Now there's no hiding place for ministers

17th February 1995 at 00:00
The Tories can no longer shelter behind LEA 'incompetence', says Biddy Passmore.

The Government should have remembered that a buffer is always useful to deaden impact.

Local education authorities may have been thought maddening, incompetent, wasteful, politically extreme and a general thorn in the flesh of a government trying to push through educational reform, but they are useful, especially when money is tight. By emasculating them and pushing power out to the level of individual schools, the Government has lost much of the protection they afforded.

Now that 85 per cent of a council's schools budget has to be shunted straight out to schools, it is heads and governors who are having to make the tough decisions. And when they find the money will not stretch far enough, they do not blame the local authority, they blame the Government.

Governors, however, are in the happy position of being able to complain about lack of money without any responsibility for having to raise it.

As Simon Goodenough, who chairs the National Governors' Council, commented last week: "I've heard I'm beginning to be unpopular."

Unlike local authorities, parents and governors are likely to have the resources of middle England - the Daily Mail and Daily Express - on their side. It would be only human if the local authorities were content to sit back and watch the protests being made for them.

Is this fair? Are some LEAs even using parents and governors to stir up alarm about cuts and redundancies when they could have managed their resources more prudently?

Certainly education ministers and some Tory MPs are still trying to shelter behind councils' incompetence. Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, told MPs last week that, under the provisional capping regime, all local authorities would be able to increase their cash spending next year. "What they may not be able to do," she added, "is to meet all their spending aspirations."

LEAs could cut their costs because they were still spending millions on running their central bureaucracies and on surplus places in schools, she said. She quoted Audit Commission estimates that councils could save Pounds 500 million on the pay bill for their administrative and clerical staff and Pounds 250 million a year by removing surplus places.

This line did not seem to square with the message of her leaked letter to Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in which she said failure to fund the teachers' pay settlement would lead to the loss of up to 10,000 teachers' jobs - the very same Mr Aitken who is said to have supported her in Cabinet last week. But her minister of state, Eric Forth, smoothed over the awkwardness by hinting that spending ministers would say anything to extract more money from the Treasury.

Against the official Conservative line that a lot of fuss is being made about nothing should be set the real strait-jacket in which local authorities now find themselves.

As Bill Olner, Labour MP for Nuneaton, said in the Commons recently: "When councils can make no sense of the standard spending assessments (the amount the Government reckons they need to spend to provide a standard level of service), cannot secure additional funds from the Revenue Support Grant or a lifting of the cap and cannot even ask their council taxpayers to contribute an extra 25p a week, it is really a triple whammy."

What does Simon Goodenough think? Are LEAs dealing fairly with their schools in passing on such large cuts?

"We are not in a position to judge who is telling the truth, the local education authority or the Government," he says. "We can ask local authorities questions about the budget and some governors' associations have pushed LEAs quite hard. But ultimately that's the job of the Audit Commission."

Successive reports by the School Teachers' Review Body have criticised the "funding fog" which surrounds the flow of funds to schools. But whatever fog may envelop the movement of money between centre and periphery, between allocation and distribution, the picture to schools and governors is clear enough: there is a shortfall.

And as long as governors are faced with last-minute cuts and an inability to undertake any long-term planning, they will do more of what they are already criticised for doing: squirrelling away reserves to meet future shortfalls.

Local management of schools has brought many governors up against the harsh facts of public service provision for the first time. They are learning the hard way the true cost of running a public service and the appalling trade-offs that have to be made. Should it be an extra teacher or more books? A new computer or a lick of paint?

There is never enough to go round. But delaying new equipment or redecoration is quite different from cutting what you already have, especially staff. As Mr Goodenough said in an uncharacteristically graphic remark: "It is not our job to wield bloody axes."

No wonder they are threatening mass resignations and illegal budgets. And no wonder that Tory back-benchers are opening their bulging post-bags with growing concern.

This year, so far, the Prime Minister and Chancellor have turned down their Education Secretary's pleas for more funds to finance the teachers' pay award. Schools in harshly treated local authorities, especially those with experienced and thus expensive staff, will find they really do have to shed staff.

The resulting furore, while of course damaging in the short run, could do education lasting good. As the General Election draws closer, ministers will be increasingly reluctant to shoulder the blame for obvious damage to a sector that is of such direct interest to voters.

As Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics, says: "I suspect the Treasury must be chewing the carpet about this. It will be very useful to Mrs Shephard. This row can be seen as the opening shot in next year's public spending round. The Department for Education starts in a good position."

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