Friday, March 31, 2006

That tortoise was just too fast for me

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Bypassing Brown

Good news from the Budget debate: Gordon Brown does not have as much influence on British education as he likes to pretend.

The chancellor presents himself as the saviour of our schools: now providing billions to improve standards; now finding extra money for some desirable policy goal. Monday’s budget debate showed that the truth is rather different.

Take Brown’s headline figure of an extra £34bn for schools. As Sarah Teather pointed out, this was arrived at by adding up all the capital spending over the next five years, and much of this money has been announced already.

Or take the pledge to fund state school pupils at the same level as pupils in the private sector. This turns out to be merely an “aspiration”, and an aspiration to reach the current level of spending in the private sector at that. By Sarah’s calculation this will take 16 years, and by then private schools will be spending a lot more than they are now.

Incidentally, Tony Blair announced a similar aspiration during the 2001 election campaign. Then the gap between the state and private sectors was £2000 per pupil each year. Today it is £3000.

Achilles writes: I’m sorry, but that tortoise was just too fast for me.

If all that isn’t good news, the next bit is. Because it turns out that the micromanagement of schools Brown is so keen on is largely a myth.

He may announce £2000 for every school to buy books, as he did in the 1999 budget. Or he may promise £220 million next year for personalised learning, as he did this time. But there is no sign that the Treasury has any mechanism for ensuring that schools spend this money the way Brown wants them to.

Maybe he knows this, and his announcements are all spin. Or maybe he thinks every head in the country really is doing what he tells them, and none of his acolytes has the courage to tell him the truth. (In other words, Balls doesn’t have the balls.)

Whatever the explanation, this is welcome news. We Lib Dems believe in local control of schools, and it looks as though there is more of it about than we thought.

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