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Tories propose largest school budget cuts since 70s risking closures

The Conservatives have proposed the largest school budget cuts in a generation which could force schools to close, leading analysts have told i.

In commitments announced in the party’s manifesto, schools would have to endure the largest slash to the overall budget in almost 50 years, according to Luke Sibieta, an analyst at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The Tories have committed to pegging school funding to the current per pupil funding arrangement. However, pupil numbers are set to fall by 400,000 in the next parliamentary term, according to projections from the Department for Education (DfE), leading to an overall cut in funding.

This is largely due to the falling birthrate, but migration patterns have also affected London in particular, with many families leaving the city due to a high cost of living, according to a report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI).

Mr Sibieta said this would imply a £3.5bn or 6 per cent real-terms fall in total school spending, and that this would lead to school closures and staff cuts.

Philip Nye, a researcher at the Institute for Government, warned that school closures will be a “common occurrence” during the next parliament – regardless of who wins the election.

Mr Sibieta said in a statement posted on X: “With a £6bn-a-year boost to school funding since 2019, the Government has reversed past cuts and spending per pupil is now back to 2010 levels. The Conservatives have committed to keeping it at that level throughout the next parliament.

“Because pupils are expected to fall by 400,000, this implies a £3.5bn fall in total spending up to 2028 – 6 per ent of the total schools budget.

“Realising such savings may be easier said than done: they would likely require workforce reductions and, perhaps, school closures.

“There is also a growing list of pressures on school spending, such as the spiralling cost of special educational needs provision, real-terms cuts to teacher pay and a growing backlog of repairs to school buildings.”

He added: “Trying to deal with those problems while having the overall budget falling would be pretty challenging. Delivering a cut of £3.5bn would be quite hard to do in practice.”

Mr Sibieta told i he could “confidently” say cuts on this scale have not been delivered since at least the mid-1970s.

This was a period of high inflation and uneven economic growth when falling pupil numbers appeared to coincide with a decreasing education budget, Mr Sibieta said.

“It’s implausible that there was a cut anywhere near this scale since the 70s,” he added.

Mr Nye, from the Institute for Government, warned that a fall in pupil numbers may not lead to a reduction in school costs.

Mr Nye told i: “Even if school funding is protected in real, per-pupil terms, some schools will find the transition to lower cash budgets difficult.

“Costs don’t always go down exactly in line with pupil numbers – you still need one teacher, whether your class has 25 or 22 pupils. The same is true of lots of schools’ energy bills and building and maintenance costs.

“Whichever party is elected, school mergers and schools closures will be a common occurrence over the course of the next parliament, as those born in a 2000s baby boom come to the end of their time in schools.”

Julia Harnden at the Association of School and College Leaders warned i that the policy represented a “huge financial risk” to schools.

Ms Harnden said: “The number of pupils in England’s schools is estimated to fall by half a million over the next five years. However, schools have many fixed costs which do not simply reduce in line with a falling pupil population. Therefore, if per-pupil funding remains static, the impact of falling rolls presents a huge financial risk to schools.

“The next government needs to use the reduction in pupil numbers as an opportunity to improve per-pupil funding levels, undo some of the damage caused through years of underinvestment and put education on a more sustainable footing.”

A Conservative spokesperson said: “Under Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives, we are boosting school funding to the highest level ever in real terms per pupil, reaching over £60bn in 2024-25, so that we can deliver the world-class education our children deserve.

“And our plan is working with school standards across the country up from 68 per cent of schools being rated good or outstanding under Labour to 90 per cent today and children in England named ‘Best in the West’ for reading.

“The choice is clear: stick with the clear plan that is working, taking bold action to drive up school standards with Rishi Sunak. Or go back to square one with Keir Starmer and the same old Labour Party with high taxes, larger class sizes, and lower school standards.”

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