Robert Skidelsky
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Education for an Effective Public Service
Robert Skidelsky
Moscow Conference | Tuesday, July 17, 2007

1.Most countries have devoted considerable attention to the education of their rulers. These were traditionally drawn from the aristocracy, but since the 19th century, selection for the public service has generally been based on merit. Candidates for the higher civil service had to pass examinations for which they were prepared at elite institutions.
2.A country in transition, seeking to build up an administrative structure of high ability and integrity, can draw some instructive lessons from the experience of successful administrative systems elsewhere. The key question is: what structure of education, secondary and higher, best conduces to a high level of performance and honesty in government? I believe that the way Britain and France have sought to tackle this problem would be particularly useful to Russia at present. Over the last century both countries have produced administrative elites of high calibre through an educational system specially designed to do just that.
3.In Britain, the higher civil service was opened up to competitive examination after the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854. A small number of independent /grammar schools saw it as one of their tasks to prepare students for entry to Oxford and Cambridge. A proportion of Oxford and Cambridge graduates sat the civil service examination, which was the main avenue of entry into the administrative class of the civil service. The successful candidates were allocated to different government Departments.The highest flyers generally went into the Foreign Office (after a further selection process) and Treasury.An important feature of the system was training in the ability to write short, lucid essays under great time pressure –critical, it was thought, for the successful briefing of their political masters.(More generally, the public school, Oxbridge, system provided an education for Britain’s political, cultural-intellectual, and financial elite.)
4.In France, recruitment into the civil service was through the grandes ecoles. This is a system of schools, set apart from public universities, whose students are selected by examination after preparatory training. One branch is the ‘ecoles normales’, whose students are considered to be civil servants in training, and are paid a monthly salary in exchange for an agreement to serve France for ten years. (The most famous of these is the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, whose graduates generally take up high level positions in government). Most of France’s high ranking civil servants, politicians, and business executives, as well as scientists and philosophers are products of the grandes ecoles.
5.My proposal is to survey the British and French systrems, and compare and contrast them with present Russian practice, at a one-day seminar to be held in Moscow. The tentative date is 17 October. Number of participants depends on finance and availability. The conference could be structured round the British, French, and Russian experiences, with conclusions.
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