Ahead of the game

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
By the side of the A14 near Huntingdon, there is a sign saying, "Cambridge shire: home of local management of schools". You might not be able to find it because it exists only in the minds of a few education finance specialists who created the folklore that Kenneth Baker visited the county and next day came up with the idea of schools looking after their own budgets.

The county's system of giving greater spending power to schools, introduced by the Conservative council in 1981, was undoubtedly a model that came under scrutiny as the 1988 Education Act was prepared. There are claims for earlier self-budgeting schemes - Hertfordshire schools had a degree of financial independence as early as 1950, and schools in the Inner London Education Authority were able to move money from one financial category to another under a scheme started in 1973. But Cambridgeshire's scheme went much further.

It differed from the Conservative legislation that spread the practice of local management of schools to the rest of the country 10 years ago, but the driving principles were much the same - except that Margaret Thatcher saw local management as a nail in the coffin of local authorities, while the authorities understandably had in mind a lively partnership.

Ten years on Labour is proposing a greater delegation of money to schools - from next April only special educational needs and school improvement will still be administered by town halls - so you might expect an enthusiastic response in East Anglia.

But the new proposals for devolved funding, as Labour now wants to call it, received a mixed response from a group of Cambridgeshire headteachers. "Parts of it read to us like a document from the 1980s," says Keith Warren,a former Peterborough primary head now working as a consultant. He says that as a result of the county's determined lead, its heads have become so immersed in the local management culture that sections of the consultation paper released at the end of May look positively old hat.

He cites the transparency issue (an open system of funding) and also the section which says that a school can buy services from a range of providers, local authority, voluntary or private. "We've been doing that sort of mix and match for years," he says.

To understand Cambridgeshire's enthusiasm for financial delegation you have to appreciate the philosophy which has grown out of decades of giving power to local school governors. That attitude sat comfortably alongside the authority's commitment to its rural village colleges which serve their local communities as schools, community resources and centres of adult education.

Judith Mullen, head of Melbourn Village College, says, "Cambridgesh ire went for delegation because it believed in it. In most authorities, it came because the government wanted it."

What this philosophy engendered, above all, was an open partnership between the authority and its schools which seems to have survived well, despite various funding crises and the trenchantly expressed and recurrent opposition of teacher unions. Keith Warren recalls that "there was an open regime of consultation - a feeling of all being in this thing together. We were in partnership with Geoff Morris [chief education officer at the time]. It was a good time to be a head in Cambridgeshire".

Chris Walford, head of John Mansfield School in Peterborough, and one-time teacher representative on the council, explains that the authority supported its approach to delegation by setting up many working groups of officers and heads - "on budget generation and budget distribution, on special needs issues, community education, in-service funding, even one on minibus management".

One effect of this, says Bev Curtis, who in the Eighties was an assistant CEO responsible for delegated funding, was to make the county attractive to heads who wanted to work with governors in self-managing schools. "Cambridgeshire attracted entrepreneuri al heads," he says. "They drove the authority, and there arose a genuine partnership."

Judith Mullen came to Cambridgeshire in 1986 for this reason. "I wanted to be head of a community college with a community budget, and the possibility of so much creativity on your own site."

An important effect of the plethora of working parties and the amount of partnership was a high degree of transparency - heads and governors who wanted to know what was going on in local finance were able to find out. They knew the right questions to ask and they were less easily baffled than were some of their colleagues in other authorities by the intricacies of formula funding and by such terms as ASB (aggregated schools budget) PSB (potential schools budget) and GSB (general schools budget).

The picture emerges of an authority in which heads, governors and officers were, as LMS started nationwide, ahead of the game. As Chris Walford puts it. "The authority was very honest about what was involved. A lot of mystique was dispelled, and so the vast majority of schools found the move quite easy."

In some authorities, in fact, the philosophical attitude was the mirror image of Cambridgeshire's - the belief was that an authority needed to control the money in order to run a city or county-wide policy. Indeed, Cambridgeshire was among the first authorities to discover one of the penalties of local management, which was that a centrally funded service could be severely curtailed or might even die if enough schools did not buy into it. (Under the Labour proposals, if 80 per cent of schools choose a local authority service then the rest must take it too.)

In 1992, the number of Cambridgeshir e advisory teachers was cut by more than half, because too few schools were buying their services, and the county's schools support service was wound up. When this happens a significant number of schools that want the agencies' services may lose out. In many authorities it is music services which have become the most visible casualties of financial delegation. (But Labour will guarantee music cash for each authority through the standards fund.)

It was undoubtedly fear of this scenario - and a general unwillingness to relinquish control - that led some authorities to drag their feet as they were hauled into the era of delegation. Judith Mullen, who is President-ele ct of the Secondary Heads Association, says: "SHA has come across huge anomalies. Some schools have not had access to one-tenth of the information that that we have had."

Bev Curtis recalls talking to a group of governors in another authority who had been given less than clear advice about their right to take independent action. "Well into LMS, these governors still did not realise that they had the responsibility for shortlisting for staff appointments. They took some convincing."

The demise of some services was an inevitable result of the supply and demand approach. Other Cambridgeshire services thrived. Bev Curtis headed a section providing personnel services to schools which became first an agency and, in 1993, a successful independent business, Education Personnel Management, selling itself to schools in other areas.

The Government's proposals for increased delegation will make authorities devolve to schools the costof support services (such as personnel). Bev Curtis says that many authorities have so far been unable or unwilling to do this - a stance, which he says, "is often based on dogma rather than on what is best for schools."

In a climate of full delegation, some authorities are going to find it difficult to provide services from their own resources. Bev Curtis feels that they have to come to terms with this and have, in his words, "A much more relaxed attitude to the provision of of such services."

He believes that the important role that authorities have to play in planning and monitoring education does not necessarily depend on their controlling support services. They may well, he says, have to act instead as advisers and experts on where to go for services - working with schools to draw up specifications and deciding which suppliers can meet them - "kite-marking", as he describes it.

There is a postcript to the Cambridgeshire story. The heads I spoke to believe that when they were first involved in delegation, responsibilities were more circumscribed. Now, there are external pressures that might cause heads and governors to wish that someone at county hall could shoulder part of the burden.

"Over the past five years," says Keith Warren, "heads have had to take on so many extra responsibilities - for equal opportunities, child protection, health and safety. They suddenly need increased legal support in these areas, and when they turn to the local authority there's nobody there."

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