Editorial: figure skating

6th December 1996 at 00:00
As the effects of the Budget for Education begin to trickle down to local authority level, en route to schools, so it becomes clear from our report on the local spending settlement that its impact is, to say the least, ragged up and down the country. Some schools may feel a sense of relief; others must brace themselves again for the misery of cuts and the havoc of teacher redundancies. Few, however, will have much real understanding of why, and that is a matter of increasing concern.

Education has been singled out for special mention once again, thanks to its powerful lobby. Not only teachers, parents and governors see the advantages of acting together to force the Government's hand in a pre-election period. Local education authorities too have grasped the opportunity to focus attention on the crucial spending decisions made by central government.

Most councils are run by the political parties that are not in Government.But it is not just the Opposition that is grateful for the revolt of Middle England focusing the Government's mind on schools. While it may be irksome to the Cabinet as a whole, most other spending ministers would gladly give up their ministerial Rovers for the power to resist cuts such a lobby gives the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard.

But now the propaganda war is over for another year, local authorities pause to assess the damage while heads, governors, teachers and parents try to anticipate the rough justice about to be handed down in school budgets. Pages of statistics are all very well but what are they supposed to make of the apparently random workings of standard spending assessments,revenue support grants and spending limits?

If they seem to be this year's lottery winners, is this because the Government or its arcane formula has looked more favourably upon the special needs of their area and given more per pupil? Or is it simply that it has belatedly recognised there are now more children in the area? If cuts are in prospect, is this Government stinginess, political malice or mismanagement or lack of foresight on the part of the local authority?

In most cases, whether the news seems good or bad, the honest response is incomprehension; a level of uncertainty and ignorance that is bad for the management of education and worse for democratic accountability. And given that the next government is likely to be no more open-handed with local authorities, a more understandable system of school funding which makes it clear where the buck stops is overdue.

Nationally the figures are clear enough; not as bad as the Chancellor threatened in earlier years but not good enough to prevent class sizes rising yet again. But at the local authority level the plot thickens because what the Government hands out is only part of the school funding equation. How economically local authorities then use that money to provide effective front-line services rather than backroom bureaucracy, inefficient support services or surplus capacity is also a factor. So, too,are the ways councils choose to use balances or reserves, the income they can raise through various charges and council tax and the priority given to education over other services.

Local authorities now plunged into the chaos of emergency cuts cannot claim they were not warned by repeated statements from the Chancellor to expect settlements below inflation. Though the average parent, governor or headteacher can hardly be expected to grapple with the complexities of the standard spending assessment formula, well-organised local authorities ought to have been able to make intelligent guesstimates of what was likely to happen or to have made strong representations for a fairer and more predictable formula. In fact, the associations representing local authorities have done little in the past to try to improve the system or make it more transparent. However it worked, it would only share out a fixed pot of money. So any changes would produce the unwelcome turbulence of winners and losers among their own members.

There is a perverse comfort in blaming remote authority. Before budgets were delegated, heads and governors were happy enough to blame the education authority for most shortcomings. Now they share responsibility for raising standards and value-for-money with the LEA and a common pragmatic interest - if not a political one - in blaming the Government. But the danger in such an alliance is that it overlooks the responsibility of local councils for planning effective and efficient education. They may no longer spend school budgets but they retain some responsibility for their sufficiency.

Heads and governors who are responsible for spending those budgets also play an essential role in holding local councils to account for their financial efficiency; something they should not forget, even if they do work with the LEA to ensure the Government pays its share.

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