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Clawing back money from schools

31 October, 2007

Goodness me, how many more policy announcements is Gordon Brown’s government going to overturn? In a matter of weeks, we have had the scrapping of plans for a national road-pricing scheme, a re-think on the 18% flat rate capital gains tax and now the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, announcing that plans to allow Whitehall to claw back money from schools (saved by prudent head teachers for future projects) are to be abandoned.

 ‘Well, hurrah!’ as Bertie Wooster might say. But, if ministers keep on rowing back in such style, they’ll stand a good chance of qualifying for the coxed eight at the Beijing Olympics.

Apparently not everyone is pleased about the change of heart on raiding the school piggy banks: Chris Keates, general secretary of the teachers’ union, NASUWT, is apparently ‘disappointed’ by the decision, and feels that pupils in other schools will be short changed.

Um, no.

 I have first-hand experience of just what happens in schools if they fear their budget might be cut the following year. They spend the money, not on what they need, but on anything at all, in order to guarantee the same level of income, ‘just in case’.

I call it the Cautionary Tale of the Ice-cream Maker. I returned home in 1987, having spent almost a year as a teaching assistant in Germany, full of enthusiasm for the country, and a confirmed evangelist for recycling (which I still am). However, I had been profoundly shocked when, one evening in January, my landlady came home with a large catalogue (she was Head of Domestic Science at a one of Nuremberg’s world-leading vocational schools) and announced that she and I ‘had to spend DM 2000 that night’. “But why?” I wanted to know, “because I haven’t spent my whole budget this year, and, if I have any surplus, it will be reduced next year.”

And so we leafed our way through: it was a dispiriting exercise.

Me: “Ice-cream maker?”

Bettina: “Got three.”

Me: “Another food mixer?”

Bettina: “Seven”

Me: (a little desperate now) “Bain Marie?”

Bettina: “Yes, it’s a possible; I don’t have as many of those.”

It was a farce. In the end, we ordered a great deal of new equipment that she didn’t need (including another ice-cream maker), which would simply lie and gather dust. The frustration for Bettina was that her class was expanding, and what she really wanted was a bigger classroom, but the school didn’t have the money for that level of captial funding, which would have to come from the State. If only they could save money every year, she confided, the school would be able to afford her bigger classroom.

Well, she had the equipment for it.

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