As always, there is no smoke without ire. The news that the tobacco giant, BAT Industries, is to provide Pounds 100,000 sponsorship for one of the latest batch of technology colleges has been denounced by Opposition politicians and parents. But more perverse souls with a taste for irony must have revelled in the brouhaha. First, the Government spends millions of pounds discouraging teenagers from smoking.
Then it decrees that cigarette companies must not put up advertising posters within 200 metres of a school entrance. And finally it allows BAT to present generous plugs of tobacco money to schools (the company has put more than Pounds 2 million into Macmillan CTC in Middlesbrough). What a gift for the political satirists.
This week's launch of the 38 new technology and language colleges was controversial for another reason, of course. Gillian Shephard announced that the National Foundation for Educational Research has been commissioned to devise aptitude tests that will attempt to identify children with a bent for technology and languages. The City Technology Colleges Trust has since scotched all talk of an 11-plus for would-be technologists and linguists. Those technology schools and colleges that admit the full ability range will continue to do so, the trust says. Nevertheless, given the Government's enthusiasm for selective education, it is understandable that Doug McAvoy, the National Union of Teachers' leader, is suspicious. Furthermore, he is right to assert that as children's abilities wax, wane and change during their teenage years, it is impossible to draw firm conclusions about their future aptitudes at the age of 11. As Howard Gardner, the psychologist who developed the theory of multiple intelligences, has pointed out, Picasso may have been a boy prodigy but Einstein, Stravinsky and TS Eliot were not.
But neither tobacco company sponsorship nor aptitude testing is the real issue. What is much more important is the Government's overall funding policy on technology which is creating many more losers than winners. It should be remembered that there were three unsuccessful bids for every one that Gillian Shephard trumpeted this week. Countless other schools, particularly those in rural and depressed industrial areas, did not even apply for the Pounds 100,000 (plus Pounds 100 per pupil per year) that specialist colleges receive because they had no hope of raising a matching sum from local businesses.
Who can criticise them if they look enviously at the largess that is being directed at the chosen schools? The National Association of Head Teachers has pointed out that the requirement to offer technology to all pupils is making accommodation and equipment demands that many schools cannot meet. And this claim has been borne out by Professor Alan Smithers's recent survey of 10 per cent of the country's secondary schools (TES, April 26). It showed that nearly half of the technology departments had no full-time technician, and teachers were having to scrounge teaching resources, even to the point of picking their way through industrial skips.
Under those circumstances it is hardly surprising that Chris Tipple, director of education for Northumberland, characterises the Government's funding policy as: "We can't provide a basic diet, but you can bid for a hamper from the National Lottery." Those who call themselves realists will no doubt say he should recognise that the country cannot afford to put Pounds 100,000 into every technology department. But given the Pacific Rim countries' determination to raise the technological and academic ability of all their pupils, not just the lucky or gifted minority, perhaps it would be more realistic to conclude that we cannot afford not to make this investment.