Equal not fair: the new direction for education?

So Boris wants a ‘superb’ education for all children. His recipe for achieving this is to offer all primary and secondary schools the same cash amount per pupil of some £5,000. No mention of special education, further education or indeed higher education in that part of his speech.

As this blog has recorded in the past, post-16 and further education is seriously in need of a cash injection, probably even more than the schools sector. Although secondary schools will benefit from more cash for their Key Stage 3 & 4 pupils under Boris’s idea, this won’t help fully fund sixth forms and will leave further education colleges still drifting towards financial meltdown in some cases.

What is the future for the High Needs Block of funding and a ‘superb’ education for all our pupils with special educational needs? I guess much will depend upon how Mr Williamson, as the incoming Secretary of State for Education, interprets the words of his boss? Personally, I hope he reminds Boris that Eton doesn’t charge the same fees as many other private schools and asks whether he believes that what is right for public education should be applied to private schooling as well?

More seriously, the idea of the same cash for all is based upon a very simplistic notion of education, where equal means ‘the same’. In 2002, I wrote a paper for the Liberal Democrats espousing the ‘compensatory principle’. This is based upon funding the needs of a child to reach the outcome levels desired by the system: some children need more resources to achieve the desired outcome than others.

Such a principle recognises the need for additional funding for both specific children and particular areas within local government boundaries. The Coalition introduced the Pupil Premium to recognise this need, and the Mrs May’s government created additionally funded ‘Opportunity Areas’. What happens to these modification of £5,000 for all will be a real test of the values of this government.

Extensive research shows all children do not arrive at school with the same degree of development, whatever their innate capabilities. The system should recognise that fact and take it into account in funding. Furthermore, if the State mandates the same funding for all schools, should it allow schools in more affluent areas to top-up the State grant and once again create a funding differential?

The teacher associations have calculated that the headline £5,000 for all is relatively cheap to implement, costing only about £50 million a year according to the BBC. However, to restore funding levels to where the teacher associations would like them to be might cost close to £13 Billion rather than a few million pounds. Such a sum, even without the demands of the further education sector, is a different order of magnitude.

Sadly, for a Prime minister that likes headlines, the £5,000 is a good headline figure and seems like a lot of money: these days it isn’t. How schools are treated will reveal the true values off the new government.

Funding thoughts

In an ofsted report published this week I found the following paragraph

Only a very small proportion of pupils benefit from routinely good teaching. Senior leaders’ attempts to improve the quality of teaching have been hampered by the school’s difficult financial situation. Most significantly, this means that too many pupils are being taught by non-specialist subject teachers.

Now, I am not sure why non-specialist can cost less than specialists, and ofsted don’t elaborate further.

According to today’s Yorkshire Post the Head of Education at North Yorkshire County Council, has urged the Government to “wake up to the plight of rural communities, and to the costs of delivering education in sparse rural areas.”

He also added that “We have real worries about small rural secondary schools. We aren’t, at the moment, looking at any closures, but we are seriously concerned about their financial position. There are no alternatives for these areas. We cannot afford for these schools to close because of the sheer distances pupils would have to travel.”

No doubt North Yorkshire will be responding to the government’s consultation on post-16 bursary funding and rural travel costs, highlighted in my previous post on Friday.

Both these reports highlight the shortcomings of an entirely pupil driven funding system, with little room for local flexibility. The F40 Group of local authorities remain concerned about how the funding system for schools is working.

Tomorrow, at 4pm the NEU and partners campaigning for fairer school funding will present a letter to the Department for Education at Sanctuary Buildings. The letter was signed by 1,115 councillors from authorities across the country.

Hopefully, funding will be one of the issues Layla Moran’s independent commission on education will consider. It does now seem that driving the school bus from Westminster may have unintended financial consequences for some parts of the country that traditionally elect Conservative Party MPs and councillors.

Closing rural schools was made more difficult during the time of the Blair government, so local authorities, academies and MATs with rural schools are between a rock and a hard place. For instance, heating costs may be higher than in city schools that especially in London can benefit from the heat island created by large urban areas.

But, the real issue is still, how we fund schools where costs may be very different, and in rural areas pupil numbers may just not be sufficient to ensure that funds are sufficient to cover outgoings. At least, schools don’t have to meet the travel costs as that cost still falls upon the local authority and the council tax payers.

Realistically, local authorities may need to be able to vire some cash between schools in the same way that MATs are allowed to do.

But, if the overall amount is insufficient to fund quality education, then the system needs to be looked at again. For a start, schools with historic deficits that are impeding good teaching might have them written off for the benefit of the present school population.


More signs of funding woes for some

This week the DfE published the annual update on revenue balances and deficits for schools across England. Once again the data for 2017-18 shows a deteriorating position for many schools. It will also fuel the debate about how London schools are funded compared with those in the rest of the country. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/la-and-school-expenditure-2017-to-2018-financial-year

Overall, the figures seem to show schools diverging between those with a surplus and a growing number with a deficit. The percentage deficit as a share of revenue budgets is also increasing, especially among local authority maintained secondary schools. Data for schools that are academies or free schools is published separately and covers a different period of the year to the budgetary cycle for local authority maintained schools.

As a result of the conversion to academy status by some schools, the number of schools in the tables differs from year to year. However, the last two years have seen a slowdown in conversion to academies and there enough schools in each cohort to suggest the trends might be worth monitoring across all schools.

All maintained schools with revenue balances saw those balances, on average, hold steady at 6.3% of revenue (6.4% in 2016/17). However, those schools with deficits saw these increase from 6.3% to 7.3% on average. The number of such schools also increased, despite conversions to academies reducing the overall number of schools in the table this year.

In the primary sector, schools with positive balances slightly increased them as a percentage of income from 7.4% to 7.5% whereas primary schools with deficits saw those widen from 3.5% to 3.9% of income.

There must be more concern over the secondary sector, where those remaining maintained schools with a positive balance saw it decline to just 1.9% of income. The previous year the percentage was 3.0% across all schools. Of even more concern is the 300 or so maintained secondary schools with deficits where the figure increased from 8.4% of income to 9.8%.  Will these deficits increase in future or, as pupil numbers start increasing in the secondary sector, stabilize and eventually reduce in percentage terms?

Might the end of rising pupil numbers in the primary sector lead to an erosion of the relatively more favourable financial position of this sector when compared with the secondary sector? Certainly, the cash injection from the Chancellor in his budget might help at the margins, but, if there is a snap general election in 2019, school funding might just play a part in some contests alongside the dominant issue of Brexit.

Looking at the geographical distribution of schools with large percentage balances compared to income, the North East London area that includes, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham seems to be over-represented with schools showing large percentage balances; several for a number of years. Many schools, and especially secondary schools in f40 authorities will no doubt gaze in amazement at schools where the percentage balance is more than 20% of revenue.  Some might question why the percentage has stayed so high for a number of years in a few schools and whether these schools are producing the best possible outcomes for their pupils.

Personally, I believe that schools revenue is largely to be spent in the year it is received, with cash only set aside into reserves for the consequences of the depreciation of long-term assets to be added to reserves to ensure that these assets can be replaced. I don’t think such reserves require to be more than 50% of revenue, as is the case in a school that has been increasing its percentage each year for the past few years. I would be especially unhappy if that school were saving for a building project at the expense of the education of their present pupils.

School reserves shrink

The news that the annual survey of school bank balances revealed that a third of schools surveyed were in deficit should come as no surprise. This blog along with many others has been charting the decline in school funds for some time.

Coincidentally, I asked the question at Oxfordshire’s Cabinet meeting this afternoon about school balances across maintained primary schools in Oxfordshire and how they changed between the end of the 2017 and 2018 financial years.

Since I haven’t yet had the data in the form of a spreadsheet, only as a written answer, I have yet to see whether Oxfordshire schools are faring better or worse than the national average. I hope to be able to answer that question later this week. However, there are a lot of minus figures in the table, even taking the effects of double entry bookkeeping into account.

At the Cabinet meeting, I also challenged the Cabinet member – part of the Conservative administration of the County – whether or not she would support the notion that money provided for schools in Oxfordshire should not be allowed to be transferred by Multi-Academy Trusts to support schools in the Trust located elsewhere in England.

I will need to check the minutes for her answer, but I am confident that she agreed with me. Personally, I would go further and not allow MAT or MACs to transfer funds between schools within the group even in Oxfordshire unless the same arrangements were possible for maintained schools and stand-alone academies.

Regular readers of this blog will know auditors of MAT/Macs were written to earlier this year by the Minister in the DfE about the issue of allowing the virement of funds between schools within MAT/MACs. However, schools outside MAT/MACs have no such facility available to them. Whether this should be seen as an invitation to join a MAT or to avoid doing so and keep the cash for the school will be a matter for local decision-making.

However, as I made clear above, if the DfE is going to have a National Funding Formula for schools it cannot, at least in my judgement, be correct for trustees to take money from schools in one area to provide for schools in another area.

Schools Forums up and down the country should take a long look at the issue or virement of monies between schools and consider whether they can draw up local guidelines. After all, the Schools Forum has a key role to play in school finances these days.

The F40 Group of local authorities might also want to have a say if cash were being transferred from their members to poorly performing schools in better funded parts of the country. Such a move would be a case of ‘depriving the deprived’.

After ten years of austerity it is no surprise that schools are running out of reserves. When they do then real cuts start being to be made. With a 3.5% pay rise to fund, expect 2019 balances to be far worse than they were this year.