Is the warm glow a trick of the light?

19th March 2004 at 00:00
At face value, Gordon Brown's promise of an annual 4.4 per cent increase in education spending looks like good news for schools. Only last week, Labour's favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, was forecasting that the days of big education spending increases were over. It predicted schools would have to settle for a maximum 2.5 per cent.

How can schools quibble at a promise to raise per-pupil funding by pound;1,000 by 2008?

The problem is that the warm glow created by Mr Brown's promises has a habit of disappearing when heads sit down to work out their own budgets.

There seems to be less cooking of the books than in previous years, but Mr Brown is, as ever, keen to portray his news in the best light .

The pound;1,000-per-pupil increase comes without a warning that it includes money that has already been announced. Also, falling rolls make a per-pupil increase easier to achieve.

Last year's funding problems came despite the news 12 months earlier of a "record pound;15 billion" increase for education.

As John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, put it: "We all cheered at the last spending review and that ended up with schools facing unprecedented budget cuts."

This week's settlement is much less generous. A real-terms increase of 4.4 per cent for 2006-8 is little over two-thirds of the 6 per cent rise to which heads have become accustomed.

And even 4.4 per cent could be an over-estimate. If inflation exceeds Mr Brown's estimates by just two or three percentage points, then schools could once again find themselves unable to meet rising costs.

If money does prove to be tight, problems will be exacerbated if the expansion of the Government's specialist schools and academy programmes takes up a disproportionate share of funds.

The additional 1,000 specialist schools already announced will cost around pound;100 million in start-up costs and pound;118m per year.

Ministers' answer to these criticisms is to slash central bureaucracy in an effort to get more of the budget through to the front line.

Certainly, they will need to succeed in that task if they want this Budget to be judged favourably in four years' time.

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