Reinventing the Wheel

John Freeman
Thursday, April 2, 2015

We spend a huge amount of time and effort, and therefore money, in reinventing many, many professional wheels in the name of diversity and autonomy. That’s partly, but only partly, understandable for two reasons – “not invented here” can be seen as a brake on local innovation, and there is also some value in working things through for yourself, without just being told the answer.

This brings into question the nature of professionalism, a debate that’s been around much longer than I have. But to give just a couple of examples, there are different ways of ensuring that electrical wiring is safe, and every country has adopted their own standards. But the underlying science, and the underlying principles, are the same wherever you are. In the UK, I don’t want to employ an electrician who decides to use green/yellow as their personal code for “live”, though it is possible (I don’t know) that there is a country that uses green/yellow for “live” on a systematic basis, and if everyone is aware, it will be safe. The same debate runs for doctors and dentists, though since the human body does not vary between countries, I’d hope that when I visit a doctor in Australia she would have the same understanding of my ailment, even though she works in an “Emergency Room” rather than “Accident and Emergency”.

So to local authorities and schools. I am a huge supporter of local authorities as having the moral purpose of acting in the common good for their local communities, backed up by democratic mandate. But why on earth should every local authority have its own HR policy? Or its own procurement policy? Or its own finance policies? Or, taking schools, why should every school expend time and effort on its own marking policy? Its own staffing policy? Its own grounds maintenance contract?

The National Foundation for Educational Research used to run the Education Management Information Exchange, which included all sorts of useful information, but its seems to have fallen into disuse. In conversation with directors of children’s services, the most common practice – I’ve used it myself – is to import policies and documentation from a previous local authority, with minor amendment. This all seems very inefficient! And in a time of continuing cuts – I was about to type “austerity” but I mean cuts, ongoing and serious cuts, whoever wins the election, we need to fund ways of improving efficiency – doing something once, well, rather than 150 times, possibly well, but certainly at far greater expense.

That’s why I’ve recently been working with the National Consortium for Examination Results (NCER). If you haven’t heard of NCER, I’m not surprised, as it’s a largely unsung piece of the local authority support infrastructure. NCER is a community interest company co-owned by local authorities and working only for local authorities and through them, schools and academies, working at both primary and secondary. After much thought and discussion, I became chair in April, with the aim of promoting NCER as a strategic good, and to help NCER interface with local authorities to deliver information and analyses that are strategically useful.

NCER operates at national scale, and offers excellent value for money; it operates through a national community of interest, and thus enables the most creative people to influence developments that benefit all local authorities; and it offers a secure and robust data system. Local data teams are then able to interpret information and provide powerful local analysis.

This is not a puff piece for NCER, though I’m a strong supporter, as you can tell – but it is written to support the notion that we can no longer afford the luxury of reinventing the wheel across a whole range of areas in children’s services – and if we try to afford it today, we won’t be able to afford in next year, or the year after. There is much too much variation between policies and practice – and outcomes – and more standardisation would be better for children, for the public purse, and for professionals. But, as I said earlier, I’m not promoting a national system with regional directors reporting to Whitehall. The NHS is perhaps the best example, of a chaotic national system – I continue to fail to understand how all the various parts interlock, and no-one has been able to explain it to me – but perhaps I’m thick.

What I am promoting, then, is a system based around local authorities, but working together more organically across the country to develop the best policies, systems, procedures and practices. The Local government Association, Association of Directors of Children’s Services and Solace need to come together on these issues for the common good.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant