Draw breath in the anti-opt-out litany

Cecil Knight

The Prime Minister has made a bold move by offering fresh incentives for schools to become grant-maintained. Why should parents and colleagues who have until now rejected this option give it fresh consideration?

We all want and need the best state education system that the country can afford. We cannot afford inefficiency and waste. It is vital to make every penny count. Expenditure on a service is most economically effective by being controlled at the point of delivery.

It follows that each school should have maximum control over such funds as are available. Why more control than schools now have under local financial management? Because full autonomy and flexibility can only be realised by controlling the margins of expenditure - there is very little manoeuvrability in the first 90 per cent of a school budget. Even the leading local education authorities in this field are not delegating more than 90 per cent. That is the basic economic case. All other issues are contingent.

There are, nevertheless, serious and emotive issues to be faced.

The first is the feeling that to become GM is to betray the LEA. At a less emotive level it is asserted that without LEAs there would be chaos and diminution in standards.

This is patently untrue. There remains a key social role for greatly slimmed-down LEAs or their equivalent. The majority of their services are, however, becoming independent and self-sustaining and can relatively quickly become part of what is now a lively, competitive, high-quality market.

The second is that to make all schools autonomous invites chaos because it undermines the LEAs' planning and provision function. In a cross-boundary, open-access system, which is clearly making sense to most parents and which few now wish to change, the LEA becomes no more than a major partner in a collective exercise. Decisions regarding the type of provision (single-sex, selective and so on) have never been wholly within the ambit of LEAs and are not fundamental to the GM issue.

The third is that to become GM is to become isolated. Not so. The experience in more than 1,000 GM schools is that colleagues have continued to meet and collaborate.

The fourth is that to become GM is selfish, profiting one's own children at the expense of others. There has been a relatively small amount of "double funding" which is rightly being phased out. Not so widely publicised has been the great deal of "creative accounting" by LEAs to favour their own schools. Some LEAs are also being double-funded through aspects of the common funding formula - this also should be phased out.

With regard to capital funding, grossly misleading figures have been published, purporting to show favouritism to GM schools. The truth is that, if the sums are worked on a per pupil basis and the contributions from other sources to capital projects in LEA and voluntary schools are included, GM schools have fared slightly worse than their LEA counterparts in some years and slightly better in others.

The fundamental concern which GM schools have highlighted is the wide disparities in funding from LEA to LEA. We have been pressing for a national funding formula which will end both this injustice and the capacity of LEAs to patronise through creative accounting. Labour recognises this unfairness but promises only to "review it".

The fifth issue is the argument that GM schools are not accountable. In fact, they have relatively more regularly elected representation than governing bodies of LEA schools. The governors have to publish audited accounts and participate in exactly the same accountability mechanisms in the form of league tables as LEA schools.

Governors and parents should also consider recent developments. The churches, for example, should heed the agenda in Labour's recent policy document under which their majority of foundation governors and control over admissions will be curtailed. Perhaps they will consider taking their future more securely into their own hands.

Given the challenges we face and the potential constraint on resources, schools should be looking again at the Prime Minister's new GM options. They offer the best chance of ensuring that, when difficult choices have to be made, we can make every penny count.

Cecil Knight is head of Small Heath School, Birmingham and chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee.

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