Editorial - An idea in search of a scandal

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Audit Commission's claim that schools need additional financial oversight is unproven

Is there a better week in which to make a fuss about financial accountability? The scandals engulfing Westminster are an excellent reminder, or so it seems, of what happens when professionals are left to police their own financial affairs. External auditing has never been so sexy.

The Audit Commission believes it has identified a persistent problem with the 2,000 schools that regularly run a deficit and can foresee greater ones if nothing is done (page 4). It argues that many heads lack the necessary nous to run their schools efficiently and well, and would benefit from a financial spring cleaning from Ofsted in addition to the one they face on academic standards.

Its proposal may look superficially attractive in these austere times, squeezing the maximum performance from every penny spent. But as John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, points out, schools hardly lack oversight. Applying an additional crude measure to school finances runs the risk of undermining the very autonomy of headteachers that both main political parties believe is crucial to delivering educational improvement.

The issue seems to lie less with headteachers who cannot tell the difference between red and black ink and more with local authorities, many of whom seem unsure of, or unwilling to use, the statutory obligations they retain over schools. That is probably to be expected, given the mangle which municipal and school relationships have been put through over the past 20 years.

But if the Audit Commission has identified a problem - and it is not absolutely clear that it has - it could be dealt with by getting local authorities and governors to exercise the regulatory muscle they already possess, rather than burdening schools with new and unwarranted bureaucracy.

Detectable, too, in the watchdog's proposals is the current tendency to see Ofsted as a universal panacea for each and every problem. Its remit has been stretched to such an extent that it would be unsurprising to learn it had gained oversight of MPs' expenses, to add to its responsibilities on education and child protection. Asking it to benchmark academic output against monetary input would only cloud its core focus further.

The claim that there is large-scale financial mismanagement in schools is simply unproven. Schools already face a huge amount of financial accountability out of all proportion to any perceived problem. As one exasperated head put it recently: "We're having to fill out all these forms just because one nun blew her school's budget on shoes".

Before Westminster is tempted to add yet more budgetary oversight, perhaps it should reflect that heads who have accidentally claimed for over-generous mileage or for a night at a conference they did not actually attend have had their careers ruined. If only their transgressions had occurred in these enlightened times. They could simply have offered to pay the extra few pounds back and hoped that it would all be forgotten.

Gerard Kelly, Editor. E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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