Cash-starved diners devour DfES man

16th May 2003 at 01:00
The country's top education official was the target of headteachers' fury with the Government last week, for leaving them short of money to run schools.

At a dinner in London for heads of successful specialist schools - a group much-praised by ministers - guest of honour David Normington reportedly threatened to walk out after he was subjected to a torrent of hostile questions about funding.

The Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Skills struggled to make himself heard above angry chatter provoked by his replies. One head said the atmosphere at the dinner had reminded him of the Easter teacher union conferences.

At one stage, a rattled Mr Normington is said to have remarked: "If you're not prepared to engage in discussion with me, I'm going home."

His audience of some 130 heads is understood to have been particularly riled by his suggestion that they had promoted too many staff to higher points on the pay spine and must "live with the consequences". They were also incensed when he blamed heads for mismanagement by having reserves that were too high or too low. And they were equally unimpressed when he blamed local authorities.

Mr Normington did admit the Government was culpable for making too many changes to funding arrangements at a time of pension and national insurance rises. But did not promise any more money.

The event was the third in a series of dinners for heads of successful schools hosted by Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust. The evening began well. But, after the main course, Sir Cyril was unable to divert the flood of aggressive questions about funding.

"Everything was going swimmingly and the food was good," said one head.

"But when we got to the dessert, things got nasty."

A DfES spokesman said Mr Normington denied he had threatened to walk out.

He had expected a robust meeting and had simply offered to leave if he was not wanted. "Someone who appears before the Public Accounts Committee to talk about Individual Learning Accounts is not going to get rattled by a dinner with heads," the spokesman said.

* Councils this year increased funding for schools by pound;137 million more than the Government said they should, an analysis reveals. As ministers pressure councils to pass more cash to schools, the Local Government Association said that the latest rise means education authorities now spend pound;186m per year more on them than is recommended.

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