It is time to take stock of what austerity policies have meant for the school system in England.
Seven years after the election of a Conservative-led coalition government engaged in a lasting deficit reduction programme, the extent of spending cuts between 2010 and 2016 is such as to raise serious questions about their short-term and long-term impact on the school system.
In addition, the distribution of resources is indicative of the priorities underlying policy decisions, and can be contrasted with the pledges initially made, and renewed by David Cameron five years later.
The reform agenda
The Coalition government came into office with a reform agenda based on two main commitments: reducing educational inequalities and completing the ‘schools revolution’ started under the Thatcher administration.
The objective was to establish a diverse school system in which independent state schools (academies, parent-promoted free schools, university technical colleges) would co-exist with and eventually replace locally administered schools. Autonomy – the end of local authority control – and diversity – the end of the ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ – were seen as drivers of excellence, helping to raise standards and close the gap between poorer and richer children.
The impact of austerity
However, right from the beginning it had been made clear that the reduction of public deficits would take precedence over any other policy objective. In a context of financial restraint, how did the government fulfil its pledges?
Examined closely, the spending choices during the Coalition and Conservative terms in office followed a political and ideological agenda. Cuts were not spread evenly, affecting local authority budgets and further education much more severely than schools budgets, which were relatively protected. This reflected George Osborne’s and the government’s wish to avoid a crisis on the frontline but also, strategically, to “make local authorities running schools a thing of the past’”.
Above all, the allocation of resources, while being aligned with the reform agenda, showed how priority was given to ‘choice and diversity policies’. The expansion of the academies programme was prioritised over ‘corrective policies’ aiming to provide additional resources to help disadvantaged children (through a Pupil Premium) and families. While schools were modest ‘winners’ in this uneven distribution of resources, they did experience severe cost pressures linked to inflation, rising pupil numbers and, after 2015, rising labour costs.
From cutting spending to cutting costs
But what the school system went through was more than another cycle of spending cuts. Meeting the objectives set in the 2010 and 2015 Spending Reviews, which linked long-term deficit reduction and the return to growth to reform of ‘unproductive’ public services, required a shift from cutting spending to cutting costs.
The transformation of local comprehensive and most faith schools into academies and the creation of free schools was a key feature of the new cost-effective school system. It ultimately made funding of local authority education services redundant, as the costs of those services, especially school improvement, would now be borne by schools themselves and their sponsors.
This first decisive step has opened the way to other forms of cost-effectiveness, with increasing reliance on voluntary organisations and civil society groups and widespread marketisation of remaining local authority services, such as careers advice or provision of supply teachers.
Likewise, the rapid growth of Multi Academy Trusts, which are clusters of schools forming academy chains run by different types of public and not-for-profit private organisations, responds to the need to ‘deliver better outcomes from resources available’ through economies of scale. The fact that the largest academy chains are run by edu-business firms operating under charity status, or by private international groups such as Edison or Cognita has entrenched the presence of private sector providers and opened up opportunities for indirect profit-making.
There are two ways of thinking about the function of privatisation: first as an instrument of austerity, but also as its main beneficiary.
The end of public service state education?
Does that mean that we are witnessing the end of public service state education? The rise of academies as the standard model of state schooling has accelerated the move from ‘a national system, locally administered’, to what has been termed by David Bell a ‘system of many small systems’, with different types of schools – now including grammar schools – led by different types of providers (universities, private groups, or even successful academies) serving specific individual or community interests.
However, the threats to the public service may be overstated. Full-fledged privatisation, with for-profit companies being given freedom to run schools, has lost some of its appeal for David Cameron, as for Theresa May: over the last few years the financial and educational risks involved in allowing indiscriminate growth of academy chains have come into the public eye, following reports of repeated cases of financial mismanagement and conflicts of interests.
While the mingling of private and public actors seems here to stay, the state has not been hollowed out yet. In fact, it has retained a strong hand in the direction of education policy, setting targets, determining the desired outcomes, overseeing the performance of the school system.
Public opinion is also a force to be reckoned with, as former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan realised in 2016 when forced academisation of schools, especially primary schools, was resisted. The fact that the education debate is now largely in the public realm suggests that the idea of public service state education is not obsolete. What matters now is to define what degree of public/private privision should be looked for in an education service.
It remains to be seen how this delicate balance, as well as the balance of power between state and private actors in the education system will be played out under Theresa May’s leadership.
This article is adapted from a piece in the Political Quarterly journal. You can read the full article here.