Value judgments

12th May 1995 at 01:00
I am a teacher, not an accountant." How many heads and deputies grappling with the ghastly realities of the school budget or the eternal gap between ends and means have grumbled along those lines? In the days when city or county hall made the spending choices, dissenting teachers would similarly scoff about decisions made "for that best of all educational reasons, because its cheaper". The standard complaint about cynical bureaucrats was that they knew "the price of everything and the value of nothing".

Now it is left to schools to decide what to buy, not because their financial acumen allows them to get a better price but because they are best placed to decide questions of value. Financial decisions are now devolved to heads and governors because, on the whole, they know their school, their staff and the needs of their pupils better than anyone outside the school. Furthermore, they are the ones defining what it is the school wants to achieve. So they ought to be the ones best able to make the most effective use of whatever funds are available in relation to those aims.

It is for this reason that this term's School Management Update concentrates on various money matters. Like it or not, making the most of the school's budget is a professional and educational issue because greater efficiency and effectiveness depend not just on reducing costs but also on maximising the educational value obtained from what is spent. How that is best done - and the judgment of when that is being achieved - requires the exercise of pedagogy, not accountancy.

Of course, you don't need a PGCE or even a course in educational management to find a cheaper source of gas. Astute housekeeping services of that kind can and should be left to non-teaching staff or bought in. But a school manager who is totting up the cost of teaching staff without also considering whether more but cheaper staff or fewer Indians and more chiefs would not raise pupil achievement is acting as an overpaid clerk.

W hen the inescapable costs of teachers' pay are shamefully underfunded, school managers can be forgiven for wondering if they really welcome their new financial responsibilities. Not many relish sacking colleagues to make the budget balance.

That may not be a very palatable prospect; it may well not be what heads and governors thought they had signed up for. But they should bear in mind that between them they are meant to be there to determine the educational objectives of the school; what it is that the school stands for, what is best for its pupils and what is the most effective way of using such resources as there are to achieve those ends.

For reasons of conscience, sympathy with those made redundant or political pique they may decline to contemplate harsh decisions. But for the professional and governor alike, the dilemma is whether such a stance is really in the best interests of pupils or the school, especially if the result is likely to be that someone else will have to do it - possibly someone less well equipped or inclined to minimise the damage. Certainly, setting a deficit budget is tantamount to resignation on the part of the governors. It is bound to result in a local authority removing the governing body's powers and leaving the head and staff to carry the burden alone. Is that putting the best interests of pupils first, or self-indulgent posturing?

Simply carrying through with ruthless efficiency the inevitable consequences of Government funding decisions designed to increase class sizes lays out a welcome carpet for yet more cuts. That is hardly in the interests of children either. But throwing in the towel is not so much protesting as giving up.

Not the least of the financial worries governors and managers face is how they can afford to give effect to the new code of practice on special needs. On page 9 Peter Bibby proposes one way of disposing of some of the funding fog surrounding this.

He has derived a hard-edged financial threshold at which, he argues, an authority becomes responsible under the 1993 Act for issuing a statement and ensuring the needs spelt out in it are met. If the independent special needs tribunals accept submissions based on his analysis, local authorities will be forced to adopt it or something like it.

Individual schools and governing bodies would be well advised to consider the implications of Peter Bibby's work for their own special needs policies. Governors might well compute their own statement threshold - the limit on spending on a child's special needs beyond which they would not regard it reasonable for the school to go. Bibby's research also reveals the dramatic variations between local authorities on what they allocate to special needs in schools. This too may have implications for the amounts schools in different authorities decide they can afford to spend on children at each of the stages outlined in the code of practice.

One result of all this is likely to be more money specifically allocated by local authorities for special needs, albeit at the expense of the general funding for schools, to reduce the demand for statements.

How schools choose to use money for non-statemented special needs is up to them. They could provide extra help for a few children or smaller classes for everyone. But under the new code of practice they will be required to explain to parents every year how much they received and how they spent it. Peter Bibby argues that it is wrong for schools to take from general funds to support special needs; parents who want extra help for their children will not be keen to see funding for it spread among all children. To help them decide how to spend this money, who should the governors send for, an accountant or a teacher?

Bob Doe

Editor, School Management Update

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