Examination of Witness(Questions 120-141)
THURSDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2002
120. I am very grateful for that. It is difficult
to get people to give examples sometimes.
(Sir Michael Bichard) If you want a more flippant
example, the example about how quickly you got someone out of
a Benefit Office was a bad target. There are two ways in which
you can get someone out of a Benefits Office. The staff very quickly
realised that if you threw them out they came back and therefore
you hit the target twice.
121. That is the kind of example we want.
(Sir Michael Bichard) That is not an entirely flippant
122. I am very grateful for both examples, both
the serious one and the flippant one. Leaving aside the flippant
example which I am sure we will utilise later on, the other example
you gave as a bad target in terms of your 17 points for designing
a good target, which of those did it fail?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I am not sure I can answer that.
123. Not in terms of all of them.
(Sir Michael Bichard) The last point I made there,
targets should reflect priorities, they should not fudge difficult
decisions. A difficult decision is are we serious about accuracy
or are we serious about speed and have we got the right trade
off, that is the one.
124. Sir Michael, I have not heard you speak
before and I must say I found myself interested in what you were
saying. I am one of those people on the left who made a lot of
enemies of my former friends by being critical of the teaching
profession. In the 1980s you may remember the research done by
Sig Prais and Claus Moser which gave horrifying comparisons between
our schools and what our children were learning with other countries.
We started to address that. The William Tyndale School head teacher
said that "if 50 per cent of the children can read by the
time they leave my school I will be quite happy with that".
He was sacked. We started to realise something horrible was happening
in our schools. I have focused on education, I have taught in
further education myself and even recently we have had the Moser
Report four years ago saying 50 per cent of our population do
not understand what 50 per cent means. There is still a problem
in the population as a whole but I think we are starting to address
it. I think the measurement is absolutely crucial and we have
to start measuring and finding out what is happening. The targets
you say can sometimes be demoralising. My own feeling was that
pressure was put on schools and teachers without telling them
precisely what you wanted them to do. You were permanent secretary
in the Department of Education in a crucial period. Was there
any really serious attempt to come to grips with the fact that
teachers had been fed nonsense for years about how to teach. In
my view the child centre, progressive centres actually caused
mayhem in schools and unfortunately a whole generation of teachers
got really demoralised because they felt in a sense they had wasted
their time because they had been told nonsense about how to teach.
That is changing now. Nobody has faced up to that. We are having
literacy and numeracy strategy and that sort of thing and publishing
targets but we are not saying something is wrong. Just a final
point. A very good friend of mine grew up in Pakistan, he is now
a graduate. He said we can all do arithmetic in Pakistan because
we are taught tables by standing up and chanting in unison. Now
if I said that to a teacher in Britain they would have passed
out, I think, at the thought it was so horrifying, so connective.
Do we not need to address the methods of achieving the targets
not just put the targets in place?
(Sir Michael Bichard) There are a huge number of issues
there. I think we do; of course, we do. Targets are just a way
of measuring not a way of doing. I think probably I disagree with
you that we did not. I think the literacy and the numeracy strategy
which were about more than just the literacy and numeracy hours
were probably the first real attempt to say how things were going
to be done in the classroom certainly since the war. I think they
have been pretty successful, I suppose I would say that. I think
the reason they were successful was they were based on a lot of
evidence which was drawn up from around the world on what was
working. The literacy and numeracy strategy was coupled with increasing
evidence from the inspection process about what worked in schools.
I think it is quite difficult for schools now to say that they
do not know what it is that makes for a successful school. I think
we know a lot more now than we have ever done about what makes
for a successful school and how they should behave and I think
that is all to the good. This is going a bit beyond this particular
inquiry but I think you pick up an issue which is related to targets
and tables and which we have not talked much about and that is
risk and creativity. One of the things you can criticise targets
and prescription tables for is that they make people less likely
to be creative. I think that is something one should be concerned
about. As I said you should not produce targets which are so prescriptive
down to the last detail that people lose their creativity. Teaching
in a classroom requires some creativity. Now I think the best
teachers have been able to use their creativity within this new
framework of targets and strategies and I know that is not agreed
by everyone but I think they have. You do need to be worried about
that. Finally, I have just come back from Hong Kong where I was
speaking at a seminar at the weekend on creative cities. Of course
go to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan actually and what they look
with envy at the English system for is creativity. They are concerned
that they have a lot of people who are very good on standards
but as they move from a manufacturing economy to a design creative
base economy they do not have enough people who have the creative
skills and who know how to innovate. We just need to be careful
that we do not become so managerial and do not produce targets
which are so prescriptive and detailed that we squeeze out risk
and creativity. Good managers can manage risk as well as they
can manage targets.
125. Can I just pursue this. My next question
was going to be about international comparisons. One can take
the extremes of the Far East and their problems of rigidity and
lack of imagination and creativity, we have new ideas and they
develop them and so on but there are other examples on the Continent
of Europe where they are being much more successful. I have been
to Norway recently and they are very sensitive to all the problems
we have had but they are way ahead of us I think in solving them.
Have we looked very carefully at other systems rather than looking
at just the extremes of the Far East?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I thought we were getting better
at that. I think there was a lot more effort to find out what
was happening in detail and to try and pick up the good practice.
126. One more brief question. One of the problems
I believeI do not know if you would agreeis that
in Britain we try to get too much out for too little input. Resources
in education by comparison with other countries are much lower.
The fact is in Denmark class sizes are about half what ours are.
In Switzerland I understand teachers are paid the same as their
GPs, I am not saying we should go to those extremes. Do we not
need to think really about putting a lot more resources into achieving
(Sir Michael Bichard) I think in education we were
trying to do that. We did try to find ways of increasing the salaries
of teachers and head teachers. I think more generally the Government
has put a lot of money into public services. My great concern
is whether that money will lead to improved services. The history
over the last 50 or 60 years is that it does not always happen
like that and that is a real worry. The point about targets surely
in particular is that you are never going to have enough money.
I used to say to my staff "It is very unlikely I will ever
get up in front of you and you say `Fair cop, guv, we have got
far too much money we do not know what to do with it'." It
is always going to be "We have not got enough money".
You have to use that resource as well as you possibly can. I do
not want to bore you about this but targets are a way of making
sure that people will focus their energy on the things which you
think generally are the priorities otherwise everyone has got
their own view about what they should be doing. Every teacher,
every doctor, every one in every public service has got their
own personal priorities. They have got good intentions. They are
committed dedicated people and without some focus they will go
off in all sorts of different directions and a lot of money is
127. Can I just follow up one aspect of what
Kelvin has been asking. You mentioned literacy and numeracy, this
is always cited as the great shining success story of central
intervention, whatever else you might think about it. I wonder
how it sits with your general analysis because it was not just
an outcome, it was very much a process intervention.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I wanted to pick that point
up about five minutes ago and I forgot it, you are absolutely
right. It was a process intervention. I should have said right
at the beginning, this is not a cop out, I think there are some
occasionsand they are very few in my viewwhen you
have to take the decision to intervene in the process as well
as the outcome. You only take that if you feel the problems are
serious enough to merit it and there is not sufficient consensus
around the process that people are confused. You do not do that
very often because, one, for the Government it is a very risky
strategy because it is your head on the line if it does not work
and, two, it does run the risk of people feeling they are no longer
in control of their own destiny and their own creativity and that
can be very demoralising at the time. The evidence I was giving
last year to other Select Committees was I think Government had
to take a view and has to constantly take a view as to whether
it continues with that degree of intervention. So be very careful
about it. We thought and the Secretary of State felt that things
had got to a pass where we just had to intervene on the process
as well as the outcome.
128. I would like to just backtrack a little
bit and things in terms of targets might be concealing as much
as they are revealing. I would like to quote from a local example
but I do not expect you to speak on that. Dorset Ambulance Trust
was very highly favoured a year ago. It had reached all its targets,
it was within budget. It had Investors In People two years running.
It has a charter mark. The CHI comes in and it is a totally different
story now. You mentioned the need for an auditing process but
could you just expand on that and what else one needs to have
some confidence that the targets are giving us the right story?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think there is a magic
wand here. What I am suggesting is a combination of internal processes
and external processes. I am suggesting the external processes
should not be so bureaucratic as to get in the way of the service
but you do need them. Whether that is external audit or whether
it is an inspection process I think you do need them. The integrity
of your performance as well as the level of your performance is
going to depend primarily on what is going on within the organisation.
That is why things like self-assessment are so much more important
in my view than external audit though I still think you need in
a monopolistic situation someone from outside having a look at
how you are managing and what targets you are setting and whether
the information is independent that you are basing your conclusion
on, whether it is reliable and whether you need to have another
look at the target. All of that I think is necessary. I do not
know the Dorset Ambulance Trust case at all.
129. No, I did not want to dwell on that in
particular but you had a situation where literally it had to wait
for that outside body because nothing would get revealed from
within despite the internal problems which were being concealed
and not handled by the Trust.
(Sir Michael Bichard) That is a worry. When that happens
it is a worry. I have seen it happen once or twice. If you go
through a process of IIP, you get charter marks and you have a
self-assessment system and it is still not showing that level
of performance failure, I do not think it happens that often but
I think it is very worrying. It makes me worry with something
like IIP, which I was a great believer in and sponsored for a
long time, whether the assessment system there was sufficiently
130. It is just, I suppose, thinking about Ofsted
being over the top to start with. One hesitates to say that there
should be regular inspections on all sorts of bodies but having
had this situation locally it would not have come out without
the CHI going in. There seems to be a case for having annual check-ups
on such bodies.
(Sir Michael Bichard) It needs to be annual and certainly
I think if it is too bureaucratic every year then you have got
a problem. Surely what we should be trying to do is to have enough
indicators in the public domain about an organisation to be able
to draw some reasonably reliable conclusions about whether or
not this is a high performing organisation or an organisation
in difficulty. What we have begun to do now with schools is to
focus the Ofsted inspection on the schools which from the evidence
we have appear to be in difficulty and not spend as much time
on the schools which from the evidence we have appear to be performing
well. Sometimes we will get it wrong, sometimes the evidence will
be manipulated or it will not throw up a cause of particular concern
but I think that is the exception rather than the rule.
131. In fact possibly you would favour something
like Ofsted which went in quite heavily to start with and then
(Sir Michael Bichard) Yes. I have always supported
Ofsted and I have always been in favour of Ofsted. In a monopolistic
situation then you need something like Ofsted. My concern at the
time and my complaint now is that it was too focused for too long
on blame. An inspection system is as much about ensuring that
a good practice gets around the system. For a good practice to
get around the system you need to develop some ownership for it.
You cannot just tell people when they get things wrong, you cannot
just tell a profession when they get it wrong, you have got to
tell them also when they get it right and help them to ensure
that good practice is spread around the system. That was my complaint
about Ofsted. I think in the more recent times that has improved
significantly under the new head.
132. I think there has been interest on the
culture of inspection. Finally, I posed this question a fortnight
ago, particularly on the health side. Instinctively I favour the
setting of more local targets. How do we marry that with the fact
the public do not like the postcode lottery?
(Sir Michael Bichard) The postcode lottery in what
133. If I live in a certain place I might get
my hip operation or whatever much quicker than somewhere else
and yet it might be a local priority in certain areas, that sort
(Sir Michael Bichard) This is a difficult issue, I
think. It is a wider issue than just about targets, it is an issue
about how much the public are prepared to accept different levels
of service around the country which is an inevitable consequence
of a real devolution. My view is that the media are increasingly
unsympathetic to different levels of service. We had a national
media and they expect national standards of service. My belief
is you get a lot out of devolution, you cannot run systems entirely
from the centre. You and I are probably identifying a problem
to which there is no easy answer. I would defend, however, the
need for local targets so that local people can hold their performance
unit to account. They are able to draw comparisons, of course,
between what is happening in their area and what is happening
elsewhere. That may well be uncomfortable sometimes but sometimes
they may have a point. Sometimes they may be saying "Look
at that authority which seems to have achieved a different level
of priorities as expressed in its targets and we think that they
are right. We would rather you did give a higher priority to this
target and a lower priority to that target". I think that
is an entirely healthy process. It can be uncomfortable and I
think the delivery unit needs to be pretty mature and robust to
be involved in it. What happens without it, people have no idea,
do they, about what is happening in their hospitals, that does
not seem to me to be acceptable either. The hospital itself has
no real idea, I have said on two or three occasions, where to
focus its energy and its limited resources. That is a debate which
has to happen and has to end up with clearer priorities articulated
in the form of clearer targets. You do need local ties. We could
not have done what we didit was not an unalloyed success
but I think literacy and numeracy has been more of a success than
a failureunless we had targets at national level, local
education authority level and school level because it is at the
school level that you need the ownership and the target at the
school level has got to be more about how do we deliver improvement
on what we are doing currently. They need to know what it is that
they need to do in that school as their contribution to the national
target being met. If you cannot tell them that they are not interested
because they have not got any influence over it. I remember part
of the PSA discussion I had with the Treasury was they wanted
to set me a target for controlling inflation. There is a limited
amount I can do to control the level of inflation. I was responsible
for the Employment Service but even so it is not a target which
is designed for me to have ownership. You must have ownership
at the local level.
134. Coming back to the previous point, achieving
the target in terms of literacy and numeracy for some schools
meant the loss of music.
(Sir Michael Bichard) Of course in my new role I could
not possibly condone that or accept it. We could have a long debate
about whether that was necessary.
135. We have just got a very few minutes so
if I could sweep up on a couple of things and then ask you if
there is anything we have not asked you which you would like to
tell us, particularly on the recommendation side. I think we are
trying to extract what we can out of you. You know the old adage
about you do not make a pig fatter by constantly measuring it
which you put alongside the adage which says you do not know if
the pig is getting fatter unless you do constantly measure. You
introduced helpfully the notion of performance indicators as well
as targets, is the argument that you cannot have too much measurement
in Government? We have now a great industry producing measurement
in Government and volumes of performance indicators produced,
there is a whole enterprise doing it. Should we welcome that simply
as the more measurement the better because that just tells us
more things or should we worry about that too?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I think I should step back at
this point and say all the things I have been saying suggest that
probably we have got too many targets and too much measurement
at the moment. I have been defending the concept of targets because
I think they are really important but I think you can have too
much of it and you can measure things too often and I think we
have probably got to the point where that is the situation and
then they lose their impact and become an obstacle rather than
a facilitator. That is probably the point I need to get across.
136. Let me take you back to what I started
with which was the league table, this kind of test case for all
kinds of things. Are we clear what these things are for? Are they
to shame people? Are they to produce peer pressure? Are they to
trigger resources either more or less? Are they to enable people
to choose but of course, as has been said, that is often not possible?
Do we know what these things are for?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I think they are for a number
of those. I think that is their strength actually. Whatever teachers
say, whatever head teachers say, they look at those tables and
they know the schools in their area or in similar areas which
have similar intakes and they know whether or not they are performing
well and frankly so do the governors. I am a governor now of a
college and we know where we should be and whether or not our
performance has improved against our peers. I think they do impose
some peer pressure but they do enable also parents to ask questions.
I think it is very difficult for some parents to get behind the
facade which is put up by a school when you are deciding whether
or not you want your child to go there. Obviously the school is
telling you all of the good things and I think it is useful to
have some information which enables you to challenge that a bit
and to ask why in comparison to other schools or why in this particular
area you do not seem to be doing well. I think frankly a head
or any manager in any public service who has not got the courage
to answer those questions is a pretty weak minded individual.
People who are running public services have got huge amounts of
power and huge amounts of information. This is just a way of encouraging
them to share some of that with the clients and I do not think
that is unreasonable.
137. Just a couple more final things. You tended
to talk about targets being annual things as part of business
plans but then you said they needed to be constantly refreshed
(Sir Michael Bichard) Yes.
138. I wonder just whether an annual cycle actually
does capture strategic business planning and whether that cycle
is right. Also if there is constant review and refreshment going
on how on earth can you get any serious measurement of this because
it is a moving target.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think you should change
everything every year, that is stupid. I think you need constantly
to be keeping an eye on the way in which you formulate the targets.
You need to be clear that your targets are still reflecting your
priorities. If priorities are changing your targets ought to change
as well probably. I do not think you should be doing that constantly,
changing it constantly because people do lose sight of where on
earthy they are. Of course you are right in some areas, not geographical
but functional areas, you should have three, four, five year targets.
The literacy and numeracy target was over an extended period but
it was then broken down so people were clear what they had to
do year on year in their particular unit to deliver what we wanted
over a five year period. We missed it at the end of the day, not
by that much but we did miss it. Yes, there are some areas where
you ought to have strategic five year targets. As I said people
are going to be quite reluctant to do that now.
139. You implied this earlier on but when we
reach a point where a Secretary of State has to resign, at least
in part, because she is attacked for not meeting a target that
she announced or had been announced by the Department some years
previously and she is hounded by the media for the same reason,
do we not just consume ourselves coming backwards?
(Sir Michael Bichard) It is a totally bizarre situation
where we have the world beating a path to our door to find out
how we have achieved what we have achieved on literacy and numeracy
over the last five years and we regard it as a failure.
140. Unless you have got any parting shots for
(Sir Michael Bichard) No.
141. You have been extremely helpful and we
shall draw shamelessly on what you have said to us. We are very
grateful. I cannot promise that we shall not invite you to come
(Sir Michael Bichard) I enjoyed it as ever. Thank
you very much.