The Conservative leader of Kent County Council, Paul Carter, is absolutely right to worry about the funding for his party’s free schools policy. The truth is that it there is a black hole at the heart of both this policy and the party’s commitment to a pupil premium. And every time he is asked to fill it, the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove manages to dodge the question.
John Humphrys once again generated plenty of heat, but little forensic light, when he quizzed Gove on the Today programme this morning. By focusing on the principle of free schools – which are different only in potential scale to Labour’s academies programme and parent-led schools already running – he allowed Gove to skirt the practicalities of how they will be afforded. And he didn't even ask Gove how he plans to pay for a pupil premium that the Liberal Democrats have, probably conservatively, costed at £2.5 billion a year in their own programme.
There are plenty of Tories in local government who question the principle of free schools, among them the Birmingham education chair. But Carter seems to recognise that free schools won’t be free to the taxpayer. Because they will require surplus places in other schools at a time of falling rolls, they will cost at least £1 billion a year in revenue costs over and above their capital costs. And Gove has already made clear that he will raid the Building Schools for the Future budget to pay capital costs (something the Swedish schools wisely do not provide). So, with the pupil premium, the real question for the Tories is this: where will the £3.5 billion come from?
And if you say, as Gove does this morning, that it will come from waste in the DCSF budget, which programmes will be cut to cover that sum? Gove claimed on Today that 'only £32m' of the £62m resource budget for DCSF went to schools, implying the rest was used wastefully. Well a look at Annex A in the DCSF Departmental Report.
It is true this includes money for programmes like the National Challenge or for teacher recruitment and training, but much of this programme money is used directly in schools. Again they should be told which ones are to go. An additional £1.7 billon goes to early years and childcare, which Gove erroneously included in the schools budget. £11 billion goes on teachers' pensions, which may be a target for cuts, but shouldn't teachers be told? Nearly £6 billion is spent on education maintenance allowances and other youth services. Again, a probable target but shouldn't we be told? And £1.5 billion goes on safeguarding, careers advice and parenting programmes described as 'support for children and families'. Perhaps this is to be cut, but shouldn't we be told? It is time for Gove to spell out where his axe is most likely to fall.