Karen Thornton reports
Council spending on education in Wales is up more than pound;102 million on last year, according to new figures. But other council services have seen bigger increases in funding, and half of Wales's 22 local authorities are spending below the Assembly government's recommended level for education in their area.
Education and lifelong minister Jane Davidson this week announced a review of why funding per pupil in Wales varies by up to pound;1,000, depending on which council area a school is in.
But other figures suggest the per-pupil funding variation between schools within the same authority is even bigger - as much as pound;13,187 in one case.
Excluding post-16 funding, councils are planning to spend pound;1.85 billion on education this year (2005-6), up 5.9 per cent. However, spending on all services, including social services, transport and housing, is budgeted to increase by 6.4 per cent.
Eleven councils are spending less on education than the Assembly government has worked out is needed in their areas, including Torfaen (-pound;2.2m) and Flintshire (-pound;2.1m). The assessments are not targets and councils decide their own spending priorities.
But headteachers complain that spending increases are not finding their way into budgets. Total per-pupil spending (including post-16 cash) this year averages pound;4,291 - with pound;3,290 delegated to schools and pound;1,002 retained by councils for central services such as advisers, special needs and administration. But across Wales, per-pupil funding ranges from pound;4,963 in high-spending Ceredigion to pound;3,947 in the Vale of Glamorgan - a Pounds 1,016 difference.
Ms Davidson has commissioned the Wales Audit Office to analyse these variations. She told this week's Assembly education committee that differences can arise from councils' budget decisions, and also from specific local factors, such as higher school transport costs in rural areas.
Brian Rowlands, secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association Cymru, welcomed the audit review and said it would improve transparency.
But he added: "A significant number of authorities are spending less than their allocation on education services. The gap between the highest and lowest is unacceptable."
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that even in the higher-spending LEAs, money for frontline services was far from plentiful.
Meanwhile, other Assembly figures suggest the biggest variations in per-pupil funding occur between schools in the same LEA.
As of January 2005, the single biggest range was in Carmarthenshire, where the lowest allocation per pupil was pound;2,344 and the highest pound;15,532 - a gap of pound;13,187. The differences are starkest in rural areas with very small schools.