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Editorial: Jam session

Chancellor Brown may yet have a pleasant surprise in store for schools in next week's Budget - but the indications suggest otherwise. Labour long ago committed itself to the previous Government's below-inflation spending plans - along with the assumption that there were still further "efficiency savings" to be found. There is talk of education benefiting from reforms in the welfare budget or from the Government's departmental review. But that all has the piquant flavour of jam tomorrow.

The representatives of local government argue a good case, as they always do at this time of the year. With 55,000 extra minds to feed and other unavoidable demands on the service, they calculate that education needs a 2.8 per cent increase to maintain services next year - on top of 2.5 per cent to meet price and wage increases. Government expenditure plans envisage a 1 or 1.2 per cent increase in local authority spending, though there might, once again, be an attempt to exhort or extort a bigger slice of the cake for education. Whatever the competing needs of social services, roads or housing, the real strength of the education argument is the thousands of parents, governors and teachers prepared to protest against "cuts".

But it remains to be seen whether the Blair Government, five years from its next general election, feels vulnerable to such popular protests or how education will fare in competition with Labour's other sacred cow, the National Health Service. Leaders of that service were just as vociferous this week about the rising numbers of operations being cancelled, and a funding crisis growing at the rate of #163;1 million a week.

An extra #163;900m to fund growth and the teachers' pay award is the particular target adopted by the Local Government Association (page 1). By way of smart ammunition, it is using the argument that failure to provide it will inevitably mean increased class sizes - in direct contradiction to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Labour Government's election promise.

A key weakness in this argument is that at least two-thirds of that sum already languishes in the balances held by schools. Indeed, local authorities themselves over recent years have experienced the chagrin of squeezing and scraping their own resources to maintain school spending, only to see balances transfer from council coffers to school ones.

There are, of course, some good reasons for schools to hold surpluses. Heads and governors may be anticipating an imminent mismatch between income and outgoings. Some are saving for a special project - though whether revenue provided for today's pupils should be accumulated for a capital project for tomorrow's is highly questionable. Large sums held for some unimaginably rainy day could point to mismanagement or maldistribution. Funding formulas are supposed to reflect needs.

Any suggestion that local authorities should now mount a general raid on school balances to claw back underspends from the rich or prudent to aid the poor or spendthrift invites resistance. "Over my dead body," the chair of the National Governors' Council cautions (TES2, page 25). But it is already well-established practice for some authorities to act, not like Robin Hood, but as bankers, securing the accumulated funds of schools in surplus to lend to those schools which need to bridge a funding gap. It is hard to see, however, how this could do more than tide a minority of schools over a short-term crisis.

What the Government must be asking itself, if it sticks to its predecessor's guns, is how real a crisis schools face. Orthodox theory is that class sizes have risen inexorably as a result of repeated spending cuts. And maybe it is the popular conception that matters. But the reality suggested by the Department for Education and Employment's figures is more complex.

For a start, they show that following the introduction of local management, spending per pupil rose in real terms. Only in 199596 - the latest figures available - did it fall below the 198990 equivalent figure,and then by less than 1 per cent.

And there is a stark difference between primary and secondary spending. For the average primary pupil it rose by more than 9 per cent in real terms over that period; this contrasts with secondary, where spending per pupil fell by almost 5 per cent after inflation is allowed for. And yet despite that 9 per cent increase, primary classes continued to grow. If reducing class sizes was an option, it was not a priority for many governing bodies. Instead, primary schools increased spending on non-contact time, books, equipment and non-teaching staff. Support staff spending has doubled since local management began - with the biggest growth in primary in-class support.

If the teachers' pay award is not fully funded this year, there is indeed every likelihood that class sizes may rise even further. But looking at the use to which primary schools have put their funding over the past seven or eight years may well lead the Government to conclude that funding teachers' pay carries no guarantee that class sizes will be reduced accordingly.

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