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HaldenbyAndrew Haldenby is Director of the independent think tank Reform.  Its new research “Must do better” is available at www.reform.co.uk.  Follow Reform on Twitter.

A couple of days ago, Michael Gove took a teaching union to task for its
opposition to reform.  In one respect, however, he and the NAHT are on the
same side, which may give him pause to reflect.  Both are fighting
hard to preserve the ring-fence around the schools budget in the spending
review due to be published on 26 June.  In fact, there are several reasons
why the schools ring-fence is a priority for removal.

The
most important is the simple question of what Ministers can actually do to
promote reform. Sir Ken Knight nailed it in his review of fire and rescue
services, published last Friday: “I was struck in my conversations that the
financial pressures of recent years seem to have been the driving force behind
many of the changes and innovation I have seen.”  At the risk of labouring
the point, Danny Alexander said it particularly well last month: “Of course
these are really difficult decisions …. But you can use the process to
drive some really good changes in the way the public sector works.”  One
of the great lessons of this Parliament is that the police, other areas of
criminal justice, defence and local government are innovating and rethinking
because of their cuts.  Schools and the NHS are years behind.

I
have no doubt that Michael Gove wants head teachers to think extremely hard
about how to focus their resources on improving the quality of teaching. 
In practice, that means reducing the priority of spending on teaching assistants
and smaller class sizes (except for the youngest children).  Removing the ring-fence is one of the best ways that he has to
achieve that.  It would accelerate his reform programme rather than hinder
it.

The
Department for Education has actually made this case itself.  In a document published in 2011, the Department told schools
that, “what matters isn’t the amount of money spent per pupil, but how that
money is spent. So we should all be focusing on improving value for money in
schools’ spending”.  That is 100 per cent right but it has zero force in
the context of a ring-fenced budget.


Then
there is the research evidence.  Reform has just
compared the funding of nearly all primary and secondary schools in England to
pupils’ achievement and schools’ quality of teaching.  It finds that there
is no link between higher funding and better results and no link between higher
funding and better teaching.  Some schools spend twice as much as others
but achieve no better results.  These results confirm and extend the
recent Deloitte survey, of secondary schools alone, which Fraser Nelson has discussed.  Other evidence shows
that teaching assistants and class sizes have little relationship with good
outcomes either.

We
can add the reality of the spending increases in recent years.  Spending
per pupil in English schools increased by almost 90 per cent in real terms
between 1999-00 and 2009-10.  In truth this is an incredible level of
increase which is likely never to be repeated and certainly not for decades to
come.  Ministers should expect to find savings in the schools budget given
increases on this scale (and the same applies to the NHS, which increased by
around 100 per cent in the same period).

Further,
there is the question of rising pupil numbers.  Per-pupil spending is
almost inevitably going to fall anyway given the bulge in pupil numbers in the
rest of this decade.  The number of primary and secondary school children
in England will rise from 7 million to 8 million between 2012 and 2020. 
Any education Minister would struggle to protect spending in the face of this.

Michael
Gove’s article yesterday saluted “the professionals who’ll do everything for
success”.  In truth his Department is far from doing “everything”. 
He is supporting a ring-fence which makes no sense in terms of his own budget
and which gravely undermines the Government’s wider efforts to improve public
services and reduce the deficit.  Come on, Mr Gove.  You have shown
that you are up for the fight.  This is another one well worth having.

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