Value for money but still cut to the bone

16th June 1995 at 01:00
The Office for Standards in Education can, in a curious way, be blamed for the plight of the suspended governors at Whitchurch C of E junior school in Shropshire.

The inspectors' report last autumn said what "good value for money" the school management was providing: solid evidence for a group of enraged governors that a budget cut of Pounds 50,000 and 1.5 staff was wholly unreasonable.

Refusing to implement this and having their powers to manage the school removed as a result - along with six other governing bodies in the county - the Whitchurch 17 have been national news.

But they have been able to do little, faced with an implacable Government. Their financial powers have simply been given to the local education authority.

Both school and county received a further blow this week when the Government squashed a last-ditch attempt to raise extra cash through the council tax. So the staff, governors, and 400 pupils behind the mullioned windows of the former girls' high school must take the poison this year, and steel themselves for worse to follow.

Out among the fields, three miles from the Welsh border, Whitchurch is an unlikely centre of revolt, as headteacher David Gillespie acknowledges. "I can tell you it does take quite a bit in Shropshire to get people fired up. But by God they're fired up at the moment."

His financial problems are threefold. The first is the temporary drop in pupil numbers - and income - caused by this year's smaller intake. This had already caused the governors to raid reserves and make savings to a total of Pounds 30 000.

Then there is the teachers' pay rise of 2.7 per cent, only partially Government-funded. But most serious, he says, are the general cuts to local government which have seen Shropshire lose up to 4 per cent of its education money.

"There's no animosity between Shire Hall and the governors," says Mr Gillespie. "It's not the teachers' salary rise causing the problems. Not at all. It's the cuts in Standard Spending Assessment."

The school is fortunate that the immediate effects can be absorbed without acrimony. Early retirement for one teacher and a reduced workload for another, the mother of a new baby, were both welcomed.

But the effects are serious all the same. Class sizes will rise from an average of 31 to more than 32 - some much larger than that. The head will take over a full-time teaching load - effectively cutting out the coordination work needed to follow up OFSTED's recommendations, not to mention the heavy administrative load.

Worst of all, says Mr Gillespie, is the likely collapse of school music because it can no longer employ its regular specialist: "We've had to take all the music out - which is like our back teeth coming out. There's a reasonable tradition here being so close to the Welsh border. We have got a school orchestra going, guitar groups, a choir. We have managed to retain it at the moment. But it's going, of that there is no doubt."

Last year, the school had Pounds 488,000. This year, that fell to Pounds 435,000 and appears likely to drop still further in the years ahead. Shropshire's projections are for cumulative education cuts of 8 per cent next year and around 11 the following year. The average class size is set to reach 35 in September 1997.

"If the same thing happens next year, it will be hell on wheels," says Mr Gillespie. "We have already reduced as much as we can. I'm sure that what the governors at Whitchurch have done this year, other schools will do in 1996. There will be a national revolt."

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