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An education cuckoo in the town

THE NEW consultation paper on school funding will set many heads' hearts racing. From next April, schools will take responsibility for a range of services provided centrally by their local education authorities.

Some hearts will pump in anticipation at taking decisions on issues such as getting legal advice, organising school meals or insuring premises. Others will miss a beat at the unwelcome prospect of picking up responsibility for services even more remote from day-to-day teaching.

The idea is that all schools should be free to take on a wider range of responsibilities. But they will also be able to ask their local authority to carry on as before.

So what should schools watch out for? First, that the money for the new responsibilities is actually added to the total sum delegated. This sounds obvious, but there have been instances of the responsibility for a service being transferred to the schools without any resources to carry it out.

Second, that the formula used to delegate the money should provide each school with a sum that closely matches the charge to be made by the authority if the school wants the council to carry on organising and providing the service on the school's behalf.

Not all services are used equally by primary and secondary schools. In such cases, the formula should allocate to primary schools the proportion of the cost of the service used by primary schools in the past, and vice versa.

There is a temptation for secondary schools to argue that the money for all such newly delegated services should be added to the value of the age-weighted pupil unit used to calculate school allowances. Primary schools should beware of this. Such a division of the money would give the secondary schools more - in the ratio roughly 3:2 - because of the weighting applied to secondary pupils.

Most concern is likely to surround schools taking over responsibility for school meals. The Government proposes that from next April schools will have to make arrangements for providing free school meals. But they won't be free to hand out an apple and a glass of water.

The Government is going to set nutritional standards. This is likely to be a blow - and a costly one - for those schools whose meals fail to come up to the new mark.

In the case of the subsidy for paid meals, there is a wider issue at stake. A number of authorities - pursuing more of a social objective than a purely educational one - subsidise meals because they consider that there are children in families just above the national income limit for free school meals who may not get one good meal every day.

From next April the governors will be able to judge whether to spend the subsidy in this social way.

Or will they? I predict that many authorities -faced with governors having this new freedom to divert the money away from the support of needy families - will remove the subsidy altogether before delegation takes place.

No doubt some local councils will also ask the Government how giving the money to governors to spend in the way they see fit is in line with its other policies. On the face of it, some authorities might argue justifiably that this money should be considered as part of the social exclusion picture and not part of education at all.

It could be a case of now you see the money - now you don't.

But if the subsidy is withdrawn from the education budget before next April, governors will be even more wary of taking on the responsibility for school meals at the time when the price will be hiked up to the full cost.

This looks like a good case for a rethink so that schools are not handed what is known in rugby as a hospital pass.

The consultation paper's impact is much more fundamental on elected councillors.

One wonders why anyone should bother getting elected to serve on an education committee that can do little more than respond to policies determined by central government.

For example, councils will no longer be able to spend money on curriculum or advisory staff unless either the schools pay the local authority for the privilege or Whitehall approves in advance what the staff are to do.

Isn't it time to reconsider the position of education in local government? Why not just get rid of the expense of trying to make the education cuckoo sit in the local government nest? Why not free education officers from corporate management and all the flummery and humbug of meetings of local councillors who cannot influence what happens to education?

Why not just free the education officers to get on with their job and be answerable to their real masters - the Department for Education and Employment?

* Mike Nichol, former director of education for Wirral, and an adviser to Coopers Lybrand, education consultants, is writing here in a personal capacity

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