Minister in virtual funds admission

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Government accepts it should have listened to governors more over schools cash crisis, Emily Clark reports

THE school standards minister may have regretted agreeing to answer questions at the National Governors' Council's May meeting. The subject of funding was agreed many months ago. But circumstances conspired to make it ultra-topical.

Minister David Miliband and a top civil servant were forced to admit they should have listened more to governors as the crisis unfolded.

Many schools have found themselves short of cash, despite increases in government spending, because of rises in national insurance, pay and pension costs combined with the introduction of a new way of distributing education cash.

Stephen Crowne, head of resources, infrastructure and governance at the Department for Education and Skills, told the NGC council meeting in Manchester that the "critical" role governors play in schools had been underestimated.

"The system depends critically on your contributions and I want to talk about the strategic role you play and how to take it forward. One lesson from this year must be about how to include your role more," he said.

In an analysis of the new funding formula, he asked delegates to remain optimistic about its long-term benefits, saying that more clarity and predictability would prevent a repeat of this year's crisis. "We must be very clear about how to learn from our experiences. It is critical we get an early idea of what the picture for funding is like next year," said Mr Crowne.

But governors accused David Miliband of shifting the blame when, speaking by audio-link from the safety of his constituency office, he said delegating funds had been a "real challenge" for some education authorities. Other representatives from struggling local education authorities, such as Leicestershire and Camden, felt the minister had dodged the central issue of under-investment.

Neil Davies, NGC chairman, said: "The new funding arrangements still result in winners and losers and do not address the fundamental problem - that there is not enough money in this year's settlement to meet the needs of schools. We want a real solution to this year's position and a guarantee of adequate funding in future years."

NGC delegates discussed strategies for next year, and proposed improved communication at all levels, greater responsibility for bursars in individual schools and a simpler explanation of how money should be allocated.

Central to this were plans to improve school forums by running a national survey on how they function and sharing good practice.

Percy Murcombe Chivero, from Croydon, insisted: "We are here and we must be recognised. It seems the Government has a divide-and-rule policy, taking one thing to headteachers and different information to governors. Anything that happens should be directed to both."

Mr Crowne agreed that raising the profile of governors and restoring their confidence in the system was integral to future success.

He added: "Governors must take responsibility for the strategic direction of schools. It is a partnership but it does not mean it has to be comfortable and easy. I do not want to obligate LEAs but it is best practice to be open about all information."

Mr Miliband sympathised with complaints that progress reports from the Office for Standards in Education are sent confidentially to headteachers.

He said: "One key function of governors is to provide support - I would like to see heads and governors working together to monitor progress.

Governors do have a critical role in the changes, improvement and running of the school system."

Briefing, 33

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