I like to think of myself of political aware, if not necessarily political engaged. I tend to have reasonable faith in politicians to be genuine in their desire to improve things, even when I don’t agree with how I go about it. I tend to think that our parliamentary democracy works generally well, and I have a reasonable amount of time and sympathy for those who take on the role of MP which then brings them an unreasonable amount of loathing.
However, watching the debate on QTS in the House of Commons today was a wholly unsatisfactory experience. Laura McInerney has done an excellent job of summarising the debate with storify, so if you missed it you may want to catch up with that first – or you may not!
During the debate I tweeted something which I later realised wasn’t entirely true, but was representative of my frustration at the time:
On reflection I realise that I should have retained my wrath for the common debates, since I have actually seen some excellent scrutiny work taking place in committees, and that should not go unnoticed.
However, commons debate is clearly a major part of our parliamentary system, so what does it offer us?
In today’s debate, you could argue that it was an opportunity for the various sides to present arguments which might sway voting MPs towards an opinion. That was clearly not the case. Relatively few MPs turned up and those that did had largely made up their minds and wished to present arguments (related to the debate motion or otherwise!) which they felt were worth airing. I rather suspect that no minds were changed, and no-one went with the intention that theirs might be.
So perhaps the point was for views to be debated publicly so that the wider public know where the parties stand. Except, we already knew that. We knew before the debate that the Conservative party thought QTS an unnecessary hurdle, that Labour thought it an essential threshold, and that the LibDems thought different things depending on who was asking and so would have no conclusive view on the day.
The debate might have been an opportunity to bring some clarity to the rationale behind the various policies, but in fact it quickly became clear that very few members had an anything more than a rudimentary understanding of what QTS is. I can’t help but think that there were some civil servants somewhere with their faces in their palms as they despaired of the misunderstandings being thrown back and forth across the chamber.
As far as I can tell, over an hour of parliamentary time, with some very highly-paid members, clerks and the like, was a largely pointless exercise. Now admittedly, this could be because of the nature of a debate being brought to make a point. But what makes this debate different from others?
What stands out for me is the difference between the processes involved in the commons to those in committees. In the former, 600-odd professional politicians barrack one another and score points while pretending to run the country; in the latter small groups of politicians – who in many cases have some specialised knowledge or at least keen interest in an area – are able to challenge the professionals in their fields to provide the answers to questions which might actually drive forward change.
The parallels with school governance (or perhaps, lack of them) intrigued me. Schools are often very clear about the different roles of governors and headteachers: governors set the strategic direction; heads manage the school day-to-day. But importantly, heads are usually part of the governing body, and governors are expected to draw upon the qualified expertise of the headteacher and other professionals in their decision-making process. I can’t help but fear that the civil servant is being pushed out of government, and replaced by SpAds and professional politicians. All well-meaning, I’m sure, but then I’m sure so were the governors of the Al Medinah school.
Certainly, my perception of today’s debate was of a group of under-qualified amateurs trying to argue about a decision that they weren’t really best-placed to make without some proper advice from more knowledgeable experts, who sadly seem to be out of fashion.
What hope for this system?