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Wales goes short on building funds

England gets more money for restoring schools but ours are in worse state, claims professor. Adi Bloom reports

Welsh schools are receiving significantly less money for restoring and rebuilding unsuitable premises than those in England, new research reveals.

Writing in this week's TES Cymru, David Reynolds, professor of education at the University of Exeter, claims that the Welsh Assembly government is offering schools proportionately less money for restoration and maintenance of sub-standard buildings than Westminster provides for schools in England.

By 2005, the Department for Education and Skills will be spending pound;6 billion a year on school buildings. Wales, with a population equivalent to 6 per cent of England, should therefore be spending pound;360 million a year. By 2008, this should rise to pound;480m, says Professor Reynolds.

Instead, over the next four years the Assembly will spend only pound;140m a year on school rebuilding - proportionately half of the English expenditure.

Professor Reynolds said: "The gap is a large one. And you would expect expenditure to be higher in Wales, because the buildings are older and in a more dilapidated state. This funding discrepancy means that a much poorer, older and more unsuitable set of buildings will remain so."

In its first term in Assembly government, the Labour party invested pound;300m in school buildings over four years. And, in its 2003 manifesto, it pledged to increase this to pound;140m a year so that, by the end of the decade, more than pound;1bn will have been spent on building improvements and upkeep.

Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, has spoken of her own personal experiences of dilapidated school buildings. As an English teacher at Coed-y-lan comprehensive, in Pontypridd, she watched rain drip through the roof into buckets.

This month Ms Davidson announced the first projects to benefit from Assembly investment, and to be undertaken between 2005-7. An extra lump sum of pound;9m was also allocated to each Welsh authority between 2005 and 2010, to enable them to undertake larger building projects. She has pledged that, by 2010, all school buildings should be fit for use.

A spokeswoman for the Assembly denies that Welsh schools are being short-changed.

She said: "The Assembly government keeps in touch with the Westminster government over its plans, and does not recognise these figures.

"Our objective - to ensure that all school buildings should be in good physical shape and properly maintained by 2010 - is supported by increased funding. We are working with local authorities to enable us to reach our targets."

But many heads believe that the 2010 goal is unrealistic at the current level of investment. Brian Lightman, head of St Cyres comprehensive, in the Vale of Glamorgan, says that his is one of three local schools needing complete renovation.

"Many of our buildings are dilapidated, with faulty plumbing," he said.

"They are simply not fit for purpose in the 21st century. We're pouring money into basic repairs.

"It will cost pound;84m for the authority to rebuild three schools. But it is getting pound;9m from the Assembly. That's the kind of gap you're talking about. Heads in Wales see the major programme of school rebuilding in England and want to see something similar here."

Anna Brychan, Welsh director of the National Association of Head Teachers, agrees that many heads are forced to work in inadequate conditions.

She said: "This is an appalling statistic. Many buildings fall short of satisfactory. That affects standards and pupils' capacity to learn. And teachers deserve to work in an environment that does not require them to do patch-up work in their spare time."

Gethin Lewis, Welsh secretary of the National Union of Teachers, agrees. He said: "There is a general perception that schools in England are more generously funded. So I would be extremely concerned, upset and disappointed if the Assembly's planned investment slipped."

Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru education spokesperson, is increasingly cynical about the Assembly's plans to finance repairs to school buildings. "Local governments were told that money would be available, but it won't be released until 2005-6," she said.

"And the minister has announced funding for buildings at least twice now.

It's the old government trick of announcing, reannouncing and reannouncing the same money, so that it sounds as though it's three times as much as it really is."

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