Labour's hidden legacy

26 May 11
David Walker

The Conservatives have managed to convince the public that the previous government spent wildly and excessively. But some of Labour’s projects, such as one-to-one teaching, can be shown to have been cost effective in the longer term

Ipsos Mori’s latest figures prove, yet again, the Cameron government’s tactical success in persuading people that New Labour spent wildly and excessively, so justifying the cuts. If the economy were to get worse over the next 12 months, the pollsters asked, who would you blame? Labour, said 22%. Only 10% would hold the Tories responsible.

Yet, as Labour’s tenure fades to grey, evidence mounts allowing us better to judge the effectiveness of what they did spend on.

The Blair and Brown governments launched so many initiatives that a lot of them just got lost in the mists. Labour ministers often did a poor job of extolling their own programmes and educating the public on their purposes.

Among undersold policies was Every Child a Reader. This initiative targeted children just starting infant schools in poor areas. Offering intense one-to-one teaching and talk, ECaR was not cheap: it cost £3,000 a child in the first year and £2,600 in follow-on years. (For our book Unjust Rewards Polly Toynbee and I visited an ECaR school in Wythenshawe in Manchester and were knocked out by its results.)

Now here comes an evaluation by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which shows that by Key Stage 1 assessments (at age seven) ECaR was making a distinct difference, especially among boys, pushing up their test scores and, in principle, equipping them for the transition to junior school and beyond.

Were the gains made a permanent addition to the capacity of those children, they would start junior school, then secondary at a higher level with the likelihood of graduating with higher scores. The IFS says such gains could be worth £6,000 per child in extra earnings over their lifetimes, compared with children who did not participate in ECaR. Plus all sorts of possible ‘social’ gains, such as reduced crime, better parenting and so on.

Here, then, is a social policy intervention that worked, but cost public spending. The Cameron government has been too fly to axe it: instead, it took the ring-fencing off and told schools and councils to find the money from within general grants. Much more localist, of course.

The result, as with Sure Start, is that ECaR programmes wither in some areas but cling to life in patches.

Not all public spending can be as tightly evaluated as this and evaluation necessarily comes after the event, once the data are in. But we can now see that at least some of the ‘wild and excessive’ Labour spending (which at the time was approved by the Tories and Liberal Democrats) can now be shown to have had measurable effect.

Every Child a Reader was, according to the government’s logic, maxing out the nation’s credit card. But it looks to have been so effective that cutting it will actively damage not just the prospects of individuals but Britain’s socio-economic capacity, including the productivity on which future economic growth depends.

David Walker is the former managing director for communications at the Audit Commission

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