No relief in sight for worst-funded

Hopes for an end to what many see as funding bias towards urban schools have been dashed

HUGE disparities in funding between schools are likely to remain even after long-awaited changes which are supposed to eliminate them.

The worst-funded schools are unlikely to benefit from adjustments to the way their budgets are calculated, campaigners from England's most cash-strapped authorities believe.

Two years after ministers launched a review of the system, a government paper this week set out four possible options for the reform of the way cash for schools is allocated to councils. The paper estimates the effect of each option for reform on the budgets of each of the 150 local authorities in England.

But no option offers much cheer to those at the bottom of the financial pile. For example, primary schools in south Gloucestershire - the poorest-funded in the country - would get at best just pound;41 per pupil per year extra under the new system. Another option would actually see them lose cash.

Latest figures show south Gloucestershire primaries receive pound;2,390 per pupil per year, as against pound;4,143 in Tower Hamlets, east London.

Rutland, the poorest-funded authority for secondary education, could benefit by at best pound;103 per pupil. This year, it received pound;3,039 per pupil, compared to pound;5,623 in Lambeth, south London. By contrast, London authorities, which already top the spending league, could be big winners under the reforms. The capital's schools gain in three of the four options, with county councils losing in three. The reform plans are out for consultation over the summer and will be implemented next year.

They attempt to simplify education funding by giving every council a basic amount per pupil, plus extra to reflect deprivation, salary overheads and extra costs of providing education in rural areas.

The Government says its financial estimates should be treated with caution. They simply indicate how the new system would divide funding between authorities if it were operating this year.

With average funding for all authorities set to rise by 6 per cent next year, and further rises to be unveiled in next week's comprehensive spending review, ministers say that no council will see a real-terms budget cut.

Ministers have refused to publicly back any of the four options in the paper, which also covers funding for other local-authority functions, from social services to road maintenance. However, the paper from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's new local government department, does give a good guide to the likely winners and losers. The Government and London authorities argue that the new system will more accurately reflect their higher costs.

Peter Clarke, leader of Gloucestershire County Council, chairs the F40 group, which campaigns for the worst-funded authorities. He said: "I don't think there's any doubt that there's a predisposition in favour of urban authorities."

He vowed to fight on for a better deal. "If the Government thinks this is the end of the matter, it's got another think coming."

Funding expert Peter Downes, a past president of the Secondary Heads'

Association and councillor in poorly-funded Cambridgeshire, said: "If this is the final outcome of the consultation, those who have been campaigning for change are going to be livid."

Warwick Mansell

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