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15 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 12:08pm

The row over school spending shows the age of austerity isn’t over

It seems that Rishi Sunak’s instinct is always to cut, cut, cut – even when it’s children who will suffer.

By Jonn Elledge

You can’t put a price on the future of our children, people say – but the Treasury, as ever, thinks it knows better.

In February, the government appointed Kevan Collins as its “Covid catch-up tsar”, tasked with coming up with a plan to undo the damage the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have done to the nation’s schools system.

Collins has spent his career, variously, as teacher, head and the chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation. He was well qualified for the job, and knows whereof he speaks. So when he proposed a £15bn “landmark investment” in teachers, tutoring and a longer school day – 100 hours extra teaching per pupil – we can probably assume he hasn’t just plucked his numbers out of the air. 

I am not sure we can make the same assumption about the Treasury’s counter proposals: an extra £1.4bn over three years, bringing the total extra money ring fenced for education to £3.1bn. That is, you will notice, quite a lot less than the government’s own appointed expert thinks the system needs.

[See also: Chart of the Day: How England’s school catch-up funding falls £13.6bn short]

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It is also vastly less than other countries are providing. In the US, according to the Education Policy Institute, the catch-up funding on offer is worth £1,600 per child. In the Netherlands it’s £2,500. In the UK, Collins said, the money on offer from the government works out to £22. That is not a typo. To unpick the damage caused by over a year of massively reduced school contact time, Rishi Sunak’s Treasury is willing to offer a per-child sum that’d barely pay for a takeaway. It’s a bad joke.

Collins clearly thinks so: he resigned when the catch-up fund was announced, with the kind of statement that the government’s opponents will be gleefully quoting for months. “A half-hearted approach risks failing hundreds of thousands of pupils,” he wrote. “The support announced by government so far does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge… It is too narrow, too small and will be delivered too slowly.”

At PMQs last week, Keir Starmer said the Prime Minister had “rolled over” by accepting the lower figures, but I’m not so sure: the phrase seems to imply that Johnson disagreed with the Treasury, and come on, does that sound plausible to you? More likely, he just doesn’t care.

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The more interesting question is why the Treasury is taking this line. Twelve billion quid, after all, is a lot of money to have in your ISA, but not much more than 1 per cent of the cash the UK government spends in a year. It’s a rounding error on the national debt. And this is a one-off investment, required because of very particular circumstances, which should, in the long term, pay dividends.

Why, given all that, would the government risk the economic damage of leaving an entire cohort under-educated? Why, come to that, would it risk the political damage of telling the nation it doesn’t care about kids?

[See also: Conservative MP Robert Halfon: “The government can’t say there’s no money for education”

One possibility is that this is the usual, self-satisfied we-know-better-ism for which the Treasury is known and loved all over Whitehall. Perhaps it simply doesn’t buy the notion that the extra spending would have the impact – in terms of educational attainment, or in terms of all the good things good schooling should bring down the road – that Collins thinks.

He is, after all, an ex-head, and heads are always asking for more money. Perhaps the Treasury is right, and all those other countries, with their quaint idea that spending money on schools is good, are wrong. Perhaps tomorrow you will awaken a billionaire. Perhaps the moon is made of cheese.

But perhaps it’s not the institution of the Treasury that’s the main source of this blockage: perhaps it’s the man who heads it. Sunak – young, pleasant looking, untainted by scandals or crises past – shot to public renown when he became Chancellor last year and, his hand forced by the pandemic, promptly started chucking money all over the place. He’s been rewarded by becoming the most popular Conservative politician in Britain, touted as a future leader and a serious candidate to be Britain’s first non-white prime minister.

The odd thing is, though, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the policy that made Sunak popular is the one that most conflicts with his instincts. His Budget in March included £4bn of hidden cuts, leading the Institute for Fiscal Studies to describe it as a “second, sharp dose of austerity”. He’s repeatedly tried to end government financial support schemes before it had become practical for most people to return to work, and his dithering has contributed directly to job losses. What’s more, between his enthusiastic support for the Eat Out To Help Scheme, and refusal to fund proper sick pay, his actions almost certainly helped the virus spread.

Everything we know about Sunak suggests that his instincts are to cut, cut, cut – even, it turns out, when it’s nation’s children who will suffer from it.

There aren’t many things to look forward to these days. But the moment when Sunak realises it was never him the public liked, it was free money, must definitely count as one of them.

[See also: Gavin Willamson’s attack on Oxford students shows his warped priorities]