Critical match points;Opinion

25th June 1999 at 01:00
This year's local education authority spending league tables contain built-in discrepancies, say Christine Gilbert and Christine Whatford

THE Government this week published the league tables on education authority expenditure (See Briefing, page 23). Although at the time of writing we had not seen the figures or the media "spin" put on them, both the Association of Chief Education Officers and the Society of Education Officers welcome the initiative, as it should enable us to make comparisons, highlight areas for improvement and stimulate greater efficiency.

The Government had promised that the transparency of its Fair Funding reform would replace the fog of local management. While we accept that any attempt to produce tables in such a complex area will inevitably result in some anomalies, we have picked out five reasons why we believe that, far from clarity and transparency, this year's league tables may take us into a peasouper.

We have borrowed some football analogies to clarify our arguments.

* Comparing this year with last year: the equivalent of the Football League's publishing a table comparing this year's points total to last year's number of goals scored.

Rather than accept 19992000 as the baseline year with which to compare future funding, the Department for Education and Employment has tried to apply a complicated mathematical formula to last year's expenditure in order to compare changes.

This may be well-intentioned, but we fear comparisons may at best be misleading, at worst meaningless.

* No account is taken of the fact that this is the first year of new and different funding arrangements: the equivalent of all teams' using slightly different ways to record their results, some ignoring some of the goals conceded, some counting goals scored as double.

In the first year of Fair Funding, it is evident that councils have made different interpretations of how to allocate spending between budget headings. For example, there is an enormous range of expenditure between authorities under the heading "Children Act". It is possible that the same activity, such as an after-school club for children at risk, will in one authority be included under this budget heading, while in another it might be excluded because it is counted against the Youth Service or Social Services budgets.

* Impossibility of explaining figures locally: the equivalent of a manager standing in front of the kop explaining that the points total they had thought would be enough to qualify for Europe was now leading to relegation.

Education authorities will want to explain to other local stakeholders those items in the league tables where they appear to be performing differently from similar authorities. Heads, governors, parents and others might reasonably be expecting to engage in dialogue.

Differences may stem from a range of circumstances, perhaps a particular local need or priority or indeed, poor value for money. However, there are factors that vary between councils that will confuse comparisons, for example, the number of grant-maintained schools, how an authority funds schools for additional pupils in-year, or how central costs from other council departments have been apportioned.

* Misrepresentation of an education authority's spending on schools: the equivalent of any goals scored by that expensive foreign striker the FACarling Premiership helped to pay for, not counting at the end of the season.

Money to "match" grants from government is held centrally in an authority's accounts, for example, cash for raising achievement among ethnic-minority pupils. Most is, however, spent in schools. The DFEE is trying to allow for this in its published figures, but it is hard to see how, within the guidance given, authorities will have collated the figures in a way that will lead to fair comparisons. Those with high-specific grant funding may be penalised.

* Over-simplistic, potentially inaccurate figures on "passporting": the equivalent of saying that the FA should be able to tell clubs how to spend their TV revenue.

The method of calculating how much of the Government's money has been passed on to schools ("passporting") is flawed. For example, it discounts money spent outside the education budget, but still funded from council resources, on areas such as family literacy or youth work.

Most important, the tables take no account of how much above or below the Government's national Standard Spending Assessment (SSA) the education spend actually lies.

Authority A might be spending 20 per cent above SSA and have passported 90 per cent of the "extra" money and be judged (named and shamed?) to be worse than authority B, which spends 20 per cent below SSA and has passed on 100 per cent of the increase. All things being equal, which authority would schools prefer?

We support the exposure topublic scrutiny of how education authorities spend their money. However, we do not think that the methodology used to produce this year's set is fit for its purpose. This is too important an area to get wrong now and we hope the system can be modified to enable real comparisons to be made in future years.

Let us all be clear from the start that we play on a level field and not Yeovil Town's famous slope.

Christine Gilbert is chair of the Association of Chief Education Officers.Christine Whatford is president of the Society of Education Officers

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