May 2011

The following document has come into our hands by a circuitous route.  It should be read in conjunction with the note that follows it.


End of term report for: Master L. A. Cosla, Class 5a

Subject: Modern studies – Future of Scottish Education

Project: Pupils were invited to propose a draft submission to the review of Scottish education being carried out for the Scottish Government by Professor Gerry McCormac of Stirling University.  Their project has been graded according to the key proposals they made.
Pupil’s proposal


Teacher’s comment
In order to encourage high performance by head teachers there is a case for them being on renewable rather than permanent contracts


You have fundamentally misunderstood what motivates people at work and before your final exam you would profit from familiarising yourself with Alfie Kohn’s  seminal book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
Consideration should be given to the satisfactory completion of training courses in order for teachers to be re-accredited as teachers by the General Teaching Council of Scotland


Your argument in favour of properly structured continuing professional development is compelling but take care in how you link that to the continuing right to a job
Teachers on promoted posts below head teacher level should be on short, fixed-term contracts, subject to appraisal, for promoted posts below head teacher level


See my comment about performance of head teachers above.  You seem to make the tenure of these jobs even more at risk than the more senior posts – something perverse there!
Teachers on promoted posts below head teacher level should also move between different schools so that future leaders acquired a broad range of experience


The proposal to move promoted teachers between schools is an interesting one but linked with your other suggestions above smacks more of punishment than career development
There is a case for primary head teachers graduating to become secondary heads


This proposal very much positions primary head teachers as the lesser of the two sub-species.  It’s true they earn less but their schools are usually much smaller and have smaller budgets.  Anyhow, are the two client bases (if you want to take a business-like approach to this issue) not very different?  What about secondary head teachers taking primary school posts?  I cannot see this suggestion as fundamental to the issues you were asked to address
The number of in-service days could increase from the current five a year, and they could take place during pupils’ holidays because the current system was too disruptive to pupils and required hard-pressed councils to pay for temporary staff


An interesting proposal that would merit further development in your final project submission.  You could make the point that the current five “in-service days” are already taken from the notional 200 days a year schooling pupils are supposed to receive.  Perhaps link to the amount of holidays teachers receive each year?
“Counting hours” is inappropriate for professionals and teachers should move from a 35-hour week to a more flexible model of about 140 hours a month


Are you suggesting more “flexibility” or more work?  Your standard grade maths should have taught you that a 35-hour week is about 140 hours a month!  This is a difficult issue you should develop further.  It would be interesting to know how many teachers already work more than their contracted 35 hours a week
Primary teachers should no longer spend a maximum 22.5 hours a week teaching in the classroom in order to provide time for preparing and marking (because of the additional expense of paying for cover staff)


Another proposal (poorly expressed) that needs further development before it could become a valid argument.  I think a good case may lurk here but it needs to be developed further
The amount of time secondary teachers spend in the classroom should also be examined


See my comments on primary teachers above
Head teacher’s comment:I agree with the comments of your modern studies teacher.  In addition you might wish to consider whether your proposals get to the heart of the future challenges for Scottish education.  Given the resources available to you in school and your understanding of the subject I am somewhat disappointed at your overall conclusions

Readers unaware of the Scottish education system may not know that Master L. A. Cosla is in fact the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.  It would have been good to judge their proposals against their own words.  Unfortunately the only available account of their submission to Professor McCormac’s review is a leaked version reported by the BBC on 23 May 2011.  COSLA have been quoted as saying they may amend their comments but have not released their current submission.  The views of Master Cosla’s teacher and head teacher in his end of term report may of course bear no resemblance to those of any real teacher.  But they do take account of this blog author’s many years experience working in and for the public sector, as well as his active parenthood for almost as many years and his membership over the years of various school boards and parent councils.   

I’ve just spent six happy days in and near Madrid, isolated through choice from news of the UK.  A friend’s significant birthday was the reason for the jaunt, but as always I tried to keep my ears and eyes open for all that stuff that helps drive my work interest.

Here are some of the things I picked up.

Local and regional elections with an unusually high turnout of 70% gave the incumbent PSOE (socialist) party a drubbing and a large swing towards the PP (Partido Popular – conservative).  An uncanny parallel to the turn and turnabout of UK mid-term local elections.  More privatisation of local services are now expected with left-leaning acquaintances at least concerned about the allocation of contracts to politicians’ “friends”.  My Spanish wasn’t up to asking about their public sector procurement procedures.  Presumably not as rigorous as ours.

While much of the country voted, on a Sunday, thousands of young people in a phenomenon instantly dubbed Movimiento de 15M (15 May – the day it began) occupied major squares in a number of city centres (most prominently 25,000 in Madrid) to protest against, well, most things – youth unemployment at 40%, the PSOE/PP duopoly of power, a general sense of hopelessness about the future and frustration with the political class and their elders.  As I write it’s not at all clear whether this will wither on the vine after the initial enthusiasm or become the precursor of more profound change in society.

It’s sometimes difficult to see a looming crisis in the wealth and vibrancy of Madrid.  We ate one evening (late as is the Spanish custom) in a Japanese restaurant at the top of an elegant new shopping centre.  Four floors below we had parked opposite the special bays reserved for Vehiculos ecologicas, electric or hybrid cars.  You don’t see many of those in the UK.

Finally, on a completely different subject but one many readers will recognise, a friend told me she was unable to join us one afternoon because she had to be at a work meeting.  This was how she put it in English better than my Spanish.

Erm, we have to go to a meeting, very important, for the division of my company, to see the strategy for the future.  What should we do?  Is looking at the problem ABC [name of a major worldwide consultancy company very active in the UK].  They come, all very young and suits to speak with us very much then they come back with the answers of what we have told them.  This will be the meeting.

How an engineering company in Spain plotted the future for one of its divisions suddenly seemed very close to what innumerable British public servants have endured at the hands of the ABCs of this world.  Perhaps the same children with MBAs commute back and forth to apply the single model of consultancy (not my model I need hardly say) throughout the globe.

Two weeks after the council elections in England 100s of new councillors will be getting to grips with  what they’ve let themselves in for.

As potential candidates, some may have been to an event encouraging people to stand for election.  Many will have been briefed by their party and its existing councillors.  Some will still be in recovery mode from the glib assurance of a party official that “It’s just to make sure we’re on the ballot paper.  We haven’t got a chance of winning in that ward”.  A tiny minority will have convinced themselves that they’re embarking on a crusade to clean the whole sorry mess up without realising yet that there isn’t actually a whole sorry mess there.

All will be receiving some sort of induction, more or less thorough, more or less baffling.  All will find local government finance challenging.  All will be suffering from information overload.  And all will struggle with the jargon.

That jargon will undoubtedly include reference to governance, partnership, stakeholders, engagement and much else of a similar nature

It will contrast starkly with what they came into local government to achieve and what they’ve been told by voters on the doorstep.

Back before the recession the Local Government Association commissioned research on what determines the reputation of a council.  Their consultants, Ipsos-MORI, came up with 12 actions that were critical to ensuring a council’s reputation

  • adopt a highly visible, strongly branded council cleaning operation
  • set up one phone number for the public to report local environmental problems
  • know your grot spots – and deal with them
  • aim to remove abandoned cars and fly-tipping within 24 hours
  • win a Green Flag award for at least one park
  • ensure no gaps or overlap in council cleaning and maintenance contracts
  • educate and enforce to protect the environment
  • manage the media effectively to promote and defend the council
  • provide an A-Z guide to council services
  • publish a regular council magazine or newspaper to inform residents (this one will have taken a bit of a knock under the current Whitehall regime)
  • ensure the council brand is consistently linked to services
  • good internal communications – make sure staff and members are informed.

The LGA have developed and refined their recommendations on reputation since then but it would be interesting to know whether several years on, in the recession and with radically reduced resources, these are still the key factors that drive what people think of their council.

What better way to find out than the feedback that newly elected councillors received during their election campaigns?

In the absence of national collation of that sort of information, I asked a chief executive what issues her new members had picked up on the doorstep recently.  Across all parties they said

  • potholes
  • unkempt verges
  • parking on pavements
  • high council house rent increases
  • worries about future cuts.

It’s easy to discern the similarities with the LGA’s list together with an overlay for obvious reasons of financial concerns.  Not much about that jargon from the higher realms of democratic theory.

The chief executive cited above is Ruth Hyde of Broxtowe Borough Council.  She’s one of the small minority of local authority CEs who use Twitter.  Her Tweets are well worth following if you want to see what a council chief executive’s job is all about.  And at present you can find updates on Broxtowe’s induction programme for new councillors – at @Relhyde

[Non-UK readers: Vauxhall = GM]

Tale No. 1 – several years ago

A while ago I attended an inspirational talk by the then local Vauxhall dealer who applied systems thinking in her business.  She walked onto the stage carrying a large holdall.

“We’re going to start with a bit of exercise,” she said.  “I’ve got some balls in here.  I’m going to pass  some down to you and I’d like you to just throw them around the room to each other.”

She took out a tennis ball and lobbed it into the audience then followed with a ping pong ball, a child’s football, a soft woolly ball and a few others.  Soon the hall was like a Wimbledon warm-up, balls being thrown everywhere, general amusement at poor passes, creative lobs and so on.

“Stop now,” she said and took out the largest, heaviest size of 10-pin bowl from the holdall.  “Who wants me to throw this at them?”

There was silence.

“Well,” she said “what if these balls were customers?  Because this is what we do to them – pass them from pillar to post.  It’s great fun.  And how would you deal with this heavy customer?”

It was an effective demonstration of the traditional way in which companies (and public agencies) treat customers.  She then went on, of course, to show the better way her company tried to practice.

Tale No. 2 – yesterday

I attempted to check if my car’s service at my current Vauxhall dealer had been completed, a phone call from them having been promised but not received by 4.50 p.m. (earlier in the day they had laboriously taken three separate phone numbers from me “so we can phone you when it’s ready”).  This is what happened.

Dial number.  Long wait

Dealer reception (DR): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: Service reception please

Line cuts to upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover extolling virtues of used car deals, urging me to contact “the sales team”.  A long wait

Mystery voice (MV) (accompanied by loud scratchy sounds):  Mmmmph, chrccctch, I mmmmph, cchhhrrrg…

Me: Is that service reception?

MV: Mmmmph, chrccctch, mmmmph…

Me: This is a really bad line.  I’m afraid I can’t hear you properly

MV (irritated): Mmmmph, chrccctch, I’m a customer chrccctch I’m waiting to speak to someone

Me: Me too.  What a cock up.  I’ll put the phone down and dial again

Dial number again.  Another long wait

DR: XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: I was just trying to get through to service reception and I seemed to get another customer who was waiting too

DR:  Oh.  I’ll put you through now

Line cuts to same upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover etc etc.  Another long wait

DR (again): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: You were putting me through to service reception but I’ve come back to you

DR: Oh, I don’t know how I keep losing you.  I’ll try again

More annoying music and sales pitch.  Service reception eventually answer phone and claim they’re “just working on the paperwork” and my car’s ready for collection.


I don’t need to labour the difference between these two tales.  Suffice it say that I bought a Vauxhall from the previous dealer solely on the strength of what she’d said in her presentation.  The sales process was immaculate, no hassle, complete honesty about my trade-in, none of that edginess car sales people usually induce.  On the one occasion there was a significant problem with my new car they couldn’t sort the service manager came out with me for a test drive to see if he could detect the problem.  He couldn’t but said to call him directly if it recurred and he’d ensure it was dealt with straight away.  I believed him.

A couple of years later this dealer gave up their franchise.  Their approach didn’t fit the GM model and its bureaucracy – now go back and re-read Tale No. 2 for the current situation.

On the usual issue for this blog of “So what’s this got to do with the public sector?” I’d invite any public servants to draw their own conclusions.  When I worked in councils I certainly picked up the phone more than once to receive the frustrated cry “You’re the 3rd, 4th, 5th…person I’ve been passed on to.”  Oh, and by the way, a call centre isn’t the answer – not unless you get your processes, and your culture, right (back to Tale No. 2 again).

…but it pours.

If there’s one thing that’s almost as bad as the faux survey carried out by PR people for companies seeking to generate publicity (see my post on Public sector workers unemployable – shock, horror), it’s the research carried out by think tanks seeking, er, to generate publicity.

This last week brings the latest example to knock the public sector, from the Policy Exchange (“David Cameron’s favourite think tank”) – Public and private sector terms, conditions and the issue of fairness.

This effort was widely reported in the media over the weekend.  Google News lists 142 articles so far.

The premise of the research is that

public sector pay is higher and continued to grow faster than private sector pay during 2010 and that significant reforms will need to be made to limit job losses in the public sector and to achieve equity and fairness in the labour market.

As with many of these things the conclusions and the inevitable recommendations (end national strike balloting in the public sector; replace the two-year pay freeze with a paybill freeze; reform public sector pensions) are reached after a cursory trot around a complex series of data sets.

Without spending a lot of time on the detail and seeking the views of those better qualified than me in the field of labour market statistics, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of providing a reasoned critique of this work on the day (as I write) that this came to my attention thanks to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

In the meantime, of course, 142 – as we know thanks to Google – mainly UK media outlets have summarised and punted the findings in a mainly uncritical way, with the main countervailing viewpoint coming from the TUC who are just about as objective as the Policy Exchange, but in another direction.

And it’s out there in the public consciousness.  That vague feeling that yet again the public sector has been proven to be (choose your adjectives) bloated, inefficient, out of touch, unsustainable, etc. etc.

It’s a shame because reform, in all sorts of things, is needed in the public sector.

It’s just that a first examination of this particular work doesn’t provide the conclusive evidence that would lead to the particular proposals the Policy Exchange comes up with.

For example

  • Much of the analysis is based on a remuneration premium the authors claim public sector workers enjoy compared with the private sector.  Put simply this is a higher pay rate per hour for similar work
  • The main comparisons are made for 2009 and 2010 when the gap in pay rates between the two sectors is said to have widened for all levels of pay (except interestingly at the highest managerial level where the private sector has the edge)
  • Tucked away towards the end of the publication, and uncommented on for this purpose, is a table showing longer term trends in the public/private sector pay relationship between 1997 and 2010 demonstrating that between 1997 and 2003/04 the private sector enjoyed the pay premium.  This is followed by the authors’ own projections which show that if the current public sector pay freeze is maintained the current public sector premium will decrease and give way (or return) to a private sector premium by 2016/17, i.e. in five years time.  Which suggests there is some truth in my own conclusion that public and private sector pay relativities are both cyclical but at different times (see for example my earlier post on New year, hard times – public sector pay revisited)
  • In order to make sense (or not) of the analysis, you’ll need without much help from the authors to get to grips with some subtle statistical definitions like median gross, mean, median, hourly median, nominal change, and 10th, 25th, 90th etc. percentile
  • You’ll also have to take on trust that when they compare particular categories of worker in the two sectors, for example, housekeepers and related occupations, therapists, and security managers they are comparing apples with apples and not apples with pears
  • Interestingly, taking the comparability of these occupations at face value the evidence is not always as conclusive as the authors suggest.  For example, the median annual pay for sports and leisure attendants in 2010 was all of £162  more in the public sector, a whopping 1.6%, while the median pay of electronics engineers was actually a modest £3,500 or 8% higher in the private sector. Am I getting my percentages confused here or are they?
  • Some of the occupations exemplified do not allow easy comparison.  For example, how many policemen (sergeant or below) (sic) are employed in the private sector?

Was there ever a think tank with a political or ideological affiliation that found evidence to contradict its fundamental beliefs?  There was a reason that Private Eye many years ago dubbed the first ever Prime Ministerial think tank, “Ted Heath’s wank tank”.  Crude but telling.

No wait.  Don’t go away.  It’s not the end of this blog.  More about saying goodbye generally.

You see, I was challenged (see footnote) to write about Leaving or seeing a colleague leave public service due to the cuts.

I don’t want to get too personal about this.  This is not about Fred or Sue or even me.  It’s about all the reluctant goodbyes I’ve seen over the years – remember, there’s the cuts today but there’ve been cuts on other occasions as older readers who lived through the Thatcher years will remember.

There’s a way to go and a way to let them go.

So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned.  All are based on what I’ve have seen or experienced.

Employers and managers

Have the guts to speak to them personally.  Don’t let them know by letter or even worse e-mail.

Don’t call them in and start your We’ve got to let you go speech with “This is going to be a difficult meeting for me.”

Don’t say “They’ve screwed enough out of this organisation.  There’ll be no farewell gifts.”

Once you’ve been persuaded that it’s appropriate to mark their departure with a modest presentation don’t give them all the same inappropriate farewell gift of an alarm clock.  (Both this and the previous point happened to colleagues of mine in a London Borough)

Do something – whatever it is – to make your reluctant leavers at least feel you’ve done what you had to as decently and ethically as possible.

Don’t ask them back to do voluntary work (as an English police force just has by asking redundant officers to sign up as special constables).

Reluctant leavers

It’s not you.  It’s the system.  And even if you feel you’ve been picked on who’s the better person for it – you or them?

Don’t lose your dignity and self-respect.  You will get through it.

If you’re given more than one option think the pros and cons of each through carefully.  The first you think of taking may not be the best.

If there’s any support going from your employer take it, whether it’s a brought-forward pre-retirement course, outplacement support or anything else.

Maybe most difficult of all, but get over it.  After you’ve ranted and raved (in private) lock any remaining bile in a small box in your brain and bring it out sparingly until it disappears for ever.

This is Topic 7 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development. 

I love surveys.  Well, sometimes.

Regular visitors to this blog will know I’ve had the occasional go at phoney surveys.  The sort of thing carried out as a PR exercise and then dressed up as research.  They sometimes flash in front of you during TV commercials.  You know them.  Voice over – 89% of cats prefer new Tiddles.  Miniscule text at bottom of screen – Survey of 74 cats by Feline Research Associates 2006.

I’m not saying it’s phoney but the Harvard Business Review’s Daily Stat the other day (29 April) unusually brought its eager readers a statistic that wasn’t quite what it seemed.

The text is worth quoting in full.

Call-center workers retaliate against abusive callers, but rarely: Fewer than 1% of calls result in customers’ being put on hold for long periods, purposely transferred to the wrong department, or subjected to other forms of subtle sabotage, a team of researchers led by Mo Wang of the University of Maryland write in The Academy of Management Journal. By contrast, the workers are subjected to customer mistreatment in 20% to 25% of calls, the researchers say.

So far, so good.  Then the last sentence.

The data is drawn from 131 call-center employees in China.

Right.  131 people from, it turns out, one call centre serving one particular industry in one country with significant cultural differences from western society, date of survey unknown.

For anyone to make sense of Call-center workers retaliate against abusive callers, but rarely that’s the sort of contextual information even those familiar with the vagaries of statistics need let alone the average person in the street.

To be fair to the study’s authors they provide that information in their own peer-reviewed research article.

Perhaps a publication associated with one of the world’s top business schools should too.  Even for bite-sized chunks of data designed to attract attention.