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GM agency puts case for new role

The future looks uncertain for grant-maintained schools. Labour aims to absorb them into a locally planned framework as foundation schools holding their own assets. But the Secretary of State is making no hasty decisions about what to do with the GM schools' support body, the Funding Agency for Schools.

Before people start to write the obituaries, however, it is worth noting some of the achievements of the body that was set up by the 1993 Education Act. Mike Collier, FAS chief executive, says. "We never gauged our success by the number of schools that had opted out. That wasn't our remit. We have always worked with the grain of schools to create an environment which was supportive to their needs."

The agency defined its role as providing value for money, supporting school improvement, planning and the kind of benchmarking that may now be central to the Labour Government's school improvement drive.

"We have made our cost comparisons available to all schools," says the head of the agency's value for money unit, Janis Grant. "If it had already been done by the LEAs, we wouldn't be doing it."

The agency has produced guides on subjects such as estates management, the strategic use of schools information management systems, and running a cost-effective sixth form. Much of the information is unavailable elsewhere and is increasingly relevant.

Ms Grant says: "There is a big take-up of our publications among locally managed schools whose heads pick up our guides at conferences. They find them just as useful as GM schools because they are faced with the same challenges. "

The grants policy of the FAS may offer a useful solution to a cash-strapped government serious about tackling the backlog in schools maintenance. After providing 100 per cent funding for health and safety priority calls, all other capital funding is dependent on the private sector. The FAS contributes 50 per cent towards projects in secondary schools and 75 per cent for primaries if the schools can raise the balance. So far about 80 projects have been funded, and the FAS investment of Pounds 7 million has brought in Pounds 25 million of private money.

The biggest issue that concerns the FAS is the search for an equitable national funding formula for schools.

The agency's response to a DFEE consultation on a national funding formula for all GM schools was to widen the debate to include the financing of all schools and the huge variations in funding among LEAs. Mr Collier says: "There should be a fairer and more transparent distribution of resources. We have set out ways in which funding could be related to the delivery of the national curriculum. It is an important issue the Government will have to take on board."

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