Move to establish fairer funding for schools gathers a head of steam

25 Aug

(1)       Historical injustice

It’s been whispered in high places that the government will be issuing another consultation document about creating a fairer funding formula for schools on the basis of which they will be allocating the national budget for education.   The Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL) calculated (not so long ago) that the 10 best-funded local authorities received grants of £6,2977 per pupil on average in 2015-16 when compared with an average of £4,208 per pupil in the 10 most poorly funded areas.  Surely, this cannot be fair.

(2)       Attempts to redress the balance

On 13 March 2014, the Education Minister (in the then coalition government) made a statement in parliament acknowledging the unfair funding system the government inherited.  He described the arrangements as “opaque, overly complex and frankly unfair to pupils, parents and teachers”.

Similar schools can have huge funding disparities because they are in different authorities and occasionally disadvantaged pupils end up being funded at levels well below more advantaged pupils in nearby schools in affluent areas.   The minister cited the case of a school in Birmingham which had only 3% of pupils receiving free school meals (FSMs) getting higher funding per pupil than a school in Shropshire with over 30% of pupils eligible for FSMs.

The F40 group – comprising 37 local authorities – has been campaigning long and hard to redress the balance. F40 has made the case for a redistribution of the educational wealth of the nation.  However, successive governments, having acknowledged that the system is inherently unfair, have, notwithstanding, struggled to grasp the nettle of finding a solution. The dilemma with which they have had to grapple is squaring a circle of giving more to the less well-off without damaging the better funded authorities where there is considerable deprivation – while keeping a lid on spending, because of the Chancellor’s determination to reduce the national debt.

Way back in March 2014, the Education Minister tried to alleviate the situation by allocating an extra £350 million in 2015-16 to the worst-funded authorities.  In fact, the government increased this sum to £390 million and set a minimum funding level for the

  • basic amount that all pupils should attract,
  • deprived pupils,
  • pupils with English as an additional language (EAL),
  • pupils with low levels of attainment on entering school, and
  • pupils who have been looked after, i.e. in foster care.

The government also set a minimum level of funding that schools should attract, regardless of size, to assist with fixed costs such as employing a headteacher and additional funding for sparsely populated areas to ensure that rural communities were not unduly disadvantaged.  Higher funding was allocated to areas like Inner-London, where teacher salaries are greater.   No local authority or school received less funding per pupil as a consequence of the arrangements.

Some historical disadvantages were, as a consequence, addressed if not wholly, then partially.   Cambridgeshire, for instance, saw a boost of 7% in its schools’ budget, raising the per pupil funding from £3,950 to £5,225.  The top 15 gainers were Bromley, Cambridgeshire, Brent, Sutton, Northumberland, South Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Merton, Croydon, Bournemouth, Chestershire West and Chester, Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Devon.   Additionally, areas like Norfolk received an extra £16 million, Derbyshire £14 million and Surrey nearly £25 million.

(3)        The future for schools?

Steps to resolve the problem of funding schools equitably are likely to be taken when the Chancellor, Mr George Osbourne, unveils his autumn statement. This is unsurprising because Mr Robin Walker, MP and vice chair of the F40 group, is now the personal private secretary of Ms Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education.

In March 2015, Mr Walker argued for the “speedy implementation” of a new formula describing as “mind-boggling” the gap in funding levels of schools in different parts of the country.  A source in the Department for Education (DfE) close to ministers expected the formula to be phased in over a three-to-five year period with “floors and ceilings” built in to ease the pain of schools that will lose out.

Another source told The Times Educational Supplement (TES) that Labour areas in London, for example, would lose and Conservatives ones gain.  “That is not the purpose of the formula, but that’s what’s going to happen,” the source added.

Writing in the May/June issue of Governing Matters, the voice of the National Governors’ Association, Councillor Ivan Ould, chair of the F40 and lead member for the Children and Young People’s Service in Leicestershire County Council, presented his group’s master-plan.    He submitted that “the proposals would

(i)            introduce a new national formula from 2016-17, phased in over three years, based on a clear rationale and geared towards improving educational standards in the country;

(ii)           include core entitlement at a pupil level, reflecting different needs and costs at various key stages;

(iii)          use factors to reflect pupil level needs beyond the core entitlement, including deprivation and special educational needs, and reflect the needs of small schools that are necessary in a local authority’s (LA’s) structure;

(iv)         continue to use the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) with blocks for mainstream schools, high needs and the Early Years with LAs free to move funding between the blocks.”

We can look forward to exciting times ahead, particularly as it is very unlikely that Mr Osborne will enlarge education’s financial cake.  (The government has safeguarded the funding of education – but only in cash terms – and inflation has begun to rise.)  The DfE consulted on changing the funding formula in 2011 but paused on overhauling it for the good reason: the model “would need refinement and careful implementation”. The real reason was probably because it was too hot a potato to handle.

(4)        Sixth Form Colleges

Meanwhile, while the budgets in schools have been protected since 2010, colleges have had four successive years of funding cuts.  In addition, unlike schools, sixth form colleges are forced to pay VAT. The average VAT annual bill per college stands at £335,000.

Members of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) are eager to align themselves with those in the schools’ sector.   The SFCA is currently exploring the prospect of converting to academies or morphing into Free Schools.

Ms Pauline Hagen, principal of New College Pontefract in West Yorkshire, is overseeing the opening of a 16-19 Free School in Doncaster in September 2016.  An academy trust has been established to oversee the new provision.  However, because New College Pontefract is incorporated it is unable to join the body the trust is creating.

Ms Hagen described the governance system for colleges “clumsy, unnecessarily bureaucratic and counter to (the government’s) aims and ambitions.  Her college population has expanded in the last four years from 1,600 to 2,000 students.   The organisation which is responsible for the college has become a teaching school.   “We’re leading strategic partners, helping challenged schools and colleges at every phase,” said Ms Hagen. “We are driving this phase-wide improvement, which is exactly what the government’s wanting, yet we can’t actually be part of the sector.”

The comments of Mr Paul Ashdown, of the Sixth Form College, Sollihull, chimed in with those of Ms Hagen.  “I think we are schools,” he told the TES.  “Our teachers tend to have the same qualification background as school-teachers; our provision is also largely what is offered in schools.  I started my career in a school.  Most of my staff (members) have worked in schools as well. I think that is where we actually belong and we’re very different from a big FE college.”

The SFCA considered a mass conversion to academies of its 93 colleges in 2012 but was averse to giving up the incorporated status of the colleges.   It could have saved them £30 million in VAT payments and written off the collective debt of £120 million.   One key benefit – which is denied to academies – of being incorporated is that the colleges are able to recruit students from abroad.  The sixth form colleges are also able to offer Higher Education (HE) courses and take out loans without the permission of the Secretary of State.  So, converting to academies has swings and roundabouts.

A DfE spokesperson confirmed to the TES that sixth form colleges were not allowed to convert to academies but added that the situation was under review.

Meanwhile, these colleges feel a bit hard-done-by financially.  Those working in schools would do well to spare a thought for them.

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