Pennies from Whitehall

20th February 2004 at 00:00
If schools got cash direct everything would be easy, right? If only it was so simple, says Jeremy Beecham.

Simple solutions are often illusory. The proposal to fund schools directly from Whitehall, currently being explored in Downing Street, is a case in point.

What could be more transparent? What could be simpler?

The problem is that the world is more complicated than that, and the challenges we face require sophisticated solutions.

Every Child Matters, the children's Green Paper, poses major challenges for local councils and their partners in health and the police. Central to a strategy to prevent future child tragedies must be closer collaboration between schools, councils and the other agencies.

The Government's focus on improving the performance of the education system for children aged 14 and over is crucially important. It is clear that the approach which emerges will be based around the needs of individual students rather than institutions. Schools and colleges will be called on to work more closely together to enable personalised curricula to be produced with individual students accessing courses at a number of institutions. Closer work with employers and voluntary-sector training providers will also be important.

Policy is increasingly focused on the needs of individuals. Delivery must follow, with major implications for institutional boundaries, funding regimes and lines of accountability.

The Strategic Audit, published by the Cabinet Office just before Christmas, paints a similar picture. It highlighted the long tail of educational underperformance in this country, with too few people learning post-16. It also underlined our apparent inability to break the link between class and and educational attainment.

It recommends cutting reception-class sizes in the most deprived areas. And it asks whether changes are needed in the balance of spending between higher and further education, schools and early years.

In a key section the audit questions whether "current institutional structures in schools and further education ... can achieve sufficiently rapid improvements in quality and diversity".

At the same time, as part of the Government's spending review, Sir Peter Gershon's efficiency review is examining how "back office" functions are provided in the public sector. It is inevitable that the review will look at administrative, financial and other support services in schools.

These ideas pose a key question which policy-makers must address. Has the tide of increased autonomy for individual education institutions reached its high water mark?

In the Local Government Association we are convinced that what are needed are sensitive policies at a local level capable of distinguishing between the needs of different communities, schools and colleges and different children and young people.

There are signs that the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, has reached a similar conclusion. In a recent speech he said: "I would argue strongly that reviewing education across an area needs to encompass not just individual schools but all those in the local system. Coherent leadership across whole areas is often called for. This requires leadership which might require stepping across cherished institutional autonomy."

If this argument is broadly correct the question that must now be addressed is how can we facilitate this necessarily more complex approach to planning, funding and delivering education, training and other services for children and young people at a local level.

What role could councils, with their crucially important local democratic accountability, have? How should they relate to clusters of schools and colleges in their areas? How should such clusters be funded and managed, to whom should they be accountable and what should the governance arrangements be? What role should local politicians play? Should part of the drive to develop councillors who are not cabinet members as genuine community representatives include an expectation that all councillors should be on the governing bodies of schools in or near their wards?

What does effective integration between schools and other local agencies look like? How will we know when we have got it? And how can we ensure that it is fit for purpose rather than simply a new layer of bureaucracy with its own compliance culture?

This is not a call for a return to old-style municipalised LEAs. But it is a call for a serious debate about the role that councils and others could play in meeting the challenges posed by the children's Green Paper, the post-14 curriculum and the strategic audit.

Against this background the fixation of some people at the heart of government on a national funding formula for schools or a national funding agency for schools is simply incomprehensible.

What is needed is a funding mechanism which encourages collaboration, integration and sensitive prioritisation at a local level. Not one which ossifies outdated institutional autonomy.

Sir Jeremy Beecham is the chair of the Local Government Association

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