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Paul Vallely: Failings: institutional or personal?

24 March 2023

Paul Vallely finds examples in the Metropolitan Police, the BBC, and Ofsted


Baroness Casey speaks to the press on Wednesday after the publication of her review into the Metropolitan Police

Baroness Casey speaks to the press on Wednesday after the publication of her review into the Metropolitan Police

WHAT do we mean when we say that a problem is “institutional”? Baroness Casey, who spent a year investigating the Metropolitan Police, concluded that the force is “institutionally racist, misogynist and homophobic”. The new Met Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, admits that there are racists, sexists, and homophobes among his officers — and even acknowledges that the Met has “systemic . . . management . . . and cultural failings” — but objects to the idea that those failings are “institutional.”

Does this take us back to the bad old argument that the problem is simply “a few bad apples” who need rooting out, to quote the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab? This has always seemed an inadequate response, even as a metaphor, since a few individual bad apples can swiftly corrupt the rest of the barrel. Perhaps incidents at the BBC and Ofsted this week can help us to navigate the maze between individual and institutional failings.

Embarrassed, uneasy laughter was the response of the presenters of the Today programme on Radio 4 on Monday, when an individual, Dr Adam Rutherford, entered the studio and delivered a sneering schoolboy attack on Thought for the Day, in what was supposed to be a trail for Start the Week. At a time when the BBC is under the spotlight for impartiality, he joshed, when the programme began, it was unfortunate that those joining him to discuss the history of humanism were a patron of Humanists UK, the organisation of which Dr Rutherford is president, and a writer to whom Humanists UK had just presented a medal.

There was no Christian voice to speak for those who shaped humanism from early modern times onwards: Erasmus, Vives, More, et al. BBC management have been talking about impartiality and balance as an institutional issue at great length in recent times, but it seems not to have filtered down to all individuals on air.

The balance between individual and institutional failings lay at the heart of the row over the Government’s schools inspectorate, Ofsted. It has been placed under a fierce spotlight this week after a head teacher, Ruth Perry, took her own life as a “direct result”, her family claimed, of the pressure put on her by an Ofsted inspection which downgraded her school from “outstanding” to “inadequate”.

Again, there have been public criticisms of individuals — this time of the three inspectors who visited the school. The report, published this week, is glowing in its account of this “welcoming and vibrant school”, where “relationships between staff and pupils are warm and supportive”, and “pupils are doing well overall and are well prepared for their next stage of education”. It describes pupils’ behaviour as “exemplary”. But the inspectors criticise record-keeping and safeguarding checks. For that, they rate the school, overall, “inadequate” — the lowest possible category.

It is not possible for outsiders to pass a definitive judgement on whether the actions of the individual inspectors were disproportionate, as Perry’s family assert. But it does seem clear that there are institutional failings in a system which allows such a wide-ranging and positive report on a school to be reduced to a single word: inadequate.

Individuals will always be prey to mistakes; but, if they are working within a healthy institution, then unjust outcomes will surely diminish.

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