Pundits tell us that 2017 will be the era of post-truth policy making.
The dictionary definition describes this as personal belief having more influence on public opinion than facts. If so, Westminster experts have suffered from post-truth syndrome for years.
The success of London schools tells the story. Ask within Whitehall or Parliament how London schools went from worst to best in Britain between 1990 and 2010 and the usual response is London Challenge, Teach First, or academies.
Yet multi-year data analysis by the London School of Economics shows conclusively that the facts demand a different explanation. Primary school results were improving by the middle 1990s with big jumps from 1997 at key stages two and four, followed by an upward trend to the present day.
Secondary school improvement also began in the mid-1990s. Poor London children’s GCSE results were 4% behind the nation in 1995. By 2003 they were 5% ahead and by 2013 19% ahead of the English average.
These remarkable results are widely recognised as one of the great public service achievements of recent years. Yet the credit for success still clusters around initiatives that began after this transformation had moved into fourth gear.
Teach First was launched in 2002, London Challenge in 2003 (targeting only secondary schools) and academies followed the 2000 Education Act. Their important contribution added to something that had come to life years earlier. They cannot explain successes that began in the 1990s.
Something must have happened before 1995 to explain this. The only change unique to London is that the Inner London Education Authority was abolished in 1990 and the relevant boroughs became the education bodies.
Yet this explanation – that local government transformed failure – is rarely noticed in Westminster, where it is most commonly assuming that good ideas in 2003 led to good results in 1995. Too often, when experts succumb to post-truth syndrome it is called ‘theory’.
Promoting bad theory over strong facts matters because it encourages future error. The proposed national funding formula for schools is an example. The formula will punish success. Seventy percent of London schools would be cut; more than any other region. Nineteen of 32 boroughs will lose. Yet 89% of London schools are judged good or excellent. London still helps more children to obtain five GCSEs than any region. If London were a nation we would be in the Programme for International Student Assessment medal table.
Post-truth syndrome in Westminster makes it harder for ministers to see these facts and to recognise that investment in local government supported services, like schools, is the best route to raising standards. So it is important for local government to trumpet our capabilities, not just for ourselves, but to help others make better policy.
Dick Sorabji, corporate director – policy and public affairs, London Councils