Clarke could do worse

18th July 2003 at 01:00
This week Charles Clarke awarded himself a B for his handling of school funding. Some may question the rigour of the standards ministers apply. But anything less than a self-awarded A amounts to a frank acknowledgement by the Education Secretary that he could do better. That much at least is to his credit.

Mr Clarke seems to think that taking even more control of school spending could improve on his grading. That seems unlikely. There is a tendency for all governments now to assert control - at least in their utterances to the press - over those things which in law are the responsibility of local government, schools, hospitals, courts or police authorities. As a result, it is ministers who are increasingly blamed for any shortcoming in such services, rather than those responsible for their operation.

The more Mr Clarke assumes responsibility for distributing funds to schools, the more he will be called to account for every school deficit, teacher redundancy and unmet pupil need. Like the exams of old, he will be penalised for every mistake rather than credited for anything he gets right.

Headteachers who demand more will be seen as championing the cause of their pupils - just as they were in last year's A-level debacle. Failures on the supply side will be laid at the door of the Government. And failures there will inevitably be, if Mr Clarke's department attempts to direct the finances of 24,000 schools.

Funding and the law of unintended consequences do not seem to be among its strongest subjects. Any competent local authority proposing formula funding changes far less radical than those imposed on schools by the Government this year would first have carefully modelled their impact on schools.

The DfES did nothing of the kind and so was caught completely unawares by the resulting crisis. And it is now apparent that its earlier bright idea for improving recruitment and retention - threshold and the upper pay spine - has boosted teachers' pay most in the North and Midlands where living costs and teacher shortages are lowest.

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