Failure, perhaps. But costly?

This kind of headlinedrives me more and more up the wall:

Gillard’s school plan a costly failure

A $16 million federal Labor commitment to stem the shortage of maths and science teachers by fast-tracking bankers, accountants and engineers into classrooms has been an expensive failure with just 14 participants recruited.

I agree that it didn’t work. But costly?

As it turns out, that only $8 million will actually be spent on the program by the time it winds up, as $8 million will be redirected to another teacher recruitment program.

In the context of a $360 billion federal budget, 8 million is chicken feed. And in a budget of that size, there are guaranteed to be dozens of programs of similar or greater magnitude that don’t work perfectly. In fact, there should be a certain proportion of programs that don’t work; governments should experiment with new ideas, keep and possibly expand the ones that work and discard the ones that don’t. Which appears to be what has happened here.

As the actual report goes on to explain, the failure of the program relates to a number of things – states requiring that teachers be fully qualified in the traditional way before entering the classroom, potential recruits not being willing to work in the schools that actually require more teachers, and difficulties of transferring across state boundaries. Perhaps some of these things were knowable beforehand, but the unwillingness of recruits to work in the required areas? I doubt it.

If the government had been warned that the program was unlikely to work and proceeded anyway; if the program was hundreds of millions of dollars rather than tens, or if they hadn’t repurposed the money once it was clear it was misconceived they might deserve a bollocking for incompetence. But at this stage this seems entirely like the normal business of government. Running headlines supporting Christopher Pyne’s preferred narratives is not only misleading, it is ultimately corrosive to good government, by encouraging such risk aversion that governments never try anything that might be a good idea.

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