Budget boosts tempered by policy small print
As George Osborne addressed the House last Wednesday, headteachers and governing bodies would have been forgiven for anticipating the Chancellor's announcement on schools funding with trepidation.
But despite fears of cuts of as much as 25 per cent, MPs were told that the Department for Education's budget as a whole will experience only a 3.4 per cent cut over the next four years. School spending will see a real-terms annual rise of 0.1 per cent.
It was hailed by Education Secretary Michael Gove as the best settlement of any Department outside of Health, which the Conservatives had already pledged to ring-fence along with international aid.
But on closer inspection, the figures showed that the real-terms increase to school spending was wholly reliant on the #163;2.5 billion pupil premium.
The pupil premium is one of the Liberal Democrats' key policies, which targets deprivation funding to individual children, handing schools additional money to be spent as they see fit.
Before entering into the Coalition, the Lib Dems had always called for the money to come on top of an overall increase in school spending, and that the money would come from outside the school budget.
Last Wednesday's announcement showed that this would not be the case, and last weekend the Education Secretary admitted some schools would lose out as around #163;500 million of the premium comes from within the education budget.
Mr Gove told the BBC Politics Show: "I think there will be some schools who will have less funding. At the moment we are consulting on how the pupil premium, which is the additional #163;2.5 billion being made available to the poorest students, will be allocated.
"But it depends precisely on whether or not we allow the pupil premium to go to slightly more children or we target it very narrowly on the very poorest. Depending on that, you can then make a calculation about which schools will find that they are actually losing funding and which schools will find that they are gaining funding.
"It is a very tight settlement and that does mean - and I will not run away from it - that there will be some schools that will have less."
Responding to the admission, shadow education secretary Andy Burnham said Nick Clegg had been "sold a pup" by the Conservatives.
Mr Burnham said: "When the Lib Dems and Labour were in talks after the election, this was an issue upon which those talks foundered.
"The Lib Dems said to us: 'The Tories have agreed to fund the pupil premium over and above the schools budget. Will you do the same?' And Labour said: 'Well, we can't because the money isn't there to give a pupil premium over and above.'
"And that is why the political significance of this issue is huge. Mr Clegg was sold a pup - he has not got what he said he had got and he has not been able to reassure his MPs on this point."
Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, claimed the pupil premium "does not stand the test of scrutiny".
"Masquerading behind the pretence of fairness and protection of funding, the truth is that school budgets have been plundered to pay for the pupil premium," Ms Keates said. "It is not additionality when, in real terms, money has been wiped off school budgets to fund the pupil premium.
"The pupil premium is an illusion, and so another totemic Liberal Democrat policy bites the dust."
But the Lib Dems have pointed to the premium as a victory for schools. Without their flagship policy, schools would only be seeing cuts to their budgets.
James Kempton, Lib Dem councillor for Islington and author of the party's education policy paper, said when it came to recessions people must look at the wider picture.
"It is difficult to be positive when you are talking in the context of a massive programme of cuts," he said. "But in that regard education has done really well," he added. "Without the pupil premium, schools spending would be going up by less than #163;2.5 billion.
"If you ask, is it fair that when all budgets are tight that funding be targeted to the most disadvantaged, yes it is. If you ask, is it fair that funding be ring-fenced for the most disadvantaged children, again, I would say it is. The whole emphasis is built on fairness - disadvantaged children are not doing well enough in the current system."
Although the criteria of how the pupil premium will be allocated is yet to be decided, the strong likelihood is that it will be linked to children on free school meals. And with any introduction of a new funding formula, there are likely to be winners and losers.
John Howson, managing director of Education Data Surveys, a sister company to The TES, and also president of the Liberal Democrat Education Association, said the situation could become politically difficult for Mr Gove once his fellow Tory MPs begin to realise schools in their constituencies are losing out.
"If you are a poor school in a relatively affluent area, with falling pupil rolls and a budget deficit, you will be staring at some very difficult decisions," Professor Howson said. "But if you are a popular inner-city London school with high free school meal numbers, you will be breathing a sigh of relief.
"Once Graham Stuart (MP for Beverley and Holderness, north Yorkshire, and chair of the education select committee) finds out that schools in his constituency are losing out to schools in Labour areas, he may want to speak to Michael Gove to find out what's going on."
Mr Stuart's constituency includes areas in East Riding of Yorkshire, which is the eighth lowest-funded education authority in the country, catering for schools in sparse rural areas as well as deprived coastal towns.
Mr Stuart told The TES: "I would be concerned if this were to lead to additional disadvantage for rural areas that already struggle and do not get a fair share of the national resources. But we do not know how the pupil premium will be allocated as yet, so I wouldn't like to assume that is going to happen."
Many pupils who are eligible for free school meals, but do not claim them, may find themselves being gently pushed by their schools to take up the offer. Couple this with a possible rise in parents losing their jobs and claiming jobseekers' allowance, and the Coalition's #163;2.5 billion may not go as far as it might have wished.