Charles Clarke: Guilty as Charged; Francis Beckett Deplores the Education Secretary's Efforts to Pass the Buck on the Schools Funding Crisis

Article excerpt

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has for three weeks focused 'his formidable political intellect on the schools budget crisis. Unfortunately, he has not focused on solving it. He has focused on shifting the blame.

The government's new procedure for allocating money to schools, which was stingy in its thinking and botched in its application, will result in the loss of hundreds of teachers from schools which cannot afford to lose them. Clarke's strategy for dealing with this was on view in last Sunday's newspapers. They reported that, to make sure schools had enough in future years, Clarke would give them money direct, instead of dishing it out via local councils. That way, the councils would not have the chance to hide money from schools as they have done this year.

It is not the councils that have starved schools of money: it is the government. As for bringing in a new system, the crisis this year was caused by a new system. Heaven defend us from another one. But none of these questions was raised in the Sunday newspapers. What Clarke had done -- it's an old politician's trick, and it works nine times out of ten -- was to tell the Sunday political correspondents that he was keeping a story specially for them. They, no doubt, were pathetically grateful. And political correspondents, unlike education correspondents, have not followed the story and do not know the hard questions to ask. That is how a minister gets a story reported on his own terms.

For Clarke, what is going on in the north London borough of Barnet may constitute some sort of victory. Six Barnet schools watched like hawks while the local council opened its books and showed them to an independent auditor, to demonstrate that it had not hidden the Education Secretary's money. Thus convinced, the schools decided that, rather than fire teachers wholesale, they would set illegal deficit budgets.

Barnet Council, prompted, it is believed, by officials in Clarke's department, told the heads it would help them by guaranteeing the deficit - but only when it had seen and approved a schedule of teacher redundancies. The heads are likely to decide when they meet on 2 June to tell the council where to stuff its guarantee. The stage will be set for a battle between the schools and the council, enabling Clarke to pose as an honest broker who just wants them to get on with the job.

Clarke's own "solution" had been announced on 15 May. As in most government press releases these days, the story was in the 11th paragraph. The first six were about trying to pin the blame on local councils, the next four about making poor excuses for the government's cock-up. Then came Clarke's contribution to solving the crisis. …