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Squeezed until the parents shrieked

The dawn of a new government is not about to bring any relief to hard-pressed local authorities attempting to protect school budgets from pressures to reduce public spending.

The education service will be expected to fight its corner against demands from health and social services for its share of a total spending bill that the government is committed to reducing over the next two years.

Any significant increase in spending on schools will have to await a fall in the cost of unemployment. The evidence of the last government's measures to rein in spending on education is larger classes and greater resistance from parents to any further reductions in the service.

Since the early 1990s, the outgoing Conservative administration failed to take full account of both inflation and rising numbers in the support it provided, relying on local councils to give priority to education over other services or draw on reserves.

The screw was tightened further in 19945 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, announced that all pay increases had to be met by efficiency and productivity savings. Councils were left with little alternative to redundancies or curtailment of recruitment.

Figures collected by the Audit Commission show the extent to which local authorities have been forced to make inroads on money available to schools and, in most cases, have chosen to reduce spending on secondaries at a faster rate than than in primaries.

Across England and Wales the average spending per secondary pupils has fallen from #163;2,384 in 19934 to #163;2,306 in 19956; compared with average spending per primary pupil in 19934 of #163;1,750, down to #163;1,715 in 19956.

In primary schools, the impact has been a 38 per cent rise in the number of pupils in classes over 30. In the five years to 1996 the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools has risen from 22. 2:1 to 23.2:1 and the average size of classes has gone up from 26.3 to 27.3.

Parents have begun to blame central government, rather than local councils, for the state of schools and in 1995 took to the streets in protest. Gillian Shephard warned the Cabinet in September of that year that insufficient resources threatened the provision of education in the state school sector, including grant-maintained schools.

The policy paper, that was subsequently leaked to The TES, warned there might even be an electoral price to be paid.

It said: "On education Labour maintains a lead over us of about 30 per cent, compared with 20 per cent a year ago. There is a perception that schools are underfunded and peace in the classroom is threatened."

In part, the message was acted upon, but the slight easing of financial constraints has merely postponed the crisis. This year's survey by the School Teachers' Review Body of the ability of councils' ability to fund any pay increases accepts that the Government was proposing to increase the support for education in excess of the rate of increase for public spending as a whole.

"Nevertheless," said its report, "the financial pressures on schools will continue and the evidence we received suggested that schools felt they were reaching the limits of what could be done without making unreasonable demands on their staff and putting the quality of education at risk."

According to Tony Travers, local government analyst at the London School of Economics, the government's commitment to existing expenditure limits probably rules over more generous funding of education. The government is committed to reducing public spending and the scope for shifting spending between departments is incredibly small, he says.

"The only chink of light for education has been that a Labour government might ease capping levels on local authorities, " he says.

During the election campaign, Labour attempted to signal a change in priorities with promises to cut the size of classes at the younger end of primary schools.

However, even achieving this target may prove difficult without an overall increase in the amount of money available for schools. David Whitbread, education secretary of the Local Government Association, is sceptical that savings from the Assisted Places Scheme - expected to accrue at the rate of #163;30 million a year - will achieve that objective.

The new administration could set a maximum class size for all classes of five, six and seven-year-olds, but that would require funding to be taken from other areas. In its present form, central support for local authorities does not direct spending into particular programmes.

The local authorities would prefer a scheme that was not prescriptive and require them to provide extra teachers in favoured areas at the expense of under-achieving schools that nevertheless have small classes.

Other election promises are difficult to redeem, given existing pressures.Labour wants to create education action areas, but without extra finance to attract teachers, changes may be difficult to implement.

An incoming Labour government has promised to review the process of determining the grant to local authorities. That, says Mr Travis, does not deal with the problem of underfunding.

"Unless there is more money, that just means a game of Russian roulette, with as many losers as winners, " he says.

It would take an exceptionally great leap of faith to expect the new government to be able to have much impact on class size or to improve school funding substantially.

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