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Festive cheer for Mr Clarke

As rebel MPs muster their forces over university tuition fees and schools nervously await their budgets, this winter looks bleak for Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary.

Yet a cool glance at the facts shows that, at the start of 2004, the Government has some solid educational credits in the bank.

Despite last year's funding setback, schools have seen big financial gains since Labour won the 1997 election. The amount spent per pupil has risen by pound;1,000, average teachers' pay is running well ahead of inflation and there is more real-terms capital investment in schools than at any time for at least 30 years.

Mr Clarke can argue that, even if middle-class students are being asked to pay more for a degree, working-class children are now receiving more help at the time when it counts most - before they reach the age of five.

Spending on Sure Start, the support programme for under-fives and their families, will reach pound;1 billion next year.

A good time, then, to review the effect of the present funding system.

Professor Tim Brighouse's call for extra funds for children who perform worst in national tests at the ages of five and 11, which we report today, is a reminder that the Government is still struggling to fulfil its promise of a decent education for the most deprived pupils.

Truancy rates remain stubbornly unchanged and the proportion of pupils achieving five or more passes at GCSE, including English and maths, at A*-G, fell slightly this year. By contrast, the proportion achieving five good passes continues to rise.

Our survey of the erosion of free education also highlights the plight of those left behind while standards in most schools rise. No wonder increasing numbers of headteachers are calling in fundraisers when entry to the specialist schools programme depends on sponsorship.

As schools rely more on contributions from parents for books, transport and even teachers, those in the poorest parts of cities and the countryside are bound to fall further behind.

Unlike his Conservative predecessors, Tony Blair recognises that more money does mean higher standards. Of course, ministers need to sort out the level of funding so that schools really do receive the promised real-terms increase.

But they should not stop there. Until now, they have channelled extra funding for disadvantaged pupils through specific projects. They should look again at whether more systematic support is needed. Schools with a high proportion of difficult pupils should be able to pay for more and better teachers.

Even if Professor Brighouse's suggestion of ballet classes for all proves a little too imaginative for Mr Clarke, the London commissioner's case for tipping the financial balance in favour of the poorest is a powerful one.

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