A simple lesson on schools: money works

The free fruit, the new central heating, the teachers' laptops, were all paid for with higher taxes

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Damn that Tony Blair. I spent last week stalking hospitals because of him. This week I was sent back to school. It's all because he said in a recent interview, "When it comes to the public services, don't believe the headlines. Go to your local school and hospital to see if there has been additional investment. See for yourself if things are getting better."

Damn that Tony Blair. I spent last week stalking hospitals because of him. This week I was sent back to school. It's all because he said in a recent interview, "When it comes to the public services, don't believe the headlines. Go to your local school and hospital to see if there has been additional investment. See for yourself if things are getting better."

Ah, the world beyond Westminster. We journalists hear talk of it sometimes, echoes of a distant land that appears, like Brigadoon, once every four years, during an election. So I wandered out beyond Zone One - my flak-jacket pressed against my chest - and found some really impressive improvements in the NHS. The money works! Labour policies work! Is the same true of schools? Is the extra government cash making any difference?

I sit waiting outside the headmistress's office at Aylward Primary School in Edgware, North London. I am sweating and I feel sick. The last time I sat here was 15 years ago, after I had set fire to my homework or an innocent fellow pupil (or something). The same malformed teddy bear sits next to me. His left eye has fallen out now, and his arm is hanging off.

Sue Arnold beckons me in. She is a tough Scottish woman in her thirties who has been running Aylward for four years now. "Yes, more money is definitely coming in," she says confidently, handing me paperwork that shows she received a 6.54 per cent increase in her funding this year - more than treble the rate of inflation. "There are plenty of good things to boast about. For example, we've had a phenomenal amount for ICT [computers]. This year we are going to hit the target for one computer to every eight pupils."

That is especially important in this school, which has a disproportionately large number of pupils with no computers at home: of its 489 pupils, 55 per cent are from ethnic minorities and nearly a quarter are poor enough to qualify for free school meals.

She takes me around the plush new computer suite. I had vague memories of one BBC computer that took several weeks to load up, but today their computer centre puts The Independent's IT facilities to shame. Some of the kids scrabbling away at the machines, learning fractions and spelling, would never otherwise use a computer. That is happening all over Britain: Labour policies have eradicated the technological underclass from our schools.

But it's not all good news. Almost every penny that has come in is ear-marked. The school is never given extra money and told, "Okay, you decide the priorities for your school." It's always, "Here's the cash, and we expect you to do x, y and z with it." The school is often grateful for the direction. Being told they simply had to spend money on capital funding, for example, forced them to catch up on that. But a lot of the time the school is being forced to spend money on one thing when there's a greater need elsewhere. As Sue Arnold says, "It's not a sensible way to allocate funds."

Yet, as we wander around the school, there's evidence of the effect the extra cash is having on every corridor. Kids are munching free fruit - another Labour initiative. The school's central heating system has been totally replaced. Teachers are tapping away on personal laptops that have been provided free by the Government.

The picture is much less optimistic at the other end of the educational system, though. Most government money has been focused on primary schools, so I expected the best improvements can be found there. But at my old sixth-form, Woodhouse College in Finchley, I found a scene that could not happily be replicated in the next Labour manifesto. Ann Robinson, the college principal, says that Tony Blair is impressive in some ways but when it comes to hard cash, Further Education is barely better off.

"Well, the good bit is that, under the Tories we had a cut of 1 per cent in our funding year on year. 'Efficiency savings', they were called," she says with a very un-nostalgic laugh. "That's over now. It doesn't happen under Labour. But that's about it, I'm afraid, for good news. It's like starving a man for decades and then saying one day, just as he's about to die, we won't cut you back any further but we're going to keep you on starvation rations for the rest of your life."

The effects of this are clear. A-level class sizes have risen from an average of 19 when I was at the college seven years ago to as high as 24 today. The college still has some of the best A-level results in Britain. Most of the staff who taught me are still there and still brilliant. But you can feel the college - like the entire Further Education sector - straining. The buildings are wildly overcrowded. The staff are paid even less than secondary school teachers.

The improvements in primary schools taught me a simple lesson: if you put more money into schools, they will get better. That seems obvious. Everybody knows that if you lavish money on your house, it will be a nicer place to be. Yet British polical discourse has been so skewed by the right that most people doubt extra investment does any good. That fruit, those computers, the new central heating system, the teachers' laptops: they were all paid for with higher taxes.

But my visits also taught me another lesson. We have only just begun to turn around the culture of low investment in our public services. The investment in primary schools is working, but when it comes to FE we have barely started, and the figures show that secondary schools are somewhere in between. British education needs hard cash increases to carry on for decades.

Yet some voices on the right of the New Labour coalition are now arguing that the Government has already nudged up taxes enough. Derek Scott, Tony Blair's financial advisor for the first six years of Labour government, argued last week that "we certainly can't continue to increase public spending in the next three or four years in the way we have done in the past three or four years." Gordon Brown was also boasting ahead of today's budget that he was slowing the rate of increase in public spending.

No. The government deserves a great deal of credit for driving up spending since 1999, but it cannot stop now. At the 2005 general election, the British people should have a clear choice. Do we want low taxes and lousy public services - to become a mini-America a thousand miles to the east of the mothership? Or do we want higher taxes and improving schools and hospitals - to be a mainstream European country? It is disingenuous to pretend there is a mystical third way. There is a danger that Tony Blair's decision to focus on increasing choice will obscure the issue where he holds all the winning cards: increasing investment.

We have never had this argument candidly in Britain before. Previous Labour governments stressed spending on nationalised industries, and that relegated the debate about the public services to the second division.

Today, that controversy has been settled and the Labour strategy of considerably higher spending in primary schools is working. Do Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have the confidence to increase taxes further and roll these improvements out across the whole education system?

Woodhouse - and all the other secondary schools and sixth-forms in Britain - are waiting.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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