Schools in some of the most deprived areas in England are missing out on thousands of pounds in the Government's drive to raise standards.
New figures show that, in 19992000, the best-funded councils received more than four times as much money from the Government's Standards Fund per pupil as the worst funded.
Although disadvantaged inner-London boroughs received the most money, many councils in the Northeast and on Merseyside got less cash than some relatively affluent Home Counties. Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire both received more than pound;120 per pupil. By contrast, Newcastle got pound;112, St Helens, in Merseyside, pound;97 and Sunderland just pound;78.
The figures suggest that a large comprehensive in Sunderland could be as much as pound;78,000 worse off than a similar school in Buckinghamshire.
Ministers use the Standards Fund to bypass local authorities and ensure that money is available to specific projects, such as literacy and numeracy, and social inclusion.
But it has been beset by controversy. When ministers set up the fund, complaints centred on the process by which schools bid for money. The unions claimed it caused unnecessary papework and that schools and authorities who lacked the expertise to bid for cash could lose out.
In the year after the election just pound;320 million was available through the fund. By 19992000 this had risen to pound;1.25 billion and it is set to increase further to pound;2.9bn in 20012. Although ministers have reduced the proportion allocated through bids, the inequalities between the amounts given to different authorities have grown.
In 19978 the biggest beneficiary of the Standards Fund received pound;50 per pupil compared to the pound;21 received by the lowest-funded authority. In 19992000, Tower Hamlets, London, received pound;256 per pupil compared to only pound;57 given to Kingston-upon-Thames.
"Some authorities with deprivation are missing out," said John Bangs, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers.
"There is a big question mark over areas' needs. Some of the North-east authorities, in particular, are right to feel aggrieved."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"Too much depends on how much a local authority can afford to put in to match funds. Some authorities are left with a choice of whether to put money into school budgets or the Standards Fund. It is a nonsense."