That costly sprinkle of 'private-sector gold dust'

20th April 2001 at 01:00
In its unrelenting drive to find the most inefficient bits of private-sector practice and thrust them on to schools, the Government has advertised for "consultants" to work in the new city academies. They will be paid pound;300 a day - or about three or four times the daily rate of teachers - and will work, as the advertisement puts it, "in the following areas".

Let's pause for a moment to savour that phrase. If you have a proper job for someone, you can generally define that job fairly precisely. If you haven't really a glimmering of an idea what they're to do, you say they are to work "in the following areas" or "around issues of" and hope vaguely that, when you've appointed them, they find something useful to do, or, at any rate, don't get in the way too much.

The areas in which these consultants are to work include "curriculum innovation for high performance". Examining this phrase for a precise meaning is an unrewarding activity. It's an exercise in squeezing the largest number of feel-good words into the smallest amount of meaning.

In the same spirit, other areas include "the management of change" - a currently fashionable bit of jargon - as well as "performance management and self evaluation".

Now, since these consultants will not teach a single lesson, or assist in the teaching of a single lesson, or (since teaching qualifications are not required) even be able to offer help and advice to those who do teach - what on earth are they for?

They are being appointed because political correctness demands that you bring into schools the trappings of business. And the city academies are the place to start because these are to be yet another stage in the long process of showing us that the only way to improve our schools is to hand them over to private companies, which will sprinkle private-sector gold dust all over them.

We will be told that the consultants' inflated salaries will be met, not from the public purse, but by business; for you will recall that each of these city academies is supposed to receive 20 per cent of the cost of starting it - or pound;2 million - from industry.

As you will also no doubt recall, a large number of winged pigs have recently been seen hovering in the air above the Departmen for Education and Employment's palatial headquarters.

We know what will happen about that pound;2m. We saw it with the city technology colleges, and again with the education action zones. You'd have thought ministers might have learned their lesson by now. Here's how it will go, and remember, you read it here first: Quite soon, ministers and top civil servants, when they refer to the pound;2m, will start adding, sotto voce, the words "in cash or in kind". And then, oh, then, the private-sector largesse will pour forth. Hundreds of elderly executives, too senior to fire and too tired to be any use, will be made available to sit on governing bodies and business education liaison development co-ordinating committees. The value of the time of these executives, generously estimated, will be marked down as a contribution towards the running of the academies.

Companies will invite selected senior pupils, without any charge whatsoever, to attend a lecture at their headquarters about what a splendid thing it would be to work for such a go-ahead company; and this, too, will be marked down as a substantial contribution towards the pound;2m.

You think I jest? These are two of the many ways in which the Government managed to pretend to itself that business was making substantial contributions towards education action zones.

Real money will not change hands. The cost of the pound;300-a-day consultants will come from the taxpayer. So too will the cost of those much more expensive consultants foreshadowed in this rather scary extract from the city academy tender document produced by the DFEE:"Potential sponsors... need have no direct educational experience. When they lack such experience, they will, of course, wish to engage experienced advisers..."

You and I will end up paying for these private-sector whims and fripperies, which is something we should remember next time we are told that better pay for teachers would mean a tax hike.

It is high time we put an end to this scam. Schools need good teachers (and plenty of them) and good heads.

They do not need the top-heavy private-sector bureaucracies that this Government seems determined to impose on them.

Francis Beckett is education correspondent of the New Statesman

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