Fiona Millar – fair play

A national funding formula for schools may sound like a reasonable response to current inequality, says Fiona Millar – but the reality is considerably more complex

How should schools be funded? We are generally so preoccupied with how much money we receive that the convoluted formulae determining the bottom line in the budget probably aren’t given much thought. But now that may have to change. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement contained multiple announcements, many of which eclipsed his commitment to a national funding formula, which would attempt to standardise the amount received by pupils all over the country.

Yet this may turn out to be one of the most challenging and risky policy changes of the past two decades. To understand why that is, we need to go back into the mists of time and note the haphazard and unequal way that local authority and school level funding has developed over decades.

Tangled threads

Different funding streams and individual council decisions to top up the funding they receive from government have ‘baked in’ inequalities to such an extent that schools barely miles apart but across borough or county boundaries can receive vastly different funding per pupil. There can also be a wide different in per pupil income across schools in the same local authority area, due to the formula agreed by the local Schools Forum.

According to campaigners on behalf of the most poorly funded authorities, the ten best funded areas of England will receive an average grant of £6,297 per pupil this year, compared to an average of just £4,208 per pupil in the worst. But even these figures mask dramatic differences – with some secondary schools in inner London being funded at between £8000 and £9000 per pupil, almost twice as much elsewhere in the country.

This has been a contentious and much resented problem in the less well funded areas for years but with the precarious public spending climate- the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons that all schools will lose between 10 and 12 % over the life of this parliament - heads, governors, councillors and MPs in those communities are becoming increasingly militant, warning of bankruptcy and unsustainability.

Nick Gibb recently rubbished the idea that there is a teacher morale crisis – an assertion that doesn’t seem to be reflected in current recruitment and retention issues. But in places where there isn’t yet a morale problem, there certainly could be once ‘cliff edge’ is reached in about 18 months and large holes start to appear in school budgets all over the country.

Translated into the real world of parents and teachers this means staff redundancies and longer hours, larger class sizes, the axing of some less popular subjects and erosion of the sort of extra curricular activities that contribute to the wider personal and social development of pupils.

So it is not really surprising that calls for a leveling up have finally forced the government’s hand. But there is a good reason why the transition to a ‘fairer’ funding formula hasn’t been attempted before. The current differentials are fiendishly complicated to unravel and without a huge injection of cash to bring the least wellfunded authorities and schools up to the level of the best, some distribution from the richer to the poorer areas will be inevitable.

With caution

From a personal point of view, as a commentator, I am trying to remain objective. It seems quite wrong to me that a pupil eligible for free schools meals in Cambridge shire or Dorset should receive so much less than a pupil eligible for free school meals in say, Hackney or Tower Hamlets.

If we weren’t starting from here, we probably wouldn’t invent the system we now have. We would be more likely to invent a model starting with a flat sum of money based on the needs of educating every child, regardless of where they live, and then top it up for deprivation and other local characteristics like London pay. But as a governor in one of the best-funded authorities, whose children benefitted from the good years, the prospect of losing more money, possibly at a very steep rate is alarming. And even more so when you look at the latest research from the Sutton Trust which suggests that disadvantaged pupils living is disadvantaged areas, many of whom are in the inner cities, still fare worse than disadvantaged pupils in more affluent places.

In short the government needs to proceed carefully, and I suspect ministers know this. The problem doesn’t even fall neatly across party lines – some Conservative councils could also be losers in this zero sum game.

The DFE is promising a consultation within months and the transition to the new formula to start in 2017 but the devil will be in the detail. Phasing in the changes over ten years would be a very different prospect to doing it over three, but prochange campaigners want it completed by 2020. Either way it will be contentious, potentially damaging if mishandled and only likely to rise up the political, and school, agenda in the coming months.

About the author

Fiona Millar is a columnist for Guardian Education and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network. (localschoolsnetwork.org.uk).

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