Funding, not fudging, is the best way forward

19th May 1995 at 01:00
Demitri Coryton argues that the Tories must accept that resources have become a key issue. After the local government election results, ministers were sent scurrying around the country's television studios peddling the party line. The Conservative collapse, we were told, was due to a failure of communication rather than errors of policy. This is always the line after an election reverse for ministers, and policies can hardly be to blame.

Reality, of course, is different. There are a number of reasons why the Government is so unpopular. Two of them are ministerial performance and errors of policy. The decision not to fund the entire cost of the teachers' pay award, for example, was an error of policy, not of presentation.

Replacing ministers is the easy part, for there is plenty of talent to replace those who need to spend more time with their families. The transformation of the Government's position in education that followed the replacement of John Patten by Gillian Shephard shows what can happen if the right appointments are made.

On the policy front, the key issue is resources. From the expansion of pre-school provision, through the issue of class size, to the continued expansion of further and higher education, Gillian Shephard has to win her battles with the Treasury. This will be crucial to the outcome of the debate about pre-school services. Expansion here must be fully funded. A system designed mainly to avoid spending money will blow up in the Government's face.

While there is continuing debate over the kind of pre-school facilities needed, it is clear that the Government will go for a mixture that will include the substantial existing playgroup and private sector. That is fine as long as there is nursery education for those who want it. There is also continuing debate over how to organise the delivery of an expanded service. There are those who favour the introduction of vouchers, though there is a real danger that this will be over-bureaucratic. The campaign for vouchers in some sections of the press illustrates the danger of an ideological approach to policy-making.

The real litmus test is to ask what will deliver an expansion in the most effective way. A pragmatic approach might well include credits for every parent co-ordinated through a national pre-school authority. I hesitate to support the creation of yet another quango, but in certain circumstances they work well. The Further Education Funding Council for example, has been extremely successful. Perhaps I can balance this by suggesting the abolition of another quango, the Funding Agency for Schools.

Tony Blair's change of policy towards grant-maintained schools is intensely unpopular within the Labour Party, but it does open up the possibility of securing the future of this most controversial of Conservative policies if sufficient common ground can be established. Valid criticisms of the present system are the serious democratic deficit that exists and the potential for inefficiency in planning.

If the FAS was abolished, the planning function could be shared by the LEA and the Department for Education, with the DFE having reserve powers to do the job itself if the authority did not act reasonably. The funding part of the agency could be absorbed back into the DFE.

A greater degree of co-operation at local level would go a long way to lessen hostility towards the GM system. It would help lessen the fears that opting out is just a half- way house to the reintroduction of selection. This is how the radical Right sees it, using words like "choice" as code for a return to the days of the grammar schools. This is not a view shared by the vast majority of secondary GM heads, who are as strongly committed to comprehensive education as they were when their schools were part of the LEA. In this they have the support of most parents.

It would also encourage LEAs to try even harder to take out surplus places from the system. Many authorities have done a great deal here, but with good reason schools threatened with closure have seen grant-maintained status as an escape route. While the present Secretary of State is not inclined to let schools play this game, the fear that ministers might is a drag on the more efficient closure of surplus places.

This is a serious weakness in Mrs Shephard's armour when she argues for more cash from the Treasury. They point to the resources locked up in spare places. If LEAs want the Secretary of State to win future battles with the Treasury, they must help her by taking out more surplus places.

Getting a better financial deal next year will be crucial to tackling the problem of growing class size, especially at primary level. It is true that there is no conclusive causal evidence to prove that children do better in smaller classes, but parents believe that they do and parents are instinctively right.

While funding has inevitably been centre-stage recently, Mrs Shephard does have a lot of good news to talk about as well. Some of the Government's earlier reforms are now beginning to pay off. With the national curriculum stripped back, it is a tight discipline that is helping to raise standards. Mrs Shephard's more pragmatic approach to league tables is also paying dividends. Performance indicators have a valuable role to play, but there are more types of attainment worth measuring than just academic exam results. Broadening the assessment of performance indicators will also help deliver a higher quality education service.

Another outstanding area of success has been the development of General National Vocational Qualifications. This emphasis on vocational education will continue, as should the development of more school-industry compacts.

There are two directions in which Government policy could go. The radical Right will argue for vouchers from playgroups to further education, and for an emphasis on choice and diversity and the reintroduction of more selection at secondary level. (The fact that in the good old days of the grammar schools, most people ended up at secondary moderns seems to have escaped them.) Let market forces determine the future shape of education. This combination of nostalgia for a past that never existed and a desire for a future that never will is unlikely to appeal to parents.

Successfully empowered by the Government's reforms, parents are more likely to be impressed by a more pragmatic approach that recognises the importance of co-operation between parents, teachers and governors. Choice is important where it is practical, but a market forces approach has always been largely bogus at secondary level, where the number of schools is limited and successful schools end up choosing pupils rather than parents choosing schools.

Many parents are worried, and the sort of article that appeared recently in the Sunday Telegraph, which warned that those who sent their children to state schools were putting them at risk, will only fuel that fear. The best way of reassuring those with such concerns and of bringing parents, governors and teachers with them, is for the Government to build on the substantial programme of reforms already enacted, with an adequate level of funding to ensure that the improvements that we are already seeing come to full fruition.

Demitri Coryton is chairman of the Conservative Education Association.

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