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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.