In my house hangs a copy of an Evening Standard headline from Budget 2006, when I was working in the Treasury (this was in the long-ago days when commuters got their Budget news from a paid-for newspaper on the way home, not Twitter and freesheets). The headline is “Gordon throws money at schools”.
Fast-forward a decade, and there was thin gruel for headteachers in last week’s Autumn Statement: some capital funding for new grammars and a report into improving northern schools commissioned under George Osborne (and hence quietly placed into a dark corner of Budget coverage, much like you’d park Ukip-supporting Uncle Bert at a gay wedding).
It’s disappointing, for sure, but not altogether surprising, in a political environment in which there is simply not the money available to make a noticeable bump to schools’ finances. For example, having a minimum starting salary for all teachers of £25,000 – as proposed by Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission – is a great idea. But it costs £2 billion to £3 billion a year.
The political environment is also moving away from schools. The title of my “I-will-write-it-one-day” book on education policy over the past 20 years or so will be “Seasons in the sun”. We had ours from 1997 through to about 2014. In historical terms, this was an aberration. Sadly, I predict education will regress to the mean in terms of priorities in the next decade.
There was, however, one area where I thought schools might have done well. The Treasury has abandoned Mr Osborne’s rule on borrowing, and there was a splurge of investment on capital projects – new roads, new houses and faster broadband. The emphasis is on projects that can start quickly and will stimulate growth.
One idea would be to look again at school capital projects. Not, I hasten to add, to kick off another Building Schools for the Future-type programme. But at a time when money has never been cheaper for government to borrow, a targeted non-PFI capital programme could have both educational and economic benefits for schools. Modern insulation would help to reduce energy costs. Cutting-edge ICT might make it possible for schools to share teachers to cover some elements of the curriculum remotely.
Reconfiguration of school estates could make room for new nurseries located with primaries, or make it easier for schools to group together under an executive head.
With a bit of creative thinking, and the backing of the chancellor, the Spring Budget could use capital funding to address some longstanding issues in schools in an unexpectedly positive way.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron