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“Pots of money suddenly appear and disappear …”

Here’s a strange article, by the Telegraph’s education man, John Clare, in today’s Telegraph.

It starts with lots of standard issue bad political news, about cuts and the resulting educational damage. Deranged plans for improvement, smashing down all that we’ve worked for over the last twenty years, blah, blah. The headline – “‘Government incompetence’ led to schools shedding 21,000 staff” – is all about that bad news. The usual political wreckage in other words.

But this, about one of those reports that journalists so love, is the interesting bit, I think:

The report laid much of the blame for the funding “debacle” on the “patently unfair grant culture” that the Government has imposed on schools.

It led to chronic disparities in funding, much of it allocated on an ad hoc basis to poorly conceived projects. “Schools emerge as winners or losers almost in spite of themselves,” the report said. “On the basis of some decision taken in the remoteness of Whitehall, a school can suddenly find itself receiving or being deprived of an extra £100,000 or more.”

Or, as one Inner London head put it: “Pots of money suddenly appear and disappear.” This year’s winners were failing schools, specialist schools, and schools with high proportions of pupils who are entitled to free meals and achieve poor exam results.

Okay, I don’t know what’s really going on here, but here’s my guess. What we see here is government activity done by people who have been pummelled with free market ideology and have accepted that free markets, although politically impossible to actually have, are nevertheless worth learning from. So the responses of consumers are faked by issuing that deluge of directives from London that I spent about a third to a half of my education blog complaining about. These directives give you extra money if you do what London says are good “outcomes”, and less if you don’t. Like in the free market, right?

Well, not really. These directives don’t actually have even the crude rationality of the free market. They aren’t actually the same as actual consumer demands, so instead of satisfied or unsatisfied customers giving you more or less money, you just get a kind of permanent government organised lottery. This month, the winning number is: Schools who are crap but considered by London to be getting better! If that’s you, you win! But, if your school is good but not considered by London to be getting any better, you lose! Next month, it’ll be something different. Next month it’ll be: Maths! Or: Languages! Or: The Obesity Directive! Or: Social Inclusion! Or: (Socially?) Excluding bullies, in response to the government’s Bullying Directive! And through it all, win or lose, you have to fill in form after form after form, because if you don’t even do that much in response to each bullying directive, you definitely lose.

When Tony Blair uses the word “reform” in connection with education, it is this process that he is referring to, and he wants more of it, but done better.

That’s what I think may be going, but it’s only me guessing really. Anyone with any better ideas?

8 comments to “Pots of money suddenly appear and disappear …”

  • Dishman

    That sounds like my income right now.
    It’s impossible to do any kind of financial planning or make any long term commitments. It’s unpleasant and inefficient.

  • Dave in LA

    We have much the same problem in California. Dozens and dozens of different piles of money. Each was created to address some year’s crisis du jour, or latest educational fad. Each has a different source with its own requirements for the state to get the money. Each has a different set of criteria for the schools to get the money. There are piles to pay schools to do things that the schools don’t do anymore, but get the money anyway. Some of the schools’ entitlements are grandfathered, so that currently needier schools under the same funding criteria are starved.

    Here, my sympathies are with the schools. The problem in this case isn’t the aggregate size of the piles, but the byzantine ways the money comes in and goes out. Our new governator’s team intends to try to get a handle on this, but it is going to be one unholy mess to even begin unraveling. It’s a thankless task, with little glory in the cleanup part. The problem has been building for years.

  • JK

    When Tony Blair was elected I said that Labour managed it by saying that they could make money spent on public services more effective, that they had not one clue between them how to really achieve this and that the government would last precisely as long as it took for the public to figure that out.

    What you see here is the mass of obfuscation which is still, apparently, working.

    As such, you may expect it to continue.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Thanks for these comments, already helping me understand the situation better.

    This piece was originally done for my education blog, and at one point I said I did lots of complaining here, when I meant lots of complaining there, about all this stuff. I’ve corrected it now.

    The rule seems to be with blog correcting that if you are the first to spot the error you are allowed to correct it, but if a commenter does, you are not allowed to undermine the commenter’s comment by correcting, and the error must remain.

    Anyway, back to public spending.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    And back on topic …


    I think the good news is that the obfuscation is actually now ceasing to work. The voters havn’t quite worked out the details, any more than I have (although thanks to these comments my education is proceeding rapidly), but they do sense that there is something very destructive about the present government’s version of “reform”. I think John Clare’s article, and the sentiments he was quoting, are evidence that the game may now be up.

  • Charles Copeland


    Nobody trusts head teachers enough to let them run their own schools free of local authority control, and the dead hand of central government. If all the money spent on spin and directives had simply been put into schools’ budgets, and heads been free to spend the money as they saw fit so long as they actually did spend it, then we would not have had the present problems.

    – citation from a recent article by ex-headmaster Nick Butt entitled ‘Why I quit teaching’. Read it

  • Julian Morrison

    The problem’s not that funding is irrational, it’s that it can’t be rational.

    Both government and business can compare costs to production – but unlike business, governments can’t compute profit (since income is unrelated to success). They can only guess what productivity is useful (for whatever definition of “usefulness” is currently in vogue).

    This is why state funded anything at all is financially unreformable.

  • Gerald Joly

    My God! Shades of Canada. I thought Canada was the only country with health care problems. Why can`t all countries with similar probelms adopt the tried and true method implemented by Canada for eleviating the health care problems by having a National Lottery system to help defray health care costs. Twenty years ago the government of the day decided that a national lottery was the answer to the financial problems posed by their health costs, and so devised a lottery where the funds derived could reduce the ever increasing cost of health care. Unfortunatelly for some unknown reason that never materialized and no one has been held accountable for the disappearance of the untold millions that have been collected from the unwarry citizens in the name of reducing the costs of health care. As it turns out this writer has spent many years trying to get an answer as to where these funds ended up. The answer is that the funds that were meant to help eleviate the burden of high health care costs went to pay the exhorbitant salaries that are paid to political hacks and patrons of the government of the day with less than one percent finding it`s way to the intended beneficiaries. It is said that money and power will corrupt even the most honest of men, sadly that is true.