Faith, hope and opacity

The continuing trials and tribulations of Guernsey’s secondary education show why we all need to keep engaged, says Henry Smith...

GOVERNMENTS elected by the people have a tendency to try to hide their mistakes from the people.

This is not hugely surprising – whether mistakes were made in good faith (e.g. the cost of a failed IT system implementation) or not (e.g. the Watergate scandal), obfuscation and deception have become the natural refuge for executive leadership.

In mature democracies, the main checks on the executive come from the legislature – either the legislature itself or a sub-committee investigates the executive to obtain, review and evaluate materials and then it concludes.

The UK, moreover, has a Freedom of Information Act which permits any citizen to request and be provided with information if the UK government is unable to show why it cannot be provided – the burden of proof is placed on the UK government, not the requesting citizen.

And why is this broad-brush analysis being laid out here? It is because the recent failed amendment to the Government Work Plan, connected to Guernsey’s secondary education review (the so-called Bury-Gabriel amendment), should be regarded as an attempt at legislative oversight validly proposed but curiously objected to by those (i.e. the deputies) who should have been most interested in that oversight. It is the tale of a States consciously not wishing to hold the government to account.

The Bury-Gabriel amendment was, at its heart, a simple proposal to ensure that the States maintained wide-ranging oversight of its ESC committee and could carry on its much fought for review of the options for the island’s secondary education in the context of the end of selection – broadly the same objective as the original requete (which called for the review).

ESC president Deputy Andrea Dudley-Owen. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29407961)

Given that the previous States had agreed that the issue was so important as to require the States’ active oversight (in its capacity of legislature), bringing the requete’s propositions up to date to ensure continuing oversight seemed an obvious step. Therefore, two important questions arise from the failure of the amendment to pass – first, why did it fail? And second, what does this failure mean?

The first question is a complex one but probably starts with the position of ESC being that the amendment was absolutely not required. As noted above, this position might, in of itself, cause alarm bells to ring among the wider States membership – with the current president of ESC being one of the main agitators in the original requete, why is ESC now avoiding a comparative analysis against a model which had improving educational outcomes as its main objective? But then, as also noted above, no one likes their work being overseen, so it should not surprise us.

So where did the other 20 contre votes come from (which added up to the amendment’s defeat)? That question, considered at an individual level, is beyond the scope of this article and each deputy will have made his/her own political calculations but, considering the States as a whole, the stark conclusion is that it didn’t want to know. The States essentially passed up scrutiny, interrogation and transparency for faith, hope and opacity. Deputy Bury herself was bemused by the failure – almost all the deputies had campaigned on a platform of engaging with the review and committed to be bound by the review – so it seemed strange that, in a few months, a majority of them had, so radically, changed their position.

Deputy Tina Bury. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29407998)

So what next? Well, it is presumed that ESC will go on with its work behind closed doors and, after presenting a fait accompli to those designated as stakeholders, lodge a single policy letter conclusion. The States has imposed no obligation on ESC to give evidence in any particular form or by reference to any specific or demanding criteria. The States will then come to debate this and be faced with the usual binary choice – back it, and bring resolution, or don’t back it, and then force everyone back to square one at a time when we can ill-afford this as an island.

If you think this situation sounds familiar, you’re right. It’s essentially what happened just over a year ago. Interested party after interested party cited numerous factors that were felt not to have been properly considered by the last ESC and we ended up with... a review.

We do not want every decision of the States of Deliberation subject to the type of process that the original requete envisioned – that is not what the States is for and, indeed, we have a scrutiny function within it. But this is the biggest of issues and every States member should be interested in looking at the data and analysing the consequences of their decision.

Further, in the course of the last year, it has not been plain sailing for ESC, from the occasional leaks to the mixed messages that have been received by both public and States. Fundamentally, I want to see the detail behind the review and so do you. So why not your deputies?

Deputy Bury originally tweeted that, by tabling the amendment, she hoped that it would lead to ‘informed decision-making’. Instead, the States seems to have chosen ill-informed decision-making, which is a far from ideal state of affairs. It is a very concerning abrogation of responsibility just at the time when the island’s educational stakeholders (which, let’s face it, is all of us) need their representatives to engage.

Moreover – and even more worryingly – we must hope this is not a trend towards unchecked reform, directed by a few, without the oversight of the rest. Guernsey at its best is a tension between conservatism and progress, determination to navigate a path to suit itself in a global context. This only works when everyone cares and engages.

. Henry Smith has lived in Guernsey for nine years. He is a lawyer by background, now working in the fiduciary industry.

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