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Forty join battle for better funds;News;News and opinion

The poorest local education authorities are joining forces to compete with the 'London lobby', reports Julie Garvey

THE worst-funded local education authorities in England have joined forces in a bid to secure more cash from the Government.

Under the banner, New Deal Fair Deal, 40 authorities are demanding a new funding system which narrows the gap between the best-funded authorities, mainly in London and the South- east, and the worst.

At a seminar in Staffordshire, MPs and councillors from the authorities claimed two million pupils were suffering under the current local government settlement for schools.

Chairman Peter Clarke, the Labour education spokesperson in Gloucestershire, said: "We recognise that any formula will have to be heavily dependent on deprivation factors and will have to take into account real additional costs such as the London allowance. But we maintain that the difference between the generously-funded authorities and the least generously funded is much too big."

Mr Clarke claimed that attempts to persuade ministers to change the formula last year had been blocked at the last minute by MPs representing the South-east.Ivan Ould, a councillor for Leicestershire, which gets the lowest amount of funding per pupil of any county council, said authorities were attempting to compete with the "London lobby".

He said: "The Government should consider the need for a rural weighting to cover things like spiralling transport costs. Just because we are up here and they are down in London, it doesn't mean they can ignore us."

Labour inherited the system for calculating local government funding - Standard Spending Assessments - from the Tories.

A review of how resources are allocated to councils is under way but there will be no change to the current system until after the next general election. However, Education Secretary David Blunkett has said he is sympathetic - schools in his Sheffield constituency are receiving considerably less than those in the South-east.

The New Deal Fair Deal group was formed by the original E7 Group, set up two years ago, and comprising Cheshire, Derbyshire,Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Northumberland, Staffordshire and Warwickshire.

They are now joined by Cambridgeshire, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, North Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, Bury, Dudley, North Tyneside, Solihull, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wakefield, Wigan, Bath and North East Somerset, the East Riding of Yorkshire, North Somerset, Poole, Rutland, South Gloucestershire, Swindon, Warrington, West Berkshire, Wokingham and York.

* THE LOSER - Budget just covers the basics

IF CHRIS McDonnell set up shop 130 miles away in Hertfordshire, his school would be pound;70,000 a year better off.

As headteacher of Fulfen primary school in Burntwood, Staffordshire, he has a budget of pound;519,000 - and a contingency budget of pound;100. He said:

"The funding difference is the equivalent of at least three teachers."

Mr McDonnell said that virtually every school in his area has been forced to cut back on resources and services. He said: "The school governors and I had to make a conscious decision that the most valuable resource was teaching staff. We have had to cut out things such as visits to outside educational sites and library services, anything that could be seen as peripheral.

"We had a great inspection report, but it criticised information technology. We've known for years that we needed to do more, but we just couldn't afford to buy the hardware.

"I never have a chance to think this year we will do this or that. It is not about flexibility and imagination, it is about ensuring the basics are covered."

Staffordshire was one of three authorities praised by the Government for the amount of money it delegated to schools. The council spends more than the Government's recommended amount on education.

Mr McDonnell said: "We have no argument with the council. What we want to see is fairness from national government. I know that compared to some areas of the country, particularly the inner cities, it is considered a bed of roses here.

"We are not talking about taking money from authorities that need it, we are asking for a base level of funding that is the entitlement of every child, irrespective of where they are."

* THE WINNER - Kind Herts and more cash

HERTFORDSHIRE schools receive about pound;200 more per primary pupil and pound;300 more per secondary pupil than schools in other shire authorities.

The county benefits from the "area cost adjustment", an element of the standard spending assessment formula that provides additional funding for authorities in the London region.

But Simon Springett, headteacher of Abbotts Langley primary school and Hertfordshire county secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers, insisted the county's funding allocation was not particularly generous, but admitted that the current funding formula was not ideal.

He said: "As you would expect, any head you care to speak to in Hertfordshire would be able to come up with a shopping list of what they could do if they had more cash."

Despite similarities between shire authorities in terms of the cost of teachers, books and equipment, Mr Springett said Hertfordshire had some characteristics that could warrant slightly higher funding than elsewhere.

"As a Home County, things such as building costs are slightly higher," he said. "We have a number of schools which do struggle. Traditionally, we have quite a lot of smaller village schools with under 100 pupils. Smaller schools are expensive because they can't make economies of scale."

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