Autonomy at a price

A key reform in the Department for Education and Skills five-year
education strategy looks set to completely change the way schools
operate financially. From 2006 every school in England will have a
guaranteed three-year budget geared to its pupil numbers. Schools
will also have a guaranteed minimum “per pupil” increase each year.
This dedicated schools budget will be delivered through local
authorities, but councils will not be able to divert the budget to
other services.

The new budget will be aligned with the school year and not the
financial year, as currently happens. School funding from local
authorities is set to increase by more than 6 per cent in 2005-6
and the government plans that the dedicated schools budget will
increase by “at least that rate” in 2006-7 and 2007-8. The
education strategy says: “No authority will receive less funding
for education than its current level of spending, and we will seek
to ensure there are no adverse effects for the rest of local
government.” A consultation into the new funding arrangements is
being launched this autumn.

The motivation behind this radical plan is, according to the
education strategy, to “give head teachers and governors
unprecedented financial security and confidence, and the ability to
plan for the future”. The step will also “end the long-standing
confused responsibility between central and local government for
setting the level of school funding”.

While in theory this all makes perfect sense, what does it mean in
practice for schools? Bob Carstairs is assistant general secretary
of the Secondary Heads Association. He supports the move and says
it will stop schools’ consistent worries over funding. “If a head
knows she has a specific amount for a project, such as
accessibility ramps, she can budget for it.”

If schools are given dedicated, pupil-driven budgets, are they
really going to want to increase the amount of provision for
vulnerable children? They may fear that having children with
additional needs in their classrooms will simply eat into money
they could spend in other ways, such as getting their pass rates

Some schools are going to be more reluctant than others to take on
children who require extra resources.

Penny Thompson, co-chair of the children and families committee of
the Association of Directors of Social Services, says that while
there is a responsibility on local authorities and schools to
ensure looked-after children have educational placements, the ADSS
would be concerned if there were a reduction in schools’ commitment
to this. “Attainment and inclusion are two sides of the same coin,
and the whole basis of the children’s agenda is that we have got to
support children’s needs.”

She adds that children should be educated in a way that meets their
needs while not undermining the needs of their fellow students:
“The presumption is we should be as inclusive as possible.”

So is there a risk that some schools will be unofficially labelled
as teaching only successful children while other schools become
ghettos? Ian Elliott, senior projects officer of the Local
Government Association, says as schools become more autonomous and
compete with each other they may be less willing to take on
vulnerable children. “We could end up with a two-tier school system
of those children who are achieving and then the rest. There is a
limited amount local authorities can do if these schools are given
full autonomy.”

The upshot seems to be that children needing the most help may be
placed in the schools that are least able to provide necessary

Discrimination against children who are hard to place already
exists in the education system and, according to London-based chief
education officer Caroline Whalley, more autonomy could pose an
even greater threat: “Schools can already slow down the admissions
process and some youngsters can go as long as a term without
receiving education. This makes then even more disadvantaged.”
Allowing schools their own three-year budgets could further
exacerbate this, she adds, unless explicit safeguards are put in

If a school place is not available for a child then they can
receive tuition at home or attend a pupil referral unit along with
other children not being taught in the mainstream. These options
are far from ideal, and it is often the most needy children who
receive this type of education.

The provision of services to vulnerable children has always been an
issue for schools, and Carstairs argues it very much depends upon a
school’s priorities. He adds that most head teachers have a social
conscience and would not refuse a child entry because of the costs
associated with their vulnerability. “Most heads are as keen on
promoting the needs of vulnerable children as they are of ordinary

Schools have always been the central institution in children’s
lives. However, the Children Bill has been criticised for not
placing the duty to ensure the educational attainment and
well-being of looked-after children on the schools themselves. This
duty is currently the responsibility of local authorities.

However, Thompson says the ADSS is lobbying for the Children Bill
to place this duty on schools rather than local authorities.
Thompson is also executive director of social services at Sheffield
Council and says the secondary schools in her local authority have
all agreed to help and support each other’s work. This is something
she believes other schools can learn from, especially if they are
overseeing their own guaranteed three-year budgets. “We don’t want
to see any undermining of collective responsibility.”

A further boost for placing the duty on schools to meet the needs
of vulnerable children came from July’s interagency group Children
Bill conference (news, page 14, 22 July). Delegates heard that
schools’ three-year budgets should be conditional on them taking
responsibility for the overall welfare of children and young people
in their area. Christine Davies, the lead for children’s services
in the Confederation of Education and Children Services Managers,
told the conference that schools were in a privileged position and
with that came responsibility. She also urged local schools to work
together and take “collective responsibility” for children and
young people in their area.

Allowing schools the freedom to decide how to best meet the needs
of their pupils is something few would argue against. However, with
this power has to come responsibility. Schools must ensure that
they do not ignore those children who are most in need, and it may
be down to the government to ensure this happens.

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