Go for local cash control

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Peter Downes takes me to task for dismissing the Secondary Heads Association's funding document as an affront to local democracy (TES, October 28). He has been misled by a single quotation which did less than justice to my position.

My remark was directed towards the principle of national funding formulas - not to SHA's specific proposals. Any nationally-imposed mechanism for resourcing schools must tend, by definition, to undermine local decision making. The extent to which a particular approach does this and whether its effects are malign or beneficial must be debated in each case.

I believe the SHA document falls at the benign end of the scale. It adopts a sensible approach to identifying the relative resource needs of different schools - acknowledging the previous work of a number of education authorities - and it has been welcomed by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities as a useful contribution to debate.

However it is not without flaws. Being almost entirely school-focused it does not fully comprehend the non-school-based responsibilities of authorities. If it was implemented as described it would cause considerable problems elsewhere in the education service. More importantly it fails to see the political wood for the technical trees. Its detailed critique of the shortcomings of Standard Spending Assessments (SSA) is impeccable, but misses the point. Until recently few authorities actually spent at the level implied by SSA. About two-thirds spent more and the remainder less with significant variations in either direction with the aggregate routinely running ahead of central government assumptions.

Central control of local spending, via capping, is rapidly turning SSA into a funding formula that it was never intended to be - and driving total spending down. As Peter Downes emphasises in paragraph 74 of his report, local accountability could be preserved if capping were removed. This is absolutely true; but if capping were removed SSA would not be so much of a problem either.

Formulas are a necessary tool for handling the mass of data used to guide and control public spending. But ultimately spending decisions are driven by political value judgments. The size and complexity of the system is such that national formulas, and central government's judgments driving them, are necessarily blunt instruments. The solution therefore is to reinstate local democracy rather than pursuing the holy grail of a perfect national formula.

ALAN PARKER

Education officer

Association of Metropolitan Authorities

35 Great Smith Street

London SW1

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