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Andrew Haldenby: Michael Gove and the teaching unions – allies in preserving ring-fencing, which should go

HaldenbyAndrew Haldenby is Director of the independent think tank Reform.  Its new research “Must do better” is available at  Follow Reform on Twitter.

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.

Then there is the research evidence.  Reform has just compared the funding of nearly all primary and secondary schools in England to pupils’ achievement and schools’ quality of teaching.  It finds that there is no link between higher funding and better results and no link between higher funding and better teaching.  Some schools spend twice as much as others but achieve no better results.  These results confirm and extend the recent Deloitte survey, of secondary schools alone, which Fraser Nelson has discussed.  Other evidence shows that teaching assistants and class sizes have little relationship with good outcomes either.

We can add the reality of the spending increases in recent years.  Spending per pupil in English schools increased by almost 90 per cent in real terms between 1999-00 and 2009-10.  In truth this is an incredible level of increase which is likely never to be repeated and certainly not for decades to come.  Ministers should expect to find savings in the schools budget given increases on this scale (and the same applies to the NHS, which increased by around 100 per cent in the same period).

Further, there is the question of rising pupil numbers.  Per-pupil spending is almost inevitably going to fall anyway given the bulge in pupil numbers in the rest of this decade.  The number of primary and secondary school children in England will rise from 7 million to 8 million between 2012 and 2020.  Any education Minister would struggle to protect spending in the face of this.

Michael Gove’s article yesterday saluted “the professionals who’ll do everything for success”.  In truth his Department is far from doing “everything”.  He is supporting a ring-fence which makes no sense in terms of his own budget and which gravely undermines the Government’s wider efforts to improve public services and reduce the deficit.  Come on, Mr Gove.  You have shown that you are up for the fight.  This is another one well worth having.


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