Schools will face real-terms funding cuts if the Conservatives win the general election, David Cameron has revealed.
In a speech this afternoon, the prime minister said the Conservatives would maintain current levels of per-pupil funding, but admitted that this would not rise in line with inflation.
Mr Cameron acknowledged that the decision would be "difficult" for some schools, but said that with pupil numbers rising the policy commitment would mean more money going into schools overall.
However, school leaders have warned that the real-terms drop in funding will force some schools to make staff cuts in order to balance the books.
Sam Freedman, who was an adviser to former education secretary Michael Gove during his time at the Department for Education, said the change, combined with the “double whammy” of rising pension costs and National Insurance bills, would equate to a cut of at least 10 per cent to school budgets in real terms during the next Parliament.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said the announcement amounted to the government “declaring war on schools”.
“The last couple of years have been very tight for schools anyway,” he added. “I don’t think there is any more fat left in the system to cut, and this could force schools to make difficult staffing decisions. This would be a last resort but there is not much else left for schools to cut.”
Peter Kent, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said schools would be “very concerned” about the announcement.
Dr Kent, who is also headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, added: “A significant number of schools are already finding it extremely difficult to provide a basic, sustainable level of education for their students.”
Speaking at the Kingsmead academy school in Enfield, North London, Mr Cameron said: “Good school places need money and we will make sure our schools are properly funded.
“Today, I can make this commitment about Conservative plans. 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.
“So I can tell you, with a Conservative government, the amount of money following your child into the school will not be cut. In Treasury speak, flat cash per pupil. And as the number of pupils in our schools is going up, that means the amount of money going into our schools will do so too.”
After his speech, the prime minister confirmed that the Tory commitment would mean government support per child being frozen over the next five years, but said that many schools had already shown they could cope "brilliantly" with pressures on budgets.
“What it means is that the cash sum that follows your child into the school will not be cut,” Mr Cameron said. “Because the number of children going to school is going up, this has the implication that in cash terms the schools budget is going to be rising.
“I accept that is a difficult decision for some schools, because the amount of cash per child is not going up by inflation. The amount of cash is staying the same.
“But I think that schools have demonstrated, brilliantly, over the last five years that they can be more efficient, they can be more effective, they can particularly make their budgets work better because many of them are now academies, and have greater freedoms and greater abilities to run their schools in the way they see fit.
“I think this is a realistic and sensible, practical way to make sure we go on delivering a great education for young people, but without putting too much pressure on the budget.”
Tristram Hunt MP, Labour's shadow education secretary, said: "The Tory claims on protecting schools are unravelling as David Cameron has been forced to admit that his plans will see a real-terms cut to spending on schools.
"The truth is that you can't protect schools when you have plans to take spending as a share of gross domestic product back to levels not seen since the 1930s.
"Labour has always prioritised schools and would be able to do so again because we have a balanced approach to bringing down the deficit, unlike the Tories' risky plan not just to balance the books but to cut for year after year afterwards."
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