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'More tea?' 'No, just give us the money'

Education Secretary Gillian Shephard will take tea on the terrace at the House of Commons next month with staff, governors and parents from a West Country primary, writes Clare Dean.

While the setting will be more than civilised and the minister's charm will be working overtime, Mrs Shephard will be left in no doubt about the budget crisis facing schools after meeting the delegation from South Brent primary in Devon.

South Brent is facing cuts of up to Pounds 14,000; King Edward VI in Totnes, the school its pupils go on to, is losing Pounds 120,000. Devon County Council, the local education authority, is having to slash Pounds 12 million from education.

Talk over tea will not only dwell specifically on the budgetary problems facing the 256-pupil school, but will turn to the more general difficulties of education funding.

John Wain, South Brent's headteacher, plans to represent primary education as a whole while the governors have pledged to press their case on behalf of schools disadvantaged by the way budgets are calculated in Devon.

"We see all kinds of money being spent at national and local level to provide so-called support to schools which we believe should be devolved directly to schools," said Mr Wain.

"At a local level we have things like the library service, resource services, curriculum advice, all of which are very helpful and very useful, and then we have the fantastic amounts of money being spent on Sanctuary Buildings.

"It seems they've got the boot on the wrong foot, the horse before the wrong cart or whatever metaphor you want to use. What should be happening is that schools should be adequately funded."

The meeting next month is the second conciliatory gesture from Mrs Shephard towards Devon over its plight in education funding.

Despite repeatedly claiming that this year's settlement was "tough but manageable", the Education Secretary put her junior minister, Robin Squire, at the disposal of local authorities seeking to break Government-imposed spending limits. Mr Squire met representatives from Devon last month.

The council is one of seven to have defied spending limits and is waiting with Somerset, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Barnsley, Newcastle and Sheffield to hear whether the Department for the Environment will increase its budget.

Mrs Shephard is understood to be one of three ministers supporting a proposal to abolish ratecapping. They believe that such a move, which has backing from throughout the Conservative party, would bring home the full cost of high-spending Labour councils to voters.

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