LIBERAL Democrats have joined a swelling chorus of voices demanding a national funding formula for education and an end to the "manifestly unfair" gaps in budgets between schools in neighbouring authorities.
The party's education spokesman, Phil Willis, announced the policy shift at the North of England Conference in Wigan last week, urging the Government to grasp the nettle of reform.
Afterwards he warned Liberal Democrat activists and councillors - who have resisted reform for fear their local schools would lose out - that change had to come.
Mr Willis said successive governments had centralised education so much through the national curriculum, inspections and tests that the system was now "de facto ... a nationalised education system".
"Yet this national programme is resourced via a system which is archaic and arcane," he said. A primary pupil in Derby was funded at pound;1,000 less than a pupil in Lambeth, south London. A small secondary school in Cambridgeshire lost out on pound;300,000 simply for being on the wrong side of the Hertfordshire border.
The Lib Dems believe Gordon Brown's Treasury war chest offers the chance to raise funding to the level of the top - especially since those best-funded authorities tend to be Labour-run.
Ministers would set a basic funding level which would take account of the real needs of children and the activities expected by Government. It would allow for local variation but be open and transparent. Councils would top up these school budgets with money for locally-agreed projects, retaining the local democratic link.
Variations in funding have grown so wide the issue is fast riing up the national agenda, with unions leading calls for change. The Secondary Heads Association will host a conference on the subject later this month. Its general secretary, John Dunford, welcomed the Liberal Democrats' "volte face".
Wigan saw delegates in a generally good mood, as the conference in the newly-built sports complex offered them a chance to ease back into work after the indulgences of the extended bank holiday.
Education Secretary David Blunkett added to the mood with a speech which did not crack the whip over secondary schools as sharply as some had expected. It glossed over some of the more pungent criticisms, outlined in an accompanying pamphlet, in favour of urging schools and local authorities to work together.
If it seemed low-key - given it signalled a major shift in focus from primary to secondary
education - then delegates were aware it was a mid-term speech and that success will depend on Mr Blunkett unlocking the Chancellor's war chest in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. So no grand promises yet.
Local authorities were
particularly delighted to find the speech contained not one word about privatisation - in contrast to Government speeches at each of the previous two conferences.
Conservative education spokeswoman Theresa May, like Mr Willis, was addressing the conference for the first time. She outlined plans to allow successful schools to expand, and parents, private companies and independent schools to set up their own schools with state funding - part of the party's "common sense revolution".
And HM inspector David Moore - responsible for the inspectorate's behaviour policy - highlighted the problems of excluded children and urged teachers to think more closely about how they dealt with behaviour issues.