Secondary education is bearing the brunt of council cuts, reports Josephine Gardiner. Cash-strapped councils are protecting primary pupils from cuts by reallocating money from secondary schools, indicating that the current anxiety about standards of literacy and numeracy may be having a practical impact.
The Audit Commission's annual league tables of councils' performance in local services, published yesterday, show that overall spending on education fell by around 2 per cent for primary schools and 3 per cent for secondaries in 1995-96 compared with the previous year. In most councils there was a general shift in spending from secondary to primary, with the average gap per pupil between the two narrowing by around Pounds 40.
In 1995-96, county councils spent on average Pounds 138 less on each secondary pupil compared with the previous year, and Pounds 63 less on each primary pupil. Metropolitan councils spent Pounds 88 less on secondary pupils, but the cutback for primary pupils was just Pounds 16. The London boroughs were the exception - cutting primary expenditure by Pounds 29 per pupil on average, compared with Pounds 2 for secondary. The Audit Commission suggests that this could be due to concern about poor GCSE results in London.
The commission's figures also show that councils have not created any more under-fives' places in anticipation of the introduction of the nursery voucher scheme this year. The situation in 1995-96 was almost unchanged from the previous year, with the same huge variations in provision between councils - some providing places to nine out of 10 children and others offering places to fewer than three in 10.
In London, for instance, Tower Hamlets council provides places for almost 90 per cent of under-fives, while Bromley does so for only 35 per cent. In general, three- and four-year-olds are much more likely to get a school place if living in a large city outside London, where 75 per cent have places. In the shires, the average is only 49 per cent.
There were some changes among individual councils; some with provision previously among the poorest showed the biggest reductions. The London borough of Westminster, which provides fewer places for three- and four-year-olds than the average for London, cut its places last year.
Wigan is third from bottom of the metropolitan county council league table, but the borough provided nearly 15 per cent fewer under-five places in 199596 than the previous year.
Paul Vevers, a director at the Audit Commission, said that the figures seem to "cut across political stereotypes". In London, he pointed out, Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, provides well over 80 per cent of three and four year olds with a nursery place, compared with Lambeth - a comparable borough in socio-economic terms - which provides for just over 30 per cent.
Life is also a lottery for those with special educational needs. The Audit Commission measures councils' efficiency by the amount of time they take in drawing up statements of special need for each child. The discrepancies between councils on this issue are more dramatic than for any other performance indicator.
No council processed all its statements in the new, tighter target period of 18 weeks, and more than half achieved this for less than half their statements. The London boroughs showed the most marked improvement on last year, but the differences between councils here as everywhere else are massive.
Parents in Southwark can take comfort from the fact that almost 100 per cent of statements are done within 18 weeks, but in Havering, not one statement was prepared in time. Similarly, Newcastle processed almost all statements on time, but Manchester did none.
Paul Vevers said that these discrepancies did not seem to be connected to the relative wealth of the area or the numbers needing statements in the area.
He also said that for all the indicators, publication seems to stimulate the poorest performers to improve, but it has little effect on those in the middle of the table.
Meanwhile, the decline in library use continues. Three-quarters of councils showed a drop in items borrowed, with the national average falling by 5 per cent on last year, mirroring the 5 per cent average cut in spending on libraries. Councils lent an average of nine books or other items to each person in the country, with variations of between 16 books a head and three.