a line from officials saying ‘ALCAB’s work is done, no story here’. (Cf. Forsyth’s blog here.)

This is a lie. The main role was an annual review process. This should have been conducted this year and 2016 in preparation for new A Levels in 2017. It was envisaged as a permanent role. Interestingly, the letters completely elide this main role out of existence and present ALCAB as having only a temporary role.

Now this annual review won’t happen.

This is almost a Jedi-level operation from DfE officials. The DfE hated giving away control, obviously, and hated ALCAB. The very point of the process – a sword of Damocles in the form of eminent professors saying ‘crap questions’ each year – was supposed to force the DfE, exam boards, and Ofqual to raise their game. You can imagine how popular this was. Now the situation will revert to the status quo – the DfE firmly in charge and those pesky professors who point out things like – specific papers do not test the maths skills in the specifications – are happily excluded, with no ‘unhelpful’ public scrutiny of standards.

I very much doubt that poor Nicky Morgan Nicky Morgan [*see end] realises what she has done. It was probably a letter buried deep in her box weeks ago that she had no reason to suspect meant she was being used to subvert reform and entrench Whitehall’s power. It is impossible for a new minister to spot all such things – you don’t know what you don’t know. We can also safely bet that No10 has not the faintest idea about what ALCAB is or what the annual review process was supposed to do.

This is how Whitehall closes down threats to its power. Although it is systemically incompetent viz policy and implementation, its real focus is on its own power, jobs, and money. To these, it pays careful attention and deploys its real skills.

It is possible that the hard struggle to improve A Levels and remove politicians’ and Whitehall’s grip of them is now substantially lost, without the MPs having a clue as to why and the details lost in a miasma of untraceable decisions and discussions.

Nicky Morgan and her spads should ask Rose (head of private office) and Wormald (Perm Sec) not just ‘how did this happen?’, but also ‘why were we and the press office given lies to tell the media?’ They would also be well advised to make clear that a repetition of this fancy footwork will mean someone fired. But of course this will have little effect. The officials are lining up their holidays and their own plans for the future, safe in the happy knowledge that whoever ‘wins’ the election, they will remain in charge. The MPs of all parties are largely content for this situation to continue. In the focus groups, swing voters will continue to say ‘they’re all the same’ with much more accuracy than they realise, but few in Westminster are really listening and even fewer know what is to be done…

I will blog a few reflections on No10’s ‘schools week’ tomorrow. NB. notice how, just as I wrote in The Hollow Men, this No10 ‘schools week’ is like all the others – two days of rubbish gimmicks, a self-inflicted cockup (‘real terms cuts to the budget’), followed by silence such that by Friday the 8 people who knew it was ‘schools week’ have themselves forgotten? Plus ca change…

Ps. If you want details on the devaluation of exams since 1988, and therefore why the annual review process was so important, read THIS.


UPDATE. Some have asked ‘how much confidence did you have in ALCAB doing a good job?’ Answer? Initially not much. They are all under huge pressure to say everything is fine. Initially for example, despite physics departments across the country  complaining about the removal of calculus from Physics A Level (complaints that practically none of them will repeat publicly because of fear of their VC office), it did not look like ALCAB would be much use and they rejected calls from various professors I know on this subject. There is massive political pressure to focus exclusively on the numbers taking an A Level rather than the quality  of the A Level.

But my hope was that by creating something that would be seen as the ‘voice of the university subject experts’, they would have to listen and adapt in order to maintain credibility and avoid embarrassing challenges. There are more and more enraged academics fed up of VC offices lying to the media and misrepresenting academics’ opinions. I thought that creating something would push the debate in increasingly sensible directions where the emphasis would be on the skills needed on arrival at university. Now, everything to do with A Levels is dominated by political not educational concerns about the numbers doing them and ‘access’. This has helped corrupt the exam system. If we had professors of physics, French, music etc every year publicly humiliating exam boards for errors, this would soon improve things from a low base and make it much harder for MPs and Whitehall to keep corrupting public exams.

[* I wrote ‘poor Nicky Morgan’ with the feeling – poor her, I know what it’s like to be pottering around in the DfE dealing with all sorts of problems before the horror of Question Time then someone walks in with a new bigger problem… But a few people email to say it sounds patronising which was not deliberate, hence deletion…]

Standards In English Schools Part I: The introduction of the National Curriculum and GCSEs

The Introduction to this series of blogs, HERE, sets out the background and goals.

There are many different senses in which people discuss ‘standards’. Sometimes they mean an overall judgement on the performance of the system as judged by an international test like PISA. Sometimes they mean judgements based on performance in official exams such as KS2 SATs (at 11) or GCSEs. Sometimes they mean the number of schools above or below a DfE ‘floor target’. Sometimes they mean the number of schools and/or pupils in Ofsted-defined categories. Sometimes people talk about ‘the quality of teachers’. Sometimes they mean ‘the standards required of pupils when they take certain exams’. Today, the media is asking ‘have Academies raised standards?’ because of the Select Committee Report (which, after a brief flick through, seems to have ignored most of the most interesting academic studies done on a randomised/pseudo-randomised basis).

This blog in the series is concerned mainly with the questions of – what has happened to the standards required of pupils when they take GCSEs and A Levels as a result of changes since the mid-1980s, and how do universities and learned societies judge the preparation of pupils for further studies. Have the exams got easier? Do universities and learned societies think pupils are well-prepared for further studies?

I will give a very short potted history of the introduction of GCSEs and the National Curriculum before examining the evidence of their effects. If you are not interested in the history, please skip to the Section B on Evidence. If you just want to see my Conclusions, scroll to the end for a short section.

I stress that my goal is not to argue for a return to the pre-1988 system of O Levels and A Levels. While it had some advantages over the existing system, it also had profound problems. I think that an unknown fraction of the cohort could experience far larger improvements in learning than we see now if they were introduced to different materials in different ways, rather than either contemporary exams or their predecessors, but I will come to this argument, and why I have this belief, in a later blog.

I have used the word ‘Department’ to represent the DES of the 1980s, the DfE of post-2010, and its different manifestations in between.

This is just a rough first stab at collecting things I’ve shoved in boxes, emails etc over the past few years. Please leave corrections and additions in Comments.

A. A very potted history

Joseph introduces GCSEs – ‘a right old mess’

The debate over the whole of education policy, and particularly the curriculum and exams, changed a lot after Callaghan’s Ruskin speech in 1976 and the Department’s Yellow Book. Before then, the main argument was simply about providing school places and the furore over selection. After 1976 the emphasis shifted to ‘standards’ and there was growing momentum behind a National Curriculum (NC) of some sort and reforms to the exam system.

Between 1979-85, the Department chivvied LAs on the curriculum but had little power and nothing significant changed. Joseph was too much of a free marketeer to support a NC so its proponents could not make progress.

Joseph was persuaded to replace O Levels with GCSEs. He thought that the outcome would be higher standards for all but he later complained that he had been hoodwinked by the bureaucratic process involving The Schools Examination Committee (SEC). He later complained:

‘I should have fought against flabbiness in general more than I did… I thought I did, but how do you reach into such a producer-oriented world? … “Stretching” was my favourite word; I judged that if you leant on that much else would follow. That’s what my officials encouraged me to imagine I was achieving… I said I’d only agree to unify the two examinations provided we established differentiation [which he defined as ‘you’re stretching the academic and you’re stretching the non-academic in appropriate ways’], and now I find that unconsciously I have allowed teacher assessment, to a greater extent than I assumed. My fault … my fault… it’s the job of ministers to see deeply… and therefore it’s flabby… You don’t find me defending either myself or the Conservative Party, but I reckon that we’ve all together made a right old mess of it. And it’s hurt most those who are most vulnerable.’ (Interview with Ball.)

I have not come across any other ministers or officials from this period so open about their errors.

The O Level survived under a different name as an international exam provided by Cambridge Assessment. It is still used abroad including in Singapore which regularly comes in the top three in all international tests. Cambridge Assessment also offers an ‘international GCSE’ that is, they say, tougher than the ‘old’ GCSE (i.e. the one in use now before it changes in 2015) but not as tough as the O Level. This international GCSE was used in some private schools pre-2010 along with ‘international GCSEs’ from other exam boards. From 2010, state schools could use iGCSEs. In 2014, the DfE announced that it would stop this again. I blogged on this decision HERE.

Entangled interests – Baker and the National Curriculum

In 1986, Thatcher replaced Joseph with Baker hoping, she admitted, that he would make up ‘in presentational flair what ever he lacked in attention to detail’. He did not. Nigel Lawson wrote of Baker that ‘not even his greatest friends would describe him as a profound thinker or a man with mastery of detail’. Baker’s own PPS said that at the morning meeting ‘the main issue was media handling’. Jenny Bacon, the official responsible for The National Curriculum 5-16 (1987), said that Baker liked memos ‘in “ball points” … some snappy things with headings. It wasn’t glorious continuous prose…[Ulrich, a powerful DES official] was appalled but Baker said “That’s just the kind of brief I want”.’

Between 1976 and 1986, concern had grown in Whitehall about the large number of awful schools and widespread bad teaching. Various intellectual arguments, ideology, political interests (personal and party), and bureaucratic interests aligned to create a National Curriculum. Thatcherites thought it would undermine what they thought of as the ‘loony left’, then much in the news. Baker thought it would bring him glory. The Department and HMI rightly thought it would increase their power. After foolishly announcing CTCs at Party Conference, thus poisoning their brand with politics from the start, Baker announced he would create a NC and a testing system at 7, 11, and 14.

The different centres of power disagreed on what form the NC would take. HMI lobbied against subjects and wanted a NC based on ‘areas of expertise’, not traditional subjects. Thatcher wanted a very limited core curriculum based on English, maths, and science. The Department wanted a NC that stretched across the whole curriculum. Baker agreed with the Department and dismissed Thatcher’s limited option as ‘Gradgrind’.

In order to con Thatcher into agreeing his scheme, Baker worked with officials to invent a fake distinction between ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects. As Baker’s Permanent Secretary Hancock said, ‘We devised the notion of the core and the foundation subjects but if you examine the Act you will see that there is no difference between the two. This was a totally cynical and deliberate manoeuvre on Kenneth Baker’s part.’

The 1988 Act established two quangos to be what Baker called ‘the twin guardians of the curriculum’ – The National Curriculum Council (NCC), focused on the NC, and The Schools Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC), focused on tests. Once the Act was passed, Baker’s junior minister Rumbold said that ‘Ken went out to lunch.’ Like many ministers, he did not understand the importance of the policy detail and the intricate issues of implementation. He allowed officials to control appointments to the two vital committees and various curriculum working groups. Even Baker’s own spad later said that Baker was conned into appointing ‘the very ones responsible for the failures we have been trying to put right’. Baker forlornly later admitted that ‘I thought you could produce a curriculum without bloodshed. Then people marched over mathematics. Great armies were assembled’, and he ‘never envisaged it would be as complex as it turned out to be’. Bacon, the official responsible for the NC, said that Baker ‘wasn’t interested in the nitty gritty’. Nicholas Tate (who was at the NCC and later headed the QCA) said that Baker was ‘affable but remote. He didn’t trouble his mind with attainment targets. He was resting on his laurels.’ Hancock, his Permanent Secretary, said that ‘after 1987 he became increasingly arrogant and impatient’. In 1989, Baker was moved to Party Chairman leaving behind chaos for his successor.

According to his colleagues, Baker was obsessed with the media, he did not try to understand (and did not have the training to understand) the policy issues in detail, and he confused the showmanship necessary to get a bill passed with serious management – he described himself as ‘a doer’ but the ‘doing’ in his mind consisted of legislation and spin. He did not even understand that there were strong disputes among teachers, subject bodies, and educationalists about the content of the NC – never mind what to do about these disputes. (Having watched the UTC programme from the DfE, the same traits were much in evidence thirty years later.)

Baker’s legacy 1989 – 1997: Shambles

Baker’s memoirs do not mention the report of The Task Group on Assessment (TGAT), chaired by Professor Paul Black, commissioned by Baker in 1987 to report on how the NC could be assessed. The plan was very complicated with ten levels of attainment having to be defined for each subject. Thatcher hated it and criticised Baker for accepting it. Meanwhile the Higginson Report had recommended replacing A Levels with some sort of IB type system. Bacon said that ‘the political trade-off was Higginson got ditched … and we got TGAT. In retrospect it may have been the wrong trade off.’

MacGregor could not get a grip of the complexity. He did not even hire a specialist policy adviser because, he said, ‘I didn’t feel I needed one.’ He blamed Baker for the chaos who, he said, ‘hadn’t spent enough time thinking about who was appointed to the bodies. He left it to officials and didn’t think through what he wanted the bodies to do. For the first year I was unable to replace anybody.’ The chairman of NCC described how they used ‘magic words to appease the right’ and get through what they wanted. The officials who controlled SEAC stopped the simplification that Thatcher wanted using the ‘legal advice’ card, claiming that the 1988 Act required testing of all attainment targets. (I had to deal with the same argument 25 years later.) MacGregor was trapped. He had an unworkable system and was under contradictory pressure from Thatcher to simplify everything and from Baker to maintain what he had promised.

Clarke bluffed and bullied his way through 18 months without solving the problems. His Permanent Secretary described the trick of getting Clarke to do what officials wanted: ‘The trick was to never box him into a corner… Show him where there was a door but never look at that door, and never let on you noticed when he walked through.’ Like MacGregor, Clarke blamed Baker for the shambles: ‘[Baker] had set up all these bloody specialist committees to guide the curriculum, he’d set up quango staff who as far as I could see had come out of the Inner London Education Authority the lot of them.’ Clarke solved none of the main problems with the tests, antagonised everybody, and replaced HMI with Ofsted.

After his surprise win, Major told the Tory Conference in 1992, ‘Yes it will mean another colossal row with the education establishment. I look forward to that.’ Patten soon imploded, the unions went for the jugular over the introduction of SATs, and by the end of 1993 Number Ten had backtracked on their bellicose spin and was in full retreat with a review by Dearing (published 1994). Suddenly, the legal advice that had supposedly prevented any simplification was rethought and officials told Dearing that the legal advice did allow simplification after all: ‘our advice is that the primary legislation allows a significant measure of flexibility’. (In my experience, one of the constants of Whitehall is that legal advice tends to shift according to what powerful officials want.) Dearing produced a classic Whitehall fudge that got everybody out of the immediate crisis but did not even try to deal with the fundamental problems, thus pushing the problems into the future.

The historian Robert Skidelsky, helping SEAC, told Patten ‘these tests will not run’ and he should change course but Patten shouted ‘That is defeatist talk.’ Skidelsky decided to work out a radically simpler model than the TGAT system with a small group in SEAC: ‘We pushed the model through committee and through the Council and sent it off to John Patten. We never received a reply. Six months after I resigned Emily Blatch approached me and said she had been looking for my paper on Assessment but no one seems to know where it is.’

Patten was finished. Gillian Shephard was put in to be friendly to the unions and quiet the chaos. Soon she and Major had also fallen out and the cycle of briefing and counter-briefing against Number Ten returned with permanent policy chaos. One of her senior officials, Clive Saville, concluded that ‘There was a great intellectual superficiality about Gillian Shephard and she was as intellectually dishonest as Shirley Williams. She was someone who wanted to be liked but wasn’t up to the job.’

A few thoughts on the process

The Government had introduced a new NC and test system and replaced O Levels with GCSEs. (They also introduced new vocational qualifications (NVQs) described by Professor Alan Smithers as a ‘disaster of epic proportions … utterly lightweight’.) The process was a disastrous bungle from start to finish.

Thatcher deserves considerable blame. She allowed Baker to go ahead with fundamental reforms without any agreed aims or a detailed roadmap. She knew, as did Lawson, that Baker could not cope with details yet appointed him on the basis of ‘presentational flair’ (media obsession is often confused with ‘presentational flair’).

The best book I have read by someone who has worked in Number Ten and seen why the Whitehall architecture is dysfunctional is John Hoskyns’ Just In Time. Extremely unusually for someone in a senior position in No10, Hoskyns both had an intellectual understanding of complex systems and was a successful manager. Inevitably, he was appalled at how the most important decisions were made and left Number Ten after failing to persuade Thatcher to tear up the civil service system. Since then, everybody in Number Ten has been struggling with the same issues. (If she had taken his advice history might have been extremely different – e.g. no ERM debacle.) His conclusion on Thatcher was:

‘The conclusion that I am coming to is that the way in which [Thatcher] herself operates, the way her fire is at present consumed, the lack of a methodical mode of working and the similar lack of orderly discussion and communication on key issues, means that our chance of implementing a carefully worked out strategy – both policy and communications – is very low indeed… Difficult problems are only solved – if they can be solved at all – by people who desperately want to solve them… I am convinced that the people and the organisation are wrong.’ (Emphasis added.)

Arguably the person who knowingly appoints someone like Baker is more to blame for the failings of Baker than Baker is himself. Major and the string of ministers that followed Baker were doomed. They were not unusually bad – they were representative examples of those at the apex of the political process. They did not know how to go about deciding aims, means, and operations. They were obsessed with media management and therefore continually botched the policy and implementation. They could not control their officials. They could not agree a plan and blamed each other. If they were the sort of people who could have got out of the mess, then they were the sort of people who would not have got into the mess in the first place.

Officials over-complicated everything and, like ministers, did not engage seriously with the core issue – what should pupils of different abilities be doing and how can we establish a process where we can collect reliable information. The process was dominated by the same attitude on all sides – how to impose a mentality already fixed.

It was also clearly affected by another element that has contemporary relevance – the constant churn of people. Just between summer 1989 and the end of 1992, there was: a new Permanent Secretary in May 1989, a new SoS in July 1989 (MacGregor), another new SoS in November 1990 (Clarke), a new PM and No10 team (Major), new heads for the NCC and SEAC in July 1991, then another new SoS in spring 1992 (Patten) and another new Permanent Secretary. Everybody blamed problems on predecessors and nobody could establish a consistent path.

Even its own Permanent Secretaries later attacked the DES. James Hamilton (1976-1983) was put into DES in June 1976 from the Cabinet Office to help with the Ruskin agenda and found a place where ‘when something was proposed someone would inevitably say, “Oh we tried that back in whenever and it didn’t work”…’. Geoffrey Holland (1992-3) admitted that, ‘It [DES] simply had no idea of how to get anything off the ground. It was lacking in any understanding or experience of actually making things happen.’

A central irony of the story shows how dysfunctional the system was. Thatcher never wanted a big NC and a complicated testing system but she got one. As some of her ideological opponents in the bureaucracy tried to simplify things when it was clear Baker’s original structure was a disaster, ministers were often fighting with them to preserve a complex system that could not work and which Thatcher had never wanted. This sums up the basic problem – a very disruptive process was embarked upon without the main players agreeing what the goal was.

Although the think tanks were much more influential in this period than they are now, Ferdinand Mount, head of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, made a telling point about their limitations: ‘Enthusiasts for reform at the IEA and the CPS were prodigal with committees and pamphlets but were much less helpful when it came to providing practical options for action. This made it difficult for the Policy Unit’s ideas to overcome the objections put forward by senior officials’. Thirty years later this remains true. Think tanks put out reports but they rarely provide a detailed roadmap that could help people navigate such reforms through the bureaucracy and few people in think tanks really understand how Whitehall works. This greatly limits their real influence. This is connected to a wider point. Few of those who comment prominently on education (or other) policy understand how Whitehall works, hence there is a huge gap between discussions of ideal policy and what is actually possible within a certain timeframe in the existing system, and commentators think that all sorts of things that happen do so because of ministers’ wishes, confusing public debate further.

I won’t go into the post-1997 story. There are various books that tell this whole story in detail. The National Curriculum remained but was altered; the test system remained but gradually narrowed from the original vision; there were some attempts at another major transformation (such as Tomlinson’s attempt to end A Levels, thwarted by Blair) but none took off; money poured into the school system and its accompanying bureaucracy at an unprecedented rate but, other than a large growth in the number and salaries of everybody, it remained unclear what if any progress was being made.

This bureaucracy spent a great deal of taxpayers’ money promoting concepts such as ‘learning styles’ and ‘multiple intelligences’ that have no proper scientific basis but which nevertheless were successfully blended with old ideas from Vygotsky and Piaget to dominate a great deal of teacher training. A lot of people in the education world got paid an awful lot of money (Hargreaves, Waters et al) but what happened to standards?

(The quotes above are taken mainly from Daniel Callaghan’s Conservative Party Education Policies 1976-1997.)

B. The cascading effects of GCSEs and the National Curriculum

Below I consider 1) the data on grade inflation in GCSEs and A Levels, 2) various studies from learned societies and others that throw light on the issue, 3) knock-on effects in universities.

1. Data on grade inflation in GCSEs and A Levels

We do not have an official benchmark against which to compare GCSE results. The picture is therefore necessarily hazy. As Coe has written, ‘we are limited by the fact that in England there has been no systematic, rigorous collection of high-quality data on attainment that could answer the question about systemic changes in standards.’ This is one of the reasons why in 2013 we, supported by Coe and others, pushed through (against considerable opposition including academics at the Institute of Education) a new ‘national reference test’ in English and maths at age 16, which I will return to in a later blog.

However, we can compare the improvement in GCSE results with a) results from international tests and b) consistent domestic tests uncontrolled by Whitehall.

The first two graphs below show the results of this comparison.

Chart 1: Comparison of English performance in international surveys versus GCSE scores 1995-2012 (Coe)

Screenshot 2015-01-06 16.32.49

Chart 2: GCSE grades achieved by candidates with same maths & vocab scores each year 1996-2012 (Coe)

Screenshot 2015-01-06 16.33.23

Professor Coe writes of Chart 1:

‘When GCSE was introduced in 1987 [I think he must mean 1988 as that was the first year of GCSEs or else he means ‘the year before GCSEs were first taken’], 26.4% of the cohort achieved five grade Cs or better. By 2012 the proportion had risen to 81.1%. This increase is equivalent to a standardised effect size of 1.63, 3 or 163 points on the PISA scale… If we limit the period to 1995 – 2011 [as in Chart 1 above] the rise (from 44% to 80% 5A*-C) is equivalent to 99 points on the PISA scale [as superimposed on Chart 1]… [T]he two sets of data [international and GCSEs] tell stories that are not remotely compatible. Even half the improvement that is entailed in the rise in GCSE performance would have lifted England from being an average performing OECD country to being comfortably the best in the world. To have doubled that rise in 16 years is just not believable

‘The question, therefore, is not whether there has been grade inflation, but how much…’ [Emphasis added.] (Professor Robert Coe, ‘Improving education: a triumph of hope over experience‘, 18 June 2013, p. vi.)

Chart 2 plots the improving GCSE grades achieved by pupils scoring the same each year in a test of maths and vocabulary: pupils scoring the same on YELLIS get higher and higher GCSE grades as time passes. Coe concludes that although ‘it is not straightforward to interpret the rise in grades … as grade inflation’, the YELLIS data ‘does suggest that whatever improved grades may indicate, they do not correspond with improved performance in a fixed test of maths and vocabulary’ (Coe, ibid).

This YELLIS comparison suggests that in 2012 pupils received a grade higher in maths, history, and French GCSE, and almost a grade higher in English, than students of the same ability in 1996.

It is important to note that neither of Coe’s charts or measurements include the effects of either a) the initial switch from O Level to GCSE or b) what changed with GCSEs from 1988 – 1995. 

The next two charts show this earlier part of the story (both come from Education: Historical statistics, House of Commons, November 2012). NB. they have different end dates.

Chart 3: Proportion getting 5 O Levels / GCSEs at grade C or higher 1953/4 – 2008/9 

Screenshot 2015-01-09 17.24.19

Chart 4: Proportion getting 1+ or 3+ passes at A Level 1953/4 – 1998/9

Screenshot 2015-01-09 17.24.42

Chart 3 shows that the period 1988-95 saw an even sharper increase in GCSE scores than post-1995 so a GCSE/YELLIS style comparison that included the years 1988-1995 would make the picture even more dramatic.

Chart 4 shows a dramatic increase in A Level passes after the introduction of GCSEs. One interpretation of this graph, supported by the 1997-2010 Government and teaching unions, is that this increase reflected large real improvements in school standards.

There is GCSE data that those who believe this argument could cite. In 1988, 8% of GCSEs were awarded an ‘A’ in GCSE. In 2011, 23% of GCSEs were awarded an ‘A’ or ‘A*’ in GCSE. The DfE published data in 2013 which showed that the number of pupils with ten or more A* grades trebled 2002-12. This implies a very large increase in the numbers of those excelling at GCSE, which is consistent with a picture of a positive knock-on effect on improving A Level results.

However, we have already seen that the claims for GCSEs are ‘not believable’ in Coe’s words. It also seems prima facie very unlikely that a sudden large improvement in A Level results from 1990 could be the result of immediate improvements in learning driven by GCSEs. There is also evidence for A Levels similar to the GCSE/YELLIS comparison.

Chart 5: A level grades of candidates having the same TDA score (1988-2006)

Screenshot 2015-01-21 00.43.33

Chart 5 plots A Level grades in different subjects against the international TDA test. As with GCSEs, this shows that pupils scoring the same in a non-government test got increasingly higher grades in A Levels. The change in maths is particularly dramatic from an ‘Unclassified’ mark in 1988 to a B/C in 2006.

What we know about GCSEs combined with this information makes it very hard to believe that the sudden dramatic increase in A Level performance since 1990 is because of real improvements and suggests another interpretation: these dramatic increases in A Level results reflected (mostly or entirely) A Levels being made significantly easier probably in order to compensate for GCSEs being much easier.

However, the data above can only tell part of the story. Logically, it is hard or impossible to distinguish between possible causes just from these sorts of comparisons. For example, perhaps someone might claim that A Level questions remained as challenging as before but grade boundaries moved – i.e. the exam papers were the same but the marking was easier. I think this is prima facie unlikely but the point is that logically the data above cannot distinguish between various possible dynamics.

Below is a collection of studies, reports, and comments from experts that I have accumulated over the past few years that throws light on which interpretation is more reasonable. Please add others in Comments.

(NB. David Spiegelhalter, a Professor of Statistics at Cambridge, has written about  problems with PISA’s use of statistics. These arguments are technical. To a non-specialist like me, he seems to make important points that PISA must answer to retain credibility and the fact that it has not (as of the last time I spoke to DS in summer 2014) is a blot on its copybook. However, I do not think they materially affect the discussion above. Other international tests conducted on different bases all tell roughly the same story. I will ask DS if he thinks his arguments do undermine the story above and post his reply if any.)

2. Studies 2007 – now 

NB1. Most of these studies are comparing changes over the past decade or so, not the period since the introduction of the NC and GCSEs in the 1980s.

NB2. I will reserve detailed discussion of the AS/A2/decoupling argument for a later blog as it fits better in the ‘post-2010 reforms’ section.

Learned societies. The Royal Society’s 2011 study of Science GCSEs: ‘the question types used provided insufficient opportunity for more able candidates … to demonstrate the extent of their scientific knowledge, understanding and skills. The question types restricted the range of responses that candidates could provide. There was little or no scope for them to demonstrate various aspects of the Assessment Objectives and grade descriptions… [T]he use of mathematics in science was examined in a very limited way.’ SCORE also published (2012) evidence on science GCSEs which reported ‘a wide variation in the amount of mathematics assessed across awarding organisations and confirmed that the use of mathematics within the context of science was examined in a very limited way. SCORE organisations felt that this was unacceptable.’

The 2012 SCORE report and Nuffield Report showed serious problems with the mathematical content of A Levels. SCORE was very critical:

‘For biology, chemistry and physics, it was felt there were underpinning areas of mathematics missing from the requirements and that their exclusion meant students were not adequately prepared for progression in that subject. For example, for physics many of the respondents highlighted the absence of calculus, differentiation and integration, in chemistry the absence of calculus and in biology, converting between different units… For biology, chemistry and physics, the analysis showed that the mathematical requirements that were assessed concentrated on a small number of areas (e.g. numerical manipulation) while many other areas were assessed in a limited way, or not at all… Survey respondents were asked to identify content areas from the mathematical requirements that should feature highly in assessments. In most cases, the biology, chemistry and physics respondents identified mathematical content areas that were hardly or not at all assessed by the awarding organisations.

‘[T]he inclusion of more in-depth problem solving would allow students to apply their knowledge and understanding in unstructured problems and would increase their fluency in mathematics within a science context.’

‘The current mathematical assessments in science A-levels do not accurately reflect the mathematical requirements of the sciences. The findings show that a large number of mathematical requirements listed in the biology, chemistry and physics specifications are assessed in a limited way or not at all within these papers. The mathematical requirements that are assessed are covered repeatedly and often at a lower level of difficulty than required for progression into higher education and employment. It has also highlighted a disparity between awarding organisations in their assessment of the use of mathematics within biology, chemistry and physics A-level. This is unacceptable and the examination system, regardless of the number of awarding organisations, must ensure the assessments provide an authentic representation of the subject and equip all students with the necessary skills to progress in the sciences.

‘This is likely to have an impact on the way that the subjects are taught and therefore on students’ ability to progress effectively to STEM higher education and employment.’ SCORE, 2012. Emphasis added.

The 2011 Institute of Physics report showed strong criticism from university academics of the state of physics and engineering undergraduates’ mathematical knowledge. Four-fifth of academics said that university courses had changed to deal with a lack of mathematical fluency and 92% said that a lack of mathematical fluency was a major obstacle.

‘The responses focused around mathematical content having to be diluted, or introduced more slowly, which subsequently impacts on both the depth of understanding of students, and the amount of material/topics that can be covered throughout the course…

‘Academics perceived a lack of crossover between mathematics and physics at A-level, which was felt to not only leave students unprepared for the amount of mathematics in physics, but also led to them not applying their mathematical knowledge to their learning of physics and engineering.’ IOP, 2011.

The 2011 Centre for Bioscience criticised Biology and Chemistry A Levels and preparation of pupils for bioscience degrees: ‘very many lack even the basics… [M]any students do not begin to attempt quantitative problems and this applies equally to those with A level maths as it does to those with C at GCSE. A lack of mathematics content in A level Biology means that students do not expect to encounter maths at undergraduate level. There needs to be a more significant mathematical component in A level biology and chemistry.’ The Royal Society of Chemistry report, The five decade challenge (2008), said there had been ‘catastrophic slippage in school science standards’ and that Government claims about improving GCSE scores were ‘an illusion’. (The Department said of the RSC report, ‘Standards in science have improved year on year thanks to 10 years of sustained investment and improvement in teaching and the education system – this is something we should celebrate, not criticise. Times have changed.’)

Ofqual, 2012. Ofqual’s Standards Review in 2012 found grade inflation in both GCSE and A-levels between 2001-03 and 2008-10: ‘Many of these reviews raise concerns about the maintenance of standards… In the GCSEs we reviewed (biology, chemistry and mathematics) we found that changes to the structure of the assessments, rather than changes to the content, reduced the demand of some qualifications.’

On A-levels, ‘In general we found that changes to the way the content was assessed had an impact on demand, in many cases reducing it. In two of the reviews (biology and chemistry) the specifications were the same for both years. We found that the demand in 2008 was lower than in 2003, usually because the structure of the assessments had changed. Often there were more short answer, structured questions’ (Ofqual, Standards Reviews – A Summary, 1 May 2012, found here).

Chief Executive of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, has said: ‘If you look at the history, we have seen persistent grade inflation for these key qualifications for at least a decade… The grade inflation we have seen is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything, in my view, to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications’ (Sunday Telegraph, 28 April 2012).

The OECD’s International Survey of Adult Skills (October 2013). This assessed numeracy, literacy and computing skills of 16-24-year-olds. The tests were done over 2011/2012. England was 22nd out of 24 for literacy, 21st out of 24 for numeracy, and is 16th out of 20 for ‘problem solving in a technology-rich environment’.

PISA 2012. The normal school PISA tests taken in 2012 (reported 2013) showed no significant change between 2009-12. England was 21st for science, 23rd for reading, and 26th for mathematics. A 2011 OECD report concluded: ‘Official test scores and grades in England show systematically and significantly better performance than international and independent tests… [Official results] show significant increases in quality over time, while the measures based on cognitive tests not used for grading show declines or minimal improvements’ (OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom, 16 March 2011, p. 88-89). This interesting chart shows that in the PISA maths test the children of English professionals perform the same as children of Singapore cleaners (Do parents’ occupations have an impact on student performance?, PISA 2014).

Chart 6: Comparing pupil maths scores by parent occupation, UK (left) and Singapore (right) maths skills (PISA 2012)

Screenshot 2015-01-26 18.43.03

TIMMS/PIRLS. The TIMMS/PIRLS tests (taken summer 2011, reported December 2012) told a similar story to PISA. England’s score in reading at age 10 increased since 2006 by a statistically significant amount. England’s score in science at age 10 decreased since 2007 by a statistically significant amount. England’s scores in science at age 14 and mathematics at ages 10 and 14 showed no statistically significant changes since 2007. (According to experts, the PISA maths test relies more on language comprehension than TIMMS which is supposedly why Finland scores higher in the former than the latter.)

National Numeracy (February 2012). Research showed that in 2011 only a fifth of the adult population had mathematical skills equivalent to a ‘C’ in GCSE, down a few percent from the last survey in 2003. About half of 16-65 year olds have at best the mathematical skills of an 11 year-old. A fifth of adults will struggle with understanding price labels on food and half ‘may not be able to check the pay and deductions on a wage slip.’

King’s College, 2009. A major study by academics from King’s College London and Durham University found that basic skills in maths have declined since the 1970s. In 2008, less than a fifth of 14 year-olds could write 11/10 as a decimal. In the early 1980s, only 22 per cent of pupils obtained a GCE O-level grade C or above in maths. In 2008, over 55 per cent gained a GCSE grade C or above in the subject (King’s College London/University of Durham, ‘Secondary students’ understanding of mathematics 30 years on‘, 5 September 2009, found here).

Chart 7: Performance on ICCAMS / CSMS Maths tests showing declines over time

Screenshot 2015-01-22 16.42.53

Shayer et al (2007) found that performance in a test of basic scientific concepts fell significantly between 1976 and 2003. ‘[A]lthough both boys and girls have shown great drops in performance, the relative drop is greater for boys… It makes it difficult to believe in the validity of the year on year improvements reported nationally on Key Stage 3 NCTs in science and mathematics: if children are entering secondary from primary school less and less equipped with the necessary mental conditions for processing science and mathematics concepts it seems unlikely that the next 2.5 years KS3 teaching will have improved so much as more than to compensate for what students of today lack in comparison with 1976.’

Chart 8: Performance on tests of scientific concepts, 1976 – 2003 (Shayer)

Screenshot 2015-01-23 17.21.10

Tymms (2007) reviewed assessment evidence in mathematics from children at the end of primary school between 1978 and 2004 and in reading between 1948 and 2004. The conclusion was that standards in both subjects ‘have remained fairly constant’.

Warner (2013) on physics. Professor Mark Warner (Cambridge University) produced a fascinating report (2013) on problems with GCSE and A Level Physics and compared the papers to old O Levels,  A Levels, ‘S’ Level papers, Oxbridge entry exams, international exams and so on. After reading it, there is no room for doubt. The standards demanded in GCSEs and A Levels have fallen very significantly.

‘[In modern papers] small steps are spelt out so that not more than one thing needs to be addressed before the candidate is set firmly on the right path again. Nearly all effort is spent injecting numbers into formulae that at most require GCSE-level rearrangements… All diagrams are provided… 1986 O-level … [is] certainly more difficult than the AS sample… 1988 A-level … [is] harder than most Cambridge entrance questions currently… 1983 Common Entrance [is] remarkably demanding for this age group, approaching the challenge of current AS… There is a staggering difference in the demands put on candidates… Exams [from the 1980s] much lower down the school system are in effect more difficult than exams given now in the penultimate years [i.e. AS].’

For example, the mechanics problems in GCSE Physics are substantially shallower than those in 1980s O Level, which examined concepts now in A Level. The removal of calculus from A Level physics badly undermined it. Calculus is tested in A Level Maths’ Mechanics I paper and Mechanics II and III test deeper material than Physics A Level. This is one of the reasons why Cambridge Physics department stopped requiring Physics A Level for entry and made clear that Further Maths A Level is acceptable instead (many say it is better preparation for university than physics A Level is).

Warner also makes the point that making Physics GCSE and A Level much easier did not even increase the number taking physics degrees, which has declined sharply since the mid-1980s. He concludes: ‘one could again aim for a school system to get a sizable fraction of pupils to manage exams of these [older] standards. Children are not intrinsically unable to attack such problems.’ (NB. The version of this report on the web is not the full version – I would urge those interested to email Professor Warner.)

Gowers (2012) on maths. Tim Gowers, Cambridge professor and Fields Medallist, described some problems with Maths A Level and concluded:

‘The general point here is of course that A-levels have got easier [emphasis added] and schools have a natural tendency to teach to the test. If just one of those were true, it would be far less of a problem. I would have nothing against an easy A-level if people who were clever enough were given a much deeper understanding than the exam strictly required (though as I’ve argued above, for many people teaching to the test is misguided even on its own terms, since they will do a lot better on the exam if they have not been confined to what’s on the test), and I would not be too against teaching to the test if the test was hard enough…

‘[S]ome exams, such as GCSE maths, are very very easy for some people, such as anybody who ends up reading mathematics at Cambridge (but not just those people by any means). I therefore think that the way to teach people in top sets at schools is not to work towards those exams but just to teach them maths at the pace they can manage.’

Durham University analysis gives data to quantify this conclusion. Pupils who would have received a U (unclassified) in Maths A-Level in 1988 received a B/C in 2006 – see above for Chart 5 showing this (CEM Centre Durham University, Changes in standards at GCSE and A-Level: Evidence from ALIS and YELLIS, April 2007). Further Maths A Level is supposedly the toughest A Level and probably it is but a) it is not the same as its 1980s ancestor and b) it now introduces pupils to material such as matrices that used to be taught in good prep schools.

I spent a lot of time 2007-14 talking to maths dons, including heads of departments, across England. The reason I quote Gowers is that I never heard anybody dispute his conclusion but he was almost the only one who would say it publicly. I heard essentially the same litany about A Level maths from everybody I spoke to: although there were differences of emphasis, nobody disputed these basic propositions. 1) The questions became much more structured so pupils are led up a scaffolding with less requirement for independent problem-solving. 2) The emphasis moved to memorising some basic techniques the choice of which is clearly signalled in the question. 3) The modular system a) encouraged a ‘memorise, regurgitate, forget’ mentality and b) undermined learning about how different topics connect across maths, both of which are bad preparation for further studies. (There are also some advantages to a modular system that I will return to.) 4) Many undergraduates, including even those in the top 5% at such prestigious universities as Imperial, therefore now struggle in their first year as they are not well-prepared by A Level for the sort of problems they are given in undergraduate study. (The maths department at Imperial became so sick of A Level’s failings that they recently sought and got approval to buy Oxford’s entrance exam for use in their admission system.)

I will not go into arguments about vocational qualifications here but note the conclusion of Alison Wolf whose 2011 report on this was not disputed by any of the three main parties:

‘The staple offer for between a quarter and a third of the post- 16 cohort is a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour market value.’

3. Knock-on effects in universities

Serious lack of maths skills

There are many serious problems with maths skills. Part of the reason is that many universities do not even demand A Level maths. The result? As of about 2010-12, about 20% of Engineering undergraduates, about 40% of Chemistry and Economics undergraduates, and about 60-70% of Biology and Computer Science undergraduates did not have A Level Maths. Less than 10% of undergraduate bioscience degree courses demand A Level Maths therefore ‘problems with basic numeracy are evident and this reflects the fact that many students have grades less than A at GCSE Maths. These students are unlikely to be able to carry out many of the basic mathematical approaches, for example unable to manipulate scientific notation with negative powers so commonly used in biology’ (2011 Biosciences report). (I think that history undergraduates should be able to manipulate scientific notation with negative powers – this is one of the many things that should be standard for reasonably able people.)

The Royal Society estimated (Mathematical Needs2012) that about 300,000 per year need a post-GCSE Maths course but only ~100,000 do one. (This may change thanks to Core Maths starting in 2015, see later blog.) This House of Lords report (2012) on Higher Education in STEM subjects concluded: ‘We are concerned that … the level at which the subject [maths] is taught does not meet the requirements needed to study STEM subjects at undergraduate level… [W]e urge HEIs to introduce more demanding maths requirement for admissions into STEM courses as the lack, or low level, of maths requirements at entry acts as a disincentive for pupils to study maths and high level maths at A level.’ House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Higher Education in STEM subjects, 2012.

Further, though this subject is beyond the scope of this blog, it is also important that the maths PhD pipeline ‘which was already badly malfunctioning has been seriously damaged by EPSRC decisions’, including withdrawal of funding from non-statistics subjects which drew the ire of UK Fields Medallists, cf. Submission by the Council for the Mathematical Sciences to the House of Lords, 2011. The weaknesses in biology also feed into the bioscience pipeline: only six percent of bioscience academics think their graduates are well prepared for a masters in the fast-growing field of Computational Biology (p.8 of report).

Closing of language departments, decline of language skills

I have not found official stats for this but according to research done for the Guardian (with FOIs):

‘The number of universities offering degrees in the worst affected subject, German, has halved over the past 15 years. There are 40% fewer institutions where it is possible to study French on its own or with another language, while Italian is down 23% and Spanish is down 22%.’

As Katrin Kohl, professor of German at Jesus College (Oxford) has said, ‘The UK has in recent years been systematically squandering its already poor linguistic resources.’ Dawn Marley, senior lecturer in French at the University of Surrey, summarised problems across languages:

‘We regularly see high-achieving A-level students who have only a minimal knowledge of the country or countries where the language of study is spoken, or who have limited understanding of how the language works. Students often have little knowledge of key elements in a country’s history – such as the French Revolution, or the fact that France is a republic. They also continue to struggle with grammatical accuracy, and use English structures when writing in the language they are studying… The proposals for the revival of A-level are directly in line with what most, if not all, academics in language departments would see as essential.’ (Emphasis added.)

The same picture applies to classical languages. Already by 1994 the Oxford Classics department was removing texts such as Thucydides as compulsory elements in ‘Greats’ because they were deemed ‘too hard’. These changes continued and have made Classics a very different subject than it was before 1990. At Oxford, they introduced whole new courses (Mods B then Mods C) that do not require any prior study of the ancient languages themselves. The first year of Greats now involves remedial language courses.

I quote at length from a paper by John Davie, a Lecturer in Classics at Trinity College, Oxford, as his comments summarise the views of other senior classicists in Oxbridge and elsewhere who have been reluctant to speak out (In Pursuit of Excellence, Davie, 2013). Inevitably, the problems described are damaging the pipeline for masters, PhDs, and future scholarship.

‘Classics as an academic subject has lost much of its intellectual force in recent years. This is true not only of schools but also, inevitably, of universities, which are increasingly required to adapt to the lowering of standards…

‘In modernist courses…, there is (deliberately) no systematic learning of grammar or syntax, and emphasis is laid on fast reading of a dramatic continuous story in made-up Latin which gives scope for looking at aspects of ancient life. The principle of osmosis underlying this approach, whereby children will learn linguistic forms by constant exposure to them, aroused scepticism among many teachers and has been thoroughly discredited by experts in linguistics. Grammar and syntax learned in this piecemeal fashion give pupils no sense of structure and, crucially, deny them practice in logical analysis, a fundamental skill provided by Classics…

‘[W]e have, in GCSE, an exam that insults the intelligence… Recent changes to this exam have by general consent among teachers made the papers even easier.

‘In the AS exam currently taken at the end of the first year of A-level … students study two small passages of literature, which represent barely a third of an original text. They are asked questions so straightforward as to verge on the banal and the emphasis is on following a prescribed technique of answering, as at GCSE. Imagination and independent thought are simply squeezed out of this process as teachers practise exam-answering technique in accordance with the narrow criteria imposed on examiners.

‘The level of difficulty [in AS] is not substantially higher than that of GCSE, and yet this is the exam whose grades and marks are consulted by the universities when they are trying to determine the ability of candidates… Having learned the translation of these bite-sized chunks of literature with little awareness of their context or the wider picture (as at GCSE, it is increasingly the case that pupils are incapable of working out the Latin/Greek text for themselves, and so lean heavily on a supplied translation), they approach the university interview with little or no ability to think “outside the box”. Dons at Oxford and Cambridge regularly encounter a lack of independent thought and a tendency to fall back on generalisations that betray insufficient background reading or even basic curiosity about the subject. This need not be the case and is clearly the product of setting the bar too low for these young people at school…

‘At A2 … students read less than a third of a literary text they would formerly have read in its entirety.

‘There is the added problem that young teachers entering the profession are themselves products of the modernist approach and so not wholly in command of the classical languages themselves. As a result they welcome the fact that they are not required by the present system to give their pupils a thorough grounding in the language, embracing the less rigorous approach of modern course-books with some relief.

‘In the majority of British universities Classics in its traditional form has either disappeared altogether or has been replaced by a course which presents the literature, history and philosophy mainly (or entirely) in translation, i.e. less a degree course in Classics than in Classical Civilisation.

‘This situation has been forced upon university departments of Classics by the impoverished language skills of young people coming up from schools… It is not only the classical languages but English itself which has suffered in this way in the last few decades. Every university teacher of the classical languages knows that he cannot assume familiarity with the grammar and syntax of English itself, and that he will have to teach from scratch such concepts as an indirect object, punctuation or how a participle differs from a gerund…

‘Even at Oxford cuts have been made to the number of texts students are required to read and, in those texts that remain, not as many lines are prescribed for reading in the original Latin or Greek.

‘In the last ten years of teaching for Mods [at Oxford] I have been struck by how the first-year students who come my way at the start of the summer term appear to know less about the classical languages each year, an experience I know to be shared by dons at other colleges…

‘GCSE should be replaced by a modern version of the O-level that stretches pupils… This would make the present AS exam completely unsuitable, and either a more challenging set of papers should be devised, if the universities wish to continue with pre A-level interviewing, or there should be a return to an unexamined year of wide reading before the specialisation of the last year.

‘Although the present exam, A2, has more to recommend it than AS, it also would no longer be fit for purpose and would need strengthening. As part of both final years there should be regular practice in the writing of essays, a skill that has been largely lost in recent years because of the exam system and is (rightly) much missed by dons.’

This combination of problems explains why we funded a project with Professor Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, to fund teacher training and language enrichment courses for schools.

I will not go into other humanities subjects. I read Ancient & Modern History and have thoughts about it but I do not know of any good evidence similar to the reports quoted above by the likes of the Royal Society. I have spoken to many university teachers. Some, such as Professor Richard Evans (Cambridge) told me they think the standard of those who arrive as undergraduates is roughly the same as twenty years ago. Others at Oxbridge and elsewhere told me they think that essay writing skills have deteriorated because of changes to A Level (disputed by Evans and others) and that language skills among historians have deteriorated (undisputed by anyone I spoke to).

For example, the Cambridge Professor of Mediterranean History, David Abulafia, has contradicted Evans and, like classicists, pointed out the spread of remedial classes at Cambridge:

‘It’s a pity, then, that the director of admissions at Cambridge has proclaimed that the old system [pre-Gove reforms] is good and that AS-levels – a disaster in so many ways – are a good thing because somehow they promote access. I don’t know for whom he is speaking, but not for me as a professor in the same university…

‘[Gove] was quite right about the abolition of the time-wasting, badly devised and all too often incompetently marked AS Levels; these dreary exams have increasingly been used as the key to admissions to Cambridge, to the detriment of intellectually lively, quirky, candidates full of fizz and sparkle who actually have something to say for themselves…

‘Bogus educational theories have done so much to damage education in this country… The effects are visible even in a great university such as Cambridge, with a steady decline in standards of literacy, and with, in consequence, the provision in one college after another of ‘skills teaching’, so that students who no longer arrive knowing how to structure an essay or even read a book can receive appropriate ‘training’… Even students from top ranked schools seem to find it very difficult … to write essays coherently… In the sort of exams I am thinking of, essay writing comes much more to the fore and examiners would be making more subjective judgements about scripts. In an ideal world there would be double marking of scripts.’ Emphasis added.

Judging essay skills is a more nebulous task than judging the quality of mechanics questions. Also, there is less agreement among historians about the sort of things they want to see in school exams compared to mathematicians and physicists who largely (in my experience, I stress, which is limited) agree about the sorts of problems they want undergraduates to be able to solve and the skills they want them to have.

I will quote a Professor of English at Exeter University, Colin MacCabe, whose view of the decline of essay skills is representative of many comments I have heard, but I cannot say confidently that this view represents a consensus, despite his claim:

‘Nobody who teaches A-level or has anything to do with teaching first-year university students has any doubt that A Levels have been dumbed down… The writing of the essay has been the key intellectual form in undergraduate education for more than a century; excelling at A-level meant excelling in this form. All that went by the board when … David Blunkett, brought in AS-levels… A-levels … became two years of continuous assessment with students often taking their first module within three months of entering the sixth form. This huge increase in testing went together with a drastic change in assessment. Candidates were not now marked in relation to an overall view of their ability to mount and develop arguments, but in relation to their ability to demonstrate achievement against tightly defined assessment objectives… A-levels, once a test of general intellectual ability in relation to a particular subject, are now a tightly supervised procession through a series of targets. Assessment doesn’t come at the end of the course – it is the course… In English, students read many fewer books… Students now arrive at university without the knowledge or skills considered automatic in our day… One of the results of the changes at A-level is that the undergraduate degree is itself a much more targeted affair. Students lack of a general education mean that special subjects, dissertations etc are added to general courses which are themselves much more limited in their approach… One result of this is a grade inflation much more dramatic even than A-levels… [T]here is little place within a modern English university for students to develop the kind of intellectual independence and judgment, which has historically been the aim of the undergraduate degree.’ Observer, 22 August, 2004. (Emphasis added.)

If anybody knows of studies on history and other humanities please link in Comments below.

Oxbridge entrance

As political arguments increasingly focused on ‘participation’ and ‘access’, Oxford and Cambridge largely abandoned their own entrance exams in the 1990s. There were some oddities. Cambridge University dropped their maths test and were so worried by the results that they immediately asked for and were given special dispensation to reintroduce it and they have used one since (now known as the STEP paper, used by a few other universities). Other Cambridge departments who wanted to do the same were refused permission and some of them (including the physics department) now use interviews to test material they would like to test in a written exam. Oxford changed its mind and gradually reintroduced admission tests in some subjects. (E.g. It does not use STEP in maths but uses its own test which has more ‘applied’ maths.) Cambridge now uses AS Levels. Oxford does not (but does not like to explain why).

A Levels are largely useless for distinguishing between candidates in the top 2% of ability (i.e. two standard deviations above average). Oxbridge entry now involves a complex and incoherent set of procedures. Some departments use interviews to test skills that are i) either wholly or entirely untested by A Levels and ii) are not explicitly set out anywhere. For example, if you go to an interview for physics at Cambridge, they will ask you questions like ‘how many photons hit your eye per second from Alpha Centauri?’ – i.e. questions that you cannot cram for but from which much information can be gained by tutors watching how students grapple with the problem.

The fact that the real skills they want to test are asked about in interviews rather than in public exams is, in my opinion, not only bad for ‘standards’ but is also unfair. Rich schools with long connections to Oxbridge colleges have teachers who understand these interviews and know how to prepare pupils for them. They still teach the material tested in old exams and other materials such as Russian textbooks created decades ago. A comprehensive in east Durham that has never sent anybody to Oxbridge is very unlikely to have the same sort of expertise and is much more likely to operate on the very mistaken assumption that getting a pupil to three As is sufficient preparation for Oxbridge selection. Testing skills in open exams that everybody can see would be fairer.

I will return to this issue in a later blog but it is important to consider the oddities of this situation. Decades ago, open public standardised tests were seen as a way to overcome prejudice. For example, Ivy League universities like Harvard infamously biased their admissions system against Jews because a fair open process based on intellectual abilities, and ignoring things like lacrosse skills, would have put more Jews into Harvard than Harvard wanted. Similar bias is widespread now in order to keep the number of East Asians low. It is no coincidence that Caltech’s admissions policy is unusually based on academic ability and it has a far higher proportion of East Asians than the likes of Harvard.

Similar problems apply to Oxbridge. A consequence of making exams easier and removing Oxbridge admissions tests was to make the process more opaque and therefore biased against poorer families. The fascinating journey made by the intellectual Left on the issue of standardised tests is described in Steven Pinker’s recent influential essay on university admissions. I agree with him that a big part of the reason for the ‘madness’ is that the intelligentsia ‘has lost the ability to think straight about objective tests’. Half a century ago, the Left fought for standardised tests to overcome prejudice, now many on the Left oppose tests and argue for criteria that give the well-connected middle classes unfair advantages.

This combination of problems is one of the reasons why the Cambridge pure maths department and physics department worked with me to develop projects to redo 16-18 curricula, teacher training, and testing systems. Cambridge is even experimenting with a ‘correspondence Free School’ idea proposed by the mathematician Alexander Borovik (who attended one of the famous Russian maths schools). Powerful forces tried to stop these projects happening because they are, obviously, implicit condemnations of the existing system – condemnations that many would prefer had never seen the light of day. Similar projects in other departments at other universities were kiboshed for the same reason, as were other proposals for specialist maths schools as per the King’s project (which also would never have happened but for the determination of Alison Wolf and a handful of heroic officials in the DfE). I will return to this too.

C. Conclusions

Here are some tentative conclusions.

  1. The political and bureaucratic process for the introduction of the GCSE and National Curriculum was a shambles. Those involved did not go through basic processes to agree aims. Implementation was awful. All elements of the system failed children. There are important lessons for those who want to reform the current system.
  2. Given the weight of evidence above, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that GCSEs were made easier than O Levels and became easier still over time. This means that at least the top fifth are aimed aged 14 at lower standards than they would have been aimed at previously (not that O Levels were at all optimal). Many of them spend two years with low grade material and repeating boring drills, in order that the school can maximise its league table position, instead of delving deeper into subjects. Inflation seems to have stopped in the last two years, perhaps temporarily, but by the use of an Ofqual system known as ‘comparable outcomes’ which is barely understood by anybody in the school system or DfE.
  3. A Levels, at least in maths, sciences, and languages, were quickly made easier after 1988 and not just by enough to keep pass marks stable but by enough to lead to large increases. Even A Level students are aimed at mundane tasks like ‘design a poster’ that are suitable for small children – not near-adults. (As I type this I am looking at an Edexcel textbook for Further Maths A Level which for some reason, Edexcel has chosen to decorate with the picture of a child in a ‘Robin’ masked outfit.)
  4. The old ‘S’ level papers, designed to stretch the best A Level students, were abandoned which contributed to a decline of standards aimed for among the top 5%.
  5. University degrees in some subjects therefore also had to become easier (e.g. classics) or longer (natural sciences) in order to avoid increases in failure rates. This happened in some subjects even in elite universities. Remedial courses spread, even in elite universities, to teach/improve skills that were previously expected on arrival (including Classics at Oxford and History at Cambridge). Not all of the problems are because of failures in schools or easier exams. Some are because universities themselves for political reasons will not make certain requirements of applicants. Even if the exam system were fixed, this would remain a big problem. On the other hand, while publicly speaking out for AS Levels, admissions officers also, very quietly, have been gradually introducing new, non-Government/Ofqual regulated, tests for admissions purposes. On this, it is more useful to watch what universities do than what they say.
  6. These problems have cascaded right through the system and now affect the pipeline into senior university research positions in maths, sciences, and languages. For example, the lack of maths skills among biologists is hampering the development of synthetic biology and computational biology. It is very common now to have (private) discussions with scientists deploring the decline in English research universities. Just in the past few weeks I have had emails from an English physicist now at Harvard and a prominent English neuroscientist giving me details of these developments and how we are falling further behind American universities. As they say, however, nobody wants to speak out.
  7. It is much easier to see what has happened at the top end of the ability curve, where effects show up in universities, than it is for median pupils. The media also  focuses on issues at the top end of the ability curve, A Levels, and the Russell Group.
  8. Because politicians took control of the system and used results to justify their own policies, and because they control funding, debate over standards became thoroughly dishonest, starting with the Conservative government in the 1980s and continuing to now when academics are pressured not to speak out by administrators for fear of politicians’ responses. When governments are in control of the metrics according to which they are judged, there is likely to be dishonesty. If people – including unions, teachers, and officials – claim they deserve more money on the basis of metrics that are controlled by a small group of people operating an opaque process and controlling the regulator themselves, there is likely to be dishonesty.

An important caveat. It is possible that simultaneously a) 1-8 is true and b) the school system has improved in various ways. What do I mean?

This is a coherent (not necessarily right) conclusion from the story told above…

GCSEs are significantly easier than O Levels. Nevertheless, the switch to GCSEs also involved many comprehensives and secondary moderns dropping the old idea that maybe only a fifth of the cohort are ‘academic’ – the idea from Plato’s Republic of gold, silver, and bronze children, that influenced the 1944 Act. Instead, more schools began to focus more pupils on academic subjects. Even though the standards demanded were easier than in the pre-1988 exams, this new focus (combined with other things) at least led between 1988 and now to a) a reduction in the number of truly awful schools and b) more useful knowledge and skills at least for the bottom fifth of the cohort (in ability terms), and perhaps for more. Perhaps the education of median ability pupils stayed roughly the same (declining a bit in maths) hence the consistent picture in international tests, the King’s results comparing maths in 1978/2008, Shayer’s results and so on (above). Meanwhile the standards demanded by post-1988 A Levels clearly fell (at least in some vital subjects), as the changes in universities testify, and S Level papers vanished, so the top fifth of the cohort (and particularly the +2 standard deviation population, i.e. the top 2%) leave school in some subjects considerably worse educated than in the 1980s. (Given most scientific and technological breakthroughs come from among this top 2% this has a big knock-on effect.) Private schools felt incentivised to perform better than state schools on easier GCSEs and A Levels rather than pursue separate qualifications with all the accompanying problems. There remains no good scientific data on what children at different points on the ability curve are capable of achieving given excellent teaching so the discussion of ‘standards’ remains circular. Easier GCSEs and A Levels are consistent with some improvements for the bottom fifth, roughly stability for the median, significant decline for the top fifth, and fewer awful schools.

This is coherent. It fits the evidence sketched above.

But is it right?

In the next blog in this series I will consider issues of ‘ability’ and the circularity of the current debate on ‘standards’.


If people accept the conclusions about GCSEs and A Levels (at least in maths, sciences, and languages, I stress again) how should this evidence be weighed against the very strong desire of many in the education system (and Parliament and Whitehall) to maintain a situation in which the vast majority of the cohort are aimed at GCSEs (or international equivalents that are not hugely different) and, for those deemed ‘academic’, A Levels?

Do the gains from this approach outweigh the losses for an unknown fraction of the ‘more able’?

Is there a way to improve gains for all points on the ability distribution?

I have been told that there is no grade inflation in music exams. Is this true? If YES, is this partly because they are not regulated by the state? Are there other factors? Has A Level Music got easier? If not why not?

What sort of approaches should be experimented with instead of the standard approaches seen in O Levels, GCSEs, and A Levels?

What can be learned from non-Government regulated tests such as Force Concepts Tests (physics), university admissions tests, STEP, IQ tests and so on?

What are the best sources on ‘S’ Level papers and what happened with Oxbridge entrance exams?

What other evidence is there? Where are analyses similar to Warner’s on physics for other subjects?

What evidence is there for university grade inflation which many tell me is now worse than GCSEs and A Levels?


Standards In English Schools Part 0: Introduction

‘I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call Cargo Cult Science. In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas – he’s the controller – and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.’ Richard Feynman’s Caltech commencement address on Education and Cargo Cult Science (1974). 

‘Let’s put behind us once and for all the old sterile debate about dumbing down. I want to end young people being told that the GCSE or A-level grades they are proud of aren’t worth what they used to be.’ Ed Balls to the Labour Party Conference,  2007. 

‘It is undeniable that the last Labour government dramatically improved school standards in secondary education.’ Tristram Hunt, 26 January 2015.

‘Despite the apparently plausible and widespread belief to the contrary, the evidence that levels of attainment in schools in England have systematically improved over the last 30 years is unconvincing. Much of what is claimed as school improvement is illusory… standards have not risen; teaching has not improved… The question, therefore, is not whether there has been grade inflation, but how much…’ (Professor Robert Coe, 2013, here.)


This series of blogs will discuss: 1) what we know about standards in English schools including the effect of the introduction of the National Curriculum and GCSEs; 2) how ‘ability’ and ‘standards’ should be defined; 3) what can be learned from the 2010-15 reforms and what incentives now dominate the system; 4) what research and policy agenda is needed; 5) what materials are there for those interested in standards beyond those of the National Curriculum and state controlled exams.


The debate about ‘standards in English schools’ is obviously of great importance but it suffers from many fundamental problems. Ironically for a debate that often involves the word ‘rigour’, the debate is itself unrigorous.

The main concepts are not properly defined. Politicians, policy people, officials, and journalists speak and write daily using phrases such as ‘we must drive up standards so that [X% of schools or pupils] hit the standard of [Y]’ when Y has no objective definition. Most obviously there has been enormous debate about grades in GCSEs and A Levels but these grades themselves are arbitrarily created according to criteria that would not impress physical scientists. The ‘standards’ are circular. Exams are regulated by the DfE and Ofqual in order that there is a very high chance that at least X% ‘pass’, then people say ‘more than X% should pass’, or ‘X% is too tough’. But the X% is just based in the first place on where the system happens to be which is historically contingent – it is not based on any scientific judgement about what children of different abilities (rigorously defined) are capable of doing given certain teaching.

In the recent debate over reforming GCSEs, when we tried to drop their use in the accountability system in 2012, Nick Clegg insisted, and Cameron agreed, that the entire reform process be based on the principles that i) about 95% of the cohort should do the same exams at 16 and ii) not many more would fail to pass than now (2012). Definitions of a ‘pass’ were therefore set in order to fit with an a priori desire for a certain percentage to pass – a political desire of one party rather than an educational judgement. (The other two parties have had the same approach over the past thirty years – my point is not that the LibDems are particularly bad.)

Despite having a circular process for defining standards, it has been a central feature of education debates for politicians to set targets for what proportion of pupils every school must get to ‘pass’ – targets that have high stakes for school management and teachers. One can understand the motivation, given the bad effects for individuals of being in really bad schools, but the process as a whole does not make sense. Further, Ofqual imposes a system (‘comparable outcomes’) which is intended to combat grade inflation but which also seems to operate deliberately against the goal of significant rises in the proportion passing GCSEs. Further, Ofsted’s reports add noise, not signal, given, as Professor Coe has said, ‘its judgements have little scientific credibility’ (some argue this is too generous).

Similarly, people in the education world use the word ‘ability’ but they almost never define or have an objective measure for ‘ability’. The work of scientists on this subject has been almost entirely ignored and has had practically no effect on policy in England. Many teacher training colleges promote ‘cargo cult’ science on the subject of ‘ability’ to thousands of teachers who are therefore confident in views that are the opposite of what the science says.

As far as I am aware, there is no serious research agenda in English schools attempting to a) discover what pupils of different ability, using objective measures, are capable of achieving given certain teaching and b) use this knowledge to shape the curriculum, tests, and objective measures of school performance in an iterative feedback loop that can improve its accuracy over time.

The main point of these blogs is to help make the case for such a research programme (see below). Since first becoming involved in education debates in 2007, I have had many discussions about this. I have said to many people, including in the Royal Society, the home of British science, that we need a scientific approach to the issue of standards and ability. I wrote about it in my essay that became public in 2013. I argued for it in the DfE, with subject associations, with those responsible for teacher training (‘the most bankrupt institution I know’, said Hattie), and with many people who talk about ‘research’ and ‘evidence’.

Few have wanted to engage in this subject because it is so politically fraught. Even fewer have done so publicly and I have personal experience of severe pressure put on many academics by university administrators not to tell the truth. However, a very positive development in English education is the growth of support for thinking seriously about evidence. In the DfE, there was a long battle on this issue that ended suddenly when the new Permanent Secretary arrived and immediately agreed with the appointment of Ben Goldacre to do a review of the Department’s handling of evidence, research, and data, which was published in 2013. (I have written many critical things about officials, such as HERE, so it is worth noting that Wormald, and other officials particularly younger ones, took this enlightened view.) There is no doubt that the culture inside the Department changed as a result though there is a very long way to go in this area and it is reasonable to be doubtful about any of the three parties’ commitment to this approach and about civil service commitment. Tom Bennett’s efforts with ResearchEd have been fantastic and are one of the most hopeful things I’ve seen since 2007. There is also now a discussion about a possible College of Teachers – an institution that will only be credible if it has high standards on the subject of cargo cult research. Unsurprisingly, therefore, more people are starting to ask: what do we know about standards? (E.g. Sam Freedman recently blogged on it.)

I therefore thought I would jot down in a series of blogs various bits of evidence, history, thoughts, discussions and so on that I have accumulated since 2007.

Five broad areas

This series of blogs will consider inter alia these questions grouped in five rough areas (which may change as I go along).

A. What is the evidence concerning ‘standards in English schools’? What was the effect of the introduction of 1) GCSEs and 2) the National Curriculum with its connected testing regime? What were the cascading effects on A Levels and higher education? What do comparisons with international tests and other academic studies tell us? What do subject associations and organisations such as the Royal Society say? What do universities and subject experts say?

B How should ‘ability’ and ‘standards’ be defined? What undermines sensible discussion about this?

C. What was Gove’s team trying to do 2010-14? How effective were reforms concerning the curriculum, exams, and accountability (including the role of Ofsted)? What lessons might be learned from the period 2010-15? What incentives dominate the system now?

D. What should come next? What can we reasonably infer from the period since 1985 about what is very unlikely to work? What should the parties not put in their manifestos? What are the main reasons why political and policy discussion of this subject has been so controversial? How does the transformation of the technological landscape since the mid-1980s change arguments? How could a focus on evidence and empiricism help improve the system?

E. What materials are there that can be used by schools that are focused more on education and learning than the official accountability system?

The goal

The goal of these blogs is not to ‘defend the Gove reforms’. When I get onto them, I will try to explain as clearly as I can why we tried to do certain things and what went wrong.  GCSE reform (along with the disaster of Ofsted) is arguably the biggest failure of our team and therefore particularly needs analysis. The goal is not to affect party manifestos – it is possible but unlikely that someone reading this may be able to nudge things off a party or bureaucratic agenda. It is reasonable to assume that whatever the parties promise their plans will crumble on contact with reality. My main hope is that people outside SW1 at the coalface of education take matters into their own hands and develop their own approaches to scientific experimentation with the curriculum, exams, and training.

In my opinion, the only real hope for large improvements in learning is if 1) a critical mass of people become convinced of the need for an empirical approach and the rejection of ‘cargo cult science’ that has dominated education, and 2) an empirical programme emerges that iteratively a) tests what children of different abilities can learn and b) uses this information to alter curricula, tests, and teacher training. We need experiments and Grand Prizes in education that have brought dramatic breakthroughs in other areas, such as DARPA’s Grand Challenge that led to breakthroughs in basic science and then to driverless cars. Imagine what well-defined Grand Challenges could bring to English schools.

Improvements in education do not need to be justified as goals with reference to other things such as economic growth. Learning and education are fundamental aspects of being human. However, it is obvious that humans will have to grapple with profound challenges over the next thirty years. The population will grow by another few billion, mainly in cities and connected to the mobile internet and ‘the internet of things’. Energy and other resource demands will put the global system under huge pressure. We face old security threats like nuclear weapons and new threats such as the use of genetic engineering techniques empowering garage bio-hackers, for good and evil. For example, the revolutionary genome ‘cut and paste’ engineering tool, CRISPR, may soon be used to ‘de-extinct’ species and eradicate diseases but the same techniques could be used destructively. Much progress in machine intelligence and robotics is being driven by research controlled by militaries and intelligence agencies but little research is done on the profound dangers.

If we are to cope with these things, we will need new technologies, new institutions, and new ideas. Improving our education system is therefore obviously central. I have proposed that it ought to become the central organising principle for the British state, as an answer to Dean Acheson’s famous quip that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role.

Hopefully the discussion of standards in English schools will be useful regardless of whether you agree with this broader argument or not.

Please leave comments, corrections, research reports, complaints etc below. I will add things people leave as I go along and at the end try to produce something short and rigorous…

International GCSEs and the DfE ban – was there a better path?

It is reported that the DfE has decided not to allow international GCSEs to be allowed to be used in league tables.

This is not a surprise though I think it is bad policy. I will explain some background, my involvement in discussions about this before I left in January 2014, and why I think it is a mistake.

None of the boards’ iGCSEs counted in league tables pre-2010. We thought this was a mistake. Some of the best private schools used the Cambridge International iGCSE. Some great state schools told us in Opposition that they wanted to do the same. It seemed reasonable to have more diversity in the system and let state schools do what private schools were doing particularly given the huge problems with standard GCSEs and the difficulty with reforming them.

During 2013, as standard GCSEs were being reformed, the issue arose of what to do about iGCSEs.

The issue was complicated by differences among the boards. I have never heard anyone claim that the Cambridge International iGCSE is easier than the standard GCSE. However, there were persistent arguments that other boards’ iGCSEs were not as hard as GCSEs and private schools and others were being conned.

There was a piece of research circulating (from people very well known in the education world who are taken very seriously) that plotted the Cambridge iGCSE against the standard GCSE and another board’s iGCSE, with the former harder than GCSEs and the latter easier than GCSEs. The research was not published because the people concerned were frightened of legal action (itself a telling detail about the epidemic dishonesty in the English debate on exams and standards, a dishonesty that, I think, most who discuss education policy greatly underestimate).

In 2013, officials and Ofqual argued that the reformed GCSEs starting from 2015 should completely replace iGCSEs which should not be allowed in the league tables. MG and I were not keen on this idea. I spoke to people about their concerns. I suggested the following path through (the below is not a quote from my memo, which I will dig out, but includes the main ideas)…

The DfE should announce that anybody who wants their exams, including iGCSEs, to be included in league tables will have to produce clear overwhelming and independent evidence that they are significantly more challenging than standard GCSEs. If they produce such evidence, we will include them; if not, not. This means that we avoid banning things that are obviously better than GCSEs but we also cull those exam boards who are abusing the system. We will also learn from the evidence presented and that exercise will be a useful thing – even if none of the boards submit anything we will learn something valuable. We’re trying to move all of these debates towards people discussing evidence rather than hunches and this is a very good candidate for this approach.

The responses boiled down to two things.

1) Nobody had an argument against the idea as policy.

2) Nobody wanted to do it. The bureaucratic arguments amounted to: a) ‘It’s messy.’ b) ‘We’ll get sued by the exam boards who are always cheating things and will hire fancy lawyers.’ c) ‘Ofqual doesn’t want to.’ Why? ‘It’s messy.’ d) Unstated but hanging over the discussion – ‘it’s a lot of hard work on a marginal issue and nobody is going to attack us for being elitist if we ban them’.

Given this response, MG and spads thought we should try it.

Some time in autumn 2013, I can’t remember when, I was tipped off that ‘David Laws hates your idea, he just wants to ban them, there’s a meeting shortly’. I went to the meeting. I was not optimistic and assumed I would have to torpedo him with ‘SoS agrees with me’, given the state of relationships by then given Clegg’s appalling behaviour. My assumption was wrong.

The issues were explained. I gave him my argument. He had not heard it. I said that the bureaucratic arguments were not relevant – particularly absurd fears about legal challenges (an argument deployed daily) – and the best thing educationally was to give it a whirl regardless of some complexity and irrelevant media noise. Laws listened and asked questions. He was reasonable. He asked officials if anybody had a policy argument against the idea. Nobody did, the main argument was ‘Ofqual really wants us to ban them’. It was also clear though that the issue was not closed and officials knew I was soon leaving.

It is no surprise to see the news today. The bureaucracy now has its clarity, but is it a good decision? Were Nicky Morgan / her spads given an alternative (it would not surprise me if the option was never presented to them)? What will the DfE say when a state school says ‘Eton does the Cambridge iGCSE in X because they think it’s better – why can’t we offer our pupils the same thing, as you promised before the 2010 election?’? Can anybody see a downside to trying the other path, given one could always have reverted to banning everything if it proved unworkable?

It is of course possible that detailed work was done after I left and this decision was taken for reasons that are not public but are sound. If so, I am sure the new evidence-based DfE will make the technical arguments public.

Please leave comments, corrections etc.

UPDATE 1. This story strengthens my view that one of the most important things for the improvement of education in English state schools is the development of new exams that are outside the regulatory structure of the DfE and Ofqual – exams that are aimed purely at encouraging deep skills in mathematical modelling, extended writing and so on. It is not a coincidence that perhaps the most challenging exam taken in English schools – maths STEP – a) is not created by the domestic exam boards (Cambridge Assessment, not OCR), b) has zero input from DfE, c) is not regulated by Ofqual, d) has a clear educational purpose of encouraging deep skills needed for a serious undergraduate degree, and e) the people who use it as a tool would be horrified at the idea of the DfE, Ofqual, or ‘education policy people’ proposing Whitehall should have anything to do with it. I will blog soon on how I think a new ‘post-GCSE & A Level’ system could evolve.

UPDATE 2. As some emails winging from the DfE say, not all officials wanted the ban and some agreed with the course suggested above. True. (I tend to assume readers of this blog will assume the DfE is not monolithic.) But it was also clear which way  Whitehall’s gravity was pulling.

UPDATE 3. An email arrives from inside the DfE – a senior official who was involved in these decisions… He points to this research on iGCSEs. The C/D borderline figures are the most interesting.

I want to stress – I am not saying that international GCSEs are ‘the answer’ to the problems with the exam system. I do not think they are. I think the problems are much more fundamental and require much deeper changes. My point is that it would have been much better policy to ask the boards for hard evidence about the exams in order that the policy world can examine the issues on the basis of data rather than hunches and just ‘officials say they’re easier’ / ‘well why does Eton do them then?’ etc, which is the level of debate over the past decade. If the DfE made the decision on the basis largely of the evidence in the link above, then it should explain this publicly so people can judge whether their thought process was reasonable, otherwise inevitably many will assume the decision was made for bureaucratic – not educational – reasons.





Times op-ed: What Is To Be Done? An answer to Dean Acheson’s famous quip

On Tuesday 2 December, the Times ran an op-ed by me you can see HERE. It got cut slightly for space. Below is the original version that makes a few other points.

I will use this as a start of a new series on what can be done to improve the system including policy, institutions, and management.

NB1. The article is not about the election or party politics. My suggested answer to Acheson is, I think, powerful partly because it is something that could be agreed upon, in various dimensions, across the political spectrum. I left the DfE in January partly because I wanted to have nothing to do with the election and this piece should not be seen as advocating ‘something Tories should say for the election’. I do not think any of the three leaders are interested in or could usefully pursue this goal – I am suggesting something for the future when they are all gone, and they could quite easily all be gone by summer 2016.

NB2. My view is not – ‘public bad, private good’. As I explained in The Hollow Men II, a much more accurate and interesting distinction is between a) large elements of state bureaucracies, dreadful NGOs like the CBI, and many large companies (that have many of the same HR and incentive problems as bureaucracies), where very similar types rise to power because the incentives encourage political skills rather than problem-solving skills, and b) start-ups, where entrepreneurs and technically trained problem-solvers can create organisations that operate extremely differently, move extremely fast, create huge value, and so on.

(For a great insight into start-up world I recommend two books. 1. Peter Thiel’s new book ‘Zero To One‘. 2. An older book telling the story of a mid-90s start-up that was embroiled in the Netscape/Microsoft battle and ended up selling itself to the much better organised Bill Gates – ‘High Stakes, No Prisoners‘ by Charles Ferguson. This blog, Creators and Rulers, by physicist Steve Hsu also summarises some crucial issues excellently.)

Some parts of government can work like start-ups but the rest of the system tries to smother them. For example, DARPA (originally ARPA) was set up as part of the US panic about Sputnik. It operates on very different principles from the rest of the Pentagon’s R&D system. Because it is organised differently, it has repeatedly produced revolutionary breakthroughs (e.g. the internet) despite a relatively tiny budget. But also note – DARPA has been around for decades and its operating principles are clear but nobody else has managed to create an equivalent (openly at least). Also note that despite its track record, D.C. vultures constantly circle trying to make it conform to the normal rules or otherwise clip its wings. (Another interesting case study would be the alternative paths taken by a) the US government developing computers with one genius mathematician, von Neumann, post-1945 (a lot of ‘start-up’ culture) and b) the UK government’s awful decisions in the same field with another genius mathematician, Turing, post-1945.)

When I talk about new and different institutions below, this is one of the things I mean. I will write a separate blog just on DARPA but I think there are two clear action points:

1. We should create a civilian version of DARPA aimed at high-risk/high-impact breakthroughs in areas like energy science and other fundamental areas such as quantum information and computing that clearly have world-changing potential. For it to work, it would have to operate outside all existing Whitehall HR rules, EU procurement rules and so on – otherwise it would be as dysfunctional as the rest of the system (defence procurement is in a much worse state than the DfE, hence, for example, billions spent on aircraft carriers that in classified war-games cannot be deployed to warzones). We could easily afford this if we could prioritise – UK politicians spend far more than DARPA’s budget on gimmicks every year – and it would provide huge value with cascading effects through universities and businesses.

2. The lessons of why and how it works – such as incentivising goals, not micromanaging methods – have general application that are useful when we think generally about Whitehall reform.

Finally, government institutions also operate to exclude from power scientists, mathematicians, and people from the start-up world – the Creators, in Hsu’s term. We need to think very hard about how to use their very rare and valuable skills as a counterweight to the inevitable psychological type that politics will always tend to promote.

Please leave comments, corrections etc below.



What Is to Be Done?

There is growing and justified contempt for Westminster. Number Ten has become a tragi-comic press office with the prime minister acting as Über Pundit. Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg see only the news’s flickering shadows on their cave wall – they cannot see the real world behind them. As they watch floundering MPs, officials know they will stay in charge regardless of an election that won’t significantly change Britain’s trajectory.

Our institutions failed pre-1914, pre-1939, and with Europe. They are now failing to deal with a combination of debts, bad public services, security threats, and profound transitions in geopolitics, economics, and technology. They fail in crises because they are programmed to fail. The public knows we need to reorient national policy and reform these institutions. How?

First, we need a new goal. In 1962, Dean Acheson quipped that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role. The romantic pursuit of ‘the special relationship’ and the deluded pursuit of a leading EU role have failed. This role should focus on making Britain the best country for education and science. Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’: we could be the school of the world because this role depends on thought and organisation, not size.

This would give us a central role in tackling humanity’s biggest problems and shaping the new institutions, displacing the EU and UN, that will emerge as the world makes painful transitions in coming decades. It would provide a focus for financial priorities and Whitehall’s urgent organisational surgery. It’s a goal that could mobilise very large efforts across political divisions as the pursuit of knowledge is an extremely powerful motive.

Second, we must train aspirant leaders very differently so they have basic quantitative skills and experience of managing complex projects. We should stop selecting leaders from a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree and a spell as spin doctor.

In 2012, Fields Medallist Tim Gowers sketched a ‘maths for presidents’ course to teach 16-18 year-olds crucial maths skills, including probability and statistics, that can help solve real problems. It starts next year. [NB. The DfE funded MEI to turn this blog into a real course.] A version should be developed for MPs and officials. (A similar ‘Physics for Presidents‘ course has been a smash hit at Berkeley.) Similarly, pioneering work by Philip Tetlock on ‘The Good Judgement Project‘ has shown that training can reduce common cognitive errors and can sharply improve the quality of political predictions, hitherto characterised by great self-confidence and constant failure.

New interdisciplinary degrees such as ‘World history and maths for presidents’ would improve on PPE but theory isn’t enough. If we want leaders to make good decisions amid huge complexity, and learn how to build great teams, then we should send them to learn from people who’ve proved they can do it. Instead of long summer holidays, embed aspirant leaders with Larry Page or James Dyson so they can experience successful leadership.

Third, because better training can only do so much, we must open political institutions to people and ideas from outside SW1.

A few people prove able repeatedly to solve hard problems in theoretical and practical fields, creating important new ideas and huge value. Whitehall and Westminster operate to exclude them from influence. Instead, they tend to promote hacks and apparatchiks and incentivise psychopathic narcissism and bureaucratic infighting skills – not the pursuit of the public interest.

How to open up the system? First, a Prime Minister should be able to appoint Secretaries of State from outside Parliament. [How? A quick and dirty solution would be: a) shove them in the Lords, b) give Lords ministers ‘rights of audience’ in the Commons, c) strengthen the Select Committee system.]

Second, the 150 year experiment with a permanent civil service should end and Whitehall must open to outsiders. The role of Permanent Secretary should go and ministers should appoint departmental chief executives so they are really responsible for policy and implementation. Expertise should be brought in as needed with no restrictions from the destructive civil service ‘human resources’ system that programmes government to fail. Mass collaborations are revolutionising science [cf. Michael Nielsen’s brilliant book]; they could revolutionise policy. Real openness would bring urgent focus to Whitehall’s disastrous lack of skills in basic functions such as budgeting, contracts, procurement, legal advice, and project management.

Third, Whitehall’s functions should be amputated. The Department for Education improved as Gove shrank it. Other departments would benefit from extreme focus, simplification, and firing thousands of overpaid people. If the bureaucracy ceases to be ‘permanent’, it can adapt quickly. Instead of obsessing on process, distorting targets, and micromanaging methods, it could shift to incentivising goals and decentralising methods.

Fourth, existing legal relationships with the EU and ECHR must change. They are incompatible with democratic and effective government

Fifth, Number Ten must be reoriented from ‘government by punditry’ to a focus on the operational planning and project management needed to convert priorities to reality over months and years.

Technological changes such as genetic engineering and machine intelligence are bringing revolution. It would be better to undertake it than undergo it.



The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion…

… Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow…’

The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot.


“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?” Colonel ’60 second’ Boyd.


‘You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and it’s my job to expel you from the organism.’ DfE official re Gove’s team.


Are you fed up with the Hollow Men in charge of everything and do you want to change things more than the three party leaders do? I am and I do.

There are three parts to this blog.

Part I: My overall argument

Part II: Four stories

Part III: Analysis


Part I: ‘A combustible mixture of ignorance and power’

1. Complexity makes prediction hard.

Our world is based on extremely complex, nonlinear, interdependent networks (physical, mental, social). Properties emerge from feedback between vast numbers of interactions: for example, the war of ant colonies, the immune system’s defences, market prices, and abstract thoughts all emerge from the interaction of millions of individual agents. Interdependence, feedback, and nonlinearity mean that systems are fragile and vulnerable to nonlinear shocks: ‘big things come from small beginnings’ and problems cascade, ‘they come not single spies / But in battalions’. Prediction is extremely hard even for small timescales. Effective action and (even loose) control are very hard and most endeavours fail.

At the beginning of From Russia With Love (the movie not the book), Kronsteen, a Russian chess master and SPECTRE strategist, is summoned to Blofeld’s lair to discuss the plot to steal the super-secret ‘Lektor Decoder’ and kill Bond. Kronsteen outlines to Blofeld his plan to trick Bond into stealing the machine for SPECTRE.

Blofeld: Kronsteen, you are sure this plan is foolproof?

Kronsteen: Yes it is, because I have anticipated every possible variation of counter-move.

Political analysis is full of chess metaphors, reflecting an old tradition of seeing games as models of physical and social reality. A game which has ten different possible moves at each turn and runs for two turns has 102 possible ways of being played; if it runs for fifty turns it has 1050 possible ways of being played, ‘a number which substantially exceeds the number of atoms in the whole of our planet earth’ (Holland); if it runs for eighty turns it has 1080 possible ways of being played, which is about the estimated number of atoms in the Universe. Chess is merely 32 pieces on an 8×8 grid with a few simple rules but the number of possible games is much greater than 1080.

Kronsteen’s confidence, often seen in politics, is therefore misplaced even in chess yet chess is simple compared to the systems that scientists or politicians have to try to understand, predict, and control. These themes of uncertainty, nonlinearity, complexity and prediction have been ubiquitous motifs of art, philosophy, and politics. We see them in Homer, where the gift of an apple causes the Trojan War; in Athenian tragedy, where a chance meeting at a crossroads settles the fate of Oedipus; in Othello’s dropped handkerchief; and in War and Peace with Nikolai Rostov, playing cards with Dolohov, praying that one little card will turn out differently, save him from ruin, and allow him to go happily home to Natasha.

‘I know that men are persuaded to go to war in one frame of mind and act when the time comes in another, and that their resolutions change with the changes of fortune…  The movement of events is often as wayward and incomprehensible as the course of human thought; and this is why we ascribe to chance whatever belies our calculation.’ Pericles to the Athenians.

2. Science and markets have reliable mechanisms for coping with complexity.

In two previous blogs (Complexity and Prediction, HERE), I explored some of the reasons why and how science and markets have developed institutional mechanisms for error-correction that allow the building of reliable knowledge and some control over this complexity. Market institutions allow decentralised experimentation amid astronomical complexity and evolutionary processes allow learning in a way similar to the learning of biological immune systems. Science has built an architecture that helps correct errors and normal human failings. For example, after Newton the system of open publishing and peer review developed. This encouraged scientists to make their knowledge public, confident that they would get credit. Experiments must be replicated and scientists are expected to provide their data honestly so that others can test their claims, however famous, prestigious, or powerful they are. The legendary physicist Richard Feynman described the process in physics as involving, at its best, ‘a kind of utter honesty … [Y]ou should report everything that you think might make [your experiment or idea] invalid… [Y]ou must also put down all the facts which disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it… The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it … with advertising.’

When the institutional architectures of science and markets are working normally, they display self-correction at the edges of the network – they do not require wise chiefs at the top to decide and fix everything. Catching errors, we inch forward ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as Newton put it.

3. Politics lacks reliable mechanisms for coping with complexity.

This progress in science and markets contrasts with ‘political experts’ and their predictions as explored in Tetlock’s cutting-edge research, sadly ignored in Westminster, and the failures of prediction in economics (see this previous blog). There is an obvious gulf between a) our ability to solve certain narrowly defined problems in science and the ability of markets to solve certain types of problem and b) our ability to make accurate political predictions and solve social problems. The extraordinary progress with the former has occurred largely without affecting the ancient problems of the latter.

The processes for selecting, educating, and training those at the apex of politics are between inadequate and disastrous, and political institutions suffer problems that are very well known but are very hard to fix – there are entangled vicious circles that cause repeated predictable failure.

A) The people at the apex of political power (elected and unelected) are far from the best people in the world in terms of goals, intelligence, ethics, or competence.

B) Their education and training is such that almost nobody has the skills needed to cope with the complexity they face or even to understand the tools (such as Palantir) that might help them. Political ‘experts’ are usually hopeless at predictions and routinely repeat the same sorts of errors without being forced to learn. While our ancestor chiefs understood bows, horses, and agriculture, our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors.

C) Government institutions (national and international) within which they operate, and which select people for senior positions, tend to have reliably poor performance compared with what we know humans are capable of doing. Westminster and Whitehall train people to fail, predictably and repeatedly. The EU and UN do not have the effectiveness or legitimacy we need for international cooperation.

In The Hollow Men I, I set out a long view of the failure of British elite decision-making since the 1860s. In 2014, it is particularly appropriate to consider the fact that during the entire period of 1906-1914, the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and the senior military leaders had one proper meeting (23 August 1911) to discuss the interaction of foreign and military policy, and in particular what Britain would do in various scenarios involving a German invasion of France via Belgium, and the unresolved issues from this meeting were left hanging until disaster struck in July 1914. This failure echoed the failure to consider these issues properly in 1870 and it echoed again in the late 1930s. Given how shattering for civilisation World War I was, how the most senior people took decisions in the preceding crises now seems almost beyond comprehension, particularly if one studies the details.

Their equivalents today are making similar mistakes. All parties and the media are locked into a game that to outsiders is obviously broken – a set of implicit rules about the conduct of politics, and definitions of effective action, that tie them to behaviour that seems awful to the public, which is objectively failing, but from which they cannot free themselves. Because the system is stuck in a vicious circle – held in place by feedback loops between people, ideas, and institutions – whatever the outcome of the next election, the big problems will remain, No10 will continue to hurtle from crisis to crisis with no priorities and no understanding of how to get things done, the civil service will fail repeatedly and waste billions, the media will continue obsessing on the new rather than the important, and the public will continue to fume with rage.

In this blog, I expand on these problems. It is long and few will be interested in the twists and turns but  those who want to understand the detail of why Westminster and Whitehall do not work will, I hope, find it useful even if they strongly disagree.

4. Traditional politics collides with markets and technology: ‘a combustible mixture of ignorance and power.’

We therefore face a profound mismatch between the scale of threats and the nature of our institutions.

a) The spread of markets and science increases the reach of technology and is driving a series of profound economic, cultural, political, and intellectual transitions, such as the spread of machine intelligence, massive increases in resource requirements, two billion Asians joining the global economy, another two billion born soon living mainly in new cities (but very mobile), the ‘internet of things’ with ubiquitous connected sensors, the mobile internet, drones, genetic engineering, and so on. These transitions already are and will continue to disrupt all institutions and traditional beliefs.

b) Traditional politics over six million years of hominid evolution involved an attempt to secure in-group cohesion, prosperity and strength in order to dominate or destroy nearby out-groups in competition for scarce resources.

c) Our civilisation now depends on science and technology underlying complex interdependent networks in the economy, food, medicine, transport, communications and so on. The structure (topology) of these networks makes them fragile and therefore vulnerable to nonlinear shocks.

d) Markets and technology enhance the power of individuals and small groups (as well as traditional militaries and intelligence agencies) to inflict such shocks in the physical, virtual, or psychological worlds. Technology can inflict huge physical destruction and help manipulate the feelings and ideas of many people (including, sometimes particularly, the best educated) through ‘information operations’. Further, technology makes it easier to do these things potentially without detection which could render conventional deterrence obsolete.

There is therefore a mismatch between a) the growing reach of technology and the fragility of our civilisation, and b) the quality of elite decision makers and their institutions’ capacity to cope with these technologies and fragilities. Carl Sagan called this mismatch ‘a combustible mixture of ignorance and power’. If this mismatch persists, if we continue to pursue ‘traditional politics’ in the context of contemporary civilisation, it will sooner or later blow up in our faces. We will not keep catching breaks such as Hitler scuppering the Nazi nuclear programme or wriggling through the Cuban Missile Crisis. A.Q. Khan has spread nuclear technology far and wide and many of those who worked on the Soviet biowar programme (which so shocked everyone when it became public) disappeared after 1991. (* See endnote)

My essay explores many of these dangers. This blog HERE summarises some of them. I will return to this.

5. We need new education, training, and institutions such as ‘artificial immune systems’.

We need A) to select, educate and train people differently. I have suggested in particular that we need what Murray Gell Mann, the discoverer of the quark, calls ‘an Odyssean education‘ that integrates knowledge from maths and science, the humanities and social sciences, and training in effective action. For a sketch of what this might involve, look at the reading list at the end of my essay.

We need B) new institutions, such as artificial immune systems, that enable decentralised coordination to tackle hard problems much more effectively than existing institutions are capable of doing. We need institutions that i) help markets and science continue to bring dramatic improvements and ii) help us take decisions better so that we can 1) foresee and avoid some disasters, 2) turn some disasters into mere problems, and 3) adapt effectively to the disasters and problems we cannot avoid. Alternatives to the EU and UN are vital if we are to develop the international cooperation on big problems that we need.

We also need institutional change to allow a re-organisation of expert attention on important problems. Academia and markets are not aiming the most able people at our biggest problems. For example, sucking a huge proportion of the cleverest and most expensively educated people in the world into high-frequency algorithmic trading (in which, for example, advanced physics is used to calculate relativistic effects that bring nanosecond trading advantages) is an obvious extreme mismatch between talent and priority. Michael Nielsen has written brilliantly about the potential for technological and incentive changes to transform this situation. When struggling with General Relativity, Einstein caught a big break – his friend Grossman introduced him to ideas in non-Euclidean geometry that were needed for Relativity. The restructuring of expert attention – ‘a scientific social web that directs scientists’ attention where it is most valuable’ (Nielsen) plus data-driven intelligence – will enable a transition from the haphazard serendipity of ‘Grossman moments’ to ‘designed serendipity’.

Underlying both A and B, I have suggested C) a new national goal and organising principle. After 1945, Dean Acheson famously quipped that Britain had lost its empire and failed to find a new role. I suggest that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science: Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’, we could be the school of the world. This would provide an organising principle for a new policy agenda and focus resources. It would give us a central role in building the new international institutions we need. It would require and enable fundamental changes to how the constitution, Parliament, and Whitehall work (for example, embedding evidence in the policy process). Because it is a noble goal that reflects the best in human nature, it is something that can help transcend differences and mobilise very large efforts (though it is no panacea and education increases some problems). We already have a head start. We lack focus, perhaps the hardest thing to hold in politics.

This could help us make progress with a necessary transition from (i) largely incompetent political decision-makers making the same sort of mistake repeatedly and wasting vast resources while trying to ‘manage’ things they cannot, and should not try to, ‘manage’, to (ii) largely competent political decision-makers who embed some simple lessons, grasp what it is reasonable to attempt to ‘manage’ and have the ability to do it reasonably well while devolving other things and adapting fast to inevitable errors.

There is a telling example of institutional change. From the middle of the 19th century, the Prussian army established the ‘General Staff’ and a new training system, complete with wargames and honest ‘Red Teams’ to analyse performance. Unfortunately for the world, this coincided in 1862 with Roon manoeuvring into power someone with skills in the political sphere equivalent to Newton or Einstein in the scientific sphere – the diabolical genius Otto von Bismarck. The world changed very rapidly. British and French institutions could not cope. Fortunately, both in 1914-18 and 1939-45 the operational superiority of this machine was undermined by Bismarck’s successors’  profound blunders.

This shows the dangers we face. (Do we want China’s version of the General Staff to dominate?) It also shows how we could improve the world if we build similarly effective training systems in the service of different goals and ethics.

I will also return to this: What Is to Be Done and How?

Can we change course? There is a widespread befuddled defeatism that nothing much in Westminster can really change and most people inside the Whitehall system think major change is impossible even if it were necessary. This is wrong. Change is possible. We do not have to live with the permanent omnishambles that we have become acclimatised to. Monnet created the EU by exploiting crises – sometimes nothing happens in decades, and sometimes decades happen in weeks. Big changes are possible if people are prepared.


Part II: Four stories

A preface to these remarks.

1. Obviously there are many great officials. I made many mistakes and was saved from the consequences of them usually by quiet calm capable women aged 23-35 paid a fraction of the senior management, and without whom the entire DfE, and probably most of Whitehall, would collapse. Also, the DfE has changed for the better in many ways since 2010 so don’t take the atmosphere of early 2011 as a reflection of the atmosphere now, particularly since all but one of the senior people are different.

My point is not ‘the DfE / Whitehall is filled with rubbish people’ – it is that Whitehall is a bureaucratic system that has gone wrong, so that duff people are promoted to the most senior roles and the thousands of able people who could do so much better cannot because of how they are managed and incentivised, hence lots of the best younger people leave and the duffers are promoted. I have been encouraged to explain the problems by many great officials particularly younger ones who are fed up of watching the farces that recur in such predictable, and avoidable, ways.

2. My role in DfE. Most of my job was converting long-term goals into reality via policy, operational planning, and project management. This requires focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly steps, and management to make sure people are doing what is needed to get there. (My most valuable experience was not in politics but in small businesses / startups in England and Russia that taught me about organisational dynamics and management amid ‘the fog of war’.) It is interesting that of the 12 tasks listed in the spad Code of Conduct, the things that took up by far the most of my time do not appear. The Code clearly regards spads as almost 100% party creatures but I spent almost no time on anything to do with party matters. Nick Hillman (former spad) describes three roles: ‘policy wonks; spinners; and bag carriers’. Although I spent a lot of time on policy, none of these categories covers the project management that took up most of my time. (This is not criticism of NH but just to point out that there is obviously no agreement or clarity about spad roles.) I usually got involved in communications stuff only if it involved something big and bad. Overall communications took up less than 1% of my time because I regarded it, for reasons explained elsewhere, as almost entirely a waste of time given the management of No10.

My main purpose here is as explained above. It is not to defend what we did in the DfE which I will discuss separately. It does, however, provide context for debate about ‘the Gove reforms’, including our methods, and it shows the scale of problems that Gove personally had to cope with. I would prefer not to have to be critical of individuals such as Cameron and Llewellyn (and I have named very few individuals) but it is necessary for these things to be discussed openly if things are to improve.

Four stories

Story 1. Day 1. Bedlam, a sign of things to come…

My first day in the DfE was in January 2011. Between 8ish and 11ish, roughly every half hour officials knocked on the spad office door and explained a new cockup – we had accidentally closed an institution because we’d forgotten to renew a contract, the latest capital figures briefed to the media were out by miles, a procurement process had blown up, letters had gone out with all the wrong numbers in them (this happened maybe monthly over the three years I was there), and so on – meanwhile people were trying to organise the launch of the National Curriculum Review in documents full of typos and umpteen other things were going wrong simultaneously. It seemed extraordinary at the time but soon it was normal.

At about 11, I walked into Michael’s office to go through some of these horrors with him. While he was talking, I noticed on the TV behind him (muted) words scrolling across the bottom of the BBC News 24 screen – something like ‘New disaster as Gove announces XXX…’ (I can’t remember the XXX.)

Me [pointing]: Michael, we just agreed we weren’t going to announce anything else, we’re going dark until we get a grip of this madhouse, what the…

MG [turning to stare at the screen]: I haven’t authorised any new announcement and certainly not that. I haven’t a clue what they’re on about.

Me: Arghhh.

For the first few months, all sorts of things spewed from the Department causing chaos. The organisation was in meltdown. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. It was often impossible to distinguish between institutionalised incompetence and hostile action. Things were reported as ‘Gove announces…’ that he did not even know about, never mind agree with. Then pundits and bloggers would spin to themselves elaborate tales of how the latest leak was ‘really’ deliberate spin, preparing the ground for some diabolical scheme. (I would guess that <5% of the things people thought we leaked actually came from us – maybe <1%.)

From that day for over a year, about every 2 hours, officials would knock at our door bearing news of the latest cockup, disaster, leak, and shambles, all compounded with intermittent ‘ideas for announcements’ from Downing Street. The last one would be at about 9ish on Friday evening – thump, thump, thump down the corridor, the door opens, ‘Dominic, bad news I’m afraid…’ One measure of ‘success’ was that the frequency of episodes fell from hourly towards a few per day, then daily, then, by the last quarter of 2012, a few days with nothing important obviously blowing up.

For all of these problems, Gove was held ‘responsible’. With all of them, regardless of how incompetently they had been handled – nobody was ever fired.

Story 2. Maxwell’s Demon, correspondence, and the DfE’s lifts.

For the first year of Gove’s time in the DfE (May 2010 – spring 2011), ministers were up until the early hours proofreading officials’ drafts of letters and rejecting about nine out of ten because of errors with basic facts, spelling, or grammar. When I got embroiled in rows about this in Q1 2011, some MPs had been sent no reply for six months. Despite several complaints to senior officials, nothing happened, shoulders were shrugged – ‘cuts, we need more resource, lack of core skills, all very difficult’ and so on.

This problem was only (partly) solved when we insisted that the five most senior officials in the DfE including the Permanent Secretary had to start proofreading all ministerial letters themselves. ‘What? I can’t waste my time doing this.’ ‘Well right now all the ministers are so you’ll have to until you sort it out.’ This persuaded the Permanent Secretary to take more serious action though it remained the case that a) the correspondence team could not reliably answer letters with the right information, correctly spelled, without errors, and b) the Permanent Secretary admitted that this was due to ‘basic skills deficiencies’ in the Department. (It’s better now but it still isn’t right.)

Similarly the DfE’s lifts were knackered from the start and still are. There were dozens of attempts to have them fixed. All failed. At one point the Permanent Secretary himself took on the task of fixing the lifts, so infuriated had he become. He retired licking his wounds. ‘It’s impossible, impossible!’ It turned out that fixing an appointment is much easier than fixing a lift.

Given this failure over four years (and counting), people should reflect on the wisdom of constantly demanding ‘the DfE must do X to solve Y’. One of the most interesting psychological aspects of Whitehall is that their inability to fix their own lifts in no way dents their confidence in advocating that they manage some incredibly complicated process. If one says, ‘given we’ve failed to fix the bloody lift in four years, maybe we should leave X alone’, they tend to look either mystified or as if you have made a particularly bad taste joke.

There is a famous problem in physics first formulated in the 19th century known as Maxwell’s Demon. Maxwell, one of the handful of the most important scientists in history, asked whether the application of intelligence (an intelligent ‘demon’) could allow an escape from the inexorable increase in entropy mandated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It was an extremely subtle problem and took about a century to vanquish (the answer is No, intelligence cannot provide an escape) and the solution revealed all sorts of connections between the concepts of energy, entropy and information/intelligence. There is an analogous problem in politics: how best to apply intelligence to reduce local entropy? The insuperable problem of the lifts shows how hard this can be and gives a clue to what is really happening in Whitehall: most of everybody’s day is spent just battling entropy – it is not pursuing priorities and building valuable things.

For at least the period January 2011 – July 2012, it took a huge effort to think seriously about priorities other than after 10pm or at weekends and many of the meetings I set up to advance them got cancelled to deal with something ludicrous. Priorities slip unless you remain dementedly focused and demented focus is an alien concept in Westminster. Because ministers can never explain the truth about ‘crises’, and the official story is that any glitches are occasional aberrations for ‘a Rolls Royce machine’, there is a tendency for the baffled public to infer ministerial conspiracies, rather than chronic dysfunction, everywhere.

Story 3. Gogol’s Dead Souls in the DfE – or ‘priority movers’ and Whitehall HR…

In my first fortnight in January 2011, there was a terrible blunder with capital. We were told one Sunday that a senior official had made mistakes that had cost the taxpayer many millions of pounds. I said, naively, to one of the four most senior officials ‘so who will be replacing X [the official who had blundered]?’ Shock.

‘Dominic, you’re a spad, you’re not allowed even to discuss personnel matters.’

Me: ‘Michael will certainly want to know what is happening with this official and so do I.’

Official: ‘Errr, I’ll get back to you.’

Sure enough, they fixed the meeting to discuss it with MG without informing my office so I didn’t twig that it had happened for a while, by which time the Permanent Secretary had made his decision. When I first arrived, I thought they would not do something like this given it would obviously diminish my trust in them. I soon realised they did not care about this much – certainly not as much as they cared about keeping spads out of personnel issues. I soon learned the ‘set the meeting but ensure spads aren’t invited’ trick was a standard one. I developed countermeasures.

The official was, of course, not fired. He had an extended paid holiday then was promoted into a non-job for another few months before being pensioned off with a gong in the next honours list. Over the next few years, the capital team would bounce from debacle to debacle. We forced out various people, closed a quango, forced out more people. There were some improvements but blunders costing millions remained endemic because of a collapse of core skills and the HR system made it impossible to recruit the right people, as I explain below. (But SA-H: you are great, thank God you came, and you’ve saved millions, more power to you!)

A later example… I won’t go into details (unless they leak in which case I’ll clarify) but in a nutshell, something very important that the DfE had contracted was completely botched. Like opening Russian matrioshki, each meeting revealed a new absurdity and after seeing dozens of such episodes I now knew what would happen. First, I knew that the official who had signed the contract would have signed a stupid contract. Second, I knew that the contract had been signed three years earlier so the official would have long gone and the new people would shrug and say ‘not me’. (When I insisted that a particular inquiry into a cockup be pursued to a senior official in another department who’d left DfE, so mad was I at this trick, there was a panicked reaction: ‘we can’t go around demanding answers from officials who’ve moved, Dominic, where would it all end?!’)

Third, I knew that their bosses would all have changed too, so they could also say ‘very regrettable, but of course I wasn’t here then’. Fourth, I knew that EU procurement rules would be partly responsible for complicating everything unnecessarily. Fifth, I knew that some officials would instinctively cover it up while a tiny number would push for a serious ‘lessons learned’ exercise and get nowhere. Sixth, I had to make a decision about how hard to push for an internal investigation or use it as leverage to force officials to do something else I wanted done (‘SoS might be persuaded not to pursue this too hard, but we are very keen that X happens’, where X is something important and much resisted). Seventh, I knew that the first version of the scale of the problem would not be right and all the numbers would be wrong.

This time there was an added twist – the DfE had used (at the direction of the Cabinet Office, officials said) an EU Framework that actually forbade the DfE from clawing back the money from the company that had screwed up. This I had not predicted, it was a new twist though not a surprising one. ‘How many other contracts have been signed under this EU Framework which stop us from clawing back money?’ ‘Err, we’ll get back to you…’

Some people who make blunders like those described above are then deemed by the HR system to be ‘priority movers’. This means that a) they are regarded as among the worst performers but also means b) they have to be interviewed for new jobs ahead of people who are better qualified. It is a very bizarre system, made more bizarre by the fact that there are great efforts to keep it hidden from ministers and the outside world. These people float around in the HR system, both dead and alive, removed from ‘full time employee’ lists but still employed, like Gogol’s Dead Souls. ‘We need someone to do SEN funding.’ ‘Ahh, what about Y, they could do it.’ ‘But Y has been a rubbish press officer all his life, he’d be a disaster!’ ‘Yes, but it would be one less priority mover on my books.’ (‘Look, too, at Probka Stepan, the carpenter. I will wager my head that nowhere else would you find such a workman. What a strong fellow he was!’ ‘Why do you list the talents of the deceased, seeing that they are all of them dead? What is a dead soul worth, and is it of any use to any one?’ ‘It is of use to YOU, or you would not be buying such articles.’) This connection between core skills and the nightmare world of ‘HR’ is vital but practically ignored in all analyses of the civil service (see below).

Story 4. New blood learns the ropes. 

To every new person who would arrive (minister, spad, official, outsider coming in for a project, NED), I would give them roughly this advice:

‘There’ll be the odd exception but it’s safest to assume this… Every process will be mismanaged unless it involves one of these officials [XYZ]. No priority you have will happen unless spads and private office make it a priority. Trust private office – they’re the only reliable thing between you and disaster. Every set of figures will be wrong. Every financial model will be wrong. Every bit of legal advice will be wrong. Every procurement will blow up. Every contract process will have been mismanaged. Every announcement will go wrong unless Zoete [my fellow spad], Frayne [director of communications], or [names withheld to protect the innocent] is in charge – let them sort it out and never waste your time having meetings about communications. Never trust Clegg and Laws who only care about party politics, though you can trust Leunig who is honest. Never make an announcement on a Monday [see below]. Never announce budgets without Sam [Freedman] checking. Every process described as ‘cross-Whitehall’ will be a fiasco – especially if it is being coordinated by Number Ten. Don’t tell Number Ten anything about anything – leave that to us. Don’t give Ofsted anything else to do as it can’t do its core functions now. In short, assume that everything that can go wrong will go wrong and when you catch yourself thinking ‘someone MUST have done X or it would be crazy’, stop, because X will not be happening. Your only hope is to focus on a few priorities relentlessly and chase every day and every week. When you cock something up, tell us straight away, and when you think we or Michael are cocking something up, tell us straight away.’

People had the same reaction. A sort of nervous laughter and a ‘mmm yes sounds ghastly, well we’ll see.’

Within two weeks they would rush through the spads door gabbling something like: ‘OhmyGOD you won’t believe this meeting I’ve just been to in the Cabinet Office, this place is crazy, I can’t believe it, it’s Alice in Wonderland.’

Me: You’re through the looking glass.

Them: The oddest thing is nobody seems to realise how weird it is, I kept looking around the table waiting for someone else to explode but everyone just nodded as if it’s normal.

Me: It is normal. Zoete, add it to the list. [Zoete reaches over and scribbles on a bit of paper, while talking on the phone with exaggerated calmness, ‘No no that’s not what it means, you can’t write that… No no our announcement is the opposite, the leak was a spoiler by Clegg, yeah yeah I KNOW IT’S CONFUSING… No I don’t know why they used those figures, they might be lying they probably just screwed up. No, listen, forget it it’s a rubbish story and anyway Paton had it 6 months ago. Now listen to this, much more important and you can have it exclusive…’]

[Bang bang on the glass door, an official enters looking nervous…] Err, I need to speak to Zoete, I’m afraid we sent out hundreds of funding letters and all the numbers are wrong, the press office is already taking calls, thing is, the letters went out without private office seeing them so SoS doesn’t know anything about them.

Me: Give him two minutes, he’s just dealing with the Clegg thing this morning…

[Bang bang bang on the glass door, a PS enters looking mad.] DPM’s office on the phone. They say that because we didn’t consult with him on the latest Ofqual thing Clegg’s had a strop and HA [Clegg’s Home Affairs Committee] won’t clear your GCSE announcement.

Me: Doesn’t matter, we’re not sending it to HA or telling No10, we’re just announcing it and it’s already briefed for tomorrow. Just reply saying ‘OK, we’ll get back to you, SoS is pondering’.

Official: God, not again. [Leaves.]

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters looking nervous, glances at the second official…] Err, Dom, you know that contract we were talking about yesterday?

Me: Don’t tell me the tests have gone haywire.

Official: Yes they have but that’s not what I mean – I mean that Academy procurement process.

Me: Yes.

Official: Well, the legal advice says – if we go ahead, we’ll get JRd [judicially reviewed] and lose but if we stop and reboot we’ll also get JRd and lose.

Me: So we’re screwed whatever we do.

Official: Seems like it.

Me: Tell the Perm Sec’s office I’ll need ten minutes with him.

Official [lowering voice]: I think he wants to talk to you anyway about [XXX] getting moved.

Me: Make it 15.

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters…] No10’s been on the phone, XXX [a private secretary] says the PM is ‘bored of fighting with Clegg on childcare’ so he’s told us to give in.

Me: That was always doomed, better tell Truss, she’s about to give a speech promising it will happen.

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters…] Err, the DPM’s office just called sounding contrite, he’s just had a meeting with black community leaders, sounds like he’s blurted out that Mary Seacole will be kept in the National Curriculum, so officials are saying ‘really sorry, we know we promised no curriculum gimmicks but DPM’s spads think this will now have to happen.’ Also, the press have got wind of it so…’

Me: They probably don’t realise she isn’t in the Curriculum now, she’s in the Notes. Clegg, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do about Clegg –

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters…] Zoete’s meeting on the National Pupil Database is going in. Zoete’s trying to force [XXX] to publish more data but if he isn’t there bugger all will happen.

Me: I’ll do it, poor Zoete’s swamped. [NB. Zoete was ‘media spad’ but unlike most media spads he spent a huge amount of his time on policy and management issues.]

[Bang bang on the glass door, another official enters looking nervous…] Err, I need to speak to Zoete, the latest iteration of the School Food Plan involves SoS, the PM, and Henry Dimbleby zipwiring into a bouncy castle, and No10 is asking if we should get Boris along, but we thought we’d better check with you guys, it sounds TOTALLY CRAZY but officials say the PM is desperate to be involved in a food stunt.

Me: Great, that’s the perfect way to launch this fuc –

[Zoete covering the phone with his hand.] ARGHHHH, WHAT ZIPWIRES?! – hang on, Shippers, hang on, I’ll call you back… ZIPWIRES, what the…

I leave with the new person, ‘you’ll get used to it, gotta have priorities, keep your focus, or you’ll just blunder around in this chaos all day…’

(NB. I’ve left out the best stories.)

Why is this not an unusual 20 minutes?


Part III: Analysis

The failures of Westminster & Whitehall: wrong people, bad education and training, dysfunctional institutions with no architecture for fixing errors

‘The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.’ Adam Smith.

The selection, education, and training, of those making crucial decisions about our civilisation are between inadequate and disastrous. The institutions they work in are generally dysfunctional.

First, our mentality. We often are governed by ‘fear, honour and interest’ (Thucydides). We attribute success to skill and failure to luck: ‘The movement of events is often as wayward and incomprehensible as the course of human thought; and this is why we ascribe to chance whatever belies our calculation,’ said Pericles to the Athenians. We prefer to enhance prestige rather than face reality and admit ignorance or error. ‘So little trouble do men take in the search after truth, so readily do they accept whatever comes first to hand’ (Thucydides); ‘men may construe things after their fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves’ (Cicero, Julius Caesar). As Feynman said, if you want to understand reality, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’

Robert Trivers, one of the most influential evolutionary thinkers of the last fifty years, has described how evolutionary dynamics can favour not just deception but self-deception: conflict for resources is ubiquitous; deception helps win; a classic evolutionary ‘arms race’ encourages both deception detection and ever-better deception; perhaps humans evolved to deceive themselves because this fools others’ detection systems (for example, self-deception suppresses normal clues we display when lying). This is, perhaps, one reason why most people consistently rate themselves as above average.

Children display deception when just months old (e.g. fake crying). There is ‘clear evidence that natural variation in intelligence is positively correlated with deception… We seek out information and then act to destroy it… Together our sensory systems are organized to give us a detailed and accurate view of reality, exactly as we would expect if truth about the outside world helps us to navigate it more effectively. But once this information arrives in our brains, it is often distorted and biased to our conscious minds. We deny the truth to ourselves … We repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalize immoral behavior, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion, and show a suite of ego-defense mechanisms’ (Trivers). Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in ‘Slow Pearl Harbors’ regarding ignoring threats, ‘Not to be deceived was uncomfortable. Self-deception, if not actually pleasurable, at least can avoid such discomforts.’

Tales of such self-deception are legendary. ‘I don’t know how Nixon won, no one I know voted for him’ (Pauline Kael, famous movie critic, responding to news of Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory). ‘The basic mechanism explaining the success of Ponzi schemes is the tendency of humans to model their actions, especially when dealing with matters they don’t fully understand, on the behavior of other humans,’ said Psychiatry Professor Stephen Greenspan in The Annals of Gullibility (2008), which he wrote just before he lost more than half his retirement investments in Madoff’s ponzi. ‘But for self-deception, you can hardly beat academics. In one survey, 94 percent placed themselves in the top half of their profession’ (Trivers). ‘Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists’ (Bouchard, Science 3/7/09). Even physical scientists who know that teleological explanations are false can revert to them under time pressure, suggesting that such ideas are hardwired and are masked, not replaced, by specific training.

Also, it is depressingly possible that those who climb to the top of the hierarchy are more likely to focus only on their own interests. Studies such as ‘Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior’ claim that the rich are much more likely ‘to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people’ (Piff) and even just thinking about money makes people more self-centred. Not only are richer people healthier (less likely to have heart attacks or suffer mood disorders), but they also produce less cortisol (suggesting lower stress levels; cf. studies suggest those at the top of hierarchies suffer less stress because they feel a greater sense of control), they are less attentive to pedestrians when driving, and less compassionate when watching videos of children suffering with cancer.  This article touches on these studies though it should be remembered that many studies of such things are not replicated. Further, one of the most important studies on IQ, personality and scientific and financial success also shows a negative correlation between earnings and agreeableness. (Cf. piece by Mary Wakefield HERE.)

Most of our politics is still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe: ‘which chief shall we shout for to solve our problems?’ Our ‘chimp politics’ has an evolutionary logic: our powerful evolved instinct to conform to a group view is a flip-side of our evolved in-group solidarity and hostility to out-groups (and keeping in with the chief could lead to many payoffs, while making enemies could lead to death, so going along with leaders’ plans was incentivised). This partly explains the persistent popularity of collectivist policies and why ‘groupthink’ is a recurring disaster. Such instincts, which evolved in relatively simple prehistoric environments involving relatively small numbers of known people and relatively simple problems (like a few dozen enemies a few miles away), cause disaster when the problem is something like ‘how to approach an astronomically complex system such as health provision for millions.’

Second, our education and training. The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre. In England, few are well-trained in the basics of extended writing or mathematical and scientific modelling and problem-solving. Less than 10 percent per year leave school with formal training in basics such as exponential functions, ‘normal distributions’ (‘the bell curve’), and conditional probability. Only about 2-3 percent are taught about matrices and ‘complex numbers’ (which many children can grasp between the age of 10-14 but they are not given the chance unless they do Further Maths A Level). Less than one percent learn hard skills necessary to grasp how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation. Only a small subset of that fraction of one percent then study trans-disciplinary issues concerning vital complex systems the failure of which cause chaos.

This small subset has approximately zero overlap with powerful decision-makers. Generally, these people are badly or narrowly educated and trained. Courses offered by elite universities are thought to prepare future leaders well but are clearly inadequate and in some ways are damaging (see below). Those who scramble to the apex of power are sometimes relatively high scorers in tests of verbal ability (like Cameron) but are rarely high scorers in tests of mathematical ability or have good problem-solving skills in cognitively hard areas such as physics or computer science.

MPs and officials have to make constant forecasts but have little idea about how to make them, how the statistics and computer models underlying these forecasts work, or how to judge the reliability of their own views. A recent survey of 100 MPs by the Royal Statistical Society found that only 40% of MPs correctly answered a simple probability question (much simpler than the type of problem they routinely opine on): ‘what is the probability of getting two heads from flipping a fair coin twice?’ Despite their failures on a beginner question, about three-quarters nevertheless said they are confident in their ability to deal with numbers. Issues such as ‘how financial models contributed to the 2008 crisis’ or ‘intelligence and genetics’ cannot be understood in even a basic way without some statistical knowledge, such as normal distribution and standard deviation, yet most MPs do not understand much simpler concepts than these. They also have little knowledge of evolutionary systems (biological or cultural), and little understanding of technology. (How many of those at a senior level dealing with Ebola discussions or financial market disasters recently have any idea about the topology of ‘scale free networks’, cf. HERE? The basic concepts, as opposed to detailed modelling, are not hard to grasp but they do not appear in the typical education of ministers or senior officials.)

A mismatch on a scale of 104 between the experience of MPs and the responsibilities of ministers. Further, ministers have little experience in well-managed complex organisations and their education and training does not fill this huge gap. Even most of the ones who have good motives – and there are many, though they struggle to advance – have a fundamental problem of scale. The apex of the political system is full of people who have never managed employees on the scale of 102 people or budgets on the scale of 106 pounds, yet their job is to reshape bureaucracies on scales of 104 (DfE) – 106 (NHS) employees and 1010-1011 pounds. The scale of their experience of management is therefore often at least 104 off from  what they are trying to control. Some unusual people can make jumps like this. Most cannot. For example, Cameron never worked in a highly functioning entity before suddenly acquiring large responsibilities  – he went straight from PPE to Conservative Central Office – and never had responsibility for anything on a significant scale so he could not acquire the experience that he so needs now (and, perhaps more importantly, he has never understood how unprepared he and his gang were). The only minister in the DfE team 2010-14 who had significant experience of dealing with budgets on a scale of £108-109 was Nash – unsurprisingly, he was the most effective minister at dealing with DfE budgets / capital / property deals and so on. John Holland, the inventor of ‘genetic algorithms’, points out that ‘changes of three orders of magnitude or more usually require a new science’. It should be no surprise that politics is a story of repeated administrative failure.

Many of these problems can be seen particularly starkly in those who did courses like Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE). PPE is treated as a cross-disciplinary course suitable to educate future leaders. It is failing. Part of the reason for this is that the conventional economics that is taught often gives students a greatly misplaced confidence in their understanding of the world. They are taught to treat some economic theories as if they are similar to physical theories, and there is often spurious precision involving mathematical models but no explanation of the conceptual problems with these models, or the critique of them by physical scientists. I have watched many PPE graduates give presentations of forecasts, complete with decimal points, of economic numbers years into the future, then dismiss arrogantly those who point out the repeated failure of such predictions. PPE also teaches nothing about project management in complex organisations so they have little feel for how decisions will ripple through systems (including bureaucracies) into the real world.

At its worst, therefore, students leave university for politics and the civil service with degrees that reward verbal fluency, some fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science, and confidence in a sort of arrogant bluffing combined with ignorance about how to get anything done. They think they are prepared to ‘run the country’ but many cannot run their own diaries. In the absence of relevant experience, people naturally resort to destructive micromanagement rather than trusting to Auftragstaktik (give people a goal and let them work out the means rather than issue detailed instructions) which requires good training of junior people. This combination of arrogant incompetence is very widespread in Westminster and responsible for many problems. When such people surround themselves largely or solely with advisers who are very similar to themselves, we know from large amounts of research that the odds are high that groupthink will make these errors and problems even worse.

NB. These gaps in education and training are not a ‘natural’ product of the concepts’ difficulty but because of deep flaws in a) school and university education and b) training programmes.


Third, our institutions and tools. Unlike science and markets, politics has no comparable institutional architecture that provides reliable processes for limiting the predictable trouble caused by our mentality combined with a lack of education and training.

Large bureaucracies, including political parties, operate with very predictable dynamics. They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’, and a lack of competition (in normal environments). These problems produce two symptoms: a) errors are not admitted and b) the fast adaptation needed to cope with complexity does not happen. More fundamentally, unlike in successful entities, there is no focus of talented and motivated people on important problems. People externally ask questions like ‘how could X go wrong?’, assuming that millions are spent on X so everyone must be thinking about X, but the inquiries usually reveal that nobody senior was thinking about X – they spent their time on endless trivia, or actually stopping people working on X.

These dynamics are well-understood but are very hard to change. Bureaucratic institutions tend to change significantly only in the event of catastrophic failure (e.g. 1914, 1929, 1945, 1989) – catastrophes that they themselves often contribute to. However, these dynamics are so deep that even predictable failures that lead to significant loss of life can often leave bureaucracies largely untouched other than a soon-forgotten media frenzy.

Goals. First, in political institutions, it is usually much harder than in science or business to formulate and agree clear goals like ‘make a profit’ or ‘search for a new particle within these parameters’. Often, the official public definition of the goal is not even properly defined or is so vague as to be useless. This problem is entangled with the problem of incentives (below) – often defining goals wisely is disincentivised. Often in politics, officially stated goals are, taken literally, nonsensical and could not possibly be serious but are worded to sound vaguely friendly (e.g. ‘this must never happen again’, which I must have deleted dozens of times from draft documents).


Personality and ‘human resources’.

Second, political institutions tend to become dominated by narcissists and bureaucrats.

What sort of people are selected by parties to be MPs and (in the UK) form the pool from which ministers are chosen? MPs are seldom selected for their ability to devise policy, prioritise, manage complex organisations, or admit and fix errors. Elected representatives are often chosen from a subset of people who have very high opinions of themselves and who really enjoy social networking. While some who seek election are motivated at least partly by genuine notions of public service, many representative bodies are full of people motivated mainly by ambition, vanity, and a strong desire that others watch them talking. The social aspect of being an elected representative inevitably repels some personality types and attracts others – some are energised by parties and public speaking, others are drained by it. Often watching MPs one sees a group of people looking at their phones listening only for a chance to interrupt, dreaming of the stage and applause. They are often persuasive in meetings (with combinations of verbal ability, psychological cunning, and ‘chimp politics’) and can form gangs. Parliaments seem to select for such people despite the obvious dangers. This basic aspect inevitably repels a large fraction of entrepreneurs and scientists who are externally oriented – that is, focused on building things, not social networking and approval.

Many political parties and governments reinforce the problem of publicity-seeking MPs by promoting people up the greasy pole on the basis of their success in self-publicity and on the basis of having helped their ‘in-group’ (i.e. their own party) and harmed their ‘out-group’ (other parties). If you watch junior ministers as they approach reshuffles, you will see what I mean. They select for those who pursue prestige and suppress honesty (a refusal to admit errors can be a perverse ‘asset’ in politics) and against those with high IQs, a rational approach to problem-solving, honesty and selflessness; they are not trying to recruit those most able to solve problems in the public interest. Politics therefore suffers from a surfeit of narcissists.

Further, consider the plight of an MP, probably without sufficient training or experience, suddenly made Secretary of State of a department spending  £1010-1011. This poor minister does not have any of the most basic tools of a CEO regarding their organisation: they cannot hire, fire, promote, or train their team. (A typical SoS is allowed to hire and fire 2-3 ‘special advisers’, so perhaps one in 103-105 of the employees they are ‘accountable’ for, and formally, as a peeved David Cameron likes to remind people occasionally, these spads are formally hired by him not by the SoS.) Not only are ministers 1) often the wrong people with the wrong education, and 2) they are operating in institutions more on a scale of Bill Gates’ experience than their own, 3) they are trying to do this without any of the basic tools Bill Gates uses. Further, the supposed experts whose job it is to manage on their behalf are often similarly inexperienced and no better at managing the organisation (see below).

The biggest contrast in personality type and outlook of relevance to politics is not between ‘business’ and ‘politics / civil service’. The real contrast is between ‘bureaucrats‘ (private and public sector) and venture capitalists, start-up entrepreneurs, and small businesspeople (‘startups‘ for short). Many of those who dominate FTSE-100 companies and organisations like the CBI are much more similar to the worst sort of bureaucrats than they are to startups. This blog by physicist Steve Hsu, Creators and Rulers, discusses the differences between genuinely intelligent and talented ‘creators’ (e.g. scholars, tech start-ups) and the ‘ruler’ type that dominates politics and business organisations (e.g. CEOs with a history in law). The ‘Ruler’ described there represents with few exceptions the best end of those in politics, many of whom are far below the performance level of a successful ‘political’ CEO.

It is the startups who, generally, make breakthroughs and solve hard problems – not bureaucrats – but it is the bureaucrats who dominate the upper echelons of large public companies, politics, and public service HR systems. Civil service bureaucracies at senior levels generally select for the worst aspects of chimp politics and against those skills seen in rare successful organisations (e.g the ability to simplify, focus, and admit errors). They recruit ‘people who won’t rock the boat’ but of course the world advances exactly because of the efforts of people who do ‘rock the boat’. They recruit a lot of lawyers, who are trained to focus on process rather than outcome, reinforcing one of the worst aspects of bureaucracies. Further, consider how easy it is for a) a lawyer and b) a cutting-edge scientist to become an MP or senior official without sacrificing their career. We do not make the system welcoming for our best problem-solvers.

Further, when someone with a startup mentality strays into the bureaucratic world, the bureaucracy reacts like an immune system to expel the intruder. This is one of the reasons why young talented people who want to get things done more than they want to get ahead – they want ‘to do’ rather than ‘to be’ – soon leave the civil service. This in turn explains why bureaucracies are the way they are – they filter out people with a startup approach so the dominant culture at senior levels is so distasteful for someone with a startup mentality that they leave and the institution becomes even harder to change. If your entire institutional structure selects against the skills of entrepreneurs or scientists, do not be surprised when the people in charge cannot solve problems like entrepreneurs or scientists.

The true Jedi skills of officials are revealed in battles over appointments. This is the lifeblood of Whitehall. This is where favours are traded and a lot of personal money rides on decisions; ‘a post now for Charlie, and I get one back in a few years’. Spads are theoretically 100% (and practically near 100%) excluded from appointments. When you want to appoint someone, they insist on an ‘open competition’. When they want to appoint someone – say a senior official has someone who needs to be moved and they don’t want any arguments – then miraculously an ‘open competition’ is no longer needed. When there is a ‘competition’, the Cabinet Office always has its candidate and sometimes more than one. It will usually spy who your candidate is if you have one (and if you haven’t you should not let the process start).

They usually only gave Gove a choice of two so ideally (for them) they weed out your candidate at an early stage so you are left choosing between their two candidates. But even if your candidate survives to the last two, that is no guarantee of victory. In extremis, they will find a way to exclude your candidate by post facto altering the criteria, or they will ‘discover’ some bit of evidence ‘that cannot be shared for legal reasons’, or any one of a number of tricks in the hidden wiring. (They control the process for the process – and, if necessary, the inquiry into the process for the process – so they can always change whatever they want, while maintaining the facade of ‘open and fair’, of course, without anybody realising.) Sometimes you can trade. ‘You know the department badly let us down on X. You owe us. I want Y to get this job and I don’t want to hear anything about “impartial processes” that will spit out the Cabinet Office candidate who we both know is clueless. You give me this, I’ll drop Z. Deal?’ (I.e. an implicit threat to secure a trade.) Unsurprisingly, the best method is a mild form of blackmail – get an official who knows you could get them chopped to act as your agent inside the system. The Cabinet Office is watching for overt enemies – like anybody, it is more vulnerable to ‘traitors’. (NB. I’m not claiming to have done this.)

The same attitude extends to the basic issue of officials being fired for incompetence. In my entire time in the DfE, I never encountered a single person fired for incompetence. What tends to happen when an official has badly dropped the ball? In general, when officials know they have cocked up, a simple default mechanism is to insist that a) ‘it is very sensitive involving legal / personnel issues we’re not allowed to discuss with spads’, so b) ‘we must discuss this with just SoS’. Since they also write the minutes of the meeting, they can then claim later that ‘SoS agreed it would be unfair to take action against X’. Often spads are not even told about such meetings or ‘decisions’ for ages and by the time they find out, it’s too late.

They tried this repeatedly with me in the early days, particularly as they realised that I would pursue such issues while it is almost impossible for a SoS to pursue such matters without help from spads (officials simply string it out, using ‘legal issues’ if necessary, and the SoS will have so many other problems running concurrently he has to let it, or other things, go). Making clear that such tactics may be repaid with determination to have them moved and/or give them a career blot is vital to limit such tricks (you also need an effective private office). As the DfE gradually changed in 2011/12, some officials realised it would be easier for them to take me into their confidence on personnel issues but it was persistently very hard to deal with this. Moving and swapping (never firing) officials via trades with their bosses is vital if you want to change anything, but ministerial teams that intrude on personnel and management issues encounter very strong resistance and not-so-coded messages to ‘leave us alone or else, this isn’t your business’.

There is a very basic problem with the selection of senior officials: confusion between policy, management, and ‘fixing’. In markets and science, the world is specialising. Of course you get rare people who are great at more than one thing. However, it is obvious that the skills required for doing great policy – e.g. Michael Quinlan’s famous work on nuclear policy – are not the same as the skills of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in managing. It is also obvious that one can be great at one and awful at the other other. A third skill prized in Whitehall is ‘fixer‘: this is neither policy nor management, strictly speaking. Permanent Secretaries are generally recruited supposedly to be the lead policy adviser to the Secretary of State but the people who appoint Permanent Secretaries also know that being a ‘fixer’ is vital and it is the ‘fixer’ role that is highly prized as a fixer is almost always ‘one of us’ – you rarely get maverick fixers. Management is not seen as nearly so important. E.g. Chris Wormald in the DfE knows that his chances of promotion do not rest on him turning the nightmare of DfE capital into an exemplar of good government. Unsurprisingly, many Permanent Secretaries are more interested in policy, politics, and fixing – and neglect management. They in turn hire people in their image. The outcome? Ministers are not allowed to manage departments and Permanent Secretaries are not interested in managing and/or can’t do it. One of the many ways in which Whitehall refuses to face reality is that it largely ignores this dilemma. (Please do not take this as criticism of Chris Wormald, I am making a general point.)

Flexi-time and holiday chaos. Why did I say (above) ‘Never make an announcement on a Monday’? We pretty much banned Monday announcements unless they were routine because we discovered that it was impossible to assemble the responsible team on a Friday to discuss Monday. Some of the people would be on what were called ‘compressed hours’ (work an extra hour for a few days and you earn a day off), others would be on ‘flexitime’ (‘working from home’). Even worse, the lead official who you have been working with on a project – say, GCSE changes – will often vanish. For example, you email them on Thursday night saying ‘can we meet tomorrow to discuss X for the announcement on Monday’ and you CC in their team. Immediately, you get a bunch of pingbacks, many related to compressed hours or flexitime, one of which will be from the lead official and say, ‘I am now on annual leave until X’. WHAT? you shout at the computer, IMPOSSIBLE, I talked to you only two hours ago!? But no – it is all too possible. While you are making the announcement about X for which they have been the lead official for months and about which you already have a queasy feeling, they are on the beach and they have gone on holiday without telling you – they’ve set their auto-responder and fled. Further, nobody you complain to will think there is anything wrong with this. Why? Because failure is normal, not something to strive to avoid.

This relates to another HR nightmare. People are constantly moving jobs. Often you have a team in which there is one person clearly better than all the others. Before you know it, the one person who understands a subset of funding decisions has been moved to be in charge of SEN and you know you are going to have even more funding nightmares than usual for the next few months. These things happen without reference to ministers and spads. After we had been there for a while, we sometimes got warning that such moves were in the offing but we could rarely head off a problem. ‘Give X a pay rise to keep her in the job and save the money by getting rid of her boss who is rubbish and more expensive – everyone’s a winner’, I would plead, obviously to no avail.

Priority movers’, Whitehall’s Dead Souls. I mentioned above the system called ‘priority movers‘ that reminded me of Gogol’s Dead Souls. This is a pool of people who have been identified for the axe by a review process looking to reduce headcount. However, they are not actually axed. They are labelled ‘priority movers’. This means that whenever someone needs to hire someone, they have to look through the pile of ‘priority movers’ first. But the ‘priority movers’ include, by definition, people regarded as the worst in the department (though actually the worst officials in the DfE always escaped the axe). Senior managers therefore spend huge amounts of time interviewing ‘priority movers’ for roles so that they do not spark an employment grievance. For example, the press office has to interview priority movers for the role of ‘senior press officer’ even though they have never talked to a journalist in their life, or a team recruiting for someone to ‘manage’ a complicated process has to interview people even though they have spent their entire career in the press office and have no relevant experience. Imagine how much money is wasted having senior officials waste hours interviewing people they already know they will never give the job to simply in order to tick a HR box.

In a further twist, whenever we found that something important was being screwed up because of a delay involving this process, I would go and complain and every time I would be told – ‘Dominic, there is no such thing as priority movers, you’ve misunderstood, naturally you’re not an expert on Whitehall HR, why would you be hahaha, X has explained it badly to you, I’ll investigate’. Mmm, I thought, early on, weird. Then you would find that poor old X had been given a bollocking for letting you in on the ‘priority mover’ scam. Then you would be told that ‘it did exist but it’s finished now’. Then a few weeks later, the same thing happened again. For three years, officials kept telling me that the priority mover scam had been ditched and repeatedly I discovered it had not. Finally, the Permanent Secretary came clean: yes it exists, yes it’s normal across Whitehall, yes I agree it’s mad, no I cannot stop it unless the Cabinet Office change HR rules Whitehall-wide. And this was the bottom line on all Whitehall HR. Everybody knows that Cameron hasn’t the faintest interest in fighting over such issues, not least because he doesn’t grasp the connection between such systems and why things he wants to happen don’t happen, and without his support there are strict limits on what Secretaries of State can do. Maude’s team has tried to change things but major changes are impossible when senior officials know that the prime minister’s heart, and his chief of staff, are with them.

I have seen startup people change politics then run away in disgust, and I have seen young people with a startup mentality bang their heads against brick walls then leave in disgust, to be replaced by the worst sort of apparatchik who cares nothing for the public interest but is regarded as ‘one of us’. I saw some excellent civil servants in the DfE, particularly women 25-35 in private office who kept the show on the road, but the HR system generally promoted middle-aged male conservative mediocre apparatchiks. In 2013, I sent this presentation on how Netflix’s ‘human resources’ system works – something you should read if you want an example of the difference between a ‘startup’ and bureaucratic culture – to a few of the most senior officials in Whitehall (inside and outside the DfE). One replied, ‘This is fascinating… The culture described here … is not in the legal framework, civil service rules or the working culture here.’ Exactly.

Colonel Boyd, the revolutionary fighter pilot who helped design the F-16 and was the bane of the USAF bureaucracy, talked often of the choice between ‘to be’ or ‘to do’ – whether to focus on climbing the greasy pole or serving the public. Insiders tend to choose the former, partly because of natural human selfishness but also because the combination of the promotion system and internal organisational incentives strongly encourages them to do so and follow corrupted assumptions contrary to the public interest.

(PS. One of the ways we tried to get around the crazy Whitehall HR system was to bring in expertise from outside (which sometimes required overcoming strong internal opposition, given the determination to control appointments). E.g. Without Rachel Wolf and the New Schools Network, there would have been no Free Schools in 2011 and the whole programme may well have collapsed in 2010/11 (NSN also developed a huge amount of the detailed processes that were needed, and they were more influential than all think tanks combined). We split the school minister job into two so that Jonathan Hill (then Nash) could focus just on Academies and Free Schools (and we divided DfE empires to fit this change). We brought in Alison Wolf who did great work on vocational education. We brought in people from outside with skills the civil service needed but did not have, such as Tom Shinner. James Frayne both greatly reduced the headcount and budget of the communications department and transformed its performance. We invited Ben Goldacre, who had been publicly critical of us, to analyse the DfE’s approach to evidence-based policy and data, against initially very strong opposition (credit to Wormald for siding with us on this) and his report has helped changed attitudes to ‘cargo cult science’ in education. We asked a very successful head teacher, Charlie Taylor, to help us dig through the bureaucracy to the facts about behaviour problems in schools. We made great use of (unpaid) non-executive directors such as Theo Agnew, Paul Marshall, and David Meller who have each saved the taxpayer many millions. All of these people got involved because their priority was improving schools – not party politics – and they all had the virtue of telling MG and spads what they really thought and where we were wrong, which helped increase cognitive diversity since we all disagreed about all sorts. If I didn’t think they would do that, I would not have wanted them involved.)


Incentives and institutions.

Third, even if a goal is well defined, it is usually not at all what is incentivised internally. Unlike open systems such as Silicon Valley which does incentivise solving hard problems, Westminster and Whitehall do not incentivise people to solve useful problems or even to avoid obvious waste and failure. Incentives tend to enforce groupthink, coverups, and the defence of the status quo because that is where the power and money is. Incentives encourage people to stay within the current broken rules but solving hard problems is extremely hard to do in such circumstances. Westminster’s incentive system pushes people to spend their time trying to manipulate the media and help their party against the other. Between parties, MPs focus on small differences between each other in order to gain power for themselves – they are not focused on important problems facing the public.

Bureaucracies lack the institutional mechanisms of markets and science that allow relatively quick adaptation to errors. Bureaucracies tend to be closed or opaque rather than transparent, unlike the scientific peer review system at its best. Bureaucracies, such as the Department for Education or Health, have to operate without a functioning price system which is so fundamental to the decentralised coordination of markets. Instead of clear goals, a price system, and (theoretically) financial transparency for shareholders, and instead of the institutional mechanisms of the scientific method, there are unclear goals and often distorting ‘targets’.

Markets and scientific prizes incentivise goals while letting decentralised cooperation figure out methods. For example, DARPA’s recent Grand Challenge sparked the breakthroughs in autonomous vehicles now changing the world. It operated by having a carefully defined performance goal but leaving competing teams to decide on methods. Bureaucracies start off with unclear goals and then set many targets involving methods. These targets therefore rapidly pervert incentives internally. Further, bureaucracies suck decisions ever-upwards to ‘wise chiefs of the tribe’. Most people feel disempowered, sullen, and unappreciated (rationally, because they often are unappreciated). They are dominated by the feeling that most of one’s effort is just battling entropy – not advancing.

What feedback that happens is often slow, confused, and corrupted by dodgy incentives. This lack of transparency and feedback means it is easier for senior people to fiddle targets than admit the targets were wrong. People lower down the hierarchy fiddle targets because they have (often accidentally) been incentivised to do so, hence many of the NHS scandals and why schools game league tables. In extremis, you get peasants melting down ploughs for scrap metal to hit Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ steel targets, leading to famine. In Soviet Russia, quotas for steel sheets ‘by the ton’ were made too heavy, and quotas ‘by area’ were made too thin. Instead of admitting failure, it is easy to shovel more and more money into failing systems – particularly since one does not have to persuade sceptical investors and one can fiddle the books in ways that public companies cannot. Instead of admitting failure, it is easier to accuse your political opponents of bad motives – ‘you want X to fail because you don’t care‘, and so on. In extremis, the failure of a Great Leap Forward leads not to retreat but to a Cultural Revolution.

Officials are not incentivised to ask ‘who in the world has already solved problem X by doing Y and how could we implement Y here as cheaply and quickly as possible?’ In meeting after meeting, I would ask this question. Whitehall is very parochial and officials hate the idea of just taking an idea from elsewhere, something successful companies do routinely. Repeatedly, officials would come back in a fortnight with some rubbish idea. ‘Did you look at how they’ve solved this in Switzerland or XXX?’ No. ‘Why not since I asked you to?’ Err… ‘Do it now.’ A week later. ‘We’ve looked, there’s nothing.’ ‘I’ve looked too – I found this, go and work on it’. ‘It won’t work here because – ‘. ‘Go and work on it and I want to see it in 48 hours.’ ‘We can’t do it in 48 hours, I have to look after my kids / I’m on holiday / I’m on compressed hours, it’ll take us a month at least’. ‘You’ve already had three weeks, get it to me in 48 hours or…’, etc. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that officials often prefer a process involving months of meetings and a long implementation timetable as this provides easy, no-pressure work long into the future.

This connects to the issue of record-keeping and institutional memory. The DfE destroyed its own library some time before 2010. It was a sign of how abysmal Whitehall has become that such things – and the much worse destruction of the Foreign Office library – happen and nobody really cares. It is also abysmal at record-keeping. Partly because everybody can email everybody with huge CC lists and attachments, nobody keeps accurate files (apart from private office). The situation is so bad that many Ministers have been reduced to FOI-ing their own departments (though this is not only an issue of competence – it is also an issue of trust).

Whitehall is not only parochial about other countries, it is parochial about its own past. One of the most useful questions one can ask is not only ‘who has already solved this problem?’ but ‘have we already tried to do X and failed?’ In the DfE there is no system to answer this question reliably. Unless you get lucky with an old-timer, you cannot know and because they abolished their own library you can’t even go and study it. (All the emails, files, papers etc are supposedly archived somewhere but obviously they would never let spads or a spad appointment into it to do analysis.) An obvious thing that is desperately needed in Whitehall is the creation of a network of ‘libraries plus internal historians’ connected to departments’ analysis teams that could not only answer the question ‘did we already fail with X?’ but would also be able to make public, on proper websites, as much information as possible for researchers and the general public to examine. This is one of the few aspects of the civil service that, to me, obviously needs to be ‘permanent’ yet it is now neglected by a civil service desperate to maintain its permanence in many fields where it is not necessary.

Officials are not incentivised to cooperate across Whitehall. Where there is a cross-Whitehall issue, there will be a turf war. Here is an example of how perverse incentives work. We regarded many cross-Whitehall plans (often appalling gimmicks from No10) as an excellent opportunity to give a bit of the DfE away to another department in pursuit of a smaller and better focused department. Why? Officials regard it as a ‘win’ to take over control of some policy or process regardless of how doomed it is. This makes it surprisingly easy to ditch various bits of a department or swerve involvement in some dreadful idea. Our modus operandi was to drop a hint to officials from the other department that we had no interest in X, they would suggest that they should control X and dig in for a fight, we would say ‘great idea, take X as far as we’re concerned though I doubt [junior minister Y] will agree, check with private office,’ they would go to private office, private office would say ‘reluctantly our minister is prepared to give you control of X if you will do Z [something we actually cared about]’, the ‘opposing’ officials would do the deal and collect a pat on the head from their superiors, while our private office got what we really wanted in return for what they presented as a ‘concession’ to the other department. Win-win for us, though in conventional Whitehall terms we had ‘lost’. Because Whitehall is full of people trying to snaffle new territory like a game of RISK, rather than thinking about whether X is a good idea, it is quite easy to slim one’s department down in minor areas. A year later, one would come across some miserable minister in another department muttering in a corridor to an official, ‘I dunno how I got lumbered with this troubled families fiasco but it’s totally knackered, the 120,000 figure itself is off the back of a fag packet for god’s sake, and I’ve got No10 badgering me about a PM announcement on it, I mean my God what can we say…’ We would hurry past – there but for the grace of God and fancy private office footwork…

Officials are not even incentivised to avoid embarrassment for the department. Most officials have been through a cycle of a parliament, usually including quite a few different ministers. They know that disaster, cockup, failure, humiliation, and firing of ministers is normal. They also know that it rarely puts the slightest dent in their day – never mind their career. Many times, we would be leading the news with ‘Gove’s incompetence denounced’ headlines while the lead official for the issue would be spotted pottering home at 4 o’clock, entirely unperturbed. Officials are incentivised to avoid embarrassment for other officials – but embarrassment for ministers is quite another matter, and is often quite handy. After all, a minister weakened is a minister more easily controlled.

They are not incentivised to cut ‘red tape’. Apart from undermining their own role, that would also risk blame when something goes wrong, whereas nobody will blame you for imposing stupid bureaucracy that indirectly kills people or slows everything to a snail’s pace. This is exactly the opposite of how the best organisations, including startups, work. Warren Buffet, who has a HQ of two dozen people, explains the difference:

‘We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that both operating and capital decisions are occasionally made with which Charlie and I would have disagreed had we been consulted. Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly – or not at all – because of a stifling bureaucracy… We will never allow Berkshire to become some monolith that is overrun with committees, budget presentations and multiple layers of management. Instead, we plan to operate as a collection of separately-managed medium-sized and large businesses, most of whose decision-making occurs at the operating level. Charlie and I will limit ourselves to allocating capital, controlling enterprise risk, choosing managers and setting their compensation.’

Officials are not incentivised to save money. Some might expect that financial scrutiny would catch out many errors. No. When ministers get clobbered for something, the amount of money wasted is often made public. However, when officials screw something up and are caught before they can turn it into a ministerial screw up, the figures are often hidden. The opaque Whitehall accountancy system is used to shuffle a few million around. Suddenly, from a budget you were told during the spending review could not be cut by one million or the heavens would fall, mysterious millions are found to plug the gap. Ah, the famous Treasury scrutiny, you say? Officials in the Treasury, contra myths, are not interested in controlling costs. HMT officials are interested in their control over Whitehall – not saving taxpayers’ money. 

Apart from the obvious fact that in bureaucracies people do not think about saving money the way startups do, there is also the problem that almost nobody in Whitehall can remember the last time they had to make real cuts – they lived for two decades with ever more money. If you have worked in small businesses (as I have) it is striking how in Whitehall there is no similar mentality about reducing costs. One of the ways this manifests itself is the grotesque over-paying of almost everybody – and the sometimes even more grotesque pay-off culture in which people are given six-figure ‘payoff’ pots of cash for no good reason, and sometimes are swiftly rehired anyway. This drove me mad. It is also hard to tackle except across Whitehall, as there is an obvious collective action problem, and again Cameron showed no interest in action, treating it as ‘like the weather’. This culture of excessive pay not only wastes money but deepens public resentment as the public rightly suspects there is a general attitude of ‘jobs for boys’ in which everyone thinks their turn will come for a cushy berth.

This brings us to a fundamental issue. If they are not incentivised to devise good policy, implement it effectively and rapidly, save taxpayers money and so on – what are they incentivised to do? The answer? Obsess on process. In his new book, the legendary venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes:

‘In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now).’

It is sobering to reflect that this definition of ‘dysfunctional organisations’ encompasses a vast amount – maybe the majority – of the work done in the civil service. In good organisations outside Whitehall, people obsess on the quality of their products or service or idea. Inside Whitehall, officials obsess on process. Provided the right people are CCd into emails, the forms are filled in, the (absurd) risk assessment process stuck to etc, all is fine! Shambles on TV? Forget it, normal! Millions wasted? Daily occurrence! Kids are dead? Tragedy – did we fill the forms in right? Minister gone? Who cares, we’re all here! But if you don’t get the process right and instead focus on something irrelevant – say you prioritise rapid exam reform or learning from the latest SCR fiasco rather than keeping the Cabinet Office in the loop – woe betide you, your colleagues will drop you down a hole fast, if people start behaving like that where will it all end! Many officials across Whitehall care far more about not being CCd in to an email than they do about millions of pounds being wasted or thousands of people’s lives being inconvenienced – the former is an insult to their status, while the latter is normal daily life. Many were the complaints to private office that ‘Cummings is cutting us out of decisions again by not CCing us into emails’ from an official whose blunders meant we were again leading the news.

They are also incentivised to stay friends with powerful special interests. It was obvious that many officials regarded staying friends with the unions, campaign groups like NSPCC, and quangos like Ofsted as much more important than doing what we wanted. After all, a minister will probably only last 1-2 years but they might have to deal with Chris Keates for a decade. (Though there are also some heroes on this front who I obviously could not name without blowing up, you know who you are…)

When bureaucracies are in a major crisis and feel they must deliver, they usually do not change their basic wiring. If they are really in a panic, they tend to create systems to subvert their own rules rather than change the rules. For example, in order to get around crazy procurement rules, the US Joint Special Operations Command (the classified end of US special forces) created a separate equipment procurement system (the Special Capabilities Office) working in a silo separate from the usual dysfunctional systems that remained in place – then they classified it so Congress had to leave it alone. Most parts of government do not have these sort of options to escape the horror.


Timescales, planning horizons, and pace.

Fourth, serious problems are caused by a mismatch between the timescale of politicians’ and civil servants’ career demands and the timescale of the problems they are supposed to deal with, which causes a mismatch between two very different planning horizons.

The systems politicians are trying to change, such as pensions or the NHS, usually only display significant changes on a timescale of say 103-104 days (i.e. 3-30 years), partly because a) they often require a mix of substantially different new people and large-scale re-training of existing people, and b) bureaucracies are really bad at ‘training’ even though they discuss it as if it is a magic bullet.

However, the effective planning horizon of No10 is ten days at best (often less than 72 hours) – again about a 104 difference (see above for a similar 104 scale gap facing many MPs and officials). Within a month, supposedly new and ‘top’ priorities can be created and almost forgotten, such as with the riots in 2011 or Scotland recently. Even if you are unwise enough to believe No10’s planning horizon is 102 days my point stands. Even if one considers the timescale of five years between elections, it is too short to make a dint in many big hard problems.

This tension causes problems for business as well as politics. As Larry Page (co-founder of Google) has observed, big public companies are under a lot of pressure to focus on quarterly results and most CEOs don’t survive for more than about five years, while many of the problems they face require a planning horizon beyond this. Rare companies like Google that are able to ignore such pressures and focus on the long-term can, perhaps, only do so because they have an effective monopoly and are not struggling in life-and-death competition. On the other hand, it is interesting that capitalism is often a byword for ‘short-termism’ in the media yet the venture capital industry – about which most in Westminster know nothing – is based on often taking bets with substantially longer planning horizons than the five years of politicians, given that the cash flow required to make a VC investment strike gold often requires significantly more than five years. For example, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Larry Page invest in companies like Palantir, SpaceX , and Planetary Resources on the basis of expected returns that are mostly beyond a decade away.

Parliament has found very few mechanisms to escape this problem and many of the mechanisms that have been found are quiet, very discrete Whitehall fixes on security issues that are anyway inevitably handled differently from normal politics.

Further, nobody is incentivised to solve problems fast. Ministers acquire a reputation for ‘wisdom’ simply by saying about everything ‘sounds very risky let’s not do that’ or ‘let’s add another two years to the timetable’. This limits the chances of embarrassment for the civil service but also means the problem is not solved. Officials are adept at psychologically reinforcing this, by praising ministers as ‘very wise’ whenever they demand delays and ‘very brave’ whenever they demand an aggressive timetable. The cost of going quickly is harder work by, and potential embarrassment for, officials; the costs of going slowly fall on the public. Who do you think weighs more in decisions taken confidentially in Whitehall, without the tradeoffs ever having to be crassly articulated?

Questions about the speed of management are fundamental: Whitehall uses pace to control form. One of our most fundamental problems in the DfE involved the issue of pace and it is intimately connected to the issue of core skills. Sometimes incompetence put planned timescales in doubt. Often, senior officials who did not want to do X fought rearguard campaigns to slow things down and sabotage certain crucial nonlinear milestones – all sorts of things have to happen by date X or else they can’t happen for a year. Stopping last minute attempts by some officials to push something over the timetable edge required constant vigilance. A ‘threat of an EU/ECHR judicial review’ in general and ‘EU procurement rules’ in particular are tools regularly deployed to slow things down.

But one cannot just blame officials – ultimately MPs set their incentives, or allow officials to set their own.


The failure of aggregation.

Fifth, while markets and science have effective methods to aggregate information, aggregation in politics is far from guaranteed to improve decisions and can be destructive. For example, so-called ‘brainstorming’ is proven not to work in politics, partly because psychological aspects of how we evolved to deal with status pervert useful discussion and encourage groupthink. High status people tend to dominate discussion and common information is over-discussed while information unique to an individual, especially a lower status individual, is routinely ignored. The wisdom of crowds only works if many independent judgements are aggregated; if social influence distorts the process, one gets disastrous mobs – not the wisdom of crowds.

Parliaments do not necessarily or reliably perform the same alchemy as the wonders of successful ‘information markets’. As Bismarck reflected on his experience before becoming Prussian prime minster, ‘Looked at individually these people [parliamentary representatives] are in part very shrewd, mostly educated, regular German university culture … [A]s soon as they assemble in corpore, they are dumb in the mass, though individually intelligent.’

The Good Judgement Project and other initiatives are exploring how we might effectively use in politics those aggregation techniques successfully used in other fields.


The failure of core skills.

Sixth, core skills have disintegrated in large parts of the civil service.

Politicians usually operate within institutions, including government departments, that have vastly more ambitious formal goals than the dysfunctional management could possibly achieve. Nevertheless, these dysfunctional entities, in the DfE’s case spending a billion pounds per week, acquire more and more goals in response to media pressure, lobbying from the ecosystem in which they live (and which is fed by them), and MPs’ incentives to maintain the flow of gimmicks. One of the most interesting features of politics is the way in which Insiders see failures daily yet it almost never stops them continuing to expand the organisation’s formal goals.

Many of these bureaucracies cannot reliably do the simplest things. I explained above about the inability to do basic correspondence or fix. Basic spreadsheet skills were so lacking that financial models and budgets could never be trusted and almost every figure released to the media or Parliament was wrong. Legal advice was unreliable and government lawyers are also given the wrong incentive (they are told to prioritise never going to court, which is stupid). Basic project management skills of the sort a world class engineering company routinely deploys are practically non-existent among senior officials. In short, core skills are as healthy in Whitehall as they are in English state schools and the days of Michael Quinlan are long gone.

These problems are compounded by a combination of the growth of public law, judicial review, EU regulation, and the ECHR/HRA, which have added cost, complexity, and uncertainty. There is no objective view of ‘what the law is’ in many circumstances so management decisions are undermined many times per day by advice to do things ‘to avoid losing a judicial review’ the risks of which are impossible to analyse clearly. Legal advice is offered saying that both doing X and not doing X could be ‘illegal’ leading to Kafka-esque discussions and pseudo-‘fair processes’ (like ‘consultations’) designed only to be evidence in court. Internal legal advice makes discussion of regulatory trade-offs tortuous and wasteful; it is always easier to urge ‘caution’ and ‘we’ll lose a JR’ is an easy way across Whitehall to delay or block change.

These problems are largely ignored in Whitehall.

Exhibit A: the former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell. Unintentionally, Gus O’Donnell often reveals the serious errors of senior mandarins when he gives interviews. He recently discussed problems in Whitehall. ‘Public servants are committed to improving services. They like nothing more than a satisfied customer.’ I’ve already explained why the mismatch of incentives shows this is a fantasy. He goes on: officials ‘would love to have more investment in their creaking IT systems’. As if the problem with Whitehall is not enough money spent on IT and ‘more investment’ would solve the problems! In this one quote, GO’D reveals how little he understands about management. He goes on, ‘Is the solution more bureaucrats and fewer elected politicians? In areas where there is a clear need for a long-term framework, such as energy, infrastructure and planning policy, there is much to be said for the former.’ Ahh, so for long-term policies the answer is ‘more bureaucrats’!

The fundamental reason for Whitehall’s failure is management, not a lack of bureaucrats or money. As Colonel Boyd used to shout, ‘People, ideas, machines – in that order!’ In the DfE, we cut the department’s headcount by more than a third and halved running costs. We more than halved the press office, and cut 95 percent of the communication budget. Performance improved rapidly. It would improve further if the DfE were halved again. The fact that the former head of the civil service could unintentionally reveal such deep misunderstandings about the problems with Whitehall and the nature of management shows how serious the problems are.

Exhibit B. The Institute of Government recently did a report on No10’s structure. It does not explore why implementation and project management is so poor, the huge failure of Whitehall HR policy, and it says nothing I noticed on the issue: how do you know if you’re going wrong? Amusingly, it assumes ‘the efficiency of the administrative machine in 10 Downing Street’ – an assumption that provokes a hollow laugh from those who have to deal with it.

An example that combines issues of transparency, legal issues, and timescale. Senior officials initially hated our commitment to put all the exam information in the National Pupil Database into the public domain and strip ‘equivalents’ out of the league tables. Why? Partly because they disagreed with us about equivalents but mainly because making the information transparent took power from Whitehall and gave it to the public, and they rightly knew that it would be practically impossible for them to reverse (Labour will struggle to argue that exam data should be secret again). When they came up with their first timetable for implementing this policy, it read ‘Delivery 2019-21‘. We said – do it now. They said – legal issues, data protection, judicial review, blah blah. We did it in 2011/12 (thanks to Henry de Zoete who pursued it relentlessly despite the fact that as media spad the effect of greater transparency was to destroy more of his weekends).


Lack of internal criticism and external competition.

Seventh, Whitehall suffers from a lack of internal mechanisms to enforce honesty about errors and a lack of external competition.

No Red Teams and ‘lessons learned’. There is rarely any serious formal process for testing rigorously before policies are launched. ‘Red Teams’ are a traditional answer. Often they have worked. For example, between the world wars the Germany Army examined British exercises with armoured divisions and asked themselves, ‘how might this affect future war?’ and insights helped develop von Manstein’s ‘Blitzkrieg’. Often, they have been ignored or even suppressed. Japan’s wargaming before Pearl Harbor assumed carriers would continue to be peripheral and in its planning for Midway, Rear Admiral Ugaki repeatedly overruled umpires whenever they made a decision that cast doubt on the ability of the Japanese navy to execute its plans. Classified Pentagon wargames 1963 – 1965 (the SIGMA series) predicted that the main elements of US strategy in Vietnam would fail. They were ignored. The report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence re the CIA, Iraq and WMD concluded: ‘The presumption that Iraq had active WMD programs was so strong that formalized mechanisms established to challenge assumptions and ‘group think’, such as ‘red teams’ … were not utilized.’

It is very hard to ‘learn lessons’. David Galula’s fascinating account of his successful counter-insurgency, ‘Pacification in Algeria 1956-8’, discussed how hard it was for armies to remember ancient and modern lessons in this field – and was itself promptly forgotten not only by the Americans (who commissioned it) in Vietnam but for the next forty years until 9/11. McMaster wrote a study of LBJ’s failures in Vietnam (‘Dereliction of Duty’); the suppression of bad news was central. McMaster fought in Iraq in 2003 and saw for himself similar errors repeated. He tried new tactics (small bases embedded in, and helping, the population). He was repeatedly passed over for promotion as superiors suppressed bad news. The reluctance of the NASA bureaucracy to face facts viz the Challenger disaster (1986), the ‘PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism’, and Feynman’s famous pursuit of the facts and exposure of groupthink (which brought the comment from the head of the investigation that ‘Feynman is becoming a real pain’), were followed by the Columbia disaster (2003) and another report showing NASA had not learned lessons from the previous disaster, and that internal pressure to conform meant ‘it is difficult for minority and dissenting opinions to percolate up through the agency’s hierarchy’. Political disasters are rarely analysed carefully. E.g. Many doubted that the euro’s institutions would work (e.g. Feldstein HERE and HERE and even the ECB’s own Otmar Issing). European elites not only rejected such warnings but treated them as the views of the idiotic or malign, and such has been the emotional commitment (cf. Habermas’ ‘Why Europe Needs a Constitution’) that it is still hard for those elites to consider the euro’s / EU’s problems rationally.

In the DfE, officials would often refuse to have a proper look into the origins of a blunder. They would say that we could not look at all the documents on the grounds that ‘we must protect the convention that current ministers cannot look at the papers for previous governments’. This is very handy as under the cloak of ‘political impartiality’ officials prevent ministers getting to the bottom of complex long-term debacles. E.g. we were forbidden from seeing various documents about capital pre-2010 on the basis of ‘impartiality’ but when we insisted / tricked our way in, we found many cockups that Whitehall simply did not want revealed to anybody.

Many accident reports, from air crashes to Fukushima, show that reflexive obedience to the chief lies behind fatal errors. Work by surgeons such as Gawande on checklists, on the other hand, shows how they can change cultures profoundly so that everybody starts correcting lots of small errors, leading to large performance improvements. In the DfE I tried to introduce this idea and get people to consider the extensive literature. There was great hostility mainly from older people (some young officials were enthusiastic and helped): ‘Social work isn’t like flying a plane Dominic, it’s far more complicated’. Bad answer. It is normal for domains to resist being told told by outsiders – ‘your domain is bad at dealing with errors and you need to learn from others’. It is particularly damaging when the bureaucracy that sets rules for other domains thinks like this itself.

Warren Buffett has proposed institutionalising Red Teams to limit damage done by egomaniac CEOs pursuing flawed mergers and acquisitions: ‘it appears to me that there is only one way to get a rational and balanced discussion. Directors should hire a second advisor to make the case against the proposed acquisition, with its fee contingent on the deal not going through’. This seems to me to be a great idea and MPs and Permanent Secretaries should think hard about how to operationalise it in Whitehall.

High barriers of entry, little competition

Barriers of entry are so high in politics that there is little competition and the system is hard for outsiders to disrupt. It is implicit in our method of parliamentary democracy that the contest between the parties will roughly serve the public interest as parties are incentivised to correct the obvious errors of their opponents, offer the public what they want, and thereby gain power, so that atavistic instincts are roughly channelled in ways that help society. This works in the sense that, at least where democratic institutions and the rule of law are embedded, elections stop parties and their leaders from becoming too extreme in the sense of undermining the basic principles of a market-based democracy. However, this incentive system is very indirect and ineffective beyond this basic function.

Further, Whitehall has such a tight grip on the MPs that it chokes off attempts to change the basic wiring of the system. MPs have willingly handed control of vast powers to officials. For example, in a Jedi move, Heywood convinced Cameron and Llewellyn early that everything they do should be monitored by Sue Gray and her ‘ethics committee’ so No10 has now officially outsourced judgement of its own ethics. This of course gives officials huge, hidden, and unaccountable power. Heywood can give the thumbs up or thumbs down to Cameron himself on all sorts of sensitive issues (e.g. which billionaire came for dinner and was it all above board). In No10 now, Sue Gray herself decides what meetings she attends to monitor everyone’s ethics, forcing terrified spads and ministers to flee the building to have certain meetings. In my experience, these developments help dishonest coverups. Because MPs have such little moral authority and such little self-confidence (another vicious circle), they are easily beaten back if they kick up a fuss about something. (And remember, no press office or spin doctor lies to the media as routinely or successfully as the Cabinet Office does over ‘ethical’ issues.)

Given very high barriers to entry and little competition, profound failure can continue undisturbed for years in the absence of large shocks.


Given all this, what do MPs do all day? Media manipulation, not operational planning on priorities.

Unsurprisingly, most senior MPs in all three parties are locked into a game in which they spend most of their time on a) launching gimmicks, and b) coping with crises. These two forms of activity are closely related. The only widely understood model of activity in Westminster (and one which fits well psychologically with the desire for publicity) is a string of gimmicks aimed to manipulate the media (given the label ‘strategy’ to make it sound impressive) which are announced between, and in response to, media crises, some of which are trivial and some of which reflect structural problems. Many, drawing perhaps only on the bluffing skills rewarded by PPE, have no idea what else to do.

Powerful people rush from meetings about the latest gimmick they are to announce, to meetings about the latest cockup for which they need to try to dodge the blame (possibly caused directly by a previously announced gimmick), to the TV studio, to dinner parties, where they gossip about either a) the daily crisis, or b) vague speculations about the distant future (and give overconfident predictions that are usually wrong but which they later reimagined to have been right – ‘as I’ve always said…’). Ministers’ time is dominated by unfocused panic about the media environment – not focused urgency about the most important problems.

These gimmicks have obvious costs in the form of money wasted and the ostensible goal unfulfilled. They also have indirect costs that are often higher. 1) They divert the bandwidth of senior people from serious issues. (For example, dealing with No10 gimmicks diverted DfE ministers, spads, and officials from focusing on serious issues such as child protection.) 2) Once announced, they can easily trigger a set of further stupid decisions as the system attempts to evade the humiliation of the gimmick failing. While many outside Westminster assume there must be some ‘purpose’ or ‘strategy’ to the gimmick, often the truth is it exists purely to be briefed to the media – it is not even intended as a serious idea, and indeed such gimmicks are often soon forgotten even by their inventors.

Ironically, since their only purpose is usually ‘communication’ and ‘sending signals’, they are usually also useless as communication devices and are simply white noise to the public who are watching game shows or football instead. The tiny amount of political communication in Britain that gets through to the public is often accidental (e.g. ‘if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working’, ‘hug a hoodie’). Few phrases are more common than ‘we need a campaign to…’ but few things are rarer than a professional campaign that changes millions of people’s opinions or feelings. So-called ‘strategic communication’ is rarely attempted, never mind done, partly because it requires a lot of hard thinking, focus, priorities, facing weaknesses etc – i.e. many things that are psychologically difficult. Most of what people call ‘strategic communication’ is really just answering phone calls from journalists. In crises, almost everyone panics and spins stories about ‘strategy’ to journalists whilst its practice dissolves if it ever existed (unlikely). The subject is widely discussed in defence and intelligence circles but also rarely well executed. E.g. The Pentagon knows that the huge amount of effort it has put into ‘information operations’ did not work in Afghanistan and Iraq (Report).

Amazingly little Whitehall discussion ever involves concrete operational planning to advance priorities from A to Z (weekly / monthly / quarterly). Why? Because most senior people have no idea about how to go about such planning and it is not incentivised as I explained above. On one hand, many take pride in not having a plan, an attitude with deep roots in the Tory party: ‘I distrust anyone who foresees consequences and advocates remedies for the avoidance of them’ (foreign secretary Lord Halifax before the war). Many think that Macmillan’s ‘events, dear boy, events’ is a ‘how to prioritise’ guide.  On the other hand, politics is dominated by discussion of ‘strategy’ and ‘priorities’, but few know how to think strategically (or even what ‘strategy’ is) or how to make and stick to priorities. Misunderstanding of strategy, and the proliferation of rhetoric masquerading as strategy, causes huge problems, including with national leaderships’ attempts to define ‘national strategy’. (** See endnote.)

This is a huge gap in Whitehall but the system has gone so wrong few even realise the gap is there and those who do cannot do anything about it.

Most media commentary on politics therefore enormously overstates the extent to which news derives from ‘plans’ and understates the extent to which news derives either from, first, panic driven by chaos exacerbated by lack of operational grip, and, second, unthought out gimmicks aimed only at shaping the media environment for a day or two. Whenever I read commentators explaining to the public things involving Whitehall, particularly No10, that I have been involved in, they always assume an average level of ‘planning’ much higher than actually existed and they assume processes of analysis and discussion that seldom happened. Commentators are always looking for specific things as explanatory factors but the reality is that similar things keep happening in very similar ways because of general features of the political system. Often a focus on specifics clouds understanding. Events are over-interpreted because journalists do not want to face the idea that they are usually spectators of over-promoted people floundering amid chaos – actions must be intended (‘their strategy is…’), farcical reality must be tarted up. (I will explore this subject separately.)

To some extent democratic politics is always going to involve gimmickry. My point is that the British state has degenerated to the point where that’s about all there is and the public increasingly understand that’s all there is.


No10: The horror, the horror of the Random Announcement Generator…

There’s a wonderful scene in Book II of War and Peace. The cynical diplomat, Bilibin, is explaining the latest disaster against Napoleon, a tragicomic story in which the Austrians accidentally gave away the Tabor bridge to the French because of the manifestation of a general, systemic dysfunction in General Mack’s army.

“‘It’s not treason, or dastardliness, or stupidity: it’s the same as at Ulm… it is…’ – he seemed to be trying to find a suitable expression. ‘It’s … c’est du Mack. We’ve been Macked,’ he concluded, feeling that he had coined a word, a new word that would be repeated.’ (p. 186, Edmonds translation.)

Britain, too, gets ‘Macked’ every week.

Cameron requires no psychological analysis. He is one of the most straightforward people one will meet in politics. Pundits have wasted millions of words on what they regard as his ‘mystery’ but he is exactly what he seems – he is, as Bismarck said of Napoleon III, a ‘sphinx without a riddle’. He’s cleverer than most MPs and can hold his own in conversations with senior officials with whom he has a lot in common intellectually. He may be in the top two percent (+2 standard deviations) for verbal skills but has none of the expertise or experience necessary for managing very complex processes and solving hard problems. He does not dig into the details of policy. His self-assurance has some positive aspects (he is not intimidated or destroyed by the size of the job) but also big negative aspects. One could still be an OK prime minister with this combination of characteristics if one had great judgement about people but his worst characteristic as PM is his awful judgement about senior advisers (Coulson***, Llewellyn, Rock, Oliver) as even his closest friends accept. If he had the self-awareness to consider his senior appointments and hire alpha people, then faced with Miliband he would likely win easy.

Why is he there? Because 1) Cameron’s 2005 rival was David Davis who over a long campaign scared too many MPs about his temperament, 2) Blair blew up over the Middle East making Cameron’s rival Brown, 3) Cameron is superficially suitable for the job in the way that ‘experts’ often judge such things – i.e. basic chimp politics skills, height, glibness etc, so we can ‘shove him out to give a statement on X’. That’s it. In a dysfunctional institutional structure, someone without the skills we need in a prime minister can easily get the job with a few breaks like that.

Cameron regards his job as like a steward in charge of the ‘ship of state’ – his job is not to crash it into the rocks. His main method for doing this is to implement what he is told by senior civil servants who suffer a severe lack of cognitive diversity. This has the advantage of making life much easier, as the heels click and the salutes snap to attention even if everything is going to pot, whereas fighting official conventional wisdom has high costs. He has exasperated and depressed many with his ‘so what do I believe in this week’ approach. In doing this job, he regards his Party with a mix of contempt and anger. (He has thought that his many critics will not launch a coup because of a mixture of cowardice and greed for red boxes and chauffeurs – so far they have not.) Cameron and Llewellyn regard the optimal outcome of the next election as a similar outcome to last time – a hung Parliament with Clegg and Miliband weakened. They regard a large majority as impossible and a small majority as a nightmare. They do not have ambitions to ‘solve the EU problem’ or ‘make the NHS worldclass’ – it is not how they think about the world. This is not itself a criticism – it is not necessarily a virtue to have bold ambitions. Rather than criticising him for a lack of ambition, it is more accurate and fairer to criticise him simply for putting his own personal interests ahead of the public interest. His party regards him as untrustworthy and selfish – they suspect he does not want a majority and does not care if the Party implodes the day after he walks away, but they also worry no other current MP can give them a majority. As they say in Moscow, ‘everybody’s right and everybody’s unhappy’.

If you want to understand why the news is what it is, remember that Cameron and his two most senior advisers – Ed Llewellyn and Craig Oliver – are rushing from gimmick to dinner party to gimmick to dinner party. They do not engage in serious operational planning. Why? a) They have no idea what it looks like – it is an alien concept. b) Their model for political activity is as described above – a string of gimmicks. Oliver regards his job as fire-hosing stories at the lobby and coping with perpetual cockups. (I feel sorry for Oliver. He should never have been put in this job for which he is entirely unsuitable.) Llewellyn regards his job as helping Whitehall and the EU do what they want while keeping MPs quiet, keeping Clegg happy, and coping with perpetual cockups.

The hierarchy of problems that our DfE team faced was (biggest problems first): some of our own officials, Downing Street, the BBC, Labour and the unions. No10 is supposed to work now on the basis of controlling ‘The Grid’, a compilation of Whitehall’s announcements. However, their ‘grid’ was more like a malfunctioning Random Announcement Generator – input sense, output nonsense. If Cameron/Oliver got an iPad app for their Grid, they could shake the iPad up and down and all the different stories could randomly bounce into new slots. Shake shake shake – here’s a plan! Shake shake shake – here’s another plan! Just as good! Nobody would notice the difference with how it is done now. (This was not the fault of junior people like Ameet but of the most senior people.)

If we told them what we were doing, it would either leak or they would chime in with appalling ideas. Llewellyn only appeared on our radar to tell us to give in either to Whitehall or to Clegg. It was extremely difficult being stuck between a) internal opponents working with b) Clegg, Llewellyn, and the Cabinet Office, and meant that we were constantly faced with the need to adopt extreme measures in order to make progress. Many things we did were sub-optimal because of the need to smuggle them into existence without Cameron, Clegg, or Llewellyn knowing about them. (Some No10 people, such as James O’Shaughnessy, did help us and deserve credit.)

I will go into this in future blogs but here is an example of what I mean about the way No10 did not take school reform seriously and could not be engaged with in a serious way on policy. Between Gove getting the job in 2007 and January 2014, how many meetings do you think happened between a) Cameron and his senior policy advisers, and b) Gove and his senior policy advisers to discuss schools policy? If quarterly, then about 25-30? Answer: two. One in 2009, one in 2011. However, this was a good thing. It meant that No10 largely left us alone for long periods. Whenever No10 sent word that ‘the PM is thinking of making an intervention’, it guaranteed 100 percent that the horror, the horror, would descend.

One mechanism we devised to deal with this concerned The Grid / RAG. Once we established some grip of the DfE over 2011/12, I kept three timetables. 1) Our real plan. This was shared among less than 10 people. 2) An internal DfE plan which excluded only sensitive things like personnel moves. This was not shared with No10. 3) A ‘No10 friendly’ plan, which had everything important removed in order to keep them in the dark. (There were exceptions. We worked quietly with some No10 people who knew we were right about Llewellyn and Oliver and we shared information with them to help them out, but strictly on the basis that Llewellyn and Oliver would not be told.) The Random Announcement Generator can also be turned to good effect. Monnet created the EU by always having a plan in his pocket for when disaster hit. ‘Oh you’ve hit a crisis – here’s my plan for the European Coal and Steel Community.’ In a tiny way, we tried to do the same, as I will explain another time.

One last story that connects some of these themes. In summer 2013, Clegg and Danny Alexander tried to stop the next wave of Free Schools being announced. Clegg had become progressively keener on using this regular media event to spin stories suggesting he was hostile to Free Schools and Gove (all the time in private obviously telling us that ‘of course I support Free Schools but I’ve got to do something about the optics‘). He had tried to interfere with the process of selecting Free Schools but we had told him No Way (using some civil service jiujitsu with ‘judicial review’). Now, he used the Treasury to block the announcement with Danny Alexander as the instrument. No10 sided with Clegg and DA. ‘But this is long-arranged, if we cancel it it will hit thousands of people directly.’ ‘The PM wants to keep Clegg happy.’ ‘But it will be a disastrous story, “Government drops Free Schools”, surely he won’t want that.’ ‘Arghhhh, yes, but the PM thinks we can sneak through that story, and he’s promised Clegg.’ Ok. So I announced the Free School round anyway by the simple expedient of sending out the press release and it rolled out in the media in the usual way, sending Clegg and various mandarins into a meltdown. My logic: we won’t trash all the Free School groups we had encouraged to apply because of Clegg’s ‘optics’, and because Cameron is so desperate to prop him up and so careless of real things and people that he will not overrule him, as he easily could do if he had priorities. (The idea that Cameron had some amazing Grand Bargain in return, as Llewellyn would comically try to claim now and then, was obviously rubbish. When Cameron caved in on abolishing GCSEs in 2012, he didn’t even ask for anything in return.) There are many interesting aspects of this story that I’ll explore another time but it demonstrates various layers of problem and illustrates why I think so strongly that a priority must be to remove MPs’ whims from the management of schools.

No10 does not even realise it has to focus on priorities, so of course it does not notice that it cannot project manage them through the system, or that the senior officials they trust to do this for them also cannot do it. No10 and the Cabinet Office are themselves a major source of chaos so it no surprise that the rest of government is in permanent omnishambles. Cameron makes clear to Heywood and other Permanent Secretaries that he has no interest in civil service reform so of course nothing serious changes. Cameron’s time is spent on tactical media manipulation but the person he has hired to do this for him does not know how to do it and even someone who did know how to do it would be subject to the daily litany of cockups because they are an inevitable outcome of systemic dysfunction.

The occupants of No10, like Tolstoy’s characters in War and Peace, are blown around by forces they do not comprehend as they gossip, intrigue, and babble to the media. The MPs and spin doctors steer their priorities according to the rapidly shifting sands of the pundits who they are all spinning, while the pundits shift (to some extent unconsciously) according to the polls. The outcome? Everybody rushes around in tailspins assembling circular firing squads while the real dynamics of opinion play out largely untouched by their conscious actions. In terms of a method to ‘manage’ government, it is not far from tribal elders howling incantations around the camp fire after inspecting the entrails of slaughtered animals. It makes no sense because it is not based on the real world. Because of this systemic dysfunction, the rest of us get repeatedly ‘Macked’.


The combination of 1) evolved mental characteristics, 2) poor education and training, and 3) a dysfunctional institutional architecture, combined with a) inherent uncertainty and wrong predictions, and b) the inherent difficulty of adapting amid the stormy chaos of events where the simplest things are hard and failure is ubiquitous, creates a series of vicious feedback loops.

We do not have a problem with ‘too much cynicism’ – we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much. When faced with the ‘fog of war’ in nonlinear systems such as the financial system, disease outbreaks, or terrorism, the current system is absolutely bound to respond with sloth/panic, chaos, and blunders.

Our leaders are like 19th Century Germans who had lost religion of whom Nietzsche said, ‘they merely register their existence in the world with a kind of dumb amazement’. They get up every day and react to the media without questioning why: sometimes they are lauded, usually they are trashed, but they carry on in a state of ‘dumb amazement’ without realising how absurd their situation is. Meanwhile, the institutions within which they operate continue with their own momentum and dynamics, and they pretend to themselves that they are, in the phrase they love, ‘running the country’.

But the phrase is hollow, hollow, hollow…

[Coming soon… What is to be done?]

A Fermi estimate of the number of really dangerous people. The global population of people with an IQ four standard deviations above the average (i.e. >160) is ~250k. About 1% of the population are psychopaths so there are perhaps ~2-3,000 with an IQ roughly that of a Nobel physics or Fields prize winner. The psychopathic population with an IQ over three standard deviations (>145, where the average science PhD ~130) is 30 times bigger. A subset of these people will also be practically competent. Some of them may think, ‘Flectere si nequeo superos, / Acheronta movebo’ (‘If Heav’n thou can’st not bend, Hell thou shalt move’). Board et al (2005) showed that high-level business executives are more likely than inmates of Broadmoor to have one of three personality disorders (PDs): histrionic PD, narcissistic PD, and obsessive-compulsive PD. Mullins-Sweatt et al (2010) showed unsurprisingly that successful psychopaths are more conscientious than the unsuccessful.

** ‘Strategy’ is much mentioned but little studied. Strategy is not ‘goals’, ‘vision’ or rhetoric. Strategy focuses action on crucial problems to connect operations to aims; it requires diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action. Good strategy requires choices, choices require not doing some things, and some people will be upset at not being ‘a priority’; therefore, good strategy is by definition hard for politicians to articulate even if they can develop it. Bad strategy is identified by: fluff (vague, grandiloquent rhetoric), ignoring important problems, mistaking goals for strategy, and setting bad (or contradictory) ‘strategic objectives’. It is not miscalculation. It is sometimes a substitution of belief for thought. Now it is often produced via a powerpoint template, with visions, mission statements, core values, strategic goals, lists of initiatives etc – all avoiding the hard questions (Rumelt, 2011).

Clausewitz described military strategy as ‘the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war’ and says the strategist ‘must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose.’ Colin Gray defines military strategy as ‘the direction and use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy’. The first use of ‘strategy’ in a sense beyond narrow generalship was in 1777 in French and German, and prior to 1810 English dictionaries did not contain a ‘strategy’ entry. ‘Strategy was not recognized linguistically as a function distinctive from statecraft or generalship prior to the late 18th century. Polities did not have permanent or even temporary schools and military staff charged with “strategic” duties. Policy and strategy, though logically separable, usually were all but collapsed one into the other.’ (Gray, Schools for Strategy, 2009).

I think the word has become so confused and confusing that outside specialist groups it should be abandoned. In DfE meetings, I tried to stop people using the word ‘strategy’ as it was guaranteed to confuse discussion. If you watch people in Westminster using the word, it is used interchangeably for ‘goal’, ‘plan’, ‘tactics’ etc.

*** Coulson and ‘spin’. Recently quite a few commentators have said about Coulson ‘at least as he was very good at his job’, ‘he understood the dark arts’. This is wrong. (The ‘arts’ are not ‘dark’ in the sense of mysterious, but I’ll leave that for now.) The pro-Coulson argument is: he knew what ‘a story’ is, he was not a clown, and he did not go to Eton. This does not make him a good Director of Communications. I don’t think Coulson was even good at spinning stories but my point is different – it is that even being a good spin doctor is not at all the same as being a good campaign manager or director of communications. Further, being a good spin doctor is not even a necessary condition for being a good campaign manager. A good DoC has priorities, a plan, and an effective machine. Coulson had none of these things. A good DoC is not focused on the daily media but on long-term goals. Coulson encouraged Cameron in one of his worst traits – to obsess about press coverage and behave like a pundit surfing the news rather than a leader. Like with Oliver, I do not blame Coulson for this – he was the wrong person for the job as would have been obvious except Cameron himself does not understand what the job is and simply wanted a ‘spin doctor’ close to News International. Britain now has a tendency to hire journalists to run communications which is not what happens in the more professional US environment where they know that journalists seldom have the right skills to run a large communication operation. NB. I do not say this because of any personal grudge with Coulson. Contra many reports, I never had any arguments or fall-outs with him. I doubt we exchanged 1,000 words in three years. He objected to me going into the DfE not because of any row but because he thought that I would not take orders from him or Llewellyn. Llewellyn agreed with him. They were right.

Times op-ed: The Gove reforms

[Below is the text of an op-ed by me in The Times, 1 September 2014. There is an addition that was cut for space, inserted in square brackets.]

One evening in Whitehall, an exhausted and enraged senior official spat out at me: “You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and it’s my job to expel you from the organism.” It was a typical day in the Department for Education.

When Michael Gove arrived there in 2010, he inherited a dysfunctional institution — a department spending a billion pounds every week wasted money on a vast scale. Every budget, every set of figures was wrong, every process blew up, everything leaked, while Whitehall used European law and threats of judicial review to scupper anything that it disliked.

The school system was grim. Among schools with the same proportion of poor pupils and the same funding, some struggled to get a fifth of pupils to basic levels while others managed over four fifths. This was down to bad management failing to do basic things. It was also due to disastrous micro-management by MPs and Whitehall.

The curriculum and exams had been devalued over the quarter century since MPs took control of them. The gap between sharply rising scores in those tests controlled by MPs but poor performance in international tests was one obvious sign of this. Another was that the devaluation of GCSEs had forced the devaluation of A Levels and, in turn, the devaluation of degrees. Science degrees had to be lengthened to reflect the decline in A levels. Language degrees, including elite courses such as Oxford classics, became unrecognisable and remedial classes were ubiquitous.

Almost nobody with power in the education system wanted to discuss these problems. The attitude was: the numbers are going up, they show that we’re doing a great job and deserve our large pay rises. If you go along you’ll get good press; if you don’t, woe betide you.

We didn’t go along. We changed every major pillar of the system. We cut the department’s headcount by more than a third and halved running costs. [We more than halved the press office, and cut 95 percent of the communication budget.] Senior people were replaced. Outsiders were brought in. The organisation improved, contrary to all predictions. All this happened because we operated outside Whitehall protocol, causing many battles. The results are now being felt in schools.

This week the new national curriculum starts and new exams will test it. Primary maths standards are aligned to standards in world-leading jurisdictions. Languages will again be the norm in primary school, to reverse catastrophic decline. There is more maths in secondary science. There is more essay writing — so important for further study and work. Conditional probability, vital for understanding risk, is introduced. Pupils will learn about computer coding and 3D printers. [Projects such as the British Museum’s ‘Teaching History in 100 objects’ will help pupils learn a deeper history curriculum.]

SATs at 11, GCSEs, and A levels are changing. We attacked the treadmill of modular exams, constant resits and the abuse of coursework. We returned power over A levels to universities and made it harder for MPs to regain control.

The old league-table system, based on five A*-C GCSEs, has been replaced because it had so many bad effects. First it encouraged schools to enter pupils for courses that were defined as “equivalent to GCSEs”, but which were often worse than useless. This was a disaster for millions of pupils. We scrapped this system and published data with it stripped out, so that everyone could see who was cheating. We also put out transparent data on achievement in English, maths, sciences, history, geography and languages. This led to many more pupils taking these courses: entries to physics and further maths A levels are up by a fifth.

Second, schools focused only on pupils on the C-D borderline. We brought in a points system that encourages schools to try with all pupils. Third, schools entered GCSE pupils early to “bank a C grade” so they could focus on other C grades. Now only the first entry counts in league tables and damaging early entry is plummeting.

We decentralised all main aspects of the teaching profession. We abolished national pay so schools, not MPs, control pay. We made it easier for teachers to keep order and easier to remove teachers who couldn’t. We put money into training teachers from the top third of graduates, with skills in desperately short supply, such as languages. We gave schools the power to recruit and train teachers. Teacher-training now feels an icy bath of scrutiny and evaluation.

To reduce Whitehall’s power further, we allowed state schools to convert to academy status. About two thirds of secondaries and a tenth of primaries did so. Many of the best then took over the worst schools. We encouraged schools to form chains, so knowledge about what works can be spread, saving money that can be spent where it helps learning. Chains are increasingly building their own teacher-training systems integrated with curricula and tests, such as Ark’s Maths Mastery programme. This will bring big improvements in the next decade.

Academy chains, as well as groups of parents and teachers, can now set up new schools. It used to take three to five years to open one; it now takes 18 months and the capital cost is nearly half. There will be 300 free schools open this month and another hundred should open next year, whoever wins the election. Most are in poorer areas. Failures have been swiftly dealt with, in contrast to many local authorities that won’t act year after year.

Our team broke up with the project half done. Schools are still rationed by house price and are at the mercy of a dysfunctional Ofsted. Although we tried to replace GCSEs with exams that would enable a genuinely scientific approach to learning, Nick Clegg and David Cameron stopped us, supported by almost everyone powerful in the system.

Will anyone build on what we did? [As we struggled to keep our heads above the tide,] Labour and the unions were largely irrelevant. By far our biggest problems were with the dysfunction of Whitehall and Downing Street.

Officials who see themselves as “the immune system” are about to return in a powerful role. Some whom we purged are polishing their CVs, confident that “the mutant virus” has been expelled and Downing Street will be compliant regardless of the election. Others are watching carefully. They know No 10 wants quiet interspersed with electoral gimmicks. They suspect that Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, agrees with much of what we did but that Ed Miliband does not.

Nicky Morgan faces a horrid quandary: while she could — and should — be less confrontational than Michael Gove, she will find it impossible to maintain the momentum of change and simultaneously obey Downing Street’s orders. Whitehall knows this and is quietly pushing forward its betting chips.