The challenges facing Clegg's "fairness premium"

Will the premium just be used to offset cuts elsewhere?

After the pain of the Browne Report and before the pain of the Spending Review, the announcement of Nick Clegg's "fairness premium" is a rare opportunity for the coalition to sweeten the pill.

The premium, worth £7bn over the whole of this parliament, has three main elements: a £5bn "pupil premium" offering schools additional funds - believed to be around £2,000 per pupil - to help the poorest children, 15 hours a week of pre-school education for all disadvantaged two-year-olds and a "student premium" likely to be spent on increased maintenance grants.

The policy, which was part of the Lib Dems' original "shopping list" of demands, will cheer the grassroots and, appearing on the Today programme this morning, Clegg did a good job of selling it.

To the middle classes, alarmed by the prospect of child benefit cuts and higher tuition fees, he replied, in the manner of the authors of The Spirit Level: "targeting measures on those who are particularly disadvantaged, doesn't just help them, it helps everybody." He added: "If you deal with children who might get into trouble ... you save a lot of heartache, social disruption and money."

But will the premium live up to Clegg's undoubtedly good intentions? First there's the risk that the premium will simply be used to offset cuts elsewhere in the education budget. As a recent IFS report on the subject pointed out: "The gains in terms of extra funding for disadvantaged schools need to be set against the impact of the measures required to pay for them."

Elsewhere, research by the OECD suggests that there is only a weak relationship between spending per pupil and educational performance across countries. The degree of pre-school inequality in Britain means that narrowing the gap is a Sisyphean task for most. And with the tax and benefit changes set to hit the poorest hardest, schools will be forced to run to stand still. In increasingly unfair times, the effect of the "fairness premium" may be muted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.