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Unstrategic planning

One of the chickens that was hatched by Farmer Patten's 1993 Education Act has come home to roost and is clucking away madly.

When the legislation was being whisked through the Commons at a speed so indecent that even the Conservative whips blushed - 53 seconds of debating time was devoted to each of the Lords' 580 amendments - critics predicted that the hurriedly drafted clauses dealing with the new Funding Agency for Schools (FAS) would cause confusion at best, chaos at worst. So it has proved. Where the l944 Education Act offered clarity on the local education authority's "duty to provide" a place for every child, its l993 successor has blurred responsibilities.

It may be true that grant-maintained schools have few complaints about the FAS, being impressed by its speed of response and level of service. Sandy Adamson, the FAS's planning director, is also justified in saying that there was an "inexorable logic" behind the decision to establish the agency. But its remit owes little to logic.

During the committee stage of Mr Patten's 1993 Bill, Opposition MPs giggled as Eric Forth, then education junior minister, attempted to explain the nebulous nature of the agency's "planned" relationship with local education authorities. However, one year into that relationship the LEAs see no cause for hilarity. The 48 that have reached stage 2 in the mating process - those where between 10 and 75 per cent of pupils are in GM schools - are ostensibly sharing responsibility for ensuring orderly primary-secondary transfers and matching places to pupil numbers. But from Kent come complaints that some children allocated places in lower-tier LEA high schools are being told they will be accepted by a GM grammar. And in Calderdale the LEA has been exasperated to learn that a GM school is seeking to expand in an area where it has been desperately trying to shed surplus places. No wonder Ian Jennings, the authority's acting director of education, complained this week that he and his colleagues were in "something of a vacuum" because no one seemed to be sure what the mechanisms and procedures are to develop strategic planning for secondary provision in a stage 2 authority.

In the two stage 3 authorities, Brent and Hillingdon (where more than 75 per cent of pupils are in GM secondary schools), the situation is somewhat clearer because the FAS has sole responsibility for secondary planning. The school expansion exercise in Hillingdon has, however, highlighted the sad paradox of a national planning agency that cannot plan strategically across a region or metropolitan area. It has no jurisdiction over comprehensives across the borough boundary in Harrow, for example, even though they could significantly affect its calculations. Had the GM sector expanded as quickly as the Government had envisaged, this would have been less of a problem. As it is, muddled, piecemeal planning therefore seems destined to continue - at least until the next general election.

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