It appears that teachers have beensquirreling away cash in the good times and now the government wants it back. My initial reaction to this story was my usual revulsion at the weird behaviours created by the bureaucratic attitude to budgeting; i.e. if you didn't spend it this year then you will get less that amount next year - plus we will claw back what you didn't spend. All sorts of requests for work come through about the time of 'year end' as a result which are merely designed to maintain budgets and rarely add any value as projects in themselves.
However, on reflection while this may well be the cause of the 'claw back' we should probably look more closely at the intentions headmaster had for that money before being too judgmental either way (the £500m or so is the amount being axed from University budgets next year reputedly - maintaining the political myth that young minds deserve more help than older ones, utter rubbish in my view - young minds think they know everything, older minds are more fertile because they realise they don't - and if you think you quickly pass you prime in terms of 'ideas' just look at Zygmunt Bauman as a man for whom age is no barrier to original thought).
If this money is being held back for a rainy day then yes it does represent poor value for the tax payer. Smoothing out the up's and down's of budgets for consumables is probably much less efficiently done at an individual level (as people will tend to purchase less efficiently and will generally over-hoard rather than save just what they need taking money out of the system which should be used to convert young minds into productive thinking machines). However, if these headteachers are displaying a latent entrepreneurial spirit of 'investment' then we should we be applauding their initiative? - perhaps. I am not entirely convinced that headteachers have the experience, intuition and research to make good risk decisions on behalf of their students and as is found in other areas entrepreneurial intervention in the schools system, it is very hard to measure or predict the results of risk capital with such soft materials to work with - i.e. minds and in reality most of the money is sunk into infrastructure which is often questionable in its effectiveness at delivering improved educational results, although it does benefit local house prices.
And there we have the problem of using the word 'investment' to justify spending on infrastructure. Investment implies some sort of risk and return equation based on a bet that something successful will arise. The trouble with infrastructure, particularly 'public goods' like educational establishments or energy capacity is that the state cannot 'risk' that infrastructure not happening. The investment which best fits with infrastructure is a bond or debenture which provides a steady and ideally unexciting return over the long term of the infrastructure usage rather than providing risk capital style returns. My perception of PFI is that it often works more like a risk capital style return (i.e. at a significant premium to pay for the private risk) when in reality it is just a gilt edge security based on a very necessary and important public asset like a hospital. By mixing up metaphors and terminologies we get, again, all sorts of weird financial consequences.
So back to our entrepreneurial educationalists. What are they investing in? What are they risking? What is their return? If it is infrastructure then again hoarding cash and building stuff is highly inefficient. If it is 'investment' then surely they should be investing in the soft stuff - the kids in the schools themselves - to create radical new outcomes (and probably some failures) which benefit society as a whole. Who would argue against fasttracking the education of Newton or Einstein? What would the impact be if children were able to bid, zopa style, for individual investment to better themselves educationally?
Sadly, I think this is just a case of rainy day money that would be better spent elsewhere and not hoarded for peace of mind. However, if anyone is up for seeing what individual students could do with £1000 grant to expand their minds and make the world a better more enlightened place, drop me a line.