A couple of days ago, Michael Gove took a teaching union to task for its opposition to reform. In one respect, however, he and the NAHT are on the same side, which may give him pause to reflect. Both are fighting hard to preserve the ring-fence around the schools budget in the spending review due to be published on 26 June. In fact, there are several reasons why the schools ring-fence is a priority for removal.
The most important is the simple question of what Ministers can actually do to promote reform. Sir Ken Knight nailed it in his review of fire and rescue services, published last Friday: “I was struck in my conversations that the financial pressures of recent years seem to have been the driving force behind many of the changes and innovation I have seen.” At the risk of labouring the point, Danny Alexander said it particularly well last month: “Of course these are really difficult decisions …. But you can use the process to drive some really good changes in the way the public sector works.” One of the great lessons of this Parliament is that the police, other areas of criminal justice, defence and local government are innovating and rethinking because of their cuts. Schools and the NHS are years behind.
I have no doubt that Michael Gove wants head teachers to think extremely hard about how to focus their resources on improving the quality of teaching. In practice, that means reducing the priority of spending on teaching assistants and smaller class sizes (except for the youngest children). Removing the ring-fence is one of the best ways that he has to achieve that. It would accelerate his reform programme rather than hinder it.
The Department for Education has actually made this case itself. In a document published in 2011, the Department told schools that, “what matters isn’t the amount of money spent per pupil, but how that money is spent. So we should all be focusing on improving value for money in schools’ spending”. That is 100 per cent right but it has zero force in the context of a ring-fenced budget.