When systems fail, the public are usually fed a rotten argument: “It’s only one bad apple”. Think of the lone News of the World “rogue” reporter who hacked celebrities’ phones. This defensive balm (and barmy) response provides political cover for the “system”. “An individual acting alone” presents an easy target for media scapegoating. But if you use a search engine, increasingly you find “systems” and “systemic” peppering commentators’ and politicians’ statements. Does this hint at a new level of awareness and insight, asks Dr William Tate?

When systems fail, the public are usually fed a rotten argument: “It’s only one bad apple”. Think of the lone News of the World “rogue” reporter who hacked celebrities’ phones. This defensive balm (and barmy) response provides political cover for the “system”. “An individual acting alone” presents an easy target for media scapegoating. But if you use a search engine, increasingly you find “systems” and “systemic” peppering commentators’ and politicians’ statements. Does this hint at a new level of awareness and insight, asks Dr William Tate?

So what does the word “system” mean when applied to human organisations, and what is its significance?

Systems operate at several levels, with ebbs and flows of policy and practice which often contradict each other. At the national level, there are currently reforms to the legal, educational, health, welfare systems, and so on. Take schools and teachers for a start. We read of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove wanting to speed up the system by which “bad” teachers can be sacked. Cutting red tape, he claims, will allow head teachers to act more decisively (“Schools get power to remove poor teachers within a term”, The Guardian, 13 January 2012). This performance system sits within the wider education system, which itself may be contributing to producing those “bad teachers”. In parallel, a change in Ofsted’s rating system during school inspections elevates the criticality of teaching, creating an expectation that more teachers will be identified as “not outstanding”.

In the field of

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