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Tougher next year

As the final council budgets were set this week, like so many jellies forced into tighter moulds, it was those in schools and other frontline services who were left quivering with anger at what the Government has perpetrated. In spite of the outrage of parents, governors and local government leaders, it seems that Gillian Shephard, John Gummer at the Department of the Environment and the Chancellor Kenneth Clarke are getting away with last November's Budget for larger classes. But as they must now know, they cannot rely upon such an easy ride next time.

Almost no education authorities have been able to avoid cuts, let alone provide for necessary growth. Some 13 of the 36 counties contacted by The TES this week (page 5) had fully funded the teachers' pay award but, since only two had not also made other cuts in schools spending, this gesture was largely meaningless. In the end only five have chosen the high-risk option to exceed the Government's budget limit. Among the unlikely rebels is Gloucestershire where successive cuts in schools add up to 15 per cent over four years.

Gillian Shephard advised Conservative MPs to seek out the waste and bureaucracy of their local councils; Gloucestershire LEA has cut its central staffing by 27 per cent in four years and has a net deficit rather than surplus places. Indeed it needs an additional Pounds 9 million to meet its inescapable growth in education. It has received only Pounds 1.5million extra for all council spending. When even the local grant maintained schools support an authority's call for respite, it could be said, without any offence intended, that the pips have truly begun to squeak.

Hard cases such as these pose a dilemma for the Department of the Environment. Does the Government steam on regardless, rejecting such appeals and inflicting another, mid-year round of flesh-paring cuts in hard-hit areas where many sitting Conservative MPs are showing signs of disquiet? Or does it relent and so encourage others to try the same route next year when cuts will be even harsher, reserves more depleted and a general election that much closer?

For next year's settlement is where much of the campaigning energy will now be focused. In schools heads and governors may in the immediate future be grappling with the dire consequences of this year's budget, salvaging what they can. More than ever face the prospect of forced redundancies and growing classes. Some will rebel or despair; the majority will trim and shave, beg and borrow and keep the show on the road for the sake of their pupils. But they no longer suffer in silence and, for once, it is clear who they blame, sometimes very publicly in letters home to parents, or at the annual meetings the Government thoughtfully provided.

The fruits of this are showing up in MPs and ministers' mail bags. The predictions that local management of schools would unleash an inexorable demand for additional funding as parents became aware of shortcomings seem to be coming about. And the Government has few friends left among the remnants of its party in local government. No one has any interest in defending the Conservative economic strategy locally; rather we witness the extraordinary spectacle of local authority leaders orchestrating public protests against their own cuts in order to heap the blame for them onto the Government. Local politicians know, too, that ministers are more likely to be moved by public outcry than their own pleading.

As Gillian Shephard has pointed out, councils could give higher priority to schools spending; many have done so in recent years to discourage opting out. But as the threat of grant-maintained status recedes, along with its financial advantages, so are local councils less inclined to protect schools' budgets. And having had their bluff called by the Government when they warned of teacher redundancies, those who retain any financial discretion seem to have precipitated these sooner rather than later to bolster their case.

Governors are another new factor; governing bodies that are far more involved in their schools and in touch with their parents, and who are starting to realise the power they could wield if they acted together. The new National Governors Council is one way. It has proved a useful provider of despairing notes so far but has yet to establish itself as a major conductor. But then it was only launched last October.

In the letter leaked to The TES in which Mrs Shephard privately warned Cabinet colleagues that failing to fund the teachers' pay award in full would indeed mean bigger classes she showed a rather old-fashioned concern about disruption by the teacher unions. Local authorities, schools, parents groups, governors and their associations have access to a far wider and more powerful group: parents and the wider electorate. They need to use this to ensure that when the Cabinet next contemplates restricting education spending to finance tax-cuts, the electoral advantages of the latter over the former no longer seem so clear cut.

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