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The saving power of ideas

This year's Education Show meets in an atmosphere clouded by the teachers' pay deal and budget cuts. But, says Tim Brighouse, there are still opportunities to explore.

Events on annual calendars remind us of the joys, sorrows, doubts and certainties of our past, present and future which punctuate as commas, exclamations and question marks our personal and professional lives. The Education Show at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham is now an annual fixture in the lives of many school staffrooms.

Participants usually make an optimistic trip a positive feature of five Inset days: a chance to select books, learn about new equipment, including computers, join a seminar and meet old friends. Last year I encountered an ex-colleague and her partner both teachers who "took in Stratford with Ted Wragg on a bargain break" as they put it.

This year's visit, however, will be a bit subdued and I guess the exhibitors will not expect too brisk a trade. The reason is not too hard to find as the budget round makes savage inroads into school resources. A head and governors always await nervously the "one line" print-out of the budget and the detailed follow-up. For 1995-96 it is more like dread as both heads and staffrooms can estimate and so anticipate the smell of fear from the prospect of lost jobs before the summer break.

It is easy to put it down to the fact that the revenue support grant this year is in an unparalleled way fearsome for the education service. And of course that is right. But there are structural reasons within the system that are militating against the education service and some of them are found paradoxically within parts of the reform which have been most welcome.

Local management of schools is usually lauded to the skies the one change welcomed by all. Despite its many advantages there is a debit column too. For example, while it used to be the case that local education authorities in the last period of pupil growth in the years leading up to 1974 always made allowance for more teachers, nowadays that cannot be taken for granted. It has become commonplace in too many authorities to make no allowance at all for rising pupil numbers. So the overall value of the pupil unit falls in real terms: in other words, the cake is marginally smaller before it is shared out. There is no real row about it in the way that there would have been 20 years ago.

Secondly, the operation of the real versus the average cost of the teacher's salary in the formula has driven down teacher costs and forced into early retirement some 50,000 teachers over the age of 50 in the past five years.

Thirdly, the phenomenon of "unspent balances" an inevitable consequence of a system which allows 25,000-plus schools as separate cost centres to accumulate a nest egg for a development project or a rainy day but no opportunity to budget for an overspend has allowed the Government not to fund the teachers' pay deal because, as the Department for Education press release put it, "many schools, as the independent schools inspectorate has pointed out, have substantial balances".

The pay deal represents for most schools the final hammer blow in an unkind world. It is crazy to budget in this way. It is as if we were to try to contain the rise in MPs' pay within a static budget for the cost of Members of Parliament. In the end, after a squeeze on expenses, there would be fewer Members of Parliament. That is how it will be for teachers this summer. The pupilteacher ratio will worsen for the fourth year in succession.

Writing from Birmingham, all that seems unreal. We are lucky. The city council has realised that education is an absolute priority. They reason that if the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs have gone in a city where the tide has gone out for good on that sort of full employment, then the only way of bringing it back is to go for a highly-educated and highly-skilled population which will create a new sort of wealth rather than shelter as a kind of gigantic urban workhouse for the poor for many people who have come to the city on a false prospectus. To do that we need to change an education system that produced failure and in many small ways that is already happening.

More importantly, the old adage of an education system that needs to be cheap and efficient has to be challenged. So for Birmingham for the third year running its schools have the confidence of an allowance for inflation, all pay deals covered, demography included, growth for special needs and a modest real-terms increase to enable the guarantees to be met, which for schools means living by the principle of improvement against previous best and setting targets for each generation, especially for improved literacy and numeracy at the end of the infant and junior stages. Such an approach is long overdue and you can see, almost feel, the flower of expectation open as people dare to believe that what was out of reach can be brought within our grasp.

So in the city you can see the credit side of LMS. There is a transformation of the environment both inside and outside the schools. Carpets, furniture, internal redecoration, "learning through landscapes" all have made schools more capable of improvement since 1989.

A further gain can be observed in just a few schools where there is a real debate about considerable shifts of expenditure. Some primary schools, for example, are investing not Pounds 5,000 in books but Pounds 20,000 in a revolutionary new approach to literacy. They debate too the presence of one computer in a classroom to 30 pupils in terms which compare it to the idea of sharing a pen. In consequence suites of computers are suddenly a possibility as a means of transforming teaching and learning. In this connection the most interesting debate and one which would never have surfaced at the LEA level or nationally is about adult rather than pupilteacher ratios. It is asking whether, if one started from scratch, it would be better to have a class size of 27 and no classroom assistant rather than one of 31 with a classroom assistant.

The evidence suggests that you would always opt for the two adults rather than the smaller class. If in doubt, ask anyone who has experienced it: none of them would go back. Indeed some teachers are weighing up jobs at interview on the basis of such support. Perhaps we are entering an era when the slogan will be "every teacher has a right to a classroom support worker". So LMS allows diversity in the deployment of resources within schools and the prospect of researching the consequences.

There remains, however, the running sore of the end-of-year balances seen in the snapshot at the beginning of April. Maybe the answer is simple. If all schools committed now their spending on books, furniture and equipment for next year all the non-staff items, especially the large ones and the LEA used its capacity to debit the ledger for those accounts, the unspent balances would virtually disappear. We are going to try to do that in Birmingham and we believe other LEAs should do the same. Our future prospects depend on it.

Perhaps after all, therefore, you should surprise those stall-holders at the Education Show. You will have a good visit anyway, for it is not merely goods but ideas that are available. And the latter are free and more powerful.

Tim Brighouse, chief education officer for Birmingham, debates urban education on Saturday, 10.30 am.

Birmingham LEA - stand 601

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