Richard Garner: Bonfire of the deputy heads – but can it really save us £2bn?

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The Independent Online

The phrase "U-turn" is often bandied about too frequently to describe minor changes in government policy. That was not the case yesterday.

Six months ago, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was insisting that school spending would be ring-fenced against any future cuts in public spending. Now he is outlining plans for a £2bn reduction in the education budget.

Mr Balls can claim that financial realities have prompted the change of heart. He was also claiming yesterday that the proposed savings would not necessarily mean an overall cut in the education budget and that you could have a modest increase in the budget targeted at frontline services while savings are made elsewhere. The question is whether what he outlined yesterday amounts to enough savings to warrant his headline figure of £2bn.

The main argument was over an alleged saving of £500m brought about by clustering comprehensives into "federations" of schools – thus having an overall headteacher in charge of, say, six different schools. This, he argued, would cut 3,000 senior posts. Headteachers' leaders were furious at the suggestion that 3,000 mainly deputy headteachers' salaries could be saved with the suggestion the staff involved were no more than mere bureaucrats. Their argument was perhaps best summed up by Christina McAnea, the national secretary of Unison, who said: "One person's bureaucrat is another person's invaluable administrator." It would take a long time to make the £500m savings Mr Balls would like to see.

The good news for Labour, though, is that education is an ageing profession – with 55 per cent of heads expected to retire by 2012.

The other savings are on teachers' salaries – the next rise is due in 2011 and the pressure for rises may recede as more people apply for teaching as a career because of the economic uncertainty.

However, on Mr Balls's third front, reducing procurement costs for services to schools, it will be hard to deliver. The NUT has a point when it says there would be savings if they were still all under local government control but – with so many free standing privately run academies being set up – economies of scale on contracts to school services will be harder to deliver.

Mr Balls deserves some credit for candour. But whether this amounts to a thought-out package with savings of £2bn remains to be seen.

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