We risk sacrifice of our future

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Any successful businessman will tell you that two key factors in maintaining success and growth in a company are to make maximum use of the skills and creativity of the workforce, and to strike the right balance between dividends to shareholders and the use of profits from current operations to invest in future products.

Professional shareholders, such as the managers of large investment portfolios, recognise companies who achieve a good balance, and are wary of organisations which hope that minimal investment and a stroke of genius will achieve future competitive advantage.

The state funding of education is UK plc's way of ensuring that all children can make maximum use of their talents and provide business with the skilled workforce of the future. Unfortunately, the current directors of UK plc are driven by the need to promise their political shareholders low taxation, in order to help to retain their seats at the next "shareholders' meeting".

Politically, the Government seems to take advantage of the fact that education is not a priority among the electorate as a whole because only a minority of adults have school-age children at any one time. As a result, it has not chosen to invest wisely for the future, but instead to stake all on the ability of schools to scrape through with meagre funds.

In an increasingly competitive world, the future of this country can no longer depend on the abilities of the privileged few whose parents can afford private education, nor on the children from showcase state schools who could fill their available places many times over. Make no mistake, we will need all our best brains, regardless of their owners' socio-economic background.

The present reality of state education is one of mainly old-fashioned, crumbling buildings, insufficient books, stitched-together equipment, and harassed and often abused teachers. It is a miracle of dedication by staff, governors and advisers that the system still works at all. Why anyone would choose to be a teacher when the rewards are so poor is a mystery to me. It is hardly likely that the profession will attract people of adequate ability, let alone satisfy the need for the very best, if things continue as they are.

Whereas the objective of low taxation and low government spending is a good one, if the result is that the future prosperity of the country is put severely at risk, then the Government is doing the country a disservice. What is needed is a prudent level of investment that secures long-term growth.

Of course, everyone dislikes paying taxes but, to adapt the conclusions of Professor Frederick Herzburg regarding workers' pay, it is not taxation that is a demotivator, it is the unfair application of taxes. Extending his view still further, it is possible to assert that low taxation in itself is not a motivator of companies or individuals.

What, then, can be done to make better provision for education by a fair and modest increase in public expenditure raised from taxation? Although taxpayers are in a sense repaying the cost of their own education by funding the current generation, it is useful to look at ways in which an increment in investment could be sourced fairly. One could argue that it would be unfair for those not directly benefiting from the education system to subsidise an increase for those that are. Equally, it is possible to assert that it is unfair for parents who pay for private education to also have to pay extra for the state system.

Although children benefit directly from education, the real benefit is reaped by industry and commerce, who are able to rely on a constant supply of well-developed youngsters to further their commercial competitiveness and prosperity and thence to increase wealth.

Many major companies are only too well aware of this and are openly supportive of moves to improve education funding. Indeed, they realise that they benefit from securing their future supply of workers, and also gain from having better educated customers.

It would not seem unreasonable to ask businesses to pay a little more tax on profits as an investment in their future workforce, in the same way as they invest in training their current staff and in new products.

A small rise in corporation tax, provided that the proceeds were "ring-fenced" for education, would go a long way to restoring the right balance of investment in our schools and in our country's future.

Keith E Beck is the chairman of the South Oxfordshire Governors' Forum Keith E Beck is chairman of the South Oxfordshire Governors' Forum.

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