The Prime Minister sounded almost plaintive when David Dimbleby grilled him about education spending on Panorama this week. To start with, Dimbleby proved to be the better briefed when John Major trotted out the standard line on funding teachers' pay, about local authorities employing two administrators to every three teachers: "But aren't they really people like dinner ladies or bursars?"
Mr Major plainly didn't know. "But why," he moaned, "do they have to start by getting rid of teachers?" There again, his advisers have not kept him as well informed as they might on what had been done to cut everything else before teachers' jobs. Although Gillian Shephard did her best to warn Cabinet colleagues of the consequence of not fully funding the teachers' pay award, they were more receptive at the time to the Chancellor's message that there was plenty of money still to be squeezed out of local reserves.
But now the evidence that it was the Education Secretary who was right is beginning to get through to Downing Street. Redundancies are happening; larger class sizes are imminent; parents and governors in revolt against such conditions have massed in Hyde Park. And, lo and behold, last weekend the Prime Minister promised the Conservative Central Council that education will be at the top of the Government's priorities as soon as the economy delivers further growth.
That may not sound much of a promise when read together with stronger commitments to public spending and tax cuts, but is probably as good an indication as we are likely to get that next November's public spending settlement may not be quite as hard on education as last year's deal promised.
There is a credibility test for Mrs Shephard involved here. As public spending guru Tony Travers observed in these pages, if her predictions of job losses and unrest are borne out this year, she will be in a powerful position to argue for more for education in November; but if the protests and predictions fizzled out she would be on weaker ground.
It looks as if she is winning. John Major has plainly been rattled by the anger of parents and governors. Their revolt is evidence of further erosion of the Middle England ground already encircled by Labour leader Tony Blair. If further evidence of the capricious effects of current spending policies on schools is needed, it is to be found in the survey just completed for The TES by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of Manchester University.
Up to now we have had the predictions and the scare stories. Now Professor Smithers has provided the first sound national picture, based on extended interviews with headteachers about their own spending intentions and constraints. What the picture shows not only confirms much anecdotal and other evidence on the extent and unevenness of planned job losses, but also fills in a detailed background: how the income dwindled; where the money goes; what can be saved on repairs, books, equipment or by dispensing with clerical, secretarial and technical staff (Mr Major's "administrators") to save teachers' jobs.
At the heart of the calculations is the hard fact that, "while conceivably there could be enough money in the schools' budget as a whole", only about half of primary schools and 60 per cent of secondary schools had reserves to draw on, for reasons which might have nothing to do with their own management. What is very clear to headteachers, but less so to Ministers, is that reserves are not transferable to other schools, nor can they be used more than once. Mindful of spending restrictions already announced for next year and the year after, the predictions of job losses of 5,060 in the l994-95 school year and 8, 964 in l995-96 are made on that basis. Should Mr Major and his Chancellor relent in November on education spending restrictions in l995-96, the second of those figures could diminish, but by no means disappear.
What becomes increasingly clear, however, is that spending concessions by central government cannot on their own make education funding more equitable or transparent. Like the School Teachers' Review Body before him, Professor Smithers finds the complications, historic accidents and botched-up transition arrangements that govern school budgets almost incomprehensible as well as unmanageable. He has added his voice to those calling for a national funding formula and to those who warn of winners and losers on a vast scale, is able to point to this year's gross inequities. This is the year when a locally-funded system in transition to a market-based compromise has met a Treasury squeeze to produce a mess that couldn't be hidden from parents or governors, let alone teachers. National funding bristles with problems, but maybe it has come a step nearer.