Conjuring up a national funding formula: the 4 questions the DfE doesn’t want you to consider but you really ought to

We all love a bit of magic, and at this time of year there is often a budding Great Soprendo to be found at the school end-of-term show, making our 50p pieces disappear before our astonished eyes, or pulling unfeasibly long scarves from a hat.

However, even the best trick is spoiled when viewed from a school hall with a leaky roof.

In the same way, the national funding formula consultation does pull some surprising rabbits out of the hat, but we must watch out for the sleight of hand.

Let’s start with the parts of the trick that ministers would want us to notice.

For a start, Department for Education has secured an additional £200 million in both 2018–19 and 2019–20 to accelerate the catching-up process for low-funded schools.

As a result, the level of reduction of funding for the funding losers is being held at no more than 1.5 per cent each year, and no more than a cumulative total of 3 per cent. This is still very painful — on which, more in a moment — but not as bad as predicted by some.

So much for the rabbits.

But the secret to a great trick is the clever misdirection that puts our attention just where the magician wants it. What is it that we are not looking at? Here are four questions that I doubt you will easily find in the consultation:

  1. What about funding for 2017–18? The projections for 2018 onwards will be of little use to the 59 per cent of schools already spending more than their income, or those sharing average deficits of £326,000.
  2. What about 16–18 funding? It is arguably at least 20 per cent underfunded compared with the costs of running a proper 16–18 curriculum. For schools with sixth forms and for colleges, this is a vital issue.
  3. What about the pupil premium, amounting to £2.5 billion? It is outside the NFF, and therefore subject to the decisions of future governments.
  4. What about the enormous increases to costs highlighted today by the National Audit Office? An eye-watering £3 billion of cuts are expected to be needed, due these increased costs, but there has been little advice from government on how to achieve them. It is a bizarre aspect of public policy that so much school funding is being taken back by government itself, to pay for pensions, national insurance and apprenticeships.

Schools are experiencing real pain already. As David Waugh, headteacher of Poynton High School in East Cheshire — one of the lowest funded authority areas in England — said to me today: “With increasing costs and inflationary pressures, the reality on the ground in many schools is that headteachers, having already made significant savings in back-office, site management, finance and accounting functions, are now having to turn to making cuts in teaching staff.

“This will in turn impact on class sizes and the option choices available for young people. Many schools are quite honestly staring over the financial cliff edge.”

It’s not easy to run a school in some higher funded areas either.

Arwel Jones, headteacher at Brentside High in Hanwell, London, said: “The cost of living in London is so high now that it is pricing teachers out of the area. We do need to keep funding at a level where we can offer competitive salaries to our teachers, otherwise it will really impact on our provision for our students.”

So, as well as probing hard on the content of the consultation itself, we should keep a keen eye on the areas just outside it, which will make a huge practical difference to the levels of staffing and resources in our schools.

Above all, we should demand an answer about funding for 2017–18. Every child deserves to be in a properly funded school.

This was originally published by the TES.

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