A whiff of corruption?

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Grant-maintained status and delegated funding gave heads and governors much more money to look after than in the days when local authorities controlled all the money that came into education. In many small towns, the local comprehensive had the biggest turnover of any concern in the area.

Most heads and governors remained calm when they saw the rows of zeros at the top of their budget sheets. One or two, however, fell victim to the "school-as-business" syndrome. Fergus O'Sullivan at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside recalls the occasional head who leased a car or charged business suits to the school budget, or refurbished the study from money intended for more direct learning needs. It wasn't a matter of fraud, he says, but of probity, which he describes as, "The proper use of public money for the purpose for which it's intended".

It is as if these heads took the business culture a little too much to heart.

"They saw what people in private businesses of equivalent size were doing and felt they could do the same," says Mr O'Sullivan. "These heads would know where they wanted the money to go, but were not always willing to get the paperwork in line. They tended to take short cuts sometimes."

The principle of probity has always been at the heart of government and local authority finance departments in this country- so deeply embedded as almost to be second nature. When finance was delegated, however, there was no guarantee that the "probity culture" would go with it, even though there have always been financial regulations and guidelines.

A more general probity issue, Mr O'Sullivan suggests, has been some schools' practice of building up, and holding on to, large end-of-year surpluses - up to 20 per cent of the total budget in some cases.

"They didn't really understand that it was for the current year, and that you then argued for next year's budget," says Mr O'Sullivan.

Things have improved considerably - schools have been urged to control their end-of-year balances and there is excellent guidance on financial procedures from local authorities and government. The Audit Commission, for example, provides help on school budgeting, including interactive on-line support. But it all takes time and, as bursars become more common, more senior, and better qualified, they too will help heads and governors through the more boggy bits of financial practice. Watch this space.

Gerald Haigh

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