Funding still in a fog, claim unions

Inquiry is over but minister decides against overhaul. Nicola Porter reports

Unions and headteachers have accused officials of "fudging" far-reaching recommendations to overhaul school funding.

However, Jane Davidson, minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, defended her decision to maintain the status quo, claiming change could do more harm than good.

Ms Davidson came under pressure to act on school funding following a critical report presented by a five-strong Assembly committee, two of whom were Labour members.

In a statement to the Senedd this week, she accepted the "majority of the recommendations".

In all, there were 22 recommendations based on evidence given by unions, headteachers, governors and local authority representatives. But education union leaders in the public gallery said they had been bitterly let down after she only delivered on several key recommendations, including the introduction of three-year budgets, probably in 20089.

Heads said they would not see more money at the frontline to cover books, equipment and staffing costs after she gave her sympathy, but said setting a common basic funding could prove too difficult.

Lynne Neagle, Labour AM for Torfaen and school funding committee member, was clearly unhappy with Ms Davidson's response, claiming the "most difficult things to do were most often the right things to do."

Gareth Jones, Welsh secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said words now had to be followed up by actions.

He added: "There has been progress, and we are pleased the recommendations for consistent financial reporting are taking place."

But Geraint Davies, Welsh secretary of teachers' union the NASUWT Cymru, said her response offered nothing to schools struggling to make ends meet.

He claimed the Welsh Assembly elections next May influenced her decision.

Other recommendations taken up included a requirement for local authorities to put in writing why they had spent less than Assembly government-set indicators, and for local authorities to give more weight to sparsity and deprivation when setting budgets.

But calls for budgets set on historical factors to be scrapped, and a new formula arrived at, were put on the back burner.

Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's shadow education secretary, said the committee's work had not been wasted.

"What was recommended and the evidence put on record could come back to haunt the minister," she said.

The minister had sided with present local government mechanisms for funding schools while giving her evidence to the committee, rejecting calls for a national funding system.

Heads and governors had told their tales of woe in evidence over a nine-month period, including pupils sharing textbooks, leaky roofs and budgets well in the red.

Brian Lightman, head of St Cyres comprehensive, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, told how good results at the school were down to overworked and dedicated staff, not adequate funding on the frontline. He said the minister's response would not guarantee any more cash from the low-spending Vale of Glamorgan council.

At present, the Assembly government calculates how much it thinks each local authority needs to spend on services such as education, generating an "indicator-based assessment" (IBA) for each spending area in each council.

Most of the funding is not ring-fenced, so councils can decide how much of their budgets to spend on different services. This year, half of Wales's 22 councils spent more than the Assembly's IBA, and half spent less on education.

But the Welsh Local Government Association said centralising school funding could be counter-productive and costly.

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