Although the core schools budget has been largely protected from public spending cuts and the pupil premium will be allocated to the most vulnerable children, Chris Waterman FRSA remains concerned about how austerity measures will impact on children.
One of the most dramatic changes of direction made by the coalition government - although some might deny it - is away from what had become known as the 'Every Child Matters' agenda. Michael Gove's early 're-branding' of the Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) as the Department for Education (DfE) was the first indication of what the priority would be: schools.
Of course, the DfE does retain responsibility for children's services, and there is a Minister for Children, Sarah Teather. However the principal – some would say, the sole – focus of the new administration has been on the schools agenda. In a speech in early November, made in front of an audience of lead members and senior local authority officers, Michael Gove made only brief mention of children's services and focused largely on schools. In the Comprehensive Spending Review, the schools budget was 'protected' with the ring fence retained. This was in sharp contrast to children's services which will need to compete for funding through the local authority corporate 'pot'.
The coalition has been keen to stress that 'we're all in this together' when it comes to austerity measures: the DfE Business Plan 2011-2015 states plainly that “we are committed to transforming our education system so that all children, regardless of their background, thrive and prosper" and that “all children and families receive the support they need, particularly the most vulnerable".
What is not yet clear however is what impact the broader range of coalition policies will have on families with children. Some of the early analyses indicate that the richest will suffer most in cash terms. However, the cumulative affect of the policy decisions; the consequences of the spending decisions that central government have taken; and budget decisions that local government will have to take, will impact disproportionately on children and families. A further concern, backed by early analysis by the Institute of Fiscsal Studies is that it will be some of the most vulnerable families that will be hardest hit.
What is needed, as the Coalition policies are implemented and the spending cuts begin to bite, is a rolling impact assessment on a range of different families. Let us take look at two very different families and how each may be affected by the measure already announced.
Family A has two working parents, one paying higher rate tax, home owning and with two cars. There are two children in education, one in primary and one in secondary school. Unless the main earner is made redundant, the principal impact will be the removal of child benefit. It is unlikely that the older child would have qualified for an educational maintenance allowance.
For this family, who are self-sufficient financially and do not need to call on support services, the other main impact might be the need to pay more for leisure facilities and to use their cars more if there are reductions in public transport. The family will need to tighten its belt, but the quality of life will not be affected significantly. The major concern will be the increase in tuition fees for the older child, but the family is determined that she will apply to university, helping out financially where possible.
Family B has one parent, working part-time in a low paid job and living in rented accommodation. There are two children; one in primary school who has special educational needs, and one in secondary school. For this family, there is no threat to the payment of family allowance, but a real concern about whether the older child will continue to receive the educational maintenance allowance, a significant contribution to the family economy. Free school meals will continue. For this family, however, already dependent upon income support and housing benefit, any reduction in benefits will significantly impact on the quality of life.
Increased charges or reductions in public transport could have a significant affect on the ability of the family to access library and leisure services, in addition to any increased charges. Family B has benefited from the help offered by the family support worker and the respite care offered for the younger child. The significant cuts in the local authority budget will almost certainly mean a reduction in the support services available. Fortunately, the rise in tuition fees will not have any impact on Family B, for whom university is not seen as an option.
In terms of school, the effect on each family will, on the face of it, be identical. The schools' core budget is protected: although each school may well be restricted in the kinds of support services it is able to buy in, where these have been funded by specific grants or by the local authority. Meanwhile, the pupil premium will provide additional resources to schools according to the number of disadvantaged pupils on roll. It will not however address any out-of-school needs.
This is not an argument for not reducing expenditure on education and children's services: in the current circumstances reductions are inevitable. What it is an argument for is an assessment of the cumulative impact of the reductions on actual families in each level of society, and what the sum of the parts will be. This would make it possible to discuss, on the basis of hard evidence, how 'fair' the Coalition policies are. While expecting us all to share the pain is understandable, we must avoid widening the gap between the most vulnerable and the rest. A lot has been made of the moral purpose' of government policies: we must ensure that this ensures that the most vulnerable families are not denied the opportunity to take a full part in our future.
Chris Waterman FRSA is the editor of Children's Services Weekly and edited Take Heed Mr Gove
published in October 2010 and is available from IRIS Press