Blair's pledge on future of Section 11 funds still unclear heading

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Almost a month after Tony Blair announced with much fanfare that the previous government's plans to slash funding for ethnic minority language teaching would not be implemented, there is still no policy on how the cash will be spent.

In his speech to the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister said: "On taking office, we discovered that the last government planned to cut from Pounds 83 million to Pounds 43 million the Home Office Section 11 budget, and make redundant 7,000 teachers and classroom assistants.

"That cut will not stand. I'll tell you why. That money is not a cost, it is an investment. And it's one a civilised nation should make."

This week Home Secretary Jack Straw revealed that the decision was endorsed unanimously by the Cabinet.

But how the reprieved Section 11 funding will work is still an open question. A Home Office spokesman said: "We realise that there is a need to know, but we are still working out the exact details. We can't say how many of the 116 LEAs presently receiving the funding will continue to get it or how it will be allocated. These are the very things being discussed."

It is clear that although there will be no further cuts to the budget, there will be no increase either, disappointing local authority language advisors who hoped it would be restored to pre-1994 levels.

Jane Wallace is head of Shapla primary school in Tower Hamlets, East London, where just two of her 235 pupils have English as their first language. The majority speak Sylheti, a Bengali dialect. The area is one of high immigration and new pupils with little or no English are constantly joining average class sizes of 30.

Ms Wallace believes her situation would be "desperate" without the extra funding. She said: "We are given the money for 3.1 staff, which means that each class gets two days a week extra language support. Lots of the children are very bright but some have only been in the UK a matter of months. With the best will in the world, my teachers can't help them keep up without help."

The Shapla language staff were facing redundancy in August next year, when the cut would have taken effect, and have no official confirmation that their jobs are safe. Ms Wallace explained: "The LEA have told us we will have some funding next year, but other than that nothing. We'd like to know exactly what's happening. My staff are loyal, but they've got families to support and as such were already beginning to apply for other jobs. If they don't need to do so, I'd like to let them know that before I lose them anyway. The whole thing seems a bit of a mess."

Richard Gore, ethnic minorities advisor for Oldham, agreed: "Oldham had already been making contingency plans for next year. We've apparently been given this stay of execution for the short term but it really would be most helpful to have detailed information. LEAs and schools need to be planning for the medium and long term."

Shapla primary's February Office for Standards in Education inspection described its language teaching as "outstanding", not least because a bilingual translator, paid for by Section 11, means children can be assessed in their first language.

Ms Wallace said: "There have always been problems with this funding and I dare say, not everyone used it effectively. Let's hope things become much clearer because if Section 11 isn't used effectively, we'll be doing ethnic minority children a complete and utter disservice. No one, least of all the Government, wants to be seen to fail them."

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