Midwinter cries foul over Pounds 1.3bn hand-out

ONE OF Scotland's leading independent analysts has challenged the Government's claim that an extra Pounds 1.3 billion will be spent on education over the next three years and says half of the cash comes from creative accounting.

Professor Arthur Midwinter, dean of arts and social sciences at Strathclyde University, believes core education services will continue to be squeezed for the next two years, adding to the cuts of Labour and Conservative administrations. Only the final year of the three-year budget cycle is likely to restore spending levels.

Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, has repeatedly highlighted the Pounds 1.3 billion extra for Scottish education under the comprehensive spending review but Professor Midwinter, an expert in finance and government, believes the use of cumulative accounting has hiked the sums. "The Government has counted next year's money three times and the year after twice," he said.

The Pounds 4 billion extra for all services ministers have promised for Scotland over the next three years is in reality only Pounds 2 billion, Professor Midwinter calculates. When the same formula is applied to education spending, which includes further and higher education, the Pounds 1.3 billion pledge is halved. An SNP study has already reached a similar figure.

"That does not look unrealistic and it is not difficult to see pressure on budgets," Professor Midwinter told The TES Scotland.

He believes education will be 2 per cent short because of the Government's decision to stick to the previous Tory spending plans. There will have been five years of "persistent squeeze".

Spending on local authority education services will be hit, Professor Midwinter said. "There will be a continuing squeeze for two years but money for new Government initiatives. The GAE (grant-aided expenditure) settlement for local authorities next year shows an increase of Pounds 154 million over 1998-1999. But more than Pounds 100 million is earmarked for new developments through the Government's Excellence Fund, leaving more than Pounds 40 million extra for existing purposes and pay increases. It is around 1.6 per cent extra."

Across all areas, from education to health and housing, Professor Midwinter believes only marginal and incremental change will result from the spending review. Spending will be maintained relative to the rest of the United Kingdom and growth channelled into Labour's political priorities.

Ross Martin, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' education spokesman and education convener in West Lothian, said a "dry academic" analysis failed to grasp the reality of extra spending for schools.

"For the first time in my experience of local government we have got growth budgets for the classroom this year and beyond," Mr Martin said.

He added: "It is the overall amount that comes into education that is important and what education authorities do with it. Children, teachers and parents already see the difference. They see buildings being renovated, heating systems sorted, new windows going in and classrooms equipped with the latest IT. They also see more staff in schools and that is the real test for me, not a dry academic analysis of statistics."

In West Lothian, schools had a Pounds 500,000 fund for raising standards, a result of "favourable settlements", he said.

Mr Martin also emphasised that other initiatives, such as the National Lottery's New Opportunities Fund, would benefit areas of education such as music tuition after school.

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