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Reality behind the hype about funding

Despite the Government's talk of largesse for schools, many are facing what is effectively a budget freeze. Warwick Mansell reports

SCHOOL budgets at one in four local education authorities in England will rise by barely enough to keep up with inflation and rising pay costs next year, new Government figures reveal.

Despite Chancellor Gordon Brown's summer announcement of record spending increases for education, 36 of England's 150 local authorities will receive a rise of only 3.2 per cent per pupil in core funding in 2003-4.

The Government's own forecasts put inflation alone at 2.25 per cent for the coming financial year. Added to this is the rising teachers' pay bill - the bulk of any school's budget - which jumped by 4.1 per cent this year. However, 49 councils many of which have been funded relatively poorly, are to get increases of 7 per cent per pupil, leading them to applaud the new system as fairer and a "brave" step forward.

The new figures have been revealed after school standards minister David Miliband announced the Government's response to a two-year review of the way local authority education budgets are calculated.

Ministers have devised a formula under which local authorities are allocated a basic amount per pupil, plus extra for special factors including deprivation and living costs.

The new system goes some way to addressing a long-running cause of discontent: funding differences that have led to schools in some parts of the country getting thousands of pounds less per pupil than those in others.

Most of the 36 "loser" authorities are in the south-east and have been historically among the better-funded. Ministers have given larger rises to London and the North. South-east councils are thought to have lost out as the Government has reformed the controversial "area cost adjustment" system, under which authorities in London and the Home Counties get millions of pounds extra to reflect higher living costs.

The figures do not necessarily represent what schools will actually get, only what ministers think they should. Councils are free to give extra to their schools, but only by taking cash away from other services or increasing council tax.

Peter Clarke, chairman of the F40 campaigning group for lower-funded councils - many of which are "shire" counties - commended the Government for "bravery". Mr Clarke, a Labour councillor from Gloucestershire said:

"Councils only getting 3.2 per cent are simply going to have to make some of the hard choices that many of us have been making for years."

Most authorities will see rises bigger than 3.2 per cent. Education Secretary Charles Clarke revealed that, nationally, funding for local authorities will increase by 6.5 per cent on average to pound;24.4 billion. Average spending per pupil will have risen by pound;1,000 in real terms between 1997 and 2006.

A pledge to enable all local authorities to provide nursery schooling for all three-year-olds will cost pound;300 million. The total local-authority allocation adds an extra pound;500 million to the figures announced, as ministers have cut the funding for ring-fenced Standards Fund schemes and given more cash directly to headteachers.

At least 14 ring-fenced projects will be axed by 2006. From 2005, schools will have to find the pound;2,000 "threshold" performance-related payments for experienced teachers from their own budgets.

Ministers have given themselves powers to force local authorities to pass on rises intended for education to schools. At the same time, councils will have the ability to seize the reserves of schools that build up large bank balances. (See report below).

The National Union of Teachers criticised the Government for rejecting the idea of special grants for councils facing a sudden influx of refugees.

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