Don't mention the ‘P word’

As the new Assembly settles in, Richard Graham is looking for hints about its intentions...

I INTEND to make no comment about the process by which the new States elected the leadership and membership of committees, boards and statutory authorities.

Enough – perhaps more than enough – has been said and written about that turbulent first week of the new Assembly’s life. I am much more interested in how our new government performs now that it is in place.

If the States collectively proves to be even half as good as its individual members told us they are during the general election and subsequently when putting themselves forward for their roles in government, we should be in for a treat. A Revive and Thrive budget awaits presentation in mid-December, followed by the review of fiscal policy in the early months of next year, so we will soon have an indication of the new regime’s mettle. I for one wish them well and offer encouragement, because it is in the interests of us all that they should succeed.

That said, and to repeat an aphorism I have previously made in this newspaper, there may well be reasons and explanations for failure, but in politics there can be no excuses for not meeting promises freely made. I apply that same judgement to my own record. With that in mind, my support will not be of the uncritical sort.

I looked for an early sign of the changes which we are told were demanded by the electorate and which have been promised in spades by the new States leadership. It duly came – perhaps unnoticed by some but not by this columnist – at the start of the first post-election Covid-19 media briefing. I leave it to others to judge whether it was a significant change. Out of the blue there emerged for the first time the ‘P word’, which had been deliberately eschewed by the previous leadership even during the stressful early weeks of the pandemic and the Bailiwick’s lockdown.

Some readers will remember the TV series Dad’s Army. One of the stock comic situations was that of a panic-stricken LCpl Jones directing the cry ‘Don’t panic’ towards his totally relaxed comrades who were showing not the slightest sign of panicking. Wind forward to the most recent Covid-19 media briefing and there was our new chief minister urging us not to panic in the face of a minuscule cluster of positive cases of the type which the previous leadership had consistently advised us to expect. One of the first rules for effective leadership is – or should be if it isn’t – don’t mention the ‘P word’, especially if there is no sign of panic anywhere. I suppose it is possible that some on social media were panicking at the thought of not being able to spend a few cold, wet, windy November days in the Isle of Man, but in my limited experience of the subterranean, twittering world of social media many of its participants spend their whole life in a perpetual state of panic about one issue or another, so what was new?

I hear that some people thought the advice to avoid panic was patronising, but my reservations lie elsewhere. They are twofold. The first is that pressing the ‘Don’t panic’ button risks achieving the opposite to the intended outcome. If members of the public have already been fully informed of the facts (as they had been), are capable of making mature judgements for themselves (as they were) and have concluded there is no reason to be alarmed (as they had), they are liable to ask themselves ‘Why is he telling us not to panic? We aren’t panicking. Does he know something we don’t, in which case what is he keeping from us?’

My second reservation is simply that once an association with Dad’s Army is invoked, no matter how unfairly, it is not easy to shake it off.

A relatively early test of commitments made in election manifestos awaits the new members of the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture. It was the new ESC president’s successful Pause and Review requete which led the States in March this year to direct the committee to conclude the review of secondary education models in time to submit a policy letter for consideration at the meeting of the States on 28 April 2021. I am confident that the review itself will be a thorough piece of work. It is being conducted by appropriately skilled professionals under the watchful, independent eye of former chief minister Advocate Peter Harwood, whose analytical and critical skills were seen to good effect as a member of the Scrutiny Management Committee in the political term just ended. He will ensure the objectivity and impartiality of the process so that the review and its report will not bear the political fingerprints of either the previous committee or its successor.

ESC president Andrea Dudley-Owen. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 28891133)

I am less confident about how much heed the new ESC will pay to the review’s factual analysis. I presume that the ESC president remains committed to the review since it was she who advocated it, but no such presumption can be made about the four new members she has chosen. Judging from their States-sponsored election manifestos, they have all made up their minds irrespective of whatever evidence comes their way. None of the four even mentioned the review in their manifesto and all pre-empted its outcome by committing themselves to one particular model amongst the four models under review, that of three 11-16 schools and a separate sixth form college. One of them asserts that this model is the most efficient and cost-effective of the four models but does not tell us how he came to that conclusion. So not much chance of an evidence-based approach from the new members then.

That being the case, all the more weight must rest on the ESC president’s shoulders and all the more significant and relevant are her views as expressed during the previous political term. These views have an ambivalence that is difficult to penetrate. Her manifesto mentions that the community ‘clearly favours a three-school model with separate sixth form’ but omits to indicate whether that is her preference. She believes that the optimum outcome will be ‘a Guernsey-centred model, supported by teachers and community’ which will ‘make best use of our existing education estate’. Mmmm! I am not sure what that tells us, but the absence of a clear commitment to any particular model encourages me to conclude that the new ESC president, unlike her chosen committee members, is prepared to await the evidence of the review for which she herself campaigned so vigorously.

If I am not wholly convinced, it is because of the ESC president’s previous statements on secondary education made between May 2016 and February 2018, when she was first a member then vice-president of ESC. During the crucial late-2016 debate on whether or not to retain selection at 11, she came down firmly in support of ‘selection at this time by ability and aptitude at 11’. In the same speech she went even further by doubting the suitability of any comprehensive education model for Guernsey when she commented as follows: ‘I query whether we would in fact ever really be able to achieve a truly mixed-ability comprehensive system which is also successful’. She acknowledged that there were indeed outstanding comprehensive schools in the UK but pointed out that their success could only be achieved ‘by bringing together large numbers of pupils up to 1,000 being taught on one campus’. She went on to add: ‘We know that the infrastructure in Guernsey cannot support such large schools, nor do the community, including many teachers, want such large schools’.

Just over a year later, as ESC vice-president, she asserted the precise opposite; namely that it was important to bring together 960 secondary students to be taught in a new mixed ability school for 11 to 16-year-olds on one campus at La Mare de Carteret as part of a comprehensive model that would not only be successful but would be world-class. Combined with the 300-plus pupils at the La Mare de Carteret Primary School, that would have produced a total student population close to 1,300 on that site. Teachers and lecturers were strongly critical of the model proposed by the ESC, so much so that a major teachers’ union came out with a public declaration of no confidence in the committee. Sensing that the majority of States members were similarly opposed, the then ESC vice-president indicated she was willing to lay an amendment proposing an alternative model of two 11-16 schools and one 11-18 school, which happens to be one of the models in the current review. It is relevant to recall that when we had three 11-16 high schools, the selective grammar school and sixth form centre produced a peak of around 1,150 students on the Les Varendes campus. If the 11-16 schools were to reduce from three to two, the number of students at the 11-18 school would have to be in the order of 1,200 or more.

So where does that leave us? Intrigued? Confused? It may be that the new ESC president has simply changed her mind since resigning from the committee in 2018. If so, there is nothing reprehensible in that, and I have myself followed the evidence to change my mind about selection at 11. Bearing in mind her previous statements, I suppose the key questions for ESC’s president are these:

l Has she changed her views so that she now believes it is indeed possible to have successful mixed-ability secondary schools in Guernsey?

l If so, does she still believe that Guernsey’s infrastructure is incapable of supporting up to 1,000 students on one site?

As for the review, an interim progress report has been released to all States members to inform them of where the ongoing review stood in mid-October. When the review has been completed, I trust that ESC will first release to the public a report free of political editing and comment; I believe its independent overseer, Advocate Harwood, will wish for nothing less. Thereafter, it will be for ESC members to make of it what they wish and present it to the States Assembly via a policy letter which presumably will identify their preferred model whilst providing scope for States members to vote on alternative reviewed models, preferably without resorting to a plethora of off-the-cuff amendments.

For my part, I am prepared to predict the model which will be recommended by ESC and then favoured by many States members at the end of April next year. But that prediction will have to await a future column.

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