Over the past year or so headteachers of oversubscribed primary schools in some of the most select parts of the South-east have entertained colleagues with tales that sound apocryphal but are invariably true.
Each story is slightly different, but they all follow the same pattern. A middle-class couple move into the catchment area of a popular primary and are politely told that as class sizes are already approaching 40 and there is no money for extra teachers it would be better for everyone if they found another school for their child. "Perhaps we can help," one of them will reply, pulling out a cheque book. "What about Pounds 1,000 ... Pounds 2,000?" Other schools, of course, are grateful if parents even donate jumble. But there is no doubt that, overall, parents are paying more for what is still an ostensibly free state education service. It is no surprise to hear the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations (page 6) say that parents are putting well over Pounds 1 billion a year into state education. Nowadays the news that a PTA has paid for a teacher's salary is only marginally more remarkable than a small earthquake in Chile.
Anyone listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's upbeat account of education spending would, however, wonder why parents need to provide any subsidies. Investment in state education has increased in real terms by 50 per cent since 1979, he says, and Britain now devotes a greater proportion of public spending to education than Germany, France or Japan. But, of course, real life is a little less rosy than Kenneth Clarke's cheeks. The latest Department for Education and Employment figures show that spending per pupil dropped by 3.3 per cent in real terms between 1992-3 and 1994-5. Class sizes have risen for the sixth year running, approximately 5,000 teachers were made redundant in 1994-95 and another 4,000 lost their jobs last year. Furthermore, English and Welsh education authorities estimate that there is now a Pounds 3.2 billion backlog of school building repairs and improvements, 750,000 children are being taught in mobile classrooms, 600 primary schools still have outside toilets, and many primary schools are spending less than Pounds 5 a year per pupil on books. Education authorities are also continuing to slash discretionary awards, music tuition, adult and community education and youth work.
But that litany of problems also represents only a partial truth. Some local education authorities admit that their budgetary predicaments have eased in recent months. Gloucestershire, for example, has increased schools' budgets by 3.5 per cent. But other authorities, including the inner London boroughs, have lost millions because of adjustments to the Rate Support Grant mechanism. Somerset was unable to fund the teachers' pay award this year, Northumberland has lost 14 per cent in real terms since 1992-93, and more than 50 Sheffield schools are in dire financial straits, a reminder that funding formulae create winners and losers even within the same authority.
Little wonder the Government's original consultants on local management for schools, Coopers Lybrand, conclude (page 5) that a more rational method of funding schools is needed, particularly now all have to teach the same curriculum. There is a lot of merit in their suggestions that funding should be partly determined by baseline assessment of five-year-olds and that the Government should specify the class sizes it is prepared to pay for. They are also right to highlight the unjustifiably wide disparity in funding between LEAs (the ratio between the best and worst-funded authorities is 1.65:1).
These deep-rooted funding problems must eventually be tackled. But in the short term the key issue is whether the Government will provide any of the extra Pounds 1bn funding that local authorities say they will need to avoid further damaging cuts in 1997-98. Gillian Shephard may have given the local authority representatives a courteous hearing, but as there have been few parents' demonstrations over cuts in recent months she may not be able to exert as much influence over the budget-building process this year. In any case, public-sector borrowing has exceeded the Government's targets and the Treasury has been landed with a huge butchers' bill by the BSE disaster.
But Government ministers are aware that schools' rolls are rising and will want to avoid education cuts and soaring class sizes in the run-up to a general election. Some have suggested that the simple way out of the dilemma would be to remove the cap on local authority expenditure and allow LEAs to push up council tax. But something less fanciful should be expected. LEAs will probably get a little more than they have been warned to expect and a lot less than they would wish. They will try to continue protecting school funding by leaving pot holes unfilled and trimming social services, but there will be no cut in class sizes and the roofs will continue to leak. Business as usual in other words.