Show us the money to extend schools

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Heads need answers from ministers if quality is to be more important than quantity, writes John Dunford

The school curriculum is more than the weekly timetable. It is the whole school experience - geography, art, mathematics, science and all the other school subjects, but also the drama production, the football team, work experience and all other activities that contribute to the development of knowledge and skills. It is often through this wider curriculum that a school demonstrates its essential values.

So, the concept of a school with an extended range of activities is familiar enough. In recent years there has been a considerable growth in the number of breakfast clubs, study centres and other activities that come under the heading of extended school provision.

But it is a considerable step from this to the Government's concept of all children accessing a core offer of extended services from 8am to 6pm every day of the year. This defines the policy in quantity terms, when schools are judged on quality of provision. Not least for this reason, schools will want to continue to put quality before quantity.

For primary-age children the focus is on childcare, either in their own school or elsewhere with supervised transport.

From 11 to 14-year-olds, the focus is on the schools, with every secondary providing access to a range of activities by 2010 and one-third of secondaries doing so by 2008.

It appears, then, that the Government's aim in extending schools is primarily to provide childcare up to 11 and wider education provision for older children.

In fact, the agenda encompasses both childcare and extended education at all stages, with encouragement to primaries to use the childcare time for education and with an obligation on secondaries to register and supervise those engaged in extended school activities. The answer to the question often being asked by school leaders as to whether the Government's extended schools agenda is childcare or education is that it is both, which has major implications for the way in which the scheme is funded.

While pound;680 million sounds a lot of money, even for a high government priority, this needs to be broken down carefully to see how much will actually go into school budgets. The money is over two financial years, 20067 and 20078, and pound;430m goes to local authorities to plan extended services strategically. Some of this will be released to some schools, but the only funding targeted directly to schools is pound;100m in 20067 and pound;150m in the following year. This has become confused with the larger sums given to schools in the 2006 budget for personalised learning. The Government states disingenuously that "local authorities may therefore wish to discuss with schools the contributions that schools might make from their own school budgets". Heads may not be so keen to have such a discussion.

Heads have long encouraged the Government to simplify funding and reduce the number of funding streams, so they do not want a separate pot at school level for extended activities. However, they do want more clarity at national level about how much extra funding is to be available. Heads cannot afford to divert money from raising achievement into extended schools activities.

Inevitably the issue of charging re-appears and complexity grows. Parents who can afford it can be charged for childcare and for some extended activities, but not if they are part of the national curriculum or an examination subject. Schools may charge for sport, drama and music, which have traditionally been provided through the goodwill of teachers. There is an obvious difficulty in providing both chargeable and free activities, with some activity leaders being paid and some not. This has led to fears that teachers will no longer give of their time freely.

Parents on working family tax credit can reclaim the cost of childcare, but unemployed parents cannot. The Government says that this leaves schools to pick up the cost for the children of the unwaged. This difference presumably rests on the assumption that unemployed parents do not need childcare.

Extension raises different issues in urban and rural schools, where transport arrangements are a complicating factor.

Extended schools are also intended to make a contribution to the five outcomes of Every Child Matters - be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being. This has the potential to create tension between the standards agenda and the extended schools agenda. Only if the extended schools agenda and the Every Child Matters priorities are designed in a way that supports the standards agenda, nationally and at individual school level, will this tension become creative instead of counter-productive.

Extended schools provide a great opportunity to extend provision beyond what has traditionally been regarded as the school curriculum. Many schools are already well down this road and plenty of others are willing to explore possibilities, but quality is more important than quantity, funding must be both clear and adequate, charging policies must be carefully thought out and school leaders must not take their eye off the standards agenda.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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