Back in March 2016, the stage 1 consultation on schools’ funding reform included the stated objective that funding should support 'all schools to deliver excellence everywhere', and who would quibble with that?
Despite the length of the consultation documents, the basic premise wasn’t difficult – a flat rate per pupil everywhere, supplemented by additional funds to reflect more specific local issues, be they pupil based or geographically based. Nothing really contentious in the theory; hence, not surprisingly, the recently published consultation response reports positive approval ratings between 70 per cent and 93 per cent from differing respondent types. With only a couple of comparatively small changes then, the proposals are being taken forward into the stage 2 consultation.
But is this really about equity?
Notwithstanding the reining in of the academies white paper, it is clear that the government is still planning to take all schools out of local authority control. In such circumstances the funding also has to go back under central control, which requires a formulaic approach to be practically manageable.
Equally, if really about equity, then one could argue that those schools and pupils that would benefit the most from the new formula and the principle that it should be ‘fair’, should be allowed to do so. Looking at the tables released alongside the consultation however, there are 3,200 schools that would benefit from an increase of more than 5.5 per cent in funding were it not being capped; and many would be due more than 10 per cent increases in funding. It might also be interesting to see the true impact of the reforms on the ‘'losers’ were the Minimum Funding Guarantee not being put in place. This data though hasn’t been released, which is disappointing.
At the same time as the funding consultation was released, we also had the National Audit Office report on financial sustainability in schools. Amongst a number of findings, if you look at the combined statistics for forecast pupil number increases, funding increases and cumulative cost pressures, all to 2019/20, then there is an overall eight per cent real terms reduction in funding per pupil coming through. It is assumed by the department that these savings will be realised through more efficient procurement and better staff utilisation. Not something for the funding formula to address directly, but still more of a hope than expectation that these savings can and will be achieved?
Finally there is the question of the details in the funding formula. For every winner under the new methodology there will also be a loser. Some of the factors to be used will be quite straightforward. Others are designed to reflect the realities of life in different areas across England, but quite how they are applied in practice will be a significant determinant of exactly who the winners and losers will be. Let’s hope that this isn’t driven solely by local, or national, politics.