Funny meddling on way to forum

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
New local groups of heads and governors were meant to direct school spending. Lindy Hardcastle was optimistic, but now her resignation is in the post

Schools' forums, as envisaged by the Department for Education and Skills, were intended to be fearsome beasts.

Each local authority was to have one. With scores of members and no politicians, they would have let school leaders decide how money for them was spent - effectively lettting schools take over the main education role of councils.

But the forums that emerged last year are in danger of being toothless.

Their size was cut to a minimum of 15 members (no maximum) and councillors can now be among the 20 per cent of membership who are not heads or governors.

Most significantly, their role became advisory only. The Local Government Association pressed hard for this change, arguing that elected politicians should keep control of local spending.

The sad thing is that the new funding system - which has changed hugely, in a way that is still not widely appreciated - could let schools exercise more influence.

Although central government cash now comes to local education authorities labelled "LEA block" (for spending on, for example, school transport, and the youth service) and "schools' block" (for all pupil-related spending, including special needs), there is no need to delegate all of the latter to schools.

Whitehall targets for delegation levels have been dropped and local authorities have much more freedom to adust spending to local circumstance.

The Government says that they, when deciding how to spend money, should give "careful consideration of the views of schools as expressed in forums".

This is welcome, particularly in underfunded rural counties with many small village primaries. While it makes sense for large urban secondaries to manage their own budgets, our funded-on-a-shoestring primaries prefer the security of some centrally-funded services available when they need them.

Previous delegation targets have only been met by a system of buying back into LEA services, like buildings maintenance, and payroll management. It will be interesting to see how far LEAs and schools will go in returning "non-educational" budget items to central funding and control.

Meanwhile, many governors feel optimistic about their local forums, as they get to influence how the education cake is distributed. Leicestershire, Devon and Buckinghamshire are involving forums in a review of formulas for delegating funds to schools.

Kathryn James, a spokesperson for the National Association of Head Teachers, says: "Schools' forums potentially have an increasingly important role in deciding how funds are distributed to schools. They should act as critical friends to the LEA - challenging decisions. But to do this, they need good quality information. I hope that the DfES will rise to the challenge of producing adequate guidance and support for forum members."

However, all this enthusiasm for local decision-making may be dampened if increases in education funding fail to live up to expectations.

There is also bound to be a "Yes, Minister" effect, as forums rubberstamp one of the LEA's preferred options, rather than coming up with their own.

The problems do not stop there: some forums, such as Suffolk's, complain of the intimidatory effects of massed ranks of LEA top brass attending meetings. Others complain of feeling marginalised by lack of officer interest in their discussions. It requires real confidence and competence for a forum to reject LEA recommendations and and come up with their own suggestions for distributing the schools' budget. Training is clearly needed.

Neil Davies, chairman of the National Governors' Council, says: "There is huge variation in the way schools' forums are run and the quality of the information they receive. I would like to see chairs of forums having access to all the financial information that LEAs receive from central government. Forums cannot make intelligent, informed decisions without this.

"Clerks (of forums) should be independent and chairs should be consulted about the agenda and approve draft minutes. All forum members should be able to put items on the agenda - it should not be dictated by the LEA.

Some LEAs have not allocated funds for forums' administrative costs and expenses which indicates lack of commitment."

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Charles Clarke has insisted that any increase in the amount of the schools' budget retained centrally by LEAs (for example, for special needs) must not exceed increases in funding for schools. This would appear to breach the principle of local decision-making and could make it impossible to fulfil legal responsibilities to statemented special needs or excluded children. Capping budgets when these should be led by demand hurts individual children.

This may be the first real test for the schools' forums: can they defend their right to make decisions based on local needs and the views of schools, or is Big Brother still in charge after all?

To me at the moment, it seems like the latter. The basic problem is that a forum's advice can be totally disregarded if it conflicts with LEA policy.

Here in Leicestershire, primary heads and governors on the forum opposed LEA proposals to delegate funding for statemented special needs children to schools. But the authority ignored us and is doing it anyway.

Following Mr Clarke's intervention on this issue, our forum shrugged its shoulders and decided there was no point in arguing with the Government.

The delegation of SEN funding, went through due to mass abstention.

I started writing this article as a forum governor. My resignation is in the post.

Lindy Hardcastle is a governor of a small Leicestershire primary school


* LEAs were required to set up forums by January 2003;

* Forums must have a minimum of 15 members, but no maximum has been set;

* Forum members must be "in some sense elected";

* The majority (80 per cent) of members must be heads or governors, with at least one from a special school;

* The remainder can be local councillors, diocesan representatives, from special needs or early-years partnerships, professional organisations, unions and unspecified others;

* Heads tend to dominate - Tower Hamlets has no governors on its forum, but governors chair forums in Calderdale, Portsmouth and Hackney;

* Oxfordshire, Rutland and Dorset have no councillors on their forums;

* LEAs must consult forums on changes to local funding formulas, special needs services, pupil-referral units, home education, and early-years education.

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