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Test-bed council 'fettered by cash reforms'

A series of Government reforms being piloted in the London borough of Hillingdon is threatening to create a financial crisis and give less money to primary schools.

The Labour-run authority is one of the test-bed authorities for the new funding systems governing grant-maintained primary and secondary schools as well as the nursery voucher scheme. Councillors claim their ability to spend money raised locally on what they want is fettered by the reforms.

A High Court judge last month told the authority: "Cry to Parliament" when it complained about its problems over capping in a battle over special needs spending.

Mr Justice Collins also warned councils they could not cut spending on children with statements of special needs in order to balance their budgets. Hillingdon, which will be allowed to increase spending by just 2.4 per cent from April, is not too impressed with the support it receives from the Department for Education and Employment in piloting all these initiatives. "I don't feel that people are ringing us or coming back to us and saying 'How are you doing?'" said Glenys Andrews, Hillingdon's group director of education services.

The authority claims that successive reforms have fettered its discretion to spend as it sees fit. Councillors, meanwhile, are seething at what they call a loss of democracy. It is unclear whether it was always the long-term plan of ministers to weaken the local authority by restricting its ability to spend, but that somehow sits uneasily with the "significant role" for LEAs envisaged now by Gillian Shephard.

So the borough that has been at the cutting edge of Government initiatives could be an early example of the shape of things to come for others. All 15 secondary schools in Hillingdon are funded through the Common Funding Formula for the grant-maintained sector. (The three LEA schools were given the choice and opted to join in as well).

From April, the 10 GM primaries will go, albeit reluctantly, on to the scheme while the 59 local authority primaries will remain on local management. Changes to the CFF in April will see national figures used for the first time to calculate the primarysecondary split in funding. This will overturn work being done by Hillingdon to put more money into primary schools.

Within the CFF, the authority is given an amount - the so-called "top-slice" - for services it still has to provide such as special needs and home to school transport. Hillingdon's top-slice is Pounds 16 million - Pounds 10 million of which goes on special educational needs,Pounds 4 million on educational psychologists, education welfare and other indirect costs for pupils with SEN. The remaining Pounds 2 million goes on transport, early retirement, nursery schools and under-fives.

Next year, it will have to find another Pounds 1 million for SEN pupils. Mrs Andrews asked: "Where does this authority get that Pounds 1 million?" The council is about Pounds 7 million short of what it estimates it needs to spend. Education committee members were meeting last night to decide what to do.

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