Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Chancellor's Biggest Gamble

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Chancellor's Biggest Gamble

Article excerpt

IN TWO IMPORTANT respects, Gordon Brown deserves congratulations for his latest spending review. First, he is right to claim credit for managing the economy in such a way that he is able to hold down spending on unemployment benefit and debt interest, and so release extra money for frontline public services such as health, education and transport. Second, he is right to warn his own party, and promise the rest of us, that no further big increases in total public spending will take place beyond the figures announced yesterday. After 2006, he says that spending will grow at just 2.5 per cent a year - that is, in line with estimated economic growth. If Labour sticks to this commitment, it should mean no further significant increases in the total tax burden, as a share of national income. This is an important and wholly welcome development.

Beyond that, however, the Chancellor's strategy is flawed. Yesterday he announced the results from his third spending review, and for the third time promised fundamental reform of the public services. The sad truth is that his reforms are shallow, ill-conceived affairs. Instead of freeing headteachers, hospital managers and other people with direct responsibility for delivering services at local level, he seems determined to strangle them in red tape.

Each will have detailed targets to meet, and each subject to a regime of inspection that seems destined to reward orthodoxy more than induce innovation. They are given no incentive to change.

Schools, which are already subject to targets and Ofsted inspections, provide a terrible warning. Official statistics suggest soaring numeracy and literacy results among 11-year-olds; yet independent research shows that real progress has been much slower and that teachers have simply become more skilful at coaching children to pass their SATs tests. Were things otherwise, London schools would now be far better than they used to be. Parents know that, with honourable exceptions, this is not the case. To extend this system of targets and inspections to much of the rest of the public sector is to learn precisely the wrong lesson from the Ofsted experience. …

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