Edukashun is in a pickle

Blame those in control of the purse-strings, not the teachers.

Not a great week for education news. First off came the bombshell that Mark Elms, a primary school headmaster in Lewisham is going to take home a whisker under a quarter of a million pounds for 2009-10. I’m sure Mr Elms is a dynamic and inspiring individual in an area where such people in education are thin on the ground. The kids of South East London may well have benefitted directly from his dedication. But two hundred and fifty grand? (Mind you he’s earning it now being chased around South London on his five hundred quid bike by a load of righteous Daily Mail photographers.) Lewisham is a toughish patch, but it’s not Helmand with roadside bombs going off and the chance of being stoned to death for daring to educate the young females of the community.

To coin a phrase from the boss of Shell – are you telling me Mr Elms would have done any less good a job for £150k? What this shows is how smart and committed individuals within the public sector have been able to rook the system. It’s not just teachers – over recent years if you were a consultant who landed a public sector contract, you wandered around shouting ‘Bingo!’ for the next three weeks, and ordered a new 911. But it’s not Mr Elms who should be blamed, it’s the poor governance of his bosses. Those who spend public money remain desperately bad at negotiating and getting value for money. The seller names a price and the mugs just ask where they should sign – assuming all the nonsense box-ticking of the procurement process is in order. There’s no commercial nouse.

Then we have Vince Cable’s bad news about university education. (My god, Vince loves delivering bad news, doesn’t he? He was born a Jeremiah and his enemies within the coalition are busily trying to remove his halo and turn him into Public Enemy Number 1. ) Tens of thousands of those who are applying to university this year won’t get places: there are 170,000 more candidates than spaces. And then those who are lucky enough to graduate face a new tax on their earnings. One way or the other, universities are going to get it in the neck from the new regime, and both of these occurrences are inevitable.

There has been a massive expansion in UK university education in the last 15 years and much of what is on offer is, put bluntly, crap. Many of these institutions are poorly run, doling out degrees of little or no value. That’s why it’s an utter nonsense that the rules currently say a degree from Leeds Metropolitan University should cost a UK undergraduate the same as one from Oxford. Things are now so out of control that there are more than 20 universities so ineptly run that they are struggling to stay afloat, with seven on a secret ‘at risk’ list.

Doing down Generation Y is not a nice business. They need all the help they can get at the moment. I went last year to give a talk to a bunch of undergraduates at a very new provincial university. Call me a mean-spirited snob but it was a pretty depressing experience. Despite my best efforts, they were bored stiff during my scintillating 40 minute presentation: yawning, picking their finger nails. They all probably assumed they were going to walk straight into a job on Take a Break. What made my day was the one kid who came up to me afterwards telling me how he’d sorted out work experience on Le Monde in France and asking if I had any tips. I love it when you meet someone young, bright and enthusiastic who wants to get into our profession. But I was glad I wasn’t him trying to get a job at the moment. It’s not very nice out there.