The government has announced schools will get a 1.9 per cent hike in per-pupil funding next year, despite official predictions inflation will hit double digits this autumn.
Unions accused the government of “returning to the bad days of austerity” and noted some schools face even lower rises, while school caterers warn free school meals cash won’t cover soaring costs.
The government’s national funding formula will only offer a minimum “floor” increase of 0.5 per cent per pupil for local authority school budgets, down from 2 per cent last year, provisional funding documents say.
It means councils will be allocated at least £4,405 per primary pupil, and at least £5,715 per secondary pupil. They will also see their central education services funding frozen at £292 million, with councils only promised they won’t lose more than 2.5 per cent.
Meanwhile budgets for free school meals for poorer pupils will rise just 2.1 per cent, or £10 a head to £480 for the next academic year.
The announcements come in spite of soaring prices, with the commonly used consumer price index (CPI) measure of inflation hitting 9.1 per cent in May. Food and drink prices rose 8.7 per cent over the year to May.
The Bank of England expects rising food, oil and other prices to push inflation close to double digits in September, and top 11 per cent in October.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies had already warned before recent price hikes that core spending per pupil in 2024 would be the same in real terms as 2010, a squeeze “without precedent in post-war UK history”.
‘Returning to austerity’
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the government seemed to be “returning to the bad days of austerity and away from any sense of levelling up”. He said the NEU would “challenge” the settlement with parents, governors and other unions, warning a 0.5 per cent hike for many schools will be “as much as 9 per cent behind inflation”.
Munira Wilson, Lib Dem education spokesperson, said the shortfall between the 1.9 per cent hike and price hikes would leave schools billions worse off in real terms.
“Boris Johnson’s parting gift to schools is a slap in the face,” she said. “With food and energy prices spiralling, schools too are suffering from the cost-of-living crisis.
“Increasing free school meals funding by just £10 per head a year will not stop schools from choosing between cutting quality or putting up prices for other struggling families.”
Meanwhile Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leavers, said the settlement “does not remotely take into account” soaring bills for energy, Covid supply cover and expected staff pay hikes. “It is increasingly inevitable that many will have to make further cutbacks to provision.”
Jacquie Blake, chair of school caterers’ association LACA, dubbed the £10 FSM funding hike “inadequate”, with an “urgent” rise needed for meals more widely. The hike “does not address the rising costs of food and labour that are placing severe strain on the school food sector”.
No guarantee hikes passed onto schools
But Quince said the £1.5 billion increase in core schools funding came on top of a £4 billion rise in 2022-23, and included an overall 6.3 per cent hike to high needs funding.
Within the national funding formula, core factors such as basic per pupil funding and the lump sum all schools receive will rise by 2.4 per cent, he said, but disadvantaged pupil funding will rise by 4.3 per cent. Quince said more funding had been targeted at deprived students than “ever before”.
Budgets for schools in the north-east will rise most per pupil, up 2.3 per cent on average, while inner London’s will rise least, up 1 per cent.
Buit schools could in fact receive less than minimum per pupil funding levels “in some cases”, Quince admitted. The 0.5 per cent hike in per-pupil funding is what councils receive, and they are not obliged to pass this on.
Quince also acknowledged academy trusts still had “flexibilities” over what cash the passed onto schools versus central services.
It comes in spite of the continued rollout of the National Funding Formula, intended to end what government has called a “postcode lottery” in funding between areas. Councils will be forced next year to start moving their funding formulas closer to the government’s.
But last month Lib Dem peer Lord Shipley warned the NFF was being undermined by trusts’ freedom to “reallocate an uncapped proportion of funding…with no requirement at all for transparency”. He said they should be forced to publish how and why they reallocate funds.