The intended joke almost immediately went flat and these now famous last words haunt their author, a former Treasury minister. Nevertheless, whether you agree with them or not, there is no doubt that today we are in unchartered fiscal waters.
Politicians and policymakers of all types are trying hard to make sense of the new fiscal reality, and plot a more sustainable fiscal trajectory. This process has inevitably been highly political. Each side has thrown plenty of punches and taken plenty of hits, and the journalistic crowd has been crying out for more. However, behind all the party politics, and beyond the current parliament, there are fundamental questions to be answered about the size, shape and nature of our public sector. And education and skills are at the heart of this debate.
Between 2010-11 and 2014-15 the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that public spending on education will fall by 13.4% - the largest cut in education spending over a 4 year period since the 1950s. Yet, at the same time the schools budget has been protected, more money has been found for apprenticeships, and free schools are receiving a significant cash injection. Are these the right priorities? And do we even know how to prioritise?
Surely a clear evidence base is a must, a necessary starting point. And yet, the Associate Parliamentary Skills Group has found that there is an evidence vacuum in many areas of policy. In a recent seminar the Institute for Fiscal Studies told us that successive governments have consistently failed to collect the necessary data to make evidence based decisions about what works. What was the impact of teaching assistants? How effectively will the Pupil Premium be used by schools? Where is all the additional money for apprenticeships going?
As a former college Principal, I am all too aware that policy is often led by assertion, rather than evidence. It might not be sexy, but it’s time to get serious about data. The government’s ‘open data’ approach might be a step in the right direction, but could we not go even further and faster?
Even with an evidence base, how we prioritise what to spend money on is always going to be driven in part by values. The difference today is that we are not just trying to solve a short term cash flow problem. The lingering effects of the banking crisis, global power shifting from west to east, and demographic changes back home are all placing severe strain on our public sector, transforming what is funded and how it is funded.
The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that by 2040, half of all government spending will be on health and pensions alone, and George Osborne has recently expressed concern about the rapidly expanding welfare bill – predicted to hit £230 billion by 2016. Can the rest of the public sector make do with what’s left? Historically, spending on education has been generous, increasing at least in line with other departmental budgets. Is this now sustainable? Do we need to look to the private sector for answers? For investment?
The strategic decisions that we need to make today, in order to secure an effective public sector for tomorrow, are just too important to be left to the volatility of party politics and the electoral cycle. Journalists, policymakers and practitioners all have a role to play. Taking tough decisions about what to cut today may be a necessity, but so too is overhauling and redesigning how we make these decisions.
The Associate Parliamentary Skills Group has been playing its part by working hard to establish a cross-party debate inside and outside of Parliament on the long term shape and nature of our education system. Looking beyond the current spending review, we want to consider what aspects of our education and skills system we really value, and ask whether there are other things we might have to cut in order to keep them.
We’ve started the debate. We need your help to finish it.
Nic Dakin MP is Co-Chair of the Associate Parliamentary Skills Group
The Group held the seminar ‘What to cut and what to keep: the fiscal sustainability of our education and skills system’ earlier this month as part of its Future Skills seminar series. A seminar report can be found on their website