Economic matters

An American President once said ‘the economy, stupid.’ Often that seems to be the case. Indeed, the austerity facing public services in Britain at present can partly be put down to the management of the economy in the first decade of this century. If governments cannot or will not raise revenue from either wealth or income and discount land taxes, then, unless the economy is growing strongly, they will be unable to expand public services, should they even wish to do so. There is also the argument that the State should not provide services for the many, but just a basic lifeline for the few, but we won’t go there in this post.

All this matters to education, as we have seen with the relatively parsimonious new funding formula announced by the government in the run up to Christmas. With adult social care, the NHS and other services probably ahead of education in the minds of many voters, it was always going to be a challenge to secure more funds for schools: especially, when rising pupil numbers mean more is needed in any case just to stand still. Finding even more cash for enhanced services did seem a bit like ‘pie in the sky’ at the present time.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how parents react to news that their children’s school might be having its budget cut, even by no more than a couple of per cent.  With no elections in London in 2017, save for by-elections, the government can probably weather the storm of protest in the capital.

Of more interest is the situation in the countryside where many small rural schools look like being losers. Indeed, a quick survey of primary schools in the Henley constituency, Boris’s old stamping ground, revealed that 35 primary schools might be losers under the new formula, while just ten would gain funds. Now, I am sure that the good burghers of the Chilterns and adjacent clay lowlands can afford to support their local primary school through some backhanded giving. But, I am not sure that was what they expected as the outcome from the new formula.

The alternative is to see a redrawing of the map of primary education in rural areas, with fewer larger and more efficient units based around market towns. To achieve this outcome, more pupils would be required to travel longer distances to school. The cost of this happily falls, not on the government, but on local council tax payers. Conservative County Councillors defending their seats in May 2017 will no doubt hope that school funding and the survival of village primary schools doesn’t become an election issue, along with grammar schools. For a revolt by parents in the Shires would be bad news for a government with a small majority at Westminster.

Watch for signs that the consultation on the funding formula isn’t going to plan and that the timescale for introduction is amended. If not, following on from cuts to rural buses, mobile library service, road mending, grass cutting and a host of other services, might 2017 be another year where the political map is redrawn?

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Scrooge or Santa: It depends upon where you live

My favourite line from the DfE’s consultation document on the new funding formula for schools is:

5,500 schools will benefit from the minus 3% per pupil funding floor protection.

I think that this is a line that the late, great, author George Orwell might have penned in either 1984 or Animal Farm. The real outcome of the government’s deliberations is definitely buried in the small print. An analysis of Oxfordshire primary schools shows an almost equal split between those schools likely to benefit and those that will be worse off. The division is stark between urban schools, especially those serving communities with high degrees of under-performance that will see more money, although some may be capped by the use of floor and ceiling mechanisms, and the small, usually rural schools that are almost universally losers. Of course, I welcome the extra cash for the schools that benefit.

In the secondary sector, around two thirds of Oxfordshire schools see gains, whereas the other third, again mostly the more rural schools, will see their income drop unless they can recruit more pupils to compensate for the reduced formula funding. As secondary schools are close to the bottom of the demographic cycle in many parts of the country the loss will be to some extent mitigated by opportunities to expand as pupil numbers increase. However, rural secondary schools, and popular schools already bursting at the seams won’t be able to increase pupil numbers. The same is likely to be the case for selective schools in some of the less well funded shire counties, where they are facing reductions in the examples presented by the DfE. As these schools often have little room for expansion, cuts to already poor funding levels won’t seem like a great Christmas present.

Overall, it looks as if the gains will largely be achieved by smoothing out the historical anomalies in authorities where the long-terml average has covered a wide range of different localities from those in the top decile of deprivation to those in the lowest decile. To achieve sufficient transfer of funds, there has also had to be internal transfers leading to the losses faced my many schools in the less well-funded authorities such as Oxfordshire. To some extent the use of floors will prevent the cuts affecting individual schools from being too great, but the use of ceilings may deprive some schools of the full amount indicated by the new Formula.

Of course, this isn’t a good time to be conducting this exercise. It would have been better for the Labour government to have undertaken the exercise a decade ago, when pupil numbers were in decline and funds were more generous. At that time all might have been winners and the government wouldn’t in some cases be looking like Ebenezer Scrooge..

Funding schools has always been a contentious issue, and this consultation may affect some Conservative County Council candidates next year if it looks as if a well-liked local school is losing funds and might even have to close. One can image the number of opposition candidates already looking out the ‘Save our Schools’ posters ready for the New Year.

A small tweak on the block grant might go a long way to protect many small primary schools where the expense of preserving them might be worth not having to pay the cost of providing transport to pupils required to relocate even before looking at the cost of building new school place sin the remaining hub schools in the market towns.

However, before the final step of either a local authority closing a school or a MAT throwing in the towel, there will be amalgamations and reductions in the number of head teachers, with one head probalby leading several schools in a cluster. That might work, but the NAO report earlier this week showed that it isn’t just the outcome of the funding formula that will determine the survival of lots of schools, it is also the many other cost pressures that they face. For a start, schools could be exempt from the apprenticeship Levy on the grounds that ITT costs already mean education is paying for the training of its professional workforce.