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Minimum service levels bill – Let’s start with policymakers

Illustration of besuited figure next to checkboxes, representing minimum service levels bill

If teaching staff must abide by ‘minimum service levels’, then the same ought to apply to policymakers says Melissa Benn…

Melissa Benn
by Melissa Benn
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Never say never in politics. We can’t yet be certain that we’re watching a government in its death throes. However, we’re certainly watching an administration forever shapeshifting in order to win public support.

Minimum service levels bill

Widely publicised examples of the endless ‘Rishi reset’ include the (dilatory) scrapping of HS2 and the return of David Cameron.

Garnering less attention, however, has been the government’s decision to introduce a minimum service levels bill. This enforces minimum service levels across public services. It will apply to ambulance services, firefighters, hospital staff and now the education profession.

This autumn, Gillian Keegan announced that the government plans to legislate to ensure teachers keep schools open come what may.

Keegan has offered to enter ‘voluntary’ negotiations with the unions. However, if these fail – and they will – the Secretary of State will reach for the statute book.

This minimum service levels bill has a superficially appealing, almost Orwellian ring to it. Who wouldn’t agree that keeping basic public services going, whatever the challenges, is an important priority for any government?

The immediate prompt for this was the wave of strikes we saw across the country this year, in the rail industry, the NHS, the civil service and in schools.

Dig a little deeper, and it soon becomes clear that the government’s plans are an ill-judged move in response to years of badly thought-out policies directed at the public sector and those working in a range of services.

Framing language

Imagine the frustration of ministers, unable to prevent millions of men and women from exercising their right to withdraw their labour in the face of galloping inflation, unsatisfactory working conditions and crumbling services.

For this government, the framing language came all too easily. Gillian Keegan spoke of millions of days of learning ‘lost’ to the nation’s children due to irresponsible industrial action. The clear intent was to conjure up the age-old image of hatchet-faced, self-serving militants ruining life chances through their selfishness.

But it’s not worked this time, for multiple reasons. The country has lived through the privations of austerity, and the fear, panic and public bungling around COVID. Public disgust has been further stirred up by the recent revelations of the public inquiry into the latter.

Trade unions have also changed considerably over the years, with many now made up of low-paid women.

Public anger

This is why public opinion polling throughout 2023 has remained largely in sympathy with those on strike. The public have shown the most consistent support for NHS workers.

Support for teachers’ industrial action did marginally reduce over 2023. But other polling has shown that a major concern for parents – 71% of them, according to Ipsos – is that their children are receiving poor quality educationbecause not enough money is spent on schools and teachers’.

In short, the public is increasingly directing its anger at the government, rather than at teachers. It’s therefore little wonder that some opponents of Keegan’s proposals have since turned the tables on her, and called for ‘minimum service levels’ from government.

Crumbling buildings? Teachers leaving the profession in droves? Dramatic falls in arts provision? What laws exist to hold the government to account for its failures to provide even a satisfactory, let alone high-quality state education for the majority of the country’s children?

When the RAAC crisis broke, where was the law to punish government failures to keep children and staff safe, or provide a ‘minimum service’ for those who had to rapidly evacuate their classrooms and learn in hastily erected portacabins?

Desperate half measures

For too long, too many schools have been unable to recruit a qualified physics teacher. However, no minister has yet been called to account for this, or been directed to sort the issue out once and for all.

I suspect, as all pollsters and commentators are now confidently declaring, that this government has indeed run its course. Desperate half-measures to restrain and punish public service workers won’t win back the public’s confidence.

The government’s measures do, however, leave us with a more important question. Exactly how should we ensure sustainable levels of funding, and genuine support for the nation’s schools and teachers?

Melissa Benn (@Melissa_Benn) is the author of Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service, and is a visiting professor at York St John university

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