...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, December 13, 2010

Day 3633: THIS is why we are in the Coalition, part 2 – A Better Start


Anyone who ever talks to Captain Clegg will tell you this about him: he is PASSIONATE about tackling the root causes of the big freeze in social mobility. You cannot get him to shut up about the subject. And, for him, this means getting in at the earliest possible moment to give the bright-but-poor as much opportunity as the comfortably-off.

So the Government is pleased to announce the Liberal Democrat's PUPIL PREMIUM will start this year at an ADDITIONAL £430 per pupil for every family earning less than £16,000.

To put that in context, that's about an extra 7% on top of the money per pupil that the government gives already.

Remember, that money per pupil is NOT being cut. It is being kept the same. Yes, you might say that there is INFLATION to consider: this money won't go as far next year when things cost more, so that's what we call a "real terms cut". (Where "real terms" means not actually a "real" cut ; it just feels like one.) But remember too that that will be largely offset by freezing public sector pay (including teachers), because salaries, obviously, form the largest part of what the education spending is spent on.

So it's not exactly TRUE to claim that the pupil premium "robs Peter to pay Paul". It would be more accurate to say that Paul gets an increase but Peter doesn't.

And ANYWAY, is it necessarily BAD to rob Peter to pay Paul when Peter is (by the very definition of the pupil premium) BETTER OFF than Paul to begin with. Is that not what we have a PROGRESSIVE tax and benefits system FOR? If anything, this EXAGGERATES the ENHANCEMENT for the least well off.

Look, I'm not, on the whole, in favour of the "levelling down" approach to social inequality favoured by the "just tax the rich more" brigade, but in this instance is it not the case that we are asking those with broader shoulders to bear the greater share of the cuts while those in most need are given a leg up to help them reach the same opportunities?

A secondary criticism of the pupil premium seems to come from the IFS report saying that "gains from this policy will only be modest". As a criticism, this appears to focus rather too much on the word "modest" and not enough on the word "gains". If someone were proposing a scheme that offered BETTER gains (IM-modest gains?) then it would be valid as a critique, but it seems that here we have a choice between the pupil premium that DOES offer a gain and doing nothing which DOESN'T.

If the hypothetical better scheme existed, you can bet that Captain Clegg would be advocating THAT. But it doesn't which is why he is proposing THIS. Without getting all ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT on you, a scheme that has the flaw of NOT EXISTING cannot be as good as one that does!

This last week we've been accused of cutting opportunities for working class and less-well-off people by increasing the cost of going to university.

I don't actually agree with that.

University funding is being PROTECTED in the fairest way we could devise even though the economic crisis means that the taxpayer will be paying one third LESS.

You probably keep hearing the opposition claim that we are CUTTING university money by 80%, while the Government says that the ratio of funding will ONLY be changing from 60% paid by the taxpayer and 40% paid by the students to the other way around. I thought about this and realised that it IS possible for both of these statements to be TRUE: if you have £1000 of funding, at the moment £600 comes from taxation; but not all of that is spent on TEACHING, rather a lot will be spent on RESEARCH. It's just a guess, but say £350 goes on research and £250 on teaching. But the Government has agreed to PROTECT the research funding. So under the NEW arrangement, the taxpayer ponies up 40% or £400, but the University STILL spends £350 on research, meaning that the money spent on teaching goes down from £250 to just £50, which IS an 80% cut. So the opposition claim can be both TRUE and MISLEADING at the same time, because they are only talking about one SLICE of the money. (To be fair: calling it a switch from 60:40 to 40:60 is spinning a 33% cut too!)

(NB: this is just an EXAMPLE to show how the figures COULD work. Variations are possible depending on the real mix of research and teaching spending, and there could be other costs, maybe admin or maintenance and so on, to consider also, but the solution must be something like this to account for the figures used by both sides.)

And you might have noticed that the opposition have already ROWED BACK from saying that the MONEY COST of the Coalition tuition fees policy will dissuade less-well-off people from going to university (probably because their own graduate tax proposals are so similar in effect), and they've fallen back to saying that the PERCEPTION of the huge debt will have a chilling effect. (And I'm not saying that they might not have a point there, although one of the things that is DOING the chilling is the opposition and the NUS banging on about how DAUNTING the debt will be!).

But clearly this Pupil Premium is a big step forward to proving that we DO want to increase opportunity for all.

And it's another LIBERAL DEMOCRAT policy DELIVERED.

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