Friday, March 23, 2007

Featured item - The Welfare State We're In

James Bartholomew
The Welfare State We're In
Politico's Publishing, 2004, 361.650 BAR

This week's thuRSdAy event saw a post-budget debate on public spending between two journalists of very different political persuasions.

James Bartholomew, who writes freelance for papers such as
The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail and is the author of the book The Welfare State We're In (available to borrow from the RSA Library), argued that the very nature of public sector institutions is highly inefficient, inherently over-administrated and unnecessarily bureaucratic. He suggested that this was unavoidable in such large and cumbersome organisations that are often largely unaccountable and in which employees have more incentive to maintain the status quo than to strive for efficiency and productivity.

Arguing the case for public spending was
RSA Fellow and regular contributor to the Guardian and the New Statesman, Neil Lawson. Lawson, who is also the chair of the fast-growing pressure group Compass, argued that public institutions are important in the promotion of social values and community cohesion, are vital in safeguarding the rights of less advantaged sections of society, and in ensuring a level of equality within society. He also pointed towards the great costs of marketing and PR in the private sector to suggest that efficiency might be equally problematic within the that sector, and then provided the example of Sweden as a country with comparatively high levels of taxation and public spending but still manages to be economically prosperous and competitive.

Both panelists agreed that inefficiency is a considerable problem within current public institutions in Britain, but while Bartholomew's view is that the competitiveness of the market provides the best path forward, Lawson argued for a re-imagination of the way services are provided within the public sector. He highlighed the need for an approach that is less top-down and less regimented, and that would allow customers and those employees that actually provide the service on a daily basis greater scope for developing services that more effectively meet the public need.

Both in his book The Welfare State We're In and in his thuRSdAy argument James Bartholomew devotes considerable attention to the current situation within the state school system, estimating bureaucracy to a level that means there is the equivalent of one non-teaching administrator for every single class in the state school education system. He also suggesting that this leads to a significantly lower standard of general education for British students in comparison to other parts of Europe.

Improving and re-conceptualising British education is an area currently receiving significant attention from the RSA. Not only have we been successfully running our
Curriculum Network for several years, but we are also now embarking on a RSA Academy project.

City Academy initiative is perhaps one that combines some ideas from both James Bartholomew and Neil Lawson. On the one hand it allows private sector (or at least non-public sector) money into state schools with a view to improving education standards, on the other it allows individual academies the independence and autonomy to have a significant influence over both the running of the the school and the focus of the curriculum it runs.

The RSA certainly has big planes for the City Academy we are sponsoring in the town of Tipton in the West Midlands, as RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor explains in a
recent interview with The Independent newspaper.

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