Gordon Brown’s previous incursions into education policy have been limited.
While overseeing a sharp rise in funding for the Department for Education and Skills, he has remained aloof from key areas of education reform, such as the academies programme and attempts to free secondary schools from the control of town halls.
This year the DfES has £76bn to spend, compared with £24bn in 2000-01.
Apparently more interested in end results rather than the methods for achieving them, he has struck a series of public-service agreements with the DfES obliging the department to meet targets on everything from improving maths and English standards to tackling childhood obesity.
Critics say he has been content to pour in extra cash – such as his famous promise to raise the level of per-pupil capital funding in the state sector to private school levels – rather than trying to improve standards through reform of schools and colleges.
Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at the think tank Civitas, said it was “tragic” that so many extra resources had been directed at “computers and shiny buildings”.
“The real reason private schools perform so much better is because of their smaller class sizes.”
When the chancellor has intervened, it has usually been with education policies explicitly linked to competitiveness. Universities have been on the receiving end of initiatives to encourage research that can be commercialised or turned into job-creating enterprises.
Alarmed at the decline in scientists coming out of schools, in the last budget Mr Brown announced an entitlement for all pupils to study “the full range of science subjects” at GCSE level. After-school science clubs were also thrown some cash.
Skills and adult learning, seen as key to Britain’s future economic competitiveness, has been another focus of interest for the chancellor. However, his first flagship scheme, Individual Learning Accounts, announced in his first Budget, was destroyed by fraud and proved to be a costly mistake.