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The pound in your project v core budget

It would be invidious of me to be hypercritical of externally-funded projects in education. I personally benefited from the advent of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, as it gave me an opportunity at a relatively tender age to glimpse the bigger picture beyond the individual school. The ring-fenced national funding of a targeted initiative enabled its proponents to exercise imagination and innovation, while the link created between funding and results concentrated the minds of leaden bureaucrats, whose inertia could suddenly cost a fortune.

There was, however, an inherent inequality in the relatively lavish funding invested in such projects at a time when core local authority budgets were being strangulated by the effects of falling rolls, lack of investment and Tory bloody-mindedness.

Compacts, business partnerships and city technology colleges in England flourished in a rarified atmosphere of enhanced staffing and additional funding. Teachers beyond the reach of this Midas effect soldiered on with standard rations and without the boost of political hype.

In recent years this emphasis on circumscribed funding has advanced to uncharted levels. Central government has discovered the ruse of influencing the educational agenda by backing its priorities with ring-fenced cash. This is designed to ensure that funding percolates to those parts perceived as most important.

Such an approach has the added attraction of allowing politicians to quote vast sums dedicated to areas such as raising attainment, reducing exclusions and information technology.

The experience of individual headteachers may not coincide with the Government's lofty intentions. A sizeable chunk of the finance seems to findits way to ambitious self-contained projects, complete with co-ordinator, administrator, computers, leaflets and inspirational titles.

While, in the name of the New Deal, headteachers received chunks of cash for named purposes, we simultaneously experienced cuts in core funding, which restricted our endeavours to implement improvements across the board. It was galling to read in the press of extra millions assigned to schools for equipment, when the day-to-day-reality felt more like a reduction in budgets.

New Deal gave way to Excellence Funding, which is a revised version of the same game. Schools are required to account separately for the extra money, which is restricted to particular purposes. We inevitably find ourselves justifying the use of additional funding for what should be core activities. We don't imagine that anyone is deceived in the process, but we are left with no alternative, as we are faced with a tight core budget on the one hand and an "embarras de richesses" for specified activities on the other.

The recent windfalls from the Chancellor's treasure chest are nonetheless most welcome. This year Holy Rood has been allocated pound;40,000, with few strings attached. Never in my time as headteacher have we had such a level of additional funding at our disposal. There are signals that this sum will be matched or exceeded in the next financial year, unless the McCrone proposals polish off Scotland's share of the spoils. By implication, the Government is recognising that schools have been hard pressed for cash in previous years. For lasting effect, it needs to strengthen core funding and reduce reliance on designer projects.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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