The current National Funding Formula is fine as far as it goes. However, as I have written before on this blog, it is based upon a notion of equality that resembles the ‘equal slices of the cake’ model of funding distribution. That’s fine if that’s what you want out of the Formula, and the f40 Group of Local authorities have tirelessly campaigned for fair – more- funding for their areas. Again, they are right to do so.
However, if the new agenda has levelling up at its heart, then it is necessary to ask whether the present method of distributing cash to schools and other education establishments will achieve that aim?
As the debate about the High Needs Block of funding for SEND has made very clear, some children cost more to educate than others. If you want all children to achieve a minimum standard of education then some will always cost more to achieve that goal than others. The Pupil Premium recognised this fact. Changing the date of calculation and thus excluding some children from the Premium seems an odd way to start the ‘levelling up’ campaign.
There is a key decision for government to make if they really mean to introduce a ‘levelling up’ campaign in the school sector. Do you hypothecate, as with the Pupil Premium, creating funds only to be used for levelling up purposes or do you distribute more funds generally and leave it to the schools and Trusts to manage the distribution of the cash? This approach leaves maintained schools that are not academies in a bit of a limbo as they don’t have a mechanism to ‘pool’ funds for the common good, as MATs are able to do.
When it works well, the second approach is better, as it is less of a blunt tool than the first method as anyone that has read the history of school funding over the last century will know.
There is a further issue with a Formula tied to geographical areas, as this blog has noted before. Oxfordshire is largely an affluent county, but there are pockets of deprivation in Banbury and parts of Oxford; not to mention the issue of rural poverty as well. Any ‘levelling up’ agenda must tackle these issues in addition to the more obvious areas of underperformance in education achievements.
Overlaying this issue of ‘levelling up’ is the effect on the present Formula of the downturn in the birth rate and its consequences for small primary schools. Do we want them to compete by drawing in parents willing to drive their children to such schools? An alternative is to close them and let council Taxpayers pay the cost of transporting children to other schools. Might work in urban areas, but the Tories would quickly find that save our Schools campaigns can impact more on election chances for Councillors than almost anything else except perhaps closure of a local hospital. There are also implications for the climate change agenda. I would be interested to know where the Green Party stands on this matter.
Doing nothing won’t help the ‘levelling up’ agenda, so if the government is really serious in what it is saying, then action will be needed. Making all schools academies, however repugnant the loss of local democratic control is to people like me, does offer some levers hat MATs can use, but local authorities cannot under the present rules.
It will be interesting to see what plays out over the next few months in a debate where doing nothing will have as many consequences as doing something.