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Reform 'years away'

Minister under pressure to push through changes in school funding process. Nicola Porter reports

Any reform of the "unresponsive and unclear" school funding system in Wales could spill over into 2008, it was feared this week.

Jane Davidson, minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, declined to respond immediately to radical recommendations for transforming education spending - including setting minimum funding requirements for school staffing, accommodation and equipment.

Instead, she will issue a written response in mid-August and give an oral statement in the Senedd chamber a month later.

She came under pressure to act following a critical report on school funding presented by a five-strong Assembly committee, two of whom are Labour members.

The minister sided with present local government mechanisms for funding schools while giving her evidence to the committee, and rejected calls for a national funding system.

But the committee has called for the immediate introduction of three-year budgets and a review of how education cash is distributed to local authorities, so that spending is based on current and future needs, not historical patterns.

School funding committee member Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's shadow education minister, said the delay would frustrate teaching staff excited by the recommendations. Brian Rowlands, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said another year must not pass before action is taken.

He said: "If acted on now, this report will mean school funding is no longer a political football. We look forward to working with the Assembly government to modernise a system which is clearly in need of reform."

But Professor David Reynolds, an education expert who gave evidence during the year-long investigation, said: "The minister has a political and philosophical dilemma - she will need to sleep on it."

Ms Davidson may also be hoping for a Labour victory in the by-election in Blaenau Gwent later this month, which would return the current minority government to a majority of one in the National Assembly.

The school funding committee, forced on government by the opposition, heard from heads, unions, governors, academics, government officials and local representatives. Its report also calls for:

* an investigation into differences in funding between key stages, and particularly Years 6 and 7;

* a review into the weightings given to sparsity, transportation and deprivation in the education funding formula for local government;

* a requirement for councils to make targeted support for the most deprived schools a priority;

* a review of the use of free school meals eligibility as an indicator of deprivation;

* a requirement on all local authorities to explain annually to schools why and how their school budgets have changed;

* an assurance from the government that new education grant schemes are not compromised by bureaucratic bidding systems;

* the setting up of a clear audit trail from the Assembly to schools.

Peter Black, Lib Dem committee member, said another key recommendation for more money to bring crumbling school buildings up to scratch was crucial.

Most of those giving evidence said schools in Wales would not be "fit for purpose" by 2010, as per the Assembly government's target.

Mr Black said: "Embarrassingly for the minister, the actual spend by local councils has been substantially less than the cash that the government says it has committed."

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