Resentment mounts as extra grants from Whitehall get 'held up' by the National Assembly and councils. Phil Revell reports
Frustrated Welsh headteachers have attacked the new funding system that followed the establishment of the National Assembly. They say a series of grants announced in Whitehall has left them scanning budgets for cash that never arrives.
"We can never be certain where the money is," says Brian Rowlands, the Secondary Heads Association officer for the principality. "Nobody can work it out, whereas in England it's quite clear."
Alun Jones of the National Association of Head Teachers echoes the complaint. "It's a funding fog. In November 1999, the Department for Education and Employment announced a scheme to allow early retirement for heads who felt they could not go on.
"The programme saw 270 English heads retire at the end of August last year but we're still waiting. It's a bit like the Cardiff Bay flood barrier. Money flows down from Whitehall but gets stuck in the Assembly and in the local authorities."
Funding for Welsh schools is routed through the Assembly, then councils. Education minister Jane Davidson admits there have been problems, but argues that much of the frustration results from a failure to understand the realities of devolved government - the way the Assembly decides what to do with the block grant it gets from Whitehall.
"Devolution has exposed the fact that we use different processes from England," she told The TES.
"The Assembly makes its spending decisions in a very transparent process," says Ms Davidson. "In July of each year a draft budget goes to committees to comment, then to the Assembly for approval. Any member of the public can look at what the Assembly is doing."
But Welsh heads claim that what the Assembly decides is irrelevant, as there is no ring-fencing of the education budget and local authorities can spend the cash however they like.
They also point to the fact that their local authorities retain a far higher proportion of the budget than their English counterparts - typically only 75-85 per cent is delegated to heads.
Moreover, there is no equivalent of the Government's Standards Fund in Wales: school spending is almost totally reliant on what the local authorities pass on.
The Welsh Local Government Associatin has described heads' complaints as ill-informed. Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend Council in south Wales, says:
"Local authorities and the Assembly have hugely increased expenditure on education, often at the expense of other services.
"The fact is that, in Wales, expenditure per pupil is higher than the average for all regions of England excluding London."
Figures show that the highest-spending Welsh authority, Powys, does indeed spend nearly pound;500 per pupil more than its neighbours in Shropshire. But the lowest-spending authority, the Vale of Glamorgan, spends pound;2,553 per pupil, which is less than its English neigbours.
Ms Davidson acknowledges that the funding process could be more transparent, and that some authorities' spending formulae need to be reviewed, but the reform process, she claims, is well under way.
A recent Welsh White Paper, Simplifying the System, suggested two models. The first would mean ring-fenced education spending. The second envisages a system where local authorities would negotiate spending targets with the Assembly that it would then monitor. Consultation has just closed on the proposals.
As well as misunderstanding devolution, Ms Davidson feels heads are being misled by announcements fromWhitehall. She wants the implications for Welsh schoools to be clearly spelt out. "I can identify with all those educationists in Wales who, when they hear announcements that say England and Wales, assume money will follow.
"I had an urgent meeting with David Blunkett about this and was pleased to get an apology from the DFEE press office.
"In future, where statements relate to Wales, there will be input from the Assembly into the press release."
She argues that different funding arrangements reflect real differences in policy between Wales and England. "We don't have that day-on-day 'initiative-itis' about funding," she says. "We have chosen to go down a different route. It's very important that people start looking to the Assembly for decisions in Wales. Announcements will be made here, not in London."
WHAT IS HELD BACK
Welsh LEAs that retain the biggest (percentage of the schools budget)...
1. Powys 24.7% 2. Blaenau Gwent 23.6% 3. Ceredigion 22.9% 4. Neath 22.6% And the council that retains the least...
Vale of Glamorgan 16.3%