Tear down the ring fence?

The Think Tank Reform today published a report about spending on schools. http://www.reform.co.uk/resources/0000/0765/Must_do_better_Spending_on_schools.pdf

As a right of centre think tank it might be accused of having arranged some of the data to make the most of its thesis that spending on schooling has increased without an associated rise in outcomes. Taking the period from 1999-2000 as a base for some of the analysis means the analysis started from the end of a period when government spending had been depressed during the Major government and the first two years of the Blair government, so some recovery in spending on schooling as a proportion of GDP might have been expected.

The overall thesis is that the ring fence on school spending should be removed, and the same degree of efficiency imposed on schools as on other public services. Now the issue of funding of schools has featured in several earlier posts on this blog. Interestingly, I cannot find any reference in the Reform pamphlet to the growth in school reserves. This issue, the subject of the first column in this blog, is one that has disturbed me for some time. In an age of austerity why are schools taking cash from taxpayers and putting it in their bank accounts rather than spending it? Why, indeed are some schools sitting on balances of over £1 million pounds: the number of schools with deficit budgets was at an historic low in 2012.

Reform also seem to neglect to note that during the period 1999-2003, before spending on schooling increased significantly, there was a teacher supply crisis. They don’t model anything about labour costs in detail. A failure to staff schools does lead to poor performance, and one reason I expect the next PISA results to be better is because schools have been better staffed during the past decade than at any time during my adult life. My anxiety is that an end is now in sight to that period of full staffing unless the government is very careful.

One issue the Reform report does note in passing is the difference between spending on primary and secondary schooling. According to the figures used by Reform, secondary schools accounted for 46% of spending in 2011-12, whereas primary accounted for only 27%; or 33% if under-fives spending was included. In my own view targeted spending on primary pupils who fail to achieve where they could do so might produce the best return on investment within the school system. The Pupil Premium has the capability to achieve this end, providing schools fully understand its purpose.

Indeed, adopting the suggestions in the Reform Report, and abandoning the ring fence on school spending while still aiming to improve educational outcomes and pupil attainment, might affect more affluent areas more than the less well off parts of England. Reform’s supporters might well reflect that it was David Blunkett as Secretary of State who imposed a maximum class size of 30 at Key Stage One. The major beneficiaries of his policy were mostly schools in Tory authorities where large class of over 30 were more frequently to be found at that time. Removing the funding cap might cause a return to that situation. It might also sound the death knell for small and expensive post-16 provision in some schools that is already under threat from other government actions such as the introduction of studio schools and UTCs. Reform’s authors should be careful about what they wish for.

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