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Fog hasn't lifted here yet

Eighteen months on, the funding formula still needs a radical overhaul, say Assembly members.Gloomy verdicts on progress taken to make school funding arrangements in Wales simpler, fairer and more accountable were made this week.

Assembly members hit out at the lack of action in taking forward 23 recommendations made in the School Funding Arrangements in Wales report, published almost 18 months ago.

During a cross-party scrutiny committee in the Senedd, it was claimed that teachers, governors and parents would still have problems chasing government cash intended for schools as it passed through local authorities.

There was also disappointment that popular calls for a universal guaranteed amount of cash per pupil for every school, regardless of the postcode, appear to have been rejected.

Former education minister Jane Davidson accepted 23 out of 27 recommendations proposed by the cross-party committee in September last year.

But the findings of an explosive academic review, commissioned by the Assembly government, could pave the way for an overhaul of an unpopular school funding formula in Wales based on the standard spending assessment (SSA) in the long term, committee members were told.

The Bramley Review, undertaken by academics at Heriot-Watt University in response to the school funding report, says that school resources, especially at secondary level, are the key to success. Budgets are also best met when based on present need, not the past, it also concludes. And the major factors in determining academic attainment are twofold - poverty and special educational needs.

Under scrutiny, education minister Jane Hutt said the ground-breaking review could have repercussions on the current funding formula.

But the mood was not so positive elsewhere among committee members, who believe much more is needed to make school funding arrangements in Wales fairer and less foggy.

Former chemistry teacher Huw Lewis, Labour AM for Merthyr and Rhymney, claimed a lack of progress in following up the recommendations was depressing.

"Time has not changed a thing," he said.

He attacked levels of education spending by some local authorities this year. "Are we still saying that kids in Denbighshire are not as deserving as kids in Ceredigion? It should be a level playing field no matter where you live in Wales."

He also hit out at Wales's ad hoc grant regime in which schools are forced into entering a bidding war for vital cash.

"Grants should be for things that are above and beyond what is needed - otherwise it should be bolted in right from the start," he said.

After the meeting Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, was unhappy that the current minister Jane Hutt, unlike her predecessor Jane Davidson, appeared to have moved away from making government-recommended levels of education spending for local authorities - the IBA - a target.

"The fact is that 14 out of 22 local authorities did not spend the IBA this financial year and there does not appear to be a lot of pressure on them to explain why not," she said.

Ms Brychan also lashed out at rejections of "basic unit funding" of every pupil.

The main grievance of headteachers who gave evidence to the school funding committee during 2005-6 was a lack of cash in schools. Most said they found it difficult to get to the bottom of whether it was a lack of central funding or because local authorities were holding on to money meant for schools.

Some told committee members horror stories of leaky roofs, pupils sharing books and lack of IT equipment.

Kirsty Williams AM, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said that very little appeared to have changed: "We are still in the funding fog," she said.

And her Tory equivalent Alun Cairns agreed: "Teachers and governors are no nearer being clearer on funding."

The government was also attacked during the scrutiny committee for enterprise and learning for the late delivery of a dedicated website intended to help set out funding arrangements simply and clearly for teachers, governors and parents.

But Ms Hutt agreed that training for school governors might be a way to clear the haze. Jane Davidson had accepted 23 out of 27 recommendations proposed by the cross-party committee in September last year.

Progress to date includes information available on the Assembly's website of local education budgets for 2007-8; consultation on the introduction of three-year flexible budgets for schools that could come into force in 2008-9; and improved transparency through school budget forums.

The scrutiny committee resolved to take evidence from headteacher unions and local government to see how far they believed clarity and accountability had improved since work had started on the recommendations. They will also look more closely at the Bramley Review and its findings.

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