The maths question the parties don’t want to answer

Last week, the Education Secretary dodged a question from a 10-year-old interviewer on Sky News on what the cube root of 125 is. The answer is five, but Nicky Morgan said: “I think that’s one that I might just have to go away and work out.”

Few people would relish answering such a maths question live on television. But the former Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be expected to have a stronger grasp of numbers when it comes to working out the schools budget, should she remain Education Secretary after the election. Ms Morgan had said she sees no reason why a Conservative Government would end the protection of schools funding after the next election, despite warnings about the level of cuts that will be needed in public spending.

However, the Liberal Democrat’s claim that a post-2015 Conservative-led government would have to cut around £13bn each year from education funding – nearly a quarter of total funding – in order to meet their deficit reduction targets. The Department’s budget is just over £56bn, and the ring-fenced schools budget is about £51bn.

The Conservatives, of course, challenge their Coalition partner’s assertions but, while exaggerated, the Liberal Democrat’s claim is not without foundation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the Government needs to make £55bn worth of spending cuts by 2020 to meet its targets. With the Prime Minister pledging to protect the £108bn NHS budget and the £8bn overseas aid budget, and other government departments on their knees after a five-year squeeze, the schools budget is looking increasingly vulnerable.

This is why Nicky Morgan’s comments on protecting the school budget lacked assurance – because she is not sure herself that a Conservative Government would be able to do so. We can expect the Education Secretary to deflect all such tough questions to  the Chancellor.

This is precisely the tactic of her opposite number Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, who said that a decision on spending would be a matter for Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, but that he “expects” a Labour Government would protect schools from funding cuts.

Only the Liberal Democrats have promised to ring-fence the schools budget, yet only the Liberal Democrats can afford to make such a pledge as they have precisely the cube root of zero chance of forming a majority Government at the next election and controlling the entire budget.

Therefore, under both the Conservative and Labour’s spending plans, it will be difficult for the next government to resist at least freezing spending on schools in cash terms (constituting a real-terms cut). Forget about cubes, the challenge of protecting the schools budget  is more akin to the ancient problem of squaring the circle – which all good maths students will tell is you was proved to be impossible.