Squandering money? Our politicians are the experts

The government has squandered millions on non-existent Brexit ferries and HS2. Yet it's headteachers who are told they can't manage money, says Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

£10 note, catching fire off a gas cooking ring

Remember the Fawlty Towers episode in which the hotel inspector recites a catalogue of faults to the hapless owner? After the fourth damning criticism, Basil interrupts, suggesting he’s got the message.

The inspector remorselessly continues his tally of failures to its dismal conclusion, at which Basil enquires brightly: “All right otherwise?”

I once tried that response on a parent who had nothing good to say about my school. It went badly.

A similar litany of misery has exploded across the press and social media around Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman’s outspoken blog (swiftly taken down) about school funding. 

She concedes, if cautiously, that there is a “tightness of funding”, citing three areas adversely affected as a result: SEND provision (demand for which has grown exponentially), curriculum breadth and education quality, and teacher workload.

The straw that broke the camels' backs

When the financial decisions schools make have an “impact on the overall quality of education a school provides”, she observes, “that is clearly something Ofsted needs sight of”. 

She notes that “staff cuts are inevitably a major way in which schools cut costs”, but bewails the widespread loss of experienced subject teachers. The average teacher age in England is now the lowest in the OECD.

Sadly, Ms Spielman went on to spoil it by criticising “poor decision-making in response to financial pressure”, adding that “funding can still be squandered [even] when it is plentiful”.

That straw was too much for the backs of many educational camels. The Worth Less? Campaign demanded that HMCI apologise or resign, condemning her “unsubstantiated and derisory personal views”, which feed a consistent Whitehall narrative “that highly-skilled headteachers cannot manage their budgets even after we have put up with 10 years of real-terms cuts and still kept our schools afloat”.

Leaping to his members’ defence, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton pointed the blame firmly at the government for shortchanging schools and pupils, “while insisting that they have never had it so good…But Ofsted”, he added, “wouldn’t be Ofsted without having a swipe at schools”.

Warning against overreaction

Policy Exchange’s Jonathan Simons praised Ms Spielman’s “tough messages for government about the consequences at the coal face”. 

In a carefully worded piece, he applauded her for giving it to the government hot and strong, while deploring the fact that the consequences mentioned above have been widely ignored and “conveniently disavowed” by the Department for Education

Then, by contrast, he warned against overreaction. He supported HMCI’s view that some schools, admittedly under pressure, are making poor decisions in money-saving. He reckoned that former academies minster Lord Agnew was right to push greater efficiency and transparency, “but wrong in the way he often spoke about it”. 

I’ll say. Lord Agnew’s champagne wager was crass and insulting. But I was surprised that Simons saw nothing controversial in the use of the word “squandered”, and criticised headteachers for arguing “that there is no inefficiency in the system”. 

I don’t think so specific a denial was issued. Moreover, as cuts have bitten ever deeper, school leaders have, in Geoff Barton’s words, “agonised…to the point of putting their own health at risk” in trying to square that impossible circle. 

Under those circumstances, any human being, with the usual amount of human vulnerability, would struggle not to be outraged by the choice of language. 

Extreme reactions

Simons concluded: “Outrage is not – and must not be – a substitute for reasoned public policy debate.” 

He’s right. It isn’t, and it mustn’t be. But extreme reactions become inevitable when government blandly denies any problem exists. It’s government that’s refusing to debate, not school leaders. 

School business manager Hilary Goldsmith returned to that calculated government message of heads and business leaders “wilfully wasting public money on overpriced projects and contracts, without due care or protocol”. 

Is this not the same government that nodded through multibillion-pound overspends on HS2? That squandered £13 million on non-existent ferries for use post-Brexit? Whose DfE failed to carry out background checks on the unqualified CEO of a MAT that lost millions and let down 6,500 children?

It’s the same one. People in glass houses…well, you know the rest.

Nonetheless, government blunders on, Fawlty-like, as ever. All right otherwise?

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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