Lift this funding fog

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
School leaders need to understand budgets clearly, writes Brian Lightman and John Hopkins

We have a vast amount to celebrate in Wales with a range of policies, which are often the envy of colleagues in England. Obvious examples include the abolition of national curriculum tests, the development of the Welsh baccalaureate, and supportive inspection arrangements.

Nevertheless we still have serious concerns, especially about the funding of schools. It is quite clear to us that the frustration of school leaders is shared by an increasing number of Welsh Assembly members.

School leaders are deeply concerned at the proposed education budget for 2005-6, which seems to put little new funding into schools where it is so desperately needed. However often we demonstrate why we cannot implement curriculum developments without funding to staff them, we continue to witness the diversion of disproportionate amounts of funding into local authorities and government-funded departments such as ELWa, the post-16 funding agency. The children of Wales are paying the price.

The recent press coverage of the allocation of funds for key stage 3 improvements is a typical example of the fog that surrounds the path of money from the Assembly government to chalkface.

From 2005, an additional grant provided via local education authorities will be moved to the Better Schools Fund. This is a fund which has restrictions on its use and which we are told is for short-term measures or "pump priming".

This makes it difficult for schools to sustain or further develop medium-term strategies, which necessarily involve employing staff. It therefore puts at risk our ability to implement the stated Assembly priority of further raising standards in KS3 - the importance of which we all recognise.

Whatever the outcome of the current debate about this funding for the forthcoming financial year, it is certain that LEAs and schools are very confused and unable to put in place any specific plans only months before the beginning of the financial year.

The Assembly has announced (TES Cymru, November 19) that the funding fog will be lifted, that everything will now be open and transparent because it will be making public its assessment of what each council should be spending on education.

This is a step forward that occurred many years ago in England. However, it did not solve the problem there and is not the full answer in Wales.

Putting councils under further pressure is not the issue. The stark reality is that the Assembly has no mechanism for assessing the impact of its decisions on individual school budgets or whether its funding calculations are based on actual need.

A similar finding caused consternation in England last year, leading to fundamental changes in the way schools are funded. None of these changes has followed in Wales, where local authorities are yet again announcing likely cutbacks in this crucial area of frontline provision.

Last year the Secondary Heads Association Cymru called on the Welsh Assembly to commission a Daugherty-style review of school and college funding. It is deeply regrettable that it did not establish such a review and that no significant progress has therefore been made to address this major source of frustration and growing anger among school leaders.

The report that SHA Cymru is publishing this week adds to the growing body of evidence that schools in Wales are the poor relations of their counterparts in England.

Charles Clarke, the English Education Secretary, has said that education is an area in which "there is no public tolerance for a postcode lottery".

That means local government's role is to act as agents for central government, delivering what it provides.

This is equally true in Wales. Jane Davidson, the minister for education and lifelong learning, must make clear her expectations and the Assembly must ensure she has appropriate funding and is able to allocate it.

The continuing reliance by the Assembly on local decision-making by councils, which often lack the political will to effect strategic change, is an abdication of its responsibility to ensure adequate provision for learners in Wales.

LEAs are left in a weak position. Statutory duties are imposed on them, but funding is at the discretion of county councils. Officers spend too much time producing plans and Cabinet reports, using scarce resources that should be devoted to school improvements, and they seem stifled by bureaucratic models of change-management imposed from outside.

The Assembly's vision for education in Wales will not be achieved in the current funding fog. Many of its flagship policies, such as reforms of the 14-19 curriculum, are in serious jeopardy. Schools are cutting choice and increasing class sizes while the Government talks about expanding opportunities.

We believe Ms Davidson must give decisive leadership to end the postcode lottery and provide a guaranteed minimum entitlement for every learner in Wales. We call on the Assembly to listen to our valid professional concerns.

Brian Lightman is head of St Cyres comprehensive in the Vale of Glamorgan and honorary treasurer of the Secondary Heads Association. John Hopkins is head of Gwernyfed high school in Powys and president of SHA Cymru

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