You want to cut red tape, minister?

4th August 1995 at 01:00
Sir Humphrey Appleby, the fictional permanent secretary at the Ministry for Administrative Affairs, would have approved. What could be better, Minister, than setting up a bureau, chaired by a bureaucrat, dedicated to cutting down bureaucracy?

Such a jaundiced view is likely to be shared by many exasperated teachers who heard that ministers are to set up a new committee to control and reduce the flow of paperwork from Government departments and quangos.

Bob Carstairs, professional officer at the Secondary Heads Association, probably summed up the professional response with the comment: "Yippee! Any Civil Service bureaucrat who can help to defeat bureaucracy deserves our support."

The pledge to remove more than 10 million pages of official paper from headteachers' in-trays was made by Education and Employment Minister Eric Forth as part of a wider commitment to cut red tape in schools, hospitals and the police.

Last December, Prime Minister John Major set up a team to scrutinise the growing volume of administrative work generated by recent education reforms. members were asked to make recommendations on how communications from the DFEE and its satellite agencies could be made more user-friendly.

Mr Forth has now approved its main proposal to set up a "gatekeeper team" to oversee the dissemination of documents sent to schools, headed by a senior civil servant. The team will watch over all communications destined for general release to schools, advise on the use of plain English, and monitor the costs to schools of handling Government paperwork.

The findings are based on visits to 34 schools and a survey of 149 primary and secondary schools, 65 of them grant-maintained.

Significantly, all the schools contacted reported an increased administrative burden in the past few years, partly because of an upsurge of material from the DFEE and its curriculum, assessment, funding and other quangos. Other reforms, notably increased delegation of decision-making and regular school inspections, have generated extra work.

The scrutiny team's report acknowledges many schools felt they had been overburdened with paperwork, with one school speaking of "a ten-fold increase" in workload. Another suggested "a five-year moratorium on circulars" as well as on curriculum changes. Particular areas of concern included the new special needs code of practice and the pre-inspection information demanded by the Office for Standards in Education.

Many schools have responded positively to the steps taken by Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, to reduce workload. Even so, in the words of one head, teachers are "still stressed out with the constant need to modify schemes of work".

Schools reported an increase in the hours teachers were forced to spend on paperwork, previously spent teaching children, and in the use of administrative staff. Usually, additional resources were available as a result of local management or opting out. One secondary head reported that his administrative budget had more than doubled to Pounds 140,000 a year under LMS.

Many heads complained of having to put in extra hours, often at home, trying to keep up with Government-generated paperwork and keep their governing bodies briefed. Alternatively, they were learning to prioritise, concentrating only on "essential paperwork". Heads also reported reducing teaching time, with one commenting that "teaching heads are coming out of the classroom".

Nearly one in four schools complained that documents "rarely" or "never" arrived at appropriate times. A quarter also said they rarely or never had sufficient time to respond.

Consultation processes were also criticised. "Many felt it was a waste of time because their views were not taken on board; others thought there was simply too much consultation," says the report.

The use of jargon and lack of clarity in Government documents was also criticised. In the words of one respondent: "There are too many acronyms and too much ambiguous language. Too many documents are long and unclear."

Particular criticism is aimed at sudden and "nit-picking" changes in regulations set out in DFEE circulars. Both OFSTED and the Funding Agency for Schools also come in for criticism. Only SCAA comes out of the report well, praised for its effective, clear communications.

The new committee will now attempt to bring a Dearing-style approach to all school communications. But cynics doubting whether much will change can cite three similar studies since 1992 which appear to have had little effect.

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