A rash of education changes has brought worries about clarity and transparency. Fiona Mclean reports
Government leadership for schools has come in for fresh criticism, this time from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education (APPG).
While the debate about free schools and the expansion of the academies programme has been steeped in polemics and dogma – the practical implications of rolling back local authorities’ involvement in education has not been fully examined. In its inquiry the APPG noted that the area that gave its members most cause for concern was funding, particularly the apparent lack of clarity on funding for free schools and academies.
The APPG is a body that represents around 50 education stakeholders including parliamentarians, teachers, union representatives, education associations, local authorities, free school and academy organisations, law firms and the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). The APPG's inquiry at Westminster, "The changing schools landscape: what can maintained schools, free schools and academies learn from one another", aired concerns about the apparent lack of guidance and clarification provided by the Government in many areas at a time of significant changes.
The meeting was chaired by Nic Dakin MP and the panelists were Fiona Millar, education journalist and co-founder of the Local Schools Network, Adam Dawson, chair of governors and co-founder of the Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School, Bill Watkin, operational director of The Schools Network and Ray Barker, director of BESA.
Unforeseen costs for free schools and academies causing worries
While initial capital funding for free schools is agreed and authorised by the Department for Education – as is capital funding for academies – it is the ongoing and unforeseen costs that are alarming many. Annual revenue for free schools is based on the average funding formula used by their local authorities for maintained schools and academies.
One contributor to the report asked the question of how would a major structural repair to a school be funded. But Nick Jones, principal at Twickenham Academy thinks the problem is even bigger than transparency.
“Fairness of funding has always been the issue,” he said. “We need to get to a national funding formula that has some degree of fairness. Despite the Pupil Premium, which I do think does a good job in providing for young people with specific education challenges, education funding is still the ultimate post-code lottery.
“Having said that, being independent, as academies and free schools are, means you have to plan and think ‘How can I create and manage my surplus?’ This is going to be the only way to pay for unplanned expenditure.”
Taking Nick Jones’ ideas further, many of the academies and free schools will no doubt follow suit, and form federations. These consortia of schools will be able to buy in and share professional services and skills such as finance managers. Ironically, these professionals will do what local authorities once did for their schools before they opted out of local control. Indeed, many will buy the services from their local authorities.
Perhaps the government needs to look at the way the CTCs, the forerunners of academies, were funded. The department had a pot of funds which the 15 schools could bid for a share of against certain criteria – health and safely being at the top.
If schools are to run as SMEs (small and medium size enterprises) then the heads need a clear and realistic view of their revenue streams. As Tim Pearson former CEO of technology firm RM, commented, "England has now had many years experience of school management of budgets, and whatever the type of school, it is clear that management teams need a high degree of clarity and simplicity combined with some longer term visibility of their funding. If they have these things in place then they can concentrate on using their funding well. Suppliers to schools know that where schools have big uncertainty over funding then life becomes hard for everyone.
“Although there are always issues with funding, you don't hear many English schools clamouring for the Scottish system where school budgets are almost entirely taken out of the hands of headteachers."
So while doubt and confusion may be the order of the day in England – there must be a call on the Coalition Government to give some clarity and transparency to one of their key education reform programmes. Otherwise, the accusation that a rushed-out policy was ill thought through and another example of ministers playing fast and loose with the education opportunities of yet another generation of young people may well stick.