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Funding in Wonderland

Linda Cohen on a topsy-turvy world where her school faces making 15 staff redundant despite a budget increase

IT is 8am. I am sitting in a governors' meeting discussing the school budget for 2003-4 and I feel like Alice peering through the looking glass.

I am told the school is getting a 7.2 per cent increase in funding, yet I am discussing making up to 15 staff redundant.

The Government has introduced a new funding formula for schools. We are getting an increase, but it is not enough to cover our rising costs. We knew something was wrong when the school was allocated pound;1.9 million for teachers in 2003-4. Neither pupil nor teacher numbers have changed, yet in 2002-3 we spent pound;2.9m on teachers.

I am a parent governor at Copthall school in Barnet, north London, a 1,100-pupil, multi-ethnic girls' comprehensive, where 16 per cent receive free school meals and 42 per cent do not have English as their mother tongue. We do well in league tables and Office for Standards in Education reports.

We are the sort of school that ministers like to be photographed visiting.

David Miliband, school standards minister, says the new funding formula is fairer and simpler, that local education authorities will get an extra pound;1.4 billion this financial year, and that means a minimum increase of 3.2 per cent per pupil. But London weighting has gone up, national insurance is up 1 per cent, and employers' pension contributions 5 per cent. Changes to teachers' pay structure mean many will receive more than the average 2.9 per cent rise. Only a fifth of the costs of performance-related pay are covered. There is a new pay scale for support staff, and the agreement to free teachers from routine clerical and administrative tasks in September.

I feel angry with both the Government and my LEA. Barnet tried to wriggle out of passing on to schools all the central government funding. It refused to join the 36 LEAs who complained to Mr Miliband and were rewarded with small, albeit inadequate, increases. So what could we as governors do?

If we cut the teaching staff by three and made other savings, we still need pound;3.3m to pay for our teachers. This is a 13.3 per cent increase in teaching costs. I began to question the wisdom of having taken our cleaners on as staff and paying them a better wage. Is this what a lifetime of voting Labour had brought me to? Squeezing the wages of the lowest paid?

What we did was agree a deficit budget without a recovery plan. With some savings we are still a quarter of a million pounds short. Unless the Government changes the funding formula, there is no hope of recovery without making up to 15 staff redundant. Do that, and at a stroke you turn a successful school into a struggling school.

The threat of surcharging was at the back of our minds. Yet the decision was unanimous, with the exception of the governor who is a local councillor. Even our sponsor governor, who is a banker, recommended this course of action. Our case is simple. We cannot cut our budget by a quarter of a million pounds on educational grounds.

This Government can find the additional money to fight a war - surely they can give the same priority to schools. After all, they got us into this mess.

Linda Cohen is a parent governor at Copthall school in Barnet

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