THE NUMBER of councils spending less than they are allocated for education has more than doubled in the past two years to 46, Government figures show.
This rise from 19 in 1997 is likely to fuel Opposition claims that new money is not getting through to schools. It will also increase ministers' determination to make life difficult for councils which fail to pass on the cash allocated in their Standard Spending Assessments.
Just two years ago councils spent pound;700 million more than expected on education but this has fallen to pound;426m in 19989.
With the amount earmarked for education set to rise by a further pound;1bn in the coming year, ministers are worried that more councils may divert the extra to other areas such as social services.
Bradford and Oxfordshire head the list of offenders. Both spent more than pound;6m less than ministers would have liked. Many unitary authorities also underspend. Medway, City of Nottingham and Slough, all had a shortfall in their education budget of at least pound;5m. Out of every pound;10 Slough is allocated for education, it spends only nine.
Another three councils set lower budgets last year than in 19967. They were Hackney, Lambeth and North Lincolnshire, although all still spent more on education than ministers say they should.
David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, wrote to 18 authorities last month telling them to pass on all the extra cash to education in this financial year - or be prepared to justify themselves to schools, parents and Parliament.
The Government has no legal powers to force councils to spend more on schools, but adverse publicity can make life difficult.
The figures are contained in the Department for Education and Employment's expenditure plans. Total standard spending assessments, the amount ministers expect councils to spend on education, increased by pound;1.6bn between financial year 19967 and 19989. However, the budgets set by local authorities rose by only pound;1.3bn.
Councils' income is made up of a block grant from central government and council tax revenue; education is not funded directly. Many complain that if they did not use the money ministers intend for education on other services they would either be forced to raise council tax to levels where they may be capped or they would fail to meet their legal duties for social services. And after years of trying to protect schools from cuts under the previous government, some authorities may now be trying to redress the balance.