We don't need a middleman to bring in the harvest

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Having reached the age when one must gather pleasures where one may,I often find myself these days listening to the early morning farming news, and it struck me that there are interesting parallels between education and agriculture.

Farmers have to plant, nourish and harvest. FE has a similarly anxious time with new crops; a nervous period until they have properly rooted and then the careful tending until they are harvested as fully formed completion statistics. Farmers must contend with natural disasters and we have the funding council.

Which neatly (or convolutedly if you prefer) brings me to my point. Why do we need a funding council? What difference has it made and at what cost? It has not escaped notice that the proposed merger into one council has neatly sidestepped the quinqennial review which might have asked these questions.

In the absence of that process let me offer a few observations.

What would have been the difference if we had no council and remained directly connected to the Scottish Executive? Well, it might be argued that we would have had to put up with an inferior funding model, although I suspect that the new improved model we now have is not beyond the wit of man or even civil servant to construct. If that's a rather dubious plus, then let me list some of the deficits.

First of all, the council seems to work on the basis of McGregor's Theory X. For those too young to have acquired this bit of management folklore, the important idea is that people are not to be trusted. If they aren't constantly watched, they will do all manner of awful things, including emptying the public coffers and eloping to Casablanca with a cute muscular accountant.

To add to this, the council has a fascination for the collection of facts that would make a Victorian naturalist look like a frivolous dilettante.

Then we have the mysterious missiondriftitis virus or mdv, which is prone to spread wherever there is a vacuum either real or imagined. Mdv bloats its host so that the council now employs more staff than a small college at an annual operating cost of nearly pound;3.5 million. I can't recall how much it cost the then Scottish Office Education Department to distribute funds to colleges but, of course, I'm fairly confident that it was immune to the deadly mdv.

Yehbit, I hear someone from Paisley say, what about the FEDs (the council's further education directorate)? Haven't they done good? Well if your idea of doing good is inviting yourself into someone's house, tut-tutting over the choice of curtains, rearranging the furniture while delivering a sermon on the need to be better at housekeeping, then departing with the cheery words, "You'll no be wanting this pride anymore then; I'll just take it with me", then of course you're right. I think I'd rather just hang on to mine all the same if you don't mind.

And while we are talking about failures, what difference did the funding council make to those quite lamentable events at Moray and elsewhere which so terrified the population? Does the council seriously believe that it has now found the elixir that will suspend human frailty? If so, nothing less than a Nobel Prize for evolutionary miracles and everlasting peace is the least a grateful world should bestow.

Now I know that the more worldly among you will have realised that I'm exaggerating a little to make a point here, but it's one that has to be made. Listening to the farming programme,I was impressed by the people behind the motorway station many of you will know in Cumbria, called Tebay.

The farmers there had found a way to cut out the middleman and ensure that distribution lines from seed to shop were as short as possible.

Isn't it time we did the same?

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