Silent warfare

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Nothing in the Government's evidence to the teachers' pay review body gives the slightest indication that the forthcoming budget and pay round will be any less "tough" for schools than Gillian Shephard officially declared it this year.

Mrs Shephard has made no secret of her hopes that education might be treated more generously; her warnings in Cabinet of the effects on schools - and on the Government's popularity - of another year of underfunding have been no better concealed. Yet the formal submission of her department to the School Teachers' Review Body carefully parallels the economic stringency laid down by the Treasury. Pay increases must be met out of efficiency savings or, it warns, reductions in "service levels" will result; Mandarin for bigger classes and part-time schooling.

The Prime Minister, for all his talk about education being at the top of the agenda, has also stuck to the Chancellor's line about reducing public expenditure and restricting public-sector pay, as both are bound to for fear of alarming the money markets. But higher spending on the services the Government regards as priorities is not precluded, provided it can be balanced by even deeper cuts elsewhere. The trouble is, the demands of the former considerably outstrip the scope for the latter, even before the electoral advantages claimed for tax cuts can be advanced.

So we enter that pre-Budget period of silent warfare between ministers. The only visible signs of it are the flurries of inspired leaks, apparently breaking surface like errant torpedoes, but in fact targeted on backbench and public opinion.

Consumer resistance to further cuts in education has certainly been aided and abetted by Mrs Shephard's candid assessments, on and off the record. Parent and governor organisations have also spread alarm about class sizes and school budgets, as have those education authorities recognising that the power to influence government spending on schools now rests as much with governing bodies and wider public opinion as with those representing local government.

East Sussex is a case in point this week. Taking the Chancellor's public spending plans at face value, the county has looked over the brink and is making sure that every teacher, governor and parent in the county understands what the dire and inescapable consequences are likely to be: 10 per cent cuts in school budgets, 600 fewer teachers, no library or museums service, abolition of primary French and the prospect that an award-winning music service and the admission of rising fives will become history. This cross-party initiative is ostensibly to seek consensus on the least worse options. But it cannot fail also to ensure everyone knows who to blame and to provide the ammunition needed for the kind of protest that Conservative MPs in neomarginal seats most fear.

Mrs Shephard has raised expectations. She has a powerful hand to play and a certain amount of finesse. Notice, for instance, the gesture towards extra pay for the after-school sports so dear to the PM's heart in her department's STRB submission. It knows full well that schools have all the flexibility they need to make such payments. What they lack is the money. But it shows who Mrs Shephard is batting for.

But is the Government really going to drop more into the general local government pot in the hope it will surface in smaller classes, cricket fixtures and more effective schools, especially when the impact of last year's tough settlement was, in Mrs Shephard's word, "patchy"? More likely is some loosening of the cap on local authority spending by allowing those without reserves to raise more locally through the council tax. That at least has the attraction to the Government of increasing spending while apparently putting the blame for tax increases onto local councils, few of which are Tory controlled.

But however it is done, unless the Government wants to go into the next election with the public perception that class sizes are soaring inexorably upwards, with governors in revolt and heads and teachers further demoralised, it has to find some way of ensuring schools are fully funded for the cost of living rise for teachers they are statutorily obliged to pay.

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