Education Funding: Labour plans to spend £36bn on rebuilding state schools

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The Independent Online

Chancellor Gordon Brown took the first step towards implementing his pledge to put state schools on an equal footing with the private sector by announcing a £36bn school building programme yesterday.

The four-year programme, which would see the budget rising from just £700,000 a year a decade ago to £10.2bn in 2010-11, will ensure spending on buildings equals that in private schools, he told MPs.

It was just one of a series of measures he announced yesterday as part of what he termed a drive to make the UK "the most educated nation in the world".

He said that education was the Government's "number one priority - education first now, and into the future".

The funding boost will start in primary schools with help for 30,000 six-year-olds struggling to keep up with their reading under a £10m "catch up" programme next year. They will be giving one-to-one tuition under the Reading Recovery Programme - which has already had a dramatic effect in improving standards in one of Britain's poorest boroughs, Tower Hamlets.

Just 5,000 youngsters are aided by the scheme, though.

In addition, a scheme offering free books to children aged between one and three years old will be extended to all five-year-olds starting primary school and 11-year-olds at secondary school.

Every primary school will also receive extra direct payments from the Government - with the average-size school receiving £50,000 a year next year compared with £39,000 at present.

Secondary schools will also receive extra cash - with the average going up from £150,000 to £200,000 next year.

Higher sums will be channelled to schools where the learning gap between boys and girls is the greatest. At present, girls outperform boys at every age - from national curriculum tests for seven-year-olds to A-levels.

Mr Brown said: "This is the equivalent of £200 for every pupil paid three months from now, paid direct to the school." It was, he said, "money I could use for tax cuts - but I say invest in education first".

Richard Brooks, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research - the left-of-centre think-tank, said: "Today's announcement of extra support for reading in primary schools is great news, especially for boys.

"If you can't read, you can't learn and one in five boys currently leaves primary school without being able to read at the expected level."

The Chancellor's package, which was largely welcomed in the education world, will also see incentives being offered to encourage more youngsters to go to university. Ministers have set a target of getting 50 per cent of people into higher education by the end of the decade - but the number of home-grown students has fallen off this year as a result of the introduction of top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year.

As a result, the Chancellor is planning to offer a reduction in fees to youngsters who volunteer for community services in the "gap year" before they go up to university. Bursaries worth £2,000 a year are being considered for children in care to encourage them to go on to higher education following research which shows that the vast majority fail even to gain five top A* to C grade passes at GCSE. An "earn to learn" programme is also being devised to help people gain graduate qualifications while working part-time.

There will also be funding for more "summer universities" - designed as "taster" courses to persuade 16-year-olds to stay on in full-time education or training and go on to higher education.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats' education spokeswoman, claimed the incentives were "an admission that tuition fees have deterred potential students".

"These new schemes need to be the beginning of a major rethink of tuition fees - the most damaging education policy of Labour's time in office," she added. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described Mr Brown's aim to raise state school funding to the level of the independent sector as "laudable".

However, he added: "Without a target date and proposal for getting there, it will remain nothing more than an aspiration."

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described the Chancellor's statement as "the best bit of news we have had since Labour came to power. He has taken a significant step to achieving his target of raising levels of spending in state schools to those of private schools," he added.

Under the Chancellor's school building programme, half the 24,000 primary schools in England and all the secondaries will either be rebuilt or refurbished within the next 15 years.

Mr Brown said that a higher- than-expected growth in the economy had allowed him to release more money for schools in the coming year than had originally been planned.