Win some, lose some

1st December 1995 at 00:00
It looks at first like a victory for parent power and Gillian Shephard, but scratch beneath the Budget hype and the best you can say is that schools are not facing cuts next year as deeply damaging as originally expected. And even then, any concessions wrung from the Treasury seem to have been paid for in added pain elsewhere.

The highly visible protests of parents and governors against the larger classes and teacher sackings brought on by this year's cuts certainly strengthened Mrs Shephard's case in competition with her Cabinet colleagues. The Pounds 878 million extra spending on schools secured looks like the best that could be expected at a time when all the Government's backbenchers were baying for tax cuts at the expense of public spending. But as the Education and Employment Secretary also very well knew, the local education authorities were bound to say that it is not enough.

The main bone of contention between Government and LEAs relates to the whole messy business of standard spending assessments: the unfairness in their allocation; the arbitrary way that spending is capped; and above all the fact that local authorities are currently exceeding their education assessments by something like the sum they are now to be given as "extra" for the coming financial year. This they have done largely by raiding reserves or other services.

Since this is not an operation that can easily be repeated, the extra money amounts to a standstill. Classes won't get much smaller, but probably not much larger either. Mrs Shephard insists the 4.5 per cent increase for LEAs should cover increased pupil numbers and a "reasonable" teachers' pay deal, so there is no reason why authorities shouldn't balance their books and protect front-line services. For their part, the LEAs await a "going rate" on pay deals with foreboding and - as we went to press - crucial news on capping, council tax and individual authority settlements. As always, there will be winners and losers.

A crucial factor in assessing the winlose conflicts in education spending can be found in the three-year public spending projections which accompany each year's Budget. At this time last year, the 1995-96 education figures looked dreadful, those for 1996-97 horrific, with 1997-98 heralding the end of public schooling as we know it. In the event, the picture this year has been stark but patchy, with those schools unable to draw on reserves especially badly hit. Next year, on the original scenario, even successful schools with reasonable reserves in well-favoured areas would have been badly hit, and in the following year penury would have been certain.

What the Budget has done is to halt that downward spiral for next year, without necessarily putting it into reverse. And meanwhile, life has been made that much tougher for the further and higher education institutions towards which school-leavers should be aspiring.

The universities, as expected, have had both student numbers and capital spending screwed down again. The further education colleges had also feared for the worst, given that a victory for Gillian Shephard on schools spending might be compensated for elsewhere in her Education and Employment budget, but on the face of it the figures didn't look quite as bad as expected. Capital funding was to be slashed in the great national swing to private finance, but recurrent funding was presented as holding steady.

Here again, three-year projections come into play. The colleges were given a three-year boost in funding on incorporation in l993, but also targets for student numbers and efficiency savings. Annual efficiency savings of 5 per cent were to run for three years, and in 1994-95 these were triumphantly exceeded with actual savings of 11-12 per cent. This year, however, the colleges are struggling, with 41 of them in severe financial difficulties. And now that particular target has been extended for another year, to 1998-99.

It is probably on capital funding, however, that the colleges - whose "dynamic growth" Mrs Shephard sought to protect in the Budget negotiations - will be most badly affected. Many of them inherited dilapidated and inadequate buildings from their previous owners, the local education authorities, and few have yet had time or money to put things right.

Now, in the Government's own estimates, the switch to private financing is unlikely to cover their needs, and the chief executive of their funding council has warned them they can virtually forget about new buildings or equipment if capital funding is cut. So far, private money has been hard to come by, and there is the added drawback that the more successful you are in the lottery of capital spending, the bigger your debt burden and the drain on your resources.

Win some, lose some. Another Budget.

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