MPs criticise Brown’s school funding pledge

Gordon Brown has been taken to task by MPs over his pledge to raise the level of funding per state school pupil to that of students in private schools.

The education and skills select committee today says the chancellor’s Budget announcement appears to be an aspiration rather than a definable goal and warns that “future policy announcements should have a more substantial basis”.

Mr Brown caused a stir when he announced in March that he would raise the level of spending from £5,000 per state school to £8,000, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said would cost £17 billion, but he repeated it this autumn.

However, today’s report says the “careful answers” from ministers suggested the chancellor had not developed a timetable for delivering this.

“Without a timescale to achieve the target or any definite commitment to increase expenditure, it is hard to be certain when the target would be met,” the committee says.

“The debate on what is the appropriate level of per-pupil funding is an important one. Future policy announcements should have a more substantial basis.”

Lib Dem committee member Stephen Williams accused Mr Brown of “pie in the sky” spending pledges, saying: “Gordon Brown playing fast and loose with the numbers fosters neither reasoned political debate nor proper scrutiny of government policy.”

Shadow chancellor George Osborne added: “We all want to raise standards in state schools, but this report exposes how Gordon Brown’s headline grabbing budget promises turn out to be little more than spin.”

However, a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) said: “Investment in education is a key priority for the government. By 2008, spending per pupil will have more than doubled from £2,650 to £5,750.

“As the chancellor said in his Budget speech, the government’s long-term aim is that, adjusting for inflation, we raise average investment per pupil to today’s private school level. That position remains unchanged.”

Elsewhere in its report, the committee criticises the DfES for failing to provide information on the effect the extra spending had had.

It warns that although the department promises to make £4.3 billion in efficiency savings, in reality the majority of these will be “recycled” – for example, by freeing up teachers’ time to do other things – and are not “money as it is normally understood”.

The MPs also call for more transparency, particularly in the new schools’ funding system, to ensure head teachers and parents understand how schools’ allocations are decided.

“There is a risk, in the longer term, that the inability to demonstrate a measurable link between inputs and outputs will mean that taxpayers have no way of judging whether or not public resources are being well used,” the report concludes.

“Such an outcome would be bad for taxpayers and, potentially, could undermine the electorate’s willingness to fund public services.”

The DfES spokesman said it had agreed in July to work with the committee on the format of its annual report “to address their concerns”, and stressed that the added investment in education was producing “more schools with more teachers and better results”.