Will they sell off the family silver?;Briefing;Governors

4th December 1998 at 00:00
What will Fair Funding mean for local inspection and advisory services? Laurence Pollock investigates

Delegated funding by local authorities has been a bigger revolution than grant-maintained status. Under the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, draft regulations on "Fair Funding" are set to move the system ever closer to the inevitable 100 per cent delegation, governors' minds will be turning to future roof-repair bills. But other, trickier decisions could lie in store, such as spending on inspection and advisory services (IAS). And there might be a question mark over whether local authorities will have any family silver left to hand out when the last will and testament is read.

The shape of things to come can be glimpsed in Hackney, east London, according to one chair of governors. Its inspection and advisory service is being financially capped and reduced and, though not driven by Fair Funding, local proposals are "in line" with it, says the local authority.

But for Richard Thompson, chair of Kingsland secondary school, the consultation paper on Hackney's plans posed some hard choices.

"The paper is set out in terms of monitoring, supporting and challenging schools, link advisers making termly visits and so on. But it is a new level of service tailored to meet a financial imperative. The consultation paper talked of additional school requirements being purchased from the IAS but there is no sign of any extra cash.

"In effect they are cutting it all now so there will be nothing left to delegate. Could the money just vanish?" October's report to Hackney's education and leisure committee outlined the need to make pound;300,000 in savings "to meet the defined cash limit" within the service's devolved budget. IAS administration was set at pound;545,000.

Posts deleted to make the savings included general advisers in mathematics, science and technology, music, PE, religious education and foreign languages. The plan was for immediate implementation.

When the fruits of the consultation were fed back, local governors were described as recognising the need for restructuring but having "voiced some doubts as to the capacity of such a small team to support and challenge schools in the way envisaged by central government".

However, the local authority believes that the new staffing levels ensure that statutory duties on monitoring and support and the fulfilment of the education development plan are not compromised.

A Hackney spokesperson said: "Schools already have generous budgets which give them power to buy in education advice services."

There is widespread tension over future models, says John Bibby, a freelance English curriculum adviser and registered inspector.

"Some LEAs seek IAS work outside their borders to maintain some kind of reasonable size but their own schools complain that they never see them. Some have reduced their core staff, who have been stretched all over the place.

"That tension is bound to increase and there will be less straw to make bricks. One colleague who is an English adviser has recently had to take on physical education. I am sure he is doing his best but he doesn't have the expertise and professional credibility."

Mr Bibby is particularly worried about rural LEAs where travel eats up time and money.

For Ros Levacic, reader in education policy and management at the Open University, the concern is primary schools. And she believes both heads and governors will feel the effects.

"On a secondary-school budget you might have enough cash for a few days of advice but with a small school there's hardly enough for a few hours.

"We are currently working on research on the enormous burden of financial management on headteachers. In a primary school the head will have a full-time teaching deputy head and a secretary instead of a bursar. There is no one to share the burden.

"But it will also be difficult for the governors - who will not have a clue. They do not have sufficient knowledge of what is needed."

So is Hackney and perhaps other LEAs - or the DFEE - pulling a fast one? The Hackney spokesperson says: "The review of the inspection and advisory service has been designed to create a modern service, geared up to monitor and raise standards in the way that the Government expects, for the ultimate benefit of Hackney children and schools. The re-focused service will provide a level of support to schools, in line with the duties placed on the local education authority to sustain improvements and high standards."

In September schools minister Estelle Morris announced an "extra billion" with new proposals for delegation. "These changes meet our commitment to fairer funding and greater delegation while ensuring that LEAs have the resources to concentrate on providing efficiently those services which schools need," she said.

But Ros Levacic is sceptical: "The Government has gone down this road to establish a common playing field between former-GM and non-GM schools without changing the GM funding. They also see it as a way of telling schools they have more money."

Advisory services might seem a less "sexy" use of funds than getting the roof done. But in the long term they could be crucial.

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