Party prejudice flies home to roost;Opinion

15th October 1999 at 01:00
EDUCATION . . . education . . . education . . . who could have prophesied that, despite alleged extra millions for English schools, the Government's scholastic chickens would so early and so embarrassingly flutter limply home to roost?

Or that the fault lines of muddled and ideologically driven policies should so quickly and clearly illustrate to a bemused public the potential disaster of interfering with something which is very far from broke: the financial independence of those English schools that had previously chosen to become directly funded?

It is just one month since England's former grant-maintained establishments were returned to the miasmic financial embrace of the Torquays, the Wokings, the High Wycombes and the Baths of this world. One short month to point up an embarrassing misjudgment which is as potentially dismaying to parents as it is discomfiting to the Government.

The root of the problem is clear enough. The funding gap identified by more than 100 top-ranking English schools has arisen because the Government has diverted funds away from them and back into the pockets of councils.

Circular funding can never be as efficient as direct funding - a self-evident fact which transcends political point-

scoring and enters, dare I suggest, the clear realms of common sense. The previous Government may have not put enough effort into "selling" this reform, but the direct grant concept needs no political spin now.

The sums involved are not small. Local education authorities are taking on average between 17 and 20 per cent of the income formerly passed direct to these schools. As one head put it: "We have lost pound;240,000 to the LEA and what we have got back is maternity cover and a lollipop man." Another complains of a shortfall of pound;300,000 on a budget of pound;3 million.

The headteacher of the London school attended by the Blair boys has spelt out the cost to pupils of implementing this election pledge. The resources now disappearing tracelessly into the maw of the local authority constitute a direct threat to standards built up in these schools: retaining and recruiting the best staff, the proper care of buildings, meeting the needs of the curriculum.

Hammersmith and Fulham offers a breakdown for its new expenditure of moneys diverted from the chalkface. It reads as follows: pound;81 per pupil for "central administration"; pound;28 for "strategic management"; pound;38 for "school improvements"; and pound;84 for "non-devolved specific tasks".

These four headings add up to pound;231 per pupil. For a school with a roll of more than 1,300, a huge budget slash.

Last week we read of shiny new plans being hatched in Midlothian to address the educational, social and economic evils of sectarian segregation in our schools. Two secondary schools, one Roman Catholic and the other non-

denominational, are to be replaced with a brand-new clover-shaped building offering shared overheads.

Believe it or not, however, education is still to be separately delivered below S5-S6 - you in your small clover leaf and I in mine.

But what jumped out at me from this story was the virtuous and economy-minded resolve of the council to abolish the half-empty "Catholic" bus and the third-full "ND" equivalent calling together in the same outlying villages.

Religion is henceforward to be axed from school transport, and we'll all go home together. About time too.

Perhaps the Scottish Executive's working group on local government will finger a few more such reforms. As to Holyrood, if it really wants to put money in front of children, it could do worse than study the saga of the grant-maintained schools, and ponder the moral.

Direct funding for all?

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