The Independent has been to Leicestershire, a local authority that spends almost exactly the average amount all English LEAs spend per head on their pupils. We visited two schools, both well established, successful, over- subscribed. We asked teachers and heads in both schools what extra money they would need to do the best job they could for their children.
The items on their lists seem relatively unambitious. Not, on the whole, more teachers, but more classroom ancillary help - which comes considerably cheaper. More books, equipment, space. And technology, increasingly expected by pupils, parents and employers, which is expensive. Nevertheless the bill, totted up, is enormous.
There are hints to the same effect in recent surveys of school spending by the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) and the Educational Publisher's Council. Books and equipment form a tiny fraction of school budgets - perhaps 5 per cent - compared with staffing costs of more than 75 per cent.
But the figures are telling. Besa believes some schools have cut their equipment spending by 18-20 per cent in the past year. The EPC survey showed 81 per cent of schools thought the money they were spending on books was inadequate or very inadequate. And independent primary schools in 1994/95 spent 80 per cent more on books than their state primary counterparts.
The Book Trust, a charity, is so worried that schools are losing sight of what their pupils need in the face of what budgets dictate, that it plans to issue guidelines on how many books pupils of different ages need for a decent education. A working party led by a former chief schools inspector, Professor Eric Bolton, has been questioning a sample of schools on what they currently buy and what they think they need, and will report early next year.
Going by the desired spending at the Beauchamp College in the Leicester suburb of Oadby, and its neighbour Brocks Hill County Primary, the figures could frighten all political parties. In the minds of these teachers in these schools, any Chancellor in 1996 would have to spend five times this year's much-heralded increase, an extra pounds 3bn-pounds 4bn on top of the pounds 18.98bn budget, to bring English local authority schools up to scratch.
Of course, these are back-of-the-envelope figures. But they give an idea of the gulf between current education spending and what teachers in the classroom believe to be not lavish but acceptable. As Beauchamp College's head, Maureen Cruickshank, argues: "If we are going to carry on improving, then we need this. We have the responsibility of preparing our students for working lives in the next century. We want to discharge that responsibility to the best of our ability. Because our students deserve it."
Is not having to scrimp on paper such a big aspiration?
The brightly coloured pile of small gummed squares on Adams Jones's desk is shrinking. Besides it grows a pile of even smaller irregular snippets, carefully saved from the bin of Brocks Hill primary Year Fives.
"We do talk to them about making certain they cut from the edge and not the middle," says Mr Jones, looking abashed. But what else can you do when your class budget for a year's supply of paper and pencils has gone down from pounds 300 to pounds 150?
In some ways Year Five is feeling flush. Over the summer holidays the classroom was decorated with new paint, new display boards, new blinds, new carpet. It is a transformation: the first redecoration in this classroom for 20 years. It was paid for out of the pounds 6,500 raised by parents of children at the 318-pupil school.
The work on the walls is delightful; the children look spruce. The school catchment is middle class; fewer than 5 per cent have free school meals. Twenty-five per cent of them speak English as their second language; they have had their specialist language teaching cut by 50 per cent since 1993/94.
That is one reason why staff at Brocks Hill would spend money on improving the adult/child ratio - if they could. It is why they cut back everything else: books, equipment, decoration, support services, instead of losing a teacher, when the school's budget fell short by pounds 18,500 this year.
But although the school kept class sizes at 25 to 30, it still had to lose 50 per cent of classroom helper hours, now down to half a day per class per week. Mr Jones would like five times that, to meet the pressure to raise standards in the "basics", plus cover more subjects and more diverse activities required by the national curriculum.
Pat Wells, head of Brocks Hill, would like it, too. But she also worries that the school will have no new library books this year, that if she is to introduce sports such as mini-hockey and short tennis she has to buy the equipment, and that only Brocks Hill five-year-olds have swimming lessons - and they stop as soon as they can swim.
In Mr Jones's classroom the new paint shows up some of the ageing resources. The classroom encyclopaedia dates from 1968. (The more up-to-date one is in the library.) The dictionaries (1971 edition) are battered. The computer is nowhere to be seen; for 10 classes Brocks Hill has five working computers and two irretrievably broken ones.
Mr Jones would like this class to have not only a computer, but also tape recorders and earphones. Then, as the national curriculum requires, he would be able to assess his pupils fully in listening and speaking as well as in reading and writing. He'd like not to scrimp on paper, and not to have to explain to children that you cannot rely on encyclopaedias that are 30 years old.
They are not huge aspirations. That is part of the problem, says Miss Wells. "We have started to accept that we can't do these things. We have started to limit our thinking to match our budget, and we shouldn't be doing that."
It's either textbooks for all or equipment for the lab
Steve Rowland, a physics teacher, has managed to rustle up six laptop computers during breaktime for his Year 10 physics class. The class contains 28 students. You don't need a GCSE in maths to calculate that this means groups of four or five per laptop. One student in each group reads out some data. Another keys it in. The other two or three watch, and wait.
But at least the students in this group are middle-to-high ability. So they get science textbooks. The head of science, Janet Waters, is acutely conscious that only the top 150 out of Beauchamp's 400-strong year group in the GCSE years 10 and 11 have textbooks to take home, while the others have to use a set kept in the lab on a trolley.
"If we're going to encourage students to do homework, to be independent learners, then they need textbooks to take home. The students perceive it as discrimination: they ask 'why do some groups and not others have textbooks? Is it because we're thick?' "
But if she bought textbooks for all the students who now lack them, she certainly could not afford the extra equipment that GCSE science students need, now that syllabuses require them to carry out their own experiments, rather than simply watching the teacher at the front.
To support those science activities she needs more hands in the lab. She would like another half a teacher, so the top-ability groups now containing 28-30 students could come down to a much safer 25. She would like more science technicians, to supervise experiments and take charge of information technology in the labs - essential for students to experience if they are heading for science careers.
She would like learning support assistants for the low-ability pupils who now do one day a week of science, whereas they once did only half a day. And she would like those students in a science lab, rather than the English classroom, which for part of the week is the only space available.
Numbers of students taking A-level science have rocketed at Beauchamp, a 14-18 college, since double science for all pupils was introduced five years ago. Just what the Government wants. But that puts pressure on staff, lab space and equipment. Beauchamp's application for Technology College status, currently at the DfEE, would put substantial sums - pounds 120,000 for high-spec cabling, pounds 50,000-plus for multimedia and lab-based IT - into these.
But that would be transformation. Ask staff what they need to do their optimum job day to day and the ideas are more modest. Time out of the classroom so their teaching keeps up-to-date with industry (Beauchamp students said they wanted that, too). More administration staff so that teachers can devote time to the C/D borderline students. An extra printer to reduce queues. And if there is pounds 295 going, could the library please subscribe to New Scientist on CD-Rom?