Presently, the main public policy levers capable of altering substantially the nature of Scotland’s economy – and the nature of its tax base – reside with Westminster governments. By far the largest element of recurrent and capital spending by public bodies across the UK has been controlled by Tory politicians for over a decade.
Given the model of dependency on Westminster and its spending decisions – operated via the Barnett Formula – it is always relevant to reflect on authoritative accounts of trends in spending in England on those public services that are devolved. A spending decision may be for England – made by the party of UK government in what is perceived to be England’s best interest, presumably – but there are knock-on consequences. Big funding decisions made regarding English public services – for good or ill – impact on the overall budgets of the governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
Spend on England’s education system
The Department for Education (DfE) is one of the big four spending departments in UK government, along with the Department for Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions. The House of Commons Library (HoCL) has just published a briefing on DfE spending which includes trend data going back at least c. 12 years. This is revealing in terms of UK government policy choices and the link to public expenditure.
Source: HoCL (1 July 2022) Department for Education Estimates Debate (https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2022-0133/CDP-2022-0133.pdf )
The DfE’s spend is dominated by grants for schools which currently make up c.£63 billion (88%) of the DfE’s Resource Departmental Limit (DEL) and around £3.6 billion (58%) of its Capital DEL. Other DfE spending supports Early Years, Children’s Services, Higher Education and Further Education plus other, more minor budget lines.
The HoCL briefing refers to an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) 2021 annual education report which analysed the UK Government’s spending announcements to date. On school spending, it found: ‘School spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2019–20. This represents the largest cut in over 40 years, but it came on the back of a significant increase in spending per pupil of over 60% during the 2000s.’
The IFS, whilst taking account of the 2021 Spending Review which includes an extra £4.4 billion for the schools budget in 2024–25, noted: ‘When combined with existing plans, we project that spending per pupil in 2024 will be at about the same level as in 2010. Whilst this will reverse past cuts, it will mean 15 years with no overall growth in spending. This squeeze on school resources is effectively without precedent in post-war UK history.’
The shift in spending priority under successive Tory governments from the Cameron-Clegg coalition onwards is striking! Which of these governments did Scotland’s electorate endorse? And here we have ‘without precedent’ decisions on something as important as schools funding taken by successive Tory governments that a majority of voters – but ONLY in England – have been content to support! In Scotland we have to …. ‘suck it up’?
The HoCL briefing exposes other choices the Tories have made regarding England’s schools, seemingly without detriment to their electoral support: ‘Deprived schools have seen larger cuts over the last decade. The most deprived secondary schools saw a 14% real-terms fall in spending per pupil between 2009–10 and 2019–20, compared with a 9% drop for the least deprived schools.’
Underinvestment in education recovery and resilience
On another factor impacting the education budget, you may recall the Westminster government’s much vaunted pandemic recovery funding for schools in England. You may also recall the reaction it received!
In May 2021, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published a report on education recovery and resilience. This called for a three-year package amounting to £13.5 billion, to support a range of programmes for England’s schools. On 2 June 2021, the UK Government committed to provide a further £1.4 billion in education recovery funding, on top of the £1.7 billion already announced – taking the total to c.£3.1 billion over four academic years, including 2020/21, a huge shortfall relative to the EPI’s proposal.
On the day the funding was announced, Sir Kevan Collins resigned as Education Recovery Commissioner for England. While he welcomed the funding, he believed it to be wholly insufficient: he did “not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size”. The EPI said the money amounted to “a fraction of the level of funding required to reverse learning loss seen by pupils since March 2020”.
All the above are facets of Tory austerity – experienced for more than a decade and now in the more immediate context of Covid recovery. All have direct, severe consequences for the budgets available to the devolved governments!
Adult skills and lifelong learning
The HoCL briefing also addresses DfE spend on adult learning. It refers to IFS’ research which found that spending in England on classroom-based adult education in 2019-20 was nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003–04 and about 50% lower than in 2009–10. It has fallen from £4.4 billion in 2003-04 (2021-22 prices) and to £2.9 billion in 2010-11 and to just under £1.5 billion in 2019-20. This trend is illustrated in the chart below. The fall in funding is said to be mainly driven by the removal of public funding from some (mainly lower level) courses and a resultant drop in learner numbers.
The number of adults in Further Education in England has been plummeting. Since 2011/12, the number of learners on classroom-based education and training has fallen by 48%, community learning by 64%, and even the number of adult apprenticeships has fallen by 4%.
The HoCL refers to research that explains these trends in adult learning on ‘a large and deliberate shift from classroom-based to apprenticeship training’. It also reports that whilst spending on apprenticeships increased by 50% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20 to a total of £2.0 billion (2021-22 prices), spending on classroom-based adult education, apprenticeships and work-based learning in total still fell by 35% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-2021.
In an illustration of the stop-start instability of Tory policy positions, funding for classroom-based adult education is now projected to increase by 32% in real terms between 2019-20 and 2024-25. The increase for apprenticeships is slightly smaller at 29%. However, the HoCL paper notes that the total for the two streams of funding would still be around 15% below 2009-10 levels in real terms.
You will note the falls in funding and in participation in FE during the period 2010 to 2015, the term of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. You may also recall around this time that the Lib Dems had further education in Scotland as their cause célèbre! This is from their leader, Willie Rennie in 2016 in an article in the Press and Journal:
‘Speaking at Aberdeen University’s The Hub, Mr Rennie said: “I want Scottish education to be the best in the world again. That means Scotland’s colleges need to be built back up to what they were before the SNP began butchering further education budgets”.’
Perhaps if the Lib Dems in coalition with the Tories had not been cutting back on the DfE’s budget for FE in England, the option to provide more funding for education in Scotland would have been available. Decisions made in Westminster – taken by governments we in Scotland reject – have consequences for Scotland!