Monday 15 February 2016

Exactly The Wrong Place

Zoe Williams writes:

Let’s be clear about this, I have nothing against migrant labour, so long as it doesn’t drive down wages. If nobody in the UK has the skills to run Ofsted, then Nicky Morgan is perfectly entitled to look elsewhere. 

My only reservation is that the education secretary doesn’t seem to have anyone in mind: she is simply “looking to the US”This sounds less like a personnel matter, more like the import of a worldview.

And it’s a trend that predates the current government by some years, for policymakers have long been enthralled by innovations in the US, birthplace of some of the worst ideas social policy has ever seen.

Last year, in a development that apparently interested those two improbable bedfellows the Lancet and the Daily Mail , results were published about the Family Nurse Partnership (FNP).

This is a licensed programme from the US that involves 64 structured visits to mothers who are 19 years old or younger, from early pregnancy to the child’s second birthday.

The Department of Health paid Professor David Olds of the University of Colorado for it, then paid for its delivery, then paid a number of British academic departments – led by the South East Wales trials unit – to assess its efficacy.

Let’s not get too hung up on the money, for now (though for clarity, the additional cost to provide FNP was estimated to be between £1,993 and £4,670 per person).

The trial found that FNP does not work.

It was measured across four goals: smoking cessation; birthweight; accident and emergency attendance in the child’s first two years; a second pregnancy within the same time period.

It didn’t work on any of them.

The study also found that the intervention was expensive, though as none of it worked, that’s a moot point.

Public Health England is next month expected to recommend that local authorities continue to pay for it anyway.

This is an act of faith. They now know it doesn’t work, but have looked at America, where it does work, and concluded that we’re just not testing the right things.

(The most likely explanation is that universal maternity care overall in America is so poor that any intervention gets results.)

The sunk cost is probably an issue; having invested in it, they won’t want to pull the plug before they can show some value.

But at root this is simply the most recent instance of looking to America for lessons in social policy, as a matter of ideology.

All the evidence tells us not to copy the US – indeed to use it as a cautionary tale, not just in relation to early years provision but also in schooling, tertiary education, social security, across the board.

The US has a long and ignominious history of getting poor outcomes for the money it spends. Yet we continue to mimic it, in the face of broad evidence.

When we look for international lessons in how to create a modern social state, we are looking in exactly the wrong place.

In the chronological order of a citizen’s life, we have imported from the United States a fixation on maternal behaviour in pregnancy – the drinking mother, the smoking mother, the stressed mother – as the wellspring of all negative consequences for the child.

Public health declamations obsessively police the womb environment while determinedly ignoring the economic environment that we know makes the difference. We have imported, in tandem, schemes such as the FNP that don’t work.

We have imported the charter school narrative, in which any aspirational, caring parent, desperate to rescue their child from the sluggish public sector, breaks his or her bones to get into an academy.

Morgan ignores evidence of brilliantly performing local authority schools and, illogically, blatantly amplifies the success of academies, in order to fit this narrative.

It was inevitable she would end up having to scour the charter sector for someone to head Ofsted, when she treats our own educationalists as though their thinking has ossified and their expertise drained away.

Meanwhile, we have brought in, by stealth and rhetoric, the American reality of university education, leaving students with a life-altering debt – just as the rest of Europe realises how counterproductive and demoralising this is.

We have bought, wholesale, the intern culture, where the financial burden of training is, at a stroke, placed upon the trainee (realistically, the trainee’s parents) rather than the employer.

These structural shifts have destroyed the American middle class, left highly trained medics starting life with half a million dollars of debt, and more artistically minded college lecturers sleeping in their cars.

We have, through the most casuistic, technical maze of benefit sanctions and the penalisation of disability, created a food bank culture that is indistinguishable from America’s – food stamps in lieu of real social security, which was always the most foreign and inhuman thing about their social character.

We do not have to be Germany, with its efficiently universal nursery provision, or France, where private schooling is really just to legitimise religiosity, or Finland, where publicly provided education leads the world, or Germany again, where university education is free, or Scandinavia generally, where the social safety net is proudly upheld.

We are a sovereign nation, free to cherry-pick or ignore, free to think creatively about bespoke solutions of our own.

Instead, we swallow this Anglo-Saxon dog-eat-doggerel.

The US knows best, and however destructive or ineffective or misguided it is, we should still look to its ideas and its people to parent us to a place we could never otherwise reach.

And why? Blind zealotry? Cravenness? Under-confidence? Perhaps all three, but none speaks well of us.

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