Schools must give more bang for their buck

Amid a squeeze on public spending, it’s vital that teachers get even more value for money from their generous budgets

The first rule of politics? No good deed goes unpunished.

Item one. Conservative ministers (and Liberal Democrats too) have ensured that education funding has been prioritised over other departments in the past six years. Schools have had a better deal than any other area of domestic expenditure, apart from the NHS. Funding for schools was protected in real terms between 2010 and 2015. A pupil premium fund worth £2.5 billion a year was created to give the poorest children extra support. Over the past forty years inflation-adjusted spending per pupil has almost doubled.

But the trade unions, the education press and the opposition all claim that schools now face an unprecedented funding “crisis”.

The first rule of politics is that no good deed goes unpunished

Item two. There have been consistent demands, for more than forty years, that historic unfairnesses in school funding be redressed. It’s unjust that a poor child in Oxfordshire receives thousands of pounds less for their education than a poor child in Tower Hamlets. Both deserve an equal chance. And now, at last, the government’s plan for a National Fair Funding Formula marks a real step forward in making opportunity more equal.

But the trade unions, the education press and many local authorities object to this move because, while a majority of schools gain, not everyone gets quite what they want.

Ministers in the Department for Education have my sympathy. Because they are finding, as I did, that there are some people who won’t take yes for an answer.

When I was education secretary I responded to the cry that there were too many tests by scrapping as many as possible — from ending the requirement to sit AS levels to ditching the countless modules that clogged the GCSE years. And then I got attacked by the people who wanted less testing because I had made exams too “high-stakes”, which is to say dependent on fewer tests.

Pupil numbers are up in part because of Labour’s migrant policy

I agreed that education was too important to be run day-to-day by politicians and that teachers should be in the driving seat. The business of turning round failing schools was handed to teachers and no longer controlled from Whitehall. Brilliant heads like Sir John Townsley of the Gorse Academies Trust or Rachel De Souza of the Inspiration Academies Trust transformed the prospects of children in some of our most deprived communities.

Because of my admiration for them, I also appointed teachers to run Ofsted and to advise on reform of the national curriculum and qualifications. In every speech I gave I stressed how lucky we were to have the best generation of teachers working in our schools and I fought to protect their pensions and improve their pay. And yet, again and again, from conference platforms and in opinion columns we were told, by the unions, the education press and opposition politicians that we were hostile to teachers.

It is because of this incessant drumbeat of opposition to so much that Conservative (and Lib Dem) ministers have done in education that the debate has become impoverished even as our schools have received more cash.

It’s time it became more considered and, in particular, conscious of the dilemmas ministers face as well as their achievements.

Education in England has been improving consistently for years now. Starting under Tony Blair’s government, the pace has quickened since. More schools than ever before are ranked good and outstanding by Ofsted, even as the inspection criteria have become more demanding. Grade inflation has been ended and the teaching profession is attracting more talented people. More investment is going into vocational education and technical qualifications are becoming much more rigorous.

But pupil numbers are also rising, driven in part by the increased levels of migration Labour encouraged. Labour failed to plan properly for this population increase, lavishing capital funding on the incredibly wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme which did nothing to create new places to cope with the massive increase in primary numbers. The coalition government spent capital much more efficiently, as the National Audit Office has acknowledged, creating high quality new school places at 70 per cent of the previous cost.

We should all be thinking hard now about generating greater efficiencies in day-to-day school spending to follow up on the achievements in capital spending. The best academy trusts are doing so already. We need to benchmark all school spending against the performance of the most efficient and ask why their innovations aren’t being more widely adopted.

Given how high our deficit remains, and given how much of the spending strain has been taken by other areas, inclucing local government, prisons, the police and social care, schools do need to show that they understand the need for further reform.

I will always argue for more spending on schools — especially for the most disadvantaged. I’ll even propose some very specific tax rises to pay for that. But those of us who care about education need to be able to show that current spending is being deployed as efficiently and fairly as possible if we’re to win the battle for more funding in the future. Is it too much to hope that the ministers now engaged in that good deed can actually, for once, be applauded?