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Big-class Budget

You win some, you lose some. Or in the case of education spending, you win but somehow it still turns out to be another cut. The full implications of Kenneth Clarke's budget for education were not due to be spelt out until after The TES went to press.

But by the time the Chancellor had sat down on Tuesday it was already clear that the 1 per cent extra for education and the 2.2 per cent on local authority spending he had headlined were hardly a bonanza; indeed, in spite of the "priority" Education Secretary Gillian Shephard claimed had been given to education, next year will inevitably see more teacher redundancies, larger classes and tattier classrooms.

What Whitehall calls the education budget perversely excludes the main spending on all maintained schools, as this comes out of the local government purse. The Department for Education is only responsible for the centralised spending on capital works, grant-maintained schools and further and higher education. The 1 per cent increase in real terms in the DFE budget is only half what the Government promised last year for 1995-96, thanks to lower than expected inflation, tightening of the screws on higher education and hiccups in policies such as opting out and inspection.

The full scale of the failure of GM expansion is revealed in the difference between the Pounds 83m in grants now earmarked for l995-96 and the Pounds 193 million promised in last year's Budget for the same period. It is unsurprising that Mrs Shephard did not even venture a figure for following years.

There are apparently no longer any targets for raising GM numbers; and few remaining bribes either. Even the specialist schools programme is to be opened to all maintained schools. If schools are to continue to receive unequal treatment, it is as well that local authority ones should be equally eligible though the result will be division rather than diversity. How does it help raise standards in the weaker schools to which Mrs Shephard wants to give priority (see page 2) by giving Pounds 100,000 plus Pounds 300 per pupil to schools which are already exceptional in their specialist field and in receipt of Pounds 100,000 of private sponsorship?

The 10 per cent cut in the budget of the Office for Standards in Education looks savage at first sight from a Government committed to raising standards. But when the 45 per cent decrease in the numbers of primary inspections planned for next year (revealed in last week's TES) is taken into account, the saving seems modest enough. That OFSTED plans to spend almost as much on rather fewer inspections may be a recognition that proper inspection cannot be done for the kind of money allowed, especially as it is the market and not OFSTED which is supposed to fix the price.

The bulk of school spending is not in Mrs Shephard's hands at all, but nominally the responsibility of the Environment Secretary John Gummer. Even before fuller details of the local government support settlement were announced it was clear that the proposed increase of just 2.2 per cent in standard spending spells bad news for many schools.

Just how bad is difficult to predict but by the time the additional cash for care in the community and the transitional costs of local government reorganisation are subtracted the 2.2 per cent is reckoned to be worth less than one per cent. Inescapable additional costs, such as an estimated 110, 000 more pupils next year plus any wage settlements and other inflationary rises, would more than consume that if it really existed. But the Government calculates its increases on what it said local authorities should be spending and, of course, they are already spending more than that; Pounds 45 billion according to the local government organisations compared with the Pounds 43.5bn the Government says they should spend next year.

Whether they will be able to continue spending at current levels depends on a series of unknowns such as what they will be allowed to raise in council tax and how much an individual authority can find from reserves. This year councils drew an unprecedented Pounds 775 million from that source and many now say the cupboard is bare.

The final winners and losers in the annual school spending lottery are, of course, decided by the random numbers generated by the ping-pong balls of the Government's standard spending assessment formula. For some this will mean extra money because of adjustments in the way grant is being distributed. So "it could be you" next year who is sacking a teacher, being sacked or teaching a larger class.

Ministers will say they have heard all this before; predictions of massive teacher redundancies which apparently never materialised. Part of the explanation for that is in those now diminished reserves. Many authorities have made great efforts to fund teachers' salary rises to avoid sackings.

When teacher job-losses do occur they happen quietly, school by school in ones and twos and are often achieved by early retirements and non-replacement. But the evidence of a worsening of pupil-teacher ratios is clear enough. A public spending increase designed not to cover salary and pupil number increases is a budget for bigger classes.

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