Steady funding growth is key to success
To Gillian Shephard's credit, the situation has improved. Even so, it is not good. Even now, schools in England and Wales are funded at a level 20 per cent below that in Scotland.
Worse still, the annual spending uncertainties militate strongly against efforts across the system to transform education and move standards on to a significantly higher plane. Schools which are planning improvements need steadiness in investment as much as they need the investment itself. A school striving to improve cannot be helped if it doesn't know in March what its budget will be in April.
It is a tragedy that changes in spending levels on a national priority such as education owe more to the electoral cycle than to any concerted sense of strategy. Another simple message: education needs more money, more steadily.
Generalised demands of this kind probably won't cut much ice with politicians. They face a competing range of demands on public expenditure and estimate - almost certainly rightly - that the public's tolerance of higher taxes is limited in the extreme. Moreover, they know that both effectiveness and efficiency vary hugely from one institution to another and are reluctant to invest large sums of public money unless there is evidence that the whole system is moving towards the performance levels of the best institutions.
Those of us who work in education and know the daily reality of under-funding ought, therefore, to begin to help the politicians make constructive decisions by being specific in our demands and by responding positively to the pressures to improve both the level and consistency of performance across different institutions.
Taking capital first: as a result of a disgraceful failure to invest over a 20-year period, the quality of our school buildings is often shocking, even though many good schools work tremendously hard to do the best they can with what they've got. The excuse that times have been hard is certainly not acceptable. Those same 20 years have seen the sale of many publicly owned companies. As Harold Macmillan put it, the family silver has been sold off. The most scandalous in a long line of such sales is the Railtrack flotation under which the entire rail network is being sold off for a mere Pounds 1.8bn, just over one month's spending on schools.
Any sensible strategic policy on public assets should surely have involved investing some of the proceeds of the sale of the century in the public assets we are keeping and will need in the 21st century. Yet capital investment in school buildings far from being increased has been reduced. There is now a backlog of repairs which, it is suggested, requires up to Pounds 3.2bn to address. The chief inspector's report this year points out: "A significant number of schools have problems with their buildings."
Since the proceeds of the privatisation sales have been squandered rather than invested, it is no longer possible to look there for a source of capital investment. Since the availability of other public resources is unlikely to meet this backlog, the only sensible approach is to seek public-private partnerships. Clearly if the idea of - as it is called - borrowing against non-core assets is a good one, it is absurd to restrict it to grant-maintained schools. David Blunkett is surely right to propose that such partnerships are much more likely to work if groups of schools club together to work with the private sector. He is right too to point out that if we began to tackle the capital investment issues then we could actually save money on revenue spending. A properly repaired and lagged roof can clearly lead to fuel economies and reduces the demand for buckets to catch the drips.
On revenue funding, any hopes of a cash bonanza in the remaining years of the century will, whoever wins the election, certainly be dashed. What does seem reasonable - given the stated commitment of all parties to the improvement of education - is an expectation of steady funding and a small but real increase in expenditure over the lifetime of a parliament. A combination of reasonable growth in the economy and a degree of redistribution within overall public expenditure should make this politically and financially realistic. It is certainly economically necessary. Everyone recognises that standards must rise. In any case, continued reform and the impact of technology will both require further change in schools; a consistent resource framework would enable teachers to implement that change much more successfully.
A degree of growth would also enable redistribution. The case for additional expenditure on primary education becomes ever stronger. The school effectiveness research shows with increasing conviction that the impact of primary schooling on pupil performance at 16 is as great, if not greater, than that of secondary schooling. If additional funding were to be combined into a strategy designed to achieve a situation where every 11-year-old - except those with clearly identified special needs - could read at or above their chronological age, then even the hardest-hearted Treasury official could find it difficult to keep the purse-strings tied.
Finally, it is essential that policy-makers invest more in schools in disadvantaged areas. There should be no question of lower expectations of young people in disadvantaged communities. By the same token it has to be recognised, as Peter Mortimore said to the Education Select Committee in 1994, that reaching the same high standards across disadvantaged areas will cost more.
The emphasis on school improvement from both government and opposition has been a welcome step forward. It is surely right to expect schools to take responsibility for improving themselves and to make the most of what they have. The real potential of school improvement will, however, only be achieved if schools are working within a resource framework which helps rather than hinders their efforts.
Special educational needs topics covered in initial teacher training courses: rank order 1 Identification of needs 2 Curriculum differentiation for SEN 3 SEN legislation 4 Classroom management 5 Child abuse 6 Gifted pupils 6 Support services 6 Emotional behavioural difficulties 9 The Elton Report 9 Behaviour management 11 SEN code of practice 12 Individual assessment of SEN 13 Physical disabilities 14 Severe learning difficulties