Ed Miliband today pledged to protect the overall education budget, including early years, schools and the further education sector in “real terms” should he lead his party to victory in the forthcoming general election.
In an attempt to draw a clear dividing line with the Conservatives, the Labour leader said he would ensure that spending on education rose “by at least as much as inflation” if he became prime minister in May.
Last week, prime minister David Cameron pledged to protect school budgets only at current levels, meaning schools would suffer a real-terms cut owing to inflation and the effects of higher pension contributions.
Speaking at his alma mater, Haverstock School in North London, Mr Miliband said his opposite number’s reluctance to commit to spending for early years and the FE sector meant “we can only assume he is planning big cuts” in these areas.
And he accused the Conservatives of intending to sacrifice education to the demands of a "dangerous and extreme" policy of reducing public spending as a proportion of GDP to levels not seen since the 1930s, with the aim of eliminating the deficit and running a budget surplus within the next Parliament.
"You can't build a 21st-century economy on falling investment in education,” Mr Miliband said. "This government used to say it would protect schools. But last week the prime minister abandoned that commitment and said he would cut schools spending, driven by his plan to cut back public spending as a share of national income to 1930s levels, an era when children left school at 14.”
He added: "All of us know that the success of our children depends so much on the first steps children take in the early years and the further education they go on to."
Cutting both early years and FE would “short-change our children's future” he said, adding: "If we are to act on the principle that education is the passport to success in life for individuals and our nation's economy, we must be willing to invest in the early years, in schools and in further education.
"The next Labour government will protect the overall education budget. Rising budgets, protected in real terms every year. Not cut as they will be under the Conservatives.”
The decision brings Labour into line with the Liberal Democrats, who yesterday promised to protect spending from early years through to FE if they were to help form the next government.
The move to protect funding was widely welcomed by classroom leaders with the ATL teaching union stating that it was a “highly significant and important” commitment to education.
“Schools and colleges will not achieve the ambitious goals rightly set for them without adequate funding,” ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said. “Labour has recognised this need. Ed Miliband’s very important, and significant, pledge to protect education funding in real terms, including early years and further education, is a highly significant and important commitment to all children and young people.”
The NASUWT said his proposals would have “strong resonance with many teachers and school leaders”, and that it would offer a “stark choice” for voters come polling day.
But according to policy experts, the promise to ring-fence the overall education budget would not offer the complete protection that was implied.
The commitment refers to overall budgets rather than per-pupil spending, meaning that schools will be affected by the projected rise in pupil numbers.
Sam Freedman, director of research, evaluation and impact at Teach First – who served as policy adviser to Michael Gove when he was education secretary – said on Twitter that the pledge might not differ too greatly from the Conservative proposal, which would amount to a 10 per cent cut.
“If Labour's pledge is 'real terms' on current spending BUT not per pupil it's not that different from Tory pledge,” Mr Freedman tweeted. “There will be 650,000 more pupils by 2020 – if that's not included it basically eats away the inflationary increase.”
And he added: “If Labour funding pledge isn't per pupil then I estimate it's an effective cut of 9 per cent on the 5-16 schools budget. Tories = 10.5 per cent.”
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