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28 November 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:27pm

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.

By Jonn Elledge

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.

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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.

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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.