Lies to stay ahead of the paper chase

6th December 2002 at 00:00
EVERY branch of education nowadays claims that it is cutting back on bureaucracy. The latest beneficiary (or victim, depending on how cynical you are) of these good intentions is the further education sector, whose teachers are so strapped that any hours gained for purveying their craft, instead of form filling, will be long overdue.

The task force set up by the Learning and Skills Council soon abandoned its target of a 25 per cent cut in bureaucracy. Decapitating the hydra is not as simple as it sounds. If the basic cause of bureaucracy, lack of trust, is not addressed, then more heads will always grow in the place of the one chopped off.

Having spent the last few years satirising the ludicrous paper chase that has prevented people doing their job properly, I can only hope that all these aspirations to reduce litter will lead to firm action. Unfortunately, every working group eventually - after 25 meetings and a 573-page report - comes to the same conclusion: bureaucracy, like television, is here to stay.

Governments are the wrong bodies to clear out their own Augean stables. They generate a demand, then castigate the education sector for not meeting it, before eventually agreeing that the initiative is counter-productive, only to replace it with one that requires even more paper.

Hercules dealt with King Augeus's dung-filled stables in a single day, by bashing a hole in each end and diverting the river Alpheus though them. Nowadays, he would have to spend a year filling in planning-application forms, and then get turned down.

Never forget that one of the Government's most impressive attempts at a solution was to set up two different groups, neither of which knew of the other's existence, to look into the problems of duplication. You can't make it up.

One of the proposals that often wins favour is that data collection should be completed electronically, to save on paper and postage. This idea is always endorsed enthusiastically by people who have never tried to fill in complex forms on the web, or who have never actually lost their data into the ether, somewhere over Siberia.

I once had to complete an electronic application form for research funds and spent so much time on the phone to the helpline I almost invited the ghostly figure at the other end to my birthday party, since I had spent more time with him than with my wife. At one point I had to pretend I had a particular type of printer. The conversation went something like this.

"It now says on my screen that I have to put in a printer with True Type fonts, whatever they are." "That's right. Does your printer support True Type fonts?" "Er, probably not. It doesn't even support paper sometimes. It's a bit bog standard, if you'll pardon the expression."

"But does it support True Type fonts?" "Best to assume not. Does that mean I can't go any further?" "No, there is a solution. Put in the Apple SuperDuperWhizzbang 3000." "I haven't actually got that one. In fact, I haven't got an Apple computer, it's a PC."

"Just do as I say." "But that would be lying". "Doesn't matter. The computer doesn't know you're lying. It will think you can support True Type fonts."

"Surely there's an ethical issue. If I lie to my computer it will never trust me again."

Another favoured solution is to allow people to share paperwork, but this always looks like cheating. How can you share your mission statement, or whatever, with others from a completely different establishment? Unless all mission statements are exactly the same, of course. They probably just get ticked off the checklist anyway, rather than read, so we might as well have an all-purpose one.

"The headteacher and staff of (insert name) school are entirely committed to producing world-class standards of achievement. It is our mission to demand the highest expectations of every single pupil. We are dedicated to educating the whole child to the discumnockeration of society, endorsing and enhancing the values and traditions of the oodle noodleI (insert own glob for several more paragraphs of meaningless waffle)."

Finally, if all else fails, the Government should send all educational bureaucracy to the examination boards. That way, with luck, some of it might be lost, or at the very least downgraded.

"We regret to inform you that, after regrading, your 81 pages of paperwork have been reduced to 46 pages. You may be disappointed at this outcome, but you can be assured that all the normal conventions of moderation have been followed." That should do the trick.

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