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Formula isn't working

Disparities in pupil funding are unfair and the Assembly must sort it out, writes Suzanne Nantcurvis

For weeks I have followed the debate about education funding in Wales.

Naturally Jane Davidson, the minister for education and lifelong learning, vigorously defends the Assembly government's spending levels and claims she is committed to a more transparent funding process.

However, the debate has yet to cover the disparities that exist between local education authorities and the financial commitment they make towards education.

The minister argues that sufficient funding leaves the Assembly and it is then a matter for local democracy how LEAs distribute it. The Assembly government may boast a commitment towards education but, once the funding has left Cardiff, it appears to hold no further responsibility.

Given that its education policies are underpinned by the principle of equal opportunities, it is difficult to comprehend how this can be achieved with the variations in funding per-pupil that we have in Wales.

How do schools fit into this scenario? Basically, schools in the low-funding authorities will always be the losers.

Since the inception of unitary authorities, the counties of Denbighshire, Flintshire, Wrexham and the Vale of Glamorgan have propped up the education funding leagues. These four authorities allocate around pound;300 per-pupil less than the Welsh average. This can make an extraordinary difference to a school in respect of staffing levels, class sizes, resources and maintenance.

A head of science in one of these LEAs complained for years that his capitation amounted to pound;1 per-pupil in all three sciences. His pupils would have suffered a service below that in many other schools, not because of a lack of enthusiasm from teachers but because of the inadequacy of the resources at their disposal to be fully effective in their teaching.

To compound matters, this year the Assembly government has told all local authorities to make 1 per cent efficiency savings for the next three years.

Although some authorities are protecting their education budgets against such "savings", others have decreed that the education department cannot be exempt if council tax rises are to be held at an acceptable level.

Where school budgets are already cut to the bone, efficiency savings in education will take their toll on staffing levels and resources. Even savings made centrally will affect the level of service provided in schools. The consequences are disturbing.

With raising standards top of the agenda, it is difficult to square this priority with the funding situation in some LEAs.

How can teachers drive forward the teaching and learning agenda that leads to high levels of attainment when their resources are inadequate and they do not have the financial backing of their local authority?

In a research study I conducted in four secondary schools in Denbighshire, I asked more than 100 teachers to list the factors that contributed to low morale. As expected, pupil indiscipline was the main factor. But, surprisingly, inadequate funding came second, with 85 per cent of teachers surveyed feeling this was a serious issue for them.

It would be unfair to suggest that there is an easy solution to tackling the problem of funding variations in Wales. Ring-fencing education budgets has been one suggestion. Some authorities spend below 40 per cent of their total budget on education while many others spend more than half. The differences are substantial at school level.

Reviewing the formula that decides the revenue settlement for local authorities is another suggestion that has been put forward. Other problems are linked to the funding cycles and the need to review these processes.

In addition, specific grants are allocated but withdrawn at a later date, and yet schools have to maintain the provisions established with the grant.

With little or no growth in funding, these are more pressures on the school budget.

We need to ensure that all pupils in Wales receive their entitlement to quality education, irrespective of where they live.

Ms Davidson claims the fault for the disparity in funding lies with LEAs, but they argue that the problems are caused by the Assembly government and its funding processes.

In the meantime, schools in low-funding LEAs are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain standards.

Where does the buck stop? While the arguments persist, teachers maintain their dedication and commitment. Sadly, it seems that their reward is inadequate resources and worries about their job security.

These teachers, and the pupils in their charge, deserve better. It is useful to remember that pupils only go through the system once.

Suzanne Nantcurvis is president of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru and national executive member for north Wales

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