Willie and the worms

14th July 2000 at 01:00
When Les Turner began questioning our system of school funding, he opened a Pandora's Box of problems. William Hague's plan to sideline local authorities is not going to solve any of them, he says.

HELP! I am trying to get the lid back on a can of worms - and it won't go back.

What makes it worse is that I helped to take the lid off in the first place. I really must try harder not to interfere - although it must be a basic requirement for a headteacher.

The problem is how schools are funded. I have been a head for 10 years and the word that comes to mind to describe the funding situation in that decade is "UNCERTAINTY".

The funding formula may have stayed the same but the money arriving in our budgets has always varied greatly from year to year.

Conservative governments blamed Labour local authorities. Local authorities blamed central government. Schools were left to decide who was to blame and how to manage the financial, educational and personnel problems that ensued.

I once sat down with a variety of politicians who tried unsuccessfully to explain the funding of schools.

It didn't make sense to me then and I'm not sure that it made sense to anyone.

I wrote a number of articles for various publications and the message was always the same: sort out the funding mess facing schools.

We were baffled by the complexities of the situation that gave neighbouring authorities differing amounts of money per child and allowed some authorities to spend less on education than they should.

Headteachers all over the country met county councillors, MPs, prospective MPs and ministers. We argued the case for more transparency in funding and a system that could be understood.

We didn't know who was to blame but we were tired of schools being used as political footballs.

After the last general election it was obvious that the message had got home.

The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education both strongly committed themselves to improving standards and stated that a major plank in their strategy was giving schools the financial tools to do the job.

But now I am having second thoughts. The projected move to a common funding formula causes me great anxieties. I am worried that when we move to a new funding formula those schools in efficient, generous and well-run authorities will pay the price.

My authority has just been through it first Office for Standards in Education inspection.

The report congratulated the authority for its work with schools. It put more money into education and delegates more to schools than ministers in London expect.

In the past few years, we have been consulted by the LEA on a number of occasions on changes to financial management. Heads haven't always agreed with the proposals but local dialogue and consultations have allowed all voices to be heard.

I do not want to try to have the same meaningful discussions with a civil servant in London or the Home Counties. It would not be practical or possible.

I want to be able to speak face to face with the politicians and officers making the budget decisions. I want the budget-makers to be accountable to me and my school community.

The commitment from Opposition leader William Hague to abolish LEAs altogether goes well beyond my concerns about a common funding formula.

Where will I get my legal advice, my health and safety back-up, my payroll arrangements, my special needs support, my admissions appeal support, my transport and so on? I don't want extra money if I and my governing body have to spend time and effort doing the arranging.

The Conservatives introduced local management of schools and I thank them for that. It will be seen in the fullness of time as one of the most fundamental improvements ever in our educational system.

I want a local structure in place that will support my work and the work of schools around me.

I am sorry, Mr Hague, but I don't like your idea.

I helped to take the lid off the funding can of worms. It was only when the lid was taken off that I realised that the possible solution could create at least as many, if not more, difficulties and problems.

In its efforts to give schools more money the Government must be careful that babies aren't thrown out with the bath water.

My concerns are genuine. I am no apologist for LEAs but I have increasingly come to appreciate that they want the same things as me: an effective system of education that serves the needs of the local community and as a result of this the needs of the nation.

I just hope that there is somebody out there who understands my grassroots concerns.

Oh dear, there I go - interfering again!

Les Turner is headteacher of St Patrick's Roman Catholic primary school, Heysham, Lancashire.

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