Is health taking over as the new buzz-word?

14th December 2001 at 00:00
The great debate has started. No longer is the T-word taboo. The only questions are how many billions will be poured into the NHS, and what taxes will raise them. Tax and spend is back - but only for health.

Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report may have thrown caution to the wind, but he had nothing to say about schools. The only nod to "education, education, education" was a pound;40 million pilot towards his elusive goal of GCSE-standard qualifications for all. Health has become the Government's top priority because Tony Blair is deeply frustrated by continuing hospital horror stories.

In part, education is a victim of its own relative success. Literacy and numeracy results may have stalled this year, but progress since 1996 has been remarkable. Class size and GCSE targets have been effectively met a year ahead of schedule.

There may be ambitious future targets in primary and secondary schools, and universities and colleges may seek billions to recruit all those extra students to meet the participation targets set by the Prime Minister. However, with no obvious crisis, the public simply doesn't regard education as being as big a problem as health. The latest MORI poll found that only 5 per cent rate schools as the top problem facing the country compared with 21 per cent for health.

But good news for pupils has become bad news for schools. In every previous Budget or pre-Budget report, Brown was persuaded by David Blunkett and Tony Blair to dole out extra cash for books, buildings or basic budgets. There was a relative bonanza for school capital.

But the demographics are moving against schools. Pupil numbers are no longer rising. Indeed, in 2011 the under-15 population is expected to be 700,000 smaller. The baby-boomer parents are getting older and their concerns may turn from their children's qualifications to their own longevity. Within a decade there will be 1.8 million more over-60s.

So Morris faces a tough battle winning Budget handouts, let alone big increases in the spending review. But the Prime Minister must back her.

Schools do need more money, not just to back more reform but also to improve pupil-teacher and adult-pupil ratios. There will be pressure for further teacher salary increases, although the unions' exaggeration of current shortages has damaged their cause.

Schools also still need more capital. The pound;8 billion currently being invested will make a big dent in the repairs backlog and allow hundreds of new schools. But local authorities have been conducting asset management plans. It would be surprising if they didn't highlight the need for similar investment over the next two spending reviews. And computers will need to be replaced and updated.

Second, colleges and universities need extra resources. If the graduate tax disappears from the current review of student finance, there will need to be new ways to fund extra participation and any new grants for poorer students. Ambitious college expansion plans also need to be funded, if the Chancellor wants to improve adult skills.

And third, regional funding disparities have been a running sore. If the gap between the South-east and the rest of England is to be bridged, there will need to be considerable extra cash to avoid an outcry in the Home Counties.

But there are two further arguments that ought to appeal to the occupants of 10 and 11 Downing Street. Blair believes in rewarding success. He is enthusiastic about performance-related pay. If education is delivering results, it deserves reward not punishment.

Brown is keen on redistribution. In the Third World, he recognises that education is by far the best way to end generational poverty. The better educated one is, the more one earns. Education is far more effective in the long term than short-term tax credits.

For these reasons, the Government must ensure that even if its three priorities are no longer education, education, education, the mantra at the very least must become health, education, (and here speaks a long-suffering rail user) transport.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment, 1997-2001

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