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Extra cash must be seen to count

It is difficult to know who should gain most comfort from the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, published this week, or indeed what sense to make of it. Schools have lost out to health, public transport and the police, it seems, when it comes to the people's priorities. The gap between those who want the Government to spend more on health and those who want extra for education has doubled since Labour came to power in 1997, according to the survey.

A see-saw in the public's affections is nothing new, of course, and media headlines on the need for more health service investment may have played its part in these findings. Of less comfort to Ministers on both sides of the border will be the revelation that only 14 per cent said the best way to improve educational standards is by providing extra resources; this compares with 21 per cent in the 1996 survey. On the other hand, 27 per cent want smaller class sizes - the seventh successive year in which the survey has shown growing support despite lack of ministerial enthusiasm.

There is certainly a warning here for politicians as they vie for public support over education. Spending millions more may actually prove counter-productive if there is no sign the sums are making a difference; the survey results could signify no more than the fact that people are less likely to put education at the top of their spending list if they think schools are already getting extra money. It will be fascinating to see if the parallel Scottish Social Attitudes Survey reflects these findings next year or confirms the much-vaunted commitment to public expenditure on education north of the border.

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