January 30, 2006

Education, Budgets, Patricia Hewitt

In yesterday’s Times Patricia Hewitt wrote a sharp reply to economics correspondent David Smith who had earlier criticised the effectiveness of Labour reforms in various areas. On education, she says the following

He may be almost right to say that 60% of pupils failed to gain at least a C grade in maths or English. The figure is actually 55.7%, which I accept is not good enough. But the same figure was 64.4% in 1997. The biggest improvements have come in primary schools where pupils have had the benefit throughout their education of the extra investment and reforms we have put in. We need to do better still but we are going in the right direction.

The number of 11-year-olds achieving the right standards in English have improved from 65% in 1997 to 79% and in maths from 59% to 75%. It is misleading to criticise the performance of city academies without explaining that they are sited deliberately in the areas of lowest educational performance. Far from “faltering”, they are improving GCSE results three times faster than the national average.

Unfortunately, her letter was published on the same day the Telegraph reported growing deficits in the education sector –

Last night, teaching unions and Conservatives warned that teacher shortages were a renewed risk because head teachers were struggling with debt and complex ring-fenced Government funding. Previous school funding crises – notably in 2000 and 2003 – saw four-day weeks and classes of 90 pupils in the worst-affected areas. They are seen as a significant blot on Mr Blair's record in education.

The latest figures from the DfES, obtained by the Sunday Telegraph, show that state-run nursery schools across England had debts totalling £277,081 in 2004–05. Primaries were £34 million in the red while secondaries were responsible for the lion's share: £86 million.

Taking into account the debt being built up and Brown’s promise to curb public spending post 2008, Blair and Kelly certainly have a mammoth task ahead of them. Nobody expects perfection or instant change, but to say we’re ‘going in the right direction’ seems weak. Hand a few billion pounds to any sensible teenager and she’d probably implement policy that would take the system in the ‘right direction’. That’s not to say total spending should be lower, but consistent failure of budget increases to meet expected standards suggests that there are structural problems to be addressed. One can question the proposals Ruth Kelly has put on the table, but at the very least they're a recognition that cash isn't a cure-all.

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