Flexibility or sleight of hand?

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Ministers say schools will have more choice over how they spend their cash in future. But do the funding changes mask cuts? Phil Revell investigates

A high-profile campaign to improve pupil behaviour could be under threat because of funding cuts and changes in the way government money is allocated.

Just before Christmas, Education Secretary Charles Clarke told TES readers he would take firm action against ill-discipline in schools (Platform, December 13). He also noted that 45 per cent of teachers leaving the profession cited behaviour as a key reason for quitting.

In his December announcement, Mr Clarke described a comprehensive package of investment including intensive support for schools with serious problems. He said that more learning support units would be opened and that all schools would be offered help.

But The TES has discovered that government spending targeted on behaviour management will actually fall this year and that LEAs may be forced to cut spending on learning support units outside Excellence in Cities areas. Some units could even face closure.

"This is a classic case of Department for Education and Skills' smoke and mirrors," said one LEA finance officer. "They're publicising one initiative while shutting down another."

Unravelling government spending announcements is never simple, and this year the problem has been compounded by a new local authority spending structure.

Several important Standards Fund grants end in April. Programmes to support class-size reductions and induction of newly-qualified teachers will end, as will funding for recruitment and retention and pupil learning credits.

Key behaviour improvement programmes are also being taken out of the Standards Fund. Two social inclusion grants and the money for learning support units are being transferred to the general schools budget.

These grants are worth more than pound;170 million during the current financial year. Also missing from next year's Standards Fund is the pound;200m school improvement grant, for poorly-performing schools.

The DfES points out that the overall size of the Standards Fund will remain at 2002-3 levels. It also claims that programmes taken out of the Fund will continue to be supported. "This is part of a Government-wide drive to do away with the ring-fencing of funds," said a DfES spokesperson.

"We are allowing local councils greater flexibility in determining how to meet local need. Money for learning support units will be there - it just won't be identified as such."

The disadvantage, of course, is that targeted funds become impossible to locate once transferred to the general schools' budget.

"Any number of projects could be announced this way," said Lindsey Wharmby, the Secondary Heads' Association's finance adviser. "The potential for double-counting is endless."

A second difficulty is that this year's schools budget will have to cover additional costs stemming from the teachers' pay settlement, along with superannuation, which is being included for the first time.

In Hull, the missing Standards Fund grants were worth nearly pound;3m. "All we know at present is that there is a gap between the settlement and base-budget requirements," said Hull's deputy director Simon Gardner.

"There is a shortfall of pound;1.7m. Irrespective of how figures are packaged and presented there is a reduction compared to last year. The gap can only be bridged by cutting spending."

The local authorities most likely to be hit by the new funding arrangements are those with below-average settlements that do not have Excellence in Cities programmes in their area.

East Sussex had an overall settlement of 3.8 per cent, one of the lowest, and its missing grants were worth more than pound;3m. The authority has spotted a shortfall of pound;1.9m.

"We haven't got the resources to replace this funding," said a spokesman. The authority would continue to back schools' behaviour support initiatives, he said, but cuts were inevitable.


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