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Heads fail in plea for Pounds 4.4m

A paper produced by heads and governors revealing the true figures on education spending in Devon has come too late to convince the Government to allow the county to spend an extra Pounds 4.4 million.

But John Garnett, head of Exmouth Community College and vice-chair of Devon Association of Secondary Heads, sees the paper as a reluctant step into the political arena by those in education.

"A few years ago it wouldn't have happened, but given it is impossible to get any reasonable dialogue with local Tory MPs, we had no choice. Ironically, the Government giving us power over our own budgets means we are now better able to produce financial material like this," he said.

In Devon, they can only look to neighbouring Somerset and reflect on what might have been. There, all-party support led to a successful lobby of the Government to get the spending cap lifted. Closer to home, Conservative MPs have been vehement critics of the local county council.

Mr Garnett, whose 2,060-pupil school is among the largest in Europe, said: "I am sure people will find it hard to understand why Devon Tory MPs failed to support raising the capping limit when we are drastically underfunded and the cuts we face are so savage.

"The MPs seem resistant to acknowledging or understanding the figures, or trying to give Devon a fair crack of the whip. Some MPs say privately they will support an increase in the budget but then don't vote for it. I find that puzzling. Lifting the spending cap would have halved the cuts this year at no extra cost on the community charge."

Countywide, an average secondary school is this year Pounds 87,000 worse off and a primary Pounds 12,000 poorer. There will be 150 redundancies among teachers and an inevitable rise in class sizes. In a comparison with Kent - a county with a similar demographic profile - a child in Devon receives Pounds 100 less.

In the May local elections, the Conservatives suffered a humiliating reverse with Devon MPs receiving bulging postbags about education cuts. There are predictions that the latest stance of some MPs could cost them their seats in a county where Conservatives currently hold nine of the 11 constituencies. Sir John Hannam, Conservative MP for Exeter, at one stage attempted to muster all-party support for a lobby of the Government. He claims it collapsed because of intransigence by the local authority. Critics say he failed to persuade hard-line colleagues.

"We have had the electoral repercussions last May in the local elections, " he said. "Devon Conservative MPs have had meetings with ministers to ensure that changes made in funding will protect schools in Devon next year."

He added: "I know it has been confusing for parents and teachers stuck in the middle with a Liberal Democrat council blaming the Government, and the Government claiming Devon received a fair settlement and the council has managed its affairs in a way to clobber education. When it comes to the crunch, the worst of the cuts have been mitigated."

David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, sees it differently. He said: "There has been some utter nonsense talked by local Tories. At a time when we needed a united front, they refused their backing and now standards in education in the county are bound to suffer."

Brian Greenslade, chair of the policy committee on the county council, was disappointed that the capping limit was not lifted when Devon's case was similar to that of Somerset.

"What makes us most angry is that it is not just the council saying we need this money, but parents, teachers, and governors who have campaigned to highlight the effect these cuts will have. Yet their voices have not been heard. All we have had from local MPs is rhetoric and I don't think the public has been taken in."

St Luke's High School in Exeter is the only one in the county where the governors refused to set a budget and the LEA took over delegated powers. Head Mike Couton fears cuts required next year are "too horrible to contemplate".

If the worst fears for next year are confirmed his school may not be alone. He said: "I admire the courage of the governors and the stand that they took against the cuts. I wish many other schools had the courage to do the same thing."

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