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Another notch to the centre

The impact on schools of this year's education budgets is still causing much head scratching in local authority finance offices. So is the forthcoming decision on teachers' pay. But it seems certain already that few schools will enjoy the extra money the Chancellor says was included in this year's financial settlement; indeed most authorities will be making cuts in school budgets (page 4).

The Government's frustration at the inability or unwillingness of authorities to make efficiency savings could well lend further weight to the calls for all schools to be funded directly under a centralised arrangement - one more erosion of the usual arguments against national funding.

The practical political objection to direct funding is the fear that government grants would point to government responsibility for any shortfalls. But this argument is being undermined by the very education authorities who are supposed to provide central government with a fall guy. They are increasingly active in their efforts to pin the blame for cuts squarely on central government. They have influential captive audiences in governors, heads and parents, and victories in this propaganda war rapidly show up in MP's postbags.

The lack of transparency in present funding arrangements makes it too easy for all cuts to be passed off as Government stinginess, when the latest Audit Commission research demonstrates that some authorities are far more efficient than others in taking out surplus places. Town and county hall admin costs also vary widely and local politicians faced with other demands may be less inclined to give education the spending priority promised by ministers.

Then there is the fear of financial turbulence. Creating new winners and losers among schools has generally been regarded as more reprehensible than the unjustifiable funding disparities that exist at present. But winners and losers are being created anyway under the present opaque and unpredictable system of revenue support - whether by accident or by shifts in political priorities. Even the Government's own common funding formula, applied in the 31 areas with sufficient grant-maintained schools, has yielded some new and unexpected gains and losses this time round.

A national funding formula, the sages warned, would force governments to answer for the contentious decisions that lay behind it; assumptions about class sizes, for instance, the balance of primary and secondary funding or levels of support for special needs. Even here, however, the ratchet may have turned a notch towards centralisation with the decision that henceforth the common funding formula will adopt a standard percentage for the split between primary and secondary.

This has had unexpected results in a number of CFF authorities; it may have even more in others as schools and their supporters start to compare this standard to their own funding. The national average of Pounds 1 for primary for every Pounds 1.35 in secondary may now become a national norm.

There are also arguments about local democracy and the need for sensitivity to local circumstances. But ever-tighter capping of local government spending, national pay awards, the national curriculum, a national inspection regime and national standards for special needs imposed by the code of practice all point in the same centralising direction.

And if this government - or the next - is to set central attainment targets which take account of the circumstances of each school, how long before it also decides to determine their financial needs in the name of greater efficiency and fairness?

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