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Spare any change for primary pupils?

The poor cousins in terms of education funding are finally rebelling, reports Lucy Hodges, but is anyone going to help?

For more than 100 years, primary pupils have had substantially less money spent on them than their secondary counterparts, but it is only comparatively recently that the disparity has caused real resentment.

It isn't only primary heads and governors who are now complaining about the funding imbalance either. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, weighed into the controversy last month when he told the Association for Science Education conference that secondary schools got an "unfair slice" of the national education cake and called for an investigation.

Can the funding disparity be justified? And, if not, what should be done about it?

Such questions have been exercising minds since local management put the spotlight on individual school budgets, and the introduction of the national curriculum emphasised the continuum of education from 5-16 and altered the nature of primary schooling.

The upshot is that education authorities nationwide have been coming under pressure to rectify the discrepancy. The latest, Buckinghamshire, was presented with a petition by primary heads and governors last month.

Today's primary staff are expected to teach almost the same range of subjects as their secondary colleagues. This means they need the subject-specialist knowledge and the non-contact time that secondary teachers always have had. Unfortunately, they have not been getting them.

The gap in primary and secondary spending was raised in the so-called Three Wise Men's report on primary education in 1992 (Mr Woodhead was one of the three). It highlighted, in particular, the funding disparity between Years 6 and 7 (top primary and bottom secondary) and said there was "no justification" for it.

Soon afterwards, the Commons education select committee decided to investigate. Its report, published in 1994, found spending on secondary pupils was 40 to 50 per cent higher than spending on primary children. It concluded that the differential was too large and should be reduced.

The MPs argued that primaries needed more money for staffing flexibility to teach the national curriculum and to deal with the administrative load created by local management. Any new money should go to primary schools, they said.

The Government, however, did not agree. Arguing that the balance of funding between primary and secondary education was a matter for local authorities, it declined to help primary schools. And it pointed out that local authorities were beginning to shift spending anyway .

Latest figures given in answer to a parliamentary question in November last year show cash spending is rising by 9.7 per cent for primary schools and only 0.2 per cent for secondaries in the four years 1992-93 to 1996-97.

That shift has been feeding through into the spending allocations - the standard spending assessments for education - given annually by the Government to local authorities. These SSAs are a slow, conservative way of changing spending patterns because they are based on the sum total of individual decisions taken by local authorities in previous years.

However, the Government has no intention of reforming SSAs. "This is the mechanism whereby changing local priorities are most effectively translated into Government funding allocations," it said in its response to the select committee.

Such intransigence infuriates the funding specialists. Tony Travers, select committee adviser and director of a research centre at the London School of Economics, says the Government has "abrogated all responsibility".

He points out that the Government does intervene in funding when it suits it, but not otherwise. Thus in next year's Budget it has given clear priority to education in the SSAs for all local government services. But it refuses to go further and make primary education a higher priority than secondary.

The issue is tricky because money is so tight and no one wants to see primaries benefiting at the expense of secondaries. For Peter Downes, immediate past-president of the Secondary Heads Association and head of Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon, the surreptitious tilt of funding towards primaries is worrying.

"We would like to see primaries better funded," he says. "But we're not happy about a shift in resources. Secondary schools are already under pressure. "

Heads like Mr Downes argue that secondary schools need more money than primaries because they have additional costs such as exam fees (Pounds 65,000 a year in a school the size of Hinchingbrooke), extra academic counselling and pastoral care as well as smaller class sizes in workshops and laboratories, and expensive equipment.

Members of the new National Primary Headteachers' Association disagree. "We're saying quite vociferously that there should not be this differential under the revamped national curriculum," says the association's spokeswoman, Jacqui Green.

Like the MPs on the select committee, the association is calling for funding to follow needs. Improvements in primary pupil:teacher ratios are being demanded, for example, because they have always been worse than in secondaries.

Sir Malcolm Thornton, the select committee chairman, says: "Someone somewhere is going to have to put their money where their mouth is and do something about the appalling non-contact time for teachers, which is the single most important thing we can do to raise standards."

One of Sir Malcolm's colleagues on the committee is David Jamieson, a Labour MP and former secondary head, who identifies key stage 2 as the most acute pressure point for teachers. "The changes at that point have been more profound than at any other," he says. "They have had a bigger impact."

Some analysts feel that the gradual drift in funding which has been occurring during the 1990s will continue and finally resolve the problem. Others think the issue will never be resolved without a substantial - and improbable - injection of new money.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is gloomy. "What we have seen in recent years," he says, "is no more than a redistribution of deck-chairs on the Titanic."

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