Education can be one long yawn

13th April 2001 at 01:00
The public may be more interested to see local spending go on roads rather than schools, claims David Bell.

It's an understandable prejudice for an ex-teacher, headteacher and director to think that education is the number one interest of the great British public. But over the past year as a council chief executive, I've come to realise that there might just be another perspective.

Local authorities everywhere are going consultation mad. Everything from public opinion-tracking surveys to citizen's panels to discussion on the possibility of an elected mayor is designed to keep councils in touch with their communities. And some interesting messages are emerging.

The outcomes of public consultation exercises are increasingly influencing council decisions about which services get what money. The recent referendum in Bristol is only the most high-profile example of this phenomenon.

So what are the messages? First, education is not always the over-riding concern. Roads and other transport issues have pushed their way to the front of the public consciousness. And that's because everyone uses the roads, whether as a driver, pedestrian or cyclist.

However, people's interest in schools is largely confined to its relevance in their children's lives.

Second, an increasingly elderly population is concerned about social services. In the main, older people are still more likely to participate in consultation exercises and so they are a powerful voice. But there are real worries about care of the frail as more and more families face the agonising dilemma of how best to cope with an elderly relative.

Add to all of this the awareness of funding pressures on the NHS and social services, and it's not surprising that people are more likely to view it as a priority.

Third, the announcement of six-figure sums for education don't always mean much to the public. Our council, for example, is putting an extra pound;11 million into education next year. But sometimes I get a horrible feeling that people's eyes glaze over when local politicians and council officers tak proudly of investing huge sums in education.

In the Bedfordshire village where I live, millions are spent each year on education in a lower and an upper school. Yet the same amount that is made available to the parish council to spend on road safety schemes often seems to have a bigger impact. People can see the results, such as speed signs or a resurfaced road.

Fourth, despite the often-repeated mantra that the public would be prepared to pay more tax for "decent" public services, there is little evidence to support this. The public doesn't always want to see huge tax reductions, but councils of all political persuasions are trying desperately to be seen as low-tax authorities.

None of this necessarily persuades me that councils should be spending less on education. But LEAs cannot bask in a complacent assumption that everyone will understand the inherent virtues of higher spending on education.

People who allocate public money must always be able to defend their decisions. Be prepared to debate and think through the consequences of spending more on education and less on other services. Don't pretend it can be good for everyone.

You need to persuade those beyond the immediate school community that investment in education brings benefits. Sometimes consultations suggest that people think that funding education is like sending money into a black hole. Governments and local authorities can make the case about improving exam and test results. But you have to make the case locally by being visible in your community or by opening up your school, as well as being sensitive to the legitimate concerns of your neighbours.

And finally, if you are sceptical about the value of citizenship in an already crowded curriculum, consultation makes the case for it. Give pupils opportunities to debate local issues and have them argue about the difficult choices that Government faces. One day your school's future might depend on an enthused and engaged public speaking up on your behalf.

David Bell is chief executive of Bedfordshire County Council

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