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Real-terms cuts under Tory rule

School spending fell in real terms during the Conservatives' final three years in power, new Audit Commission figures reveal.

The three-year school spending figures illustrate the mountain Labour has to climb to fulfil its pledge to increase education's share of the Treasury cake - even with this year's 5.7 per cent spending rise which, after the teachers' pay award and rising school rolls, amounts to a standstill budget.

Across England, secondary school spending per child dropped by 4.5 per cent after inflation between 199394 and 199697 - equivalent to pound;110 per student. In primary schools it fell by 2.5 per cent, or pound;44 per child.

Metropolitan secondary schools outside London were hardest hit, losing 5.4 per cent of their budgets - pound;126 per child. County secondaries fared almost as badly, with cuts of 5 per cent, or pound;115 per child. Only Newcastle, Rochdale and Cheshire managed to increase secondary spending.

The Conservatives defended their record in government. Education and employment spokesman Stephen Dorrell said cuts were the result of local decisions by councillors.

The commission revealed the figures in the annual local authority performance indicators for education. The indicators also expose further the stark variation in achievement between similar councils - they show that GCSE results in some of England's 15 most deprived authorities are twice as good as in others.

Gordon Brown is expected to offer schools few favours in next week's Budget. The Chancellor is believed to be planning to extend his tight spending controls to the end of Parliament, meaning any extra money for education will have to come from savings elsewhere.

The figures represent schools' delegated budgets plus the money spent by local authorities which ends up in schools - for example, special needs support but not the cost of council meetings. It does not include capital spending.

However, as spending per pupil has been cut, councils have protected spending on primary pupils.

The biggest primary cuts were in Islington - more than pound;600 per pupil - Durham (more than pound;400) and Oxfordshire (more than pound;300). Budgets went up by around pound;300 per pupil in the London boroughs of Hackney and Brent.

In the secondary sector, spending in Wandsworth's three schools fell by more than pound;1,000 per pupil.

Paul Vevers, the commission's director of audit support, said a general squeeze on council spending was the most obvious reason for the cut.

Most local authorities spend above their standard spending assessment and have attempted to protect schools from cuts. But education takes up half their budget.

"Councils will find it extremely difficult if their overall funding is cut not to pass some of that on to education," he said.

Dave Wilcox, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association education committee, said the Tories could not escape responsibility. "Local government can take responsibility for slicing up the cake but it can't take responsibility for the size of the cake," he said.

The report, pages 12 and 13

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