It was in 1994 that the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL, then the Secondary Heads Association – SHA) produced its first paper on a fair funding formula for schools.
It was already evident then that cementing school funding to historic levels in each locality was not only embedding inequality between different local authorities, but the cumulative effect of the unfairness meant that the resources gaps would grow year-on-year.
Even taking into account levels of deprivation and other factors, counties such as Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and South Gloucestershire, could afford fewer staff in schools, less equipment and poorer facilities than many city authorities, such as London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Like Sisyphus, ASCL and other representative bodies have worked with officials in the Department for Education (DfE) on the uphill task of devising a fair formula for almost all of the last 22 years, nearly reaching the summit several times before some combination of events meant that they had to start again.
The optimum time to change funding formula is when the quantum of funding is rising, so redistribution means that the winners gain but the losers gain less or stand still.
The best opportunity for funding reform was in 2003. The Labour government was increasing school funding in real terms, but so many changes were introduced simultaneously – increases in teacher salaries and national insurance contributions, a new formula for teachers’ pensions, and a change in the local authority funding formula – that some schools had a big cut in their budget.
DfE officials had not examined the effect of all the changes at school level and were caught by surprise, as was the secretary of state, Charles Clarke, at the SHA annual conference that year.
Discussions on a fair funding formula were put on hold and the situation was stabilised with a minimum funding guarantee for all schools, a necessary decision at the time, but based on inequitable historic funding levels.
I recall a meeting with a Conservative education minister in the late 1990s, when the SHA delegation’s plea for fair funding reform was met with an admission of unfairness – and blank refusal to budge: "If we change the funding formula, there will be winners and losers. The winners will keep quiet and the losers will shout loudly, so politically we shall be damaged," he said.
So, full marks to the present government for going ahead with a new funding model, in which there will be winners and losers, in the current national financial climate. And high marks, too, for holding to the manifesto promise to retain the pupil premium.
But nul points for failure to recognise that the more important issue is the quantum of funding for schools at a time when their financial obligations are growing, with losses of 8 per cent cutting a huge hole in the provision at many schools.
'The poorest areas have been hit the hardest'
With the National Audit Office confirming that schools will have to find £3 billion of savings by 2020 to cope with inflation, pension and national insurance increases, there should be some red faces in the Department for Education and the Treasury.
Alas, ministers have no shame on this, seemingly regarding public expenditure as something to be avoided if at all possible. So the public realm – public spaces, civic buildings and local facilities – diminishes, while public services take much of the burden of a misplaced policy of austerity.
"There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher famously said in 1988 and the government has, since 2010, been putting this principle into action through cuts in things that the rich can afford, but for which poorer people (and the "just about managing") rely on the state to provide.
Even the former prime minister, David Cameron, wrote to his local authority, Oxfordshire, complaining about the cuts to local frontline services, presumably missing the irony in his letter.
Tom Crewe has set out the extent of the cuts to council-run public services and the public realm in a powerful article in the London Review of Books, The strange death of municipal England.
Since 2010, council contributions to local bus services, mainly for children, the poor and the elderly, have been cut by 25 per cent; three-quarters of councils have laid off staff in parks; local facilities such as swimming pools and leisure centres have been closed in their hundreds; 80 per cent of councils have reduced spending on public toilets, with Manchester now having only one and places such as Newcastle none at all.
Funding of the arts and culture has fallen by 17 per cent since 2010, a period during which 400 libraries have closed or been transferred to unfunded community groups; £4.6 billion has been cut from adult social care budgets and there are over 700 fewer Sure Start Centres; housing services have been cut by 23 per cent and there are 42 per cent more families identified as homeless; 32 women’s refuges have closed; many street lights have been turned off after midnight; 600 youth centres have closed.
The poorest areas, such as Liverpool and Knowsley, have been hardest hit; the wealthiest, such as Wokingham, the least.
By the standards of these cuts, school budgets have been better treated, but the point has come at which school funding threatens to join the shameful list of reduced services.
England – and the cuts to public services are proportionately less in the other three UK countries – is a first world country, where we can afford to pay for a high quality and quantum of the public realm and public services, especially those that support the needy. Good – not just adequate – school funding is part of this.
The level of funding for schools and other public services is an important indicator of a civilised society. Fairer funding of schools is a step in the right direction, but it can only be viewed in the context of school funding as a whole and the government is failing on this right across the public services.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in November 2016. He tweets as @johndunford