Standardistation Isn’t Innovation

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Sep 132014


I’m reading Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation about the rise of the junk food industry in America and how the multinational corporations have taken over the global market in food for themselves. Schlosser describes in vivid detail how the McDonalds fast food chain pioneered the use of production line techniques in their restaurants in order to drive down employment costs. Rather than employing chefs and ‘carhops’ the kitchen was divided into units of production, with ‘team members’ working one section only and working to a proscribed set of routines. This factory model has been used in numerous other places and industries since. According to Schlosser, Walt Disney’s innovation was to turn the art studio into a production line for his animations. Subsequently everything from tele-sales to dentists to funeral care has been standardised and homogenised.

In higher education at the moment there is a drive towards the standardisation and industrialisation of learning. The model is similar to the McDonalds principle of management, you have a set of highly trained and motivated managers who are given a set of clear instructions and routines that they must enforce – in this case in the name of academic quality – and then reduce the skill levels of all the subordinate contributors. So there is no individual academic judgement to be made about the performance of learners, rather academics work towards an algorithm that churns out a degree classification at the end of a students studies. Higher education isn’t much different now than the fast food industry. We are in show business. We find out what the dreams, hopes and desires are of our market and we turn it to our advantage, much in the same way that the processed food industry sells us health by making us by products that are making us fat and giving us diabetes.

And yet, the result of all this standardisation has actually been counterproductive – for ordinary people at least. For the corporations it has embedded their power as a corporate oligarchy and driven their profit margins ruthlessly. Even in times of crisis the corporations can’t fail because they have socialised risk to the rest of us. But working peoples income hasn’t risen over the last forty years. We feel richer because more of us work, and we have access to more credit, but the proportion of wealth that goes back to working people continues to decline.

So all of this makes me wonder, why are we so inthrall to the process of standardisation and centralisation that the corporate management model promotes? On the one hand we have the marketing people telling us it’s all about choice, but then the only places that you can get a coffee is Starbucks, or to get something to eat is McDonalds or to buy your groceries is Tesco, who only supply a limited range of foods anyway. Obviously something isn’t working or we’d all be getting fitter and healthier, spending more time dedicating our lives to higher pursuits and enjoying the families and friends that we are bonded to. Instead we are running around trying to pay the bills, to compete and keep up with our neighbours and to keep hold of our jobs by being compliant and following the charismatic corporate leaders we are told have all the answers.

The process of standardisation has to be obdurately resisted, then, and only then, might we create some space for some real innovation to happen.

What Price Financial Accountability in Education?

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May 212013

£9k Fees and Cuts?

The continuing saga of ‘superhead’ Jo Shuter continues to rumble on, following the news that she had been suspended pending an investigation by the Department for Education into financial irregularities. According to Camden New Journal, “The award-winning head teacher of Quintin Kynaston school has been reinstated after being suspended from the job for eight months.”

The news of Shuter’s reinstatement, along with a final written warning, came after the investigation by the DofE “identified significant weaknesses in the financial oversight and the proper and regular use of public funds” at Quintin Kynaston school. In particular, the report raised questions “with regard to Ms Shuter’s role as the Accounting Officer and her responsibility for the prudent and economical administration of Academy business.”

Academies aren’t the only education establishments that seem to be experiencing a rush of blood to the head where financial accountability is concerned. The Independent reported recently that Durham University has been “criticised for spending £1.4 million on art including works by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol while it charges students £9,000-a-year and pays hundreds of staff less than the Living Wage.”

This spending is clearly controversial, because, as reported the next day in The Telegraph, “the amount of lecture and tutorial time in universities has barely changed over the last six years despite a nine-fold hike in annual tuition fees.” All of which means, as The Guardian reported in March, that “England’s universities could suffer from the perception that they are “awash with cash”, as the Treasury seeks cuts of £1 billion in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ 2015-16 budget.”

In January Kent Online reported that Christ Church University vice-chancellor was “forced to resign from his £200,000 post” after he “blew thousands on business class flights, luxury hotels and even flowers.” According to Kent Online “Prof Robin Baker left his job on October 22 last year, amid talk of relationships with women at the university. The institution has close links with the Church of England and has the Archbishop of Canterbury as its chancellor. But the 59-year-old, who earned £203,000 a year as the university’s principal officer, ran up £15,000 on credit card spending, it’s been revealed. As his students struggled to pay thousands of pounds in tuition fees, Prof Baker paid for business class flights around the world, dinners in some of Canterbury’s finest restaurants, luxury hotels and even flowers. He even whipped out his corporate credit card to pay for shopping from Waitrose, refreshments from sandwich shops, such as Pret a Manger and Upper Crust and hundreds of pounds on opera tickets.”

Professor Baker hit the news in 2011 after Canterbury Christ Church University “admitted it spent more than £200,000 recruiting Robin Baker as its vice-chancellor and [then] creating a “palatial” office for him.” According to Kent Online “It was equipped with an executive washroom and shower, a kitchen, a photocopying room, waiting area and an office for a personal assistant. New furniture for the office cost another £1,300.”

In another development, the Manchester Evening News is reporting that the University of Salford “faces a huge legal bill after performing an embarrassing u-turn over its bid to sue a former lecturer for criticising bosses in a blog.” According to the report, the University of Salford has “slashed more than 400 jobs in four years,” and “refuses to rule out future redundancies”. The legal bill comes after “a probe into an alleged bust-up involving second-in-command Dr Adrian Graves.” University bosses have announced a “climbdown over their costly libel action against former part-time lecturer Dr Gary Duke – two days after the M.E.N. posed a series of questions about the affair.” Vice-chancellor Martin Hall has “sent an email to staff saying he had finally decided to pull the plug on the three-year battle – which had already cost £150,000 at a time when hundreds of people were being made redundant – to save further expensive solicitor bills”.

As universities, colleges and schools are being pushed to act in ever more commercial ways, questions about accountability and good-governance of public funds are increasingly going to  come to the public’s attention. Without rigorous and transparent accountability, are we likely to see more examples of waste and extravagance in our education institutions? As Alasdair Smith of the Anti-Acadamies Alliance says “A big part of [the problem] is the rise of the cult of the personality in school leadership. Our schools are among the best in the world but they have been denigrated and our teaching standards have been besmirched. Jo Shuter was one of a number of school leaders lauded as being the new broom needed to sweep away all of the detritus and make us all shiny and new. Perhaps they felt invincible?”

Academy Heads Lack Accountability

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May 182013

wpid-wpid-62863613_62861831-2013-05-18-19-10-2013-05-18-19-101.jpgAnother Head Teacher at an academy school has been ticked-off for spending school money on themselves rather than the children they should be committed to serving. BBC London has reported how “A Department for Education report criticised Quintin Kynaston Community Academy head teacher Jo Shuter over use of school funds.”

The report into Ms Kynaston “looked at spending between January 2011 and August 2012, detailed numerous concerns, including:

  • Ms Shuter not declaring any business interests despite having close links to a number of suppliers used by the academy.
  • “Widespread” personal use of academy taxi accounts with an estimated £2,663 of personal travel costs identified.
  • At least two cases of expenses being claimed more than once from different organisations, which “could amount to fraud”.
  • A number of issues relating to the employment of family members.”

It looks like Michael Gove’s breakneck push to make all schools academies is hitting bumps on the road. This is what happens when there is a lack of accountability in public services and a culture of arms-length executive management is thrown into the mix.


The PR Blaggers are at it Again!

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May 132013

wpid-wpid-Michael-Gove-008-2013-05-13-16-27-2013-05-13-16-27.jpgWhen is Michael Gove going to come clean, and admit that his education policies are driven by ideology and prejudice? Trying to pass-off PR surveys as academically rigorous, and basing his education policies around dodgy prejudice, isn’t a good foundation to give people confidence in the UK education system. The Guardian is reporting that “Janet Downs, who describes herself as a grandparent and retired teacher, [sent] a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Department for Education asking for the evidence to support Gove’s claim.” that “one teenager in five” believes Winston Churchill was a “fictional character while 58% think Sherlock Holmes was real.”

It turns out that the claims were based on a survey done by that well-known academic and research institution UKTV Gold in 2008.

There are two lessons: first, if Gove was really confident about his sources in the first place he would publish them; and second, why on earth do we put up with PR drivel like this in the first place? God save us from Michael Gove and from dodgy PR merchants who peddle this junk.