They think you're great, really

20th April 2001 at 01:00
The news that schools had wrongly been sent money for "improvement" was hilarious. Apparently there was a "statistical error", so large sums were given out incorrectly to numerous schools. Fortunately they did not have to return it. They were just required to kneel and give thanks that we are bottom of international numeracy league tables.

I like to think it was not an error, but a deliberate ploy, based on the "expectancy effect": what you get is what you expect.

Two American researchers once told teachers that they had identified certain pupils who would be making an unexpected spurt. The children had been chosen at random, but the researchers claimed they improved nevertheless, simply because their teachers expected them to. Actually the research was flawed and subsequently discredited, but it made a good story.

Perhaps this latest misplaced generosity was another expectancy experiment. Write to a few randomly chosen schools: "Dear School, you have done so well we enclose a cheque for a large sum of money to spend on anything you want: books, equipment, six packs of lager for the staff. Have a great time on us, and keep up the good work. Yours, Sid Innumerate."

As a result the staff and pupils are so chuffed at being loved, they run their socks off and really do improve what they are doing. Brilliant.

Think of all the other cock-ups that might yield excellent results. Stick a pin in a list of teachers and write to them: "Dear Teacher, we have just been looking at all our data and you have been identified as one of the finest teachers we have ever seen. Love, OFSTED."

Proud recipients would improve overnight.

I have always been a great believer in the benefit of the bog-up. Not for me the view that an error is a catastrophe. Given a little tweak, a teeny spin, even the most monumental mistakes can be turned to advantage. We need more, rather than fewer, serendipitous blunders.

Back in the early 1980s there was a salary settlement for teachers, the Clegg award. It seemed generous at the tim, until it was discovered that there was a miscalculation and people had been paid too much. Did the world come to an end? No, quite the reverse. For a short time, at any rate, teachers felt their efforts were being recognised.

This bureaucratic nightmare reminds me of Kafka's novel The Castle, in which a land surveyor is asked to do some work at a castle, but when he arrives nobody can tell him what he has been brought in to do. He spends the whole novel trying to find out, and at one point gets a letter congratulating him on his work, even though he has done nothing.

What we now need is yet another initiative, this time based entirely on error. We can call it the Franz Kafka Lottery Initiative. Every morning randomly chosen schools will receive munificent bounties. No more long-winded bidding processes, form filling, visiting assessors, just pure chance. The possibilities are numerous and the expectancy effect will work wonders, without wasting valuable time.

"Dear Scumbag primary, I am delighted to say that you are the deserving winner of a Kafka (Kwantity and Finest Kwality Award) for the excellent work of your staff and pupils. You may spend the enclosed cheque on anything you choose, including trips to the Mediterranean, backhanders to staff and bets on greyhounds."

"Dear Bogstandard comprehensive, you have just been awarded pound;100,000 to support your work in... (enter any subject, or field of endeavour, even if they don't do it, like music, Latin, economics, pole vaulting, arm wrestling). Congratulations on your excellent record and I fervently hope this cash injection will help. Yours, Franz."

I've got a couple of other ideas, from television shows. Put 10 headteachers in the Big Brother house to vote each other out - last one wins a fortune. Or let them answer questions in a semi-circle: "Gasworks primary, you are the weakest link, goodbye."

People often complain that funding is a bit of a lottery nowadays, so why not go the whole hog and make it an official and well organised one?

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