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Cash is as elusive as Iraqi WMDs

The numbers varied, but there was no shortage of surveys as the funding crisis threatened jobs.

The BBC said 1,400 teachers would get P45s, the Independent 960, whileThe TES estimated there would be more than 1,000 job losses. All confirmed that education is now the Government's biggest domestic headache.

Schools minister David Miliband batted off criticism from Tory spokesman Damian Green on Radio 4's Today programme by arguing that redundancies would be lower than earlier surveys had suggested - and many were due to falling pupil rolls, not lack of funds.

But Education Secretary Charles Clarke faced charges in the Evening Standard that he misled MPs when he insisted there would be no more redundancies this year than last. Such certainty was questionable given that, the next day, the DfES emailed education authorities asking for the actual figures.

Then Tony Blair, quizzed by Sky's Adam Boulton on Sunday, tried to sound as convinced that the missing cash would turn up as he was that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction would emerge.

So Mr Clarke could hardly have relished yesterday's encounter with council leaders (see story, left).

Even his solution of direct funding from Whitehall might not be trouble-free as the Independent on Sunday claimed that Chancellor Gordon Brown has denied his Cabinet rival "a lifeline" by refusing to find extra cash for the plan. Less credibly, the Express suggested Mr Clarke might be shifted in next week's reshuffle to appease Deputy PM John Prescott, who sees himself as councillors' best buddy.

Whatever happens, next year's budgets must be properly modelled in schools.

And Government officials must identify and resolve potential difficulties early on.

If they do, there may be a silver lining - though in the form of funding clarity rather than former chief inspector Chris Woodhead's suggestion in the Sunday Times of a "cull of poor teachers".

But, for now, the missing millions have further dented the Government's hard-won reputation for competence in education. It will be hard to regain.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1997-2001

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