John Dunford’s election blog – 28 April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

So Britain’s ‘leading economics think tank’, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has accused all three of the main political parties of failing to come clean over the extent of public sector cuts after the election. As I have done on behalf of ASCL in relation to education funding, Robert Chote of the IFS has called on the three parties to clarify what cuts will be made across the board.

So the days of plenty for schools are nearly over. And, in comparison to the past and (so it appears) the future, the last 10 years or so have indeed been a time of plenty. I reflected on this as I visited a school this morning – St Catherine’s RC School for Girls in Bexley – and compared the facilities there now with those that were commonplace at the end of the 20th century. It wasn’t so much the buildings and grounds – greatly enhanced by the complete absence of litter – but the equipment throughout the school that struck me as so different. Whiteboards, ceiling mounted projectors, sports equipment, computers – and specialist music equipment that, as an ex-record producer member of staff said to me, would only have been seen in commercial studios a decade ago.

What can we expect in the future? Cuts in capital budgets have already been factored in, although over half of these are labelled ‘efficiency savings’. Does this mean that Building Schools for the Future (BSF) will be safe, with only reduced costs of administration of the projects? And will it be the BSF budget that is raided if the Conservatives win and are looking for funds to build their small parent-run schools?

Labour has told us that they will protect school budgets, but this is dependent on ‘efficiency savings’ which many school leaders regard as a euphemism for ‘cuts’.

The Liberal Democrats have promised to introduce a pupil premium, which ASCL strongly welcomes, to support the education of disadvantaged children, and they have identified the funding that will be transferred from non-school budgets for this. However, the need to identify many billions more of savings, as the IFS suggests, may curb LibDem ambitions here.

The pupil premium is also supported by the Conservatives, although they have not said where the money is coming from, and a version of the same policy is implicit in Labour’s plans to introduce fairer, better targeted funding for disadvantage.

Much as ASCL would like to see a national funding entitlement with a premium for disadvantage – and we have argued for it for many years – it will be very difficult to introduce at a time of declining national funding. Tomorrow’s leaders’ debate, which is on the economy, must clarify all this. School and college leaders are optimists by nature and so we should also note that, at the same time as we are absorbing the gloom of the IFS report, we learn of the greatly increased value of the 41 per cent public owned Lloyds Banking Group. This suggests that, if the government holds its nerve and sells Lloyds back to the private sector at the right moment, the problem gap in the public finances will be reduced by many billions. We must fervently hope so.

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