'Historical' funding has left us deprived

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Despair, anger, frustration and a damp cloud fogging your brain when you try to work out what the figures actually mean - welcome to another school funding crisis.

In Poole, Dorset, where I live, parents feel they have been here many times before - for the past 20 years, the town's pupils have been near the bottom of the funding league.

This time the drama has a new twist. It is being enacted under a Labour government, something we never expected when we took to the streets to protest against poor funding under the Conservatives.

I started campaigning in 1991, when our four-year-old daughter began school in a class of 34. Class sizes in Poole were far higher than in most other areas. I could not understand why funding varied so widely when the most expensive item, staffing, is basically the same everywhere, apart from London.

We were told that the reason was "historical". Dorset County Council had always prided itself on low spending and traditionally allocated less to education than the level permitted by the Government.

Determined to change the system, we lobbied our councillors and MPs, organised public meetings and went on marches. We were delighted when the new Labour government reduced infant class sizes to a maximum of 30, even though it came too late to benefit our own children.

Kate is now almost 17, and during her school career the Government's standard spending assessment has decreed that she should receive about pound;3,600 less than the national average for her education. For the three schools she has attended, that works out at around pound;2.7 million below average.

This cumulative deprivation meant that, when Poole became a unitary authority in 1997, half the local authority schools were running deficit budgets and many pupils were in shamefully basic accommodation. Kate's middle school had three "temporary" Portakabins which had been there since the early 1970s.

Thanks to a huge injection of capital funding from the Government, school buildings are now in far better shape, but the inequities remain.

To balance the books, many eight to 13-year-olds are in classes of between 32 and 34, and this is before the latest round of cuts take effect.

Performance in secondary schools is good, but when we hear that Poole's key stage 2 results in maths are on a par with Lambeth's we cannot help asking how much underfunding is to blame.

We find it hard to sympathise with heads from other areas, reported in the Guardian recently, bemoaning the loss of specialist primary music teachers, class sizes of under 30 and, yes, staffroom water coolers.

This year, Poole pupils will receive pound;340 less per annum than the national average, and pound;2,104 less than pupils in the best-funded authority.

A cash increase of 3.5 per cent per pupil in Poole is not enough to cope with increased staffing costs like pensions, let alone meeting new government targets. No one begrudges inner-city areas extra money to tackle the effects of deprivation and to meet special needs. But we do feel that every child in the country should be entitled to learning in a class of no more than 30 pupils, in an environment which they can respect.

Where is the logic in saying that Poole has fewer parents eligible for income support than the national average, therefore the schools will not be adequately funded? Is the assumption that parents who aren't on the breadline should pay for the teaching assistants who now face redundancy?

The Government also promised that the new system would be more "transparent". Instead, here we are again, stuck in the middle while LEAs and government lambast each other for funding failures.

Ministers are wrong when they claim that LEAs are withholding cash from schools. In Poole, councillors had the courage to raise the council tax to plug gaps in the education budget, despite litter collection coming top of residents' priorities in a consultation on council spending.

Our only hope is that Education Secretary Charles Clarke meant it when he announced a minimum funding guarantee and another reform of the system, which even he condemns as "Byzantine".

Briefing, 33

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