Even sober, sorry's the hardest word to say

9th May 2003 at 01:00
ne of the delights of e-mail is that from time to time you receive an unexpected treat from a friend - and recently I was charmed to find the following in my inbox, headed "Levels of difficulty": 1. Things that are difficult to say when you're drunk: Indubitably. Innovative. Preliminary. Proliferation. Cinnamon.

2. Things that are very difficult to say when you're drunk: Specificity. British constitution. Passive-aggressive disorder. Loquacious transubstantiate.

3. Things that are impossible to say when you're drunk:

"No, I've had enough to drink, I'll just have an orange juice."

"Thanks, but I don't want to have sex. Sorry, but you're not really my type."

"Good evening officer, isn't it lovely out tonight? I don't think I should be driving; let's walk home instead."

Of course, I wouldn't dream of suggesting that any education minister has been drunk recently, but it did remind me irresistibly of the fact that it seems downright impossible for members of the Government to say: "I'm sorry, I'm afraid we got this wrong and we'll need a bit of time to rethink."

The row over school funding is a case in point. Although a lot of complicating factors are involved, it seems to hinge on two key misjudgments - both made by the Treasury. The first - so normal in political circles that it barely qualifies as a misdemeanour - was to hype up the amount of money, which led teachers, governors and parents to expect some kind of educational Utopia during this financial year. The second - which was really a Civil Service error - was apparently not to notice that the rises in national insurance contributions and changes to pensions announced by Gordon Brown over a year ago would have a serious effect on school budgets.

Rather than admit the truth, however, Charles Clarke immediately came out fighting and blamed local education authorities - convenient scapegoats who have been in the dock before for hanging on to money which should have been delegated to schools. Yet most local authorities already spend more on education than the Government says they should do - and changes in the funding formula which have broadly redistributed money from south to north mean some areas have lost out seriously this year, as have some individual schools.

Through his ignoble tactics, Clarke has bought himself a little time to try to sort out the mess and prevent the redundancies, but the really significant fallout is that he - formerly respected as straightforward, if something of a bruiser - is now tainted by a brutal Realpolitik which forced him to dissemble and shift the blame.

Similarly, David Miliband - a fresh new face, thought to have an intelligent understanding of the world of education - has sacrificed his integrity to protect a Treasury which oversold its generosity and got its sums wrong. An everyday story of political folk, you may say - but it's not surprising that trust from teachers is in short supply. Michael Barber may be promulgating the notion of an "enabling state" which would act as a springboard for the less-privileged. The idea is enormously attractive - but how can it ever come about, if the state is trying constantly to deceive people?

One thing, though, is perfectly clear. The future of local education authorities is secure, even with the most centralist government imaginable.

Without them, who would the Department for Education and Skills blame when things go wrong?

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