The Liberal Democrats have promised to extend the scope of free school meals, increase schools spending by more than £10bn a year within the next parliament, and recruit 20,000 more teachers as key pledges in the party’s manifesto.
The investment plan comes as Jo Swinson attempts to inject new impetus into the party’s election campaign, which has seen it slip from close to 20% in the polls to about 15%, with a manifesto launch in London on Wednesday.
The free school meals programme is particularly resonant for the Lib Dems, as making these universal for younger junior school students was a key party policy in the coalition government under David Cameron.
The rules have been tightened since 2018, but under the Lib Dem plan all junior pupils and any secondary pupil whose family receives universal credit would get free meals, costing £1.1bn a year.
The schools spending programme, which was welcomed by the main teaching union, would involve an immediate increase of £4.6bn next year, to address cuts since 2010.
The increase would gradually rise until, by 2024/25, the Lib Dems would be committing £10.6bn a year more on schools than in the 2019/20 financial year.
The headline sums would be for schools in England. Under the Barnett formula, by which the Treasury allocates public spending at set proportions across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, another £2bn would be spent on this by 2024/25.
The extra funding would be used in part to boost the number of teachers by 20,000 over the five years, with incentives including a rise in starting salaries to £30,000 and a guaranteed annual pay rise of at least 3% a year over the parliament.
There would also be a boost to support children with disabilities or special educational needs and disabilities, and for professional development for teachers. Separately, the party would commit £7bn over five years for schools infrastructure.
Swinson said: “This is an investment in our children’s future. Our schools should be world class, helping every child make the most of the challenges ahead. But instead, they are trailing behind.
“The Conservatives have cut school funding to the bone and children have paid the price, especially those with the most complex needs.
“It is disgraceful that some schools feel they have no choice but to ask parents to chip in for supplies, and are closing early on Friday to balance the books.”
Kevin Courtney, the joint head of the National Education Union, which represents the majority of teachers, welcomed the funding pledges, but warned they “do not seem to fill the hole in special needs funding or restore the value of the pupil premium”.
He added: “Further, there does not appear to be any money for areas suffering from historic underfunding. We look forward to further conversations to address these.”
He also hailed the promise to increase teachers’ pay, but warned that a 3%-a-year increase “with inflation unknown is unfortunately unlikely to help much with retention”.
As well as pay, he said, a new government must tackle other factors driving teachers away, such as excessive workload and a focus on “the high-stakes testing regime”.