Yesterday I attended the New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference at the Commonwealth Club in central London. There was cross-party representation looking at the big issues on school reform whoever wins the next election. There was also a sample of guests from other countries to share their experiences of similar journeys. I’ll not bore you with the reason why I was there – I suspect that will be a whole blog post in its own right soon. Nor will I summarise what the New Schools Network is all about – you can find out all about them here.
What was interesting for me was listening to the three keynote speakers. We had (Baroness) Sally Morgan from Labour, David Laws from the Lib Dems and Michael Gove from the Conservatives. There was a surprising amount of consensus between the three. I don’t think I am misrepresenting any of the speakers if I pick out the following common themes:
- The Academy Programme has broadly been a force for good. As with any programme there are known exceptions but they should not distract from the overall picture.
- Whoever wins we will see a development/evolution of the thinking that went into Academy approach in the way we consider new schools
- Whoever wins we can expect to see more disparate groups – including possibly ‘for-profit’ organisations and more parent-led collectives – joining the roster of providers
- School Autonomy is a good thing. Nobody on the panel said it directly but the implicit flip-side to this is that Local Authority meddling can be a hinderance to good school governance.
The disagreements between the parties were more around the implementation details than the ‘big idea’ of letting more schools run themselves.
The thing that really struck me though was Sally Morgan’s seeming reluctance to press ahead with new schools unless the capital was identified to support them with best-in-class building provision. She hated the idea of schools opening in ‘converted office buildings where children cannot enjoy the richness of the broad curriculum that only a properly equipped school can offer’. This bugged me at the time, and having reflected on it for 24 hours it bugs me even more now. It is as if Labour believe that you cannot possibly be solving a problem unless you hurl money at it. Her argument boils down to that she would rather have kids in adequate buildings so they can have a wide curriculum albeit with the crumby teaching, poor leadership and sapped morale that is present in failing schools; rather than have a narrower curriculum in less ideal temporary buildings that do at least have quality teaching, strong school leadership and a sense of mission and purpose in the institution. Actually Sally, I would rather my children went to the second and how dare you and your lot deny me that choice. Quality of teaching is far more important than the shiny new facilities. Don’t get me wrong – ideally we aim for having both, but if the capital isn’t there now then let’s just get the quality of teaching and leadership up and get moving – the shiny new toys can follow as institutions start to prove their success. Gove gets this. You could see him bursting to just get on and get started. So whilst there may be consensus on the overall direction of educational reform, there is difference about the appetite for the pace and depth of it. This whole area is too important to pussyfoot about with for fear of hurting teaching union sensibilities. My vote is going to the chap with the hunger and sense of urgency to tackle this head on: Michael Gove.
Childcare Vouchers: What Will the Conservatives Do?
As innovative tax breaks go the one I always loved the most was the childcare voucher scheme. Now this isn’t just because I was once an enthusiastic recipient (consider my interest therefore declared), it was because I loved the principal of the thing – of all government attempts to socially engineer through the tax system this was the one that hit the mark:
- Vouchers mean you can assure that the tax-break really is used for the purpose it was intended. This isn’t money direct in the bank account like every other benefit and government hand-out – this is the right to buy, from pre-tax pay, a voucher for a specific purpose. Unlike, for instance, child benefit which has nothing to stop you spending your eighty quid a week or whatever down the bookies rather than feeding your child – if you don’t use childcare you cannot gain any fiscal advantage through the existence of this scheme.
- These vouchers can only be spent on OFSTED approved childminders or nurseries. Whilst you and I may, or may not, have philosophical reservations about the burden OFSTED places on pre-school providers we taxpayers have now invested a great deal of our money in setting up this inspection regime. We therefore have a right that we benefit from our investment. Personally, I would wish for lighter regulation for this age-group, but any regulatory regime is only worth jack if people work within it. If there are not incentives to work ‘legitimately’ then you will always have people working outside of the regime and a skewed market. Linking the ability to receive voucher payments to compliance obviously improves compliance dramatically. This is a good thing. How we lower the bar of compliance requirements is a debate for another day.
- Because the money can only be spent on childcare (per above) – you guarantee jobs for tens if not hundreds of thousands in the childcare industry. Those folk who work at nurseries or as independent childminders provide a valuable service – and also, obviously, pay tax on the money they earn through receipt of vouchers making the overall cost to the taxpayer less that it may seem at face value (more on this point in a moment).
- The pre-school providers funded in part through this money are largely private, this gives parents greater choice and a more efficient market bringing overall better quality provision. This competitive drive for quality can only be in the best interests of our infants.
- Having private companies administer the back-office side of the scheme kept the administration costs down through competition. Again, a win for the taxpayer compared with other policy implementations.
It is now a few months since the Labour party scored a whopping own-goal by announcing they would dump this, possibly one of their best implemented ideas. The first toe-dip in the language of ‘class war’ ahead of the election was probably the branding of this a ‘posh-parent tax-break’. The spin seemed to be ‘Why should Joe public subsidise the childcare of accountants and solicitors? We’re in a recession, we have huge debt, this is one area of spend that can go.’
The masses arose. Web forums like ‘mumsnet.com’ showed a level of digital militancy that caught ministers on the hop. A U-Turn came. Of sorts. In the unlikely event Labour win, the scheme would remain with tweaks.
Dumping the vouchers was a stupid idea on both a political level and for macro-economic reasons.
- For many so-called ‘middle-class’ women even very high earners, the sheer cost of weekly childcare (well over a hundred pounds a week in most cases) made the choice of going back to work uneconomic without the tax discount. If woman are not going back to work you get less tax revenue from their earnings – the money forfeited as income tax revenue would likely be more than the amount sacrificed to provide the break.
- To compound this the fall in demand would inevitably result in a loss of jobs in the child-care industry with a consequent loss of tax income and increase in welfare burden from those child-care assistants impacted.
- We go on and on about trying to create a society where families make their own choices about the way they balance work/life and that we should shy from the automatic assumption that ‘Mum stays at home’. Instead we have been angling for a time where mum (or dad) can stay at home if they want to OR if they want to return quickly to their career then there is no monetary barrier to returning to the workplace. This policy was the enabler of that choice-led ideal.
Admittedly, the voucher scheme did have one valid flaw which does leave it open to charges of unfairness. The Achilles heel was that it was entirely optional for employers to provide it. Big forward thinking employers did. Most small companies, presumably put off by perceived red-tape, did not. That you do or do not get such a tax advantage depending on your employer doesn’t seem quite right. The answer though is not to simply close the scheme – no, the answer is to extend it. The take-up level by employees at companies that did offer the scheme was high enough to prove the popular demand. It cannot be beyond the wit–of-man to empower the private administrators of the scheme to collect national insurance numbers of those buying the vouchers regardless of employers and then providing the data on the actual vouchers bought back to HMRC for future reimbursement through the tax-code or some similar simple innovative solution? I came up with that with about five seconds thought, it may have flaws – but I am sure bright people put in a room for a few hours could come up with a way that would work.
In all the talk this week of cuts – and I do not dispute the need for very many, very swift, very deep, very painful cuts in public spending– I am still not clear where the Conservative Party stands on this particular area. I can come up with many ill thought out tax breaks which miss the mark and are ripe for the axe. This is not one of them. The Party would be foolish to swing at it.
One of the features of an indulgent Christmas nowadays, after the wine and pud, is to log on to the social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, etc) and read the thoughts and wishes of contacts both close and tenuous. One caught my eye this year – it was written by someone I know to be bright and rational, it read:
“MR X is enjoying the Kings College Choir this Christmas. But, can they sing without looking so privileged next year please”
It struck me as such an odd sentiment at this time of goodwill. It betrays a snapshot into a mind of class prejudice. Make no mistake class prejudice – and I carefully use the word ‘prejudice’ rather than ‘envy’ – clearly does still exist in the UK, just as racism and homophobia exist. Like other prejudices Class has political mileage that can be exploited. Whatever the mock protestations from Cabinet Ministers about a clean fight I expect Labour to play the class card in the coming election because, frankly, it works. The best Tory response to it is rise above it, show how the party has changed and highlight any hypocrisy from the champagne socialist crowd. The worst response is wheeling on some landed gentry and claiming this is about ‘the politics of envy’ – the second the class debate is framed with the word ‘envy’ the subconscious message sent is ‘we think we are better than you and you’re just jealous’. Voters, rightly, see that as smug and aloof. It is a trap that traditional Conservatives fall into again and again.
With that thought, I think I’ll sign off for 2009 – but I’ll leave with one reflection: I hope that this time next year there are many more kids looking more privileged than they are now….. Peace, goodwill and happy new year.