April 30, 2003
Mr Clarke plays for success

This is a national education story with a difference:

The Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, was today branded a "disgrace" by the education secretary, Charles Clarke, because his football club was the only one in the Premiership not to be involved in a scheme aimed at boosting children's grasp of the three Rs.

Impressively adopting suitable football vernacular, Mr Clarke said Mr Bates was "out of order" and added he was showing the Chelsea chief the "yellow card".

Mr Clarke declared: "He won't sign up. He has got to ask himself, is Chelsea a serious community club or is Ken Bates just looking for a fast buck?" Mr Clarke added that he hoped relegation-threatened West Ham won their match against Chelsea when the London rivals meet on Saturday. A defeat for Chelsea would seriously undermine their ambitions to play in the lucrative Champions League next season.

Mr Clarke, speaking on his way to open centres at Burnley and Preston North End, was criticising Chelsea's failure to set up an after-hours study centre for primary and secondary pupils who struggled with English and maths, under a scheme known as Playing For Success.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this story. On the one hand, the fact that just one out of all the football league clubs in the land has resisted this scheme strongly suggests to me that a great deal of government money is involved or how come all the other clubs did sign up? On the other other hand, the basic idea of the scheme is a good one, which I have already myself invented without realising that the government was a couple of years into attempting approximately what I had said someone should try. The basic idea is: don't rely on crusty old corduroyed failures and peacenik wimmin to nag children into learning to read and write; instead get a few sporting jocks to sell the message and jolly them along.

"All the other Premiership clubs recognise that football provides motivation and excitement for young men and women. Most of them recognise they should use that to redistribute money and show a bit of commitment," he said. The latest evaluation of Playing For Success showed almost nine out of 10 children thought the centres were fun and interesting.

I don't know anything about this scheme other than that the Department for Education and Training says that it is it is working, but then it would, wouldn't it?

The average "maths age" of primary pupils rose by 17 months and that of secondary age children by two years. While primary pupils failed to make significant progress in reading, secondary pupils' literacy improved by about eight months, according to a survey of more than 1,300 children by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

The foundation said: "The football/sports club setting proved attractive to pupils and was a strong element in motivating pupils to become involved in Playing For Success. They felt privileged to be selected rather than singled out as in need of extra help. Once at the centres, pupils responded positively to many aspects of the initiative, especially using computers and the internet.

"They enjoyed the work, felt they had made progress and were grateful for the help they received. They also benefited from the opportunity to meet people and make new friends."

That sounds good. And Mr Clarke's abuse of Chelsea Chairman Ken Bates is probably just his way of making sure that what he's doing gets noticed. He reckons this is going well, and not everything he does is such good news, so he's beating the drums about this, one of the drums being Ken Bates. It got my attention, didn't it?

I'm not bothered about Bates. He can look after himself. But this story does give you a taste of the bullying and grandstanding that less resilient individuals are now being subjected to by Mr Clarke. Imagine being a Head Teacher whom Mr Clarke has taken against. Imagine deciding whether to apply to be a Head Teacher in the first place when you read a story like this about the man who could be breathing down your neck.

Other doubts. It all seems to be being "rolled out" in a bit of a rush. It could all go terribly wrong when some angle I hadn't thought of any more than Mr Clarke has turns out not to have been thought through, and in two years time, instead of being a national success story, it could be a national scandal, like that racket when the same ministry lost fortunes "helping young people" to learn about computing skills, and the money just disappeared into the pockets of the various crooks and conmen who stepped forward to run the various "training schemes". That couldn't happen again, I don't suppose, but something else equally bad might. Suppose half the clubs are only going through the motions, and suppose the kids involved smell this and lose interest themselves, and the money keeps flowing in exchange for a lot less than at first looked likely. If I had to bet what the bad news would end up being, I'd bet simply: it'll end up costing too much per head of educational improvement.

Perhaps the biggest bad news that could lie hidden in this story is all the initiatives along similar lines, but more exactly along lines that they truly approved of, that these various sports clubs might have launched by themselves and in true cooperation with each other, un-badgered and un-bribed by the likes of Mr Clarke and his minions. It might have started more slowly, with only a few clubs involved at first, but if it had worked it might perhaps have ended up doing a lot better, and eventually on a far bigger scale. Now we may never know. This is the crowding out effect, and the problem is, not only do you not foresee problems like this before they strike, you are liable to miss them during and after also, because the heart of this effect is a great absence of activity, a great might have been, a great nothing where they only might have been something.

The idea of this scheme is that state education will feed off the dynamism of the non-state-run world of professional sport, and be newly energised. But what if what really happens is that a little bit of nationalised education is simply dumped down in a corner of each sports club, and then settles down to cause trouble, confusion, political grief and general bad news, and in a way that ends up innoculating all such clubs in ever having anything further to do with education?

What if Ken Bates has seen something that I and Mr Clarke haven't seen that might go wrong, and is keeping clear for a good reason, despite all the bullying and the bribery? Although, it could just be that land in Chelsea costs more than anywhere else in Britain and Bates isn't been paid or bullied enough to take the loss of surrendering his valuable space, even for a few hours every week.

Well, I've done this piece now, and even if no else reads the BEdBlog archives, I do, and I'll try to remember this story and get back to it, to see how it develops.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:38 AM
Category: Boys will be boysPolitics