Celebrating school music services

Last evening I attended the Oxfordshire Music Service annual end of year concert. The setting was the lovely one of Dorchester Abbey, although the pews do seem rather harder than a few years ago. Music has played a large part in the post-war education scene. This is despite successive governments from the 1980s onwards often seeing it as a dispensable extra activity. The fact that this was the 75th year the Oxfordshire Music Service has been in operation and it is now working at arm’s length from the local authority is a tribute to all who care about what this type of service can bring to the life of our young people.

Earlier in the afternoon I had been reading the latest briefing note on school funding from the Education Policy Institute. David Laws, the former Schools Minister and sometime Lib Dem MP makes no secret that he doesn’t believe in local democratically elected councils having a role in education funding. The briefing note laments that there was no legislative proposal in the Queen’s Speech to allow a ‘hard’ national funding formula. However, the EPI note suggests that the DfE could still significantly reduce the role of local authorities by the use of secondary legislation.

Now, regular readers will knows that both as a councillor and philosophically I believe locally democratically elected councils have an important role to play in education. I am not opposed to a national funding formula, but it throws up interesting issues if implemented as a ’hard’ national formula. An academy in the North West is to close as it is uneconomic and in deficit. The Multi Academy Trust will hand the lease back to the council that owns the freehold. All well and good, but the school was built by a PFI deal and those payments will presumably continue whether it operates as a school or not. Who should bear the cost, the local council taxpayers or the government? At present, it will be the local taxpayers, probably without any ability to recoup the costs, just as they cannot for additional transport costs that could result from a school closure. Would the government keep activities such as school music services going or be content to just leave them to market forces? I wonder.

The lack of a rational plan for the governance of our schools have been a worrying feature of the past thirty years, ever since central government really started the process of nationalising the schools with the Conservative Grant Maintained Schools.  Sadly, no government has had the courage to do what David Laws would like and fully remove all education from democratically elected councils. Such an outcome would at least have the merit of clear-cut solution.

You really cannot have a system with responsibility but no power. This fact is highlighted by the plight of children taken into care who have no right to a school place if moved to another area for their safety. I am delighted that all Oxfordshire MPs from the three Parties have signed a letter to the Minister highlighting this issue. Our most vulnerable children deserve better than to be not only be taken from their homes but also have their education disrupted, sometimes for months on end.

Hey big spender

This week the DfE released the fact that the total Schools Budget for 2013-14 is in the order of £39 billion, give or take some £200 million*. Now, since academies and other direct grants schools are funded on a school-year basis and the community and voluntary schools that receive income passported through local authorities receive their funding on a financial year basis, the figure for this year isn’t comparable to previous years.

In addition to the Schools Budget, about £10 billion will be spent by local authorities on other children’s services, and education not related directly to schools. Individual schools budgets make up some 87% of the total Schools Budget this year, with central services, and areas such as transport accounting for the remainder of the expenditure. Over the next few years that 13% spent outside schools is likely to be reduced as councils across the country seek savings from back office functions, and also rationalise transport and other services.

Once again the remaining music services are the types of discretionary services likely to come under pressure, with councils transferring their running costs entirely to schools. It would be a great tragedy if Michael Gove’s relentless pursuit of a school-led education service, coupled with the hang-over from the economic crisis, ended one of the real success stories of the post-war education system.

Nationally, the average pupil will cost the government some £4,350 this year, but that appears to range from £6,935 in Tower Hamlets to £2,134 just across the river in Bexley. Although, as that is £1,600 less than the next authority it might be down to some accounting quirk regarding academies or another part of the calculations. London authorities, with their higher staffing costs, account for sixteen of the top 20 authorities in terms of per capita Schools Budgets. Since their secondary students also benefit from free transport under the TfL budget the figure would no doubt be even higher if this element was included.

Currently SEN transport costs an average of £69 per pupil across the country, and other home to school transport £51 per pupil. Given that the latter costs are mostly in the rural authorities, the cost to those authorities is obviously much higher.

Rather than the universal benefit of a limited period ‘cash freeze’ for consumers, the Labour Leader might have designed an energy policy to help reduce these costs to local authorities, perhaps by a national fuel purchasing scheme that allowed school buses and other community transport to run on lower priced fuel.

Whether a Department at Westminster serving both schools and the other functions supporting children’s welfare makes any sense these days is a matter for debate. The spending functions logically sit alongside many other social expenditure functions of councils, and the monitoring of schooling can be subsumed within a regulatory framework that includes services such as trading standards. After all, monitoring performance is soon going to be the only real education function left for local authorities, if the government at Westminster has its way.

* https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/244055/SR35-2013.pdf