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Public reluctant to spend even more

A new survey suggests that taxpayers no longer want to see their money invested in schools. Jon Slater reports

Public confidence that increased spending will raise school standards has fallen dramatically since Labour came to power, a report published next week will reveal.

Schools have lost out to health, public transport and the police in the public's priorities, it says.

The gap between the number of people who want the Government to spend more on health and those who want extra for education has doubled since 1997, the British Social Attitudes survey shows.

Only 14 per cent said the best way to improve educational standards was by providing extra resources for buildings, books and equipment compared to 21 per cent in 1996.

This compares to 18 per cent who called for better teachers and 27 per cent for smaller class sizes. Public support for smaller classes in primary and secondary schools has increased during the past seven years, despite Government insistence that class-size reductions only benefit young children.

The British Social Attitudes survey has been highlighting changing trends in opinion annually since the early 1980s. Now in its 20th year, the survey asks more than 1,000 people their views about a range of political and social issues.

Its findings are a severe blow to Labour's hopes that the public will support long-term increases in education spending.

Despite this year's high-profile problems over school budgets, annual education funding has increased by almost pound;10 billion since 1997.

That increase has helped improve the public's perception of school performance.

Seven in 10 people questioned said that secondaries do "very" or "quite" well in teaching the three Rs compared to just 56 per cent in 1996.

But the Conservatives will hope they can make political gains by promising to use the existing education budget better.

The survey also reveals a lukewarm attitude to testing and evidence that the public may be turning against the Government's assessment regime.

Only 4 per cent said that more emphasis on exams was the best way of improving secondary standards, down from 8 per cent in 1998. The figure for primary schools was just 1 per cent.

Fewer than half (47 per cent) believe formal exams are the best way of judging pupils' performance - down 6 percentage points on a decade ago.

Nearly two-thirds believe that "so much attention is given to exam results that a pupil's everyday classroom work counts for too little. "Attitudes to some policies, such as the proliferation of examinations, has been unenthusiastic," the report says.

Professor Ted Wragg, author of the education commentary in the report, said that the decline in confidence in education spending may be a reaction to the extra billions already promised. "People are less likely to put education spending top of the list if they think schools are already getting more money," he said.

The British Social Attitudes survey will be published next week

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