As anyone who’s read my blogs more than once will know, I’ve long suspected that the Department for Education employs as it spokesperson a robot, whom I christened Robert. I made this assumption on the basis that no human being – at least, none with any sense or conscience – could constantly repeat its mindless mantra in response to the funding crisis. "There is no crisis," Robert droned, "and funding is at record levels." The bot reiterated the message so frequently that even ministers found themselves parroting it: or was it the other way round?
I was wrong. My attribution of this repetitive drivel to a machine was, if anything, an insult to the miracle that is artificial intelligence. The spokesperson isn’t an AI, nor even a lowly human functionary. These pronouncements come from the top.
How do I know? In a headline last week, Tes’ Martin George reported, “‘We’re not on the verge of a funding crisis,' says DfE schools tsar”. The potentate in question is Dominic Herrington, interim national schools commissioner, who, unlike his predecessors in the post, is not a former head but a career mandarin.
He assured the Commons Education Select Committee that there was “no evidence” that cuts are affecting the quality of education. It’s true, of course, that Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman has reported no correlation between loss of funding and any falls in results: to be fair, nor has she claimed that schools aren’t having a tough time.
I don’t know what’s worse: Mr Herrington’s denial of a problem or his euphemistic admission that “there is a huge efficiency challenge across the school sector”. It’s not about slashing and burning, he implies: schools just need to be more efficient (I’ve written before: “efficiency savings” is usually code for sacking people).
NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted commented to Tes: “I’m not really bothered whether Dominic Herrington agrees or not: the facts don’t support his insouciance.”
Ministers must face up to funding crisis
Insouciance: a wonderful choice of word implying a mixture of blindness, insensitivity, naivety, wilful ignorance and lack of empathy. Former PM Jim Callaghan was alleged to have said, “Crisis? What crisis?” about 1976's famous Winter of Discontent, and even though he never actually said it, the electorate never forgave him. Similarly, notwithstanding Mary Bousted’s measured if damning reaction, I don’t foresee educational professionals readily extending forgiveness to the (temporary?) NSC. Insouciance? More like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.
While playing the violin, Mr Herrington’s in tune with his bosses. Since Lord Agnew smugly claimed that his officials could find £50,000 of waste in every primary school, and crassly bet school leaders a bottle of champagne that he could do the same in any school he visited, it’s been revealed that the Department itself squandered some £54 million on a proposed move from glitzy Sanctuary Buildings (now apparently inadequate: DfE staffing is clearly mushrooming while schools slash theirs) to the old Admiralty building. According to reports, these millions were committed by Michael Gove but now the DfE isn’t moving, even though the expensive Admiralty refurbishment has been completed: I guess other departments are vying for that magnificent new accommodation.
Curiously, there may be a grain of truth behind Lord Agnew’s assertion. It’s possible schools could negotiate better contracts for utilities, printing and other functions: but they can’t do that when they’re already administratively understaffed, when primary heads and business managers are too busy mending roofs and unblocking toilets to implement complex tendering processes. Lord Agnew, yet another wealthy ministerial escapee from the world of business, chooses to forget that time costs: when money’s short, there’s not time even to plan strategic savings.
It’s pots and kettles at DfE: or, to become biblical, ministers and mandarins alike are too busy examining the speck of dust (mote) in schools’ eyes to notice the beam in their own.
“All I want for Christmas,” the song goes. All schools want for Christmas is adequate and fair funding. In the meantime, though, more truth and fewer lies emanating from DfE might help morale.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford