DfE's £14bn schools budget claim 'could mislead', while NEU deletes incorrect funding claim

The government has been warned its repeated claim that school budgets are being boosted by £14 billion “could mislead” – while a teaching union has deleted an incorrect funding claim from its website.

The disclosures come amid the latest intervention from the statistics watchdog which has already previously slapped down both the Department for Education and the National Education Union over their use of statistics.

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority, said today it is “vital that data and information on school funding published by the DfE are presented clearly and not open to misinterpretation”.

People who read no further might expect that the headline figure of £14 billion refers to an annual increase

The body was responding to complaints over the DfE’s claim they were boosting budgets by £14 billion.

The £14 billion is a cumulative total over three years. The schools budget will actually be increased by an £7.1 billion extra per year – but not until 2022-23.

The OSR said they were satisfied the publicly available material made clear the context and “reasonably explained” that the £14 billion figure was a cumulative cash total.

But they added: “There is however a risk that the figures could mislead: for example, people who read no further might expect that the headline figure of £14 billion refers to an annual increase.”

The DfE and ministers were urged to “continue to provide appropriate context when making statements on school funding”.

The UKSA has also responded to a complaint from Conservative MP Ranil Jayawardena over two funding statements on the NEU website that he claimed were “at best, misleading, and at worst, downright untrue”.

Sir David Norgrove, UKSA chair, in a letter to NEU’s general secretaries said he welcomed the union removing a claim from its website that “many schools will receive less” than the promised minimum £5,000 per secondary pupil.

Jayawardena also contested the NEU’s position that “not every school will see a real terms rise” under the government’s funding boost.

Norgrove explained the joint secretaries said the assumed rate of inflation used by the DfE does not reflect the cost increases faced by schools, which the NEU estimate to be 2.9 per cent for 2020/21.

“However, this is not made clear on their website. We have shared with the NEU our view that the use of the GDP deflator is the standard method for adjusting public spend in Spending Rounds, and while it may not fully adjust for the change of prices in all sectors, it enables consistent comparisons.”

The two claims seem at best, misleading, and at worst, downright untrue

Norgrove told the NEU he would “recommend that you make it clear in your statements how changes in spending are calculated, to enable the public to draw their own conclusions about the impact of changes in spending”.

He added: “As the authority has previously recommended to DfE, public debate on school funding would be improved by a consistent and comprehensive set of official statistics on the subject. We urge the Department to provide a public update on their progress towards this publication.”

The UKSA has rapped the DfE five times in the past 24 months over its use of statistics.

The stats watchdog has also rebuked the School Cuts website – run by a coalition of unions including the NEU – for its use of “misleading” statistics that create a “worse picture” of school funding.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We welcome the OSR’s recognition that our headline funding statement is supported with appropriate context.

“As previously outlined, we are looking at what we can do to bring the wide range of funding information into one place and to help users navigate this complex landscape, as well as to consider the potential for additional information where this would be helpful.”