Tricks of money trade

Much has been said about poor education funding in Wales, but what is the truth? David Reynolds investigates the financial maze

Yet again issues about expenditure on education are hitting the headlines, with concerns about underfunding coming from schools and a robust defence of Welsh policies coming from education and lifelong learning minister, Jane Davidson.

Yet again figures are being bandied about which contradict each other. Yet again headteachers feel angry and annoyed that their legitimate, professional concerns are not being listened to. What is the truth behind these various claims?

The case that Wales is somehow losing out financially starts with the recognition that the education spend in Wales should be more, because the Welsh Assembly gets more money per head of population than England. About 12 per cent more per head comes to Wales - and 1 per cent less per head goes on education. This is an underspend of 13 per cent.

In Scotland, about 24 per cent more comes in per head of population and 24 per cent more goes on schools per head. In Wales, the likelihood is that the rapidly-growing expenditure area of culture, media and sport soaks up the difference.

What may be happening is that the historical success of education in Wales, and the acclaim of Ms Davidson's alternative "new producerism", may be persuading people that education is sorted when, of course, it is not.

The case that Wales is losing out continues with figures that compare England with Wales, and show England ahead by about 1 per cent on per-pupil spend in 20034. Certainly Wales has closed the gap since 19992000 and the two countries are now close in their projected expenditure over the next few years.

The Assembly argues that, in fact, Wales spends more than England, but this figure is expenditure per head of population, not per child, a highly dubious use of statistics.

Secondly, Wales needs to be spending more than England simply to stand still, as it were - school transport budgets are higher in Wales, buildings are older and require more maintenance, and teachers are older and cost more.

It may be that the only way schools in Wales can break even is by spending less on books, equipment and other vital learning resources. The Secondary Heads Association Cymru's own surveys' of schools' expenditure should tell us this early in the New Year.

The remaining bits of the case demonstrating that we have problems in Wales relate to local authorities. Here they spend highly variable sums of money - the difference in per-pupil funding was as much as pound;930 in 20012 and pound;1,015 in 20034.

The claim is that the range between the highest and lowest-spending has fallen this year, but this relates only to the plans for 20045, not the actual spend. By the end of the year the gap may widen again, as councils take different policy decisions to cope with the financial situation.

It is possible, though, that the publication of the Assembly's recommended spending figures for education, published this week, will change things.

Within the global total, the amount spent on individual policies, including core ones such as school improvement, has become more varied over time as authorities take decisions about which areas to boost in their localities.

In this situation, the policy in Wales to hold back a high proportion of expenditure for local authorities to spend on their schools - 23 per cent in 20034 rather than 19 per cent in 20023 - is increasingly different from England, where about 95 per cent of spending on education is devolved for schools to spend.

In England, if you are unhappy with the quality of the services provided by your local education authority, you can buy from an alternative provider.

In Wales, you are stuck with your LEA.

I suspect that heads' irritability about the variable qualities of their LEAs, and their inability to do anything about this, underlies much of their angst.

All manner of deceptions, tricks and stunts have been pulled with the figures in Wales over the past five years. Taking high-spending London out of the English figures to try to reduce them without, of course, taking high-spending Ceredigion out of the Welsh figures is an example. Using per-head-of-population figures rather than per-child figures is another example of political naughtiness.

This, of course, is the stock in trade of what politics has become, and it is likely that politics will be necessary to change things. The interesting thing for 2005, and up to the Assembly elections in 2007, is whether the heads of Wales have the willingness to become politicians as well as educators.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Exeter and lives in Wales

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