(Deputy) heads on the block

Ed Balls’s announcement that he would cut £2 billion from the education budget by reducing the number of senior managers in schools is the first substantial contribution from a minister to the debate on cuts.

The level of detail is welcome. As Conor Ryan has argued, we’re in desperate need of a grown-up debate about public spending. But let’s hope his colleagues in the Cabinet can come up with better proposals when their turn comes to wield the knife. Because what’s on the table so far leaves a lot to be desired.

Good senior managers are at the heart of good schools. As Francis Gilbert has said, “senior managers are often the best teachers; pedagogues who have spent decades honing their teaching skills, professionals who have the respect of pupils, staff and parents”.

So why cut them? It looks like Ed Balls is taking the line of least resistance. His proposals will deliver savings through “natural wastage” of senior staff and management teams running multiple schools (an idea borrowed from the NCSL). It’s a low-pain strategy to alleviate the pressure on his department to find savings.

Meanwhile, the Government’s totems of reduced staffing ratios and new school buildings will be safe. Both are big ticket items with debateable educational value. But the political and financial capital that has been invested in these programmes put them beyond reproach.

Ed Balls may well succeed in cutting the education budget. But by allowing wasteful high-profile schemes to survive at the expense of more humble spending priorities he may also end up delivering less value per pound of public spending.