WHERE WILL THE AXE FALL?
Education now in the frame
The phoney war, it seems, is now over. For the Prime Minister to pretend that there would be no cuts in spending for so long was immensely damaging to his credibility. The Government is now prepared to debate spending cuts, a debate that should have begun a year ago when the raw figures were available, and it was evident that the state of public finances was so bad .The gap of almost £200 billion or 14 per cent of national income between what the Government spends and the revenues it receives means that big cutbacks in public spending and increases in taxation are inevitable, whichever party is in power.
Cutting spending too early risked prolonging the recession but failing to address the fact that the structural deficit must be dealt with either by cutting spending, raising taxes or both was irresponsible. Even after the recession has finished and the economy starts to grow again, the deficit will still be there.
Ed Balls the Education Secretary, who was Gordon Browns right hand man at the Treasury, has just conceded in a clear U turn ,that education will not be exempt from cuts. He told the Sunday Times that he has been planning for austerity for months. The amount he is talking about, taking £2 billion off the level of schools spending by 2014, is, however, a drop in the ocean when set against the overall education budget. Natural wastage may account for some of this, but teachers fear a bloodbath. All Departments are now working on new plans in the run-up to the Pre-Budget Report (PBR), which the Chancellor delivers in the autumn.
Dr Vince Cable MP, one of the few politicians whose reputation has been enhanced in the wake of the credit crunch, in a recent paper identified four basic principles that should inform the approach to cuts. First, that there should be no ring-fencing, everything, and that includes health and education, should be on the table. Second, references to efficiencies should be avoided; they’re a side-show to the main story. Third, a clear process of priority setting is needed; the proverbial ‘salami-slicing’ won’t work. And fourth, some decisions are better made locally, closer to the end-user.
Cable has identified nine areas for attention. Four would affect the education service and include: cutting the national strategies, over-centralisation and quangos; “curbing” the skills system including scrapping RDAs and halving budgets for Train to Gain and SSCs; freezing public sector pay; and cutting public sector pensions. Along with other proposals on defence and health, could save £14bn a year.
Ed Balls in his interview with the Sunday Times said that 3,000 senior school staff, including heads and deputies as well as bureaucrats, could be axed as schools are merged into “federations” run by a single team.
The Institute of Directors and the TaxPayers’ Alliance claimed that they could actually save as much as £50bn; £42.5bn of annual savings from 2010/11 and £7.5bn of possible savings. Among the 32 actuals that could save £42.5bn are eleven that would affect the education service. Like Vince Cable, these include rationalising the skills system, RDAs and quangos and enforcing a one year pay freeze. Others would include: abolishing Sure Start, Building Schools for the Future and EMAs; abandoning plans to extend the compulsory participation age to 18; and reducing non-frontline staff, scaling down Local Authorities and halving the money spent on consultants. If the BSF is in the frame, how long before the Academies scheme is cut –new Academy schools cost on average £25m a piece?
Recent surveys suggest that voters would rather have public spending cut than taxes raised. But spending cuts and tax rises are hugely contentious issues and if cuts are made nobody will agree that cuts should fall on them. Politicians routinely repeat the mantra that there will be no cuts in front line services while omitting to define what a front line service is. Presumably teaching assistants, for example, might not be regarded as front line workers? Most public servants after all ,believe that they are working on the front line and not in the communication trenches. Education was always in my book perceived to be a front line service. No longer it would seem.