Clarke goes online to apologise for schools funding crisis

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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke apologised yesterday to the nation's headteachers for the funding crisis that has seen up to 3,000 teachers' jobs axed. He had previously tried to blame local education authorities for the job losses.

The Secretary of State for Education used a live webcast capable of being picked up by every school in England to admit that he had made mistakes. Mr Clarke said everybody made mistakes, adding: "The Government makes mistakes, certainly I do. The handling of school funding last year was a good example of that which I am determined to put right this year.

"My summer resolution for myself and my team at the Department for Education and Skills is to try and avoid mistakes like school funding and make sure that doesn't happen again." He was speaking after several surveys had shown that the number of teaching jobs to be lost because of funding cuts was far higher than the 500 estimated earlier this year by Tony Blair.

One survey by The Independent put the figure at nearly 1,500 teacher and support staff redundancies. Another put the figure as high as 3,000.

Yesterday's broadcast was the most forthright admission of blame for the crisis by the Government. When its scale first became known, ministers sought to deflect the blame on to local education authorities. Cuts in school budgets were made because an increase in national insurance and pensions contributions coincided with an attempt to redistribute school funding more fairly. The cost of performance-related pay rises for teaching staff had also been underestimated.

Ministers are optimistic that a decision to boost the budget over the next two years by using £800m of unspent reserves will solve the funding crisis next year.

Mr Clarke's attempt to put this summer's funding crisis behind him came unstuck when headteachers' leaders warned that the next year was likely to see "a curate's egg in terms of delivery across the country".

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said many schools would struggle to meet the terms of the agreement signed with ministers to transfer a list of 21 administrative tasks from teachers to support staff. He warned that threats of industrial action by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), would not help.

The NUT, which is the only union not to have signed the agreement, is worried the deal will lead to the widespread use of classroom assistants to take lessons in place of teachers. It has warned that it will refuse to mark work set by them or help them to prepare lessons, and that it would ballot for further industrial action which could include strikes.

Mr Hart said the action would be "deplorable" and could have a significant impact on the agreement if carried through. However, he said he had "some sympathy" with the NUT's worries that the funding crisis would lead to a widespread use of classroom assistants to take lessons.

In his address to headteachers, Mr Clarke also said that he wanted to see much more "enjoyment and excitement in education in schools and colleges up and down the country" during the coming academic year.

He said the Government's new strategy document for primary schools would pave the way for more creativity in the curriculum. It recommends downplaying tests for seven-year-olds and relying more on teacher assessment. It also calls for schools to be allowed to set their own targets rather than having to meet targets imposed by ministers.