Occam’s razor is my favourite principle: use the minimum number of entities to achieve a given goal. My purpose here is to show that this principle is not merely ignored but its converse, ‘the maximum number of entities is needed to reach a given goal’, is often the consequence of policy in education and training. There has, in practice, been a multiplication of entities such as papers and policies that are beyond what is necessary to achieve our goals.
Reports, reports … To be honest, I thought that Leitch would adhere to Occam’s Razor principle. My hopes were based on Leitch being born in Scotland and having had the same Calvinist education as myself. He, too, had moved to London to make his fortune and run a public limited company. More surprisingly, we also have similar interest in the arts; both of us have ended up on the boards of major arts organisations. However, we, Calvinists, are individuals who see nothing between us, the good book and God. We do not like intermediary priesthoods. He seemed like someone who would clearly see the multiplication of entities as the problem, not the solution.
So Leitch, delivered his 'generation changing' report; it fell stillborn from the press and consequently only the hardiest of educational professionals will wade through the laden prose. There is a myth that people in the private sector wait expectantly for such reports. Some may have bothered to read a summary of the report, a few will have read brief articles in the broadsheet but most will never have heard of Leitch.
The Leitch review is only the latest of many skills reports that have landed on the desks of employers. This rash of reports has habituated non-learning professionals into ignoring ‘yet another report on skills’. They all start with endless amounts of OECD data showing how bad the UK is in relation to our competitors, yet in the same newspapers we read about the sclerotic nature of the economies that lie above us on these tables: France is in a state of despondency, Germany struggling with crippling unemployment and the US ……
To be fair, the problems are clear: five million adults in the UK lack functional literacy and more than one in six young people leave school are unable to read, write or add up properly. It is a pity that Leitch is unable to see that the problem lies in the poverty of imagination in our schools. We have had a couple of decades of appalling teaching with misguided literacy theories influencing our teacher training system and resulting in a couple of generations where literacy has been literally lost. Remedial training in the workplace will not improve this.
Reports are one thing, action is another.
Limp Leitch There are two BIG ideas in Leitch. First, that students should stay on at school until 18 unless they find a job with training. Secondly, that skills training should be fundamentally demand-driven. The rest is uninspiring. What we got was: a little reorganisation; some old resurrected ideas such as such as Individual Learner Accounts (ILAs) and a new commission! Leitch recommends the Commission for Employment & Skills which willostensibly strengthen the employer voice, reform the Sector Skills Councils and simplify and approve vocational training.
Multiplication and duplication: a new commission Frank Coffield, now at the Institute of Education, delivered a key paper on government policy in education. His diagnosis: too much policy and too many organisations, is backed up with diagrams showing our current Byzantine system. A multiplication of entities leads to a duplication of effort - education and training are soaked in duplication from top to bottom.
At the top, there is duplication across government departments. The DfES, DWP and DTI are always stepping on ‘each others’ toes’. In the middle, we have 47
regional LSCs as well as RDA activity in the same area. And at the bottom? I am the governor in a school that lies within two hundred yards of another school. They have separate playing fields and refuse to share anything. They see each other as deadly enemies. At this level, we have immense amounts of duplication, as we still believe that every teacher, lecturer and trainer should plan, design and deliver their own unique lessons. The DIY mentality in education and training is so ingrained that it goes largely unquestioned. This is duplication on such a massive scale that it dwarfs all other ills in the sector.
Dissolution of the monstrosities Employers and learners disengage because they have to deal with too many agencies. This is the issue that Leitch needed to tackle, alongside some of his more sensible policy ideas. For a start, we could have seen the dissolution of the 47 local LSC offices and a halt to fruitless RDA spend. Yet another ‘Commission’ is not what is needed. The model is clear and I feel that we can learn a lot from industry in this area. In the private sector, there is always a drift towards eliminating duplication and lowering costs. Occam’s Razor is part of every senior manager’s mindset. The mechanisms are clear and simple. Companies reduce management and administrative overheads within their organisations and merge when necessary. More importantly, duplication of effort is not tolerated and automation is encouraged and funded.
The Leith Report is a wasted opportunity, a chance to recommend some real institutional change and a more radical approach to the problem. Donald Clarkdonald.email@example.com