It was school funding that finally made me realise I needed to leave government. Not in a “do this or I resign” way, but because of a meeting in the Treasury in the early days of the coalition.
Assorted big cheeses and head honchos from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were sitting amicably around the table (ah, memories). The topic was whether to move to a fair funding settlement for schools. The Department for Education presented various complicated-looking charts illustrating the mess of the current system, and the winners and losers under a reformed national funding formula. The honchos and cheeses sucked their teeth, muttered “it’s complicated”, blamed the Labour Party for not having done it when more money was available, and then decided not to do anything.
This was, more or less, the third time I’d been in that meeting in the past six years, and the déjà vu was becoming wearisome.
It’s the kind of decision-making that typifies too much modern government policy. Until 2003, schools spending wasn’t ringfenced and councillors decided how much schools were funded. After that year’s “funding crisis” under Charles Clarke, when increased costs for schools weren’t always met with extra cash, Labour introduced the dedicated schools grant from 2006 to guarantee a minimum level of funding for all schools.
The way in which this minimum level was set, however, merely froze 2005 levels of school spending in each local authority and topped it up every year – known as “spend plus”. So, for councils that had historically added to their allocation from government and spent more on schools, this higher amount was permanently locked into the new central grant. Hence the vast disparities that still exist in 2015.
Despite my inconclusive meeting, it is often underestimated just how much the coalition did try to change the system in increments. In the past five years we have had at least three consultations, plus a range of technical changes to make the system fairer. And, at the time of writing, it was widely reported that the spending review would at last commit to a full national formula from 2017 onwards.
One of the big things to watch will be whether the extra £390 million allocated to the least well-funded authorities for 2015 and 2016 stays in play for the rest of this Parliament, in order to help manage the transition.
By the time you read this, then, we may finally be in the brave new world that everyone has wanted to get to for at least a decade.
When times are tight, there will be a temptation on the part of some headteachers, unions or politicians to rail against “education cuts” on behalf of those schools facing reduced budgets. This would be rather disingenuous. As with hospital closures, if we want the government to take tough but necessary decisions, we owe it our support when it does.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the prime minister’s strategy unit under both Gordon Brown and David Cameron