Leading Article: Can't we leave schools to the local councils?

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The Independent Online
The Funding Agency for Schools is ready to launch a takeover bid - not for the world, but for the nation's schools, which is a good start. Gone would be any discretion for the much-maligned local education authorities. Forget local politicians interfering in school financial affairs. Head teachers would instead receive their money from on high. Local authorities would have little left to do. And if the Agency had its way, the cash would be allocated by a neat national funding formula with no account taken of local preferences. Citing the mess local management has made of some schools, and the variation in education funding across the country, supporters of a nationalised funding system can claim to be proposing a fairer and more rational approach all round.

But what would happen to local oversight of an inherently local service? Again, supporters of the funding agency approach would argue that roughly 90 per cent of the funding of schools is not at the local council's discretion anyway - it is entirely at the disposal of the governing body, and the head as the governors' chief executive. Parents, it is argued, can express their views direct to governors, many of whom also have children at the school. Local councils, by contrast, are not always responsive to angry parents, even when they threaten to vote them out.

But the fact is that local councillors, however unresponsive, are nearer to home than a national funding agency. If the local authority screws up or gets its priorities wrong, local voters know who to blame and who to complain to. And politicians, anxious about their vote at the next council election, have at least an incentive to listen. Anonymous national bureaucrats, tucked away in an office in London, have no reason to listen to parents at all - if parents can even work out who and where they are.

Gone, too, would be the scope for local prioritising. People who want to invest heavily in nursery education at the expense (for example) of local leisure facilities, will be denied that choice. At the moment some pounds 700m is allocated by local education authorities to schools, over and above the minimum prescribed by government, because people in certain areas decide that that is how they want their money spent.

It is not only democracy that is at stake here. There is no necessary trade-off between local democracy and efficiency. Quite the reverse. A single funding formula for schools, which takes no account of local variations and peculiarities, will not work. In some regions, for example, the schools on the top of the hills may need more cash than those at the bottom - for heating and transport. How would national formulae account for that?

A fair and efficient allocation of cash between schools will require an awful lot of local knowledge, not a simple national formula. To do it properly the national agency would have to leave its London sanctuary and move out into the communities that its decisions affect. In other words, it would have to replicate the functions that local councils perform, only in a much less accountable way.

Nor can decisions about funding be separated from thorny questions about welfare. Placing a difficult child who has been excluded from several schools already will have implications for resources. So, too, will rescuing a failing school. These functions would require pooled local resources, under the auspices of one or another agency - when we already have local councils to carry out these roles.

Worst of all, depriving local authorities of the freedom to fund denies them the option of developing new initiatives. If we are to accelerate educational achievement, we need to inspire the whole community to take part.

Of course, we should not kid ourselves that local education authorities are the fount of goodness and excellence. Far from it. Educational havoc was inflicted on Britain's schools in large measure by enthusiastic local education authority advisers: abolition of streaming, the destruction of competitive sport, the dominance of progressive teaching methods. These attitudes are changing, but they are changing slowly, and the best bulwark against backsliding is continuing pressure from parents on standards.

Consider, too, the mess that certain local authorities have made of the schools in their area. Calderdale local education authority failed to stop the complete collapse of discipline and morale in the Ridings school in Halifax. Meanwhile petty personality politics on Hackney Council left the children at Hackney Downs school in limbo while different factions bickered about whether to close it or not.

Nevertheless, bad management and bad decisions are not the prerogative of local institutions. National government is equally capable of making horrendous mistakes. At least if power is devolved to a local, democratic level, it is more accountable, and can tap into local experience too.

All this means that the true devolution of power is to schools and parents. But some matters - some aspects of the distribution of the cash, but also occasional emergency intervention - are best provided by a local authority whose staff understand the people and the area. National government should set standards targets through tests. It should prescribe a core curriculum. It should ensure that the quality of trained teachers is satisfactory. And then it should leave local people to deliver in the way they see fit, intervening only if things go seriously wrong. Local democracy and local administration need reform and revival; if they are trampled into the dirt, we will all regret the loss.