There is much to applaud in Labour's education manifesto
. They will reduce class sizes for 5, 6, 7 yr olds by "ending the wasteful Free Schools programme". There is a real focus on early years, recognising this is where the gap appears for the disadvantaged, and on restoring Sure Start. There is a commitment to restoring local oversight and to encouraging collaboration rather than competition. (I wrote here
about how collaboration or competition is a clear difference between the parties.)
There is a focus on a "gold standard" vocational qualification and a genuine commitment to the 50% that Labour believes would prefer a vocational to an academic pathway. And there is recognition that "recent policy changes have neglected broader skills, character and creativity in education."
Labour's funding commitment is to "protect the entire education budget in real terms, from the early years through to post-16 education and skills". The Conservative commitment is to maintain per-pupil spending, but only in cash terms and only for ages 5 to 16.
Maintain spending in real per-pupil terms or only real terms?
So Labour has committed to maintain school spending in real terms, but not per pupil. The Conservatives have committed to maintain per-pupil spending but not increase it in line with inflation. I wrote here
that both promises actually amount to roughly the same level of spending and both represent a cut, compared to maintaining the budget in real per-pupil terms, in the annual budget of over £4 billion by the end of the next Parliament. (Sam Friedman has pointed out
that, if you include planned increases in school staff pension and NI costs, this rises to £5 billion.)
Let us be clear on what that means. A school that currently has a full roll of students will on average, under the promises given by Labour or Conservatives, face a 10% cut in funding by 2020.
I do not believe that, if voters understood this, they would welcome it. I do not believe most people would vote for this. Such a massive cut in education spending is only necessary if you accept the logic of austerity economics. It is only needed if you reject the theories of John Maynard Keynes - and many other prominent economists - and believe that the only way to improve the economy is to cut spending.
An opportunity for a clear and popular difference from the Tories
However Labour is vague on this issue. While they appear never to have made a commitment to maintain real per-pupil spending, they have also never actually said they wouldn't. There is an opportunity here for Labour to mark a real difference between themselves and the Tories.
The Labour approach to the deficit is, of course, different to that of the Conservatives. Ed Balls has made clear that Labour only plan to balance the budget in current spending terms. They believe it is reasonable to borrow for investment, for capital spending. A recent House of Commons paper
reveals that, while capital spending in education was cut by 29% in the first three years of the coalition, it still stood at £6.8 billion in 2013/14.
Labour can therefore, within its current plans, commit to spending £6.8 billion more on education than the Conservatives. They could decide to state "Labour's approach to government spending means we can commit to maintain real per-pupil education spending. A vote for Conservatives means a vote for a £5 billion cut, a reduction in 10% in real per-pupil funding for schools."
Does Labour have the courage?
Does Labour, emboldened by the positive response its non-dom policy, have the courage to make this commitment? A commitment to maintain the level of educational spend, to keep that investment in our young people's future, can be made within Labour's economic plans. It is surely a popular proposal and - above all - it is surely the right thing to do.
Steve Richards this week
helpfully suggested a wording for Labour to emphasise the difference between the parties: “We will address the deficit without damaging the economy. The Conservatives will address the deficit even if it damages the economy.”
Exactly the same could be said on education: "We will address the deficit without damaging education. The Conservatives will address the deficit even if it damages education, and their promise only to maintain per-pupil spend in cash terms effectively means a 10% cut by 2020."
I wait with interest to see if we have a real alternative to vote for on education spending.