This is the sound of the suburbs saying thanks for the cash;Opinion

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Now here's a curious thing. The Government has pound;22 million to spend on schools, as a result of the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme. And where does the money go?

Well, to take Greater London as an example, it goes to Barnet, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Ealing, Haringey, Newham and Wandsworth. On any index you care to take, all these boroughs, with the exceptions of Newham and Haringey, are less deprived than average by London standards. And what about Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Hackney, Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, which account for nine of the 11 most deprived boroughs? They get nothing. Not a sausage.

That kind of comparison could be repeated across the country. Nothing for Birmingham, but pound;146,000 for Buckinghamshire. Nothing for Sunderland, but pound;584,000 for suburban Solihull. Nice little windfalls for Devon, Dorset and Hertfordshire, but nothing for Liverpool or Manchester. The picture is not consistent - pound;1m goes to Sandwell, covering a part of the west Midlands that once caused J B Priestley to remark that he had never seen such grimy desolation, but in general the money goes to the better-off rather than the worse-off areas. And, yes, I know that even Buckinghamshire has pockets of poverty, but I doubt that the money is going there.

The reason is that the handouts are intended to fulfil Labour's election pledge to have no more infant school classes of more than 30. For a variety of reasons - the weighting of the grant system towards poorer areas, the reluctance of Tory councils to spend money on education - large classes are concentrated overwhelmingly in middle-class areas.

What all this shows is that presentation dictates policy even when, as a result, the policy doesn't really make sense. The pledge to reduce class sizes was a marvellous piece of electioneering. On the one hand, it sounded like a simple piece of social justice; on the other, it struck a chord with middle-class parents, whom Labour was anxious to woo, because they were most likely to have an infant in an over-sized class.

Schools know the pitfalls, however. What happens, for example, if you get the extra teachers to bring down your class sizes but don't have enough space to accommodate an extra class? Further, the policy may make inner-city schools worse off because, at a time of recruitment difficulties, it will create more jobs for teachers in the suburbs.

Could Labour have framed its pledge in a different way? What about a promise to improve pupil:teacher ratios? Sorry, it just doesn't have the same ring. In any case, if Stephen Byers, the schools minister, cannot be relied on to multiply seven by eight, it's doubtful that the average Labour spin-doctor could handle such a thing as a ratio.

A promise to recruit an extra 5,000 teachers? Sorry, teachers are firmly established in the public mind as lazy good-for-nothings; you wouldn't want to draw attention to them. A promise to cut class sizes below 25, or even 20, in the poor areas? Sorry, you cannot win modern elections like that; nothing in it for the middle-classes.

From this example of bad policy but good PR, turn now to an example of good policy but bad PR: the Government's decision to charge tuition fees to undergraduates. Some of the details may be open to question, but I do not think the policy can be faulted on grounds of social justice and equity.

Five points are crucial. First, free university education has always represented an enormous taxpayers' subsidy to a predominantly middle-class student body.

Second, the new fees will account for only a quarter of the true cost of a university education - the balance will still come from the state.

Third, students will receive loans to pay the fees, at a nil real rate of interest.

Fourth, they will repay the loan only in years when they reach a certain minimum level of income; in other words, it will be more like an extra level of taxation than a mortgage repayment.

Fifth, parents will be means-tested, so about a third of students won't pay fees and others will not pay the full amount.

Ministers have tried to get these points across, particularly the last. In vain. Contrary, and entirely false, slogans are firmly lodged in public debate. Graduates will start life with a load of debt hanging round their necks. Students from poor homes won't be able to go to university. It is all the more exasperating and frustrating that these criticisms come mainly from old Labour sources because here, ministers argue, is a traditional redistributive policy that penalises the middle classes so that more money can be channelled to the mass of young people in schools and FE colleges.

But the public doesn't see that, and there is the contrast to the class sizes policy. Labour got away with abolishing the assisted places scheme because the alternative use of the money was so quickly spelt out and so readily understandable. It might have achieved the same with the abolition of free university education if it had simultaneously announced, say, individual learning accounts and a new deal for part-timers and FE students. That debate, however, started only with this week's Green Paper. Fee-charging appeared as just another money-saving device, rather like the announcements on lone parents and disabled benefits.

The lesson is that, if you don't spin, you will be spun against. Politicians have to apply a variant of Occam's razor: think of the simplest possible interpretation of your policy (for or against) and expect that one to dominate media debate. If the simplest interpretation is against you, you had best change the policy or, at least, re-package it.

Think of how the Tories got away with parental choice. Anybody who understands anything about school admissions knows that the whole thing was a con: the schools do the choosing, not the parents. But that is far too complex a point for television news that depends on soundbites and a press that has to make room for another few thousand words on how the Princess of Wales really died.

So, aspiring politicians everywhere, repeat after me. Parental choice, good. Smaller classes, good. Charging fees, bad. Taking money off people in wheelchairs, bad. Readiness to bomb Arab dictators, good. (Unless bombs fall on Arab children, in which case, bad.) It's easy when you've got the idea. Leaving it to the spin-doctors, you see, is the worst possible way of governing. Except for all the others.

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