'Play detective to clear funding fog'

Nicola Porter

Professor tells Assembly committee to get out more. Nicola Porter reports

A leading academic told a committee tasked with investigating school spending to play detective in a bid to clear the funding fog in Wales.

Professor David Reynolds said it was vital for Welsh Assembly members to visit schools, quiz headteachers, and pin down local authorities to track down money marked for schools.

The expert on educational sociology was called in to give tips to the cross-party school funding committee, whose findings are due to be presented next June.

He also gave his opinions on the pros and cons of alternative funding systems. The professor said it was not his intention to "bury the committee in paper" but to offer sound advice.

However, his credentials as a funding expert were called into question by one Assembly member, who attacked him for simply raising questions rather than presenting hard evidence.

Denise Idris Jones, Labour AM for Conwy, also accused him of making unhelpful comparisons with education spending in England.

Professor Reynolds, who lives in Llantrisant, said his research showed Wales spent 3 and 4 per cent less per pupil than in England. He said arguments that more money was needed in England because of London weighting were not justified. He said: "There is no justification, or logic, for taking London out of the figures. There are areas in Wales, such as rural Ceredigion, which need just as much funding as London."

The expert also estimated four times more money was being spent on "awesome" programmes of school rebuilding in England. He acknowledged constant comparisons with England could be dangerous, and not always helpful, but said they were bound to happen as funding was delivered by Westminster.

But Ms Idris Jones, a former teacher, said endless comparisons with England did not help the job at hand.

Professor Reynolds agreed with her that educational performance in Wales was good and based on world-leading initiatives.

Unions have already told the committee that more direct money needs to be pumped into the frontline to ensure basic pupil needs are met. Professor Reynolds, however, argued that the downside of ring-fencing money was loss of freedom.

Instead, he called for a return to recommended spending targets, which are no longer made. He said moves in England to direct more cash to schools were not proving as effective as first thought.

And he called on the committee to review what local authorities are holding back in cash reserves across Wales as a starting point.

The expert, who has advised Tony Blair's government, said his research revealed that extra funding helped raise educational performance slightly, but it helped more in socially-disadvantaged areas.

Also giving information at the third evidence-gathering committee were members of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru. In an elaborate report, they argued for a clear audit trail of education spending from the Assembly to school.

Their figures reveal average levels of delegation from local authorities to schools have fallen from 81 per cent in 2003-4 to 76.4 per cent this year.

In their report, they call for narrowing the gap between local education authorities, full independent assessments of new initiatives before they are piloted, the introduction of three-year budgets without delay, and the strengthening of school budget forums.

The union called for an activity-led system of funding that gave priority to learners. It also maintained schools should be allowed to determine how additional funding flows should be spent.

A NAHT Cymru spokesperson said: "We believe unitary authorities should be retained as strategic planning bodies, organisers of local services in support of schools and monitoring bodies.

"We strongly believe, however, that local authorities should be more client-centred than the present funding regime and should be required by regulation to deliver some systems in cost-effective, collaborative partnerships."

At the previous meeting of the committee, the Welsh Local Government Association called for the status quo to remain in present school funding arrangements.

Representatives claimed changing the way money was allocated could add to confusion and prove costly. They said although the present mechanism had flaws it was the best way to determine education spending in Wales, where local authorities were rated highly by the schools they served.

They argued pressure on local authorities to meet the 2010 target for the capital programme of making schools fit for purpose was a huge drain on their resources.

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Nicola Porter

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