Hotlines costing a donkey or two

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Money seems to come in units of a quarter of a million pounds nowadays, unless you are a hard-up school, that is. According to the annual accounts of the Department for Education and Employment, John Patten (who?) had 3,500,000 copies printed of a leaflet about testing children in schools.

When he changed his policy, these had to be junked. The cost of his little change of mind was a cool Pounds 250,000.

These days, such blunders have to be presented in a positive light, so the Treasury agreed to write off this six-figure sum as a "constructive loss". The only true "constructive loss" in recent memory was when Patten was given the elbow. If, in popular slang, Pounds 25 is a "pony" and Pounds 500 is a "monkey", then Pounds 250,000 will henceforth have to be known as a "donkey".

The Teacher Training Agency (a totally unneeded quango set up by, er, the same minister) has now hired a public relations firm to promote the image of the teaching profession at a cost of three donkeys.

Yes, indeed. For a mere three quarters of a million quid of public money, people will be able to ring a "hotline" and ask about the image of the teaching profession. "Hot" will be the operative word. Can't you just hear the conversations?

"Hello. Is that the Teaching-is-a-breeze hotline? Can you tell me a bit about the wages and whether there's much stress in the teaching profession nowadays? Hello. Hello. Are you still there? Can you speak up, only there's a sort of spluttering sound on the line. Hello". Brrrrrrrrrrrrr...

I'm really glad that we have citizens' charters and these really helpful hotlines nowadays. Best not ring them on your mobile while you're driving along, however, as you might crash into a Cones Hotline sign.

Perhaps, as a "constructive loss", the two hotlines could be combined. "Hello. Er, is that the Cones and Education Hotline? It's Gillian Shephard here. Look, I've got this double line of redundant ex-ministers outside my office. Can you send someone round to remove them? Only they don't seem to be serving any purpose. They've just been standing there for weeks and they're blocking the corridor."

Another expensive wheeze is John Redwood's plan to spend Pounds 20,000, 000 of public money - 80 donkeys in new money - allowing popular schools to expand. I have never been sure how this Utopian idea would work out in practice.

It is all very well when an area needs additional school places, but what happens in regions that, if anything, have an over-provision? The same Government that is putting up the 80 donkeys for expansion has been urging local authorities to take surplus school places out of use.

It will also be interesting to see what happens if schools that are popular because of their friendly intimacy grow in size and become so big and impersonal that parents no longer want to send their children to them. Would the school then have to pay back its share of the 80 donkeys?

Perhaps the best idea would be for these expanding schools to build elastic extensions out of rubber. The new buildings could then be detached if the school ever became unpopular and bounce down the road to another palace of learning. Boing, boing, boing. Look out! Here comes a popular school. Boing, boing, boing. Oops! Oh dear, it has landed on the OFSTED inspection team.

Another case of alarming expenditure was the introduction of Pounds 1, 200 cash offers by a college attempting to persuade successful GCSE candidates to enrol in itsA-level classes. Pretending this was just the same as university scholarships will not wash, as students actually apply for university awards, whereas these cash inducements were being offered to pupils who said they had already accepted places elsewhere. This kind of thing could cost a donkey or two over the years.

If there is going to be a transfer-fee scheme when pupils move up a stage, maybe we should go the whole hog. Having a single rate is not good enough. What we need is competitive individual pricing, to reflect the true state of the transfer market.

Mavis Scattergood, Pounds 1,500. Nigel Farnes-Barnes, Pounds 800 (Pounds 1,000 if he wipes that smug grin off his face). Elsie Scroggins, Pounds 1, plus five National Lottery scratch-cards. Darren Rowbottom, minus Pounds 1,200 (his school pays another school Pounds 1,200 to cart him away).

The biggest source of cash bounties, however, will come later this academic year, when the pre-election giveaway is expected. A few weeks ago, a front-page story in a national newspaper announced that there would be a billion pounds extra for education next year, or 4,000 donkeys.

Before celebrating, ask to see the true pedigree of this supposed bonanza. For example, millions of pounds have been pulled out of the education budget this year, hence the many redundancies among teachers and the rapid growth in class sizes.

The Government did not meet the teachers' pay award. Universities are currently losing about 10 per cent of their income. The air is thick with the deafening sound of donkeys' hooves, as whole herds are rounded up and corralled ready for the imaginary giveaway.

Add to this the cost of inflation. Four per cent of education's Pounds 20,000,000,000-plus national budget is nearly a billion pounds anyway. So it looks as if, one way or another, a couple of billion has disappeared from the education spend already.

Now for the smart bit. You have had 8,000 donkeys taken away from you. Next year, you will get 4,000 of them back again. You will then be told you are 4,000 donkeys better off, when you are, in fact, 4,000 worse off.

Cheer up. After all, with donkeys in charge, it's only a "constructive loss".

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