Huge amounts of money are wasted annually on things that make very little difference to the quality of our schools

21st May 2004 at 01:00
You wouldn't believe some of the conversations I've had with the DfES about its latest initiative or three. I suppose the problem is the lack of accountability. Nobody's responsible. No one owns up.

There's nobody you can nail. It's different in a school. Waste vast amounts of money and the governors are on your back. Mess the curriculum up, and parents want to know what's going on. But it's the money that bothers me most; huge amounts wasted annually on things that make very little difference to the quality of our schools.

As I write, there are no fewer than 16 huge DfES "initiatives" swallowing money. If that money were fed directly to the schools, it would make a huge difference. And yes, I'd be perfectly happy to be accountable for my share, but the rule seems to be that anything is OK as long as it doesn't involve sending schools a cheque.

Last year I took part in a DfES project, generously funded, to investigate boys' underachievement. Groups of schools all over Britain were involved, and it was very interesting. We looked at ways to keep boys interested and enthusiastic about their progress. Many schools are battling against immensely difficult social backgrounds, and struggling to come up with innovative ideas on the cheap. Nevertheless, when I think about my own school, the answer is simple: give me the money to employ just one more teacher, even for half a week, and I could make a real difference. I suspect that's true of the others as well.

And yet the DfES is happy to throw money around in every other direction. A while ago, I had a phone call asking if all my teachers would like a free computer. "You're a rep," I said, "and nothing comes free." Yes, he admitted, he was a rep, but he guaranteed we wouldn't have to buy anything and it really was a dream come true. We were intrigued, so I said he could come and talk to us. It turned out that the offer was via a DfES study bursary, with pound;500 available to all applying teachers for a short period. There were various options, but the money could be spent on computer equipment, and it seemed that here was a go-ahead firm, DfES-approved, that would supply each teacher with a brand new computer. We just had to sign a form, and the firm would claim the bursary. As a double-check, I phoned some other local schools. Yep, they'd had the rep too. The rep said the computers would be delivered within three weeks.

When they didn't come, I was told the delay was due to the huge demand.

Another six weeks passed. Yes, they were on their way; they'd be delivered at half-term. I arranged for the premises officer to postpone his holiday.

They didn't come. I phoned again... and again. Then I phoned the DfES, and had a job finding anybody who'd even heard of the bursary, let alone what it could be used for. Eventually I located a knowledgeable outpost, and was told that other schools had complained about the firm too, but there wasn't anything they could do. We just had to be patient.

We were patient for six months, then a letter arrived saying the firm had gone into liquidation. No free computers after all. Never mind, we could reclaim our bursaries and spend the money on something else, couldn't we? Well no, we couldn't, because, believe it or not, the DfES had passed all the money to the firm as soon as we'd signed the forms. What a very odd thing to do.

But then, it's only public money, after all.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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