Cabinet invited to do better

16th June 1995 at 01:00
"If you can do better, please do it," reads the notice on the door of Lesley Williams' cosily untidy office - football on chair, piles of paper on desk and children's postcards and letters on wall. So far it is an invitation that John Major, Gillian Shephard and Michael Heseltine have declined.

Miss Williams is head of Chalgrove county primary - a 250-pupil school in rural Oxfordshire which needs to spend Pounds 52,000 more than it is allowed.

The "needs-related and responsible budget" which the school submitted to the county council has been rejected. The balanced budget of Pounds 373,000, now before County Hall, will mean one teacher and one learning support assistant being made redundant, cuts in repairs and maintenance, and some classes rising from 27 to 35 pupils.

The Prime Minister, his Education Secretary and the President of the Board of Trade have all been asked for advice. Michael Heseltine suggested jumble sales and business sponsorship to another school in his Oxfordshire constituency facing cuts.

"Ask yourself, who actually lives in the real world?" says Algis Cininas, chair of Chalgrove's finance committee. "What does he want - the Shell classroom, the BP classroom? It is just too silly."

Both the Education Secretary and Prime Minister have blamed County Hall for the funding problems and while Miss Williams believes Gillian Shephard is "the best we have had," she adds: "She is an out and out Tory." However, Miss Williams says: "I think she will get money for us if she can but she will have to fight against a lot of people."

While the in-fighting in Cabinet goes on, Chalgrove will lose its only male teacher - Don Church, who has been at the school since 1978 - and Sue Jones, a full-time learning assistant there for more than 25 years. They volunteered for early retirement due to redundancy, making the governors' budgetary dilemma a little easier.

"We hadn't set any criteria for redundancy, so if they hadn't volunteered it probably would have had to have been last in, first out. The last appointment I made was three teachers at once. It would have been a ghastly choice," says Miss Williams.

Mr Cininas says: "If you can be dispassionate it is quite a straightforward decision. It's when you realise that you as a governor are going to have to sit down and say 'sorry, your position is redundant' that's when it becomes hard."

And Heather Bowden, a parent- governor, says: "It is hard because you know that your own children and everyone else's children are going to be affected by this."

Chalgrove has wiped out its reserves of Pounds 23,000 to help balance the budget this year and while some classes will now rise from 27 to 35 children, 70 pupils will work in two open-plan rooms side by side.

"Can you imagine 70 children aged nine to 11 in one space," says Miss Williams. "Imagine the noise. They are going to have to sit still a whole lot more than primary education at the moment warrants."

Inspectors who visited Chalgrove last October praised its financial management and said it was a school where "due attention is paid to achieving value for money". The decision to set a budget which broke the limits was not taken lightly but was done after consultation with staff and parents. And it was influenced to no small degree by recommendations from the Office for Standards in Education report.

The inspectors had advised creating non-contact time for all subject co-ordinators, continuously updating book stocks and information technology equipment as well as developing the school's nature reserve. None of those recommendations can now fully be implemented because of budget cuts.

And says the Revd Ian Cohen, co-opted governor and vicar of St Mary's, Chalgrove: "We value inspection, but we are beginning to think that we would rather have had the money that was made available for it to make sure our children's needs are met.

"It is pretty sickening when you are in the position that there is no money to do anything."

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