Speakers’ Corner – Building for the Future

 ‘The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.’ 

Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the National Health Service, is often quoted when tough political choices must be made.  His political beliefs were inviolate, and his colours were nailed to the mast, or should I say, the red flag.

Bevan stated the obvious: that there were crucial tenets that had to be prioritised.  He wasn’t just discussing Health, which he argued was a universal right.  He emphasised that all socialist beliefs must be prioritised.  And this meant education, wealth distribution and opportunity.  Adhering to such principles went out of fashion during Thatcherism and only glimmered during the Brown/Blair years of the 2000s.  Of course, Bevan, tongue in cheek, suggested that these priorities must be attended to and delivered as if a devout worshipper at the Methodist Chapel, Synagogue, Mosque, the Kirk or the Cathedrals of Rome or England.

            Fashion and trends come and go, but principles and core values should be foundation stones.  Never in my lifetime have the ideas of equality and fairness ever been more relevant to the events of the last week.  Nor has there been a deeper insight into political ideology and, ultimately, political choices.  Of course, I’m speaking about the latest crisis to befall the UK government.  Consumable concrete, building ingredients that we now know have a built-in shelf life.  Consumerism is rearing its ugly head in construction. No doubt RAAC was used to save money in schools and many other parts of our civic structures, but that short-termism was egged on by civil servants, politicians, and the building industry.  But it’s all coming home to roost, as long as the nests are not on a roof that might collapse.

            This Speakers’ Corner is where facts must dominate.  So, I’ll quote you some statistics and mention the sources, all researched in twenty minutes.  It’s depressing to think that this information isn’t leading the news bulletins, but the fact that they aren’t provides further evidence that the UK state, as a government, is crumbling like the RAAC-invested school roofs.

            So – here we go – some basic facts:

  • In England, school spending per pupil fell by 9% in real terms between 2010 and 2020.  This was the largest cut in school expenditure for 40 years.
  • In England, spending on 16-18-year-olds fell by 14% in real terms between 2010 – 2020.
  • In England, spending per pupil in secondary schools is £6,900 in 2022-23.
  • In England, spending per pupil in primary schools is £ 6,100 in 2022-23.
  • Combine these figures, and it is 30% lower than what was being spent in the 2000s.
  • Spending per pupil in Scotland 2021-22 was £7,600, higher than any other nation in the UK.
  • The Scottish government has a Schools for the Future programme that was started in 2019.  So far, 117 schools have received funds for improvements.
  • In Argyll, after phase 1 and 2, £44m has been spent:
  • Campbeltown Grammar – £11.7m
  • Dunoon Primary – £5m
  • Kirn Primary – £3.9m
  • Oban High – £24m
  • The Scottish Government has another initiative called the Learning Estate Investment, which is a fund of £2billion.  These are schools that require a new build.  The Scottish government website details the many schools that are being considered for a complete re-build.

All this information was extracted from the websites of the BBC, The Institute of Fiscal Studies, The UK Government, and the Scottish Government.  I hear you say statistics, damn statistics, and I know you can get any number wanted by simply altering dates or including erroneous data.  But these facts speak for themselves.  As the National Audit Office (NAO) reported in June this year:

‘The Department for Education (DfE) calculated it needed about £5.3 billion per year from 2021 to 2025 in order to maintain school buildings and mitigate the most serious risks. This was based on a survey of the condition of school buildings. It instead requested about £4 billion per year based on the rate at which it could increase spending. HM Treasury allocated about £3.1 billion per year. As a result, actual funding allocations from the government have been more than 40% below government-assessed levels of need.’

The Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded:

‘Spending on school buildings is low in historical terms compared with need levels. This is the view of the independent National Audit Office and the Department for Education itself. The current crisis illustrates how costly failing to keep on top of necessary investment in buildings and infrastructure can be.’

Politics and government are about priorities, and in Scotland, since the inception of the Parliament in 1997, education has been a fundamental manifesto pledge for the Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP and Green administrations.  In fact, it could be said that learning is a core value of the Scottish electorate. But this discussion goes deeper.  The latest crisis is surely another example of how the concept of the UK is failing all its citizens.  The UK is broken.  An undemocratic system for electing UK administrations and a lack of power for nations and regions to implement local solutions for their needs. 

And for us Scots, a chance to break free of the straight jacket, to create an independent nation rooted in fairness and equality, where health, education, housing, dignity, and opportunity are human rights.  A Scotland where the priority of our politicians of all persuasions is to ensure that our children are safe in their classrooms.