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Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): Both my daughters are in state schools in Kent, How would the hon. Gentleman justify funds being taken away from that school and all other schools in Kent by the Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled county council, which has spent between £100,000 and £250,000 on propaganda to try to talk parents out of voting for what they have always wanted for their schools--grant-maintained status?

Mr. Blunkett: I just wonder what the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation is doing with public money provided by the Department for Education. It has spent £250,000 in the past year on hospitality alone for those campaigning for grant-maintained status, including providing hotel accommodation and travelling costs for heads and teachers from grant- maintained schools, who clearly have time to travel the country persuading others.

After the intervention last time from a Kent Member about how people were spending money on take-away meals in the epitome of the competitive tendering, out-of-house catering of the future, I will take no more interventions from hon. Members from Kent.

Self-delusion is now commonplace in a Cabinet that is completely split down the middle on education.

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Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment. Let us take the Prime Minister's words on 16 March. He claimed in the House that there were

"two administrators for every three teachers in education".--[ Official Report , 16 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 1021.]

This is a Prime Minister who did not pass anything at school, never mind the 11-plus.

Mr. Dunn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I am making a point that I intend to finish. The Prime Minister claimed on 16 March during Prime Minister's questions that there were two administrators for every three teachers. We have checked that out: 109,000 of the non-teaching staff turned out to be people employed directly under the devolution of budgets under local management of schools as school caretakers, clerical workers, care assistants and technicians; 150,000 turned out to be manual staff such as those working on school meals and on grass cutting; and just 57,000 of the 316,000 turned out to be people working in the central departments of education authorities. That figure includes educational psychologists, people working on truancy and educational welfare and youth officers. One in seven who themselves are not administrators turn out to be the result of the mathematical genius that the Prime Minister obviously employs in the Cabinet Office.

We know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is geographically and historically challenged; we know that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is ethically challenged; and we know that the Prime Minister is mathematically challenged. They cannot add up, and they cannot tell the truth. [Interruption.] I will not give way, because I want to make one further point on the statistics used by the Secretary of State.

Last week, she claimed that the spending on children since 1979 had increased by 50 per cent. The real figure, because I have checked it, is a real-terms increase of 4 per cent., with a 5 per cent. cut in secondary education, before the £200-a-head cut in standard spending assessment this year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A moment ago, the Housheard the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) make comments from the Dispatch Box to the effect that senior members of the Government could not tell the truth. I distinctly heard him say that. I ask through you, Madam Speaker, whether that is a proper use of words. Does it not transgress the rules of the House?

Madam Speaker: I was engaged at the Chair and did not hear the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside. But I am sure-- [Interruption.] Just a moment. I am sure that, if he did utter those words, he will come to the Dispatch Box, say so and withdraw them.

Mr. Blunkett: I take your ruling entirely, Madam Speaker. What I was clearly referring to was the statistical truth of the misinterpretation of the facts which were being dealt with by the Prime Minister, and the obvious

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statistical difficulty that the Secretary of State herself has with similar information. The Secretary of State talked about the budget for books and equipment having gone up by 55 per cent. It turns out to be less than half that figure. I am using statistics from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy--

Madam Speaker: Order. If I find tomorrow in Hansard that the hon. Member for Brightside has used language in this House which I find unacceptable, I shall return to the matter tomorrow. There seems to be some dispute now, but I must leave it until I see the written report.

Mr. Blunkett: Let me help with the Hansard report by making it clear that it is not always the case that those who do not present the truth deliberately lie. I am sure that the Prime Minister did not mean to tell a statistical inexactitude when he misled the House on 16 March.

What of the Secretary of State's claim that the repair and maintenance budget for schools had risen by 15 per cent. per pupil? The actual sum, according to CIPFA, has gone down from £84 per pupil to £83 per pupil while the Conservatives have been in office. The position is entirely different.

The position is also entirely different over whether Britain spends more money than many of its European and OECD counterparts. The Secretary of State, on radio last week, claimed that France spent less of its national income on education than Britain. It is not true. France spent 5.4 per cent. of its gross domestic product and Britain spent 5.3 per cent. The Secretary of State claimed--

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I shall not.

The Secretary of State claimed that the Netherlands spent less than the United Kingdom. In fact, it spent 6.8 per cent. of GDP, which, of course, for anyone who can calculate, is 1.5 per cent. more than the United Kingdom spent. Canada and Sweden and the United States all spent more than Britain as a proportion of their GDP on education. Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way to my hon. Friend, who has been very patient.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in Kent, the SSA per secondary school pupil is £13 less than it was in 1992-93? What is more, rather than cutting spending, the council has increased education funding by £11 million. It will still find, therefore, that it has to cut £8 million from areas of spending which include discretionary awards, schools' building maintenance, schools' delegated funds and management savings. I do not think that that ties up with what the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) had to say.

Mr. Blunkett: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. [Hon. Members:-- "Where is he now?"] I am sure that one of the hon. Members who represents Kent is here to be enlightened and to take on board what my hon. Friend said.

The simple truth of the matter this afternoon is whether the British people believe a discredited and enfeebled Government, or whether they believe parents, governors and teachers in their own communities about what is happening around them. I presume that the Secretary of

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State was being honest when she sent her letter to Cabinet colleagues claiming what the result would be of the kind of settlement that the Government eventually inflicted on schools. I believe that she meant that there would be "7,000 to 10,000 redundancies" among teachers and that class sizes would "shoot up". I believe that she knew that in many schools, as at the Nicholas Chamberlain school in Bedworth, Warwickshire, there would be up to 10 redundancies for teaching staff.

I believe that the Secretary of State knows what the impact of the spending cuts will be, and I challenge her publicly to ask her Cabinet colleagues to think again about the settlement about which she warned, and which she said would mean cuts in the schools that we have been talking about. I challenge her to be honest and to say what she really thinks about the way in which her education policies are impinging on the British people. Otherwise, she will be a fairy tale turned into a nightmare--an Edward Scissorhands who ends up cutting, rather than being praised for having overturned the previous Secretary of State's policies.

I presume that the right hon. Lady and her colleagues will have the temerity to acknowledge that what we say is true. It is true that spending in general should be aimed at improving standards and opportunities. There is no better way of giving children the necessary prior attainments and start in life than to ensure that all three and four-year-olds whose parents so wish have a place at a nursery school.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East): I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for improved nursery education, but does he agree that, throughout the United Kingdom, parents who have children with recognised educational needs know that not enough is being spent to help those children to achieve their real potential?

Mr. Blunkett: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. That is exactly what the debate is all about.

I gather that the Secretary of State has hidden talents and does a good imitation of Baroness Thatcher; she is a sort of Rory Bremner of the House of Commons. Perhaps she would care to mimic Baroness Thatcher by committing herself, as Baroness Thatcher did in 1972, to providing a nursery place, not a voucher, for every child whose parents want one.

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that, under the Conservatives in the late 1970s, Kent county council undertook a major study of the impact of the voucher system in nursery education? Kent spent £9 million of public money on that experiment, and then abandoned it.

Mr. Dunn: You are joking.

Mr. Blunkett: I am not joking, and the people of Kent are not joking when they recall what the experiment cost them.

Yes, it cost £9 million to undertake a prolonged experiment in one part of Kent. The fact that Conservative Members do not know what happened is a good reason why they should start to listen and to learn, instead of talking about inflicting vouchers on the rest of Britain although they failed in one of the authorities that the Conservatives controlled.

The Secretary of State knows perfectly well what the dangers of vouchers are. She has said as much, as was reported by The Independent on 19 October last year. She

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knows that the voucher proposal would be a disaster, because she understands basic economics, even though her Cabinet colleagues may not.

Where supply does not exceed demand, a voucher system can assist and provide choice and diversity only for those who can top the voucher up with their own money. If the voucher system can provide enough cash for a place for every nursery-age child who needs one, we shall end up with transaction costs that increase bureaucracy without creating one extra place.

If we want to hear an independent view, we should ask the commercial business director of Kindercare, which is moving in from the United States. He told newspapers only a week ago that the firm was targeting Britain because of the high cost of nursery provision in this country compared with every other nation in the European Union and because of the sparsity of places here in comparison with our European counterparts. This is an area ripe for commercial development because the Government will not fulfil the pledge made by the Prime Minister at last year's Conservative party conference that the Government would provide nursery places for four-year- olds. Where is the money? Where is the promise? What is the target? What sort of places is the Secretary of State proposing to provide? What commitment is there from a Secretary of State who wrote to her own colleagues recently to suggest--really, to demand--that they should berate Labour and Liberal Democrat authorities for providing nursery education? Item 2 of her letter asks her hon. Friends to discover to what extent the local education authority is expanding non-statutory services--for example, services for under-fives--at the expense of statutory education services.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Blunkett: That has brought a crowd of Conservative Members to their feet.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): The previous leader of the Labour party came to St Mary's hall in Ealing and to Northolt on April 29 last year and said that, if the Labour party won Ealing borough council, it would provide a nursery place for every child of nursery age. That was a promise. The Labour party did win the election--undeservedly--but not a single extra nursery place has been provided.

Mr. Blunkett: There are two responses to that. First, we have not seen the beginning of the fulfilment of the pledge made by the Prime Minister six months ago, never mind the pledge of a local authority. Secondly, how dare the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) have the cheek to berate a Labour authority for not providing places after 11 months when the Secretary of State has asked him and his colleagues to berate local authorities for trying to provide such places?

The Secretary of State's letter berates authorities for spending money on nursery education, and tells her hon. Friends to find out the facts. Presumably the hon. Gentleman found out the facts when he approached the authority at the request of the Secretary of State. He did so not to berate it for failing to provide places, but to find out whether places had been provided, in order that the Secretary of State could then criticise that authority.

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It is time that Conservative Members stopped blaming everyone else, and started blaming themselves. It is time for them to stop whingeing and criticising and to stand up and take their medicine, as they will do at the general election.

What about surplus places, which the Secretary of State talked about in item 3 of her letter? Most of her "facts" turn out to be incorrect. She berates Warwickshire for having 19 per cent. extra places, but a plan which would reduce surplus places in Warwickshire to only 7 per cent. has been given to the Secretary of State. Let the right hon. Lady make the decisions.

Targets on surplus places were set in June last year for local authorities across the country. Let us be clear who is responsible for the failure to allow authorities to remove surplus places. The Government allow schools to opt out in order for them to escape playing their part in the planning and configuration of services, and in contributing to the removal of surplus places.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): What about choice?

Mr. Blunkett: What choice do schools have when they are being told to sack teachers, to increase class sizes and to stop providing nursery education? What choice do parents have when the Government introduce selection so that only some children can attend a school which, previously, everyone preferred to enter? What choice will parents have when the Government bring forward the legislation that they have floated in the pre- emptive Queen's Speech, suggesting that, once again, not all the nation's children but only a few will have access to capital funding, which the Government intend to make available only to grant-maintained schools?

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: Such nonsense.

Mr. Blunkett: I hope that it is nonsense, but I give this pledge: whatever the Government make available to the few, and whatever changes they bring about in defining the public sector borrowing requirement in terms of allowing spending on education and the public-private finance initiative, we shall make available to every child, every school and every parent. We are not interested in looking after only the few; we are not interested in merely taking care of 5, 6 or 7 per cent. of the nation's children; we are interested in investing in standards and opportunity for every child in every school.

The Government have run out of steam and are in turmoil. They are at the end of their tether. They are a spent force, scrambling around for ideas-- any ideas and any initiatives. Everyone knows that, under the Tories, they are worse off, because they pay more and get less. On 4 May, in the local elections, and at the time of the general election, whenever it comes, people will give their verdict on the Government: their spending; their cuts; and their attack on parents, teachers, governors and the future of our children. That is why, today, we challenge every Member of this House to vote for our motion and save the children of our nation.

4.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Education (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): I beg to move, to leave out from `House' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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`welcomes the substantial increase in the real level of education spending since 1979; notes that in a tough settlement overall local authorities will still be able to spend more next year than in 1994-95; looks to them to set sensible priorities; welcomes the substantial improvement in standards of achievement by pupils in recent years, as demonstrated by examination and test results and by school inspection reports; and applauds the Government's education policies which are further driving up education standards, and giving parents more choice and information for the benefit of their children.'.

The best thing that I can say about the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is that it was predictable. It was predictable in its concern for input rather than output; in its desire to pour in taxpayers' money without ensuring proper value for money; in its pretence that the Labour party did not oppose each and every measure to raise standards and provide opportunities passed through the House in the past 16 years; in its dealing with myths and scare stories; and, as ever, in choosing to ignore the facts. It may help the House if I begin by setting out the facts again. On funding, I admit that it is a tough year. I have maintained that from the start. We are talking not about a cut in funding, however, but about a rise. We have increased funding in education by more than 1 per cent., which is a good deal in such a tight year for public expenditure.

Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West): The Secretary of State said that cuts are not involved, yet the figures for Durham show that its standard spending assessment this year has declined from £208 million- - [Hon. Members:-- "What about school rolls?"] School rolls have increased to an extent that would involve, if Durham were fully funded, another £1 million, but its SSA has gone down by £2 million. How does the Secretary of State square that fact with her statement that it has gone up?

Mrs. Shephard: This year's settlement allows all authorities to manage if they choose their priorities carefully. That is the position. It cannot be denied because, as I shall demonstrate, many of them are doing just that.

We should put the latest increase in its proper context. It follows a 2.4 per cent. increase for 1994-95 and constant increases in education spending since 1979. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) questioned the figures that said that spending per pupil had increased in real terms by almost 50 per cent., spending on books and equipment by 55 per cent. and so on. I remind him that he is indeed using Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy statistics, but statistics that have not been used for 10 years.

In that context, I am confident in repeating that spending on repairs and maintenance has increased by 15 per cent. and that spending on support staff is up by 135 per cent.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton): Will the Secretary of State accept an invitation to come and tell the parents and governors of schools in my constituency that they have received an increase in accordance with her statement now, when in fact they are confronted by difficulties in meeting the budget to ensure that the education to which children are entitled, and which they need, will be provided this year?

Every parent in my constituency knows that the Government are responsible for cuts in education. If the Secretary of State is to be fair and just to people, she

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should admit that the Government need to put more money into education if we are to succeed in providing the quality of education to which people are entitled.

Mrs. Shephard: I would say to the hon. Gentleman, echoing what was said some time ago by the hon. Member for Brightside, that Her Majesty's chief inspector's report was

"about as unbiased as you can get".

That unbiased report said about resources:

"In overall terms the provision of resources is satisfactory". The hon. Member for Brightside has also sought to question how we stand internationally. Perhaps I should explain to him that he has muddled two sets of figures. We indeed spend a larger proportion of our public expenditure on education than do Japan, France, Germany or the Netherlands. Public expenditure on education in the United Kingdom accounts for a larger share of gross domestic product than it does in Germany or Japan. Those are facts. The hon. Gentleman muddled the two.

Mr. Blunkett: I should be grateful to the Secretary of State if we could place the matter on the record once and for all. The normal assessment of comparisons is with GDP; everyone knows that it is. Will she confirm this afternoon that France and the Netherlands--which she said on the radio last week spent less than we do--spend more as a proportion of GDP?

Mrs. Shephard: Public expenditure on education in the UK accounts for a larger share of GDP than it does in Germany or Japan. We spend a larger proportion of our public expenditure on education than do Japan or France or Germany or the Netherlands, as I said on the radio last week, and as I have said frequently since. Those are facts. Our record of massive and increasing funding provides the clearest possible proof that education is, has always been and will remain a Government priority.

Mr. Dunn: Earlier, the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) referred to local authority funding. Does the Secretary of State realise that 13 authorities have domestic rates arrears of £167 million, 14 local authorities have community charge arrears of £347 million and 18 local authorities have council tax arrears of £160 million? That is more than £700 million in local taxation that has not been collected by Labour authorities. Does she also realise that the worst local authorities in terms of domestic rates are Camden and Liverpool, the worst in the context of community charge are Liverpool and Haringey and the worst in the context of council tax are Birmingham and, would you believe, Hackney?

Mrs. Shephard: I would certainly believe all that. As a result of those uncollected arrears, the money wasted on surplus places, the money in balances and the money that has been spent on clerical and administrative staff which might have been spent on front-line services, the independent review body found the pay award affordable.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mrs. Shephard: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. To whom is the right hon. Lady referring?

Mrs. Shephard: I am referring to the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin).

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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. Does she agree with or condemn the action taken by schools in Derbyshire which have closed on training days so that staff can come to London and lobby the House of Commons? Perhaps my right hon. Friend might investigate that action and see whether the Opposition agree with it. Will she further explain why the county council in Derbyshire holds back £720 per pupil while neighbouring Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire--which are both Labour authorities--hold back £570?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have now heard three long interventions--two from one side and one from the other. Interventions should be short. I call the Secretary of State.

Mrs. Shephard: I am very puzzled by the disclosure of my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire. Can it be that Derbyshire is so in funds that it can afford to pay for supply cover for teacher absences? Has it closed schools so that teachers can take part in demonstrations? That seems absolutely extraordinary. If the position is as my hon. Friend has described, it may be a matter for the district auditor; I do not know. It seems extraordinary and it certainly destroys at a stroke the myth that Derbyshire is hard up for funds.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mrs. Shephard: I will give way, but then I shall have to make progress.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Is the Secretary of State giving way to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)?

Mrs. Shephard: Yes.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Before she moves on from the issue of financial statistics, will she confirm that the average reduction in standard spending assessment per pupil in real terms in this year's settlement is £50 per primary school pupil and £194 per secondary school pupil? Will she further confirm that her 50 per cent. increase analysis is founded upon inflation based on the retail prices index and not upon an educationally based rate of increase?

Mrs. Shephard: I have already made the position absolutely clear: all local authorities can increase their spending on education this year if they choose to identify their priorities. I have already said that the CIPFA statistics which the hon. Member for Brightside cited are 10 years out of date.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Shephard: I will give way later, but I shall now make some progress.

Local authority funding accounts for a quarter of all public spending. It therefore cannot be immune from tough decisions and economic reality. Public borrowing must come down if we are to keep a rein on inflation and increase prosperity and jobs. As the Audit Commission has said on a number of occasions and in a number of reports, local education authorities can cut their own costs. They still spend millions on running their central bureaucracies and on maintaining surplus places in schools.

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As I said earlier, last year an Audit Commission report identified scope for saving half a billion pounds on the pay bill for local authorities' administrative and clerical staff. The number of non-manual staff employed by councils increased by 90,000 between 1987 and 1993. The Audit Commission found that less than half that increase resulted from central Government initiatives. If local authorities exploit opportunities like that, they will have more money to spend on teachers in the classroom. It is a question of management and the ability to take hard decisions.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest): My right hon. Friend has correctly drawn attention to the appalling record of Labour local authorities in favouring town halls rather than spending money in the classroom. Does she agree that it is entirely predictable that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) did not mention the record of his local authority during his speech? This year Sheffield has reduced the proportion of its total budget to be spent in the classroom, and no less than 15 per cent. of the total education budget will go on town hall costs. That is one of the highest levels in the country.

Mrs. Shephard: I could expect anything from an authority that a couple of years ago increased spending on leisure by 109 per cent. and reduced spending on education by 15 per cent. Those were the priorities of that authority and now it has the temerity to say that it has a problem.

Mr. Marland: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the profligate Labour and Liberal councillors in Gloucestershire, whom I mentioned earlier, are top-slicing their education budget by 21 per cent. compared with 16 per cent. in next-door Wiltshire?

Mrs. Shephard: Many authorities do far better than Gloucestershire in making funds available directly to schools. That is just what Gloucestershire should be doing.

Mr. macshane: A large number of the letters I receive every day on the subject from Rotherham are from Conservative voters--from managers and, if I may say so, from her people. Her description of education getting better has absolutely no correspondence with reality in South Yorkshire. Rotherham is not an extravagant council. It has cut by 40 per cent. its delayered staff in the education department, every single school in Rotherham is having to cut teacher numbers this year, despite massive cuts across the board in council expenditure. When will the Secretary of State speak for the children of Rotherham and England and not for the Treasury and tax cuts of the future?

Mrs. Shephard: The best way for the hon. Gentleman to speak for the children and parents of Rotherham is for him to ask precisely the questions of that authority that are being asked by my hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland). That

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would be the way for the hon. Gentleman to protect the interests of his constituents. However, I have some interesting examples. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State continues, I should say that I am a little tired of running commentaries.

Mrs. Shephard: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I shall take Bedfordshire as my first example. The budget passed by the ruling combination of Liberal and Labour councillors represents a 3.5 per cent. cut in the schools budget, which could mean a reduction of 200 teacher posts. I wonder why the authority did not accept the alternative budget put forward by the Conservative group, which would have reduced the schools budget by only 2 per cent. and which would have been able to fund the whole of the teachers' pay settlement. It would have taken £250,000 less out of county council balances and still included growth items to cover nursery education, special needs and increases in pupil numbers in mainstream and special schools. Why would any responsible council not have accepted that budget? Perhaps Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors in Bedfordshire are more interested in making a political point than in serving their communities.

Why did Labour Lancashire slash its schools budgets by £19 million against the officers' suggestion of £13 million, meanwhile reducing its administration costs by only £500,000? It rejected a Conservative proposal to set up a working group under an independent chairman to try to resolve some of the problems and restore some of the education cuts. I wonder whether those councillors are also more interested in political point scoring than serving the children of Lancashire. In Cheshire, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat budget will fund the teachers' pay award in full and it will increase spending in primary and secondary schools so that there will be almost £10 million extra for schools--7 per cent. above the education SSA. The budget proposals put before Cheshire council by the Labour group did not include funding the teachers' pay award in full and provided only 1.2 per cent. above the SSA, leaving schools with a shortfall of £3 to £4 million. The vast majority of other authorities are coping--from Conservative Buckinghamshire to Labour Birmingham.

Local education authorities are in the best position to ensure that money goes where it is most needed in the light of local priorities. Many of them are doing that responsibly, focusing on front-line services.

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