Nests feathered while toilets freeze

Richard Sullivan looks at the green field on the edge of the Devon market town and sighs. For 30 years Devon County Council has owned the land but a new school has yet to be built.

At 57, the head of Holsworthy Primary does not believe he will see it before he retires, despite a challenge fund bid lodged with the Department for Education and Employment. Part of the site has already been sold off.

Meanwhile classes of 40 squeeze noisily into temporary classrooms made of the metal used to build World War II bombers. Chunks of masonry are starting to fall off the tiny Victorian main building. "It's not unsafe, but it's not particularly sound," Mr Sullivan says.

Politicians of all colours in marginal Devon West and Torridge are rallying to his cause but this is little consolation. Staff and children still use outside loos. When the toilets freeze in winter the school closes.

Holsworthy Primary - contingency budget Pounds 7 - is given by Tories and Liberal Democrats as an example of chronic mismanagement and under-funding in the rural South-West. They blame each other.

It's a typical South-west school. Children come from mainly working-class families, belying the image of rural Britain as the province of the well-to-do. In fact regional poverty has led to European aid being granted.

At least a third of Devon's schools are Victorian, with outside toilets and temporary huts. Large classes are common.

The children come from a wide area. Distance is perhaps the biggest factor. Devon has more miles of road than Belgium; its school transport budget alone is Pounds 12m, one of the highest in Britain.

For many parents that means no real choice of school. Indeed, the Tories admit their two big ideas - choice and selection - are dead issues in most of the South-west. Devolving budgets completely to heads also meets little enthusiasm. Philip Herriman, principal of Okehampton Community College, which has a catchment area of 625 square miles, says: "I'd be frightened to death if they gave me the transport budget."

Lib Dems are fighting hard on education in the South-west, their electoral heartland. Leader Paddy Ashdown visited Stithian's Primary School near Falmouth - Tory MP Sebastian Coe's seat. There pupils also do well despite cramped classrooms, crumbling buildings and temporary huts.

Both Tories and Lib Dems have a record to defend, not least in Devon West and Torridge, the constituency formerly held by Emma Nicholson, first for the Conservatives and then for the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems need a 2.7 per cent swing to hang onto the seat which figures 10th on their list of targets.

The party has run Devon County Council for four years with Labour support - county elections will also be held on May 1. They, and many teachers, argue that the Government has failed to recognise the region's particular problems.

Government funding per pupil is Pounds 100 less than in the South-east, and the county struggles with the huge cost of dozens of small rural schools - some with rolls as small as 25 and costing three times as much to run per pupil as the largest.

A penny on income tax would give Cornwall an extra Pounds 4m to spend on its buildings and Devon Pounds 10m. But the Conservatives say funding is not the issue.

Their local spokesman accuses county councillors of "shovelling money into their political heartlands" - like Plymouth and Torbay - for sports halls and all-weather pitches while failing to honour earlier Tory pledges to repair crumbling schools. "When you go to a school like Holsworthy, the county says the wicked Government won't give us the sanction to spend," he says. "The reality is the wicked Government has given it the same sort of capital money it has since year dot, but instead of spending it in rural areas as was promised, they are feathering their political nests."

Lib Dems in turn point to years of under-funding by the Tories in an historically low-spending LEA. Emma Nicholson says it was a key reason for her defection.

They, and many heads, call for a complete revision of the standard spending assessment to take more account of the rural problems faced by counties like Devon and Cornwall. Tavistock Primary School head Anthony Wates, who sat on the National Curriculum Council, says schools are reduced to "mediocrity, not quality".

But he says that what he would really like to see is an end to the fighting between central and local government. It is a point echoed forcefully by parents. Whoever wins next week's elections, they want more co-operation.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman of the National Confederation of PTAs and herself based in neighbouring Dorset, says: "We don't want a party that penalises us through the local system because it has lost seats on the council."

Labour blames under-funding on years of Tory control of Devon. But Saxon Spence, the county's Labour group leader, said the Lib Dems' 1p tax rise would mean asking the poorest to pay for repairs.

She was more excited by David Blunkett's proposal for bringing schools together to invest in repairs: "Not only would it boost our facilities but it would give our construction industry much-needed work."

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