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'£350m for the worst-funded schools is a good first step, but there's still a long way to go'

Robin Walker, Conservative MP for Worcester, writes:

Buried away in the details of today's budget and announced on a quiet Thursday just before it is a change to school funding that has been awaited for decades. The “complex and opaque” system by which we fund schools, words used by the education secretary himself, has been a subject of debate for as long as it has existed.

Similar schools serving similar demographics in different areas are funded very differently and the gaps between one area and another have grown unjustifiably large. Ministers have long accepted the case in theory for reforming the funding formula. The last Labour government said it saw the need for reform and launched a consultation on how it might work, but never had the chance to deliver. At long last, the coalition government has set aside real money to address some of the challenges for the lowest funded areas and this £350 million investment is the first concrete step to fairness in decades.

The f40 group was set up to campaign on behalf of the lowest funded educational authorities around the country. Its campaign began in 1996 and ever since that time it has been speaking out about the challenges in the mostly rural, but diverse areas that it represents. Over that time, so-called “spend plus” methodology, whereby each set of Government spending priorities were imposed as percentage increase on an underlying amount, saw the gap between the best-funded and worst-funded areas widen every year. While overall education spending was rising fast, the formula meant that the areas least well-funded at the start fell further and further behind. Once the rate of increase slowed, the problem was baked in.

The campaign was never a partisan one. Its first main representative in Parliament was a Labour MP for Stafford, David Kidney, who worked hard alongside councillors of all parties and teachers, governors and parents of none to make the case for change. When I entered Parliament in 2010 as a Conservative, I made this campaign my top priority and in late 2010 I took his place as vice-chairman. Since then I have been joined by Sir Nicholas Harvey, a Liberal Democrat, and Nic Dakin, a Labour MP, so that the campaign represents all three of the major parties in Parliament.

We have lobbied ministers unceasingly to make them aware of the problems faced by under-funded schools. We welcomed the introduction of the pupil premium, which targeted funding to deprivation more fairly and efficiently than ever before, but we pointed out that because it was layered on top of an old formula, it didn't do enough to fix the problems of the past. For years we have been winning the argument on the need for reform, but it seemed that financial pressures would mean no government would commit to the difficult choices needed to deliver fairness.

The £350 million targeted to help the lowest funded authorities is not the end of the story, but a first step, a down-payment on a fairer system of funding in the future and it will make a real difference in some of the hardest pressed schools in the country.

Robin Walker MP joined the Executive of f40, a cross party organisation which campaigns for fairer funding on behalf of the lowest funded education authorities in September 2010 and was elected to the Business Innovation and Skills Select committee in 2012.


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