Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Chancellor giveth what the Chancellor hath taketh away

Surely the most brazen aspect of today's rather disjointed display by the Chancellor was his announcement on school capital funding (trailed like much else in the weekend press). To recap, shortly after coming to office, Michael Gove earned his spurs with the Treasury by abruptly cancelling over 700 school building projects, loudly proclaiming his ability to achieve 'better value for money', and denouncing Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme as a 'costly failure'. He later lost a court case over a failure to consult properly.

Since then, some capital allocations were made to ensure the sponsored academies programme (the difficult bit that involves rather more than a £15-25k legal bill) was able to continue and to provide some funds to the free schools programme. There has also been some cash to help local authorities to deal with an unexpected surge in demand for school places, in part caused by a decline in private school take-up among the middle classes. Today, George Osborne gave back another £1.2 bn to be split evenly between free schools and school places.

But, the government hasn't just cancelled most new building in schools, at significant cost not just to the fabric of schools, but also to the construction sector. It has also decimated schools' ability to keep their buildings in good repair, by virtually eliminating their annual school capital grant that David Blunkett introduced, known as formula capital. There is, of course, a strong economic argument for pegging teachers' pay and reining in current spending in schools, as much as everywhere else: and with the IFS forecasting that 55% of primaries and 70% of secondaries will be losers, despite the pupil premium, that is happening.

However, there is far less justification, as Osborne now seems to allow, for the huge curb on schools capital investment. Moreover, the focus on free schools capital is particularly odd, since a much-touted attraction of free schools was, apparently, their ability to provide a presumably superior education at the same cost as the school down the road. Now, it seems that they will cost an average - and many of these will be primaries - of £6m each.

I've no problem with free schools having such capital funding, where they are meeting demonstrable need, or are genuinely helping tackle poverty. And I welcome the new specialist maths colleges (even if this is from a Government that axed support for specialist school networks). But, let's be clear: a lot of this money is at the expense of rebuilding other schools in deprived areas. And the list of free schools to date suggests that the genuine parent-promoted or teacher-led schools are being supplemented to boost the numbers by a combination of minor independent and faith schools joining the state system, Middle School/two-tier refuseniks and local authority schools under another guise. The idea that those latter groups deserve preferential capital treatment over other schools and academies is less than convincing.

It is eight months since the DFE published the not hugely inspiring James review of schools capital. When I tried to open it from the DFE website, I was informed that the 'file is damaged and could not be repaired'. Fittingly, since there is still no coherent programme for infrastructural investment (and that includes technology) yet. Instead of another Gordon Brown-style rabbit-out-of-hat exercise, the Chancellor should have given schools a clear idea of the coalition's investment plans for the duration of the parliament. Had he done so, he might have raised at least half a cheer from those upon whom he has just imposed 15-20% real terms pay cuts (including extra pension contributions) - and from the construction sector as well.

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