Two sides of council funding coin

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Tower Hamlets was picked out in CFBT's report for spending more than Pounds 1,400 per pupil centrally, writes Nicolas Barnard. Government figures say that the east London council spends 33 per cent of its schools budget centrally.

Officially, the council argues that does not tell the whole story. But behind the scenes, work by consultants is under way to untangle some of Tower Hamlets' finances.

Officers say that by law responsibility for capital spending cannot be delegated to schools. Tower Hamlets has carried out a massive building programme since the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority seven years ago, opening 10 schools and substantially refurbishing others.

Its high ethnic-minority population means it receives one of England's largest grants for teaching English as a second language - money spent on teachers in schools but which cannot be delegated and is accounted as central spending.

With two out of three pupils eligible for free dinners, it has also retained the school meals service - officers say there has been no pressure from schools to delegate it.

Those three factors alone amount to close on Pounds 20 million a year. The authority says it is happy to delegate more if schools wish, and consultations are held annually, but there has been no pressure to do so.

Meanwhile, the well-heeled west London suburb of Richmond-upon-Thames spent only 17.8 per cent of its education budget centrally this year - although it sets aside more for "service, strategy and regulation" than many other authorities (Pounds 46 per pupil in 199596). It undoubtedly benefits from the affluence of its inhabitants. Richmond has delegated its school meals service and school milk.

Paul Bettles, finance officer for the education department, said that made a huge difference to the figures, but there was a general principle to delegate as much as possible. That was not universally welcomed, particularly among smaller schools which received comparatively small amounts for things like maintenance, he admits.

Richmond provides support services such as teacher recruitment and governor training on a commercial basis - the money is delegated to schools which can buy them back from the council on a rolling contract or go elsewhere. But Mr Bettles admitted it left the authority vulnerable - "You're in the market-place.

"Even if you're providing a service schools value, what is a school going to look at when it has budget pressures: teachers posts or governor support?"

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