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Budget bonus clouded by hidden strings

Details of how the Government's additional Pounds 2.3 billion expenditure on education in the four home countries will be spent in Scotland were still scarce this week. The major concern of the education community now is how the money is to be distributed and the nature of the strings to be attached.

But Scottish Office officials, pressed to put more flesh on the bones, signalled that the Government wished to proceed consensually. "Under discussion with the local authorities" or even "priorities to be discussed and agreed with the authorities" were stock responses to TES Scotland enquiries.

The surprise bonus, announced in the Chancellor's Budget statement, was accompanied by a clear warning that spending on education is to be tied much more closely to school performance in the future. The White Paper on education standards south of the border reinforced that policy although the Scottish Education Minister is reluctant to embrace it.

The Scottish share of the investment will allow an extra Pounds 89 million to be spent on schools next year, part of an additional Pounds 1 billion funded out of the Government's contingency reserves. The priorities outlined so far are the early years, classroom resources and the raising of standards.

The Treasury has also found additional cash of Pounds 1.3 billion from the proceeds of the windfall tax on the privatised utilities, representing Pounds 150 for every pupil in the country. This will be spent over five years on upgrading school buildings and computers. Scotland will receive Pounds 8.9 million in the current financial year and Pounds 26.7 million in each of the ensuing four years, not just in 1998-99 as the Scottish Office indicated last week.

The total package is worth Pounds 204.7 million over five years. But Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, underlined the tough "something for something" deal which lay at the heart of his Budget and stressed that he expected to see a return for his money. A "comprehensive spending review", led by Alistair Darling, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is now a key determinant of education policy.

Mr Brown said this review of long-term spending needs would aim to ensure that councils met targets for raising standards in schools. He added: "And they must demonstrate that money is being spent improving the quality of pupils' education." The standards initiative launched this week by Brian Wilson, the Scottish Education Minister, reflects at least part of this approach The Treasury Red Book, which sets out the assumptions behind the Budget, reinforced the message by revealing that the Pounds 1.3 billion for renovating buildings and equipment, billed as a "new deal for schools", will "finance improvements to schools that are committed to improved performance".

Mr Brown said the Government had to be satisfied "that resources are going direct to learning in the classroom". But John Travers, president of the Association of Directors of Education, said there would be "major reservations" about any move towards a link between exam results and school expenditure. Such a step is believed to be under consideration in England. Mr Travers welcomed the additional investment in education. Full judgement would be reserved, however, until the method of distributing the cash was clarified. "We hope it will be done according to some objective criteria, such as the number of schools and pupils, rather than by a challenge bid system," he said.

The capital allocations also raise questions about the normal borrowing system for local authority building projects. Mr Travers said earmarking sums for education did not sit easily with the rule change this year which gave councils discretion over capital spending decisions rather than, as previously, receiving specific consents.

Keith Geddes, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, described the new arrangements as a step that would allow councils to "spend to save".

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