MH at Syniadau points out a mathematical howler in an article by the Lib Dem policy officer on WalesHome today. In fairness, it isn’t the first time that I’ve seen the ‘average spend per pupil in Wales is £600 less than in England’ turned into ‘Wales spends £600 less on every child’, which I suspect is at the root of the error. Not everyone understands the difference between the two statements (although Policy Officers should).
Misunderstanding what the so-called funding gap is telling us is pretty common, sadly. I’ve seen more than one politician trying to claim that the gap can be plugged by switching spending from the central local authority costs, and passing the money direct to schools. But the statistical paper which indentified the size of the gap makes it clear that the gap is not an expression of the differences in the amounts reaching schools, it’s an expression of the total spend on education per pupil.
Passing a greater proportion of total spend to schools may, or may not, be a good thing; there are a range of issues to consider. But the Local Authority central costs are already included in the comparison, and giving individual schools in Wales a higher proportion of the lower total Welsh budget does absolutely nothing to close the ‘funding gap’. It can be closed only in two ways – increasing Welsh total educational spend, or decreasing English total educational spend.
Certainly, the use of PFI in England will be one factor leading to a greater educational spend – where it has been used, the total costs of providing equivalent premises will be higher. That’s no reason to emulate the English spending pattern, though. It simply indicates that different approaches to financing can make the figures less comparable.
(And, as an aside, Plaid Cymru are proposing a change, the side effect of which may well be to increase the apparent ‘funding gap’ by taking the cost of providing school buildings out of the education budgets. It doesn’t actually mean a reduction in spending though; it might just look like one in the relevant stats.)
My real criticism of the approach being taken by the Lib Dems to the ‘funding gap’ is that they only seem to be looking at the spend, not the effect of the spend. For all I know, the English spend could be higher because they’re just running the education service less efficiently, and if that were true, it certainly would not follow that our school children are losing out as a result. For a party which has made ‘cutting unnecessary expenditure’ the keynote of its campaign, calling for an increase in spending on any service purely because England spends more seems more than a little incongruous.
I don’t know whether we’re spending enough on education to give our children the start in life they need and deserve. I suspect not, but simply comparing our expenditure with someone else’s is never going to answer that question satisfactorily.