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Think-Ed: Fiscal obesity and binge thinking

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Starting from this week, there will be three kinds of postings on EdTalkNZ:

Think-Ed:              the weekly column style commentary on some aspect of education that is posted each Monday;

News-Ed:              a shorter response to key pieces of education news as soon as it happens;

Lite-Ed:                  occasional light pieces that remind us that the essential tool for educators is a sound sense of humour.

There are chances for you to respond to these and your responses are greatly welcomed.


Fiscal obesity and binge thinking

Stuart Middleton


I wonder if there are conditions in Education called fiscal obesity and binge thinking?

Fiscal obesity is a condition of education system health brought on by inappropriate consumption of funding. Driven by this obsession with eating cash and with no systemic equivalent of stomach stapling on the horizon, the response to any suggestion of increased activity is a request for additional resources. Consequently the education system has become over-weight and can seemingly move only slowly.

If progress is to be made then we will have to understand that it’s not only the amount of cash we eat in education that is the issue but also the kinds of cash we have an insatiable appetite for. At the top of the list is straight out formula funding that damages the health because it encourages inactivity and is automatically available – the door of this fridge is never locked! Better would be a demand that there be an examination of the food/funding being consumed now and an ability to see that sensible amounts and a balanced diet would achieve more.

Surely we can cut down some of the funding levels in the interests of increasing achievement levels? Somewhere there must be something currently funded that we can reduce, or cut out, or use differently in order to do something else. There must be funding that we could openly identify and question if we weren’t justifiably concerned that we will lose it should we do so. Would it not be good to have a budget that focused not on the cash that was to be distributed but rather a set of imperatives for use of the cash we already have? Would it be a challenge to then set out the parameters for education itself to redistribute funding?

Obesity is often but not exclusively an illness of advantage – those who can afford more food are fatter through over-eating (travel to the USA for some evidence of this) – and, ironically a disease of disadvantage – those who cannot afford appropriate food eat too much of food that is too wrong! So redistribution could well achieve better results across the board.

On the other hand, raising this question could result in a bout of binge thinking. This is characterised by unrelenting discussion on one aspect of education without addressing the wider holistic settings in which that aspect has to operate.

Binge thinking about funding early childhood education has seem the 20 Free Hours resource being so badly targeted that it is producing the perverse effect of reducing access to early childhood for some areas while fewer little ones consume more of the places available. Getting high and happy on the idea that access and more of it is better for everyone ignores the hard cold sober fact that access probably has to be rationed.

We know that two years of 15 hours a week quality early childhood education a week makes all the difference to the subsequent educational progress of little ones. But we measure access by the number of the little ones who get into the sandpit. If a little one is consuming 30 hours a week then they are also getting someone else’s share. The binge says more is better – it’s not our consumption of the ECE resource that is the problem, it is the way we consume it.

Binge thinking also affects our approach to change in education. Recourse to the rosy glow of Shangri La that is our own recollection of education, the community calls for much less change in education than the results currently justify. What is lost in the haze is the fact that education was never asked to work with the range of students (both age and needs) that it has to now and yet we belt out songs of the old days and demand that education now does something that it has never achieved – balancing universal access to primary, secondary and tertiary education with sound educational outcomes for all. The reasons for this are matters for another day; suffice to say that hard, cold, sober thinking would see the need to think differently about pathways and the importance of questioning the ability of the education system to achieve outcomes that reflect equity in their distribution and access in the opportunities it leads to.

No it’s back to the piano for a good old sing-song until the keg of educational thinking is empty.

Binge thinking also characterised much of the discussion about National Standards, as the discussion proceeded all sight was lost of both the actual purpose of the government’s proposal and the validity of the concerns educators had. Less of this discussion would have been more and the solution of simply having to get on with it is surprisingly sobering.

The health of the education system is critical to all health in the community – it is important that we have a check-up from time to time.

Published inEducation


  1. Stuart, You ask if there are educational malaises which can de labelled as fiscal obesity and binge thinking and your wondering prompted me to go to the Internet. Not surprisingly, I generated finds for each of these terms. Lot’s of them. That’s almost always the way with Internet searches, isn’t?
    The trick then becomes a matter of sorting all of the chaff from the very little grain but I must confess that, in the interests of generating a rapid response to your blog, I wasn’t altogether too fussy in my sorting of one from the other this time round. I guess I wanted to find a starter to penning this slightly tongue in cheek response.
    Fiscal Obesity, I found, is discussed by an ultra right-wing movement in the USA who call themselves the “Party Patriots” ( Their platform seems to be strongly centred on attacking the now passed, albeit in a much diluted manner, the Obama administration Health reforms. Their concern, they purport, is to prevent the duplication of government programmes and on the surface that may not be a bad thing. The trouble is that programmes which appear to be duplicated might not so much be unnecessarily cloned, but rather, my be distributed repeatedly in much needed small parcels. It’s rather like distributing food rations – they may all be the same package and they may be spread across a suite of sites but they are clearly welcomed by populations in need.
    The same argument can be applied to education. Should, for instance, funding which is allocated to a literacy programme at Manukau Institute of Technology not also be given to other Institutes of Technology from NorthTec through to SIT? If a demonstrable need exists? I contend that if educational resource stapling was to occur and resources linked to programmes were to be cut, we, the populace would arguably be the poorer. Or is that a case of binge thinking?
    That term, binge thinking, surfaces as an entry within the urban dictionary ( It is a definition of some triviality. Here is what I found:
    Binge Thinking: A massive burst of brain activity, mostly useless, in one sitting. This usually leads to temporary memory loss, information poisoning and the lack of sex.
    -An adaptation of Binge Drinking by Rob Wasielewski
    That geeky guy got his brain pumped due to binge thinking!
    But please don’t think that my riposte here is intended to condemn the proposer of the weekly EdTalk articles to memory loss, information poisoning or even to a period of eschewing carnal proclivities (if he can remember what they are!). Stuart, your weekly brain bursts are utterly commendable because they do actually stimulate the cerebrum of others, a mighty achievement for a Monday!
    So is there merit to proposing that the education system might be overweight and should the education system be on rations? And is there merit in suggesting that redistribution is a part of the solution? To what extent should Education, as you suggest, be charged with the challenge of working out how best to redistribute resources to itself?
    The answer is that there is always merit, in prompting some form of redistribution of resources. Equally, there is substantial merit in having stakeholders become involved in that process.
    The trouble is, however, that it’s tad akin to a snippet I heard on the radio yesterday “Humanity = man[kind], therefore war!” That’s a condition not unknown to education and the argument can be made that education sectors do actually need to learn how to collaborate peacefully. That way, fiscal obesity of the kind which you mention, Dr Middleton, might become diminished or at least the inertia that often exists between sectors, especially whenever change is suggested, might be altered. Stuart you, note that the fridge door for partaking in formula funding is never locked. I believe that there was, in the beginning at least, a very good reason for that. It was unlocked to enable consumers to partake as they wished in the interests of generating equity. And they did in ever increasing numbers and in ways that led to interagency competition as opposed to collaboration.
    So what is needed now is not so much a slamming shut of the fridge door, but instead, a systematic evaluation and critical review of the social, economic and educational consequences of such policies. The trouble is funds are not readily available for such work even though as Stuart argues, “The health of the education system is critical to all health in the community – it is important that we have a check-up from time to time.” Can we make a case for the existence of educational (research) starvation, and is this the very antithesis of educational obesity?



  2. Stuart Stuart

    Thanks Stephen – we will look at this.

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