Is there, I wonder, a course ministers go on, some kind of training programme that encourages them to broadcast gratuitously offensive statements at the drop of a hat? If so, I guess it’s titled something like "Self-aggrandisement at the expense of others" or, in the vernacular, "How to look tough by pissing off everyone below you in the food chain."
I cite, as my first piece of evidence, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond who, in his Budget speech this week, allocated something between £10,000 and £50,000 per school for “those little extras”. Was he seeking to offend? If so, he certainly succeeded: though Tes’ own Ed Dorrell reckons he betrayed a government view that, in terms of funding, schools are doing just fine.
Maybe Fiscal Phil thought heads would splash his unexpected largesse on some cheeky nice-to-have like a new minibus or a trolley-full of tablets (the digital sort, not the tranquillisers this announcement might have called for). By contrast, given their pain throughout the period of austerity, we can be sure most schools will use their “little extra” to retain a teacher or assistant post that would otherwise have been cut.
If that casual aside, after thought even, was guaranteed to upset the whole of the maintained sector, the independent sector suffered two insensitive comments from junior ministers this week.
First, schools minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested that every independent school should admit five looked-after children, a reasonable suggestion that I’d foresee the sector welcoming.
Then he spoilt it by adding a two-edged threat. First, the current government might look (again) at the question of public benefit and the tax-breaks (always overstated) that educational charities receive. Second, he observed that a Corbyn-led government would find it a lot harder to attack a sector with significant numbers of looked-after children thriving in it.
I’ve always found persuasion and exploring mutual benefit a better way to build cooperation than either pointing or looking down the barrel of a gun: schools should do things because they’re right, not because they’re demanded.
Moreover, in the independent schools I ran for 27 years, I had several conversations with representatives of local authorities, pursuing precisely the initiative that Mr Zahawi proposes. Each time, the meeting happened at my instigation: on each occasion, the LA team wasn’t sure how it could work for children in their care, went away with a vague promise to look into it – and nothing happened. Partnerships have to work in both directions, a fact ministers frequently overlook.
Finally this week, Ben Wallace, minister for security and economic crime, accused private schools of being actively involved in money-laundering. Listing “the purveyors of luxury goods, the public school, the sporting institutions”, he claimed they “pretend their hands aren’t really dirty and profit from moving dirty money and knowingly conspire…” His sweeping condemnation, and his casual assertion that independent schools, like the other areas of activity he listed, are willfully engaged in money-laundering, was beyond rude – it was slanderous.
Actually, to characterise private schools as a bunch of wide-boys grabbing dirty cash is more laughable than anything else. I remember being (rightly) warned by government of the need to spot possible money-laundering, and what to do about it – years before the expression was even in regular use. Anyone who walks into the average independent school finance office will immediately spot the painstaking attention given to all regulatory matters, including fraud and money-laundering.
But hey, who cares about accuracy, if it’s a good soundbite? Mouthy politicians, from Trump and Boris downwards, know that noise is all.
Politicians (generally male ones) will continue to feed their fragile egos by talking big. Still, when they need the help of those routinely on the receiving end of their threats and innuendos, such sound biters shouldn’t be surprised if they receive less cooperation than they hoped for.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former independent school headteacher and a past chair of HMC. He Tweets at @bernardtrafford