High-profile plans to introduce a minimum level of funding for every secondary school pupil will only be "optional", it has emerged.
The government trumpeted the minimum £4,800 per secondary school pupil during an announcement in July about the "additional" £1.3 billion that schools will receive between 2018 and 2020.
Education secretary Justine Greening said at the time that this extra money – taken from the capital budget for schools – would result in an increase to "the basic amount that every pupil will attract in 2018-19 and 2019-20".
"This formula settlement to 2019-20 will provide at least £4,800 per pupil for every secondary school, which I know [MPs] in a number of areas will particularly welcome," she said.
But in technical guidance published by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), the £4,800 per secondary school pupil is only listed as an "optional" part of the national funding formula [NFF] being introduced next year.
The DfE had originally planned to bring in legislation to make the formula mandatory, but after the general election this was postponed until at least 2020.
Local authorities will therefore be responsible for allocating money to schools for the foreseeable future – within certain parameters set by central government.
While the ESFA guidance says that local authorities will receive enough money to provide the £4,800, they will not have to pass this onto schools. The guidance also says local authorities may wish to introduce the minimum spend later – in 2019-20, rather 2018-19.
The document states: "The formula will provide local authorities with per pupil funding of at least £4,800 for all secondary schools that have pupils in years 10 and 11 by 2019 to 2020.
"...It will allow them to set a transitional minimum amount of per pupil funding in 2018 to 2019, as a step towards £4,800 in 2019 to 2020."
In contrast, the guidance sets out several "compulsory" guidelines that local authorities will have to follow in deciding how much cash to allocate to schools. For example, they must consider the levels of deprivation faced by pupils, as well as their prior attainment.
'Schools will exert pressure'
Given that the £4,800 is non-mandatory, it is feasible that some local authorities may decide not to provide it – in order to give more money to primary schools, or due to other funding pressures facing their schools, particularly if they are facing large real-term cuts.
Malcolm Trobe, director of public affairs for the ASCL headteachers union, said it was possible that some local authorities would not deliver the optional parts of the formula, including the £4,800 per pupil secondary spend.
He said: "In some cases there could be a valid reason for this to better phase the change and reduce significant turbulence at institution level."
Mr Trobe added: "Schools that benefit from the introduction of NFF will undoubtedly, and understandably, exert significant pressure on local authorities to use the NFF."
The Department for Education claimed it had always been clear that the £4,800 would be subject to local authority decisions. A spokeswoman said: "Under the new formula every school will gain, with secondary schools set to attract at least £4,800 per pupil.
"We have always been clear that there will be an introductory period to provide stability for schools, where local authorities will use a local formula to determine individual school budgets, in consultation with schools in their area.”
However, Ms Greening's statement was interpreted by many as meaning that every secondary school would receive a guaranteed amount.
For example, David Hermitt, chief executive officer of Congleton Multi-Academy Trust, based in Cheshire, welcomed July's funding announcement, stating on the trust's website at the time: "In particular, we are pleased that a minimum of £4,800 per secondary student has been guaranteed.
"Along with other local headteachers, I met with DFE officials over several months to highlight the necessity for all schools to receive a minimum level of funding, regardless of the overall characteristics of individual students. They have listened and acted."
A minimum per pupil amount for primary pupils is also expected to be announced shortly.