Editorial: the budget

29th November 1996 at 00:00
The Budget has always been the biggest con game in town. Months of feverish speculation until on the appointed day the earth fails to move, and life goes on much as before. And so it is likely to prove once more for schools and colleges, and the teachers in them.

Before the Chancellor had sat down on Tuesday, every known cliche related to giving and taking had been exhausted by commentators: as in "robbing Peter . . ."; "giving with one hand . . .". But the analysis behind the truisms is necessary. You have to be a numerate Whitehall-watcher to ferret through the headline figures to the truth.

The first layer of obfuscation peels off to reveal that #163;830 million extra for schools reduces first to #163;633m for local education authority spending, once you have top-sliced for grant-maintained schools, assisted places, city technology colleges and nursery vouchers, and then turns into a minus quantity when set against this year's actual budgets.

After that it gets more complicated. For example, Gillian Shephard at Education and Employment has been represented as a winner, and John Gummer at Environment as a loser. But that #163;633m for local education authority schools really comes out of Mr Gummer's budget, so whether individual LEAs pass on to schools what the Government says they should can depend on the health of local government finance in general. And Mr Gummer's budget has been cut.

Most LEAs regularly spend more on education than his Environment department says they should, which is why this year's notional plus turns into a minus, but they do it by squeezing other services. Kenneth Clarke was sceptical about this in his Budget speech, though Mrs Shephard later seemed to confirm what is really happening. The question is how far this cross-subsidy can go on at the expense of social services, prudent reserves and an inevitable rise in council taxes.

The answer, as Tony Travers suggests on page 4, is that it probably will, because Labour and Lib Dem councils are no keener than the Government to be blamed by parents and governors in an election year for funding a teachers' pay deal only at the expense of other teachers' jobs. So there may not be as much attrition in schools as there was two years ago, but there won't be much joy either, and this from a Budget in which schools were supposed to be the winners.

Further education colleges don't have the same electoral appeal, in spite of their economic importance, but they have been subjected to similar dodgy mathematics. #163;80m over two years is the advertised figure, but it turns out that #163;11m has been deducted from the first year's #163;40m, in anticipation of European funds (and in defiance of European Union rules against replacing government money), and another #163;6m for pensions claw-back. Once the remaining #163;23m is set off against new 5.3 per cent "efficiency" gains, we are back to standstill here too. The brake on early retirements also pops up to justify cuts in targets for initial teacher training recruitment.

The overall verdict is that it could have been worse for education, but it isn't nearly as good as ministers claim. And you can see why the Government still prefers obfuscation to a clearer system of funding schools.

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