Curbing rampant inflation is more important than protecting school budgets, the education secretary says – ahead of expected steep cuts in next week’s ‘budget’.
Gillian Keegan said the level of school funding would be “irrelevant” if the government failed to get a grip on soaring prices, arguing: ‘Everybody is worried about inflation.”
Education is already facing a £3.4bn real-terms cut in funding in the 2023-24 financial year – because inflation is more than 10 per cent, not the forecast 4 per cent when the budget was set.
But the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is expected to impose further cuts on frontline departments, on 17 November, as he seeks to find up to £35bn of spending cuts in what has been dubbed “austerity mark two”.
More than half of schools in England expect to make staff redundant, as their costs soar and funding falls, according to a fresh survey of head teachers.
And teachers speak of the future of education resting “on a knife edge”, as they work in crumbling buildings, with staff demoralised and pupils falling further behind after the harsh impact of Covid.
Ms Keegan was asked, on Times Radio, what she could do “to stop a situation a bad situation getting worse”, but made no attempt to disguise the pain to come.
“We’ve said, very clearly, the number one thing we have to do in the autumn statement is to tackle inflation, because – without doing that – you cannot spend your way out of inflation,” she said.
“So, without doing that, any other discussion is kind of irrelevant because inflation will just eat up any gains.”
Ms Keegan also came close to dismissing an extension of free school meals, to help with the cost of living emergency, the subject of The Independent’s Feed the Future campaign.
It is calling on ministers to widen support to the 800,000 children in families receiving Universal Credit, but ineligible because income, excluding benefits, is more than £7,400 a year after tax.
Ms Keegan argued the numbers receiving free school meals has risen by 300,000, to 1.9 million, but this is because more families have fallen below the low threshold for the help.
The education secretary also brushed off criticism of Rishi Sunak for appointing, then failing to sack, Gavin Williamson – who resigned late on Tuesday over bullying allegations.
She expressed sympathy for the man forced out of the cabinets of three prime ministers, saying: “It’s always sad to lose a colleague” and “he’s never threatened me”.
The prime minister’s judgement is in question because he knew of the complaint made against Sir Gavin, by the former Tory chief whip Wendy Morton, when he appointed him two weeks ago.
But Ms Keegan said the prime minister had wanted a “mix of talent” in their cabinets, adding: “This happens in politics all the time. You know, people come back and forth.”