Dido Harding was appointed as a Conservative peer (Baroness Harding of Winscombe) by then prime minister David Cameron in 2014. She is head of the NHS test and trace programme, and has been appointed as interim chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection.
Concerns have been raised about Harding’s appointments, in relation to:
- the failure to produce a workable track, test and trace app in June 2020, and to predict the rise in demand due to schools fully re-opening in September 2020.
- appointments to roles in public health to those without a background in public health
- organisational competence: for instance, a cyber-attack on TalkTalk in 2015 led to Harding, then CEO of the telecommunications company, being asked if customer data were encrypted, to which she replied, ‘The awful truth is that I don’t know’
- political affiliations: her husband, John Penrose (MP for Weston-super-Mare) is on the advisory board for the think tank 1828, which advocates for replacing the NHS with private insurance, and for Public Health England to be abolished.
We believe that the recent elevation of Harding illustrates a number of broader trends within public services that we can identify in education.
Entrepreneurial and networked cronyism
Harding’s predisposition towards assuming roles deemed not to demand substantive expertise or any obvious track record of success render her an ideal candidate for taking on a post in education. The normalisation of generic leadership skills as being applicable to any organisation means that access to jobs is gained through acquiescence to the prevailing ideology, being vouched for by high-status people and networks, and repudiating past affiliations. Such acts of cronyism are all too familiar where private individuals prosper from education. Cronyism is not interruptible by logic, facts or even failure. The installation of Harding, like the installation of CEOs of multi-academy trusts (MATs), is the result of the establishment of opaque, unaccountable networks that percolate the public education system and render it a more private affair. The CEOs of MATs, for example, enjoy the privileged membership of networks as sites of benefaction and reciprocity. Like Harding they exhibit a predisposition for entrepreneurial partisanship, enjoying privileged access to lucrative markets and wealthy patrons. This minimising of the public in public services is enacted from the playbook of successive governments over the last three decades.
Education professionals are accustomed to being responsible for delivering the state’s policy objectives. In these neoliberal times, they have been steered indirectly if effectively, through audit and performativity, for example, but also differentially where inspection allows for the routine exemption for schools rated ‘outstanding’. The scope of deliverability has arguably long been more extensive than professionals could bear, including for instance poverty. This trend is intensifying. Even policy objectives are now largely delegated away from public political arenas: the moribund neoliberal state, vacuous, has hollowed itself out and has nothing to say. This is operationalised in education through mechanisms including so-called system leadership, where these leaders take on responsibility for delivering the wholesale restructuring of education, including its risks.
Covid-19 is now revealing how education professionals are expected to solve issues that are political, systemic and national. Any lack of a solution will be attributable individually to leaders with, say, insufficient vision: therein lies the attraction. In such a framing, Dido Harding is not just a possibility: she is a necessity. She will embody individually the state’s failures to act and lead, and will take the blame and move onto the next posting.
The performance culture in education means that employment security and promotion depend on inspection categories and examination results. MATs detach the accountability of executive positions from the performance of the children who attend their schools. Consequently, the credentials for executive leadership are generic entrepreneurialism, corporate values and crisis management – whether successful or not. An individual who has ‘forged a career out of crises’ can be appointed while lacking credibility with the professionals who work within the school or service. When this individual comprehensively fails to fulfil the remit on which they were appointed, such underperformance is at best ignored and at worst rewarded, because any failure is attributed to the incompetence or non-compliance of professionals in classrooms. Huge CEO salaries in the largest MATs have been handed out (some with bonuses) regardless of how the schools within the trust have performed. One interpretation of this is that meritocracy has had its day, confirming the legitimation of inequality. Or perhaps it is more that the goalposts have shifted in respect of what constitutes ‘merit’ for those we task with responsibility for the oversight of our public services?
In summary, the ground is thoroughly prepared for Baroness Harding’s move into education: perhaps as a new head of Ofsted (or its successor organisation), or the CEO of a MAT, or a job that does not yet exist.