HEADMASTERS of Britain's state-run schools, who are no strangers to uncertainty, are confronting a revolution in education that poses more questions than answers. All at once they face a nationally mandated curriculum, new testing requirements, and devolution of authority to school governing boards freshly packed with parents. This along with one of the biggest changes of all, control of their own budgets. The policies affect all elementary and secondary schools in Britain.
Beginning this fall, headmasters will attend courses in financial management to learn how to administer funds once handled by local education authorities (the British equivalent of a district school board in the United States). Some are enthusiastic about the responsibilities thrust upon them by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's policies, contained in the Education Reform Act of 1988. Others are planning to retire early.
``Actually I quite welcome it,'' says George Varnarva, headmaster of the Norwood School. ``I will have to keep very careful hold on how some of it is spent ... and make difficult decisions whether to pay money to repair broken windows or a leaky roof or to retain staff.''
With an expected annual budget of about $3.5 million, typical of most urban secondary schools, Mr. Varnarva says he will be able to make more efficient use of the money than the local authorities. His state-run school for 600 girls between the ages of 11 and 18 is in a comfortable suburb in south London.
``If we have the management skills and stamina to see it through, I think we'll see very positive effects on the whole education service over the next few years,'' Varnarva says.
Ken Noble, headmaster at the Tulse Hill School in Brixton, is not so sure. He says training will be needed and it could take some years before the schools are prepared for their financial tasks. ``I don't think state schools are ready for that,'' Mr. Noble told the Monitor.
Noble's views are more typical than Varnarva's. He agrees that - in principle - money can be spent more wisely if schools have financial control. But he sees cuts in funding ahead as the government adjusts to the system, and he has questions about how large, one-time expenditures would be handled, points that are vague in the new law.
He says his school, in a low-income suburb of London, has already reduced costs by cutting back on field trips and modifying course syllabuses. With a greater burden on parents to pay for student extras, such as music lessons and special projects, the quality of education for the underprivileged youth will suffer.
``These are things people in Parliament don't understand, because they're not in touch with the grass roots,'' Noble says. If the financial impact of the education reforms is unclear, the push toward greater efficiency and local management is not. It is one objective of the reforms rushed through Parliament by Education Secretary Kenneth Baker earlier this year. ``A national service, locally administered'' was the goal of the Education Act of 1944 followed by an earlier Conservative government. It remains so under Mrs. Thatcher.
In the London area, this has led to the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), with the possible abandonment of many of its services, including adult education. As school administrators in the capital face new responsibilities in management along with the demise of Britain's largest educational bureaucracy, headmasters are leaving their posts at an alarming rate, according to David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. The situation is not so agitated elsewhere in the country, and a few headmasters are relocating to quieter, small-town schools.
Education is not the only reform program Thatcher is undertaking this year, and spillover effects from other new legislation could have a major effect on the schools.
Some 40 percent of public money spent on education in Britain is raised by local government through property taxes, with the balance funded by the central government. With the replacement of property taxes by a per capita or poll tax beginning next year, there is an added layer of uncertainty about the adequacy of future education funding, already below that of other leading developed countries.
According to the ILEA, by 1990 some London boroughs could face a shortfall in education funds under the new revenue-raising system, while other parts of the city will benefit. Similar results can be expected nationwide as the poll tax takes effect over the next two years.
``There is a great deal of turmoil and uncertainty in education today,'' says headmaster Noble in Brixton. ``One doesn't disagree with change, but I think there have been far too many changes too quickly, and people can't easily adjust to these things.''
Others are cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead, even for the headmasters who shoulder greater responsibilities under the new law.
``I think [the reforms] will be beneficial in the long run, provided we are not starved for funds,'' says Ken Brooker, London secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.