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School Boards Forum;Managing Schools

If you are going to have a conspiracy theory, you might as well have a good one. The latest in education is that the underfunding of state schools is deliberate. Forget the mantra so often quoted by Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister: "Local authorities have plenty of money and it's up to them how they spend it."

That is a squalid claim when set against the problems caused by the recent cold weather. As a hand-washing exercise, it leaves Pontius Pilate dead in the water for, the theory goes, not only is the Government quite aware that it is underfunding education, but it is doing so deliberately in order to force schools to opt out.

That has not stopped the Government underlining its claim with frequent comments about "waste" by local authorities and about highly paid "jobs for the boys" in contrast to the lean (mean?) machine which it wishes to create.

As we are still in the pantomime season, I am reminded of Little Red Riding Hood with the Government playing the Wolf, education being cast as Little Red Riding Hood, adult education in the role of Granny - it's gobbled up first - and the woodcutter representing local government. As in real pantomimes, the outcome of this story will depend on the reaction of the audience - parents, teachers and pupils. If we cheer and boo at the right time, then the woodcutter might be able to rescue Granny and Little Red Riding Hood but, if we don't, they will be lost forever.

"Will it matter", you ask, "after all the Wolf has been seen around in sheep's clothing recently, and promising to listen?" Ask your local further education college that question. Colleges were recently taken out of local authority control and made independent, with separate governing bodies. Now they are suffering the reality of direct government control and experiencing what it is like to be at the mercy of Government funding decisions.

Of course, a good conspiracy theory has to have a rationale and here there are two which fit the bill.

The first is that education is the last major public service which has not succumbed to the market. Think of it: we have had bus deregulation, the privatisation of gas, water and electricity with the railways next to fall, compulsory competitive tendering for many local authority services such as school meals and cleaning.

As for the National Health Service, it may not have been privatised, but since hospitals are now all in trusts "the market rules OK", with disastrous consequences that became apparent during the recent bed shortage.

That education remains a public service is an offence to Conservative policy. And, if you can't woo people with the bribes of opting out, assisted places or vouchers, then you frighten them by squeezing their funding. That will hit them where it hurts - their child.

The second rationale is that education is the last battleground in the political fight between national and local government. Education is the largest local authority service and involves a lot of people either as teachers, pupils or parents. Get rid of education and what is there left for local authorities to do except hold the odd civic reception?

Forget all ideas of parental choice; this is about power and control. So, we are into siege and starvation of funds. If you've seen any sheep lately, remember to check underneath their fleeces for signs of grey fur.

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