Trick or triumph?

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Meetings of the Cabinet are private affairs. Governments, unlike governors, are not required to publish minutes. So when a crucial pre-Budget meeting is immediately followed by ubiquitous reports that an extra Pounds 800 million pounds has been found for education you know that this is a piece of news the Government wants to be heard. A signal that Gillian Shephard has triumphed over her colleagues and succeeded where other spending departments have been restrained.

Or that is what is meant to be understood by those who are worrying about the state of education funding. Do not fret, is the message. That nice Mrs Shephard has everything under control, in line with the Prime Minister's repeated assurance that education is the top priority as soon as we can afford it.

But is this really Gillian's triumph? The semi-official nods and winks by which such messages are transmitted are rather less communicative when it comes to the details that enable us to answer that: Pounds 800 million on top of what? For what? And at what price to the rest of the Budget?

According to the oracles (nod, wink) it seems the extra is mostly intended for teacher salaries to keep class sizes down. That, after all, is what most of the fuss has been about.

The Government is clearly feeling rattled and out-manoeuvred by the success of the local authorities in pinning the blame for cuts on its central funding decisions. But having raised a hue and cry for higher standards it was always in danger of finding itself swept along by the public's raised expectations and anxieties.

If the Pounds 800 million is intended to keep class sizes down, how will the Government ensure it is not diverted to meet other demands on local authority budgets or used by schools for other priorities? As this week's TES School Management Update points out, since local management began schools have employed fewer teachers per pupil to spend less time in the classroom while paying them more.

So is the Government working on a way of earmarking any additional funds for schools; the mythical "golden bullet" to ensure money reaches its intended target? Or will it continue to rely on local authorities to pass the cash, and the responsibility for class sizes, onto schools?

If the latter, it becomes even more important to understand the source of any purported extra. Is it Pounds 800 million more than is already being spent? In which case, how far does it take account of the shortfalls of previous years, growing numbers of pupils and the use of one-off reserves and balances?

Or is it simply Pounds 800 million more than the Government says ought to be spent on schools - a figure that is curiously about Pounds 800 million less than actually is spent at present? Clearly, if it is a case of Government estimates realigning with reality, it may help to restore the shortfall of previous years. But it will leave little over to meet the new costs of this year's pay settlements or additional pupils.

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