Editorial: Money - at last

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Somewhat unexpectedly, Wednesday's Budget allocated #163;2.3 billion to education - a most welcome departure from Labour's election pledge not to raise the level of spending in any Government department.

Gordon Brown's decision to use money from the windfall tax to upgrade schools - not only mending roofs and painting walls but buying computers and technical equipment in order to create "bright modern classrooms for the 21st century" - will be a shot in the arm for the whole system, and do much to lift the gloom which had begun to descend in some quarters as it looked as if the Tory tradition of "teacher-bashing" would continue under Labour.

Indeed, the whole of Gordon Brown's first Budget speech was good for education. He emphasised that this country does not invest enough in its workers - although we have few natural resources other than the "talent and potential" of our people. Labour's New Welfare State, he said, should put opportunity back into people's hands, and give them the means to advance through training and education.

Particularly good news were the relaxation of the 16-hour rule for the long-term unemployed who lack skills, the subsidy to encourage employers to take people from the dole queue, and the emphasis on child care which, Brown said, must be seen not as a fringe element, but as an integral part of government economic policy.

But what was not clarified was exactly how all this extra education and training at 16 plus is to be funded - except that individual learning accounts, and what Mr Brown called the "skills ladder," could be achieved through a redistribution of funds to those in most need. This was a pretty strong hint that the Government intends to accept Helena Kennedy's proposals for the funding of further education, published this week.

Her report's 80 recommendations aim to address how Mr Brown's "ladder of opportunity" could become a reality for all, in a system which currently spends much more on the already-privileged than on those at the bottom of the heap.

Many of Kennedy's ideas are relatively cheap and easy: to pool the money already available; to establish regional partnerships; to push television programming which would encourage adult education; and to launch a publicity drive.

Others raise more serious challenges: to give everyone an entitlement to education up to the equivalent of A-level; to give tax breaks to employers who encourage training; and to change the current priorities of the Employment Service. But most profound is her bid to change the culture in which 62 per cent of university students come from the top two social classes, and in which just one in four of the country's students (those at university) benefits from two-thirds of the cash.

It is hard to see how redistribution alone could achieve such a seismic shift - and we do not yet know how much of the Welfare to Work money will come to FE.

The report leaves a fair amount of unfinished business - creating some serious complications in the mechanics of getting 250,000 young unemployed people back into work, training or education.

Student support is expensive, too. If Welfare to Work students are to get financial support, why should others, who may have rejected the option of going on the dole, do without? And if, as Kennedy argues, FE students should be entitled to the same support as students in higher education - then surely school students of the same age should be too. Suddenly the bills are mounting up alarmingly.

But Helena Kennedy has done her job. The nitty gritty of putting her lifelong learning aims into practice falls to Professor Bob Fryer and his Government-appointed committee, which meets for the first time today.

And a new way forward may still exist, in the shape of Sir Ron Dearing - whose report on higher education is due out later this month and needs to be seen in conjunction with Kennedy's work. Dearing is widely expected to recommend radical reforms of the student grants system and the imposition of university fees, paid for by a system of loans linked to national insurance payments.

Such a system would easily transfer to all students - whatever course they want to follow - offering a mechanism for giving non-university students much-needed state support and finance.

Maybe Brown, Kennedy and Dearing between them will liberate enough cash to craft a coherent system which would meet the needs of all Britain's over 16s - and finally move us away from the current brutal maxim: "If at first you don't succeed . . . you don't succeed".

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