My parents weren't terribly interested in educational psychology. So when it came to the year in which I was due to take the 11-plus exam, they committed the cardinal sin of offering me a bicycle if I passed.
Every psychologist from Freud to Fitz turned in his grave. It seemed a reasonable deal to my 10-year-old self, however. Even more reasonable would have been to give me the bike there and then and I put my case as a deserving pedestrian to them with some force. This was in the days before the school run and a bike was an important accessory for every would-be independent young schoolboy.
My parents were unmoveable. If I proved I was excellent as a scholar I would be rewarded. Spurred on by this incentive I did what I could, but the attractions of conkers, marbles, British Bulldog and a posse of up-to-no-good pals put paid to my academic pretensions. I failed. When my parents asked me why, I told them it was because walking to school everyday made me too tired to do any work when I got there. That got me an earhole-clattering of the first order, another indication that my parents were not on first-name terms with the leading proponents of educational theory.
I then went on to fail every exam known to mankind and won a bike in a fist fight with the gang from another estate. From experiences such as these were formed the character and philosophy that have led me to the exalted position I hold today. So you cannot expect me to be terribly enthusiastic about the incentive currently being held out by the Department for Education and Skills to turn us all into "excellent" colleges. It looks like a very small carrot on the end of a very large stick. Somewhere in the murk of the Learning and Skills Council's website is a new draft circular called Premium Funding. It contains the LSC's proposals for rewarding excellent colleges, in line with what is often mistakenly referred to as government thinking. In short, if you get into the top 10 per cent of colleges as defined either by success rates or inspection grades and prove yourself a goody-two-shoes in other ways, the Government will give you enough money to buy yourself a bike. If you are in the remaining 90 per cent you can carry on walking to college.
There are several forms of insult in all of this. The most full-in-your-face one is that a bribe will persuade us to help our students more, because, presumably, all attempts to appeal to our professional conscience have failed. I ask only that you imagine a conversation in a staff workroom: "Hey, look at this. Just what we have been waiting for. The DfES is offering us a 1 per cent increase in funding if we improve student performance. I am going to get straight out there, mark some assignments more meaningfully and write a policy on differentiation. I'd do any amount of additional work to get 1 per cent additional funding for the principal to spend as he likes, wouldn't you?"
And what are the excellent colleges, whose location and student profile is easily predictable, expected to do with their windfall? Become extra excellent? Await beatification? Export their wonderfulness in little bottles to the rest of us? Is it legal? I always thought public money should be spent in accordance with need. That level is determined by the LSC allocation. What is the justification for giving some institutions more than they need to get by? This is your money and mine they are throwing away here, or would be if the sums amounted to a hill of beans.
I would not want you to run away with the idea that I am against this wheeze. After all, if this college can improve its grades across the board by 2 per cent a year, we could qualify for the excellence grant in just over 10 years time. Now there's a thought that has me reaching for the whip to crack at staff. Excellence status is the promised land; I may not get there with you, brothers and sisters, but as I sit in the sunshine retirement home for knackered principals, the news that you have earned your 1 per cent will add spice to my cocoa.
The real reason for my show of righteous indignation, of course, is that I see excellence every day in any number of different forms and from all sorts of quarters. None of it is performed in the expectation of any additional reward and much of it is done despite quite amazing workloads that I am unable to reduce and that a 1 per cent increase would not help with either. You cannot squeeze more juice out of hard-pressed lemons.
So the DfES needs to rethink its strategy and put its money to better use.
It might even spend some on a rail ticket to the real world when it comes to policy-making.
For once, I will turn down the prospect of a new bike and just keep on walking.
Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College