The price of failure

Labelling schools undermines customer confidence

If readers have been paying attention to this column, they will be familiar with Ed Balls's 638 "failing secondary schools". The Children's Secretary announced in March that all these schools in England, which fail to get 30 per cent of their pupils to achieve five A-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, must have "action plans", drawn up by their local authorities, by the end of the summer term. He set a "National Challenge": every school to meet the 30 per cent target by 2011.

Now he has announced it again. Some things never change, and new Labour's capacity to repackage old news for fresh headlines is one of them. Music-hall comedians used to have a dozen gags that would last them several years. Balls and his colleagues have understood that a similar trick is now possible: the world is so media-saturated that everyone's memory span has shortened to that of a goldfish.

But his second announcement, on 10 June, does contain some new details. The budget for the National Challenge is doubled to £400m (though cynics will suspect this is just accounting chicanery) and all schools will be allocated a National Challenge Adviser.

Teachers greatly value and admire advisers (not) and I am sure they will be grateful (not). Moreover, there will be a 12-strong National Panel of Expert Advisers and more National Leaders of Education, "outstanding super-heads . . . [who] will work alongside Heads to help solve problems".

As Bertrand Russell observed, there are two kinds of work: the first is moving matter at or near to the earth's surface (and I am sure Russell would have agreed that persuading children to learn is a sort of honorary manual work) and the second is telling other people to do it.

The latter, Russell added, is more pleasant and better-paid. Creating more such jobs, with impressively capitalised titles and new layers of bureaucracy, is something else new Labour is good at. It strengthens central government's grip on public services. Local authorities used to advise and support below-par schools, and give them extra funds, and were often (admittedly not always) successful. Now they lack both power and money: an increasing proportion of funds is allocated directly from Whitehall to schools, with the local council acting purely as middleman.

I am sorry to single out Balls, whom I like and admire. The new Labour project involved the creation of many expectations that could not be met, and Balls is saddled with both the promise that Labour would do miracles with poor children and the claim that home background doesn't excuse failure. As I pointed out in March, "failing schools" nearly always have disadvantaged children who are difficult to teach.

The Department for Children recognises the link between poverty and low attainment by publishing, for each school, a "contextual value-added" (CVA) score, which takes into account background influences on exam performance, including the proportion of children on free school meals. Bizarrely, Balls ignores these scores in his official pronouncements. More than a third of his 638 "failures" have a CVA that is above average. According to the Times Educational Supplement, more than half have leadership rated outstanding or good by Ofsted inspectors, with only 6 per cent considered unsatisfactory.

Balls admitted to the TES, which is read mainly by teachers, that these schools are "high-achieving, successful schools" and they are at "low risk" of missing the 2011 target. That was not the message conveyed by the 10 June announcement. It included threats of school closures, lists of the number of "failing" schools in each local authority, plans for more privately run academies, and proposals for legislation to compel local authorities to issue warning notices to schools that are deteriorating and to appoint "Interim Executive Boards". The overwhelming impression (to borrow the Sun's headline) was of a "school scandal", requiring more central government power, more paperwork, more bureaucracy, more quangos, more people telling others to move matter.

If, as Balls told the TES, a third of the 638 schools are "successful", why did he not single out just 425 schools (or thereabouts), and say he was satisfied the others were already doing enough to improve results? Balls should know that, once attention is drawn to a school's shortcomings and the possibility of closure is raised, it struggles to attract good teachers and middle-class parents, and may lose those it has.

There is a real problem here for the delivery of public services. As any private business knows, marketing is all. No private business would dream of highlighting its failures and playing down its successes. In their anxiety to improve services, and tell taxpayers how they are doing so, ministers risk undermining customers' confidence in the public sector. I fear Labour is thus digging its own political grave.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically