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.
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.