Exclusive: School funds no longer key issue, say Tories

Party sources say billions extra pledged for schools mean funding problems have 'dropped off bottom' of pre-election polling. But heads are not convinced

Funding: piles of coins

The Conservative Party believes it has already done enough to neutralise school funding as an election issue by pledging to inject billions extra into the system, Tes can reveal.

The Tories say their own polling shows that the electorate knows the money – due to kick in over three years from April – is on its way.

Lack of awareness of schools' financial plight was seen as a key reason for the Conservatives' lower than hoped for performance in the 2017 general election.

But sources say the pledge of more money that Boris Johnson made at the end of August has already been enough to prevent the issue doing damage to the Tories in December's poll. 

“Education funding as an issue has dropped off the bottom of all polling that we’re seeing because people know it’s coming,” a source close to education secretary Gavin Williamson told Tes.


Williamson: Teacher pay will be 'levelled up'

Read: Some schools ‘won’t get enough funds for teacher pay'

Funding: 16,500 schools 'worse off', say unions


However, teaching unions point to the cuts they say many schools will suffer next year and Labour claims the Tories are "deluded".

Meanwhile the two main parties are continuing to compete over money for education, with both signalling yesterday that there would be more capital funding for school buildings if they got into power.

The School Cuts Coalition, a campaign group made up of the main teaching unions, has updated its interactive map that shows how many schools in England will actually have less funding next year than they did in 2015. 

'Inflationary'

The coalition says the Conservatives' proposed increase in school funding is "inflationary" and does not cover rising school costs.

But it was enough for the school funding campaign group Worth Less? to call off its march in Westminster planned for September, which was set to mobilise around 2,000 headteachers. 

However, last night, the group's coordinator Jules White told Tes that thousands of heads "were still unconvinced that the recent announcement will make the really significant improvements that are so urgently required".

"Schools are continuing to prop up social care and other services, while a teacher supply crisis will continue to limit our ability to continue with this support and also drive up costs too,” he said.

Mr White said the Conservative thinking "seemed out of touch", and added: "Let’s hope Mr Williamson isn’t".

But a source close to the education secretary claimed the school funding battle was "moving away from" Labour. Although he admitted that while there would be no extra money this year, he said schools were now able to plan for the future  and that teachers and school leaders were “already having discussions about it”.

Teachers and school leaders knew that funding for maintained schools would begin within five months after the election, the source said, adding: “The one thing that has made the real difference is the three years [of funding] for schools [with pupils aged] five to 16 in that everybody knows it’s not just going to be for next year, but the year after that and the year after that."

Reversing cuts

Experts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies say the "£14 billion" the Conservatives pledged between 2020-21 and 2022-23 only equates to £7.1 billion after double and triple counting is disregarded.

And they say it is only worth around £4.3 billion once inflation is taken into consideration. However, they say it's enough to reverse the real-terms cuts since 2010.

Under Conservative plans for "levelling up" school funding, every secondary school will receive a minimum of £5,000 per pupil next year, and every primary schools will receive a minimum of £4,000 from 2021-22.

Critics say this means schools in more affluent areas will benefit more than those in deprived areas, that had been funded at higher rates because they had more pupils from deprived backgrounds.

But a Tory source cited the situation in the Leicestershire County Council area as being an example of why this is fair. Schools there were receiving "deprived pupils" from the neighbouring the Leicester City Council area, he said, yet the money hadn't been following the pupils.

"The money goes to where the school is located rather than the needs of the pupils and that’s what’s really annoyed people," the source said. 

'Deluded'

But Labour's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “The Tories are deluded if they think education funding is an issue that is disappearing anytime soon." 

Kevin Courtney, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “We will do everything we can to ensure the public know the truth, it is appalling that the government continues to underfund and under-deliver on their responsibility to the nation’s schools."

Both Labour and the Lib Dems say they would reverse school cuts, but neither has yet announced how much extra cash they would put into the system.

Lib Dem education spokesperson Layla Moran MP said her party would make an announcement about funding next week. She said : "I'm astounded and appalled that the Tories don't think education funding is an issue in this election. They are completely out of touch.

“The fact is that our schools are still in a funding crisis, and that's clear to see for teachers, parents and pupils.

“The government's announcement will only return funding to 2015 levels in 2022-23, meaning schools won't have seen a real-terms increase in per-pupil spending for over seven years. That's an entire cohort of children.”

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