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Journal comment May 2016
By Graham Robb
NE Chair of the Institute of Directors
Senior Partner www.recognitionpr.co.uk
For leaders in business or politics the road to reform is always rocky; it needs to be navigated with determination and the ability to swerve obstacles.
Last week, the Government adapted its position on two key areas of reform; education and health. The academies programme was paused and the imposition of a new junior doctors contract was suspended, as talks reconvene. It also conceded on the issue of child refugees from Syria, agreeing to provide homes for those who arrived in Europe before the deal between the EU and Turkey over handling the refugee crisis.
In tackling each of these issues the Government has made a deviation rather than a U-turn. The objectives remain in sight but the detailed methodology of delivering reform is being adapted to the circumstances. This is an appropriate way to conduct political discourse, compromise on details but remain committed to the winning the big argument. We do this in business, making deals every day. In sport new tactics are deployed with regularity but the objective of winning is never lost.
Looking at the big picture, the NHS takes the lion’s share of all our taxes and the biggest budget in the NHS is wages. For that reason, the Government needs to agree the standard operating hours of the NHS so that there is a rational relationship between wages and contracted hours. The goal of a seven day a week, 24 hrs a day, NHS is a good one, and must remain the clear objective. However, getting there will involve making deals. Even some Conservatives see that, moderates like Jeremy Middleton who will run for Mayor in North East have already urged the Government to settle with the Doctors. (Full disclosure: I support Middleton’s campaign and my daughter is a junior doctor!)
The late Bob Crowe could boast that the basic wage of a tube train driver was now £50,000, yet a qualified doctor’s earnings start at circa mid £22-25K and need to be topped up with using a bizarre matrix of unsocial hours payments and overtime. It seems to me that, like the tube drivers a rational hourly rate for the job should be agreed and unsocial hours should be limited in scope. The Government was right, therefore, to pause the imposition of the contract to prevent further strikes and needs to stretch every political sinew to deliver a deal on working hours that can be applied across the NHS.
My own late wife, who devoted her life to working for the NHS, had an agonising out-of-hours wait in A&E and a two day battle with bureaucracy only to finally receive test results that confirmed she had two weeks to live. This is not how it is supposed to work. There is little doubt that patients who visit hospitals out of working hours have worse outcomes and, in my view, the Government needs to keep its eye on the goal of a seven day NHS; not just for emergencies but also for the type of test results that took so long to deliver to my wife.
Academy Schools were an invention of the last Labour Government. This Government has set about ‘turbo-charging’ them. People in business are the end users of the school system. We need a better-educated workforce because technology, a decline in blue collar jobs and international competition have driven up the need for a more skills. All the data suggests that Academies perform better in delivering qualified young people. It is logical that the Government should aspire to create more of them.
That the Academies programme is opposed by head teachers and teaching unions is as predictable as it is sad. Nevertheless, it has caused another Government swerve on the issue of ‘forced academisation’. Now schools will become Academies through encouragement and choice.
For parents to make the right choices they need the right information. Employers need to know which schools are good too. That is why schools testing is so important. The recent SATs were boycotted by a small number of parents who were either ideologically driven or ill-informed. The tests that their children would have taken would have been diagnostic for each child and useful in testing the performance of schools. I confess to being less than sympathetic to the trumped up claims of stressed seven year olds. I did notice that well-organised ‘play sessions’ in local parks conveniently providing easy pictures for TV reports. The mostly middle class parents who lead the opposition often supplement education at home and read stories to their children but in some North East households children are only exposed to learning at school. These tests help those children by determining the help they need and ensuring they get it.
The protest was relatively small, about 10% of all primary school children were removed. It seems that many parents either had no problem with the tests, or had difficulty-arranging childcare to cover a senseless boycott. Either way the results will still be statistically significant and will allow schools to be ranked, performance to be assessed and the greater long-term goal of improved skills for future workers to be achieved.
Finally, I hope that the Labour Councils in the North East take home some lessons from the Government when they decide on finalising the devo-deal. Compromise is important to reach the long-term goal of a more prosperous region. Yes the Government wants an elected Mayor but the win for the North East is more money diverted from Whitehall and greater powers to spend it. Spurning this now would have, as a letter from business leadership organisations, said: “potentially negative consequences for the North East.”
In the short term deviations from core tactics might be embarrassing to Ministers or local councils but U-turns on effective reform will, in the long-term, be a disaster for all of us.