'Use council budget forums to fight cuts'

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Union head urges schools to defend themselves against cost-cutting by being more vocal

Schools should use council budget forums to defend education services during the credit crunch, according to the president of a school leaders' union.

Dr Chris Howard, head of Lewis School in Pengam, Caerphilly, and president of teaching union the NAHT, warned of tough financial decisions ahead, during the NAHT council meeting in Cardiff last week.

He told TES Cymru that the recent announcement by Ed Balls, the Westminster Government's Schools Secretary, that education spending may be cut by pound;2 billion would have huge implications for Wales.

"It will be disastrous if, as it seems will happen, school budgets are affected," said Dr Howard.

"Councils and schools in Wales are already under huge pressure and schools have told us they are seeing cuts of between 2 to 17 per cent in the first round of decisions."

Dr Howard said budget forums were are an essential mechanism for schools to discuss financial issues with their local authority.

"Councils will be considering whether they can afford the same amount of sixth-form or primary provision, and teachers must argue that these are a front-line service," he said.

"I fully support councils asking schools robust questions about how resources are used, but the more transparent the conversations are, the better. Forums are absolutely vital for this and must be seen by councils as a way to listen seriously to schools and make decisions."

He said that although budget forums originated in Wales, those in England tended to be more effective.

"Our best authorities ask schools what they want to use the forums for, but this varies from area to area," he said. "This is exactly the point where you need devolution - these decisions are best made by people who are going to be affected."

But Dr Howard said teachers in Wales generally developed strong local partnerships with families and other schools.

"What we do very well is build sustainable communities and I think one of the reasons is we are not looking down the road at another school's exam results," he said.

"We are more able to improve over time than in England, where the methodology is to go for quick-fix solutions such as superheads."

Dr Howard said the NAHT's UK-wide policies are becoming increasingly influenced by practice in Wales.

"We managed without Sats in Wales and the world hasn't fallen apart," he said. "Colleagues in England have been taken with this for a long time and are keen to hear my experiences. We have to argue from a position that builds on what we have done in Wales but isn't identical."

But Dr Howard condemned insular practices in both the Westminster and Assembly governments.

"Collaborative partnerships are great but have to be informed by practice from outside," he said. "It's worrying if you become too insular. We don't want to reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, we don't get involved in as many rushed and rash changes as in England."

Dr Howard said Welsh ministers have listened to criticisms about the School Effectiveness Framework and tri-level reform, which aim to foster collaboration between the Government, local authorities and schools.

"We had concerns 12 months ago, but much fewer now," he said. "It's evident there is a more senior push behind the policy."

NAHT Cymru is holding its annual conference today in the Vale of Glamorgan, with a theme of "achievement through enjoyment".

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