After the election, the cash injection

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Picture the scene. It is a beautiful spring morning on the day after the election. Education has been a major issue in the campaign - 42 per cent of electors polled after voting said it was their top priority - and now as people pick the morning paper they see a front-page headline announcing a gargantuan infusion of cash into schools. Didn't happen, did it?

Well actually it did. It just wasn't our election, or our schools, and the paper in question was the Los Angeles Times.

Last month, the people of Los Angeles went to the polls to vote for a new mayor, and at the same time, in the peculiar way of Californian politics, to vote on a proposed $2.4b bond to repair the city's dilapidated schools.

The bond, known as Proposition BB, will mean the average homeowner paying about Pounds 40 more a year in property taxes to underwrite Pounds 375m of school repairs, to provide air conditioning in the hottest schools, and to build new schools in overcrowded area. Taxpayers know exactly what their money will be buying because details have already been published, and a powerful oversight committee put in place to monitor the operation.

It is an extraordinary amount of money to be drummed up in one fell swoop for school maintenance, still more extraordinary that it has been done in a city as uninterested in public services as Los Angeles, where sightings of city buses are as rare as those of white rhinos on safari, and tax-hating has been elevated to an art form by local inhabitants. So extraordinary, in fact, that there must surely be a lesson here for the rest of the educational world?

After all we, too, have massive problems with school maintenance. We might not (yet) have the 100F-plus summer temperatures that make air conditioning a must, but we have pupils in 600 primary schools making do with outside lavatories, and local authorities estimating they need more than Pounds 3bn simply to keep existing schools open. And that's without all the less urgent, but possibly even more spirit-sapping, problems - Portakabin classrooms, outdated buildings, dreary decor and pitiful play areas.

But it's hard to think what that lesson might be. We have no tradition of voting on earmarked funds, nor do we enjoy the kind of social dynamics which could push them through. LA's school bond was turned down by voters last year, but came in this second time around on the strengthening Latino vote. Two-thirds of pupils in the city schools are now Latinos, and their immigrant parents, energetically pursuing the American dream, are beginning to throw muscle behind policies which will ensure their children get the best possible start in life.

In fact it's often hard to know what to make of any international comparisions in education. So many league tables have now been published, and the results are often such bad news for the UK, that we've grown skilled at the sceptical shrug - so what if we're behind Eastern Gibor in geometry and Western Fugi in physics? Just ask all these Oceanic clever-clogs to do some thinking for themselves, and then see what happens.

Ditto study visits abroad. Anyone who's ever travelled across the sea with a pack of educationists will know these visits do not always yield what they are supposed to. The odds are that half of the party will spend its time putting their hosts right about the best (the British) way of running an education system, while the other half will either go down with a tummy bug or bunk off halfway through to meet up with long-lost cousins or university friends. Everyone will come home much better-informed - but not necessarily about integrated school management structures or whatever other worthy subject they were supposed to be absorbing.

Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe all schools are so deeply embedded in their own financial, political and cultural frameworks that looking to California or Korea for blueprints is bound to be a waste of time?

But choose the right places and there are always lessons to be learned, as the latest study from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research makes clear.

The Institute's researchers have long worked to set British education and training into a wider European context. This latest study compares in detail how youngsters transfer from school to work in Britain and Switzerland, and suggests that many of the things the Swiss do so successfully - paying attention to underachieving children in school, maintaining high standards in schools across the board, running a widely-respected vocational education system that offers a smooth and gradual progression from school work through vocational learning to work-oriented instruction - are things we should look at more closely.

Yet even when there is no practical pay-off in sight, that is no reason to look up and about.

The American novelist Wallace Stegner once said that mankind needed wilderness even if he never did anything more with it than drive to the edge and peer in.

It's much the same with Proposition BB, and all other oddities from the degree of the known world. No matter if they are of no use to us whatsoever. We need to peer at them with wondering eyes if only to refresh ourselves with the knowledge that old questions can throw up new answers; that traditional problems can be reframed in ways we might never even think of, and that out there, inconceivable as it might seem after the long, long election campaign, there is a whole educational world quite unbothered about nursery vouchers, league tables, assisted places, or grammar schools.

From School to Productive Work: Britain and Switzerland compared. By Helvin Beirhoff and SJ Prais. National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Published by Cambridge University Press, Pounds 32.50 hardback, Pounds 11.95 paperback.

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