Accountancy-speak is running out of breath

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
There are still those around who believe that we can solve any problem, be it the nation's health, children's education or the way we watch television, by applying economic principles. It was therefore especially heartening to watch those rather doddery peers vote against the free market in the matter of television access to major sporting events.

At about the same time, I had finally got round to reading Coopers Lybrand's advice to the Teacher Training Agency on how best the initial training of teachers should be funded. With a little bit of luck this report will go down in the annals of educational history as the high-water mark, or final flourish, of unadulterated accountancy power. Its critique of the present system is incisive in its attack on irrational, historic patterns of funding initial teacher training, but this isn't matched by the quality of the conceptual base used in proposing a new system.

As befits the genre, it is replete with such notions as "major suppliers" (universities), "successful output" criteria (newly trained teachers getting jobs, otherwise no dosh for the trainers), higher "input specifications" (such as small group sizes for trainee teachers and more contact time with tutors) being deemed irrelevant in drawing up a "price tariff". Inevitably, there are copious references to "efficiency gains" and "recovery plans" and withdrawn accreditation for "failing providers" and to the virtues of a "zero-based bid approach" (whatever that is).

What all this seems to boil down to is a reductionist world view based mainly on what Geoff Mulgan of the think tank Demos recently observed as a "fanatical conviction that if you give people the right incentives and penalties, they'll behave in the way you want".

There are at least two problems associated with the application of such a theory to the real world. First, you have to be very sure you have identified and anticipated all the variables (or Amazonian butterflies) which could knock your elegant paradigms for six and create un-merry chaos. Second, you have to be clear that human beings are simply one-dimensional Pavlovian dogs.

If the training, supply and retention of high-quality teachers were merely an academic game, this view of the world might not matter. But as the very same accountants have taught us to think, the "bottom line", in this case, is a deadly serious - and worsening - problem. One difficulty is that the elegant purchaser-provider model postulated already seems rather wobbly because the TTA, as "monopoly purchaser", isn't necessarily operating in a "buyer's market".

This is connected with the second problem; the belief that human beings and institutions behave predictably and mechanically when incentives and penalties are waved in front of them. Interestingly and typically, Coopers Lybrand remind the TTA that it is not part of the latter's remit to consider "the interests of providers" (mainly universities). It drives home the logic of such a pure version of the purchaser-provider relationship by saying that this might mean "the TTA should cease to be concerned for any one institution's prosperity, difficulties or even survival".

It quickly goes on to modify such a careless and callow view by invoking manufacturing industry which now, it appears, "takes an interest in the financial health and welfare of its major suppliers in order to reap the benefits that such a long-term relationship can bring". That's all right then.

However, an equally valid view of the TTA's "major suppliers" is that they have other irons in the fire. What doesn't seem to have occurred to Coopers Lybrand is that the response of some universities to a new array of TTA carrots and sticks, or "policy steers", could be to simply walk away because other priorities and strategies are of greater benefit and importance. The robustness of the remaining providers may not then be sufficient in terms of volume, responsiveness or reliability, especially as there is also a rather over-optimistic faith placed in individual schools emerging as both purchases and providers.

If universities choose to stay in teacher training this will have as much to do with their continuing commitment to relationships with local schools as with their response to TTA incentives. It is a curious business when complex human motivations, including doing things because they seem right and proper and friendly, are replaced, rather than augmented, by financial carrots and abolitionist sticks. Only Maoists, accountants and, it seems, Chris Woodhead view the world in this way.

Indeed, our chief inspector seems to have been infected by accountancy-speak. Why else would he refer to teachers as "producers" and "vested interests" (TES, February 9)? And doesn't his description of the relationship between schools and local education authorities as one of a "dependency culture" also suggest a signal failure to understand how mature professional (or personal) autonomy and an appreciation of mutual interdependence are two sides of the same coin? This may also explain his "do your own thing" version of HMI independence, which seems to float free of operational or professional accountability.

Many of us in the education service (or should that be "business"?) have learned a lot from the world of finance. It is, for example, absolutely right to examine closely the cost-effectiveness of everything we do, for reasons of both educational quality and equity. Schools, colleges and LEAs have benefited enormously from such concepts and the techniques that go with them. Significantly, however, some of the best quality assurance and development projects of recent years have been those on special educational needs and 16-19 education when HMI worked with the Audit Commission.

We need more of such an approach, which combines educational expertise with accountancy methodology. What we don't need, however, is accountants let loose on vitally important and vulnerable education sectors, especially when their ideological baggage appears to contain a one-dimensional and rather diminished view of human beings.

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