Attack lines for political opponents of the UK government have all but written themselves in the last couple of weeks, with phrases like ‘the roof falling in’ and ‘the crumbling public realm’ shifting from the metaphorical to the literal. The immediate issue dominating the headlines has been the safety of school buildings at risk from crumbly concrete. More than 100 schools were forced to fully or partially close just as children were beginning the new academic year. Interest in Raac will inevitably fade (indeed, it already has, to judge by the front pages of the last few days) and the political storm will subside. But the uncomfortable underlying issue will remain: what sacrifices are we prepared to make to fund the huge investment required to create and maintain a genuinely world-class education system for our children and young people?
The highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies said last week that spending on school buildings is “low in historical terms and low compared with levels of need. This is the view of both the independent National Audit Office and the Department for Education itself. The current crisis illustrates just how costly failing to keep on top of necessary investment in buildings and infrastructure can be.”
Gareth Davies, head of the aforementioned National Audit Office (NAO), wrote in a headline-grabbing article in the Times that a recent NAO report concluded that, following years of underinvestment, about 700,000 pupils are learning in schools that the responsible body or Department for Education (DfE) believes needs major rebuilding or refurbishment:
The underlying challenge is that adequately funding responsible capital programmes for our public services leaves less for higher profile projects. Failure to bite this bullet leads to poor value, with more money required for emergency measures or a sticking-plaster approach.Gareth Davies, quoted from the Times, posted online 5 September 2023
The snag for politicians is that they aren’t many good headlines in thinking long term and taking care of the things that Davies calls “unflashy but essential” – maintenance of public buildings, replacement of obsolete technology and so on. Moreover, whenever cuts in government spending are deemed necessary, it is the capital budgets that are routinely raided in order to ‘protect frontline services’ – ie minimise the immediate, direct, tangible impact on voters. And that is before we even start to calculate the cost of truly game-changing investment capable of transforming educational provision so that it is genuinely world-beating.
It is a cliché to say that to govern is to choose. But all clichés contain at least an element of truth. Politics and economics are indeed about choices. Scarcity is a key concept in economics: the gap between limited resources and theoretically unlimited wants. On the one hand, a politician who pops up on TV and says that they would love to fund x, y and z but that it simply isn’t affordable is not necessarily lying. On the other hand, what they are neglecting to tell you is that the money can indeed be ‘found’ – the government made available hundreds of billions during the Covid pandemic at exceedingly short notice, to give just one example – but that it will almost certainly require making some uncomfortable and/or politically disadvantageous choices.
This is not to make a narrowly party-political point. The Guardian columnist Martin Kettle wrote recently that there is a systemic reason why we are so bad at implementing big changes for which there is actually widespread agreement – reducing the human impact on the environment, strengthening the NHS, creating a social care system that is fit for purpose and so on. High-quality education in well-resourced and structurally safe classrooms would presumably be near the top of any such list of desiderata.
…Britain always struggles to construct the bridge linking public readiness and achieved outcomes. Populist and partisan politics have made bridge-building less attractive and more difficult. Social media have increased the instability. In the more deferential past, the bridges would have been constructed after a royal commission consisting of the expert and the eminent. But modern politics, with its desperate compulsion to retain control, recoils from such exercises.Martin Kettle, Ulez reveals a systemic problem with how UK government works – or rather, doesn’t, The Guardian, online version posted 31 August 2023
Kettle’s article is worth reading in full, whether you agree with it or not. His solution is deliberative democracy – some form of citizens’ assembly involving a representative sample of voters who examine an issue in depth and put together a policy package that most if not all of them can get behind.
There is widespread concern about an apparent disconnect between our elected politicians and those they purport to represent. What is certainly true is that across the democratic world authoritarian populists are mining a rich seam of anger and discontent. Interest in deliberative democracy is growing, and perhaps its day will come. But don’t expect it to be any time soon.
The depressing reality of the political process – especially in the long run-up to elections – is that creative and radical thinking will be stymied by mudslinging and petty partisanship, with ideas put forward by one side routinely rubbished by the other.
Just think about proposals for reforming social care put forward in the last fifteen years or so and the twin phrases ‘death tax’, used about Labour government proposals before 2010, and ‘dementia tax’, used about later Conservative government proposals.
Meanwhile, the consequences of chronic underinvestment in our schools and other public services continue to mount.
Image at the head of this article (with a slight modification by us) by 200 Degrees from Pixabay.