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Four attempts and still wrong

Chris Tipple says the arrangement for funding technology schools is a scandal. As another bid deadline for the technology colleges programme passes, it signals the end of frantic activity in some of our high schools. There may be a revenue budget crisis, redundancy procedures may be at their height, urgent curriculum planning may be needed for the introduction of further GNVQs , but it all has to be set aside as the pursuit of local business interests presses on.

The last time I saw one of our heads he was over the moon. Had a handicapped child achieved a real triumph? Had one of his excellent colleagues gained significant promotion? No. He had got a quarter of the way to his Pounds 100,000 target by securing discounts on plastic moulding machinery!

Only a few years ago such a scenario would not only have been laughable, it would have been thought disgraceful for a public service whose prime task was to improve educational standards for all by as fair a distribution of public resources as possible.

When the history of education in the 1990s comes to be written, there is little doubt that the arrangements for the introduction of enhanced technology provision in schools will rank as a major scandal. Macbeth, you may recall, put it in a nutshell: "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill."

The bad beginning was, of course, the city technology college programme. Twenty beacons of excellence were to be created with substantial investment from private industry. Local education authorities were not to be involved. Inner cities were to be the beneficiaries.

In practice the location of CTCs has owed more to the interests of private sponsors than the needs of inner cities. Their admission arrangements cut across those of local authorities and often produce parental frustration.

The actual support for such a divisive initiative from private industry fell far short of what was needed, limiting their number to 15 and requiring a huge injection of public money. The independent report that demonstrates what excellent beacons they may be is still awaited.

Just when it seemed that fairness and common sense would never prevail there appeared the Technology Schools Initiative (TSI). This brief interlude almost got it right. All schools could apply, there was no need to have an industrial sponsor on your doorstep, applications through LEAs meant that some element of sensible local planning was possible. On the other hand, many schools wasted time making fruitless bids and the Department for Education could not resist letting through a few individual school bids which bypassed the LEA, on criteria that were never revealed.

Then this brief window of opportunity vanished, to be replaced by the Technology College Programme (Mark One). This was the programme for which only grant maintained and voluntary aided schools were, you may recall, eligible. Mr Patten told the North of England Conference that this was because voluntary aided school governors were more experienced at working with industry, to the predictable fury of his audience. He later adjusted his explanation to the fact that the legislation limited the programme to these categories of school, as if this was justification in itself. Once 70 or so schools had benefited under this discriminatory programme the present Secretary of State graciously conceded that all schools could be eligible.

Thus was born, of very dubious parentage, the current Technology College Programme (Mark Two), now sometimes described as the Specialist School Programme as its remit is widened to include languages and possibly sport. While patently fairer than its predecessor this still has many flaws. The current "charm offensive" and the desperate shortage of resources in schools should not be allowed to obscure them.

First it remains an individual school bidding system. If my own authority is anything to go by, then, with 200 projects available in 19956, at least three-quarters of the bids so feverishly concocted, were bound to fail. The cost of such effort is very easily lost sight of, not to mention the frustration and disappointment inflicted on staff. Moreover this is not to be a planned dispersal of scarce public resource. The bid documents marginalise LEAs and only grudgingly concede the need to consult over technical aspects of implementation. Conformance to a properly worked out plan that would maximise the benefits for the whole community of an LEA is not considered an appropriate or relevant issue. In the present climate of resource scarcity it is like saying: "We can't provide a basic diet, but you can bid for a hamper from the national lottery"!

Indeed the lottery provides an excellent analogy. Does the school have good bid writers, skilled at using the right language? Is there a friendly industrial company nearby? Has the school kept in with the CTC Trust? A chief education officer in a neighbouring authority recently received a letter from the trust pointing out that it knew of industries prepared to cough up Pounds 50,000 for a school or schools in his area, in the right circumstances. There can be no objection to industry wishing to do this; what is in-iquitous is that matching public funding then follows it. So scarce national sources are to be allocated on the basis of the whims of particular industrialists?

Rural areas are likely to be doubly disadvantaged. There will be much less local industrial support and even where a school is successful it does nothing to improve parental choice. Distance means that the creation of such favoured schools will rather be a source of parental frustration.

Finally, the bid documentation makes it clear this is a case of building on success. Larger schools with evidence of existing achievements in the relevant areas will be favoured. This is not about remedying deficiencies in provision, however deserving.

If, as we are often told, our destiny as a nation rests on improved standards of education, especially technological education, among the whole future work force, then the sooner the present unplanned, discriminatory and unfair arrangements are scrapped the better.

Chris Tipple is director of education for Northumberland.

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