The officers from York raise Hillingdon's hackles

David Budge

It was a blue rag, rather than a red one, that was waved before the bull, but the effect was the same.

Having drawn up plans for creating 1,000 extra places in Labour-run Hillingdon's grant-mantained secondary schools the Funding Agency for Schools asked one of its board members, Edward Lister, leader of Tory Wandsworth, to deliver the proposals in person. Hackles were immediately raised and they are still bolt upright six months later.

After the initial upset caused by the choice of emissary the agency mollified the council by agreeing to take part in public consultations on the proposals (the agency has sole responsibility for ensuring there are enough places available in Hillingdon secondaries ).

But the LEA's resentment began to grow again after the round of public meetings was completed and the FAS officers returned to York to produce a report for their board. Weeks, and then months, passed without word from the agency on the progress of the plans. Then on March 3, one day after the crucial board meeting and two-and-a-half months after the FAS planners' last appearance in Hillingdon, the heads of the schools concerned received a fax notifying them that Pounds 11.5 million was to be spent extending Douay Martyrs, Haydon, Mellow Lane, Swakeleys and Vyners schools.

It was, however, another five days before Chris Shires, the borough's deputy education director, managed to get an unofficial telephone briefing on the expansion plans from an FAS officer. And a further five days passed before the official fax arrived - three hours after the local newspaper had been notified.

The agency insists that all the interested parties were notified officially at the same time, but Peter Ryerson, the west London borough's education committee chairman, complained that the way in which the FAS had fobbed off the council's officers and then belatedly broken the news was "diabolical".

Glenys Andrews, Hillingdon's education director, was equally exasperated. "If one were being generous this is a new experience for the FAS and perhaps it is ignorance on their part on what is the best way to consult with their partners, but another interpretation is that they are treating the local authority with contempt. In the letter we eventually received from the agency, the chairman, Sir Christopher Benson, says they took on board the points made at our education committee meeting in December but they have gone ahead with the enlargement of Douay Martyrs, which was opposed by the education committee and the local community."

Mrs Andrews is pleased that money has been found for the expansion projects and that the FAS has recognised that the best method of measuring future needs is by looking at the shortfall in Year 7 places (the DFE insists on counting spare places in older year groups when working out schools' 'basic need'). But she is deeply disillusioned by her experience of life with the FAS. Like Peter Ryerson, she is surprised that there has been so little contact with the agency over the past year and finds it hard to understand why Dr Arthur Hearnden, the FAS board member who oversees Hillingdon and 16 other authorities, has not made a single visit to the borough since he took over his regional responsibility last autumn. "We have no complaints about our relationships with the officials but there is either overlap in the work we both do or black holes," she said. "School admissions are an example of the latter. The FAS is merely concerned that there are enough places available somewhere in the borough. It is not sensitive to the area. At the beginning of the school year we had eight children who didn't have school places and unfortunately the agency did not realise that expecting children from Ruislip to go to schools in Ealing was like asking them to go to another country."

The local authority concedes that the agency did eventually help to find suitable places for each of the children, but it is clear that the agency's construction work in Hillingdon should not be confined to schools. A great deal of bridge-building now needs to be done too.

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David Budge

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