Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Bake-off, Channel 4, and The End of Civilisation As We Know It.

Oh dear. Oh deary me.

The sky has fallen in. Parliament must be recalled. COBRA must meet to discuss the security implications. The Queen must be informed. And a few nights ago, the announcement even made the headlines of the main BBC News, ahead of one or two other tiny items about more mayhem going on around the world.

The Great British Bake-off is leaving the BBC, to enter the commercial waters of Channel 4. Apocalypse Now, apparently.

I don’t think it’s been a quiet week for news, what with Brexit, Syria, the Paralympics, ISIS, the redrawing of parliamentary election boundaries and the usual what-have-you… but the BBC obviously seemed to think this was deeply important. Which it isn’t.

But the transfer is one small example of something that’s been happening amongst a lot of our national institutions since the 1980s. Contracting out. Paying someone else to do the job that we used to do ourselves. Or even better, not directly employing our own people, but instead bringing in others to do it at minimum wages or less, using zero-hour contracts.

It’s all over the place. The NHS now contracts out a lot of its services to money-making outfits like Virgin Health. The railways were privatised long ago (and look how well that’s been going!). And schools of course, are offered the choice of becoming Academies- or taking up the option of setting up ‘Free Schools’.

The argument behind it, of course, is that ‘contracting out’ and privatisation provides a better environment for Getting Things Done, because it loosens up the managerial environment to allow entrepreneurs to use initiative and drive to drive up standards and provide a better level of service. And sometimes, it can work. In the 1990s, my children’s school went Grant Maintained (a bit like an academy) and suddenly found itself in possession of a larger pot of money than Birmingham city council had ever been prepared to offer it, and started an innovative building and refurbishment programme. But that was in a leafy suburb, with lots of parents prepared to roll up their sleeves and Get Things Done together- and some smart school governors. It’s possibly not quite the same in the inner-city or the seaside town or the rural school.

Sometimes, keeping things in-house can be better for encouraging loyalty and broader co-operation amongst institutions. (It’s interesting that the creation of Academy Chains is now replicating the work of the local education authorities, including shared staff training.)

But privatisation can also go painfully wrong when those in charge are simply after increasing their profits- which in the business world, is the bottom line. Sometimes, a business plan seems to involve providing a minimum service at the greatest possible profit- such as recently selling me a microwaved ham-and-cheese sandwich on Cross Country Rail, the result being a crime against cookery and Life in general (‘Scottish home-produced ham! Farm-produced cheddar! Wheat-grain bread!’ As if…).

So if the makers of Bake-off (or Formula One, or the Premier League or the FA Cup or Wimbledon) decide they want more money for producing something they might have originally cooked up with the BBC, and push off elsewhere in search of more dosh, then it goes with the territory. The BBC decided long ago, to spend less time growing its own talent, and instead invite outsider programme-makers to bid for new projects. Tough. That’s the way they were playing it. And that’s the way it sometimes goes in Modern Britain when we adopt a business model and then take it too far.

 Chasing the Money. A new British Value? Wonder how we would teach it in schools. And incidentally, if you do work in primary schools, and you are interested in exploring the moral implications of financial education with pupils, my book 'Valuing Money' is available here.

Valuing Money

Have a nice day...

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.