With a general election looming, education is being argued over increasingly in terms of the how much public expenditure it should attract. A bidding war has developed amongst the political parties.
This is made clear by the manifestos. The Conservatives promise “the amount of money following your child into school will be protected.” Labour undertakes to “protect the entire education budget”. Not to be outdone, the Lib-Dems commit to “protect the education budget from nursery to 19”. The Green utopia will go even further by restoring “education current and capital spending to 2010 levels in real terms” with “class sizes of 20” an added bonus. For good measure, the nationalist parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are lined up behind similar spending strategies. Only UKIP seems slightly more circumspect, with a spending commitments limited to scrapping tuition fees for “UK students taking approved degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine … on condition that they work in their discipline and pay UK tax for at least 5 years, after they complete their degrees.”
On the whole, though, most politicians are wedded to the belief that the more we spend on education the better educated our children will be. The clarion call from the Left is to end austerity. An expansion of spending on education will be one of the great ‘benefits’ of loosening the purse strings, albeit at the cost of further increasing the national debt.
If increasing expenditure ‘the UK way’ – aka the ‘progressive way’ – really did improve educational attainment, increased debt might be a price worth paying. Sadly, expensive and sloppy ‘child-centred’ methods of teaching and learning have bedevilled our schools, promoted failure and betrayed more than one generation of British children. Robert Peal demonstrates this in his excellent book, Progressively Worse – The burden of bad ideas in British schools (Civitas 2014). He points out that, since 1953, UK spending on education has increased by 900 per cent (sic) in real terms. However, according to the OECD, UK levels of literacy and numeracy have hardly changed. If anything, they have declined. This is unique amongst developed nations. Today, in 2015, we live in a country in which grandparents have a higher educational standard in the 3-Rs than their grandchildren.
If ever a group of political leaders had its head in the sand, it is the present assembly of politicians who preside over and formulate education policies for their prospective parties. In educational matters the great sin of politicians is not to spend too little money but to misspend a lot of money. Why do many poorer and less developed countries around the world spend so much less per head on education than the UK but achieve so much more value for money? According to the OECD, for example, a comparatively poor country, Slovakia, spends only half as much per head on education as the UK but its children achieve the same level of attainment.
It would be ‘dreamland’, indeed, for a political party here to state an intention to cut education spending by 50 per cent but maintain the current level of attainment. “Dreamland’, too, to suggest we could make even bigger cuts and, yet, improve our standards. However, Vietnam, ahead of the UK in the PISA international league tables of educational performance, is showing that a lot can be achieved by a country much poorer than ours.
Over the past 50 years, more and more spending on education has not improved standards. Money has not worked. The solution to educational failure lies elsewhere. Repeating the mistakes of the past and expecting a different result is folly! Our politicians need to wake up!