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'The new national funding formula has become a figleaf for austerity-driven cuts'

If minister decide to abandon their plans for a new formula, they will lose a useful distraction from the cuts being experienced by schools

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If minister decide to abandon their plans for a new formula, they will lose a useful distraction from the cuts being experienced by schools

The government finds itself in a right policy pickle. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Where once I wrote admiringly of ministers’ resolve to push ahead with the new national funding formula (NFF) for schools in the face of the funding squeeze, I've now concluded that this determination is more likely born of being stuck in a catch-22.

Increasingly under attack because of the cuts that will come as a result of the NFF’s redistribution of schools cash, the government must be sorely tempted to abandon the whole idea altogether. But it can’t.

Why? Because somehow the actual funding cuts being dealt with by heads right now have become conflated with the NFF’s projected cuts.

Thus the new formula has become a figleaf for the real business of austerity. Up and down the country, schools are feeling the results of the money-flow drying up, and projecting worse in the years to come – even before the results of the NFF are accounted for.

Somehow government critics have allowed the NFF – and the intrinsic sense in trying to iron out some of the current injustices – to become cover for these other, much less complex cuts.

Just look at this comment from school standards minister Nick Gibb in Parliament this week. Responding to criticism to cuts in education funding in London, Mr Gibb sidestepped the issue and responded that, in Lambeth, the per-pupil funding is currently £6,199, but in Surrey it is £4,329. Referring to the government's plans to bring in a NFF, he said: "It’s that discrepancy that this formula goes some way to deal with."

With some Tory backbenchers talking of open rebellion over the NFF, and influential (and successful) London comprehensives garnering widespread publicity for their opposition (because they will lose big time), normal political good practice would surely be to admit defeat, as so many other administrations of all hues have done in the past, and shelve it.

With the consultation into the details of the proposed new NFF closing last week, about now would be the time for ministers to tell the education world that they have listened, that they recognise that the timing isn't ideal, and that they have decided to kick it into the dim and distant future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is, I understand, an option currently on the table. 

But in so doing, the full scale of the real, austerity-driven cuts would be laid bare. And if that were to happen, it might cause even more of a stink than we’re already seeing: it won’t be a pretty picture.

Truly, ministers find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes

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