Show me the money

6th April 2001 at 01:00
It is with a real sense of despair that I listen to the continuing futile debate about this year's Computers for Teachers arrangements. Yet again, we have ended up debating the merits of this handout, rather than addressing the root issue. We should be able to equip all our teachers with computers which are fully funded by schools, not only because personal access is the best way to develop competence but mainly because they need them to be do their jobs properly. We also need to ensure students have access to enough resources which maintain pace with technological development. To do that, schools would have to be able to commit to consistent, well-planned expenditure from year to year, rather than depending on windfalls and aberrant National Grid for Learning (NGFL) grant funding.

Sadly, most headteachers find this impossible because their delegated budgets simply cannot meet the demands. But this is in the context of unprecedented levels of additional government funding, with considerable pressure on local education authorities to "passport" the increases, and extensive ring-fencing through the Standards Fund. How then is it that many schools cannot afford to invest in ICT?

The problem lies with the funding lottery in which local governments vary wildly in their commitment to funding education. Government may supply the goods to local authorities in the General Schools Budget according to the (however flawed) Standard Spending Assessment (SSA), but there is no guarantee that this reaches even the education budget, let alone the schools themselves. Local authorities have the freedom to re-allocate education funds to other services and there is no means for government to affect these decisions other than indicating disapproval, which has precious little effect. For example, my own local authority sees the SSA a "irrelevant" and has short-changed the 14 schools of the secondary sector by over pound;3 million a year for the last six years. In the case of my own school, that's a loss of pound;1.8 million, which would have made an enormous difference to the learning environment of the community I serve. Is it any wonder we all end up in a grant dependency culture when funding legitimately designated for education can so readily disappear somewhere else?

This is not an isolated example, simply one I can attest to. The national "league tables" of delegation by LEAs conceal a simpler truth - you can delegate as little of the intended sum as you like and still look OK in the tables. (If only manipulation of data in our own schools' performance tables was as simple.) Government is certainly aware of this issue. Why the level of ring-fencing in the Standards Fund and the recent direct grant to schools if not to try and limit the re-direction of funds by some LEAs?

You can look around the country and see evidence of what outstanding local authorities can do when there is the political will to invest in education combined with the vision to see where ICT can take communities. In those areas, I would be willing to bet that there are very few debates about the Computers for Teachers scheme and quite a lot more about how learning happens.

Meantime, it is enormously frustrating to realise that the only way for many of us to deal with the funding issue is to continue to beg, bid, borrow and hopefully avoid stealing! Maybe the months to come will see the Government tackle this thorny issue again and focus less on a national funding scheme and more on making sure certain LEAs really do deliver the goods they have already been given.

Marian Brooks is headteacher of Cranford Community College in the London Borough of Hounslow

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