A secretive partner who demands too much
The education service's most ill-starred arranged marriage will record its first anniversary next week. But there will be no celebrations to mark local education authorities' year of enforced intimacy with the York-based Funding Agency for Schools.
John Patten's rash advice to "get in there and mix it" with local authorities may have been disregarded by the quango's wiser administrators, but the extensive soundings The TES has carried out over the past week have confirmed that most of the 50 LEAs that are obliged to work with the FAS remain deeply sceptical about the liaison.
The 1993 Education Act empowered the FAS to allocate the annual maintenance and capital grants to grant-maintained schools - now totalling Pounds 2 billion a year - and monitor their subsequent expenditure. In those authorities where between 10 and 75 per cent of pupils are in the GM sector it shares responsibility with the LEA for ensuring that there are enough school places. And in the two London authorities, Brent and Hillingdon, where more than 75 per cent of secondary pupils attend opted-out schools the agency has sole responsibility for planning in the secondary sector while the LEAs continue to look after such areas as special needs, grants and awards, admissions and exclusions.
According to the LEAs, however, these arrangements have proved messy, unduly bureaucratic and extremely expensive, although they emphasise that they have a good working relationship with FAS officers, particularly the planning director, Sandy Adamson.
The LEAs' criticism is predictable given that the agency has invaded their territory, but their objections appear to be based on experience rather than peevishness. One of the agency's most outspoken critics is Roy Pryke, director of education in Kent, where half the secondary schools have opted out. He believes the agency is straying beyond its brief because it is frustrated by being confined to only planning and finance. "We often find ourselves talking to them about things that are not their concern such as nursery education. This is perhaps predictable because the management of education is a totality - it's not something that can be segmented into planning and finance, separate from policy developments, admissions, transport and parental complaints."
He is, however, even more concerned about the secrecy that surrounds the agency's operations. Like other local authority officers he finds it galling that council education committee meetings and reports are open to public scrutiny whereas the FAS board meets behind closed doors and its briefing papers are never published. "We therefore don't know what the processes are which lead them to come to their decisions," he said.
Mr Pryke contends that the FAS represents a waste of public money. It has a staff of 250 and an annual headquarters budget of Pounds 12 million. Nevertheless, local authorities have to provide the agency with data on future pupil numbers, birthrates, new housing developments, bus routes and background information on issues such as schools' relative popularity.
"The relationship is becoming parasitic," Roy Pryke said. "The work we do for the FAS takes up a great deal of time which we can ill afford."
Helen Johnson of Roehampton Institute has produced a "progress report" on the FAS for the Local Government Management Board, and can confirm that Mr Pryke's complaints are commonly voiced ones.
"Some LEA officers were amused when I questioned them about the cost of time spent on FAS business. One thought it was a great idea and was going to invoice the FAS there and then."
Others are not amused, however, either by the duplication of work or the fact that the FAS sometimes seems more preoccupied with national, rather than local, objectives. Philippa Cordingley, an independent researcher and consultant who has been studying the impact of recent education funding and planning changes, said:" It is necessary to identify more formally the needs which future pupils and parents, employees, church and community groups and other schools have of the school system. The grant-maintained sector is only able to meet the needs of those who are successful in gaining places in its schools."
She feels that the FAS accepts the validity of this argument but is currently more concerned with maximising schools' autonomy and increasing the opportunities for inter-school competition.
The unelected FAS board's apparent lack of accountability to local communities - the FAS is primarily accountable to Parliament and the National Audit Office - is another source of dissatisfaction. FAS officers are allocated to each of the authorities it deals with but much of the communication is done from a distance, by letter and telephone. Chris Waterman, the London Boroughs' Association's education officer, said: "You may think it logical to direct children from oversubscribed school A to undersubscribed school B, but you need to know that a motorway and a canal lie between the two schools. It's that knowledge of local geography that the FAS doesn't have and won't have unless it has an officer in each town hall."
Roger Wood, chief schools officer in Bromley, whose secondary schools are due to go over the 75 per cent threshold next week, said that the FAS had also shown itself to be naive about local history. "As with the Khmer Rouge, we started with Year Zero last April," he said sardonically."The council and schools had already come to a view about how extra places should be provided but the FAS still insisted on holding its own meetings with schools behind closed doors. To my mind it acts like the Department for Education in exile but it is true that the agency staff have proved to be good listeners over the past year."
Unfortunately, other LEAs have not found the FAS to be such an attentive listener. Brent is one of several authorities that criticise the agency for turning a deaf ear to suggestions that surplus places should be removed.
Dr Krutika Tanna, one of the north London borough's principal education officers, said: "We have 395 excess places in our two LEA secondary schools and 1,988 in the 11 GM secondaries. If we still had responsibility for surplus places we would have done something about that by now."
Sandy Adamson of the FAS rejected that complaint, however. "It's true that we have no immediate plans to reduce the surplus capacity in Brent but that's because rolls are rising again and the surplus will not be much beyond the 10 per cent mark by the year 2000."
He also brushed aside most of the other criticisms of his agency with the weariness of someone who has heard the same arguments many times before. The agency can be held accountable locally, he insisted - " the main line of accountability is through the schools" - and it was developing a great deal of local knowledge. "In any case, go into rural Essex or the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and see how many schools have contact with county hall. "
But he was more vigorous in rebutting the allegations of undue secrecy. "I think we have been remarkably open in the way we do our business. We have set out our projects and copied the proposals for everyone in sight. LEAs may not have seen our reports to the board but they have had access to the substance of that advice. The board is not considering opening its meetings to the public but it is well aware of the concern over openness and may in future produce a newsletter after each of its monthly meetings which would summarise its main decisions."
Given the secrecy that has surrounded FAS meetings that represents some progress. But as the Further Education Funding Council has opened its decision-making process to public gaze it is almost certain that the FAS will have to conjure up a far juicier bone than the prospect of newsletters if it is to silence its critics.