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2 June 2003

Charles Clarke: guilty as charged

Francis Beckett deplores the Education Secretary's efforts to pass the buck on the schools funding c

By Francis Beckett

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has for three weeks focused his formidable political intellect on the schools budget crisis. Unfortunately, he has not focused on solving it. He has focused on shifting the blame.

The government’s new procedure for allocating money to schools, which was stingy in its thinking and botched in its application, will result in the loss of hundreds of teachers from schools which cannot afford to lose them. Clarke’s strategy for dealing with this was on view in last Sunday’s newspapers. They reported that, to make sure schools had enough in future years, Clarke would give them money direct, instead of dishing it out via local councils. That way, the councils would not have the chance to hide money from schools as they have done this year.

It is not the councils that have starved schools of money: it is the government. As for bringing in a new system, the crisis this year was caused by a new system. Heaven defend us from another one. But none of these questions was raised in the Sunday newspapers. What Clarke had done – it’s an old politician’s trick, and it works nine times out of ten – was to tell the Sunday political correspondents that he was keeping a story specially for them. They, no doubt, were pathetically grateful. And political correspondents, unlike education correspondents, have not followed the story and do not know the hard questions to ask. That is how a minister gets a story reported on his own terms.

For Clarke, what is going on in the north London borough of Barnet may constitute some sort of victory. Six Barnet schools watched like hawks while the local council opened its books and showed them to an independent auditor, to demonstrate that it had not hidden the Education Secretary’s money. Thus convinced, the schools decided that, rather than fire teachers wholesale, they would set illegal deficit budgets.

Barnet Council, prompted, it is believed, by officials in Clarke’s department, told the heads it would help them by guaranteeing the deficit – but only when it had seen and approved a schedule of teacher redundancies. The heads are likely to decide when they meet on 2 June to tell the council where to stuff its guarantee. The stage will be set for a battle between the schools and the council, enabling Clarke to pose as an honest broker who just wants them to get on with the job.

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Clarke’s own “solution” had been announced on 15 May. As in most government press releases these days, the story was in the 11th paragraph. The first six were about trying to pin the blame on local councils, the next four about making poor excuses for the government’s cock-up. Then came Clarke’s contribution to solving the crisis. He will allow schools to raid their capital and to borrow from neighbouring schools.

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This is all useless. Capital funds are small sums for essential building work – typically £50,000 in a school with a deficit of £300,000. One head explained to me that she could cancel the contract for replacement of the badly leaking windows in her humanities block. She would then have to hope it does not rain for the next couple of years. As for borrowing from neighbouring schools with spare money, that’s a joke in rather poor taste.

Professor Tim Brighouse, the government-appointed commissioner for London schools, has explained in an educational magazine how we got into this mess. Clarke’s department wanted a new way of allocating money to schools, which, among other things, would transfer money from the south to the north of England – which is why some of the worst problems are in the south. The Treasury insisted on getting rid of separate funds – the “standards funds” – by tipping them into the general education grant. The result, which no one appears to have anticipated, is that because the money was distributed by different criteria, it went to different places. Meanwhile John Pres-cott’s office was changing the whole grant distribution formula for all council services. And the 2001 census data made the baseline statistics of each council different for the first time in ten years. “No wonder there’s chaos,” says Brighouse. “Even one change would have produced difficulties: four have exaggerated them in a totally unpredictable way.”

That’s the cock-up. Here’s the conspiracy. The government wanted to stave off a teachers’ revolt. It promised them pay (including London weighting) increases as well as fewer bureaucratic chores. It has not provided the money to foot the bill (nor to fund higher National Insurance payments), and the Education Secretary is charged with the ignoble task of finding someone else to carry the can.

Ministers may say I have oversimplified. It is true that the funding of schools is now so ludicrously complicated that there would be space for nothing else in the NS if I tried to explain it fully. But it still comes down to a few simple truths. Schools are being asked to make do on much less than last year, and will have to fire teachers wholesale if they are to make ends meet. It is squarely the government’s fault. And if the government does nothing more about it, dozens of good schools will become failing schools, dozens of inner-city schools will become sink schools, and our school system will suffer a blow from which it will take decades to recover.