Tories signal they may back down on cuts to school funding

MPs from both main parties seek clarity about education funding after pledge not to cut budgets was left out of Queen’s speech

Protesters in Bristol last month campaigning against cuts to education.
Protesters in Bristol last month campaigning against cuts to education. Photograph: Lynchpics/Alamy Live News

Theresa May has indicated she is prepared to go back to the drawing board over school funding changes that Tory MPs said had been toxic on the doorstep, given how many schools would have faced significant cuts and teacher redundancies.

The Queen’s speech commits to pressing ahead with changing the funding formula for schools, a controversial measure criticised by a number of Conservative MPs. In response to the criticism, the Conservative manifesto promised the government would “make sure no school has its budget cut as a result of the new formula” but that pledge was not repeated in the speech on Wednesday.

On Wednesday night, Conservative MPs grilled first minister of state Damian Green with their concerns about potential cuts to school funding, with several expressing unhappiness about how the issue had hurt the party during the general election.

One senior party source speaking outside the meeting said worry over education cuts had been a bigger issue than the NHS to voters on the doorstep. The NHS was traditionally seen as a Labour issue, “no matter what we do … because of the historic hangover of the NHS,” the source said, but added the party had generally felt stronger on education policy and wanted to ensure concerns were heard.

Speaking to a meeting of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories, Green said the consultation over the formula was still being considered and changes could still be made.

When the funding changes were first proposed, more than 9,000 schools in England were expected to lose funding under the formula designed to rebalance how education cash was distributed. Those schools, mainly in rural areas, which were awarded extra funding also warned the gains are likely to be outweighed by real-terms funding cuts because of rising costs.

Before the general election, about a dozen Conservative MPs were thought to have been mulling a parliamentary rebellion over the changes, until the manifesto pledge that no school would lose out.

Speaking after the Queen’s speech, May’s spokesman acknowledged the concerns of Conservative MPs and others. “The point is the current funding formula is unfair, we stand by that position,” he said. “A consultation has taken place and we will reflect on the findings of that consultation before we can bring forward proposals which would carry the support of the whole house.”

However, the spokesman was unable to say whether the government would stick to the Conservative manifesto pledge to “make sure no school has its budget cut as a result of the new formula” – a promise that was meant to be funded by scrapping free school lunches, an election promise that also appeared to have been abandoned.

Several Conservative MPs told the Guardian they would seek additional assurances. Harrow East MP Bob Blackman, one of several who expressed his concerns before the election, said: “The manifesto promised no school would see their funding cut and I’ll be pressing for that commitment to be honoured.”

Another Conservative MP, Heidi Allen, said schools funding had been the key issue on the doorsteps in her constituency during the election.

“MPs will be seeking reassurances on this,” she said. “I suspect all MPs like me in traditionally poor-funded areas would expect the very challenging debates we were having with the education secretary before the election to be picked up where we left off. There are many of us who will be asking about this.”

The detail in the Queen’s speech still commits the government to making changes, saying the data used to allocate funding to local authorities is “over a decade out of date” and changes had been “widely welcomed across the sector” despite widespread criticism from MPs and teaching unions.

“That is why we recently consulted on a national funding formula for schools and why we will deliver on our manifesto commitment to make funding fairer,” the government’s briefing said.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said Labour was planning to table more than 100 written parliamentary questions on education policies in the Conservative manifesto to assess whether the party had truly ditched some of its more controversial proposals, such as increasing the number of grammar schools.

“Abandoning her flagship education policies on the very first day of the new parliament is humiliating for May but it will be welcome news for teachers, parents and pupils across the country,” Rayner said.

“Now we need the government to make clear that new grammars and abolishing free school meals are off the table for good, and ensure that schools get the funding they need.”


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