Challenge the power of politicians

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Councils will find it hard to ignore the new funding forums of heads and governors, writes Anat Arkin

New bodies set up to consider school funding should have considerable clout, even though they will not have the powers ministers originally wanted.

Plans to give groups of heads and governors a bigger say over how local authorities spend schools' cash were watered down after lobbying by the Local Government Association led to a government defeat on the issue in the House of Lords.

"Schools forums will have influence, but what they won't have is the power to override decisions made by the democratically elected organisations that people vote for to sort out local government," said Graham Lane, chair of the LGA's education executive.

But the line between power and influence could be blurred. Although the Education Act 2002 gives forums only an advisory role, it will be hard for authorities to ignore recommendations.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says any councils that ignore those on the ground in schools risk a political storm and could pay at election time.

From next year all LEAs in England will have to consult forums on proposed changes to the local school funding formula. The forums will also advise authorities on how to spend those parts of the budget that directly affect pupils but are not delegated to schools. These include funds for special needs and pupil-referral units.

Authorities such as Cambridgeshire and Wolverhampton, which already have consultative bodies, will adapt easily. But others will struggle. According to the Secondary Heads Association, some LEAs will not meet the January 15 deadline for holding elections for forums.

"A number of authorities are making temporary arrangements, for example, by using representatives from county-wide governors and heads' groups," said Malcolm Trobe, head of Malmesbury school in Wiltshire and chair of SHA's funding committee.

Some LEAs are also failing to follow rules requiring them to make sure the number of primary and secondary representatives reflects pupil (rather than school) numbers. As a result, claims Mr Trobe, the balance has tilted "significantly" in favour of primaries.

There are also concerns about the number of non-school members on some forums and about their size. Those with as many as 45-50 members could be hard to manage.

But, despite these problems, and forums' limited powers, heads' leaders believe they will give schools a much-needed voice on funding. "Too many authorities have failed to consult schools properly on funding issues," said John Dunford, SHA general secretary.

"These matters have too often been determined in the smoke-filled rooms of the local authorities' political groups."

WHAT WILL SCHOOLS FORUMS DO?

Recommend changes to local financial schemes; contracts for supplies or services to be paid for out of the LEA's schools budget; other financial issues, including arrangements for special needs, free meals, pupil-referral units and early years.

Who will sit on them?

The LEA can appoint up to a fifth of members. All others must be heads and governors. LEAs will have to decide how schools elect representatives.

How big will the forums be?

Minimum 15 members, there is no maximum number.

How often will they meet?

DfES guidance suggests at least three times a year, though they can meet more often

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