This story, as with so many of Gove's travails, involves school buildings. Photo: Getty
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Michael Gove's mistake: Why you can't take politics out of public spending

All such decisions are inherently political. Politicians can come up with a formula based on an objective set of numbers – but which numbers they choose, and what they do with them, will always be a matter of judgement.

Last week, in a move that threatened to shake the very foundations of our world, Michael Gove admitted he'd made a mistake.

Okay, “admitted” isn’t quite the right word: the written ministerial statement, released at lunchtime on a Friday (when every self-respecting education hack is looking for a story), managed to blame both Labour and local authorities for the cock up. Nonetheless, the substance of the matter remains that the Department for Education (DfE) had promised something, found it couldn’t deliver, and now everything is going to cost more and arrive late. The affair tells us much about the difficulty of de-politicising the systems through which central government doles out cash.

The story, as with so many of Gove's travails, involves school buildings. One of the Tory party's main criticisms of Labour's mammoth construction programme was that it was wasteful – that its largesse was focused not on the schools with the most dilapidated buildings, but on the councils that shouted loudest about deprivation. The coalition’s smaller replacement programmes would put an end to this, by distributing cash solely on the basis of physical need; maintenance funding was meant to be handed out in the same way.

This is easier said than done, though, because no comprehensive survey of England’s schools existed (Labour scrapped the requirement on councils to conduct one back in 2005) – so since 2011, the government’s been conducting one. Most of the work’s been done by a trio of construction consultancies; to save money, though, where councils had continued to collect their own data, the government intended to use that. The whole thing was meant to be done by last July.

It wasn't. In his statement on Friday, Gove admitted that the council data had turned out to be both “inconsistent” and “inaccurate”. As a result, those consultancies were going to have to survey another 8,000 schools, and the whole thing won’t be done until next summer. Gove didn't tell us how much this would cost, but those firms aren't going to work for free; the first 11,000 surveys reportedly cost around £30m.

So, this is a cock up. But it is, on one level, the good sort of cock up: the kind you want your government to be making. It tried to use a shortcut, found it couldn't, and quietly backed down. Yes, it'll cost, but it would have cost anyway. At least they were trying to save money. No harm done.

On another level, though – nobody saw this coming? Are you kidding me? Of course the data is inconsistent, what kind of miracle would it take for 90 councils to produce comparable data, with no guidance whatsoever? And as for “accurate”, one of the things that triggered this whole exercise was a suspicion that councils were gaming the system, crying poverty to get themselves bumped up the waiting list. Did it really not occur to anyone that council surveys might be slightly on the biased side?

This isn't going to have much of an impact on the current school building programme: the DfE has already decided which schools were most deserving of its largesse, without the benefit of this grand survey (this, one might think, raises questions in itself). But it does mean another year of handing out maintenance funding based on pupil numbers, rather than actual need.

More than that, though, the affair highlights the difficulty of coming up with an “objective” basis for making public spending decisions. These surveys, construction consultants tell me, are always mildly subjective: a slight difference in judgement can, scaled up to an entire school, mean a big differences in cost.

What’s more, when it comes to school buildings, the whole notion of “need” is as much art as science. Research on the effect a building has on how much learning happens inside it has been limited and contradictory. If one school does well with a poor building, while another does badly with a better one, which is more deserving of scarce public funds? What if one school, in relatively good nick, could be improved with a small investment, while another, worse one would cost vastly more to patch up? Which should be prioritised? There’s no “correct” answer to these questions: all such decisions are inherently political.

This is a pattern you see time and again in government financial decisions, on everything from NHS spending to council funding to who should pay the most tax. Politicians can come up with a formula based on an objective set of numbers – but which numbers they choose, and what they do with them, will always be a matter of judgement.

In the scheme of things the cost of this latest mess is small, and it’s better to have this database then not to have it. But the notion that any system for allocating scarce schools capital funding could ever be “correct” was always a pipe dream. You can’t replace politics with science.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.