Is opposition to the current National Funding Formula for schools growing? There are those that see it as neither national, because it has so many variations, nor a formula, because it carries so many restrictions carried over from what went before. Indeed, the F40 Group of local authorities that campaigns for fairer funding has issued a recent document outlining their concerns about the present state of play.
In one sense the idea of every child having a basic unit of funding tied to the provision of their education has been the Holy Grail of many educationalists ever since the autonomy of local authorities over education funding began to be curbed around the time that local management of schools or LMS began to be introduced in the early 1990s.
At that time there were wide disparities in the funding of schooling across the country. Local business rates meant that Inner London had access to vast resources of income generated from the City of London and the West End. At the other end of the scale were former manufacturing areas and many rural areas where income was insufficient and central government had to provide funds to support an education service. These areas were also joined by many of the shire counties where education competed with social services for a limited amount of resources.
The goal of those seeking a National Funding Formula was to level up less well funded areas, so that all received the same basic level of funding as close to that of the best as possible. Of course, if it wasn’t at the level of the best then there would be losers. The first attempt at a Formula created too many losers. It is now becoming apparent that the current version also has problems associated with it.
As the F40 briefing note says;
One of the key principles set out in the early NFF consultations, supported by f40, was that pupils of similar characteristics should attract similar levels of funding wherever they are in the country (allowing for the area cost adjustment). Therefore, NFF should be applied to all schools on a consistent basis. However, the protections applied, such as the 0.5% funding floor, ‘lock in’ some of the historical differences for those schools which have been comparatively well funded for several decades.
The government must continue to develop the national formula so that it is fit for the future i.e. is fairer, more easily understood, transparent and adjustable. Transition to the new formula is sensible but locking in past inequalities is not.
The F40 Group is also seeking continued funding flexibility to support specific local issues or organisational requirements. They assert that no two schools in the country are exactly the same, but the current formula assumes all schools are almost identical. The F40 say that are good local reasons why some schools have costs that others do not have, and an inflexible national system cannot support these schools equitably. As a result, some local flexibility is essential in achieving a fair formula that works and stands the test of time.
Here is the nub of the argument, how to manage a national formula with a degree of local flexibility. The government’s solution for academy chains is to allow funds to be moved between schools as necessary, but that approach doesn’t help either stand-alone academies or maintained schools.
With increasing pupil numbers and an under-funded 16-19 sector, the government has limited room for movement in the short-term, even if austerity really does come to an end as a policy objective. Perhaps we might see a return to the separation of funding into two separate funding streams with pay as one funding stream and other costs funded through a different funding stream more open to local flexibility to reflect local circumstances. This might imply a return to rigid national pay scales and limits of promoted posts to control the pay stream.
What is clear is that without more thinking, the present arrangements for school funding are likely to be unfair for many pupils across the country.