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Education in England
Department for Education
Secretary of State (Education)
Minister of State for Universities
Nadhim Zahawi

Michelle Donelan
National education budget (2008–09)
Budget £62.2 billion
General details
Primary languages English
System type National
Compulsory education 1880
Literacy (2012)
Total 99%
Total 11.7 million
Primary 4.50 million (in state schools) (2016)
Secondary 2.75 million (up to year 11 in state schools) (2016)
Post secondary Higher Education: 1,844,095 (2014/15)
Further Education: 2,613,700 (2014/15)
Total: 4,457,795 (2014/15)
Secondary diploma Level 2 and above: 87.4%
Level 3 and above: 60.3%
(of 19 year olds in 2015) Level 2 and above: 81.0%
Level 3 and above: 62.6%
(of adults 19–64 in 2014)
Post-secondary diploma Level 4 and above: 41.0%
(of adults 19–64 in 2014)

Education in England is overseen by the United Kingdom's Department for Education. Local government authorities are responsible for implementing policy for public education and state-funded schools at a local level.

England also has a tradition of independent schools (some of which call themselves public schools) and home education: legally, parents may choose to educate their children by any permitted means. State-funded schools may be selective grammar schools or non-selective comprehensive schools (non-selective schools in counties that have grammar schools may be called by other names, such as high schools). Comprehensive schools are further subdivided by funding into free schools, other academies, any remaining Local Authority schools and others. More freedom is given to free schools, including most religious schools, and other academies in terms of curriculum. All are subject to assessment and inspection by Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills).

The state-funded education system is divided into Key Stages based upon age: Early Years Foundation Stage (ages 3–4 by August 31); primary education (ages 5 to 10 by August 31), subdivided into Key Stage 1 (KS1) Infants (ages 5 to 6 by August 31) and Key Stage 2 (KS2) Juniors (ages 7 to 10 by August 31); secondary education (ages 11 to 15 by August 31), subdivided into Key Stage 3 (KS3; ages 11 to 13 by August 31) and Key Stage 4 (KS4; ages 14 to 15 by August 31); Key Stage 5 is post-16 education (ages 16 to 17 by August 31); and tertiary education (for ages 18+).

At the end of Year 11 (at age 15 or 16, depending on their birthdays) students typically take General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams or other Level 1 or Level 2 qualifications. For students who do not pursue academic qualifications until the end of Year 13, these qualifications are roughly equivalent to the completion of high school in many other countries, or high school graduation in the United States and Canada.

While education is compulsory until 18, schooling is compulsory to 16: thus post-16 education can take a number of forms, and may be academic or vocational. This can involve continued schooling, known as "sixth form" or "college", leading (typically after two years of further study) to A-level qualifications, or a number of alternative Level 3 qualifications such as Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC), the International Baccalaureate (IB), Cambridge Pre-U, WJEC or Eduqas. It can also include work-based apprenticeships or traineeships, or volunteering.

Higher education often begins with a three-year bachelor's degree. Postgraduate degrees include master's degrees, either taught or by research, and doctoral level research degrees that usually take at least three years. Tuition fees for first degrees in public universities are £9,250 per academic year for English, Welsh and European Union students.

The Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) covers national school examinations and vocational education qualifications. It is referenced to the European Qualifications Framework, and thus to other qualifications frameworks across the European Union. The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), which is tied to the RQF, covers degrees and other qualifications from degree-awarding bodies. This is referenced to the Qualifications Framework of the European Higher Education Area developed under the Bologna process.

The Programme for International Student Assessment coordinated by the OECD currently ranks the overall knowledge and skills of British 15-year-olds as 13th in the world in reading literacy, mathematics and science, with the average British student scoring 503.7, compared with the OECD average of 493. In 2011, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) rated 13–14-year-old pupils in England and Wales 10th in the world for maths and 9th for science.

Stages of compulsory education

A number of different terms and names exist for the various schools and stages a pupil may go through during the compulsory part of their education. Grammar schools are selective schools, admitting children from 11 years old onward; they are normally state-funded, though fee paying independent grammars do exist. Schools offering nursery (pre-school) education commonly accept pupils from age 3; however, some schools do accept pupils younger than this.

Key stage Year Final exam Age State funded schools State funded selective schools Fee paying independent schools
Early Years Nursery (or Pre-School) None, though individual schools may set end of year tests. 3 to 4 Primary Lower Infant Various 'gifted and talented' programmes within state and independent schools. Pre-preparatory
Reception (or Foundation) 4 to 5
KS1 Year 1 5 to 6
Year 2 6 to 7
KS2 Year 3 7 to 8 Junior
Year 4 8 to 9 Preparatory or Junior
Year 5 9 to 10 Middle
Year 6 SATS
A grammar school entrance exam, often the 11-plus
10 to 11
KS3 Year 7 None, though individual schools may set end of year tests, or mock GCSE exams. 11 to 12 Secondary Lower school Senior Grammar school and selective Academies
Year 8 12 to 13
Year 9 13 to 14 Upper Senior (Public/Private school)
KS4 Year 10 14 to 15 Upper school
Year 11 GCSE 15 to 16
KS5 Year 12 Advanced subsidiary level or school-set end of year tests. 16 to 17 College Sixth form
Year 13 A-Levels 17 to 18

State-funded schools

Some 93% of children between the ages of 3 and 18 are in education in state-funded schools without charge (other than for activities such as swimming, cultural visits, theatre visits and field trips for which a voluntary payment can be requested, and limited charges at state-funded boarding schools).

All schools are legally required to have a website where they must publish details of their governance, finance, curriculum intent and staff and pupil protection policies to comply with The School Information (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 and 2016. Ofsted monitors these.

Calshot Primary School - 2020-05-11 - Andy Mabbett - 03
A primary school in England.

Since 1998, there have been six main types of maintained (state-funded) school in England:

  • Academy schools, established by the 1997-2010 Labour Government to replace poorly-performing community schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation. Their start-up costs are typically funded by private means, such as entrepreneurs or NGOs, with running costs met by central government and, like Foundation schools, are administratively free from direct local authority control. The 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government expanded the role of Academies in the Academy Programme, in which a wide number of schools in non-deprived areas were also encouraged to become Academies, thereby essentially replacing the role of foundation schools established by the previous Labour government. They are monitored directly by the Department for Education. Some Academies operate selective entrance requirements for some of their entry, similar to Grammar schools.
  • Community schools, in which the local authority employs the schools' staff, owns the schools' lands and buildings, and has primary responsibility for admissions.
  • Free schools, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, are newly established schools in England set up by parents, teachers, charities or businesses, where there is a perceived local need for more schools. They are funded by taxpayers, are academically non-selective and free to attend, and like Foundation schools and Academies, are not controlled by a local authority. They are ultimately accountable to the Secretary of State for Education. Free schools are an extension of the existing Academy Programme. The first 24 free schools opened in Autumn 2011.
  • Foundation schools, in which the governing body employs the staff and has primary responsibility for admissions. School land and buildings are owned by the governing body or by a charitable foundation. The foundation appoints a minority of governors. Many of these schools were formerly grant maintained schools. In 2005 the Labour government proposed allowing all schools to become Foundation schools if they wished.
  • Voluntary Aided schools, linked to a variety of organisations. They can be faith schools (about two thirds Church of England-affiliated; just under one third Roman Catholic Church, and a few another faith), or non-denominational schools, such as those linked to London Livery Companies. The charitable foundation contributes towards the capital costs of the school (typically 10%), and appoints a majority of the school governors. The governing body employs the staff and has primary responsibility for admissions.
  • Voluntary Controlled schools, which are almost always faith schools, with the lands and buildings often owned by a charitable foundation. However, the local authority employs the schools' staff and has primary responsibility for admissions.
  • University technical colleges (UTCs), established in 2010 by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, are a type of secondary school in England that are led by a sponsor university and have close ties to local business and industry. They are funded by the taxpayer, and are non-selective, free to attend and not controlled by a local authority. The university and industry partners support the curriculum development of the UTC, provide professional development opportunities for teachers, and guide suitably qualified students to industrial apprenticeships, foundation degrees or full degrees. The sponsor university appoints the majority of the UTC's governors and key members of staff. Pupils transfer to a UTC at the age of 14, part-way through their secondary education. The distinctive element of UTCs is that they offer technically-oriented courses of study, combining National Curriculum requirements with technical and vocational elements. UTCs must specialise in subjects that require technical and modern equipment, but they also all teach business skills and the use of information and communications technology. UTCs are also supposed to offer clear routes into higher education or further learning in work.

In addition, three of the fifteen City Technology Colleges established in the 1980s still remain; the rest having converted to academies. These are state-funded all-ability secondary schools which charge no fees but which are independent of local authority control. There are also a small number of state-funded boarding schools.

English state-funded primary schools are almost all local schools with a small catchment area. More than half are owned by the Local Authority, though many are (nominally) voluntary controlled and some are voluntary aided. Some schools just include infants (aged 4 to 7) and some just juniors (aged 7 to 11). Some are linked, with automatic progression from the infant school to the junior school, and some are not. A few areas still have first schools for ages around 4 to 8 and middle schools for ages 8 or 9 to 12 or 13.

English secondary schools are mostly comprehensive (i.e. no entry exam), although the intake of comprehensive schools can vary widely, especially in urban areas with several local schools. Nearly 90% of state-funded secondary schools are specialist schools, receiving extra funding to develop one or more subjects (performing arts, art & design, business, humanities, languages, science, mathematics, technology, engineering, etc.) in which the school specialises, which can select up to 10% of their intake for aptitude in the specialism. In areas children can enter a prestigious grammar school if they pass the eleven plus exam; there are also a number of isolated fully selective grammar schools and a few dozen partially selective schools. A significant minority of state-funded schools are faith schools, which are attached to religious groups, most often the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church.

All state-funded schools are regularly inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, often known simply as Ofsted. Ofsted publish reports on the quality of education, learning outcomes, management, and safety and behaviour of young people at a particular school on a regular basis. Schools judged by Ofsted to be providing an inadequate standard of education may be subject to special measures, which could include replacing the governing body and senior staff. School inspection reports are published online and directly sent to parents and guardians.

Independent schools

Approximately 7% of school children in England attend privately run, fee-charging independent schools. Some independent schools for 13–18-year-olds are known for historical reasons as 'public schools' and for 8–13-year-olds as 'prep schools'. Some schools offer scholarships for those with particular skills or aptitudes, or bursaries to allow students from less financially well-off families to attend. Independent schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum, and their teachers are not required or regulated by law to have official teaching qualifications. The Independent Schools Inspectorate regularly publishes reports on the quality of education in all independent schools.

School subjects

State-funded schools are obliged to teach thirteen subjects, including the three core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science. The structure of the 2014 national curriculum is:

Subject Key Stage 1
(age 5–7)
Key Stage 2
(age 7–11)
Key Stage 3
(age 11–14)
Key Stage 4
(age 14–16)
English Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Mathematics Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Science Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Art & Design Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Citizenship Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Computing Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Design & Technology Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Languages Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Geography Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
History Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Music Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Physical Education Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg

All schools are also required to teach religious education at all key stages.

In addition to the compulsory subjects, students at Key Stage 4 have a statutory entitlement to be able to study at least one subject from the arts (comprising art and design, dance, music, photography, media studies, film studies, graphics, drama and media arts), design and technology (comprising design and technology, electronics, engineering, food preparation and nutrition), the humanities (comprising geography and history), business and enterprise (comprising business studies and economics) and one modern language.


The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they require to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievements. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.

These aims set out to support the statutory duties of schools to offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, while preparing pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life, as set out in the Education Act 2002.


In Early Years, the curriculum is organised into seven areas of learning;

  • Communication and language
  • Physical development
  • Personal, social and emotional development
  • Literacy
  • Mathematics
  • Understanding the World
  • Expressive arts and design


In foundation, the curriculum is organised into six areas of learning;

  • Personal, social and emotional development
  • Communication, language and literacy
  • Mathematical development
  • Knowledge and Understanding of the World
  • Physical development
  • Creative development


In primary school, school children remain in one class throughout the year, but may change classrooms for English and Mathematics. Each school can decide the name of classrooms: some choose world animals, significant individuals, world countries and continents, or simply their year range (Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, etc.).

English, mathematics, and science are normally taught in the mornings and art & design, history, geography, design & technology, ancient & modern languages, religion, citizenship, computing, music, physical education, etc. in the afternoons. Literacy, reading, mathematics, science, geographical and historical skills are often incorporated in cross-curriculum assessments and activities.

Topics & themes are covered around world affairs, healthy eating, nature, wildlife, the environment, mindfulness, etc. Every primary school has a library, assembly hall, computing facilities, and playground. Exercise books, novels, pens and stationery are provided by the school.

National Curriculum assessments (known as standard attainment tests or Sats) in Reading; Grammar, Punctuation, Spelling; and Mathematics are taken place at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. In addition to the tests, teachers are required to provide teacher assessments in the core subject areas of Reading, Writing, Mathematics and Science.


In secondary school, school children have their own tutor group, but are split up into different classes and have their own timetable (sometimes divided between week A and week B).

Tutoring lessons in the mornings and late afternoons are for citizenship studies and the rest of the day consists of subjects such as English literature, English language, mathematics, science (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc.), citizenship, history, geography, art and design, design and technology, drama and media arts, modern languages (French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.), business and economics, religion, music, photography, engineering, computing, physical education, etc.

In the final two years of secondary education, school children pursue an optional programme of study from interests or career prospects; English language, English literature, mathematics, science, citizenship studies, religious studies, computing, and physical education remain core and foundation subjects. A range of entitlement and optional subjects from the sciences and mathematics, humanities and social sciences, business and enterprise, arts and design, design and technology, and ancient and modern languages are studied.

Non compulsory subjects such as journalism, digital technology, home economics are offered and studied by some schools.

England allows children to specialise in their academic learning fields earlier on than other countries. This allows stronger educational engagement and more time for children to spend in their most respected subjects.

School children are provided with school planners; which hold learning resources, school management, and timetables. Every secondary school has a library, assembly hall, playground, dining hall, computing facilities, and a sports hall or gymnasium. Some secondary schools have a theatre for performing arts. Exercise books, novels, pens and sometimes stationery are provided by the school, although, school children are expected to bring in a basic level of stationery equipment.

School dinners

In Key Stage 1 and foundation, all children in government-funded schools are entitled to free school meals and fruit. In Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, students from low income families may be eligible for free school meals. All school meals must follow the government's healthy eating standards and promote a healthy diet.

School uniform

2 Sandbach school pupils
A school assembly.

School uniforms are defined by individual schools, within the constraint that uniform regulations must not discriminate on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, religion or belief. Schools may choose to permit trousers for girls or religious dress. Local councils may provide assistance with the cost of uniforms and PE kit.

After school activities

Schools may provide childcare outside of school hours, including breakfast clubs in the early mornings and after school curriculum activities (languages, food preparation, arts, crafts, geography and history, gardening, sports, reading, science, mathematics, etc.).

Education by means other than schooling

The Education Act 1944 (Section 36) stated that parents are responsible for the education of their children, "by regular attendance at school or otherwise", which allows children to be educated at home. The legislation places no requirement for parents who choose not to send their children to school to follow the National Curriculum, or to give formal lessons, or to follow school hours and terms, and parents do not need to be qualified teachers. Small but increasing numbers of parents do choose to educate their children outside the conventional school systems. Officially referred to as "Elective Home Education", teaching ranges from structured homeschooling (using a school-style curriculum) to less-structured unschooling. Education Otherwise has supported parents who wished to educate their children outside school since the 1970s. The state provides no financial support to parents who choose to educate their children outside of school.

Post-16 education

Students at both state schools and independent schools typically take GCSE examinations, which mark the end of compulsory education in school. After this, students can attain further education (the "sixth form"); this can either be in the sixth form of a school or a specialized sixth form or further education college. Alternatively, students can also opt for apprenticeships instead of a sixth form.

In the 16–17 age group by August 31, sixth form education is not compulsory, but mandatory education or training until the age of 18 was phased in under the Education and Skills Act 2008, with 16-year-olds in 2013 and for 17-year-olds in September 2015. While students may still leave school on the last Friday in June, they must remain in education of some form until their 18th birthday.

Above school-leaving age, the independent and state sectors are similarly structured.

Sixth form colleges / further education colleges

Students over 16 typically study in the sixth form of a school (sixth form is a historical term for Years 12–13), in a separate sixth form college, or in a Further Education (FE) College. Courses at FE colleges, referred to as further education courses, can also be studied by adults over 18. Students typically study Level-3 qualifications such as A-Levels, BTEC National Awards and level-3 NVQs. Some 16–18 students will be encouraged to study Key Skills in Communication, Application of Number, and Information Technology at this time.

Apprenticeships and traineeships

The National Apprenticeship Service helps people 16 or more years of age enter apprenticeships in order to learn a skilled trade. Traineeships are also overseen by the National Apprenticeship Service, and are education and a training programmes that are combined with work experience to give trainees the skills needed to get an apprenticeship.

T Levels

T Levels are a technical qualification introduced between 2020 and 2023 in England. The aim of the new T Levels is to improve the teaching and administration of technical education which will enable students to directly enter skilled employment, further study or a higher apprenticeship. Students will be able to take a T Level in the following subject areas:

  • accountancy
  • agriculture, land management and production
  • animal care and management
  • building services engineering
  • catering
  • craft and design
  • cultural heritage and visitor attractions
  • design and development
  • design, surveying and planning
  • digital business services
  • digital production, design and development
  • digital support and services
  • education
  • financial
  • hair, beauty and aesthetics
  • health
  • healthcare science
  • human resources
  • legal
  • maintenance, installation and repair
  • management and administration
  • manufacturing, processing and control
  • media, broadcast and production
  • onsite construction
  • science


One-half of British universities have “lost confidence in the A* or A grades”, and require many applicants to sit for a competitive entrance examination or other aptitude test. According to the Schools Minister, “strong evidence has been emerging of grade inflation across subjects” in recent years. The Confederation of British Industry, the EEF and the British Chambers of Commerce are also complaining of falling academic standards. Employers often experience difficulty in finding young people who have such basic employability skills as literacy, numeracy, problem solving, teamworking and time management. As a result, employers either have to pay for employees' remedial education, or they must hire foreign candidates.

Katharine Birbalsingh has written of the problems she perceives in many community schools. She cites the impossibility of effective classroom management, bad teachers who cannot be dismissed, and government policies encouraging "soft" subjects. Birbalsingh has visited schools in Jamaica and India where pupils are desperate to gain the kind of education to which pupils in her own school (and their parents) were indifferent. She was a deputy head teacher in south London until she spoke at a Conservative Party conference in 2010 and was quickly sacked. Frank Chalk, who taught at an inner-city school for ten years before resigning in frustration, makes similar claims.

Pupils claiming free school meals (2010)
School type Primary Secondary
All 19.3% 15.2%
Church of England 13.1% 12.0%
Roman Catholic 16.3% 14.0%
Non-religious 21.5% 15.6%
Schools with fewer free school meal children than local postcode average (2010)
School type Primary Secondary
Church of England 63.5% 39.6%
Roman Catholic 76.3% 64.7%
Non-religious 47.3% 28.8%

An analysis of 2010 school data by The Guardian found that state faith schools were not taking a fair share of the poorest pupils in their local areas, as indicated by free school meal entitlement. Not only was this so at an overall national level, but also in the postcode areas nearby the schools. This suggested selection by religion was leading to selection of children from more well-off families.

A survey of 2000 teachers by The Guardian in 2011 identified a widespread reason for not enjoying the job: lack of trust and respect by senior staff, parents and governments. Writing about her own reasons for leaving teaching, a contributing editor to the newspaper's Guardian Teacher Network described the realisation of needing to leave the profession as having slowly crept up on her. Being a mature entrant, she questioned things in her aspiration to improve education and was reluctant to "be moulded into a standard shape".

Criticism of funding

The government is expensively building new free schools rather than paying for much-needed repairs to existing schools. Some new free schools will create much-needed school places while others will compete with existing schools in areas where there are plenty of school places and endanger the financial viability of existing schools. Schools in many parts of England complain about insufficient funds and the National Audit Office warns the school budgets face cuts of £3bn. Head teachers in Cheshire fear they will have to cut school hours to make ends meet. Over half of academies are spending more than their income.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned that spending per pupil will fall in real terms during the current parliament. Funding for sixth-formers has been squeezed year on year and is now no better in real terms than it was just under thirty years ago. Spending on further education will also fall. Schools serving pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will be hit hardest. Alison Garnham of Child Poverty Action Group said, "If the country - and our education system - is to work for everyone, not just the privileged few, ministers must reconsider the school funding formula. Poverty at home is the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will do at school, [but] Schools and teachers can help to weaken that link if they have sufficient resources, but these new findings show that schools in the poorest areas would lose most from the government’s proposed new funding formula. That would widen the educational attainment gap and set many of our children up to fail. In the context of the prime minister's social justice agenda, that outcome looks perverse,"

Head teachers claim they are cutting GCSE and A-level subjects, making classes larger and stopping support services due to lack of funds. 95% of heads, deputies and senior teachers surveyed said they had cut back on equipment and materials and also mental health and special needs support. Over two-thirds said they had reduced projects such as clubs and nearly three-quarters of respondents with teachers claim they are cutting GCSE and A-level subjects, making classes larger and stopping support services due to lack of funds. 95% of heads, deputies and senior teachers surveyed said they had cut back on equipment and materials and also mental health and special needs support. Over two-thirds said they had reduced projects such as clubs and school trips. Nearly three-quarters of respondents with GCSE classes said they had reduced courses and just over three-quarters of heads with A-level students said they had also reduced subjects. Modern foreign languages, arts, drama and music are among subjects cut. A respondent said, "Through no fault of their own, students will have restricted subject choices, in larger class sizes with less pastoral support, whilst still being expected to perform at the highest of standards - nonsense!" Some schools are considering closing early and reducing teaching time to save money. 95% of ASCL members were obliged to reduce student support services and 68% said enrichment activities had been cut due to budget pressure. 82% said class sizes had needed to increase and 20% of them said there were between 6 and 10 more pupils in each class. The National Audit Office estimates costs of running a school will rise by 8% during the current parliament. An IFS report stated spending per pupil would fall 6.5% by 2019-2020.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has warned funding cuts from central government could leave Local Authorities unable to pay for vital work including checking for asbestos, checking if potential staff have criminal records and fire safety work.

Research by the Education Policy Institute suggests spending in real terms per pupil will fall in all schools by 2020 despite a Conservative manifesto promise to increase spending per pupil in real terms. The EPI estimates average losses by 2019-20 at £74,000 for primary schools and £291,000 for secondary schools. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) maintains the projected national funding formula could make 1,000 English schools face further cuts of 7% after 2019–20 to comply with the new funding levels. The government has not given long term guidance over funding preventing schools doing long term planning. Many Conservative Members of Parliament are uneasy about the cuts and may vote against cuts in parliament. A government rethink over cuts is possible.

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