Schools cuts likely to bleed

Michael Gove should be one of the heroes of this government. His determination to fix Britain’s broken education system is beyond admirable, and the scale of his plans is beyond ambitious. Much of Gove’s work is long overdue, and should be welcomed with open arms. Some of it, however, needs to be urgently rethought.

Gove has, despite incredible bad luck (see Building Schools for the Future fiasco), done a rather good job. He managed to safeguard the education budget in a last minute rescue attempt, and reallocate funding where it is most needed via the pupil premium. In the education white paper he included plans to allow teachers to, for the first time in years, teach. The National Curriculum will shrink from a dictatorial control freak into a sensibly sized set of learning goals — laying out what pupils should learn, not how teachers should teach it. He included plans to put individual schools and teachers at the heart of disciplinary policy, and give them the discretion necessary to do what’s best for their community of pupils as a whole.

He also scrapped EMA. Though we can all cite the rich friend who get EMA through some obscure loophole and spent it on Smirnoff Ice at bad underage clubs, EMA serves an important purpose. The decision of whether to do A-levels, and which ones to do, determines a child’s future. Pupils whose parents cannot afford to give them an allowance, or who need to financially contribute to the running of their home, face an incredibly tough decision. In some cases this will lead to them dropping out of education altogether, or taking easier subjects to give them time to work longer hours at their job.

EMA is not a perfect system. Paying it direct to students has proven a clear mistake, and payments instead should be sent direct to parents. This doesn’t mean that the all important helping hand it gives to poorer students isn’t worthwhile though. The opportunity cost of Sixth Form is, for many people, remarkably high. Bringing it down will help students from less fortunate backgrounds get more university places, at better universities. If we care about social mobility this is one thing that should not be scrapped.

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Gove also scrapped school sport. Here it is hard to see why so much has to be sacrificed for so little gain. The £162 million saved is only just more than the £120 million we spend on debt interest each day, yet the consequence is to hit both health and education. Tales of Cabinet showdowns have detailed ministerial concerns over the health of schoolchildren, and how scrapping the budget for exercise while obesity is rising might not be the best of ideas.

There’s another important problem though. Most of our schoolchildren, despite Jamie Oliver’s best efforts, still survive on an unhealthy high sugar diet. Pupils who snack for breakfast and spend their lunch break munching on sugar are inevitably hyperactive and disruptive in the classroom. The longer they sit still in behind a desk and then at home in front of the television, the worse their behaviour will be. School sport is a great way of breaking the cycle. No pupil who’s just played a proper football match has the energy to disrupt a classroom. Better than unleash the hyperactivity during maths, pupils should be getting rid of it on the sports field.