Oddball marriage trying to put kids first

Scepticism and anxiety greeted John Patten's quango to fund grant- maintained schools. One year on, Fran Abrams reports
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The portents were not good for the Funding Agency for Schools when it opened for business in York a year ago. Armed with instructions from John Patten to "mix it" with the local authorities, the agency was set up to fund grant-maintained schools and to play a part in planning school places. The exhortation from Mr Patten, then Education Secretary, did little to smooth relationships that were always bound to be tinged with suspicion.

There was also publicity about the FAS's unelected board: one of two members with local authority links was from Tory Wandsworth, and he sat alongside a number of other enthusiasts for opting out. Its chairman, Sir Christopher Benson, was also chairman of Sun Alliance, underwriter of an insurance scheme for grant-maintained schools and a corporate donor to the Conservative Party.

Given such a start in life, it would not have been surprising if the new quango had been the subject of continued bad press. Sir Christopher managed to smooth some ruffled feathers by suggesting that "mixing it" was the sort of polite activity which took place at cocktail parties, but deeper tensions remained.

So, one year on, what has happened to local authority relationships with the FAS? Has open warfare broken out, or have constructive working partnerships been forged despite an uneasy start?

For local government, the launch of the agency represented a further erosion of powers that had already been eaten away by recent reforms. The FAS shares responsibility for planning school places in the 48 areas where more than 10 per cent of secondary pupils are in opted-out schools. In Hillingdon and Brent, where more than 75 per cent of pupils are opted out, it has responsibility for the provision of places.

So it is not surprising that many local authority officials have complaints to make about the agency, its structure and its methods. It is more surprising, perhaps, that it is relatively easy to find people in local government with nice things to say about it.

Among them is Keith Anderson, chief education officer of Gloucestershire, where seven out of 10 secondary pupils are in grant-maintained schools. The county is anticipating a 10 per cent rise in its secondary school roll in the next five years, and has just completed successful negotiations with the FAS on how to find extra places. The FAS and Gloucestershire have agreed on where these places should be, but they must still be approved by the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard.

Mr Anderson says the agency made no attempt to expand opted-out schools in preference to local authority ones, and worked purely on the basis of need.

"It's actually worked pretty well, and personality-wise it has been fairly easy," he says. "They sensibly looked at where additional building was taking place that would bring children in. It was a sensible and constructive dialogue."

In other areas, things have not gone quite so smoothly. Phillipa Cordingley, an education consultant, has carried out research for local authorities on how the relationship is working. She says there are a number of fears for the future in areas where the FAS has a major role. These include the planning of new school places on a local level, giving future parents a voice, as well as other issues such as the future planning of measles vaccinations. Parents worry that the FAS is far too remote to be adequately responsive to local needs.

"The community as a whole has expressed a lot of needs which they are not confident a national agency can meet. They want people to make these decisions on a locally-based, locally-accountable basis by people whom they can meet - and sack," she says.

In the outer London borough of Sutton, Mrs Shephard must choose between rival bids, with the local authority wanting a new secondary school and the agency wanting extra places in existing grant-maintained schools.

Chris Blurton, director of education in the borough, where numbers are rising so fast that dozens of pupils have no school place for this September, says that even here the discussions on the need for more places have been quite amicable.

"The exchange of information has been perfectly reasonable," he says. "We actually agree about the problem but we fundamentally disagree about the solution. They want to enlarge selective schools but the kids who are out of school aren't selective."

The agency wants to help existing schools to expand first and then to see where there is still a need for more school places.

But there are areas where the agency's method of operation has left officials and politicians feeling sore. In Hillingdon, officials say the local press received details from the FAS of expansions to local schools before they did - although the agency says it faxed the chair of education first. Worse, the agency's press release thanked parents for attending a series of public meetings that were actually organised by the borough.

Professional relationships with FAS officials have been good, but there is a strong feeling that there are fundamental problems with the agency's structure because of its remoteness.There is also a feeling that it puts too much emphasis on responding to the demands of individual schools and too little on strategic planning. The agency, however, argues that local authorities have relied too heavily on planning from the top down in the past.

Glenys Andrews, director of education in Hillingdon, says the situation has left officers there feeling frustrated. "On the planning of places there is a real black hole because they are responsible for the overall number of places while we are responsible for ensuring that children get into school," she says.

If relations between the FAS and local authorities are better than might have been expected, this may be largely attributable to Sandy Adamson, the agency's director of planning. A former Department for Education official, he says he never thought of his new role as being politically charged.

While local authorities had made it clear that they were opposed on principle to the idea of sharing responsibility with the FAS, relations had always been professional, courteous and productive.

"It was a case of `we wouldn't start from here', but we have made it work together," he says. "Occasionally, there was a formal reminder that we were stepping on their toes, but we are all in it to help the kids and we need to work together professionally."