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Gold could be bright fantasy

It may not be frankincense and myrrh exactly, but the 6.5 per cent, pound;1.4 billion boost for schools (page 6) ought to be a cheering prospect for the New Year, if not an early Christmas present. But wise men and women will be wary in case this gold proves to be just so much tinsel.

In a quarter of all authorities, including many in the South-east where recruitment and retention has become a complete nightmare, schools will find little seasonal cheer in the news that they are to receive just 3.2 per cent - barely more than a standstill budget given next year's pay and price increases.

In almost one in three education authorities the promised increase is 7 per cent. Schools in historically underfunded areas may be tempted to toast at least the birth of greater justice, even if it will still take several years for such differentials to create real parity.

No one wants to be looking a gift horse in the mouth at this time of year. But even these winning schools would do well to check that no one has removed the bang from their cracker before they start celebrating. Ministers have threatened to force authorities to keep budgets up to the levels that the Government estimates they need to spend on schools. But as heads have found too often in the past, the money promised by ministers does not always turn up at the school level.

Councils already spending above the previous inadequate government assessments of what schools need may be tempted now simply to substitute the new money they are now to get for the extra they have been finding out of council tax. The result: little or no real increase for schools.

The transfer of 16 to 19 funding to the Learning and Skills Council promises another rich vein of obfuscation. So does the consolidation into core funding of previously earmarked government funds for such things as induction for new teachers, golden handshakes, performance pay and special needs. And here schools will have to weigh the extra money against the additional responsibilities.

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