It's all smoke and mirrors

21st July 2000 at 01:00
IN THE week when the Chancellor unveiled his latest largesse, doubtless in order to extract the necessary "voting" gratitude of the electorate, it is worth looking a little more closely at the whole funding spin.

Ministers variously claim that funding on education has increased by x per cent where the smallest number I've heard inserted is 8. That is marvellous. But where has it all gone and why have teachers, whose salaries account for some 70 per cent of the school education budget, had to make do with such modest rises?

The answer is, of course, that the Executive includes educational expansion in these "increased spending" figures so, for example, the 8 per cent rise includes all the new money for pre-school.

Add in dedicated money for early years, computers and library books, the excellence money for classroom assistants, and so on, and you soon make up the 8 per cent. All these new initiatives are welcome add-ons and there is no doubt that they are all part of the educational provision, so why carp?

The problem is that core funding has not increased. In many cases it has been cut and, while it may at some level be good to look to new projects, these should not be at the expense of the core service.

Of course, it is all part of the way politicians like to announce initiatives. It is much more exciting and newsworthy to announce extra money for a new project than to say funding on core provision has been increased.

So, offset against the 8 per cent rise there have been year-on-year cuts of core provision as pay rises have to be "self-financing", an impossible task in the world of universally provided public services. But, at the end of the day, what adantage is there in adding all the supplementary goodies if the core provision is cut to the bone? Expansion should only be built on a sound foundation.

However, the Executive is continuing the financing-by-mirrors approach with its consultation on national priorities. The document is an extensive wish-list of the highly desirable, but without any serious discussion of the size of any problems to be addressed, the resources needed to resolve them, the source of those resources and which areas will lose out as a consequence of the redirection of resources, if no new and additional money is to be provided.

How can anyone make any kind of realistic choice without that information?

So, what's my gripe? I would like politicians to treat the public - or at least those members of the public who are interested - as adults, capable of understanding that resources are limited. I would like to be offered real choices with price tags attached so that I can decide whether it is to be classroom assistants all round or better paid teachers, whether every child should have an email address or a non-leaky roof over their head.

Once money is put sensibly into the equation, people can begin to come up with imaginative solutions. For example, we could save money by grouping schools for sixth-year provision or by teaching minority subjects only at authority level.

Let us have a debate on funding, but let us lay aside the spin and discuss it as equals. We will not all agree and at the end of the day the Executive will have to take the hard decisions, but at least it will be as a result of looking at the options properly.

Judith Gillespie

Findhorn Place, Edinburgh

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