Welsh Government wants more from less spending

David Reynolds says the education funding gap will only be closed by cutting the number of local authorities

When Moshe Dayan, legendary 1960s Israeli Defence Minister, was asked what he would do if he lost a war he replied that he would in all likelihood start up another one in his wife’s name. With the recent Price Waterhouse Coopers report on educational funding in Wales, the Welsh Government is following the same plan. Having lost all credibility in the last couple of years concerning educational funding in Wales, it is trying to open up a new front, and using someone else’s in the process.

The facts are well known. Education in Wales faces an acute financial crisis because the Welsh Government spent money on economic development and culture which in the rest of the UK went on education. It is now proposed that the resulting £527.00 per child spending gap between England and Wales be reduced over time by increasing spending by 1 per cent more on education per year than the overall increase in the Welsh block. However, with the Welsh Government’s budget being squeezed for at least the next three years, as a result the need to tackle the UK’s deficit, it will take at least a decade for the gap to be bridged.

The litany of funding problems does not end here. Wales is alone in the world in shifting over time a higher proportion of its educational expenditure from schools to local authorities. It has a wide – and growing – variation in per pupil spending between the 22 local authorities. Its capital spend in education is way below the UK average.  And in international surveys its performance in some important areas for delivery, such as provision of IT equipment, is below the international average, which is itself artificially low through the inclusion of spending figures from Third World Countries.  From rough parity with England in examination achievements at age 16 in 2000, there is now an 8 per cent gap in number of children achieving the much vaunted ‘5 or more GCSEs at high grades’ benchmark.

Faced with this morass, the Price Waterhouse Coopers report was sensible. They rightly identified that Wales is overly complex in its governance of education, with its large numbers of specific grants, the administration of which eats up resources. There are multiple policy concerns, which compete against each other and generate stasis. Accountability, inspection and performance management regimes overlap and waste resources as a result.

As well as simplifying governance, the PWC report proposes that regional consortia begin to take over some local authority functions.  Furthermore, local authority education services and further education retain separate ‘back office’ functions that inflate costs. The non departmental public bodies – Estyn, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Careers Service – all operate separate strategic support and back office functions as well. Lastly, the processes by which learners, citizens and third parties apply for places, grants and information are ‘non standard’ and therefore costly.

The possible savings in resources that could be achieved by the local authorities, Further and Higher Education and the Welsh Government from the simplifying and standardising provision run into several £100 million out of approximately £4 billion per annum. The clear intent is to get more money to the educational ‘front line’ by squeezing the 32 per cent of the educational expenditure that is ‘support costs’ to try to supplement the 68 per cent that is directly or indirectly related to teaching and learning on the front line.

But the price Waterhouse Coopers report does not deal with the key issue . This is how to square the commitment to cut expenditure on administration and back office functions with the intention to persevere with 22 local authorities.  Education Minister Leighton Andrews, who commissioned the review, made the point himself to the Western Mail last Thursday:

“If you ask me whether we have the right number of local authorities, my response is that I wouldn’t have created 22 of them in the first place. But for the present that is what we must work with”.

The unitary authorities are too large to be locally accountable and too small to be capable of basic strategic thinking. Indeed, are there enough talented individuals within Wales to find 22 Chief Executives, 22 Directors of Education, and 22 Directors of Social Services?

It is difficult to see how much savings can be made to ‘support’ and ‘back office’ functions by creating consortia of authorities when these functions are already under severe pressure from the present public expenditure round, let alone from the cuts that will be made in the upcoming emergency 22 June Budget. The amount of political capital required to pile more cuts on existing cuts would be probably more than the increasingly fragile Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition could muster.

If, by contrast, some back office persons and ‘support staff’ are to be moved to become front line persons engaged in the core business of teaching and learning, with less emphasis on cutting their number, then how does the pen pusher become a teacher or support assistant in a classroom without a long period of retraining? Imagine the –quite legitimate – fuss from unions and professional associations.

The Welsh Government have opened up a new front by paying about £200,000 to a consulting firm to try to sanitise what can only be described as a sorry state of affairs in educational funding.  The Price Waterhouse Cooper report is sensible in what it proposes, but it is difficult to see how any of the recommendations will be acted upon given the continued existence of 22 local authorities.

David Reynolds is Professor of Education at the University of Plymouth

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