With all eyes on the NHS, we have forgotten to look after our flailing education system, says Jack May
Luckily for the British people, Theresa May has decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, turning her back entirely on the manifesto pledges and policy promises that (almost) got her elected in the 2017 general election.
From her position as a Conservative – allegedly, therefore, interested in not raising taxes and not enlarging the state – she has done a roundabout turn and decided that, actually, the National Health Service, gasping for air after being starved of funds at levels not seen for two generations, might be kind of a good idea. It might even be worth putting a little bit of money into it.
With the red cloth of the phrase ‘Brexit dividend’ attempting to act as a diversion for the moronic right, she announced plans to pump an extra £20bn a year into the health service’s coffers, a real terms annual increase of 3.4 per cent, until around 2024.
On the one hand, this is wonderful news. Having spent eight years as part of a government under which average yearly increases in health spending dribbled in at below two per cent versus the average since 1950 of nearly four per cent, it is good to see an uptick of sorts; an awareness that you cannot do health on the cheap.
On the other hand, the 3.4 per cent increase is still below the increases seen under the governments of Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major, and even Margaret Thatcher – it barely covers NHS England’s expected shortfall in the coming year, which by the most optimistic assessments is around £8bn, and by more realistic bets is closer to £30bn. As NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens has made clear – rises of four per cent and above are still the minimum required.
Just as worryingly, the clamour over the NHS, the unlikely existence of the ‘Brexit dividend’, and the funding crises to come, have focussed public attention to a single point – at the expense of the myriad other challenges we face.
Among the most pressing of these is education – not least because of mismanagement of existing funds as well as the lack of funds in the first place.
While the numbers of students in primary and secondary education have risen since 2010, education funding – both in real terms and as a share of national income – has been in freefall.
Funding in real terms has fallen by 14 per cent since 2010-11 (up to 2015-16), and education funding as a share of national income has dipped to close to four per cent from a Brown-era high of nearly six per cent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
By 2020, real-terms funding per pupil in Britain’s schools will be around 6.5 per cent lower than in 2015, the biggest cut in real terms funding per pupil in 30 years.
In any context, this backdrop would be cause for alarm – it goes without saying that the provision of good quality education for all, regardless of background, is as vital, if not more vital, than good-quality healthcare for all – but considered alongside the implications of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s rapid academisation of the school system, only just becoming clear, it is a bleak picture.
As Laura McInerny set out in in the Guardian last month, the Michael Gove-era academy system is crumbling. Academy Trusts are collapsing, leaving their multiple schools in the lurch. Many leave behind paper trails detailing sickening, astonishing violations of basic decency: £1.3m paid to a company owned by a school governor for ‘executive services’; £1m drained from the reserves of 21 schools; £1m of overspending racked up in a single financial year; so-called ‘chief executives’ (it is a school, not a FTSE100 board, for goodness’ sake) paid £80,000 for four weeks’ work – equivalent to over quarter of a million per annum; almost half a million paid to his own private companies for supposed services; a free school handed back to the government with over half a million in debt and pension deficits.
It is not even – as if it would forgive all financial sins – as if these trusts, these bold pioneering entrepreneurial academy leviathans achieve spectacular results, guaranteeing transformational, high-achieving schools.
A report by the Education Policy Institute shows that academy trusts are ‘disproportionately represented’ among the worst-performing primary school groups, while over half of the worst-performing groups at Key Stage 4 are academy trusts.
While the report stops short of openly recommending schools are passed back en masse to local authorities – the EPI’s executive chairman is David Laws, the Liberal Democrat minister who was one of the greatest architects of Britain’s academy fetish – it offers a stark warning as to the dangers of academy trusts left to run riot with children’s education.
In sum, the NHS is in a bad state, heading full-speed towards an even worse state, and it looks like the government has finally decided to reach for the Elastoplasts, even while still dithering over any meaningful treatment.
It is almost as if slashing the money you put into public services – that ritualistic ‘all in this together’ self-sacrifice that still has not managed to kill off our debt or even give us a general budget surplus – results in slashing the results you get out the other end.
Let us hope May has time to schedule another Damascene conversion in among her busy schedule of losing elections, capitulating to trade-war-starting, human-rights-defying presidents and being humiliated in parliamentary votes.
Jack May is a Progress columnist
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.