What happened to school rebuilding funding when Rishi Sunak was chancellor?

12 September 2023
What was claimed

As chancellor, Rishi Sunak cut spending on school rebuilding by almost half.

Our verdict

Annual spending on school rebuilding programmes in England fell by 41% between 2019-20 and 2021-22, when Mr Sunak was chancellor. However this may be partly explained by one programme ending and another beginning. The limited information we have also suggests spending on the new scheme may end up being higher.

During Rishi Sunak’s time as chancellor, he cut spending on school rebuilding by almost HALF.

In a post on social media platform X (formerly Twitter), the Labour party claimed that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak cut school rebuilding spending by “almost half”. 

It’s true that over the period Mr Sunak was chancellor, annual spending on school rebuilding schemes in England fell by 41%. But this may be partly explained by variations in annual expenditure, as the Priority School Building Programme wound down and the new School Rebuilding Programme began. The limited information we have on the budget for the School Rebuilding Programme also suggests more may end up being spent on it than the Priority School Building Programme, though full details have yet to be confirmed. 

Political parties and politicians should take care when using official statistics and data, ensure they provide all necessary context and pay attention to explanations official bodies provide alongside data. 

Education is a devolved matter, and the figures quoted in this article refer to state-run schools in England, where the UK government is responsible for education policy.

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What was Labour’s claim based on?

Labour said in a 4 September press release (not published online) that “analysis revealed that spending on school rebuilding in 2019-20 was £765 million, but after Sunak became Chancellor this dropped to £560 million in 2020-21 and as little as £416 million in 2021-22, a fall of 41% overall”. 

These figures are correct, and come from Department for Education (DfE) data included in the June 2023 National Audit Office (NAO) Condition of School Building Report.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 6 September, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also said: “The NAO report says he [Sunak] cut £869 million.”  Mr Starmer did not explain how this was calculated, but according to Labour’s press release it is a cumulative not an annual figure, based on the same data in the NAO report. It is reached by comparing total spending between 2019-20 and 2022-23 with what the total would have been had the £765 million spent in 2019-20 been spent every year.

What’s been spent on school rebuilding?

In recent years there have been various different school rebuilding programmes (these relate to all school rebuilding and not only repairs due to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete):

  • The Priority School Building Programme, established by the Coalition Government in 2011, replaced the previous Labour government’s Building Schools for the Future initiative. The Priority School Building Programme aimed to rebuild or refurbish 537 schools across two phases. Phase One, which began in 2012, dealt with 260 schools.
  • Priority School Building Programme Phase Two launched in 2014. It aimed to focus on “individual blocks” at 277 schools. The plan was for all schools in this phase to open their new buildings “by the end of 2021”. DfE said there were still 12 projects “remaining to be completed” as of September 2023.
  • In June 2020, after Mr Sunak became chancellor, the government announced the School Rebuilding Programme. It committed to rebuilding 500 schools between 2021 and 2031.

Crucially, the NAO says the DfE’s “continuous cycle of overlapping rebuilding programmes” means that “annual expenditure on school rebuilding varies according to the phase of each programme, with lower expenditure in the earlier planning phases and higher expenditure when multiple rebuilding projects are underway”.

As shown above, in 2019-20 a total of £765 million was spent—£70 million on Priority School Building Programme One and £695 million on Priority School Building Programme Two. 

In 2021-22, a total of £416 million was spent—£23 million on Priority School Building Programme One, £327 million on Priority School Building Programme Two and £66 million on the School Rebuilding Programme. Spending on the School Rebuilding Programme is projected to increase sharply in subsequent years.

So while it’s true as Labour said that total spending fell 41% between these years, this may have been partly due to the cyclical nature of spending under multiple programmes running concurrently, rather than cuts. 

How do budgets for the programmes compare?

We’ve not been able to obtain full details of the different programmes’ budgets. 

In the early years of the Priority School Building Programme, the government said it would cost £4.4 billion. In 2017, the NAO put the figure at £4.3 billion, and noted the programme was “forecast to cost £286 million more than expected”. The programme is not yet complete and the DfE told Full Fact there are still 12 projects waiting to be finished, so the final spend may be higher. 

An estimate of the total cost of the School Rebuilding Programme is even harder to pin down—when we asked the DfE, it wasn’t able to give us a figure. In the 2020 Spending Review, the government said “budget profiles” for the “10-year school rebuilding programme of 50 school projects a year” would be “confirmed at a future fiscal event”, but we’ve not been able to see further such detail in the 2021 Spending Review or subsequent Budgets. 

When the government first announced the programme, it said the first 50 projects would be funded by “over £1 billion”. We don’t know if this rate of spending will continue, but if it were to then rebuilding 500 schools over 10 years might cost as much as £10 billion.The recent NAO report didn’t give a full figure for the total cost either, but suggested it could equate to “an average of £1.3bn a year” for rebuilding 50 schools a year. As shown in the graph above, it also projected spending on school rebuilding programmes would be higher in 2024-25 than in any other year since 2016-17 at least.

While the lack of detail means we can’t fully compare the programmes’ budgets, these figures do suggest more may end up being spent on the new scheme than its predecessor. A Schools Week analysis published in 2020 came to a similar conclusion, suggesting the School Rebuilding Programme might cost around £20 million per project, compared to around £9m per project for the Priority School Building Programme. 

What about other spending?

While we’ve focused here on school rebuilding funding, as that was the subject of Labour’s claim, those figures don’t necessarily tell the full story either.

School rebuilding funding only makes up one element of spending on school buildings—recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found total capital spending on education in England is expected to be about £7 billion in 2023-24, and warned “spending on school buildings is low in historical terms and low compared with levels of need”. 

Schools minister Nick Gibb has also acknowledged the Treasury under Mr Sunak did not agree to the level of school repair funding requested by the DfE, while the recent NAO report found “in recent years, funding for school buildings has not matched the amount DfE estimates it needs, contributing to the estate’s deterioration”. 

A DfE spokesperson said: “We committed to rebuilding 500 schools over the next decade as part of the Schools Rebuilding Programme and we are on track to deliver that. That is on top of 520 schools already delivered since 2015 under the Priority Schools Building Programme.

“The School Rebuilding Programme is in its initial stages of delivery and there will be an increase in the number of projects beginning construction in the next year.”

Full Fact contacted the Labour party but did not receive a response.


Image courtesy of Kevin Walsh/Alamy Stock Photo



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