Cash on basis of need `too big a mountain'

Lucy Hodges

The poor cousins in terms of education funding are finally rebelling, reports Lucy Hodges, but is anyone going to help?

Many specialists say that schools should be funded on the basis of need rather than on pupil:teacher ratios and what they have received in the past. That way, the argument goes, allocation of money will be fairer and more rational.

This is the solution being sought by the new National Primary Headteachers' Association to close the gap between primary and secondary funding. "Things are at an impasse," said association chairman Tony McKee, who is head of Corinthian primary school in Liverpool. "We can't see there will be change any other way. Anything else is tinkering."

His members are working on a national funding formula that would establish a basic entitlement for all pupils. Extra money would be given according to pupils' ages, where they lived, degree of disadvantage, and so on.

"We have sometimes been accused of wanting to grab money out of secondary education, but it is not as simple as that," he says. "We want funding to be objective."

During the 1990s, several local authorities have been working on similar ideas. In fact, 13 councils have been looking at what is known as "activity-led" staffing or "needs-based" funding. The idea has been to identify how much money is needed to teach the national curriculum.

Most of the councils concerned have had working groups of headteachers and officers. In Devon, for example, a group totted up what was needed in terms of premises, equipment, training, teaching and support staff, and related that to the national curriculum. The conclusion was a big increase in funding of Pounds 30-40 million on a budget of Pounds 230m.

Such initiatives highlight the similarities in the jobs done by secondary and primary teachers. But they all have foundered on the cash problem.

According to Alan Parker, education officer at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, an objective funding formula is "too big a mountain for anyone to climb". The last time he saw a national figure, it showed needs-based funding adding Pounds 5 billion to the education bill.

In a report to be published shortly the National Foundation for Educational Research goes further, arguing that fairness is insufficient reason for a radical change in funding. It says the proponents of needs-based funding must be able to link change to higher achievement.

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Lucy Hodges

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