That the profession felt patronised by the chancellor’s tin-eared comments in his Budget about enabling schools to invest in the “little extras” isn’t in doubt.
But what is in question is whether the way Philip Hammond presented his new, rather small, £400 million capital investment fund was intentional or just a speech-writing blip.
Did the chancellor understand how schools and heads would take his comments?
(This cash, Hammond explained, would help schools to "buy the little extras they need – a one-off capital payment". He said the government was "investing record amounts in our schools", but acknowledged that "schools' budgets do not stretch to that extra bit of kit that would make such a difference".)
Or were they just penned by some spotty-nosed Treasury speech writer who hasn’t visited a school since they were 18 and were unchallenged until delivered.
In short, was it cock-up or conspiracy?
As Hammond sat down it was easy to imagine the latter. Budget details are often only finalised in the early hours of the morning before. It was annoying, for sure, that the chancellor could deliver such a tone-deaf sentence, but it must surely have been just the result of last-minute policymaking and speech-writing?
Surely Hammond must have been aware of the headteachers’ march against funding cuts a couple of weeks ago and wouldn’t have thinkingly delivered such a line if he’d stopped for a second and wondered how it would go down in schools that have seen 8 per cent real-term cuts in the past five years?
Surely if it had been intentional, education secretary Damian Hinds and his people, so keen to keep the teaching profession on side, would have stepped into stop it?
Yup, surely it was a cock-up.
But what if it wasn’t? What if the chancellor knew exactly what he was doing, and was in fact sending a signal to the profession? What if he genuinely believes that schools are sufficiently funded, that the marching headteachers were exaggerating, and that all schools really need is a little petty change to help then buy the “little extras”?
There are, believe it or not, growing signs that it is the latter. The noises emanating from Whitehall are that Hammond and his Treasury believe that schools are perfectly well funded: that they believe their own dubious statistics about “real terms” and “record” education funding.
Whisper it, but there are those in Westminster, but not in the DfE, who believe that schools got off relatively lightly in the Era of Austerity, and so, while the government’s purse strings are now likely to be relaxed for other sectors and spending departments, education shouldn’t expect the money to start flowing freely any time soon.
Most worryingly, as Jonathan Simons points out in this excellent piece of analysis, Hammond’s Budget was a signpost towards next year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, in which the Chancellor or his successor will set out government spending plans for the three years that follow.
Galling though it may seem to heads and teachers living though rounds of redundancies, shrinking curriculum options and leaking buildings, Hammond’s comments that were so easily dismissed as misjudged or patronising might in fact point to something much, much more worrying. The cuts could be here to stay.
Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes