Putting the fun into school funding: part 1

Posted by Simon Goulden on 16 Mar 2016

Last week, before its announcement ending the world of the VA school as we know it,  the DfE launched another consultation exercise. For any of you looking forward to reading the four associated documents, adding up to over 120 pages, which make up the consultation, I can thoroughly recommend it.   The language is clear and the arguments well set out. For others, who want to know more, but do not have the time or strength to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, here is a very personal view on it.

To all of us involved in running schools, in whatever role, it is widely acknowledged that the current funding system fails to do this and is both unfair and opaque, to say the least. The Dedicated School Grant (DSG) for each local authority is not based on what its schools need now, but it is based on decisions going back several years. When the current system was introduced in 2006, the amount paid to each local authority was based on what they had planned to spend on schools in 2005. Ever since, each year’s funding has started from this assessment of local need made over a decade ago. With Pupil Premium and a host of other initiatives added on the way, such as the schools block grant, the high needs block grant, the early years block grant, education service grant, specific grant and now, academies funding it is little wonder that ‘something has to be done’.

It is perfectly understandable that education opportunity should be open to all, in all parts of the country: city and country, large and small, north and south. And of course it should be fair, with funding for schools based on the needs and characteristics of pupils, in a transparent, understandable way. It should be clear how much funding is following each pupil to their school, including disadvantaged pupils, and this should be the same everywhere, whilst reflecting higher costs in some areas, especially London. The allocation of ‘high needs funding’ to local authorities should, of course be equally rational. It will be clear by now to all of us involved in education that this government, perhaps more than any other, wants to get funding straight to schools, allowing headteachers and governors to plan and prioritise their budgets with as much certainty as possible. You will not be surprised to learn that the government wants to promote ‘efficiency’ – in one of their now familiar mantras, to help schools ‘bear down on back office costs and devote every possible pound to improving opportunity for their pupils’. In essence the DfE wants the funding system to enable schools and local authorities to give the pupils in their charge the best possible opportunity to maximise their potential. And who could disagree with that?

The DfE even brings cogent arguments to show that, for example Medway receives over £650 less per pupil than Liverpool, despite having a significantly higher proportion of pupils not achieving level 4 in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2. This unfairness, so the DfE claims, is often made worse at school level because local authorities use different formulae to distribute funding locally, and can make very different decisions. So, for example, a secondary pupil with low prior attainment would attract about £2,250 of additional funding in Birmingham, compared with £36 in Darlington. In three local authorities including LB Barnet, these pupils would not attract any additional funding AT ALL.

Now we all might think that localism is right and that some variation is inevitable (or we might have done until the government bombshell announcement), but the DfE claims that the degree of variation is well beyond anything that could be justified on the basis of differing local need. And, in case you had been absent over the last few years, the DfE hammers home the claim that ‘local decision-making itself is increasingly out of date as more schools become academies, independent of local authority management and often operating in chains that cut across multiple local authority boundaries and regions. As we move towards an increasingly academised system, it makes sense for funding to be allocated on an increasingly consistent basis for all schools across the country.’ No room for doubt where we are all heading, if there ever was.

In a nutshell, the DfE wants to support the idea of extending opportunity for all pupils, is fair (whatever that means), efficient and gets the funding ‘straight to the schools’ as the DfE says and is transparent, simple and predictable so that schools can plan better for the future. So where, as I am sure you are thinking, is the catch?

For that, we will have to wait for part 2, coming soon.

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