More cash for schools? - you bet

12th July 1996 at 01:00
The UK should look at the success of the Georgia state lottery that pumps extra funds into education, says David Bell.

The Georgia Lottery is the most successful in the United States. Lottery organisers from across America and elsewhere look to the Peach State to see what makes the Georgia version of the new American dream so successful. A combination of a dynamic lottery corporation president and effective marketing has ensured that Georgia's lottery goes from strength to strength. This is remarkable enough in one of the poorest states of the union. What is even more exciting is the extent to which lottery profits are growing, against the normal trend of a dip in performance after the early enthusiasm has worn off.

All very interesting you might say but what has this got to do with education? Quite a lot, given that, yet again, a debate is raging in Britain about the use to which lottery proceeds should be put. And Georgia is particularly striking because all the "good causes" funded by the lottery are exclusively educational. Although the vote on whether to have a lottery was extremely close, commentators in the State have suggested that it was this factor, above all others, which swayed the electorate. Therefore, written in to the state constitution is the requirement that lottery proceeds are devoted to three educational priority areas: funding for college scholarships, the expansion of the pre-kindergarten programme and investment in new technology. In addition, with the lottery being even more successful than had been budgeted, additional lottery funding has been used for school security measures.

In their own ways, each of these priorities have been extremely successful. The scholarship programme has provided an excellent incentive to young people to maintain their academic grades over the life of their college degree. The pre-kindergarten programme has led to a massive expansion of provision for young children in a way which has allowed for both public and private facilities to develop.

The emphasis on new technology has been particularly important in a state with a poor educational record but a desire to develop itself as a new skills-based economy capable of attracting investment to the region. The state law also stipulates that lottery proceeds must not be used to replicate mainline funding. The three priority areas chosen, while important in their own ways, help to ensure that it is not easy to cut mainline budgets on the grounds that similar provision is being funded through the lottery.

The Georgia approach poses some interesting questions. Although many organisations and causes have benefited from lottery funding in Britain, there is still a question over the extent to which more significant national priorities could have been funded. Given the key role which education plays in our national life and the contribution it makes to social and economic success, it could be argued that, as in Georgia, education should have been the funding priority for the lottery in Britain. It would be possible to ensure, as Georgia has done, that specific priority areas are funded in a way which avoids the temptation of reducing mainline funding.

The Georgia priorities would not necessarily go amiss in this country. Given the almost universal recognition of the importance of investment in the early years of education, it would be possible to make a commitment to ensure, over a period of time, that three and four-year-olds have appropriate educational provision. This could involve a judicious mixture of public and private provision. It could be argued that with the current proposals on nursery vouchers being a lottery, we may as well have the real thing funding nursery provision.

More seriously, developing early-years provision in this way would be a more enduring legacy for the nation than almost anything that has been funded by the lottery at the moment.

Supporting access to higher education through the lottery may well be one way of dealing with the politicians' dilemma with respect to student fees. It would be another way of investing for the nation as there is a need to ensure that we maintain the highest quality graduates if we are to remain competitive. A more radical solution would be to support access to post-16 education and use the money to find ways of ensuring that young people acquire a range of core skills which they will need for employment. This could be tied with a scheme to provide funding for the development of small businesses either by young people themselves or by employers who made a significant commitment to employing and training the young.

Finally, like Georgia, a careful investment in new technology would be critical to the nation's success. Again, imagination may be required. The lottery could become the prime source of funding for extension activities such as breakfast clubs and homework clubs in schools, with a strong emphasis on acquiring and utilising skills in new technology. Lottery funding could be used to ensure that returners to work have the necessary IT skills to make them more competitive in the job market. One important lesson to learn from Georgia is the need to invest in both revenue and capital for technological developments. There is nothing worse than investing significant sums of public money in new technology only to find the hardware lies unopened because of the unavailability of trained teachers to use it.

Whatever the critics say, the lottery is undoubtedly a national success story in Britain. Yet it would be wrong to ignore some of the unease which surrounds the allocation of funding to good causes. Investing in education in the way described here would go a long way to alleviating such concerns. Even more important than the tangible benefits it would bring would be the message it would promote. What better way to demonstrate the nation's commitment to education than to tie it up with something which is seen as successful and fun?

The power of lottery advertising to promote educational messages would be considerable and at a time when our aspirations for education must be higher, the lottery could provide a ready-made means of advertising all the good things there are to say about education. So, in future, "It could be you" may not just mean the pointing finger of lottery good fortune, but rather the possibility of enhanced educational opportunity.

David Bell is chief education officer for Newcastle City Council.

TES July 12 1996

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