Alan Malarkey bemoans the Government's indecisiveness over the future of language support for ethnic-minority children.
Money that has paid for extra language help for ethnic- minority children is now caught in a logjam of the Government's making.
The delayed announcement of what is to happen to this Section 11 cash next year is causing turmoil and the funding mechanism, which has become enmeshed with single regeneration budget (SRB) bids, is in disrepute.
Despite energetic lobbying, government departments remain impervious to education authorities' urgent need to settle this year's funding round. This has damaged the confidence and morale of the many teaching staff funded to support ethnic-minority pupils.
The whole issue is too important to be left hanging between government departments, and many authorities want a more secure and continuing basis for supporting these children's needs. Recent research from the Office for Standards in Education suggests that there are no simple answers to the educational issues raised by ethnic diversity. The authors describe nine possible ways forward. The addition of a tenth, to sort out the funding chaos, would not be amiss.
A recent statement by education minister Cheryl Gillan, "Action to raise standards for ethnic minority pupils," also contains l0 action points, the last of which, to "convene an ad hoc group to chart progress", seems decidedly weak, particularly in view of the funding dilemma and fears about ethnic under-achievement.
The funding for ethnic-minority pupils is fragmented. Money comes from, for example, Section 11, SRB and GEST - grants for education support and training - and also via the Rate Support Grant and the Standard Spending Assessment. Undoubtedly, the division of funds and responsibility between government departments, principally the Home Office, Environment and Education, obscures overall accountability and has a dislocating effect on schools' and authorities' capacity to manage services.
From the point of view of the "owners" of the money - the pupils and their parents - the system fails to meet legitimate expectations for clarity, coherence, and fairness. It suffers from a confused distribution system and often fails to satisfy need.
For example, the Government's general policy in relation to Section 11 activities is based on the view that we live in a fair and just society, where people, irrespective of their ethnic origin, can participate fully. It is argued that temporary obstacles to active participation such as language needs, should be addressed by specific and targeted grant. However, the Government also holds the view, that wherever possible, ethnic- minority needs should be met from the main public-sector programme. It therefore makes a distinction between "discretionary supplements" and "mainstream funding". The reality is that such needs are all related.
A debate about what ethnic- minority children require in the way of services and funding is needed. The pressures for change arise from dissatisfaction with the current systems and the gridlock of government departmental interests that has closed off the prospect of creative thinking.
Ideas for change have emerged, which if implemented, would revolutionise the current approach. There is a creative tension and an appetite for change which is only paralleled by the dead hand of Government with its singular failure to lead the thinking or cause others to grapple productively with these issues.
The ideas for change include: * the pooling and transfer of all resources to the DFEE; * the payment of all funds as specific grant to education authorities - levels of funding to equate with objectively measured need and directed towards all relevant issues including race equality, English as an additional language, traveller education and training; * schools to be resourced through their local managment budgets; * the improvement and development of school effectiveness measures, in particular through a better framework for national inspection; * a national policy framework for race equality and support of ethnic- minority pupils which is set within a local context. Autonomy and flexibility should be available at authority and school level; * local accountability through existing structures, for example democratically-elected groups at the authority level, community forums, and governing bodies.
* a code of practice which defines the requirements for schools in relation to a policy statement, standardised assessment criteria, the meeting of individual, whole-school and community needs, the management and use of resources, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting and publicising progress.
There will be legitimate reservations about the possible ill-effects of these proposals, including: * the loss of a distinction between work for race equality and English as an additional language will be lost. Race equality measures may be broadly based, subsuming activities that merit funding under Section 11; * the loss of experience, skills and expertise currently invested in language achievement projects. The corresponding worry is that ethnic-minority teachers would lose their jobs as schools move away from specialist support; * fear that the investment in specialist central services will be lost; * concern that any focus on new and emerging needs for language support would be fettered by the dispersal of funds andor the absence of a coherent service at authority level; * that the ethnic-minority community will view any changes towards devolved and dispersed funds as a weakening of commitment, marginalising their needs; * that the direct relationship between SSA and funding at service level breaks the long-established principle that the needs indicated by Government weightings do not affect local autonomy.
There are currently a vacuum of thinking and debate from Government and a desperate need for leadership. Perhaps it is the local authorities, standing at the nexus of these seemingly irreconcilable forces, that can and should open up this debate by developing policy for funding the needs of ethnic- minority pupils into the next millennium.
Alan Malarkey is an education adviser with the London borough of Merton. These views are his own, but were developed while working as a principal education officer at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities