Regular readers of this blog will know that I take every opportunity to criticise the hypocrisy of the government’s ideological austerity. The kind of austerity that sees services and investment cut to the bone but always seems to make vast amounts of money available for pet projects. After some excellent work by our very own Angela Rayner we’ve recently been given a clear example of the damage this kind of thinking has done to our country’s education system.
Cast your minds back to March of last year, when the then-Cameron government announced plans to force all schools in England to become academies. I wasn’t alone at the time in thinking that the plans were ruinously expensive, massively impractical and unlikely to increase standards. In the face of opposition from Parliament and the teaching profession the government was forced to first shelve and then abandon the plans completely.
“What does that have to do with what’s happening now?” I hear you ask. At the time the policy was announced the Treasury allocated £500 million of funding to support the mass academisation process. Now that it’s not going ahead, the government has clawed back £384 million of that funding (The rest, according the Department for Education, had already been spent on “other education projects”, whatever that means).
Let me say that another way. The government was willing to spend £500 million on making every school in England an academy. When that project was dropped they could have chosen to redirect that freed-up money to other forms of investment in our schools. Investments like smaller class sizes, better equipment and materials, or training for teachers. Investments that, unlike academisation, have solid evidence behind them to show that they lead to improved standards. Instead, they chose to let the money disappear back into the bowels of the Treasury. Probably never to be seen again.
It would be somewhat justifiable if our education system was already swimming in funding. What’s actually happening at the moment is the worst crisis in teacher recruitment in living memory and a warning from the National Audit Office that we’re on course for a £3 billion cut in school spending by 2020. The Grammar School Head’s Association say that their schools may resort to asking parents for hundreds of pounds a year to plug the gaps in funding cuts, and Cheshire East Council have gone as far as to confirm that they are looking at moving to a four day school week to make ends meet.
Tameside’s share of that £384 million would have amounted to almost £70 for every pupil in our schools. We’re probably not going to see increases in funding from any other source either. While on paper the government’s latest reforms to school funding gives Tameside a little extra money, Angela’s work has shown that when you throw in inflation and the impact of further cuts that we know are coming down the pipeline it amounts to slapping a sticking plaster onto a gaping wound.
If you thumbed through a copy of the Prime Minister’s Industrial Strategy you’ll have seen that one of the longest chapters is on “Developing Skills”, or to quote it verbatim “ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed in a modern economy”. The kind of education system that delivers that isn’t something that happens by itself. It needs strong and fair funding. It needs to be run by people who know what works and have the freedom to put their expertise into practice.
What it absolutely doesn’t need are Ministers in Whitehall letting ideology and bias dictate their funding and policy decisions. Britain’s future and our children’s education is too important to be turned into a political football.