Home > Analysis, Education > Quangos: Cut the red tape, don’t jeopardise success.

Quangos: Cut the red tape, don’t jeopardise success.

In a series of measures to slash the deficit, a leaked government document has revealed fresh plans to scrap dozens of quangos ( non- governmental agencies funded by the state) including many with responsibility for education and families. This was almost inevitable, and of course, the theory behind it is logical. Most people would surely accept that taking steps such as cutting the salaries of chief executives and doing away with huge advertising bills is a step in the right direction, an area within which we can save government funds, without having a direct effect on public services.

The problem with quangos is that they all seem to be tarred with the same brush. We hear the name and assume they’re all bureaucratic associations which in all likelihood promise much and deliver little. Of course there will be several such agencies in existence, but when you look a little closer at the potential quangos up for being scrapped, it is worrying to see so many agencies which are known to have made a contribution to thousands of children being made to prove their value, yet again in financial terms, rather than personal progress. Take Becta, or to give it its Sunday name, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. It was created in 1998 to promote the effective use of ICT in schools. From personal experience, the service provided by Becta has had a real and direct impact on schools. Since 2001, their influence has helped thousands of schools teach ICT as part of the curriculum, and helped ensure that it is used to aid develop literacy and numeracy skills. Their Home Access programme gave laptops and broadband capability to over 20,000 of the UK’s poorest homes, ensuring that no matter what resources parents have, all children have equal access to the Internet. This is a means by which to reduce inequalities in access to learning and I know several families who took full advantage of this scheme. The organisation employs 240 staff and 120 contractors, people who would, through no fault of their own, be at least temporarily dependent in state benefit should these quangos be closed down.  On its site, Becta admits to significant spending; £1.5bn has been spent through its procurement agreements since 2002, but they also claim that this has saved the education system £223m – which would be an average of about £28m per year. It also says it has made cost savings of £55m for educational institutions and providers including schools, local authorities and the skills sector in the past year alone. Becta has clearly proven itself to be successful, and it now has several business sponsors, meaning the government has to provide fewer funds itself. We need to look at the long-term view; is saving a few million pounds now really worth putting ICT competency for thousands of children at risk when technology is so crucial to our economy?

The leaked document (provided by ‘a Whitehall source’) revealed that the Schools Food Trust was another potential victim of the proposed cuts. According to its website, the SFT ‘is an independent body with the unique remit of transforming school food and food skills.’ It was initially created in response to chef Jamie Oliver’s TV documentary, ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’, which discovered that the food served to prison inmates had more nutritional value than many school dinners served across England’s local education authorities. The remit of the SFT was to ‘ensure all schools met the food based and nutrient based standards for lunch and non-lunch food and increase the take-up of school meals.’

So, just how effective has this agency been? In 2006, the Institute for Social and Economic Research (the ISER) commissioned a report into the effect of Oliver’s campaign. The research findings indicate an improvement in results for 11-year-olds leaving primary education between 2005 and 2007, during the initial stages of the SFT’s work. In English there was an increase of 3-6 percentage points in pupils reaching Level 4, the expected national average. In science there was an increase of 3-8 percentage points in pupils reaching Level 5. Considering the push for improvement in this area, this is surely a hugely positive result. There was also a 15% reduction in absences associated with sickness. The report found that “children seem to rely more on food provided at school now than they did three decades ago”, in which case there is no justification for bringing such a scheme to an end. It’s true that it has taken a long time to persuade some children to try the new menus on offer, but for those of less well-off parents who are given free school meals, the positive effect, both in terms of achievement and behaviour has been noticeable.

Beyond the statistics, it is clear to anyone who has spent time in schools over the last five years what a positive impact the new school meals have had. Alongside the improvement in lunches, all primary-age pupils are now given free fruit every day of the school week and bottled water, both of which help concentration. The majority of infant- age pupils are also provided with milk every morning. As a package, these measures have led to an improvement in behaviour, and ensure that for the children who may be nutritionally deficient or experience a lack of good food at home, there is at least one meal a day of which they can be guaranteed.

Cutting non-essential government spending is one of the cornerstones of reducing the deficit. The debate, however, needs to be focused on where these cuts will occur, and who can most easily afford to shoulder the burden. We have a duty as a society to ensure that children are not being made to suffer for the overspending of government departments. Yes, there are quangos we can and should do away with. What we can’t allow to happen is to let vulnerable members of our society be held to account for the mistakes of others.

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  1. September 27, 2010 at 21:44

    I struggle when I read things like this not because what you say isn’t true but because when it comes to cutting costs, the areas of society that suffer are the ones that everyone tries to make us believe will gain us the most from these cuts with the less impact to who they cut from. Which is quite a contradiction considering the facts! It seems that because society doesn’t know about these ‘quangos’ they believe the cuts are coming from something so less required and easily disregarded. It saddens me that in today’s age the common fundamentals are considered insignificant and with the poorer state being at the receiving end of it why can we do nothing about it?

    • September 27, 2010 at 21:52

      It’s a shame that we live in a world where virtually everyone has to prove himself. We need to put more faith in the people trained to do their jobs and spend less on bureaucracy committed by so-called managers and executives who have no idea what progress is really being made at the grass roots level.

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