One of the more startling revelations of 1996 was that many Scottish schools spend more on cabbages than they do on books. But teachers south of the border will surely have buttoned their lips about the Scots' alleged meanness. The report of the last Educational Publishers' Council survey, released a year ago, showed that greengrocers may also be doing better than booksellers in England and Wales. In fact, our primary schools were reputed to be spending even less per child on books and other printed materials than the Scots were (#163;13.33 a year compared with #163;13.61 in Scotland). The English and Welsh LEA secondary school spending figure was substantially higher (#163;23.02), but still looked pathetic in comparison with the grant-maintained and independent school averages.
Little wonder, then, that the Book Trust warned in June that chronic underspending on books has left primary and secondary schools in the grip of a "deepening crisis". Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, also drew attention to the shortages of books and equipment in his annual report last year. Nevertheless, he will not be pleased with the spin the Labour party last week put on his inspectors' findings. It is true that Mr Woodhead told David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, that the shortage of books was "adversely affecting the standards of lessons" in 13 per cent of primary schools and 23 per cent of secondaries. But Mr Woodhead did not, of course, claim that Government underfunding was responsible for the damaging lack of books and equipment.
He has quite rightly argued that the variation between schools in the quantity and quality of resources raises questions about not only the allocation of funding to individual schools but the way in which schools use the money they are given. A promised report from OFSTED next summer will therefore examine how spending patterns contribute to the weaknesses that inspectors have identified.
Hopefully that ominous-sounding report will acknowledge some of the anomalies in our school funding system. At present, an LEA primary school of between 100 and 200 pupils can receive anything from #163;1,250 to #163;2,750 per pupil. Secondary school per-capita spending ranges from #163;1,800 to #163;2,900. And these disparities can be exacerbated by huge differences in parental fund-raising power.
OFSTED will also be justified in focusing on another problem that the Audit Commission has highlighted - the colossal cash balances that some state schools hold. It is not unknown for primaries to have #163;100,000 in reserve and for secondaries to have #163;250, 000 salted away.
But Gerald Haigh's analysis (in this week's edition of The TES) of what two Midlands schools spent their money on last year is a reminder of the small sums most heads actually handle. A primary school may have a budget of #163;300,000, but after staffing and heating costs are deducted its headteacher may have only #163;10,000 left to cover books, equipment, mop-heads, repairs and much else. As a result, schools usually have to decide whether to replace dilapidated furniture or dog-eared books. Unsurprisingly, the vote usually goes in favour of books because, as one of the heads that Gerald Haigh interviewed says: "I've seen no evidence that good furniture improves reading." Of course he is right, but all too often the money doesn't go on books either.