Dear Mrs Shephard
We are writing this open letter to you in an attempt to portray the realities of state education funding in the coming year. Just possibly your assessment of the situation has been mis-reported in the media. However, what has been reported bears little resemblance to the reality that is faced by governors, teachers, parents and, most importantly, our children.
It is your Government's declared policy to improve the quality of state education mainly through inspections under the direction of the Office for Standards in Education. Inspected schools must implement action plans for quality improvement based on inspectors' recommendations. Anyone who has been trained in business quality improvement techniques knows that there is a cost associated with quality that has to be deducted from the savings made through, for example, reducing the need for rework. Although improvement in education quality does not yield an obvious cost benefit, it is still true that it costs schools money to implement their action plans.
A survey of recently inspected schools in Oxfordshire reveals that few elements of their action plans can be implemented for free. The current funding situation is preventing schools fulfilling their statutory obligation to improve quality in line with the Government's policy. Indeed, most schools need extra money in order to re-establish the quality benchmark that existed at the time of their OFSTED inspection. If you refuse to finance quality improvement action plans, it is questionable whether the Pounds 100 million a year it costs to carry out inspections represents good value for money.
Before county councils set their education budgets, you declared that schools would not have to cut their teaching staff. The reality in Oxfordshire and elsewhere is that schools have had their budgets cut by up to 6 per cent. With staff costs of around 80 per cent of total expenditure in most schools, governors and headteachers have little choice but to make teachers redundant. This is the situation in spite of the county council giving a higher priority to education at the expense of other services.
With the impact on Oxfordshire schools as severe as it is, the effect of these cuts in other, less affluent areas, is likely to be even worse. Very recently, both you and the Prime Minister challenged county councils to examine their expenditure on bureaucracy before cutting school budgets. The reality in Oxfordshire is that central education staff have been cut systematically in past years and are now facing even larger cuts than schools. The proportion of the total education budget allocated to central management and administration in 19945 was only 0.63 per cent, a further 0.75 per cent was spent as a contribution to all other County Hall costs. Even if it were possible to eliminate this cost completely, schools would still be forced to reduce staff. Neighbouring counties have declared similar figures to those of Oxfordshire. Indeed, the Audit Commission has been unable to produce evidence of the profligacy which you insist exists.
You have frequently said that the education system as a whole has considerable spare capacity and that schools are sitting on large reserves. It is true that some do have reserves that have been built up to pay for capital projects, such as the upgrading of computer networks or improvements to health and safety aspects of playgrounds. These projects will have to be shelved so that reserves can be used this year to reduce the impact of budget cuts. Most schools, however, have been living from hand-to-mouth for two years and must bear the full brunt of this year's cuts.
Undoubtedly, in purely arithmetic terms, there are spare places in the system. In order to reduce the capacity it would be necessary to close schools, often respected and successful ones, and face the complication, inconvenience and expense of transporting children to other schools, sometimes large distances away. The impact of this on one of the cornerstones of Government policy, namely parental choice, would be severe. And, with extra transport costs, would this actually save money?
Some of your colleagues have argued that schools could find an easy remedy by opting for grant-maintained status. But we see significant advantages in staying under education authority supervision, as do the overwhelming majority of schools in the country. The main advantage is that county councils have the right and duty, at least in theory, to respond to needs expressed by their local electorate. They could (if it were not for the restrictive capping legislation) choose to raise extra money for education through local taxation or by preferential funding at the expense of other services.
Local people have the ultimate say at the ballot box as to whether they think such actions are right. Grant-maintained schools, on the other hand, depend on an un-elected Funding Agency which can do little but apply formula-funding, with no accountability whatever to the community the school serves. A significant overspend reported recently by at least one GM school indicates that opting out does not lead to the greener grass on the far side of the hill.
We believe that the case for proper funding of education is irresistible, both for the sake of our children and the county. If you are of a mind to sit out the increasingly loud protests from parents, governors and teachers in the expectation that in a few months time, when schools are busy coping with the situation, all will return to normal, then we advise you to think again. Passions are aroused in the education community that will not be denied.
Keith E Beck
South Oxfordshire Governors Forum
Association of Oxford City Governors
Oxfordshire Secondary Heads Association
Oxfordshire Primary Heads Association
National Association for Primary Education (Oxon)
Oxfordshire Federation of Primary Parent-Teacher Associations