The British State Isn’t Working

It is not simply Boris that is the problem. The cause of our malaise as a country goes much deeper and has just been exposed by Covid-19 writes Howard Sharron, ,editor of School Leadership Today

Looking at our performance as a country in response to the Covid Pandemic and comparing it to the performance of Germany is a sobering experience. Germany has had an intellectual heft within its political leadership that seems to have been completely absent in the UK. It recognised the danger of the Chinese experience and was not burdened with the unthinking British Exceptionalism that puffed out the view that it could never happen here, with our healthy population and our wonderful NHS.

It had learned the lesson that epidemics originating in the East can penetrate advanced economies (SARS and Japan). It also hadn’t forgotten that the world’s worst Pandemic in modern times had been the Spanish Flu. It had some luck in that the virus initially flourished amongst a younger age group than in Italy and Spain, so the death rate in Germany was initially low. However, it still shut down early. You can’t help thinking that in the UK the government would have used a low death rate to delay taking action even further.

It then listened to the agency most experienced in dealing with epidemics – The World Health Organisation and began to rapidly develop its own testing and tracing regime. The mantra of the WHO was test, test and test again. Of course the UK did the opposite.

Germany has had the sort of foresight that comes from seriously looking at history, analysing in depth information from various sources and planning on a precautionary basis. These predispositions have allowed it to forecast and plan in a way that the UK State has failed to do – actually, has been unable to do.

Commentators have put a lot of this failure to forecast, strategize and successfully implement policy decisions onto Boris Johnson. Even many Tory MPs now doubt his fitness to lead with his dislike of detail, his discomfort with complexity and uncertainty and his over-reliance on his charm and optimism to carry the day. Boring, relentless strategizing and meetings are not his thing. Nothing illustrates this more than the failure to create the world-beating testing and tracing regime he promised and the failure to prepare for the second wave, despite endless warnings that it was coming.

Unfortunately, it’s not the whole story. Poor leadership can infect a whole organisation and a country but its adverse effects are often mitigated by capable leadership structures below that can support an ‘absent leader’, or, in our own experience, an ‘absent’ Headteacher. When the crisis extends into lower levels, then a deep, downward spiral rapidly sets in. This is the provenance of the sense of malaise that everyone now feels.

The Department for Education has not only been behind the curve for much of the crisis, it has been much less effective in terms of advice and planning than its counter-parts in Europe and markedly so in Scotland. It’s been a case of where Scotland leads, England follows. The truth is that the Department was filleted during the Cameron/Osborne years of cuts whilst it took on more responsibilities with Academicisation and state centralisation away from local government.

It hasn’t had the bandwidth to administratively get on top of the crisis, or mitigate some very ineffectual political leadership.

The absence of effective Local Education Departments has meant the ability to respond to emergency planning measures has been significantly undermined and schools have had to manage as best they could on their own. Whatever the weaknesses of LEAs they could have coordinated and supported the response to distance learning and supporting children and parents at home who were not coping. Schools have done remarkably well. But it has been uneven and much less satisfactory, and much more stressful, than it might have been had strong local government existed.

The evisceration of the local state has had enormous implications for our readiness to respond to the crisis; Pandemic planning was until 15 years ago a major part of regional emergency planning co-ordinated by local government. It all seems to have just faded away. Our once very strong public health departments were first cut, then centralised, then cut again. Their enormous experience in test and trace has either been lost or side-lined by a government determined not to strengthen local government or any form of local response.

In contrast, the German way has been to pour resources into 400 local centres which have helped to create a world-beating test and trace system that Johnson can only look longingly at. How effectively could LEAs and local Public Health departments have worked to support schools and local communities? Maybe it’s a pointless exercise in speculating what might have been. But in the days of reckoning, over-centralisation of our state agencies will be a feature as will its partner-in-crime, chronic Short-termism.

The UK has always found it politically attractive to tear up existing structures with endless re-organisations and new initiatives, which are rarely as successful as the systems they replace, than work for painstaking, incremental reform. Education and Health have long been victims of both these forces, and they have been almost entirely absent in Germany. With Covid-19 we are seeing their destructive power becoming apparent on a much larger scale. In the current political context, it’s unlikely that any of the deep lessons of the Pandemic will be learned.

Howard Sharron is the Editor of School Leadership Today. This piece is the editorial from School Leadership Today 10.4 To see the full contents of the magazine, click here!

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  • David Hellawell

    1 year ago
    Excellent analysis. The UK desperately needs more of this kind of analysis and politicians should pay more heed.