Norfolk education bosses under fire

Schools secretary Ed Balls last night accused Norfolk's education chiefs of failing to “do the right thing” by pupils and businesses as they rejected the chance to bring forward millions of pounds of school building schemes.

Schools secretary Ed Balls last night accused Norfolk's education chiefs of failing to “do the right thing” by pupils and businesses as they rejected the chance to bring forward millions of pounds of school building schemes.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) yesterday announced it was bringing forward �919m of funding to this year that had been lined up for small and medium-sized construction projects in 2010/11.

It is part of a government drive to help the construction industry fight back during the recession by speeding up public sector building.

But despite being entitled to ask for all of next year's �16.3m to be available this year, Norfolk County Council only requested and received �1.1m.

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In Suffolk, education chiefs asked for none of their possible �9m allocation, while Cambridgeshire asked for and received �5m of its potential �5.9m a year early.

On average, of the 100 authorities that took the government up on its offer, each requested 35pc of the amount set aside for 2010/11.

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Mr Balls said: “It is frustrating. I think Norfolk County Council should ignore the injunctions from Conservative central office, which is opposing the bringing forward of spending, and do the right thing not only for schools and pupils but also for businesses in the county.”

Daniel Cox, leader of the council, said: “We have already committed �93m for school improvement projects in 2009/10 and �60m for 2010/11. The vast majority of our 2010/11 funding is committed to projects that are already under way and we could not therefore apply to bring forward any additional funding.

“Some of the funding was ring-fenced to specific projects which are still in the process of planning and timed to be delivered in 2010/11. Had we brought these forward they would not have been complete within the government's required timescale.

“This has nothing whatsoever to do with an injunction from Conservative central office and it is a shame that the schools secretary should politicise Norfolk's schools in this manner.”

Ian Brown, head of infrastructure at Suffolk County Council, said: “We welcome the fact that the DCSF gave us the opportunity to bring forward some or all of that money, but we note that there's no guarantee that in the subsequent year there would be any money available at all.

“We are managing to spend the money allocated for this year and we are not confident that we could properly spend all the money this year if it was brought forward.”

The �919m of accelerated funding includes �30m for play areas, while �390m will be shared between every headteacher to invest in smaller projects such as new classrooms, fitting out new gyms or ICT facilities.

The remaining �499m will go to more than 100 local authorities according to how much of the following year's allocation they asked for.

Norfolk's heads will share �6.6m this year from next year's pot, taking the total 2009/10 allocation to �23.25m. Cambridgeshire gets �4.1m brought forward to go direct to headteachers, boosting its total to �14.4m. Suffolk gets �5.7m extra, lifting the total to �20.1m.

Chris Hey, head of planning and buildings for children's services at the council, said: “Individual schools will be able to bring forward planned projects using the �6m additional funding. It will be for each school to plan how this can be achieved.

“Many of these school projects use contractors local to the school's community and this will be a welcome boost to Norfolk's construction firms.”

Mr Balls said: “The construction industry is one of the keys to a strong economy. We will never forgive our-selves if we turn our backs on it during the current tough times and do not sustain it for the future.

“Accelerating �919m by 12 months is going to give immediate support to thousands of small

and medium-sized businesses fitting out these facilities. Every school can now bring forward planned modernisations and

refurbishments instead of waiting for another year - meaning children and teachers can benefit from top quality, new facilities sooner.”

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