An American President once said ‘the economy, stupid.’ Often that seems to be the case. Indeed, the austerity facing public services in Britain at present can partly be put down to the management of the economy in the first decade of this century. If governments cannot or will not raise revenue from either wealth or income and discount land taxes, then, unless the economy is growing strongly, they will be unable to expand public services, should they even wish to do so. There is also the argument that the State should not provide services for the many, but just a basic lifeline for the few, but we won’t go there in this post.
All this matters to education, as we have seen with the relatively parsimonious new funding formula announced by the government in the run up to Christmas. With adult social care, the NHS and other services probably ahead of education in the minds of many voters, it was always going to be a challenge to secure more funds for schools: especially, when rising pupil numbers mean more is needed in any case just to stand still. Finding even more cash for enhanced services did seem a bit like ‘pie in the sky’ at the present time.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how parents react to news that their children’s school might be having its budget cut, even by no more than a couple of per cent. With no elections in London in 2017, save for by-elections, the government can probably weather the storm of protest in the capital.
Of more interest is the situation in the countryside where many small rural schools look like being losers. Indeed, a quick survey of primary schools in the Henley constituency, Boris’s old stamping ground, revealed that 35 primary schools might be losers under the new formula, while just ten would gain funds. Now, I am sure that the good burghers of the Chilterns and adjacent clay lowlands can afford to support their local primary school through some backhanded giving. But, I am not sure that was what they expected as the outcome from the new formula.
The alternative is to see a redrawing of the map of primary education in rural areas, with fewer larger and more efficient units based around market towns. To achieve this outcome, more pupils would be required to travel longer distances to school. The cost of this happily falls, not on the government, but on local council tax payers. Conservative County Councillors defending their seats in May 2017 will no doubt hope that school funding and the survival of village primary schools doesn’t become an election issue, along with grammar schools. For a revolt by parents in the Shires would be bad news for a government with a small majority at Westminster.
Watch for signs that the consultation on the funding formula isn’t going to plan and that the timescale for introduction is amended. If not, following on from cuts to rural buses, mobile library service, road mending, grass cutting and a host of other services, might 2017 be another year where the political map is redrawn?