School spending pledge ‘an aspiration’

The top civil servant at the education department has warned Gordon Brown’s call for state school funding to match that of the private sector is only an “aspiration”.

David Bell, the former chief inspector of schools in England and now permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), said funding was expected to get tighter in the years ahead.

His comments to the education select committee appear to contradict the promise made by the chancellor in this year’s Budget for each state school to receive the same amount of funding as private schools.

The announcement came as a surprise to many MPs, as it would require investment equivalent to £3,000 extra per pupil per year, but was welcomed by unions as “exactly the sort of vision we want from government”.

However, Mr Bell today told MPs that future funding was “going to be tighter – I don’t think there is any secret about that. The chancellor has made that very clear”.

His analysis supports the conclusion of the education committee in its March report, where the MPs predicted schools would see funding growth fall from its current level of between five and seven per cent, to between two and three per cent.

“While spending on schools is still growing, schools must be told not to expect dramatic increases to their budgets in the future,” they said, and urged ministers to be “straightforward” with head teachers about how much they would have to spend.

In today’s session, Labour committee chairman Barry Sheerman said education had been a top spending priority for three elections, but noted that health, law and order and transport were beginning to take precedence.

Responding, Mr Bell said: “The chancellor laid out an aspiration. The Treasury, properly, is considering, along with departments, a whole range of issues in advance of the comprehensive spending review.

“The government will have to weigh up its different pressures and priorities.”

However, he stressed that education had “benefited enormously from significant investment” over the past ten years.