We need to take funding out of the magic circle

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Financial resources for schools: can there be in 1996 some comforting pot at the end of any political rainbow? The Government says not, and emphasises that to be competitive, this country must reduce the national public sector borrowing requirement from its present 40-plus per cent of national income.

Scotland is, of course, taking its proportionate share of the national belt-tightening: over four years to 1999, the education estimate goes from Pounds 14 billion to Pounds 13.1 billion - to be compensated for by investment from the private sector under the Private Finance Initiative to the tune of around Pounds 1 billion over the same period.

New-realism Labour (or at any rate its echoes from the south) seems to agree with such fiscal rectitude, with Tony Blair lambasting the "dishonest" or "short-termist" policies of smaller parties.

Pure non-political common sense might seem to underline these views. Substantially more is spent per head on local government services under Scotland's favourable and historical grant arrangements from Westminster.

Public spending per head is 44 per cent higher here. Who would argue that it should be more? And how would they debate their case?

In fact, one-third of the total Scottish Office budget already goes to local authorities, which now have wide freedom of virement plus flexibility between revenue and capital budgets.

That being the case, those arguing for more schools funding might consider identifying from where it should come. How about a larger than one-third slice for councils? Money from the police budget, perhaps? Or trunk roads?

Scotland's new councils are of course gravely hindered by having inherited soaring loan debt. The spend nowpay later habits of some of the defunct regions -borrowing to the hilt and running down reserves - leave Scotland's council taxpayers to lament such profligacy at leisure.

Average outstanding loan debt stands at Pounds 1,040 per head, and the annual outlay for servicing it would indeed do wonders for crumbling buildings. The cost in Scotland is Pounds 152 per person per year, more than four times higher than England's Pounds 35.

Last week I shared a platform with a Scottish Nationalist Party spokesperson who predictably saw the solution in a Scottish parliament with tax-raising powers initially set at 3p in the pound. How this could possibly pay for her proposed abolition of student loansreinstatement of full non-means tested grants under the current explosion in higher education remains in the realm of magic and marvels.

Of course an extra 3p on income tax begs the absorbing question as to whether, in the currently crumbling nirvana envisaged by the Scottish Convention, the workforce in Dumfries would be happy to do the same job for less in the pay packet than they would receive by moving to Carlisle.

It even poses our burgeoning higher education industry with the curious situation that it might once again, as in the 19th century, be educating Scots for export: professional people qualifying here and moving away to a more favourable tax regime.

The truth of the matter is that future prospects for Scottish education under devolution hinge entirely on the maintenance of the current favourable treatment received by Scotland under the Barnett formula. If this fails under any future Westminster Government, present resource shortfall will seem like a teddy bears' picnic.

What are the odds for Barnett with an assembly on Calton Hill? The question is so central to the healthy future of Scottish education that it would be reassuring to hear Messrs Blair and Robertson give an unequivocal commitment to its continuation.

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