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What price delegation?

LOCAL management of schools is an outstanding success. Looking around the world, the idea that the school is the place in which to decide how best to spend the money for children's education is widespread. Almost no country has taken it as far and as fast as England and Wales. And no one now wants to return to the old days when councils managed schools' spending.

But as heads and governors in smaller schools have long known, it is possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to delegating the money - and responsibility - for services previously provided by local authorities.

Heads of larger schools may not see it that way, especially if they experienced the freedom and funding that went with grant-maintained status and provided the necessary admin support. But as the Audit Commission now confirms, there is little relish for yet more of the fiscal freedom envisaged by the Conservatives under William Hague. The commission even questions whether the Government's plan to increase delegation from 85 to 90 per cent next year is in the public, or pupils', interest.

The same could also be said of Labour's tendency to centralse funding. On the one hand, it is overly prescriptive with the increasing cash earmarked for government priorities through the multi-headed hydra that the Standards Fund has become. Then it dishes out wholly untargeted sums on a flat-rate basis to all schools regardless of need. The first is contrary to the principles of local accountability and self-management; the second makes a nonsense of fair and rational funding; and the short-term nature of both makes the strategic financial planning, being urged by the commission, even more difficult to achieve in schools.

Instead of making handouts to schools, like pensioners' heating allowances, the Government should be ensuring that all schools, regardless of location, receive - and are seen to receive - the funding and other support they need to teach a national curriculum and meet national targets.

Governments that will the ends must ensure the means. Yet once again the public finance watchdog highlights wholly indefensible disparities in funding between comparable pupils in comparable schools - differences that far outweigh any conceivable benefits from yet more delegation.

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