Double edge to education answers

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The Independent Online
LOCAL authorities will be delighted to broadcast some of the information that the Audit Commission is seeking. But they believe that some of the questions relate to central government pressures rather than their own efficiency, writes Donald MacLeod.

Councils agree, for instance, that the speed with which student grants are paid is a fair performance indicator. But the number and value of discretionary awards paid out by any authority is closely linked to its financial position. Warwickshire, for example, which has been charge-capped for two years running, is unable to offer more than a handful of discretionary grants to anyone other than students with special educational needs; its education budget has to be spent on its statutory obligations to schools.

Urban (mainly Labour-run) authorities, which spend more on nursery education, will be eager to supply figures on under-fives in the system. They have long resented the fact that the Government's nursery funding is based on population rather than the numbers actually being taught. Education authorities with generous nursery provision are penalised.

On school meals, the commission has ducked the politically embarrassing question of free meals - the recent increase is a sure sign of the recession - in favour of an odd formulation: 'Percent of LEA school pupils who have the choice of eating a hot, cooked meal on school premises at lunchtime.'

The commission admits it would be preferable to measure nutritional content. The Government, however, refuses to bring in nutritional standards that would permit this. The indicator also shies away from the take-up of meals which has also been falling because of price increases. School catering is becoming increasingly privatised and the responsibility of individual schools.