Labour has accused Theresa May of an attempt to “deliberately mislead Parliament” by repeating a “discredited” claim about schools.
Earlier this week, the government was reprimanded by its own statistics watchdog for claiming there are 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010.
During PMQs in the House of Commons, however, the Prime Minister made the same claim and the government is now insisting the number is “factually correct”.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said this was a “clear breach of the ministerial code” and demanded May correct the record and apologise for the “wildly misleading” statement.
The row also puts ministers on a collision course with the UK Statistics Authority after its chairman, Sir David Norgrove, wrote to Education Secretary Damian Hinds to say he risked undermining public trust in official data over the claim.
Norgrove says that the 1.9m number does not take into account an overall rise in pupils numbers or sweeping changes to Ofsted rules, which mean that schools are only ever inspected if exam performance data drops.
Hinds attempted to push back on Norgrove’s rebuke, and in a reply insisted that the proportion of children in schools “whose last Ofsted judgement was good or outstanding” had risen from 66% in 2010 to 86% in 2018, adding “to make this more intelligible we tend to use the number of children rather than a percentage figure”.
May repeated the 1.9m statistic in a reply to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who asked about school cuts and teacher pay as he sought to destroy claims May made in a speech she gave to Tory party conference last week, in which she said “austerity is over”.
The Prime Minister said schools funding was at a “record high” and that an extra £1.3bn that the government will put in to the schools budget would see per-pupil funding “protected in real terms”.
Rayner says this also flies in the face of analysis, this time by the highly-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the National Audit Office (NAO).
The NAO, the body which scrutinises public spending in Parliament, found that schools face a total real terms cut to their budgets of £2.7bn between 2015-16 and 2017-18.
The think tank the IFS says that per pupil spending, on those in both primary and secondary school, has fallen by 8% since 2010.
But May told MPs: “I might just remind [Corbyn] that school funding is at a record high, with the extra £1.3bn we’ve put in this year and next per-pupil funding is being protected in real terms.
“I recognise the pressure that schools are under but I also recognise that we now see 1.9m more children in good and outstanding schools compared to 2010 and part of that is because of the reforms we have put forward into education, including free schools and academies which Labour would abolish.”
Shadow Early Years Minister Tracy Brabin raised a point of order following the session, telling Speaker John Bercow: “The prime minister in her answer to the question regarding school funding repeated the 1.9m children who are in good or outstanding schools, which only this week has been proven, after investigation by the shadow minister for education to be not necessarily the full truth.”
Bercow decided not to take any action, saying he was not “truth commissioner”.
Rayner, meanwhile, said: “It is almost beyond belief that the prime minister would use this utterly discredited claim in the very week that the official statistics watchdog has made clear that the government should stop making it. Either this is a government in such total chaos that the prime minister was not even aware of the ruling by the UK Statistics Authority, or she has deliberately repeated a wildly misleading figure in defiance of independent advice and in the full knowledge that it is wildly misleading.
“Her claims on school funding are no better. The Tories have already cut billions of pounds from school budgets, and per pupil funding is falling, not rising, in real terms.
“It is a clear breach of the ministerial code to deliberately mislead Parliament. The prime minister must now apologise, correct the record and accept the reality: her government has imposed swingeing cuts on schools and there is no reliable evidence for their claims to have improved standards.”