Back in the summer of 2013, when Suffolk was cowering under Ofsted’s accountability cosh for its lacklustre education performance, someone at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) made a suggestion. Our county – a rural, little-noticed place of pretty villages and hidden deprivation – should be linked to a high-performing area.
We assumed we would find ourselves with somewhere leafy but effective – Hertfordshire, say, or Shropshire.
Instead, in the educational equivalent of the opening episode of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, we found that we had been paired with Hackney. Yes, Hackney – that inner-city beacon of multicultural high achievement.
Coachloads of primary teachers and school leaders subsequently braved the M11 to visit a part of London we hardly knew.
All were stunned by what they saw: the high aspirations for every child irrespective of background; the forensically targeted intervention so no child was overlooked; the staffing levels; the relative ease of recruiting teachers and, well, the amount of money available for all of this.
Because if anything demonstrated the differentials in the way schools in various contexts are funded, it was that partnership of Suffolk with Hackney.
Today – before there’s any hint of the new national funding formula actually being implemented – it’s the case that for every Year 7 child being taught at our Suffolk comprehensive school we would receive a pupil-weighted sum of £3,947.00.
In Hackney, it would be £7,291.20 – an astonishing 85 per cent more.
To its critics, this demonstrates why school funding needs to change, to be made "fair".
But the trouble with this week’s proposal is that schools in cities such as London, Liverpool and Manchester will face further drastic cuts to their budgets.
'Forgive me if I don't call up the cheerleaders'
Some secondaries will lose £150,000 in a single year – a sum that won’t be saved by deciding not to paint a few classrooms or by deferring purchase of a new set of science textbooks.
Under the government’s proposed national funding formula announced yesterday, our school would appear to be a winner. So while Hackney’s income would be cut by 1.1 per cent, Suffolk’s would rise by 2 per cent.
But forgive me if I don’t call up the cheerleaders or drape the school gates in bunting. Because it was never the idea that fair funding should mean children in one area doing better by taking money away from children in another.
If the much-touted concept of system leadership means anything, it’s that school leaders like me are responsible for standards beyond our own narrow patch. "Every child matters," as we used to say.
Yesterday’s funding announcement got that seriously wrong.
Rather than recognising the moral purpose of a nation investing fairly and transparently in every child in every school by increasing all available funding, the national funding formula simply shuffles a looming crisis around England’s towns and cities.
Worse than that, the announcement coincided with a stark message from the National Audit Office. They said that whatever happens with the new formula, schools will face 8 per cent budget cuts. This is significant, as 60 per cent of secondary schools already have deficits.
School leaders are thus being expected to do more with less money, with hugely increased staff costs, reductions in post-16 viability, expensive reforms to implement, and a recruitment crisis that continues to make expenditure explode.
No wonder so many headteachers are arguing with increasing desperation that additional funding has to be found.
And no wonder there’s increasing frustration at a government that talks of "building a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few" whilst providing so little substance to back up such unconvincing rhetoric.
Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a comprehensive school of 1650 students in Suffolk
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