Whispers from Westminster

18th December 2015 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

There is overwhelming evidence that clinical outcomes for many surgical procedures are superior when services are centralised into fewer, larger hospitals, and smaller ones are closed. Every time this issue is looked at – by politicians of all colours – the irresistible conclusion is that we have too many beds, which wastes money and threatens lives. Yet find me an instance of plans for a hospital to be downgraded and funding reallocated and I’ll find you a queue of local stakeholders, including MPs, lobbying to save it.

Sound familiar? Two weeks ago I wrote about the national funding formula, saying that “When times are tight, there will be a huge temptation…to rail against ‘education cuts’, [but] if we want the government to take tough but necessary decisions, we owe them our support when it does.”

But my hopes appear to be in vain. Over the past week, we have seen Sadiq Khan, Labour candidate for mayor of London, call repeatedly for London’s schools not to “lose £800 million” in the proposed funding shake-up. This has been swiftly echoed by a parade of the usual suspects calling for #investmentnotcuts (the hashtag being, as always, the mark of a really serious and well-thought-out campaign). London schools, it seems, shouldn’t lose a penny.

It’s difficult to emphasise just how counterproductive this is. London schools are by far the highest funded in the country. Not only that, they are overfunded according to most estimates of how a formula would calculate their needs. And very little of the London school improvement over the past decade is ascribed to higher funding. So there is minimal educational benefit to this largesse, which – it cannot be stressed enough – is coming at the direct expense of schools in the rest of the country. That is simply indefensible.

Moreover, those calling to just (just!) bring poorer areas up to level of the richest are living in cloud cuckoo land. The government has set out its spending for the next four years. You might not like it, but it’s fixed. There is no money to perform this miracle uplift. Such calls can therefore be seen only as an attempt to sabotage reform.

It isn’t often in politics that there really are only two choices. But this is one of those times. Either the whole sector, and all parties, unite behind a plan to carefully reallocate funding so that it can work best for all areas, all schools, all children. Or we divide; some lose their nerve and bolt, or take advantage for ideological reasons. And the result of that can only be the further postponement of any change, with direct and real consequences for schools across the country. This has happened before.

Despite universal theoretical agreement, we have never really managed to rationalise hospitals. Many experts argue strongly that oversupply is now contributing to severe financial shock throughout the NHS. Hospitals are falling into deficit. Patients are suffering. It’s not too late for schools. We can be better than this. Can’t we?

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron @PXEducation

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