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Section 11 falls on two-edged sword

When published in 1989, the Scrutiny Report into local government's use of Section 11 funding was seen by many as a double-edged sword. Along with revised Home Office guidelines, it swiftly drew to a close past abuses by forcing authorities to be more rigorous in monitoring targets and objectives.

Gone were the days of the surreptitious use of Section 11 grant to employ classroom teachers. The emphasis on partnership teaching and collaborative learning brought a new sense of corporate vision to Section 11, fusing a real co-operative venture between project staff and schools. Examples of good Section 11 practice have been cited in the recent Office for Standards in Education report as improving the quality of teaching and learning in multilingual classrooms. Not only has the best Section 11 practice improved levels of achievement among minority ethnic pupils, it has also raised standards amongst their majority ethnic peers.

My reading of experience in Buckinghamshire suggests that when Section 11 staff have targeted Years 10 and 11 pupils in specific subject areas, the A-C pass rate at GCSE has significantly improved for all. Given that many minority ethnic pupils supported by Section 11 staff tend to be located in schools within areas of low socio-economic status, Section 11 has been a vehicle for delivering greater curriculum access and, therefore, equality of opportunity, along the twin dimensions of class and ethnicity.

The benefits of Section 11 have been evident beyond the quantifiable indicators authorities set themselves in the quest to jump through the Home Office's behavioural hoops and thereby attract funding. Although greatly muted since the pre-scrutiny days, multicultural and anti-racist education has remained alive, with dedicated Section 11 staff acting as the catalyst.

The presence of Section 11 teachers in staffrooms has enabled informal in-service training to broaden perspectives; more teachers than before are more aware of the abilities and needs of their bilingual and minority ethnic pupils. And teachers working co-operatively have felt freer to experiment, despite the national curriculum.

While the Section 11 changes of 1992 brought much good, they were like a neat incision revealing the vulnerability of the heart of equal opportunities in the prevailing climate of contraction. Within the first nine months of the current projects, and despite claims to the contrary, Home Office circulars declared that worsening economic circumstances meant grants were to be reduced from 75 per cent to 57 per cent in April 1994, and to 50 per cent from April 1995. The expectation that authorities should improve funding by allocating money from standard spending assessments appears a cynical twist.

Laudably, several authorities have achieved this: regrettably, Buckinghamshire, where the Section 11 grant was cut by Pounds 268,000, has put back half of that, Pounds 134,000. The current fiasco caused by the Home Office circular of September 7, 1994, enabling urban authorities to make dual bids to the Single Regeneration Budget and Home Office funding, while constraining the eligibility of shire authorities, has exposed the duplicity of the Government's advocacy for equality of opportunity.

Having earmarked 55 per cent of Section 11 funding for the SRBs, which authorities such as Lewisham and Bradford have since discovered is inaccessible to them, the Government has effectively killed off the chance to raise standards in multi-ethnic classrooms.

For no other reasons than regional economic brokering and political opportunism, the 5,000 bilingual pupils in Buckinghamshire schools stand to lose a significant right to their future. For the first time there is the possibility of the authority receiving no Section 11 grant at all, with the result that staff could receive provisional redundancies in January 1995, to take effect from March 31 or April 30, 1995.

The authority has contingency plans to continue a skeleton service of 30 teachers from the end of April. This will leave Milton Keynes with more than 1,000 pupils scattered across 65 schools, with just six teaching posts to do what 11 full-time equivalent teachers and 3.5 bilingual assistants have done in the past.

Many of my classroom teacher colleagues could be left isolated, to prove the Government's commitment to every child's curriculum entitlement.

Paul Gardner is the Milton Keynes Section 11 project leader, but this is a personal view.

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