Is school funding U-turn in the offing?

Pupil in school classroom Image copyright PA

Theresa May's government has form on changing its mind when it's clear a policy is heading into a political quagmire. After all, it was only seven days ago the chancellor junked the planned tax rises for two million or so self-employed people.

Today there were testy spats over the despatch box over the proposed changes to the funding for schools in England. Is there another U-turn in the offing? Parents and schools in different parts of the country are cross. Labour, some Tory backbenchers and local councillors around England are riled.

And accusations are building again that the Tories would be breaking another manifesto commitment - their 2015 promise to protect the amount of cash that is spent on each pupil at school.

There is no question that school budgets are already under a lot of pressure, with many schools having to cut back because money is already short.

One of the tough things for the government is that they are hoping to push through a reform where there will be plenty of financial losers at a time when cash is already short, and falling in real terms.

But are ministers ready to give up this time? No, or perhaps, not yet. Cabinet sources tell me there are several reasons why. First, there was a second manifesto commitment, in the same paragraph as the first - to make the way cash was allocated fairer.

To give up the reform would be breaking that promise, and a policy that was introduced by George Osborne a year ago - his newfound opposition to a policy he introduced has certainly been noted in government.

Plenty of MPs are grumpy about the way the proposed funding changes hit their local schools, but ministers can remind rebellious backbenchers they were elected with a vow to overhaul the system.

Second of all, this is a consultation, that classic pressure valve of government that often goes something like this. Put forward something that you know will be controversial, suck up the initial anger, retreat for a few months, then return with plans different enough to placate the fiercest critics.

Sources suggest the Department for Education may not come back with the final version of the formula until well after the summer so it may be many months before the plans are actually put to a vote.

The government knows it will be extremely difficult to find a combination of measures that please everyone. That's pretty much impossible.

But it has time on its side to adjust the mix to make it as politically palatable as they can. Ministers are determined to press on, to find the compromises that give their reforms a chance - at least for now.

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