Move to get cash split for schools made public

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Clare Dean reports that education budgets are not all they appear, as authorities differ in amounts delegated.

The determination of ministers to get more money into schools could be scuppered by the Government's own rules.

For the past four years, it has allowed local authorities to remove substantial sums from education budgets before levels of delegation are even agreed by councils.

In two years, Northamptonshire county council took at least Pounds 20 million from its education budget. Coventry extracted at least Pounds 16m. The cash is subtracted to fund items such as the preparation of the education budget, meetings of the education committee, and strategic planning.

It is used for activities which allow the education service as a whole to operate, rather than direct services. And the money, which comes under a service strategy and regulation (SSR) heading, often covers the salaries of senior staff.

Local authorities are also able to subtract cash to cover the cost of providing education other than at school, recoupment payments to other LEAs, and for youth, community or careers services.

Opted-out schools have long accused councils of re-jigging figures to discriminate against them.

The Grant Maintained Schools Foundation last week accused more than half of all LEAs of spending more on their budgets on town and county hall while cutting the amount going into schools.

Using information it has on the additional money opted-out schools receive to compensate for loss of central services, it said 13 councils had increased the amount they held back centrally from both primary and secondaries.

It claimed 23 councils had held back more money compared with last year from primary schools, while 21 had done the same from secondaries and 33 from special schools.

Grant-maintained schools have also complained heavily about the amounts local authorities "top-slice" from the education budget before it is delegated.

Latest available figures, revealed in a Parliamentary answer, show that in 1992-93 authorities took out Pounds 115.5m under SSR. A year later the figure had increased to Pounds 156.7m.

Coventry and Northamptonshire subtracted the greatest amounts. Other authorities which withdrew large amounts over the two years included Cheshire (Pounds 9.7m and Pounds 1.6m), Buckinghamshire (Pounds 6.4m and Pounds 3.5m ), Hertfordshire (Pounds 3.4m and Pounds 8.1m) and Essex (Pounds 2.6m and Pounds 8m).

Seven authorities which spent nothing on SSR in 1992-93 did so the following year. They were Walsall, Islington, Ealing, Staffordshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire and Birmingham.

Only the Isles of Scilly spent nothing on SSR in the two years, according to the Parliamentary answer.

The Government agreed to SSR in 1992 on the recommendation of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. The institute said SSR comprised the staff, accommodation and services which are needed to support activities such as meetings of the education committee, liaison with outside bodies and preparation of the budget.

It ensured the activities were performed at the minimum level that would be necessary if an authority had no direct management responsibilities for the education service.

But that such a massive chunk of expenditure never appears on education budget plans, and is often not even publicised by councils, is now a matter of great concern. It is understood that senior figures within the grant-maintained world have been lobbying MPs and ministers.

In view of the Government's determination to extend delegation, ministers may now force local authorities to make the figures public on the section 42 statements local authorities are obliged to publish setting out how school spending is shared out.

Graham Jones, from Hartshead School Services, which has been working with GM schools on challenging local authority budgets, said: "It is easy to get the evidence if you know what you are looking for. It is not necessarily easy, though, for GM schools or any schools to look for it. Their job is education - not looking through the fine detail of the columns in the section 42 statement. "

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