Samuel Smiles streak tempers passion

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Education may be the passion of a Blair government. But, as this week's pronouncements from would-be chancellor Gordon Brown make clear, it would be a prudent passion.

Commentators seized on the taxes he did not mention, including the possibility of imposing VAT on private school fees. Speculation raged across the financial pages that this was indeed one avenue being explored by the self-styled Iron Chancellor.

But not so, according to sources close to David Blunkett, the shadow spokesman for education and employment. Two years ago, he was forced to backtrack after confirming newspaper articles which said Labour was considering such a tax. He told a radio programme: "It seems weird that the ordinary taxpayer on limited resources should be asked to provide a subsidy for private education which is purchased at great cost by the better-off. We are looking at the question of removing advantages which private education enjoys within the tax framework. "

It seemed that, despite Tony Blair's promise during his leadership election campaign that such a tax would be considered, it was ruled out months later, in November 1994, by a group of senior MPs including Mr Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook. That position has, apparently, not changed since.

The Samuel Smiles dictum of self-help appears to be Mr Brown's current subtext. He told businessmen this week that a Labour government would not change Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's planned Pounds 266.5 billion total for public spending in the coming financial year and Pounds 273.7bn for 1998-99.

This means no extra money for pay increases for public sector workers, including teachers.

Moreover, the "save-then-spend" philosophy means that Chancellor Brown would not hold the traditional public spending review this autumn. Instead, ministers and officials would have to undertake a full-scale review of their departmental spending to justify each item. Meanwhile, the Cabinet's public spending committee would undertake its own review, with the power to shift the balance of spending between departments to high-priority areas - but within Mr Clarke's limits.

The ultimate aim is apparently to get people from welfare to work by improving training and making the benefits system more flexible, thus saving money which will funnel back into education. This would take time to happen, so the only "outside" money so far promised for a Blunkett Department for Education and Employment comes from the transforming of post-16 child benefit into an education allowance to help children of poorer families stay at school or college.

Even if fiscal rules were slackened, there is little scope for finding extra money within local authorities. Globally, any capital stashed away from the selling off of schools or playing fields would do little to tackle maintenance problems. If housing receipts were brought into the equation it would not help many authorities and, in any case, there would be arguments that the cash should go back into homes. Moreover, there would be the risk of a government clawing back such money.

The other possibility - tinkering with the current stringent capping regime - has been explicitly ruled out by Mr Brown.

This is what has actually been promised by Labour on education: * Cut infant class sizes to 30, paid for by cutting Pounds 68m Assisted Places Scheme.

* Improve access to higher and further education; transferring grants loans to private sector.

* Put an estimated Pounds 20m administration cash from nursery vouchers scheme into new places.

* Use Pounds 260m Grants for Education Support and Training pot to tackle priorities such as literacy.

* After 2000, use Pounds 30m a year Millennium Fund on information technology training for existing teachers and homeworkafter-school centres.

* Abolish Pounds 500m youth training budget; transfer into scheme to encourage further education.

* Cut post-16 child benefit: transform into educational allowance.

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