Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn clashed over school funding at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Labour leader suggested the Conservatives are breaking their manifesto promise to protect money for schools, saying: “This government is cutting the schools budget by 6.5 per cent by 2020.”
Mrs May responded by saying repeatedly: “We have protected the schools budget.”
How to make sense of this? Should you be worried if you have school-age children?
This is one of those annoying FactChecks where there’s a way in which both sides can be right.
This is the promise the Conservatives made in their 2015 General Election manifesto:
Have they kept this vow to “maintain the amount of money that follows each child into school”?
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who have just published a detailed paper on education spending in England, it depends on whether we are talking cash or real terms (adjusting for inflation).
In cash terms, funding per pupil has not been cut. Factor in inflation though, and there is a real terms cut of at least 6.5 per cent between 2014/15 and 2019/20, according to the IFS.
In fact, the IFS thinks the real reduction could closer to 8 per cent as school costs have risen faster than inflation in the wider economy.
Either way, the think-tank says this is the first real-terms cut to everyday schools spending for at least 20 years.
New funding formula
There’s an added layer of complication: at the same time as this real-terms cut is being implemented, the government is also making the biggest change to the way schools are funded for 25 years.
The plan is to replace the complicated system of 152 different formulae that various local authorities use to allocate money to schools with one National Funding Formula.
Across the whole of England, the new NFF is supposed to be cost-neutral: it doesn’t change the basic picture of a cash-terms flat settlement/real-terms cut.
But locally, there will be some councils and schools that win and some that lose.
Schools in Inner London stand to lose the most from the reforms, while other regions will see spending per pupil go up:
Parents can check how their children may be affected by going to this government website, clicking on “Impact of the Proposed Schools NFF” and entering the school’s details.
The government says it will smooth out the potential gains and losses with transitional arrangements and protections until 2020 (that’s the difference between the grey and green columns on the IFS graph above).
After that, it’s hard to know what will happen.
The IFS says the government’s silence on this is “a major source of uncertainty” for schools, as they can’t rule out further unexpected cuts after 2020.
Extra funding for the transitional period means the total cut should be slightly less severe than would have been the case if the government had not decided to throw some extra money into the mix.
Across England as a whole, the bottom line is the same: average funding stays flat in cash terms, but is being cut after inflation.
But some schools will get a worse deal than average from the NFF, and this will come on top of existing real-terms cuts, so we are likely to carry on hearing from disgruntled teachers and parents at those schools.
Arguably, the Conservatives left themselves enough wiggle room when they made their manifesto promise to claim to be protecting funding for schools overall.
In nominal terms, it’s true that they haven’t reduced average per-pupil spending.
But they have introduced a new system in which there will be significant winners and losers.
Labour are right to say that Theresa May is presiding over an era of real-terms cuts to schools – the first in a generation.