David Cameron apparently had some good news for parents today, pledging that funding for state schools per pupil would not be cut under a Conservative government.
The prime minister said: “We’ve demonstrated in the past five years that we can protect the schools budget while reducing the deficit and we will do so again.”
But within hours Labour said the claims about protecting schools were “unravelling”. Who’s right?
Mr Cameron’s promise not to cut the money spent on schools was, he said, “in Treasury speak, flat cash per pupil”. He said the total money available to schools would rise because the number of school pupils is expected to go up.
Flat cash means not adjusting for inflation, which is another way of saying that there will be a real-terms cut in the money spent on each pupil.
That would mean schools would actually get a worse deal under a Conservative government than they got over five years of coalition government.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says current spending on schools went up from £39.7 billion in 2010–11 to £41.6 billion in 2014–15 in today’s prices. That’s a real-terms increase of 4.7 per cent.
BUT the number of pupils in state schools went up by 270,000 or 3.9 per cent over the same period. So spending per pupil actually only edged upwards by around 1 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015.
While there was a (tiny) real-terms rise per pupil over the last parliament, there would be a real-terms cut under a Tory government.
To put this in historical context, spending on English schools went up by an average of 5.6 per cent per year between 1998 and 2009, according to the IFS.
What does today’s promise NOT cover?
Other education spending
Mr Cameron was careful to restrict his remarks to spending on schools today, which suggests that the total education budget will not be ring-fenced against cuts.
There’s no word yet on what the Conservatives plan to do to spending on the under-fives, provision for 16-19-year-olds and universities.
None of these areas were protected over the last parliament, although the introduction of tuition fees meant that total spending on higher education from public and private sources went up.
The budget for capital spending – school repairs, for example – was not protected under the coalition. In fact, it fell by a whopping 34 per cent in real terms between 2010/11 and 2014/15.
Today’s promise of flat cash protection does not cover the capital budget, leaving open the possibility that secondary schools left disappointed by the 2011 cancellation of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme could have to wait even longer for a rebuild.
The pupil premium?
A glaring absence from Mr Cameron’s speech today was any mention of the pupil premium.
This was a flagship Liberal Democrat policy designed to give extra cash to schools to improve the outcomes of disadvantaged pupils – usually children who are in care or claiming free school meals.
The cash pot amounted to £2.5bn in 2014/15 year and the Lib Dem schools minister, David Laws, says the premium will be protected in real terms in 2015/16.
What are the Conservatives going to do with it?
It’s an important question, because if Mr Cameron’s promise to protect schools spending does not include the pupil premium, it means the total amount of money going into schools could fall in cash and real terms, making today’s pledge look very shaky indeed.
And then there would be an issue of fairness. The IFS puts it like this: “The introduction of the pupil premium means that more deprived schools are likely to have seen larger increases in funding than less deprived ones, making the school funding system more redistributive than it was in 2010.”
It follows that a system where the premium is cut or disappears altogether would be less redistributive.
After a day of radio silence, a Conservative spokesman told us the party has no plans to scrap it. “We like it. We will continue it, we just haven’t set out our plans today.”
But he confirmed that Mr Cameron’s actual promise to protect schools funding per pupil does NOT include the pupil premium.
Mr Cameron was fairly open about the fact that what the Conservatives are proposing today is a real-terms cut to spending on schools. And that’s the good news.
The Tories have left open the possibility of cutting spending on early years provision and on higher and further education.
There is little hope that the kind of big government capital spending on school buildings that was a hallmark of the Labour years will make a comeback any time soon.
Questions remain over the status of the pupil premium, an increasing important funding stream that was not covered by Mr Cameron’s promise today.
The Conservatives have told us they won’t scrap the premium, but if they don’t protect it in real terms it will mean head teachers have even less money to spend.