HEADS from many parts of England last weekend told Charles Clarke that this year's schools budgets were a serious problem. There will be cuts and redundancies. Worse still, council tax rose by a whacking 13 per cent in England (Wales was only marginally better at 10 per cent). Where has all the money gone?
Part of the explanation of how a rise in national education spending of 9 per cent could leave schools complaining about "cuts" can be found in the difference between this overall total and the amount available for education in the local government finance settlement. This latter figure was only 6.5 per cent.
And, of course, not all councils received this average rise in education funding. In some cases, the amount was as little as 3.2 per cent (a minimum level guaranteed by Whitehall). Elsewhere, the rise was as big as 7 per cent.
Most (though by no means all) of this "formula spending share" total must, under new legislation, be passed on by councils to schools. In effect, the new formula spending figure becomes the starting point for each authority's own funding formula.
However, within a particular council area, schools find themselves in different circumstances in 2003-04 than in 2002-03. Pupil numbers and a range of other factors may change. Thus, even if an authority's schools as a whole are guaranteed a minimum 3.2 per cent rise in funding, individual schools may receive much less than this figure. Some, indeed, may lose cash. And, as Mr Clarke discovered last week, such institutions feel very badly done by and will complain vociferously. Gainers stay silent.
The only way to avoid this kind of problem is for ministers to guarantee every school in the country at least, say, a 3 per cent real rise in funding - regardless of other factors. But this would either produce a flat-rate increase that many schools would see as unfair or cost additional billions at a time when public spending is likely to be squeezed.
Education spending figures have already been determined for the near future. So expect the same problem next year.
Tony Travers is an expert in local government funding in the government department at the London School of Economics