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Blinded by a blizzard of figures

SO WHO is right on the political claim and counter-claim? The answer is probably everybody - depending on where you start and how you calculate, Neil Munro writes.

The Government says pound;1.3 billion will be injected into Scottish education between 1999 and 2002 under the comprehensive spending review, including pound;629 million ring-fenced specifically for schools.

The Liberal Democrats say spending on education under the first two Labour years (1997-99) has fallen by just over pound;104m in real terms (a 4.2 per cent cut) and the spending review is merely a catching-up exercise.

The SNP says the pound;1.3bn figure for additional education spending is only pound;633m because the spin doctors have counted the increases twice.

Meanwhile, our annual survey of education spending by the 32 local councils last week revealed an increase of 6.7 per cent from pound;2.561bn in 1998-99 to pound;2.734bn in the financial year 1999-2000 which begins in April.

The answers are both simple and complex. The extra pound;1.3bn is calculated by the Government as follows - pound;300m for this year, pound;450m from April 2000 and pound;556m from April 2001.

The approach has been criticised by the Treasury Select Committee of senior backbench MPs. Its report last July suggested the real rise for the comparable English increase of pound;16m should be half that since the Government is counting the additional sums for 1999 and 2000 twice instead of a straight year-on-year increase. Hence the SNP's pro-rata calculation for Scotland of pound;633m.

Some of the figures, of course, refer to schools and others do not; some focus on local authority expenditure on education, but not others.

The Liberal Democrat claim of a pound;104m reduction in education spending, for example, is certainly Scottish Office data using the same price base of 1997-98.

But it refers entirely to local authority expenditure and is not wholly surprising since Labour fought the election on an open pledge to stick to previous Treasury spending plans for the first two years, which is what this decrease confirms.

These are therefore really Tory figures as the Government's internal party critics are only too ruefully aware, which perhaps explains why the Scottish Conservatives have not so far entered the debate.

It is also important to remember, in considering local authority spending increases, that these are largely fuelled by pay rises which receive no central Government support.

The Scottish Office expects grant-aided expenditure by education authorities to rise by 6.4 per cent in the coming financial year, 4.3 per cent from April 2000 and 4 per cent the year after (which includes money from the excellence fund).

This means a Government estimate of pound;2.591bn of council spending on education this year rising to pound;2.703bn and then to pound;2.810bn. The figure planned by the Tories for 1997-98 was pound;2.3 bn But grant-aided expenditure is not total spending: it is simply the Government's view of what it thinks authorities need to spend on services and, consequently, what it is prepared to shell out.

The Scottish Office also spends on education directly at its own hand, largely on colleges and universities. It claims this budget will rise from pound;302m in 1999-2000 to pound;556m in two years' time. These figures include cash for the under-fives and child care.

But the Government also conceded in a Commons written answer last July that direct Scottish Office spending on education (which in this instance includes sport) had suffered a 9.9 per cent fall in real terms between 1997-99, using 1997-98 as the price base.

So you takes your money . . .

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