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National Standards no model for Social Services delivery

It was astonishing to see Social Development Minister Anne Tolley recently suggest on the Q+A programme that National Standards provided a model for public service targets for the delivery of social services. Actually it’s the limitations of the National Standards policy that are much more instructive. They have mostly been a distraction in education and a social services version is likely to be worse if it involves payment by results.

To start with, the National Standards do not provide clear targets. They involve a crude scale with four very broad categories of achievement. In reading, writing or maths, your child is just ‘well below’, ‘below’ ‘at’ or ‘above’. These simplistic labels make a mockery of the assessment that teachers do beneath them.

Even so, research has been showing that a child judged ‘at’ by one school will often be judged ‘below’ at another. Schools have diverse characteristics that colour teachers’ judgements. National Standards also leave out important aspects of primary schooling. Overall it’s wise to shy away from using the published results to compare schools or judge their performance.

The Minister would have been better off using the National Standards to remind us how difficult it will be to devise useful measurable targets for the social services. What constitutes ‘success’ with vulnerable groups in particular contexts will often be hard to capture.

Thankfully the National Standards policy has not yet become closely linked to performance pay or school closures. Research on high-stakes accountability in education shows that moving in this direction would have increasingly perverse effects such as curriculum narrowing and fabrication of assessment data.

Payment by results in the social services will lead to similarly predictable outcomes. Agencies will prioritise the meeting of targets over any broader view of success with the groups they are supposed to be serving. Contractors can be expected to give preference to easier social services work, just as private providers tend to do in the education sector.

Few people are in a position to really understand the workings of National Standards. The same would be true of performance against social services indicators and targets. It will be too easy to be seduced by the tidy rows of figures and not question what lies beneath them. 
So if the National Standards are no model to be followed, what’s the alternative? In education, National Standards divert attention from inadequate resources and the hollowing out of professional culture. Reinvestment in those areas, for instance reintroducing a cadre of school advisors on permanent rather than short term contracts, would make a big difference.

It may not be politically fashionable at the moment but a reinvestment in resources and professional culture seems to be what’s needed in New Zealand’s public social services as well. Inequality is creating an increasingly intractable problem as new generations become raised in poverty. It is unrealistic to expect payment by results to be genuinely feasible, nor any silver bullet.

Guest blogger Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato, and has kindly allowed CPAG to republish his media release from Friday 3 July for our blog.