Make sure you flex your forum muscles

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Have your say on school spending, says Stephen Adamson

VERY recently an organisation came into being near you that should have an important impact on your school funds. Yet the chances are that you know very little about it.

While this Government might get becalmed in morasses of indecision over minor issues like House of Lords reform, it can certainly be fleet of foot when it comes to the really important things. So schools forums only became law last summer term, but every local education authority had to have one in place by January 15. Commendable speed, but such rapid conception, gestation and delivery means that many governors have only a hazy idea of their powers.

The powers of schools forums are only advisory, but are nevertheless significant. LEAs have to consult them on a range of issues relating to school finance, and, while they are not obliged to accept any of their recommendations, if they ignore them with no good reason they could be accused of acting unreasonably. These issues are mainly connected with what goes into the school budget and how that money is then directed.

The current buzzword being flexibility, central government is ring-fencing less and less money to leave more decision-making to local authorities. A total of pound;500 million from specific grants is being transferred into local hands in each of 2003-04 and 2004-05, with a further pound;840m in 2005-06. Funds that you might have relied on coming automatically into your school are now subject to decisions made at LEA level, after consultation with the schools forum.

More money is going into schools overall. You may then assume that your budget will automatically swell comfortably. But it is not that simple.

LEAs are asked to look at their priorities and then target funds accordingly. After taking the views of the forum, your LEA may decide, for example, that levels of literacy and numeracy across its secondary schools are unacceptably low and that it therefore needs to direct funds into key stage 3. More money will then flow to its secondary schools, but primary school governors would find that the largesse they expected did not materialise.

The good news for governors is that they are invited to have a say in these decisions. Forums are to be made up mainly of governors and heads, with up to one fifth of their members from other bodies, such as the LEA itself.

Beyond these provisions, however, flexibility rules. The key issues about constitution are at the discretion of the LEA - the size of the forum, the balance of heads and governors, the method of election of members, the frequency and timing of meetings, the way the business is conducted. Only a few principles have been laid down - members must, in the perilously vague words of the guidance issued to LEAs, be "in some sense elected", the forum must meet at least once before March 31 and then at least three times annually, and that primary, secondary and, if relevant, special schools must all be represented in its membership.

So it is possible that as a governor you already sit on a forum, in which case you are probably wondering how you are meant to communicate with the people you represent. You may also have taken part in some sense in an election for your forum representatives, in which case you are probably wondering how it is that you can ensure that your views are heard.

Certainly, unlike parent governor representatives on local council scrutiny committees, mechanisms for consultation and communication have not been recommended by the Department for Education and Skills - presumably local governor associations could advise their forum members.

Finally, LEAs have the power to pay compensation for loss of earnings to governors on their forum. It is a great step forward, and deserves celebration, that governors who take on daytime responsibilities beyond their governing body duties do not lose out financially. If you are on a forum, make sure your LEA agrees to pay - maybe then governors who are asked to sit on other bodies might receive a similar dispensation.

Stephen Adamson is vice-chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers

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