Dead Men Left

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Education (we don't get no)

Johann Hari's recent article on New Labour's closet socialism irked me a great deal. His claim that, "All the evidence suggests that there has been a significant redistribution of wealth under Blair" simply flies in the face of thorough, well-respected - and, frankly, widely-available - research that says precisely the opposite. Income inequality has not improved under Blair; wealth has become significantly more inequitably distributed; and relative poverty has worsened. Hari has now somewhat corrected his earlier claim, but has left untouched his major contention: that opportunities in education are now more justly distributed because of New Labour.

I'll leave higher education and tuition fees aside for the moment, since they are not the Hari's focus. Instead, he states that a massive programme of redistributive funding for schools has taken place under Labour, based on a study by John Atkins for the National Union of Teachers.

The most recent figures we have suggest that 10,000 pupils are "missing" from the education system. Mainly in years 10 and 11, these pupils "disappear" just as they are entering a period of decisive examinations, the GCSEs. Those most likely to disappear are those likely to do less well in their exams: bad for their future opportunities, but very convenient for schools looking to improve league tables.

These aren't necessarily exclusions, either, which have in any case started to increase, following some success in reducing numbers expelled. (The Insitute of Public Policy Research estimates there has been a 14% rise in permanent exclusions since 2000.) These "missing" students might be simply those caught between schools in the mess of the system, quietly non-attending, or persistent truants, the government having abandoned its original target to cut truancy rates.

Prof Tim Brighouse, of the Institute for Education, put it like this:

Competition between schools desperate to improve their league table positions has left thousands of children on the streets, a situation branded "Dickensian" by a senior government advisor yesterday.

The current system of allocating places is "inimical to fairness", said Professor Tim Brighouse, commissioner for London schools, as many secondaries are left with an unfair share of troubled and under-performing students - the sort of pupils that more successful schools are often reluctant to admit. Speaking at the start of the annual North of England education conference, held in Belfast, he said that schools should be allocated thousands of pounds in additional cash to help them cope with pupils who struggle with the basics.

Paul Cooper, of the University of Leicester's education department, compiled a report for Barnados as far back as 2001, "We Can Work It Out", showing a six-fold increase in the rate of exclusions following the introduction of the national curriculum and league tables in the previous decade. This wasn't due to a sudden outbreak of unruliness; this was precisely the result of the perverse incentives "competition" provides for schools. Those most adversely affected are, of course, those who need the most attention: those with "social, emotional and behavioural difficulties". The problem has been known about for years; yet, as we have seen, the government has done nothing to address it - quite the opposite: league tables, gimcrack nonsense like "foundation colleges", and "competition" more generally has all been positively encouraged.

This is the heart of the problem. The expectation of all these reforms is that they will allow more to be squeezed from a reduced investment. The Institute of Fiscal Studies journal, the imaginatively-named Fiscal Studies, published an article on British public investment in September 2002. Over the last thirty years, public investment expenditure has sharply declined as a share of national output, from 8.9% of GDP in 1975 to 1.7% now.

Education investment expenditure has declined from 0.7% of GDP in 1973, to 0.2% now. Most of this slump took place between 1973 and 1982, with Thatcher, Major and now Blair governments maintaining a consistently low public investment spend on education. What should unsettle particularly is this: the school-age population of Britain started declining after 1977, with the slide in investment following the slide in pupil numbers. It began climbing again in the early 1990s: yet investment continued at the same low level. In other words, investment per pupil has declined sharply: by 1999, the number of enrolled pupils had reached its 1970 level - 10.2 million. In 1970, the investment considered necessary to support these school students was 0.57%; by 1999, it was 0.19%.

Whatever small, very recent improvements there have been in funding, they will do very little to address that shortfall; moreover, they come attached to still further attempts to "reform" the education system along market lines. They do not work because it is impossible to run a public education system on the cheap.