Funding row hots up

The row over school funding intensified this week with Oxfordshire planning to bust its government-imposed spending limit while Staffordshire heads lobbied Parliament.

Today, parents with pupils at Pen Mill infants in Yeovil, Somerset, are to hand a 600-signature strong petition into 10 Downing Street, complaining about inequalities in funding across the country.

They claim Hertfordshire schools receive Pounds 140 per pupil more than those in Somerset.

Budget difficulties in schools will be highlighted in a National Education Week next month, organised by the Fight Against Cuts in Education.

Meanwhile, Conservative and Labour councillors in Oxfordshire have agreed a budget of Pounds 6 million above the Pounds 339.5m allowed by the Government in a move designed to protect education from severe cuts. If the extra spending is not approved by ministers, they have warned there could be serious implications for schools, whose budgets this year were cut byPounds 1.8 m.

It is the second time Oxfordshire has threatened to breach the cap. Last year, the hung authority wanted to spend Pounds 7m more than the Government had allocated. Ministers refused to allow the council to do so, but acknowledged it had severe difficulties and said it could borrow Pounds 3.5m.

Councillors now want to spend Pounds 6m more than the Government has said is available in an attempt to protect education from major cuts and to minimise cuts to other key front-line services.

Nevertheless, they expect education will still have to face cuts of more than Pounds 1m, while social services would be forced to make savings of Pounds 3.3m.

Education is facing cuts ranging from help for children with special educational needs, adult education and home to school transport, to discretionary grants and the music service.

Social services is considering whether to axe some services to children and families, the elderly, people with physical and learning disabilities and people with mental health needs.

If ministers are not sympathetic to the budget, the authority is entitled to seek the approval of Parliament. If it is still not approved, the authority would wipe out help with post-16 transport. Discretionary awards would also be hit hard.

Charles Shouler, leader of the authority's Conservative group, said: "We have been seeking to protect and give priority to schools. That does mean that other parts of education and other services have to face cuts but it was the best package we could negotiate."

Bob Langridge, Labour leader, added: "We believe (the cap-busting budget) is the only chance we have of being able to spend more money on Oxfordshire's services."

Headteachers from Staffordshire this week took their fight over funding directly to Parliament. Eighty heads from primary and secondary schools in the county lobbied MPs, met junior education minister Cheryl Gillan, and delivered petitions and letters to Downing Street, the Department for Education and Employment, Department of the Environment, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Staffordshire is second from bottom in a league table of funding allocated by Government to the counties.

Chris McDonnell, head of Fulfen primary in Burntwood, near Litchfield and county NAHT secretary, said: "Our pupils are getting a raw deal.

"I have got a 350-place primary, and if it moved to Hertfordshire I would get another Pounds 70,000 without changing anything. For a 1,000-place comprehensive, you would get Pounds 250,000 more.

"We recognise that we are not going to change this year's budget, but we have got to get the message across that whoever is elected to run this country has got to give education a fair crack of the whip.

"If you want a service you have got to pay for it."

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