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Our funding is fine

Local and historic differences account for the apparent disparities in spending levels, writes Jane Davidson

It will be interesting to see the TES Cymru postbag this week following its leader "Too much freedom is a bad thing" (June 9) comparing erroneously levels of funding in Wales with England.

The media in Wales has made a big fuss of the fact that the difference between the lowest and highest-spending local authorities per pupil is pound;989. This was the substance of last week's TES Cymru leader, suggesting that our education agenda was being compromised by not adopting the English funding agenda.

Unfortunately, the leader writer had not done the requisite homework. In fact, the gap in England is far greater. The 2003-4 figures for England (excluding the City of London) showed a pound;1,261 gap - almost a third higher than Wales.

There are reasons for these "gaps". As in Wales, they are in part due to historical funding patterns in local education authorities and in part to factors such as high school transport costs and the incidence of small schools.

In Wales, local authorities take their own decisions about the funds they give to services such as schools, taking account of their varying circumstances and needs.

Some have higher costs because of transport provision, deprivation needs, high incidence of small schools and so on. The availability of resources for schools is not just linked to Welsh Assembly funding but also to local authorities' decisions on council tax levels.

Looking at LEA budgets for this year, our conclusion is that councils in Wales have generally treated their education budgets and their schools fairly well. Overall, education budgets have increased by an average of 5.8 per cent compared with an average of 3.1 per cent for all local authority services. There is no basis for the suggestion that funding is not getting through to schools.

Figures presented to the Assembly's education and lifelong learning committee on July 7 show the increases in delegated schools budgets. The average increase is 5.1 per cent - well ahead of inflation. Yes, there is a range of funding levels, but I would expect that, given that LEAs need to respond to local circumstances.

The figures speak for themselves. They show that average budgeted-per-pupil funding in Wales has risen from pound;3,668 to pound;4,039. We will be publishing comparisons with English figures for 2004-5 in the spring when the data is available, but in my time as minister for education and lifelong learning the spend in Wales has been on a par with per-pupil funding in England.

It is not true that the funding grass is always greener across the border with England. For the length of most of the border it is not - only in north-east Wales are per-pupil funding figures lower than those for authorities across the border.

I know there are continuing concerns about levels of school funding, but in some authorities more than others. That is one of the reasons why the Welsh Assembly made it mandatory for local authorities to set up school budget forums from December last year. Over time I believe that these will lead to more confident and better informed dialogue between local authorities and their schools.

They had only limited time to comment on budgets for 2004-5, though they have undoubtedly helped improve transparency. By the time of the 2005-6 budget-setting process, I expect their dialogue to have a clear impact on budget discussions and decisions in individual authorities.

The minister for finance and local government and I have also agreed that teacher union representatives should be able to present their views on school funding for consideration in the Assembly's budget-setting process.

They will be able to lay out their case in the context of decisions on future funding of local authorities.

The Welsh Assembly government is committed to introducing greater transparency into the system. An example of this is the identification for 2004-5 of pound;33 million extra funding within the local government revenue settlement for teacher workload reform.

Earlier this week, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced the results of the comprehensive spending review for England. Wales will receive its consequential share of additional funding for the next three years.

This will help us to advance and embed our distinctive education policy agenda. We will announce how the extra money is to be allocated in Wales when we publish our draft budget for 2005-6 in the autumn. The draft budget will be fully aligned with our policy aims.

Devolution gives us all the chance to learn from each other across the UK, but let us learn from each other based on the facts and evidence. That way we can have a constructive debate and I can make sure that decisions made in Wales suit our needs and circumstances.

Jane Davidson is the Welsh Assembly minister for education and lifelong learning

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