Betrayal of Shropshire's lads and lasses

21st April 1995 at 01:00
You can tell a campaign is serious when it is led by Shropshire. For years thoughtful councillors, talented officers and dedicated teachers have combined to provide the people of Shropshire with an education service they are justly proud of. Calm professionalism has been the order of the day. They are not easily moved to anger. But they know a betrayal when they see one.

For that is what this year's funding settlement for education is. Gillian Shephard herself said almost as much in her leaked letter to poor old Jonathan Aitken.

This year's funding battle is different from dozens of others down the decades. This time we know from published performance data that schools are getting better. We know, through the school effectiveness and school improvement research, how they can keep on getting better. Above all, we know that by the end of the century we need an education service which for the first time in history provides success for everyone. The new national education and training target, which the Government endorses, suggests that by 2000 at least 85 per cent of young people should achieve 5 grades A-C at GCSE or the equivalent.

This sounds a tall order but for the sake of our economy, society and democracy it is where we ought to be heading. The young people who will take GCSE in 2000 start secondary school this September. By what twisted logic does the Treasury believe that the chances of that cohort breaking every performance record in the book will be enhanced by slashing budgets to coincide with their first day in secondary school?

The tremendous campaign that governors and teachers have mounted may not bring much change this year, but it has not been in vain.

It is helping to shift the culture in a country in which historically we have undervalued education. It has also helped Gillian Shephard wring a commitment from the Prime Minister to ensuring education has priority next year. She has even invited the education service to keep up its campaign. At the Secondary Heads' Association conference she said: "I want you to help me to see if we can make things better next year."

This is an advance but not enough. We need clarity about funding for the next five years and beyond.

Current levels of expenditure per pupil are simply inadequate. The Government is fond of reminding us that expenditure per head is higher than it was in 1979. That is true: but it is also true that we now expect schools to do a different job. In 1979 the education system was geared to providing success for a minority. Now we want everyone to succeed and that has a price.

Improvement requires a steady disciplined strategy, which can easily be impaired by the periodic funding crisis of which 1995 is a prime example. With a steady real growth of 1 or 2 per cent per year over five years we could have steady real improvement of 3 or 4 per cent. If so, that would represent a dramatic rise in productivity.

A greater proportion of the growth should be invested in nursery and primary education. This should not be investment without accountability. It should be linked to the establishment of clear, public performance targets in the primary sector. The public would then see the value of the investment.

It should also be acknowledged that it costs more for young people from deprived social backgrounds to reach the high levels of performance we should expect from everyone. David Blunkett's recent advocacy of "a 10-year programme of planned improvement and increases that give some certainty" is a significant advance on previous commitments from either of the main parties.

Even if it was achieved, however, it would still be necessary to increase private investment in education. In part this additional funding could come from individuals. A shift from student grants to a graduate tax would free government money in post-school education which could be redistributed to the early years. It would help if we also saw the emergence across the economy of individual learning accounts to which both employee and employer would contribute and which the individual would spend on training and career development.

This model, proposed by Geoffrey Holland, has much to commend it, not least incidentally as a means of fostering teachers' professional development. There are, after all, many teachers already paying their way on MA courses with, all too often, shamefully little assistance from their employers.

Through the extension of school-industry links, in which this country heads the international league table, further private investment of time, if not cash, could be made available. One promising avenue would be to extend the notion of personal mentors from industry and the community for "at-risk" secondary school pupils.

Finally, a means needs to be found of investing in the resources for learning young people have at home. Early in the next century, if not sooner, every child could have the Bodleian Library on CD at home. But what about homes where they can't afford it? Supposing every pupil was entitled, in addition to a school place, to a "pupil learning resources voucher" to help pay for such resources. It could be targeted at those most in need through the tax and benefits system. Expenditure on appropriate resources could be ensured by requiring the parent and teacher to agree on how to spend it. It could be paid for by phasing out universal child benefit.

Some of this agenda is tentative, I admit. The central point is to think beyond this year's betrayal to how we fund a successful education service by the end of the century. Expecting huge increases in public investment funded out of higher taxation is naive. Equally the Treasury position, that present levels of expenditure are adequate, is criminal. The expenditure on books and equipment per pupil in many schools is significantly less than the Pounds 52 a former Government minister is known to have spent on one breakfast in Paris. The Government should at least pause before telling local authorities that the problem is their priorities.

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