The six-month break had done Derek a whole lotta good. He had a new perspective on life, was less defeatist, more combative. In short, Derek was ready for another shot at a career in education.
The question was what, and where?
Over his Coco-Pops one morning, he scrolled through the TES pages on his cracked iPad. ‘Blimey, it’s not looking good,’ he thought. If it wasn’t funding crises, it was teacher recruitment panic, academy chaos, pitched battles between parents and school commissioners. Should he be returning to this?
He really wasn’t sure what to do, and called his old deputy headteacher, Mr Hapless, for some inside advice.
‘Oh, phone the Department for Education, Derek. There are hundreds of commissioner, brokerage officer, or development manager jobs. They’d snap you up.’
‘Hundreds of jobs? I thought we had a funding crisis?’ murmured Derek, audibly.
‘Yeh, it’s called taking back control.’
After several phone calls, six completed monumental application forms, and the ubiquitous, enhanced screening procedure for the disclosure and barring service (also quite a few jobs there evidently), Derek received a letter.
Dear Mr McKean…err, not a great start.
We are delighted to welcome you on a one-year fixed post as the new ‘Regional Development Officer for the Curricular Help for Aspirant Social Mobility’, or CHASM for short… CHASM, where on earth?
Your job is to broker the funding for the Curricular Help for Aspirant Social Mobility Strategic Grant, ensuring it goes to the most disadvantaged in our society…sounds sensible. You will decide who receives the Grant…maybe not.
You will be paid £65,000 for the year…blimey I thought they were broke?… and will be performance managed…ooh, that’s a horrible verb…by the School Strategic Curricular Innovation Unit.
And on it went. Derek felt a sense of dread all of a sudden. Did he really want to be reporting back to a ‘Unit’? And how would he decide who was most needy? However, he vowed to give it his best shot, convincing himself he was in it for the right reasons. This was social mobility after all.
The following day, Mr O’Keefe presented himself at the aforementioned School Strategic Curricular Innovation Unit to be met by a young student by the name of Ed carrying a huge plastic cup of coffee. Or at least, Derek assumed he was a student.
Wrong. He turned out to be the programme leader, and started every sentence with ‘So’, as in…
‘So, Derek, you had a stint on the frontline back in 2013?’
Ed carefully went through all the rules and tests, risk assessments, due diligence procedures, facilitation requirements and audit trails. In all, there were 1,965 pages of guidance and twenty-seven people working on CHASM.
‘So (it was catching), forgive me if I sound rather stupid’, asked Derek at the end of the meeting, ‘but if all these salaries like mine went directly to schools, surely there would be more money available to help poorer communities?’
The child-in-suit looked aghast.
‘No, no, Derek, anyone benefitting from this money has got to damned well work hard for it. And come on, surely you can see that CHASM will assist us in smashing social mobility right out of the water.’
Maybe he had a point. And he had just been to Durham University to study Law.
‘Sorry, buddy, I didn’t offer you a coffee. Want one?’ Ed was getting matey.
‘No thanks Ed, I’m not a coffee fan. And be careful with all that plastic, hey! Clogging up our oceans, isn’t it?’
Ed didn’t answer. He was now busily tapping away on his iPad. Derek realised this was his cue to leave.
And so it was that Derek set off in his new car, a 2003 Volvo S40, to tour the region in search of applications for CHASM funding. To say this proved illuminating was an understatement.
First off, he attended a meeting of the City Region Strategic Corporation in a post-industrial city that had seen better days. Derek got caught in the crossfire between the elected Mayor and the elected Metro-Mayor, both arguing that they should be leading on the CHASM funding.
‘Thing is with you Mike, is that you wouldn’t know an effing poor person if you saw one, ye four-eyed get,’ yelled the Mayor, visibly frustrated.
‘Ey, steady on, that’s visually impairedist. That’s beneath you that is, Frank,’ replied the Metro-mayor.
‘What, you calling me lanky?’
Derek absented himself and was glad to get back to his S40. No funding for them. The Corporation hadn’t completed its CHASM Development and Implementation Plan Submission (DIPS), Parts 1 and 2, anyway.
The following week, he arranged to meet the assorted Chief Executive Officers from the local Academy Trusts in the region. Having got there early, he sat in quiet reflection with a sombre, middle-aged woman for over twenty minutes, before he asked,
‘Have I got the wrong time?’
‘No,’ she replied, ‘I’m the only one currently in post; the rest are all under investigation for fraud. I would be most grateful, Mr McKean (oh come on..) if I could take all our CHASM money on their behalf. I’ll share it out between the combined 63 schools, don’t worry.’
Derek was confused. ‘But you’ve just said they’re under suspicion for fraud?!’
The woman considered his response and finally responded.
‘Please!? I’ll fill all the forms in?’
Oh, goodness me this was tough. He felt like a right old killjoy, unable to part with any of this CHASM money.
‘Sorry, I…I.. just can’t. Good luck with the 63 schools though!’
On his way home, he turned on the radio and heard the familiar drawl of a national radio presenter interviewing a cabinet minister.
‘So…(another one?)…, you see I grew up in a disadvantaged and desperate state. My Mum was a single parent who was mentally ill and didn’t like leaving the house. But I got a grammar school place and I never looked back.’
Jeepers, this disadvantaged thing is quite a big thing, thought Derek. He could really change lives here, make men and women into ministers, bring leaders out from the barrios. He could be an agent of hope.
But as yet, two weeks in, he had yet to actually part with any of the money. Surely, this had to change.
Leaving his Best Western Hotel the next morning, he felt infused with confidence and optimism. After all, he was visiting the Thirlford Academy, which had just won the TES Disadvantaged Unit of the Year 2018. It was clear that these dudes did social mobility well.
The exterior of the school was adorned with enormous banners, billboards and posters highlighting their Disadvantaged Unit of the Year status, plus a whole range of kitemarks, audit results and examination successes. Entering the atrium of the school, he was immediately welcomed by two students in immaculate uniform. Mr O’Keefe, don’t forget, loves his uniform.
‘Good morning Mr O’Keefe (yessss!). Please follow us.’
Derek embarked on a full tour of this most attractive and well-resourced school. Everywhere he went, students engaged him in polite conversation before returning to their studies. The headteacher, Mrs Collins, brought him through to an assembly which was jammed full of confident speeches and musical performances, finishing with an emotional mime from two Year 10 drama students. Derek realised why this academy was held in such esteem.
‘Right, Mr O’Keefe’.
Mrs Collins gently eased him out of the assembly, talking as she did convivially in a warm, velvet voice. ‘I know you’re dying to meet out disadvantaged students. I’ve arranged for you to meet a group of them in the drama studio. Stay as long as you want with them. They’re so grateful for the CHASM funding.’
Mmm, bit presumptious, thought Derek, but he let it pass. He was being treated so well after all.
Around a dozen students awaited him, ranging from those just out of primary school to those who looked ready for university. One had a rather long beard.
‘Hi everyone, I’m here to collect evidence on behalf of…
A raised hand, gesturing for him to stop. These kids were confident.
‘Yes, Mr O’Keefe, we’re aware of the reasons for your visit. And we’re very aware that we’re disadvantaged.’
Derek felt awkward. ‘Well I have no intention of invading into your own personal circumstances, don’t worry.’
‘No, it’s fine, sir. I was advantaged last year, but I changed in March.’
‘Yes, she’s a newbee. I’ve been disadvantaged since Year 7.’
‘I’ve just come to the school. My parents felt the school down the road wasn’t spending my disadvantaged money properly so they moved me.’
And the one with the beard. ‘I’m disadvantaged and special needs, so my personal budget is twice theirs.’
‘Wow!’, exclaimed Derek, looking around at the group, ‘he must be an inspiration to everyone!’
The bearded student replied. ‘Yes, except I prefer to identify as gender-neutral. So no ‘he’ please.’
The conversation continued in this manner. Derek was overwhelmed by the students’ confidence and ambition. There was no doubt in his mind that the disadvantaged funding had made a huge difference here. No wonder the school had won all these prizes. This was social mobility in action.
And yet something unnerved him; something just didn’t feel right.
He returned to Mrs Collins’ office, the size of a tennis court. She breezed in enigmatically.
‘So, Mr O’Keefe, were you impressed with our disadvantaged students?’
‘Mrs Collins, they were a delight! I cannot think of a better place to distribute CHASM funding.’
Mrs Collins beamed whilst gesturing at her PA to bring refreshments. She dextrously slid the CHASM guidance manual out from a pile next to her.
‘One thing confuses me though, Mrs Collins.’
Derek knew he was in dangerous waters here but he carried on. This was social mobility after all.
‘A couple of your students referred to neighbouring schools that were ‘rubbish at administering the disadvantaged funding.’ But if they don’t get any CHASM funding, then they’ll just get worse won’t they?’
Mrs Collins looked at him if he’d gone totally mad.
‘But Derek, we cannot see schools being rewarded for failure, can we?! What kind of message would that send to my students!’
‘Yes, but won’t all those other students get more disadvantaged, and yours become more advanta..’
Mrs Collins cut across him. ‘Please, Mr O’Keefe. I fail to understand the premise of your argument, and I have a busy day in front of me. Are we to receive CHASM funding, or not?’
She rose from her seat hurriedly, and Derek had to admire her authority and leadership. She was like one of those leaders in the book he was reading, ‘From Zero Attainment to Zero Tolerance: Releasing the Inner Winner in School Leaders.’
‘No, no, of course. You qualify in all categories, and by virtue of your recent TES Disadvantaged Unit of the Year 2018 success, you will be the local hub for CHASM distribution. Well done.’
‘Thank you Mr O’Keefe, and I’m glad you have enjoyed your visit to the Academy. I shall leave you with Sandra, and you can organise the relevant documentation between you. I have a Strategic School Promise and Implementation Forum to attend.’
And that was that. Derek tarried a while with Sandra, but he was deflated and couldn’t wait to get out. This didn’t feel right at all. He had applied all the tests and done the necessary due diligence. This institution met them all. But he couldn’t help but feel that this CHASM funding would actually create an big…well…err…chasm between schools.
So he knew it was not to be. A career in the civil service clearly did not suit him. He didn’t even like coffee very much. He would leave it to Ed and the others.
And as for social mobility, Derek concluded that this was far too complicated for his little mind. But calling someone disadvantaged was probably the wrong starting point. He opened the door to his crisp-infested S40 and headed home, leaving CHASM behind.