Longer perspective on the road

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
THE GOVERNMENT'S are certainly radical. They offer every English primary and secondary school approximately the same funding regime as the grant-maintained sector has enjoyed (school managers are advised to mug up on the "Rainbow Book" issued to GM schools by their paymaster, the Schools Funding Agency). All schools are to get financial control of virtually everything under their roofs except teachers' salaries and major capital works.

But it's not compulsory. The consultation paper unveiled by Stephen Byers at the National Association of Head Teachers conference last month is also curiously tentative. Smaller schools that don't think they are up to it can choose the status quo, sticking with local education authority provision. And authorities will still - albeit much more "transparently" - apportion budgets to schools.

How many schools will opt for the new freedom? The Local Government Association is not prepared to guess, perhaps because if large numbers of schools choose to take their budgets, it knows the future is bleak: without schools, councils are left with not much more than drainpipes and town planning.

New Labour's suspicion of the authorities - in which Labour of course is so strong - shines through. The consultation paper cites Tony Blair's recent pamphlet alleging too much local authority spending is not subject to trial by the "four Cs" of comparison, competition, consultation or challenge.

No longer will councils be able to hold back money for administration that ought to be spent at the chalkface. The way to do that is to define precisely what the authorities must do and leave schools to spend the rest. And if heads and governors remain suspicious, they can call in external auditors to check. Whether a school might mount a legal challenge to the allocation by its maintaining authority is still an unknown.

Town halls will continue to be legally responsible for non-school education, school places and admissions, debt and physical accommodation and they will, doubtless, face the wrath of parents and inspectors if things go wrong (they remain responsible for school improvement). But their financial resources will be depleted. The Government does not, for example, intend to give them money to monitor what the schools spend. What remains with the town halls, (including special education needs and school buses) may not satisfy many councillors, and nor will being squeezed between heads and governors on the one side and teachers, who will remain employees of the council, on the other.

Come into the garden, the Government is saying to schools, where the prize bloom is greater autonomy. The new system of Individual Schools Budgets covers repairs, school meals (subject to minimum nutritional standards laid down by the centre), their own bank accounts and curriculum support.

Local authorities are responsible for "strategy", access (including planning school places), pupil referral units and assorted advisory services.

Without the goodwill of councils, schools will be able to call up district auditors to find out whether money has been unlawfully withheld at the town or county hall.

But will those same auditors come breathing down the necks of school managers asking what they have done with the interest on funds they carry over from year to year?

And will Eurocrats insist that schools considering tenders for rebuilding the school pool observe correct procedure? If the Department for Education, it isn't yet saying.

Size matters. It is reprehensible that schools with similar catchments differ in attainment (say ministers) but not that they differ in "administrative capability". To avoid disagreements between schools in any given local authority area about opting in and opting out of council services - how does a council provide a library service for a third of its schools? - the Government proposes an elaborate voting system which will be based strictly on majority rule.

"Fair funding" is an add-on to local management for schools and has a decidedly temporary feel to it. Why should grant-maintained schools have a direct relationship with the centre when local authority schools with similar financial arrangements continue under the wing of councils?

If heads and governors can manage their budgets, why shouldn't t hey make investment decisions or even raise loans using school buildings as collateral?

It is safe to say this is not the final resting point on the road to school self-management.

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