The Conservatives have promised an extra £1bn per year to tackle school funding shortages in England in their election manifesto.
This will mostly be funded with £650m per year from stopping free lunches currently offered to all infant pupils.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says this will still mean 2% to 3% real-term cuts in per pupil spending, because of rising costs and pupil numbers.
Labour and Liberal Democrats have also promised extra school funding.
Conservative education manifesto plans
- £1bn extra for schools in England, mostly funded by ending free meals for all infants
- Remove the ban on grammars and review admissions policies
- Teachers would not have to pay back tuition fees while they stayed in teaching
- Maths specialist school in every big city
- More academies sponsored by universities and independent schools
- More faith schools
- Universities to be supported in setting up investment funds for spin-offs from research
The Conservatives’ plan would protect schools from losing out in cash terms when a new funding formula is introduced – which has been estimated as requiring about £350m per year.
But the Institute for Fiscal Studies says this will not match rising pressures on school budgets: “No school will see a cash-terms cut in spending per pupil, but most will see a real-terms cut.”
The move on school funding follows a campaign by head teachers over cash shortages – with the National Audit Office saying that schools faced a £3bn funding gap.
Head teachers’ leaders accused the Conservatives of “sleight of hand” over the funding proposals – saying that what is being offered is not enough to “counteract the rising costs which are hitting schools”.
The additional funding will mostly be drawn from scrapping free hot lunches for all infant pupils, a policy introduced by the coalition government as a way of improving health, and used by about two million children.
There had been a budget of about £1bn to launch the free meals in 2014 – including the cost of installing kitchens.
The National Association of Head Teachers said it was a “poor policy decision” to scrap a project that has “yet to be evaluated”.
School meals for infant pupils will be means tested again, under the Conservative proposals, with those on low incomes not having to pay.
But there will be a free breakfast for all primary pupils, expected to cost about £60m.
Pupil premium payments, providing extra support for disadvantaged pupils, will also be protected.
Labour has proposed that all pupils in primary school should have a free meal – to be funded by adding VAT to private school fees.
The rest of the extra school funding, proposed in the Conservative manifesto, will be drawn from savings elsewhere.
Changes at the Student Loans Company, which arranges university loans and repayments, are meant to save £200m; a further £160m will be saved by “departmental efficiencies” and £10m from the levy on sugary drinks.
“We have protected and increased school funding to the highest level on record but we accept there is more we can do,” said a Conservative spokesman.
“This extra money means no child will lose out.”
As well as the commitment on funding, the Conservative manifesto reiterates plans to create a new generation of grammar schools.
But there are no indications of the scale of such a project or how many new selective schools might be opened.
There is also a response to teacher recruitment problems – with a proposal that teachers would not have to pay back their tuition fees while they were in teaching.
There will also be pressure on universities to support academies, with this becoming a requirement for charging higher fees.
Independent schools are also being urged to become involved with academies, with the threat of changes to their tax status.
There are also plans for a specialist maths school to be created in every big city.
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said: “The Tories would take away infant free school meals in order to plug the massive holes left by their cuts in school budgets.
“Under a Tory government schools would still face cuts which will mean fewer teachers, cuts to the school day and a smaller curriculum. Only Labour will ensure schools have the money they need.”
Lib Dem education spokeswoman Sarah Olney said: “Margaret Thatcher was know as the ‘milk snatcher’. Theresa May will go down as the lunch snatcher.”
The Conservative proposals, on top of existing planned budget increases, would mean that by 2021-22 the core schools budget would have risen by £4bn.
Labour has pledged to invest more than £20bn in schools in England by 2022, as part of a package of education pledges, saying it would protect real terms schools funding and cut class sizes for five, six and seven-year olds.
The Lib Dems have proposed spending £7bn over the same period to protect per pupil spending.