Tired by too many ball games

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Dorset governors are rebelling, fed up by local and national government blaming each other for budget cuts, says Susannah Kirkman. What is driving governors in sleepy, conservative Dorset to rebellion? Growing frustration at being caught between local authority and Government battle lines is one reason. Each side blames the other for the woeful shortfall in education funding, and we are expected to work out which side to believe and what action to take. Why should we need to have a degree in local government finance just to ensure that our schools are properly funded?

Nowhere is the political in-fighting more apparent than in Dorset. The Liberal Democrat county council says it cannot finance any of the teachers' pay-rise, blaming lack of government funding, so Dorset's Conservative MPs accuse them of mismanaging the education budget. As usual, the governors are caught in the middle.

We are also infuriated by the complacency and ignorance displayed by local MPs and Government ministers. There is no point in telling us that there is Pounds 7 million lying unspent in Dorset school budgets if the schools with deficits are not allowed to get their hands on it.

Governors - and parents - were appalled to hear Gillian Shephard on The World at One recently, laughing to scorn the idea that teachers were facing difficulties, either redundancy or soaring class sizes. We all know classes where even experienced teachers are already struggling to cope with classes of 30-plus four or five-year-olds, often including children with behavioural or learning difficulties.

Incidentally, we are tired of hearing ministers claim that class size has no effect on learning, when we can see that large classes are jeopardising the future of our own children. Many politicians seem to be living on another planet.

The present publicity has revealed an alarming level of ignorance among the public, too. "I thought you could save money from your electricity bills, " said one parent, who is generally well-informed. "I didn't realise how bad things were."

Another spur to action has been the local authority's reluctance to re-examine the LMS funding formula, although it is obviously flawed; while some schools have huge deficits, others are hoarding a third of their budgets. Several Dorset schools actually went into LMS with a deficit because the formula does not take enough account of factors like rising rolls or experienced, expensive teachers.

The failure to fund the teachers' pay rise has been catastrophic for these schools. We are living in a nightmarish, Alice Through the Looking-Glass world where schools are penalised for having a wealth of teaching experience. Yet neither central nor local government is adequately monitoring the situation.

We also fear that, after struggling to protect schools from the direct effects of education cuts for some years, the county council has finally given up. Dorset is likely to be abolished and replaced by four unitary authorities in 1997, and now seems content to sit back and wait for the new authorities to unravel the funding tangle. The problem is, the putative unitary authorities have let it be known that they won't make any changes until 1999. By then, many schools will have accumulated deficits running into hundreds of thousands of pounds or class sizes in the 40s and, once again, governors are caught in the middle.

But the main impetus behind our campaign comes from the damage we can see inflicted on our own schools by the latest cuts. The school where I am a governor has painstakingly developed an imaginative early years' curriculum, a model in the county. The head has spent the past five years building up a team of excellent teachers and classroom assistants. Year by year, class sizes for the four to eight year-old pupils have been reduced from the mid-30s to 30 or below. All these hard-won improvements are now at risk from the staffing cuts we will now have to make.

By campaigning for better funding, we hope to draw attention to the unacceptable conditions schools are facing. We want education funding reviewed, including the standard spending assessments and the other intricacies of local government finance. We want an LMS formula which works fairly for all schools. We no longer want to to be in charge of budgets where we only have control over expenditure, not income, and our much-vaunted "power" can only be exercised by making teachers redundant.

Above all, instead of viewing high-quality education as an unnecessary extravagance, we want the Government to recognise it as a vital national asset.

Susannah Kirkman is a parent-governor at a Dorset First School and a member of REF, Review Education Funding, the Dorset governors' action group.

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