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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The education dilemma

Today's newspaper coverage about missing education cash is wearily familiar. In fact we have spent much of the last eight years in the Assembly talking about the 'funding fog' in school funding, a phenomenon in which money allegedly allocated for education by the Minister fails to find its way to schools without anybody knowing why.

That is not to say that the views expressed by Teachers' Unions are not legitimate ones, they are. Although I understand that there is some dispute as to whether the figures in the media are accurate or not and that the Indicator-based Assessment used to make the comparison is at best a crude and unreliable statistical tool. The concern is that the debate itself forms part of the fog, in that it carries with it assumptions that are contrary to our present constitution.

Those assumptions can be best summed up by the thesis that now we have an elected Welsh Government they should be funding schools directly so as to ensure that money gets to the front line.

The problems with this suggestion are many. Firstly, it means that the many central education services provided by local Councils are starved of funds; secondly it assumes that there are universal needs across Wales;, thirdly it prevents parents, teachers, and voters having any influence on spending priorities locally; and fourthly, it means that other Council services are squeezed with consequent demands for them to be funded directly as well. Effectively, it is the start of a process that would see the abolition of local democracy.

The basis of our governmental system is that schools are funded by democratically elected Councils and that they are the ones who should be accountable to their electorate for the decisions they take on funding. Of course if we are to achieve this ideal there needs to be changes to the local democratic process itself. Firstly, there needs to be high quality, high profile and independent information so that voters are able to make informed judgements and secondly there needs to be a system in place that enables the way people cast their vote to be reflected in the results.

There are other reforms that can be put in place as well that are consistent with a local democratic process. These were all addressed by a cross-party committee during the last Assembly which took wide-ranging evidence over a period of nearly a year and unanimously recommended a number of changes that may help to deal with the concerns of unions. The full report can be found here.

Amongst this committee's recommendations were that the Welsh Government should
should require all local authorities to issue concise annual summaries to schools in their area, showing the factors that have led to changes in school budgets, that these annual budget summaries are comparable across local government boundaries and that clear, consistent audit trails are set up and monitored.

The committee also suggested that rather than relying on historic funding patterns to establish what money schools get, the Welsh Government should establish and publish minimum common basic funding requirements for school staffing, accommodation and equipment and that this information should be used to benchmark and inform decision-making at national and local levels on school funding. The Welsh Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning should report regularly to the Education committee on progress towards establishing a minimum common basis funding requirement for schools. In addition the Welsh Government should require authorities to report annually on any difference between the funding they allocate to schools and the minimum common basic funding requirement published by the Welsh Government.

Above all the Committee recommended that the Welsh Government considers amending the guidance on local education authority funding formulae to ensure greater consistency across Wales and to dampen year to year changes in funding arising from variation in pupil numbers and that a three year funding regime would be introduced for schools so as to give them certainty and the ability to plan.

There are many other recommendations, but I would argue that before we start returning to where we were eight years ago as current coverage is tending to do, we should push for the implementation of this report first and see where that leaves us.
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