This is more than just spin. Spin’s not a great thing – but it’s understandable. After all, what government wouldn’t want to try and present itself and its policies in the best possible light?
But what happens if a journalist, an MP or perhaps a teacher sees through that spin and asks a straightforward factual question to get to the actual truth of the matter?
Doesn’t the government then have a duty to give an honest and truthful answer, especially if it’s about funding from taxpayers – about our money?
Premium blow: Teachers 'sickened' as DfE delays cash for poor pupils
Investigation: 'Come clean' on funding gap, DfE told
Last June, the government unveiled a "Covid catch-up plan” for education backed with a £1 billion funding package. It included £350 million to pay for the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), along with £650 million to be shared between individual schools.
The government said at the time that the cash earmarked for the scheme would be in addition to the £7.1 billion three-year school funding settlement announced in 2019.
That immediately raised suspicions – it seemed like a very precise point to make. If this was new money for education, as the announcement seemed to imply, then why not just say so? Why instead make a very specific point about a school funding settlement?
So Tes asked the DfE to clarify whether the entire £1 billion package was new money from the Treasury or not. Had some come from existing DfE budgets?
DfE wouldn't say where £1bn Covid catch-up funding came from
The department would not give a straight answer. It would only repeat its slightly obscure point that: "This £1 billion catch-up package will be additional to the core schools budget paid out through the national funding formula, which is increasing by £2.6 billion next year."
Asked again where exactly the extra money would be coming from, a DfE spokesperson said they had nothing further to add. It took the best part of nine months to actually get an answer.
Finally, two weeks ago, it emerged that the government’s public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, had uncovered the reality: it turns out that hundreds of millions of pounds of that catch-up package was not new money for education at all.
The NAO reported that while 80 per cent of the £1 billion was new Treasury funding, the DfE took the remaining 20 per cent “from other budgets".
Does this matter? Well yes, actually, it really does. First of all, £200 million is a lot of money, and if that’s been taken from other DfE budgets then other education priorities will presumably suffer.
Will schools get the funds they need for Covid recovery?
This is about whether schools have the funds they need to begin the huge education recovery effort needed post-Covid.
However, we don’t know what will be affected because when Tes asked the DfE where it was finding this money, it wouldn’t say – only briefing that it had come from “natural savings”.
It's a vague explanation likely to puzzle teachers unaware that the DfE had spare funding sloshing around.
When concerns were raised last June that the catch-up money may just be recycled DfE funding rather than new cash, they came a day after the DfE had confirmed that a £55 million grant aimed at Year 7 students who start secondary school behind their peers was not being replaced.
Since then, the impression that school funding is being squeezed through stealth has only grown. Before Christmas the government quietly announced that it would be calculating the number of children attracting pupil premium funding for 2021-22 according to a census from last October rather than one in January, as schools had been expecting.
'Scandalous' change to pupil premium funding
The result of what heads described as a "scandalous" funding change is that schools will have to wait at least an extra year for pupil premium funding for children who became eligible for free school meals between November 2020 and January 2021.
So how much of this pupil premium money – supposed to help the poorest children in our schools – has gone missing in total? Once again, we don’t know because the DfE won’t tell us.
Despite repeated questioning from Tes, the department has thus far refused to release a national figure quantifying the impact of the change on school budgets.
The DfE has said the requested information is dependent on census data and that figures for January 2021 would be publicly available in June. But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the NEU teaching union, has argued that the government must know already how much it will save from the pupil premium change and should "come clean" now.
An influential parliamentary committee has done no better in getting answers. In February schools minister Nick Gibb was told to write to the Commons Education Select Committee clarifying the amount of money the DfE would save as a result of the pupil premium policy shift.
It took Mr Gibb more than five weeks to reply and when he did, he still wouldn’t give a figure. He said the data from the January census was still being collected, despite the fact that the official census return had been five weeks ago, on 17 February.
More confusion over £700m catch-up fund
These are not isolated incidents. For example, confusion came with the DfE’s February announcement of a “new £700 million” plan to help pupils catch up on lost learning. Notes at the bottom of the press release revealed that actually it wasn’t £700 million in new money after all, as £300 million had already been announced by the prime minister the previous month.
But what about that remaining £400 million? Was this actually new funding from the Treasury? Or was it another case of the DfE moving around money already allocated to education? Tes asked the question immediately, within minutes of the press release, embargoed for the following morning, arriving in our inboxes.
However, the DfE was unable to provide an answer. After some initial back and forth, Tes was told that the department would get back to us “tomorrow”. Of course by the time tomorrow arrived, the DfE had already got its story out there with most news outlets duly reporting that schools were getting £400 million in new catch-up funding.
At Tes we left it open, making it clear that once again the DfE had failed to answer a crucial question on school funding. After further repeated questioning, the DfE stated that the level of detail requested by Tes about where the fund was coming from would be among information published by the Treasury at defined budgetary moments.
No answer on Budget day
So, what happened on Budget day on 3 March? The Budget document merely confirmed that there would be “£400 million to help young people catch up on lost learning as a result of Covid-19, as part of a total £700 million package”. It still gave no clue as to where that money was coming from.
The truth on that point didn’t finally emerge until two days later when Mr Gibb answered a parliamentary question on the £400 million and revealed that “while over half of this is new funding, the department has contributed towards the cost of this package through reprioritising funding from within the department’s existing budgets”. So the money wasn’t all new education funding at all, as Tes originally suspected.
Which DfE budgets have been “reprioritised”? Which bits of education have lost out as result? We still don’t know because yet again the department refused to say when Tes asked.
This doesn’t just matter because this is about public money. It is also a practical issue. As Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, told Tes: “As schools try and plan, they need to know what money they've got to play with.” And it is an issue of trust. To quote Ms Hillier again: "It is vital that we have complete honesty about where the money is coming from.”
Trust in the DfE among teachers has already plummeted since the pandemic began. And the department’s repeated lack of transparency over school funding threatens to make an already bad situation much, much worse.