Frances Rafferty reports as councils plead their case in the build-up to the spending settlement
The nearly-new carpets of the Department for Education and Employment are wearing out under the feet of delegations pleading for more funds as the count down to the local government settlement nears.
Among the usual suspects treading the thread are a growing number of Conservative MPs who are being lobbied by teachers, parents and governors in their constituencies.
James Pawsey, chairman of the backbench education committee and MP for Rugby and Kenilworth, has his turn next month among fellow MPs from Warwickshire. He said: "I met a delegation of headmasters who were very apprehensive about this year's funding. They fear a very difficult time if they are expected to make further efficiency savings. They have so far cushioned the effect by using their balances, but they can't come back for another bite on that cherry as only the stems are left."
Mr Pawsey said local government finance needed to be overhauled to make it fairer. His gripe is that Warwickshire loses funds to its neighbour Oxfordshire and counties in the South-east because of the way the Government allocates money. David Curry, the local government minister, has promised a review, but the MP wants changes in time for this year's settlement.
Warwickshire County Council says it needs an extra Pounds 9.4 million for a "standstill" service. It has 874 more pupils to teach this year, but 184 fewer full-time equivalent teachers and 112 fewer support staff. The county receives a standard spending assessment of Pounds 1,822 per primary pupil, compared with the shire average of Pounds 1,895, and Pounds 2,433 per secondary pupil compared with a Pounds 2,525 average.
A paper presented to the education committee this week warned that savings made to bridge the estimated Pounds 9.4m gap could include closing nurseries, sacking education social workers, reducing special needs provision and cutting the budget for sixth-formers by Pounds 1m.
It is a familiar tale. In Shropshire a survey of school budgets showed aggregate school balances halved between the end of 1994-95 and the end of 1995-96. Cuts have already led to an increase in class sizes and reduced support for children with special needs. Levels of staff stress and absence have increased.
Last week representatives from the teacher unions, the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, National Association of Governors and Managers and the Society of Education Officers trooped into Sanctuary Buildings to meet Gillian Shephard, Education and Employment Secretary, and junior minister Robin Squire.
Their message was not new, but it was presented forcefully. The funding allocation must be sufficient to pay for the extra children in the system, the teachers' pay award, new Government initiatives, inflation and school buildings.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I suspect Mrs Shephard is extremely sympathetic to most of our arguments . . . I have no doubt she will be batting for us in the Cabinet expenditure meetings, but even with the Prime Minister on her side there are many pressures to bear from other members of the Government to reduce taxes."
Indeed, Mrs Shephard was said to be holding up negotiations in the Cabinet spending committee by asking for an extra Pounds 800m for schools. The Chancellor's response was concern that the money will be swallowed up into overall council budgets.
The issue of school funding also brought about one of the unlikeliest of conjunctions as a resolution proposed by the Labour stronghold of Liverpool to call on the Government to fund next year's teachers' pay award was seconded by the Tory flagship borough of Wandsworth and Liberal Democrat Kingston. It was passed unanimously by all members of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.