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Someone to blame;Leading Article;Opinion;News and opinion

AS THE National Association for Headteachers vividly demonstrated this week, the present variation in schools' funding is hard to fathom, let alone to justify. In short, it is a mess jointly compounded by central and local government from which we can now probably only be extricated by a government prepared to make a clear decision on what purpose (if any) is to be served by local education authorities.

Local democracy at its purest allowed ratepayers to decide what they wanted to pay for, and what they did not, in the light of their local circumstances. Successive governments, often for good reasons, have eroded that principle by placing more and more legal responsibilities upon councils while restricting their freedom to levy local taxes. What limited discretion they retain contributes to the bizarre situation in which some schools miss out for having the wrong kind of grass.

While authorities increasingly resemble the local office of the Department for Education and Employment, much of the day-to-day responsibility for schooling has been devolved from councils altogether to governing bodies. As Margaret Maden observes on our letters page (page 16), if education authorities' sole raison d'etre is to sell services to schools on a competitive basis, what is the point of all those councillors?

The answer to that, of course, is to take the blame when this "ramshackle system", as David Hart rightly calls it, fails to deliver. The present system in which the Government supposedly passes money to the middlemen on the council who are supposed in turn to hand most of it on in a fair and objective way to meet the needs of schools not only fails to take proper account of real levels of need at the chalkface but conveniently manages to obscure where the responsibility lies for any resulting shortfalls.

David Hart's solution is a national funding formula to mirror the national curriculum, national testing, national pay scales and national expectations. This would be more transparent and consistent though not necessarily fairer when it came to reflecting schools' particular needs.

It would also amount to the nationalisation of the service. Schools may be ready for that. But are ministers, who would then not only have to spend a great deal of money levelling up the underfunded (or suffer the unpopularity of levelling down) but would also be responsible for every deficiency in the service thereafter?

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