Liberated by MPs'war on waste

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Although the next election is still a year away it is already evident that the level of education spending will not be an election issue. All three major parties have pledged to increase education spending in England by nearly 15 per cent in the first two years of the next parliament - from around pound;56.5 billion in 20056 to around pound;64bn in 20078. This huge increase reflects the equally large increases seen in the first part of this decade.

This commitment is a particularly striking one for the Conservatives. The party has decided to "protect" education and health spending while imposing an overall freeze for most other government departments.

The disagreements will come over which party will spend the increases most effectively. Two years ago the debate on spending was a question of "how much". Now, each party, driven by changing public opinion, is also very interested in the "how". The public is aware that spending on services has increased in recent years (and, crucially, that people are paying higher taxes as a result) but that standards have not risen to the same extent.

More than 80 per cent of the public agree with the statement "taxes have gone up but services haven't improved much and there is a lot of waste".

Meanwhile, 78 per cent agree that "public services need reform more than they need extra money". In this climate being seen as a "waster" is almost as bad as being seen as a "cutter".

As a result, regardless of the election result, it will be a bad time to be employed in the Department for Education and Skills and its agencies. The Conservatives would impose a freeze on recruitment in the department to keep costs down. Last week Labour announced that the DfES workforce will shrink by a third in the next four years.

Many teachers will no doubt hope that a reduction in the numbers of officials will lead to a reduction in the level of paperwork in schools.

This wish should come true because the centralising approach pioneered by the Conservatives and taken to a deeper level by Labour has run its course.

Instead, all of the parties propose to put pressure on schools from the bottom up, through greater choice for parents.

For Labour, choice means a much greater diversity of schools, creating what Tony Blair has called "the post-comprehensive system". It is very likely that Labour will pledge to increase the numbers of city academies, taxpayer-funded schools very largely free from central regulation, in its next manifesto.

Following last year's school budget debacle, which shook government confidence in local education authorities, Labour may be much bolder. It is considering funding schools directly from the centre, rather than through LEAs, although any such change would face fierce opposition. If schools were funded directly, it would be only a small step for that funding to follow the pupil, giving much greater weight to parental choice.

In a recent speech, Alan Milburn MP, one of the party's most influential thinkers, called on the Government to give parents a free choice of schools. Such thinking, however, has not yet entered mainstream Labour policy-making.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in contrast, are both committed to the introduction of school choice, through "passports", above the ages of five and 14 respectively.

The Conservatives are likely to combine choice with significant deregulation via, for example, a much-slimmed down national curriculum and a changed role for the Office for Standards in Education.

Such changes could benefit teachers as much as parents. A system accountable to parents would no longer need demoralising government inspection and intervention. In fact it would depend on teachers and headteachers to set the curriculum and methods of teaching. It would end the wasteful process of acquiring funds through various bids to central and local officials, which the Secondary Heads Association has criticised.

Value for taxpayers' money and consumer choice will be at the heart of the coming election campaign. Both will require significant change in schools policy. While some may criticise further upheaval, the benefit should be less bureaucracy and more money flowing into schools.

Andrew Haldenby is director of research at Reform, a Westminster-based public service think-tank.

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