Context is everything: edensor technology college and politics

This is a really sorry affair, especially because some people have been really quite wrong-headed about how they go about things, and others just don’t know what they are talking about. This is a local story: the teachers of Edensor technology college in Stoke were due to go to Marbella for a training (long) weekend, but it was cancelled after the local paper got hold of it, and the story went national. Here are reports from the BBC, the Times, the Guardian, and the Sun. The issues I’ll address here are the costs/benefits, and the political nature of the turnaround.

First, the costs and benefits. At first glance a four-day trip to Marbella looks outrageous: why not do it in the school or in a nearer hotel. One argument is, because Spain is cheap, it’s more cost effective to do this in Spain than Manchester. But why go away at all? The main argument here is that being ‘away’ means people can concentrate on the training, and not be shooting off home as the sessions finish. I’d argue that, if those in charge believe that being ‘away’ is worth the £18k (perhaps doing it at the school would mean the training would need to be run twice or more), then they should do it. And if Spain is cost effective, then do that too.

However, it’s the context that matters. In Stoke, unlike elsewhere, teachers earn more than the average because wages there are very low, so they are seen as already rich. As well as this, they are seen as having long holidays etc. etc. This is because many people in Stoke are in industrial or neo-industrial (think call centres) work where it’s only the law that ensures people get the minimum wage and their holidays. I’m sure some will be employed with less than the minimum. Now there’s a recession on, and people fear they won’t be taking holidays it looks like they are having treats at taxpayers expense.

In the wider context, however, this is as nothing. Senior educationalists go on similar trips – I heard about a recent visit to Canada – as do councillors and council officers, medical professionals and so on. In this case, the cost seemed low. When you consider that the education sector – and that’s taxpayers money – spends millions of pounds on consultancy, this is a non-story. The sector hires consultants (often senior ex-teachers and so on) at rates of £1000 per day (and more) to do the work that would in the past have been done by employees. And, if this was all in a middle-class area of London, where everyone gets sent abroad for work, and many people have done consultancy work, no-one would bat an eyelid.

Second, there’s the political angle. Interestingly, the story came in the week that the Conservatives (at their conference) pledged to give schools “the freedom to innovate and with control over budgets, curriculum and discipline” (see here). Now this means allowing them to spend their money on trips away if they see fit. The intervention of Stoke’s Mayor, saying the headteacher made a mistake, shouldn’t have mattered. The headteacher was entitled to make his decision with the backing of the governing body. If the parents don’t like it, then they can change the governing body. That’s the point of local control.

But there’s more to it than that. In Stoke, we’ve got issues with regard to the Mayor and schools. The Mayor is seen as part of the plan to close loads of schools (costing lots of money and annoying many parents). There’s also a referendum in two weeks to decide if the mayoral position will still exist past 2009. The Mayor and the councillors need to be seen to be on the side of taxpayers and parents, and because the sentiment of the local people/media was against the trip, the trip was cancelled (losing all the money too).

So the question is, why did the headteacher back down so easily? It’s an odd one. The Mayor, Mark Meredith said “they have now got the worst of both worlds because they will have to pay for the cost of the trip but will have to hold the conference at the school.” This to me sounds like a case of two wrongs trying to make a right. Everyone knows that this leaves them in a bigger mess than if the trip had gone ahead, and then bollocked the head when they got back. Would they have sacked him?

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