After being told there’s no ‘magic money tree’, suddenly there’s lots of money around. After years of cutbacks, and even before the Chancellor announced his ‘Spending Review’, Boris Johnson has promised billions for education. While Labour politicians and the authoritative Institute of Fiscal Studies have been quick to point out Johnson’s £14 billion over three years will just about bring spending levels back to where they were in 2010 – the National Education Union calculates and colleges need £12.6bn more each year by 2022/23, this would still represent a significant change in direction by the Tories, who now claim ‘austerity’ has ended. But unless they raise taxes or scrap limits on public borrowing, reducing debt and deficits – in other words dumping Neo-liberal economics (!) – the Johnson government would have to achieve levels of economic growth that most economists, including some of their own sympathisers, consider unlikely post-Brexit (deal or no deal).
From the post-war years onward all governments have depended on economic growth and as a result, additional taxation revenue to increase education spending. Although, as the chart below shows, at certain times (particularly in the 1950s and 60s and more recently under New Labour, when ‘education, education, education’ was considered the catalyst for social and economic prosperity) governments have increased the proportion of funding going to education, at the expense of other priorities, the Tories are unlikely to move in this direction.
But New Labour also continued to rely on a growing economy to fund its program however and there remain unanswered questions about whether a future Corbyn government, committed to creating a National Education Service, but inheriting a dilapidated economy, facing a likely global economic downturn, yet with their own self-imposed ‘fiscal credibility’ requirements to ‘balance the books’, will be able to finance this in the traditional way. The posts below examine issues in more detail.
Finally, in recent years, changes in the organisation and content of education have led to massive controversies. Can disputes about funding levels. be separated from arguments about what sort of education should be provided? Won’t much of Johnson’s additional funding, despite promises to reduce inequities, be diverted to existing Tory priorities like increasing the number of free schools? Many on the Left tend to prioritise struggles against cuts at the expense of more general campaigns about learning and the curriculum. Yet however well-funded, Blair’s education policy changes faced huge hostility across the service, some being as unpopular as the Tory policies of the 1980s and 1990s that came on the back of cutbacks in spending.
This leads us to Javid’s additional £400 million being allocated for further education ‘to teach our young people the skills they need for well-paid jobs in the modern economy’. This appears to have been welcomed across political parties, without being subject to any serious analysis. A slice of this will, for example, be used to fund the introduction of new T-levels, for a minority of students in a minority of institutions. An initiative that many consider doomed before it even reaches the starting line and one that will do little to really help the prospects of young people.