In the good old days Cabinet office guidelines recommended 13 weeks for a public consultation by a government department. The stage one consultation on the ‘Schools national funding formula’ was published on the 7th March and closes on the 17th April. This is but five weeks including Easter. The closing day is a Sunday. (There might have been an exclamation mark here, but I am trying to conform to the new DfE guidelines).
The interesting feature for me of the proposals centres on the attempt by the government to marry together two different notions of equality. The first of these is the notion that everyone should have the same funding. In essence it is the argument of the F40 Group of authorities that felt they were short-changed when the current rules were introduced. The second notion is that of equal outcomes. If every child is to achieve the maximum possible from their education some will need more resources than others. This principle has long been accepted in relation to SEN and with the Pupil Premium the issue of the need for other forms of additional support was formalised at a national rate. The Pupil Premium will remain for the lifetime of this parliament, but no guarantee has been given for after 2020. The consultation identifies three categories of additional needs.
Without fully worked examples, it is difficult to do more than comment on the building blocks of the new formula. I suspect the one that will worry schools that might be potential losers under a new formula is the area cost adjustment. The level this is set at will need to be able to compensate for areas where salaries are higher because of high cost of living and working in the area. However, if it doesn’t recognise the high cost of housing in some areas outside London, it won’t help schools in those areas attract and retain staff. This is important because, as the consultation recognises, staffing costs are the major part of any school’s budget. Ever since the introduction of Local Management of Schools in the early 1990s, the decision to fund on ‘average salaries’ rather than actual salary bills has benefitted schools with a relatively young staff profile and eaten up more of the budget of those schools with a high proportion of staff at the top of the Upper Pay Band. The new formula won’t change that. Indeed, it might see the end of scales and move towards a single point or a first year starting salary and then the same basic salary for all with additions for responsibilities and other reasons depending on what the school could afford.
The notion of support for exceptional circumstance such as split sites, sparsity and business rates, not to mention the PfI payments from the Building Schools for the Future programme, is welcome news, assuming the funding is enough to cover all current needs.
And here lies the issue. With more pupils to educate, how much more cash will there be in real terms? Personally, I would also want to see modelling of outcomes when the current pupil numbers currently going through primary schools move into the secondary sector. What will be the effects on primary schools, especially small primary schools, when secondary numbers are rising and primary numbers are static or again falling? The nature of the formula will especially affect small rural primary schools. Does a Conservative government want to design a formula that might lead to their wholesale closure or will the sparsity factor balance off against the area cost adjustment? This will, I am sure, worry some of the more rural areas of England, not least Northumberland where, according to the DfE website, Holy Island Church of England First School currently has a per pupil expenditure or more than £27,000. I am not sure whether the statutory walking distance to the nearest schools works in cases like that but it might be another factor to add to the list of exceptions that can be covered through additional funding.
This just goes to show how much work DfE officials have done on trying to create a fair formula, but how complex the issue remains until there is agreement on what a fair formula is. What it isn’t is just allocating the same amount to every pupil.