Devil in benefit detail, by Conor Ryan

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The coalition is in trouble on several fronts. Boris has started his re-election campaign with a vengeance, out-Kenning Ken on the curbs on housing benefit. The plans to restrict child benefit to basic rate taxpayers are proving rather more complicated than they were presented. The politics of both policies is probably right, despite Labour’s objections, but the government have erred because of a fundamental weakness: their inattention to detail.

I started to notice this in some of the consultation papers they issued, notably that on the pupil premium. The consultation paper says very little about the detail of the premium, leading the TES and John Howson to assume today that it will benefit some schools to the tune of £1 million while leading to many losers. The same inattention to detail compounded the agony of the Building Schools for the Future and GP fundholding announcements.

Had they thought things through with their housing benefit changes, they would have put a higher cap for inner London or applied the policy only to new applicants, and that would have forced Labour to say whether or not they opposed a change they long wanted to make themselves. At the same time, they would have applied sanctions for continued unemployment to JSA rather than housing benefit, something they could only have done if they guaranteed them at least one job offer or a community alternative. Instead, they have succeeded in giving Boris Johnson a fillip and uniting Lib Dems, Labour and inner London MPs against a policy that sounds harsher by the day.

There are similar problems on child benefit: for parties that criticised the complexity of Gordon Brown’s tax credits to apply new layers of expensive bureaucracy – which will be trebled with separated couples – is bizarre. But it suggests that they have assumed that if they have an idea, they just need to announce it and the details will worry about themselves. With six years experience as an adviser in government, I can share a little secret: they won’t.

Which brings me to the pupil premium, the next accident waiting to happen. I think a pupil premium is a good idea. But, let’s not forget that in practice Labour shifted large sums to schools – far more than the maximum premium – with large numbers of pupils on free school meals, which is why their budgets are already significantly higher than others.

If funding for schools were rising across the board and there were a genuinely open admissions system, it would make sense simply to have a pupil premium starting at say, £1000 a year, rising to £2500 a year for every FSM pupil by 2015, as the Liberal Democrats envisaged it. Since it isn’t, this could cause chaos in coalition constituencies.

For not only is funding not rising, but the government has slashed a host of grants including specialist school funding and school development funds upon which all schools relied. The local authority is to be allowed to redistribute this money (with the local school forum) as it sees fit. Local formulae already build in significant premiums for poorer pupils. So the only way to avoid complete chaos in the school system and an uprising among government backbenchers that would make this week seem like a picnic, is to build in a minimum funding guarantee assuring all schools that they would get at least a standstill per-pupil budget (bearing in mind the teachers’ pay freeze) for the next four years.

And even then, the likelihood is that schools will simply see the premium as a replacement for other cuts and it will have no effect on narrowing the attainment gap, unless there are other levers and sanctions, such as published data on FSM pupils’ achievements by school and financial penalties for those not improving poorer pupils’ results.

Either the government opts for simplicity – earning education secretary Michael Gove his inner Aneurin Bevan as the editor of the TES has it – or complexity that keeps restive backbenchers and anxious headteachers happy. This week should have taught the coalition a lesson that they seem not to have learned before now.

Conor Ryan was senior adviser on education to David Blunkett and Tony Blair. This blog first appeared on Conor’s Commentary

About Conor Ryan

Conor Ryan is director of research and communications at the Sutton Trust. He was senior special adviser to David Blunkett from 1993-2001 and Tony Blair’s senior education adviser from 2005-07. He blogs at Conor's Commentary and has written a number of books on educational issues.

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