Budget rings hollow for schools in Oxfordshire

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Clare Dean opens a three-page report into the Chancellor's Budget for Education,while Mark Whitehead compares funding in London.

Christmas wish lists from primary school pupils in Oxfordshire include photocopiers, books, nursery equipment, even teachers.

Chancellor Kenneth Clarke may have refused to play Santa Claus in last week's Budget, but that is exactly who the children want John Major to be.

Carefully coloured-in Christmas cards, to be delivered to Downing Street next week, detail their needs for their schools and bear the message: "Behind every wise man is a good education."

In Oxfordshire, as in local education authorities the length and breadth of England, the much-vaunted "Budget for Education" has a hollow ring.

The Government may well have increased its estimates of what LEAs need to spend on education, but it will allow only limited rises in overall council budgets, putting other services at risk.

Ten metropolitan districts, 10 of the new unitary authorities and six London boroughs will have their budget rise limited to less than 1.5 per cent. In 22 shire counties it will be under 2.5 per cent.

The hardest-hit authority is the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has had a cash freeze, compared with Westminster where the budget can rise by 16 per cent if councillors want (see below).

The counties have fared slightly better with none having a rise in permitted spending of less than 2 per cent, but each will have to limit its budget increase to 2.8 per cent or less. Gloucestershire, East Sussex and Lincolnshire did the best.

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, said last week that local authorities would be allowed to spend an extra Pounds 633 million next year, a 3.6 per cent increase in funding for schools.

Most of this would be through an increase of Pounds 591m in education standard spending assessment (SSA).

LEAs argue they need an extra Pounds 1bn to avoid further cuts and say many councils already spend above their education SSA by taking the cash from either reserves or other services.

"We have been stitched up," said John Fowler, assistant education officer at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

"If councils were to spend what the Government recommends they spend on education, they would have to cut Pounds 41 per pupil."

In Oxfordshire, where the budget was cut by Pounds 12m this year, councillors have been told they can spend up to Pounds 339.6m in 1997.

Current budget forecasts for the county for next year show that the authority will need at least Pounds 361.7m just to keep services running at their existing levels.

In primary schools throughout Abingdon, children are sending Christmas cards to Mr Major in a campaign run by the Fight Against Cuts in Education group.

Sue Killoran, a parent governor at Thomas Reade primary school in Abingdon, said: "People feel very upset and angry because the Budget was just a confidence trick.

"The Government says that it is the responsibility of Oxfordshire County Council to spend the money on education, but the authority has other commitments.

"We are not saying give us the money for education and shut down old people's homes and family centres. Let central government accept its responsibility to provide adequate funding for education."

John Fisher, head of Rush Common primary school, said: "Our schools are crumbling around us, we have classes of 40 children. The Government says it's the county council's fault, the county says it's the Government's, but the naked truth is the finance isn't there."

In Devon, the LEA estimated it faced a Pounds 25m shortfall on its commitments and said that the extra Pounds 12,861,000 earmarked for education next year was insufficient to cover unavoidable payments such as the teachers' pay award and increased pupil numbers. Simon Jenkin, chief education officer, said: "There will, undoubtedly, be considerable job losses wherever the savings are made and, a reduction in the level of services."

In Bristol, where the authority will only be allowed to spend 1 per cent more next year, Richard Riddell, education director, said: "Quite frankly, these claims of a Budget for Education leave us speechless."


* Each year, councils receive an income, the Revenue Support Grant from the Government. This amounts to about 80 per cent of spending on council services, with the rest raised through the council tax.

* The Government controls overall spending by publishing an annual recommended level for each council. This is called the Standard Spending Assessment. Although advisory, any council exceeding this level risks being capped. Capping places a legal limit on a council's spending. Councils with a history of high spending may be capped at a level above their SSA, but the trend has been to reduce spending to recommended Government levels.

* Councils are free to decide how to spend their overall budgets. However, the Government also recommends levels (SSAs) for each major council service. The most important of these is the education SSA. While councils can ignore Government advice, most are reluctant to "underspend" on education.

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