Education in the age of austerity

The three main parties have begun to unveil their manifesto promises ahead of the general election in May and education has been centre stage. Last week the Prime Minister promised to protect the schools budget though, it turned out, only in cash terms. This means that, under a Conservative government, the budget will go up as pupil numbers increase, but per-pupil funding will, in real terms, fall as inflation and other demands on the schools budget increase. The Liberal Democrats were more generous (in the circumstances they can, perhaps, afford to be), undertaking to ‘guarantee education funding from nursery to 19’ and pledging to protect the schools budget in real terms. Nick Clegg promised to fight ‘tooth and nail’ for these commitments in any coalition negotiations. Then, yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to protect the Department for Education budget, also in real terms, maintaining investment in schools, sixth-forms and further education colleges (for 16 to 19 year olds) and protecting early-years provision, if Labour wins the general election.

The schools budget has, up until now, enjoyed real-terms protection, in line with undertakings made by Chancellor George Osborne in 2010. The loss of the ring-fence would leave schools in the unprotected territory so familiar to further education colleges, many of which have struggled to remain viable in the face of eye-watering cuts. Even if it is maintained in real terms, and increases in line with projected increases in pupil numbers, rising pension and National Insurance costs will take funds away from teaching and learning. Funding for 16 to 18 year olds in England has already been heavily cut, from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 years olds from last September (while schools funding has been protected, the overall DfE budget fell by 7.5 per cent between 2010–11 and 2014–15). Stability in funding for this age group is expected this year but there could be more pressure on this budget and it will be interesting to see if Conservative plans for cash-terms protection for schools extend to 16–19s.

Funding stability for schools is to be welcomed. But in the prevailing policy climate there is bound to be a cost. Ring-fencing areas of public spending has a huge effect on the areas outside the ring-fence, as further education has discovered over the past five years. The overall Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) budget was reduced by a quarter between 2010–11 and 2014–15, with a further six per cent cut imposed this year. Ewart Keep has estimated that, on current projections, the overall reduction in the BIS budget between 2010 and 2018 will be 42.5 per cent. The bulk of the cuts so far have fallen in adult further education. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, which means an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Professor Keep suggests that ‘cumulative cuts of 60 per cent or more in funding for adult skills do not seem an unrealistic expectation’. The continued privileging of certain parts of the education budget could mean even bigger cuts in a sector with which few politicians or civil servants are even remotely familiar (as the current skills minister admitted shortly after his appointment). This poor level of recognition combines with further education’s unprotected status to make the sector a relatively easy target for cuts.

Further massive reductions in spending on post-19 further education and skills are all but certain. Perhaps that is why adults did not feature noticeably in the education announcements of any of the major parties. Few would disagree with Ed Miliband’s statement that the emergence of a new, stronger and more resilient economy depends on investment in ‘the talents and education of all our young people’. But it surely does not depend only on the education of young people. The fact that 70 per cent of the 2020 workforce is already in employment – while half of the current workforce is not qualified beyond Level 2 – demonstrates just how important adult education is in meeting the needs of an economy in which higher-level skills are becoming increasingly important. Of course, it is right to put the needs of children and young people first. Getting things right at school pays dividends in every area of national life and is, without doubt, the smartest investment any government can make (provided it gets it right). But, for various reasons, some more entrenched than others, it does not work for everybody – far from it – and we simply cannot afford to write off those who do not succeed first time around. Of course, we should maintain schools investment, but we need to invest strongly and intelligently in the skills and education of adults as well.

Unhappily, it seems, increasingly, that we unable or unwilling to do both. Whichever party holds the balance of power come May, austerity will continue, with spending reductions biting ever deeper into an already beleaguered sector. All the main parties support ‘cutting the deficit’ and ‘balancing the books’ – they differ only as to timescale. There is little challenge to this consensus, notwithstanding the devastation austerity politics is causing in parts of the public sector. Since 2012 the pace of deficit reduction has slowed and the government has allowed its targets to recede somewhat. The economy has begun to grow and employment is rising (though tax receipts have not followed suit – a reflection on the sort of low-pay, low-status jobs the economy is creating). But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned in the wake of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the pace of austerity will soon again quicken, with ‘colossal’ cuts to come in the next parliament. Although £35 billion of cuts have been made thus far, £55 billion more are still to come. The Treasury has scheduled an average 17 per cent real-terms reduction in spending across government departments between 2015 and 2019 – and with schools and health protected that will mean much bigger cuts in other areas. As the Office for Budget Responsibility noted, public spending as a percentage of GDP will fall to 35.2 per cent by 2019–20, its lowest level since the 1930s, with a further one million public sector jobs set to go as a result. Those who remain in public sector employment will face continuing pay restraint at least until Treasury books are balanced.

Difficult choices are inevitable, particularly for colleges which will have to make yet more stark choices as to which areas of provision they retain and which they let go (with obvious implications for their own sense of mission which seems likely to further narrow). BIS will have to cut funding steams it has previously fought to protect (the modest but important community learning budget so far protected in cash terms will come under even greater pressure). But there will also be increased pressure on schools to achieve more with less (political expectations rarely diminish in line with resources), while pay restraint and the pressures of accountability (reflected in teacher responses to the DfE’s workload challenge) will continue to press heavily on teacher morale. There is, however, something to welcome in the recognition that falling levels of investment in education won’t deliver economic success, and in some of the more specific commitments made by the main parties, particularly, for me, Ed Miliband’s espousal of a broad and balanced curriculum offering creativity and an equal focus on academic and vocational skills (though the challenges here are enormous – and the opposition to meaningful reform likely to be intense, as Mike Tomlinson discovered when he recommended replacing A-levels with an overarching diploma for both academic and vocational subjects). However, as Nick Clegg will no doubt confirm, manifesto pledges are not written in stone – however hard we promise to fight for them – and delivery will depend, in part, on whether the election delivers a majority, a coalition or a minority government. The unpredictability of contemporary politics makes it less likely than ever that you will get what you vote for. And the seeming inevitability of further deep and damaging cuts means it is also less likely than ever that you will really know what you are voting for. As long as the narrative of austerity – that reducing the deficit must be our number one priority (rather than a means to a more ideological goal) – prevails, we can expect more of the same, and worse, with a continuing reduction in state-funded adult learning. In an important sense, the big decisions are already made. We just await the detail. The march of austerity continues to strip our public discourse of its important civic and moral dimensions, narrowing not only the options for public policy but the space in which alternative ideas can be debated and developed. What remains is not pretty.

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