They can only get poorer

4th April 2003 at 01:00
After trumpeting its commitment to education, the Government has left schools in a sorry state, says Damian Green

try to restrict the number of times I use the word "shambles" to describe any particular part of the Government's education policy. But I am going to permit myself this indulgence in considering the problems schools and local education authorities have encountered with this year's spending settlement.

For weeks ministers insisted that it was hugely generous, flying in the face of school budgets throughout the country which were being cut, with the consequent threat of redundancies for teachers and other staff. Then they admitted they had been wrong by finding another pound;28 million to assuage some of the problems in some (though not all) of the worst-hit areas. It would have been appropriate if this partial recompense had been accompanied by an apology but we cannot have everything.

What is worrying now is that ministers seem to believe they have solved the problems. This is, at best, disingenuous. Consultation letters on teacher redundancies have already gone out in Gloucester, Devon, Bristol and other areas. Phoning around the top 25 secondary schools as listed by The Sunday Times revealed that almost all were facing cuts ranging from pound;60,000 to pound;300,000.

Pat Elliott, the headteacher of Westcliff high school for girls in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, said that she would have needed an increase of 8.7 per cent just to stand still. Schools in the capital face particular difficulties with London weighting payments, and many will be pondering how they can fund upper pay scale 2 payments.

On top of this will be the problems faced by all LEAs and schools in the South-east who have lost out in this year's local government distribution.

Some schools have contacted me to point out that for the first time they are being asked to include in the school's budget money in the voluntary fund, which is spent on items for the children's benefit. Since these are almost entirely from parental contributions, it is sharp practice for the Department for Education and Skills to instruct that they be included in the main school accounts.

To illustrate the problems faced by one school in north London, the effects of gaining specialist status have been completely overwhelmed by the cuts.

It has lost pound;450,000, one eighth of its total budget.

One parent has written: "We have to support the head of this and every school in the borough. They do a fantastic job under very challenging conditions. But this, in all honesty, will crumble even the strongest character."

The school itself has had to warn parents about significant redundancies in teachers and support staff, greatly increased class sizes, and major reductions in resources, including books and teaching materials.

Behind all these problems lie the list of extra costs which schools have had loaded on to them by central government decisions.

The increase in contributions to the teachers' pension fund alone is hugely costly. The Local Government Association estimates that this takes pound;635m out of schools' budgets. On top of this they will have to find pound;115m to fund Gordon Brown's increase in National Insurance contributions, and another pound;445m for the last pay settlement.

All of these difficulties will be compounded by the rapidly-unravelling plans to reduce teacher workload. This is an admirable aim in itself but one which will not be achieved with all these additional funding pressures.

At the time of the famous photo-call between ministers and union leaders to celebrate the signing of the deal, those of us who pointed out that this particular Emperor seemed to be rather scantily clad were dismissed as inveterate moaners. Sadly, for the future of our schools, we were right, and no amount of spin can disguise that fact.

So for all the extra money taken from taxpayers and announced regularly as being invested in our schools, the reality for this year is of schools wondering how to make the cuts as painless as possible. The position in future years is likely to be worse.

This is not the place to go into the complexities of local government funding, but the mechanisms which gave a small amount of protection to the councils worst hit this year are to be wound down over the next two years.

So if it is difficult for your local school now, things can only get worse.

This is a sobering prospect.

The long-term answer is to question the area-based formula we now use for core education funding. It means that widespread unfairness is always likely, with poor children in rich areas losing out to rich children in poor areas. For all the problems associated with a national formula, it seems beyond dispute after this year that the current system is broken and needs to be replaced.

Damian Green MP is shadow education secretary

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