The Tory leadership race has put school funding back on the agenda
Gove, Johnson and Hancock have all pledged more money for schools – but the new prime minister should be wary of spending for spending’s sake
How much money would the average teacher need dangled in front of them to entice them to vote for Michael Gove in an election?
Would £1 billion do?
Some would say there’s not enough cash in the world to induce them to do that. But that’s the amount Gove is hoping will be enough as he mounts his bid for leadership of the Tory party. It’s a sum that he says would restore the amount of money spent per pupil in schools to 2015 levels.
For those with short memories, the former education secretary was moved by then prime minister David Cameron in the run-up to the 2015 general election because he had made himself so unpopular with teachers.
It would seem Gove has learned from the experience – or, perhaps less generously, from the hugely successful School Cuts union campaign that allowed teachers and parents to search for any school in England and Wales and see the expected change in their funding by 2020.
This is credited as having a massive impact on the 2017 general election and now looks to be having a positive effect on the Tory leadership campaign, too.
Conservative candidates are falling over themselves to discuss education and funding. After Gove’s £1 billion, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson pledged that thousands of schools would get “much more per pupil”. And now health secretary Matt Hancock has upped the ante, saying he would “be bolder than Boris to make sure we get equal funding per pupil”.
The candidates are very much aware that many of the party members voting for them will be involved with schools as governors, local councillors or parents – or, more likely, grandparents – and will know how hard the cuts are now biting in schools.
Whatever the outcome, it’s good to see the candidates giving lie to the Department for Education’s claim of record levels of funding and hopefully putting paid to the ludicrous repetition of the line “there is more money going into schools than ever before”. If all this does nothing else but kill off that sentence, I’ll be eternally grateful.
The Tory hopefuls certainly recognise that too many schools are not getting enough cash, despite the proclamations of the farcically out-of-touch Lord Agnew and his bottles of champagne.
Of course, alongside the candidates’ promises is the fact that the government will more than likely loosen the purse strings with a Comprehensive Spending Review and give its departments more cash. But whoever ends up in charge, there is likely to be more in the coffers because the public finances are looking surprisingly healthy.
However, spending for spending’s sake is not necessarily the best policy. It would be a concern if a new prime minister, worried about the impact of Brexit uncertainty on the economy, indulged in a vast, untargeted, Keynesian splurge.
If they did, they wouldn’t be learning from history. One of the critiques of New Labour’s largesse was that its education spend wasn’t very well targeted: at times it felt more like a case of throwing money against the wall and seeing if any of it stuck, an approach that gave advocates for austerity more ammunition.
In 2019, unlike 2001, education has more evidence of what works in schools. There are numerous examples of how money can be targeted wisely, and these should form the strategy for education in the new government. With a bit of luck, this would make reversing spending increases much harder.
But whatever happens, let’s just savour the moment: schools and funding are topping the agenda. Hurrah for that. Let’s celebrate. I think I know someone at the DfE with a few bottles of champagne to spare…
This article originally appeared in the 7 June 2019 issue under the headline “The Tory leader hopefuls would do well to learn from history”