Education Secretary urges Tory MPs to tackle councils on under-fives spending as anger over cuts mounts. Conservative MPs are under pressure from Gillian Shephard to launch a propaganda war against councils in an attempt to make them halt nursery expansion and divert the cash into schools.
In a private letter to backbenchers, intended to counter the growing furore over threatened school budget cuts, the Education Secretary urges them to question the extent to which councils are expanding non-statutory services, such as under-fives, at the expense of statutory education services.
With eight county councils due to set their budgets next week - and at least three local authorities expected to ignore spending limits - the Government is under intense pressure to respond to claims by councils, schools and parents that underfunding will directly lead to the loss of thousands of teachers' jobs and soaring class sizes.
The next few weeks will be crucial for ministers if they are to contain the threatened civil disobedience. Any attempt to quell the unrest by raising spending limits once council-tax levels have been fixed would create financial chaos.
Parents and governors are already threatening to turn their protests into an election issue, with predictions that the Conservatives could lose up to 2,000 seats in this May's council elections.
In her letter to MPs, Mrs Shephard continues her strategy of switching the blame for school budget problems from the Government to local authorities. It includes seven questions for MPs to put to the local authority which "may be helpful in establishing their credibility in the battle to get better value for money".
Significantly, these include: "To what extent is the LEA expanding non-statutory services (eg, under-fives) at the expense of statutory education services?"
Services for the under-fives are the only ones specifically mentioned, throwing into question Prime Minister John Major's "cast-iron commitment" at the party conference last autumn to provide pre-school education for all four-year-olds whose parents want it.
Many local authorities have been attempting to expand services to fulfil election pledges. A survey of 40 local authorities by the National Campaign for Nursery Education revealed at least 26 were planning to expand.
By drawing attention specifically to the early years, Mrs Shephard may be signalling that the Government intends to use the voluntary and private sectors to fulfil its commitment to universal nursery education, as right-wingers have urged.
At least three local authorities - West Sussex, Kent and Northumberland - are ready to abandon plans to expand their under-fives services in the new financial year.
Margaret Lally, the campaign's chair, said: "I would be devastated if they were stopped because of pressure from Mrs Shephard. Given what she has been saying about expanding under-fives, this letter does seem rather hypocritical. "
In her letter to MPs, Mrs Shephard stresses that local spending is not controlled by the Government. "There is no 'cap' on how much of their total budgets authorities can allocate to education. They can and do exercise their discretion."
Other strategies drawn up by her against the "co-ordinated" attack on the Government focus on the expansion of non-statutory services, the "generous pay awards" made to senior local authority managers, surplus places and increases in central administration.
However, backbench MPs are continuing to press ministers to scrap the limit on local authority spending and Conservative MPs from Warwickshire who have been at the forefront of the campaign met John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, yesterday.
Parents at the John Kyle High School in Ross-on-Wye this week convincingly rejected grant-maintained status in the first ballot to centre on opting out as a solution to the latest cash crisis. They had been told that cuts would lead to three teacher redundancies, larger classes and the loss of sixth-form options.
In Gloucestershire, where GM governors are threatening to withdraw their services, Keith Anderson, chief education officer, warned that school management was seriously at risk.
"Gloucestershire is not by nature a militant county, but I have never seen our heads and governors in such a state of anger and despair," he said in a letter to Mrs Shephard.