I first began to think there was something strange going on in
Swindon when I read the local authority’s teenage pregnancy
strategy. All councils have to produce one, with the aim of halving
conceptions among under-18s by 2010. A few years ago I read through
a selection of them with mounting incredulity that anyone could
think that the methods proposed would achieve this laudable aim.
However, the Swindon effort was in a class of its own. It took the
view that “young people have the right to freedom from disease” and
that “young women have the right to freedom from unplanned
pregnancy and a fulfilling sex life”.
It appears not to have dawned on the authors of this document that
these aims may be incompatible. Encouraging teenagers to enjoy a
fulfilling sex life is a sure-fire way to guarantee more
pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, given the
inefficiency of teenagers when it comes to using condoms.
Comedian Mark Lamarr may now be the most famous person to come out
of Swindon, but I remember when actress Diana Dors held that
accolade. When the pneumatic starlet made her first film, at the
age of 15, the studio sent a memo to all employees saying “She’s
under-age, so hands off”. This seems to me a much more effective
way of preventing teenage pregnancy than the Swindon
Swindon is one of those places whose name alone is enough to raise
a smile, like Basingstoke and Milton Keynes, but these
preconceptions are often unjust. (I speak as one who knows, as I
used to live in Milton Keynes.) However, the news that Swindon’s
social services department has just received its second zero rating
makes you think there might be something behind the preconceptions.
Clearly, there is something rotten in the state of Swindon.
It seems that the answer is to send in a team of senior officers
from three-star Kent to spend three years sorting out the mess.
This raises the question of how council tax payers in Kent will
feel about having their prime social services talent over in
Wiltshire for three years, while Kent has many problems of its own
to sort out – notably issues surrounding asylum seekers.
There is also the question of cost. It appears the bill for all of
this will be £3.7m, of which £1m is coming from the
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Which just goes to show there
is a lot of money in failure. The head of one of the country’s most
successful schools was complaining to me recently that he has
difficulty finding the money to pay enough good, full-time staff,
while schools in his area that achieve appalling results, and from
which parents are withdrawing their children as fast as they can,
are being showered with government largesse under the guise of
In the commercial sector, failure leads to closure or to takeover
by a rival company. The shareholders sack the board and give the
job to another lot. In social services, this is obviously not an
option, although it might be interesting to close Swindon social
services and see how long it takes before anyone notices.
One lesson that the public sector can easily learn from the private
sector, however, is the salutary effect on corporate culture of
lots of brutal sackings. It tends to concentrate the mind
wonderfully when people come in to find the desks surrounding
theirs suspiciously empty. Getting security to frogmarch people out
of the building in front of their colleagues is another tactic that
makes an enormous impact for little outlay.
Obviously, neither of these methods will be used in Swindon or in
any other social services department in the present climate of
opinion, which is that you can always “retrain” staff. If only.
When failure is as pervasive as it seems to be at Swindon, the
extent to which you can train and motivate people out of it is
limited. This is the reason behind the failure of attempts to turn
around failing schools by handing them over to commercial or
not-for-profit bodies. If the incoming management can’t clear out
the dead wood, “best practice” remains a meaningless mantra. So
good luck to the team from Kent. You’re going to need it. CC
Robert Whelan is deputy director at Civitas: Institute for
the Study of Civil Society.