MPs granted rare debate on detail of DfE's school spending plans

Leaders of two powerful parliamentary committees have been granted an opportunity to grill education ministers on the details of their budget planning.

Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee and Robert Halfon, chair of the education committee teamed up with Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson and 52 other MPs to demand an “estimates day” debate on education spending plans.

Today, Parliament’s backbench business committee backed their request, and the debate has been scheduled for next Tuesday afternoon.

Appearing in front of the backbench business committee on Tuesday, Hillier said the purpose of the debate was for “ministers come to the house and answer in detail about the budget that they’re responsible for”.

The session would allow a more forensic probe of the Department for Education’s plans than is allowed during regular education questions in the House of Commons, where follow-up requests from MPs are limited.

Hillier pointed to repeated claims from the government that there is more money than ever before going into English schools. The DfE recently found itself in hot water with the UK Statistics Authority over the claim, which while technically correct, does not take into account rising pupil numbers and increasing costs for schools.

“One of the concerns we’ve had is that there’s a lot of simple lines that come out from a ministers in questions, perhaps in debates about money going into education, but there’s never the chance in those circumstances to really get into the detail of the budget.

“So while you can argue that money’s gone up, pupils have gone up, so the funding per pupil has gone down, that’s one of the issues we want to probe.”

Hillier also revealed MPs from “across the house” had raised concerns about education spending, which is increasingly becoming a campaign issue not just for opposition MPs, but also Conservatives who back the government.

The debate presents a “real opportunity for us to get into depth on this”, Hillier said, adding that she would also explore concerns that this year’s spending review – seen as the only opportunity to significantly boost education funding – could be delayed.

“We will be intending, if we get this debate, to make sure that all members have access to a detailed briefing from the national audit office so that we really do focus the debate on the numbers.”

Halfon, a former skills minister who has become a vocal critic of government education policy since assuming the leadership of his committee, said it was a “crucial time for education funding, school and college funding”.

He added MPs were hoping to see a 10-year plan for education, in the same vein as the proposal announced for the NHS last year.

Moran, who also sits on Hillier’s committee, said she would focus on questions around school capital spending, and would seek to address concerns about how the sector will pay to remove asbestos from schools.

“We are absolutely not trying to make party-political points. We absolutely align, cross-party, when it comes to [the fact] we’re not convinced that value for money is always at the heart of what the department is able to deliver with the money it’s got.”