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Budget cuts give Labour some explaining to do

Ministers may talk of massive investment but many schools will have to reduce spending on books this year to fund staff pay rises. Jon Slater reports

MANY secondary schools will be worse off this year because increases in budgets will not cover rises in teachers' pay.

A survey to be published before the election reveals that the worst-hit schools have less cash in their budgets than last year. Schools in Hertfordshire, for example, have seen budgets go up by 10 per cent this year, while secondaries in Bristol and Sefton, Merseyside, face cuts of more than 2 per cent. Teachers' pay - which makes up the bulk of school budgets - rose by 3.7 per cent.

"The picture varies enormously across the country," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, which conducted the survey.

"A large number of schools have had an increase (in percentage terms) of less than the teachers' pay rise. Because 80 per cent of a school's budget is in staffing that means less for books and equipment."

The survey looks at the change in school budgets between the financial years of 2000-1 and 2001-2 (the current year). It examines money received from councils, the standards fund and given directly to schools by the Chancellor.

Its claims will anger Labour which says that it has made a significant investment in schools since it took power. Ministers point out that, taking inflation into account, spending on schools per pupil is now pound;540 higher than it was when Labour came to power and that, as promised in its last manifesto, spending on education as a proportion of national income is now higher than in 1997.

But these figures only tell part of the story. Education spending remained flat in Labou's first two years in office. It was not until 1999-2000 that it rose above the level spent by the Tories in 1995-6.

Anxious to hide the squeeze on public services caused by sticking to the Tory spending plans, in 1998 ministers promised a "pound;19 billion" increase in education spending over three years. This was an accounting trick which, coupled with the announcement of the same funding increases several times over, did much to undermine teachers' faith in Labour's spending promises.

The early squeeze and a booming economy meant that, on average, Labour spent a smaller share of annual national income on education than John Major did from 1992 to 1997.

However, in the past two years, the big rises in funding promised by Labour have finally materialised. Overall, education spending increased by pound;5bn in real terms between 1997 and 2001 and is set to rise further.

If Labour sticks to its spending plans then education spending in 2003-4 will have increased by more than a third since 1997-8 - easily meeting the pledge repeated in this year's manifesto to increase spending on education as a proportion of national income.

However, teaching unions are concerned that unless the funding system is changed, not all schools will get their fair share. They acknowledge that resources have gone into education but have little confidence that the money is allocated fairly via councils (see box left). The Government is consulting on reforming the council funding system.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said: "The funding system is up the spout. Similar schools in similar areas in different parts of the country get completely different amounts."

Tory policy launch, 13

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