Friday 29 May 2009

Funding Education

Last night, there was a superb concert at Folly Farm by the Greenhill School Orchestra. There was a worry a couple of months ago that the orchestra would have its funding withdrawn, and its supporters called on Plaid, Labour and Conservative politicians for support to retain an outstanding level of musical provision. Thus it was that I found myself sitting in the reserved seats at the back along with the local MP and AM, in a rare display of political unanimity.

The funding crisis was surrounded in some confusion to start with, and it highlighted for me how difficult it can be at times to pin down exactly who is taking which decisions. Schools receive their money from the county council according to a formula set by the county within government guidelines; but the element relating to sixth-form provision is decided by the Assembly Government and seems to be merely passed through the county's books. On top of that, the county may allow additional funding for certain activities such as music.

When the threat to the school orchestra was first highlighted, the finger seemed to be pointing at the Assembly Government for cutting allocations to sixth forms, but that turned out to be something of a misunderstanding. In any event, the funding problem has been sorted out for the very short term, giving a breathing space to ensure the longer term future. The near £5,000 raised by last night's concert will certainly assist.

Moving from the specific to the general, does school funding need to be this complex – so complex that even the governing bodies aren't always clear who has decided what? Why on earth is the Assembly Government directly setting sixth form budgets rather than leaving that to county councils to decide in the same way that they set the rest of the schools' budgets?

It looks like an unnecessary degree of centralisation to me, and almost guarantees a lack of clarity and accountability from the point of view of schools, governors, and parents. It may be convenient for those in authority to be able to blame someone else, but I don't think it makes sense.

I suspect that it's just another part of the less than entirely open agenda of the Education Department in the Assembly Government. There seems to be a desire to move away from sixth forms towards tertiary colleges, which are funded (and therefore controlled) directly from the centre. That's actually a valid policy to espouse (although not one with which I agree), but it's being promoted in a dishonest fashion, through manipulation of funding allocations, rather than through open and honest debate.

Creating financial crises for schools and making sixth forms financially less viable may achieve the ends of those taking the decisions; but it hardly counts as democratic and open decision-making.

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