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Education Secretary Can't Confirm That School Budgets Will Keep Up With Rising Costs

Gillian Keegan failed to guarantee that schools would not see budget cuts in the Autumn Statement next week (Alamy)

3 min read

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has suggested her department could see a real-terms budget cut when Chancellor Jeremy Hunt gives a major update on government spending in next week’s Autumn Statement.

Keegan said the nature of the education budget “depends on what happens with inflation” when asked if the predicted 15 per cent cuts across all Whitehall spending will affect education too.

Hunt is due to give his statement next Thursday, where he will set out the government’s plan to try and fill the fiscal deficit exacerbated by his predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-Budget.

All departments are believed to be expected to find billions in savings, leading to questions over whether school budgets will be sufficient after schools have suggested that staff cuts may be necessary without extra investment this winter.

Keegan told Sky News “there's no doubt that we're going through difficult times”, but said people will have to wait for the Autumn Statement on 17 November to find out how education spending is affected.

There is particular concern that reports of 15 per cent cuts across the board as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tries to bring down the government’s level of borrowing could leave schools in particular difficulty as costs continue to rise. 

“It depends on what happens with inflation, how they calculate it, what contracts they’ve got,” Keegan continued. 

She admitted that although the Institute for Fiscal Studies said the extra funding for education as laid out in last year’s spending review means “that school budgets can manage this year”, rising inflation means “the uncertainty goes out when it goes out further than that”.

But she added that her department has a scheme for any school “in distress” to make sure that they get “all the efficiencies they can, but also get the support”.

There is also concern that demand for free school meals could be affected, as an increasing number of people struggle with the cost of living. 

Keegan told BBC Radio 4 that the policy is "always under review”, but added that "a lot of children" already qualify, despite the Child Poverty Action Group reporting in June that 800,000 children were living in poverty but did not qualify for free school meals.

The Cabinet minister was also asked about pay levels for healthcare workers as nurses prepare to go on strike over planned real-term cuts to their salary.

The Royal College of Nursing is expected to announce the results of a ballot on industrial action today, meaning thousands of nurses could go on strike this winter. 

“You can never say nurses get paid enough, they’re so valuable,” Keegan said, but insisted that the average nurse’s pay “is more than the average salary across the country” at £34,000.

“1.3 million people work in the NHS, and it's obviously public sector so you've got to get the balance between how much you pay," the former health minister continued. 

“It's a huge bill, it’s a huge cost to the NHS and you’ve got to get the balance right because of course it's taxpayers who have to pay that.”

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