Now you see it, now you don't

28th August 1998 at 01:00

Is it genuinely new money to redress years of underfunding or a financial con trick? Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, hailed a cash bonanza for education following the Chancellor's comprehensive spending review in mid-July.

The Government was pumping cash into its priority areas, just as it said it would, Mr Dewar trumpeted, and he pledged an extra Pounds 1.3 billion for education. Around Pounds 850 million was for local authority-run services and the rest for colleges and universities over the next three years. Mr Dewar insisted it would add more than Pounds 200 per pupil to primary and secondary spending by 1999-2000.

But will the cash begin to deliver, even if the wheels do not come off the economy? Opposition parties and local authorities remain suspicious. They accept targeted cash will make a difference to parts of the education service at the expense of other areas. Strange though it may seem, it is a package of investment and cuts.

Donald Gorrie, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, describes Government figures as "an unbelievable obfuscation" but concedes there is new money for areas like classroom assistants and early intervention. Other local authority services are being raided to allow for extra education spending and non-targeted areas like community education "do not figure at all".

The SNP claims the #163;1.3 billion is only worth #163;633m in reality.

Mr Gorrie argues that the Government's policies have to be taken over the lifetime of the Parliament. "There is a small increase in the next three years but a decrease over the first two." Council spending in total will be below the levels set by the Tories, he claims. Planned increases in local authority spending on education in the next three years do not allow for inflation and follow the lowest possible base.

Professor David Heald of Aberdeen University, a finance expert, said: "There is no spending spree."

But John Stodter, director of education in Aberdeen, and often a stringent critic of Government education policy, states: "For the first time in our experience, there will be significantly expanding services. But there will be cutting with one hand and increasing with the other."

Shelagh Rae, director of education in Renfrewshire and president of the Association of Directors of Education, said: "The new Government is targeting education and being specific about the New Deal funding, therefore other areas of education are being cut." More cash is being ring-fenced by central government, Mrs Rae said.

Education departments which have suffered heavy cuts in recent years are relishing the prospect of reversing the trend. Mr Dewar pledged to raise local authority spending on education by 6.4 per cent in 1999-2000, 4.3 per cent the following year and 4 per cent in 2001-02. But teacher pay rises have to come out of that, perhaps knocking off a percentage point.

Mr Stodter says that some additional money is targeted and some is bound up in the overall local authority settlement. "The 6 per cent rise is pretty significant and people will want to see 6 per cent growth. On our budget of #163;85 million, it probably represents about Pounds 15 million extra over three years."

That will mean meeting the Government agenda on pre-school education for three and four-year-olds, cutting class sizes in the early years, early intervention and the rest. More teachers will be employed and money may also go back into schools' per capita to boost spending on books and materials. "This is as significant as it gets," Mr Stodter said.

As for the cuts, areas such as outdoor education, music tuition, school meals and community education are the likely targets, along with the education support service. "Three-quarters of a million could have to come out of a smaller base and it could mean wiping out entire services," Mrs Rae warned.

So is the Dewar package a treat or trick? Teachers demanding substantial pay hikes will soon be well placed to judge. They will also have to see benefits in the classroom to be persuaded.

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