Bordering on the ridiculous

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Two primary schools on the Welsh-English boundary are just a mile apart. But there's a world of difference in funding

Funding for each pupil at Offa's Mead Primary School in Sedbury, Gloucestershire, varies from Pounds 2,137 to Pounds 2,410 a year.

A mile down the road on the other side of Offa's Dyke, the divide between England and Wales, pupils at The Dell Primary in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, attract only Pounds 1,578 a year each to their school coffers.

Offa's Mead has 149 pupils and a Pounds 600,000 annual budget. The Dell has 407 pupils and Pounds 1 million.

While the schools aren't directly comparable in terms of size and circumstance, the funding gives the English school an undoubted advantage.

For Chris Brown, headteacher at Offa's Mead, money is not a big concern. In his 22 years as head his budget has rarely been in the red.

His is a fairly old school, but targeted funding streams, available to all schools in England, have boosted the budget, ensuring that the latest equipment, books and other resources are easily affordable and any repairs are carried out promptly.

Within the Pounds 600,000 budget in the last year, for example, has been a Pounds 29,000 formula capital grant, which has allowed Mr Brown to make improvements to the building and ICT resources and a Pounds 17,000 grant for the maintenance and upkeep of the premises. A further Pounds 29,000 school standards grant has allowed staff to address literacy and numeracy issues.

Mr Brown knows that just across the border his colleagues look on enviously at schools like his. "We could always do with more money of course, he told TES Cymru during a visit, "but funding just isn't a major day-to-day concern."

By contrast, and inside the Welsh border, David Evans, head at The Dell, says funding is very much an issue. His school has a Pounds 35,000 budget deficit and it is feared the only way to redress it could mean having to make up to four learning assistants or administrative staff redundant.

He admits the building looks "shabby" and is falling apart in places. The tight budget means Mr Evans cannot even afford new library books and is embarrassed at the condition of the few books he currently has. This is the first time Mr Evans has taught at a school in Wales. He has headed three English primaries, and he says the disparity came as a shock.

He said: "Before I came here finance wasn't a high priority at any of my previous three schools. It just wasn't a consideration. I knew the budgets in Wales were tight, but I didn't realise how different it would be."

At his previous school in Devon, Mr Evans had 30 fewer pupils but almost Pounds 250,000 more. He now gets Pounds 11,000 a year from the Assembly government's Better Schools Fund, but he says in his last year in Devon he received Pounds 60,000 from an equivalent fund.

Mr Evans said: "I fully support the standards the Assembly government is trying to achieve, but unless it starts supporting schools with parity with the English system it's never going to improve at a significant rate because we will always be at a disadvantage."

Alternative sources of funding are needed for non-essential items and equipment.

Residents and parents formed the Friends of the Dell group to help the school, raising around Pounds 10,000 in the past two years alone, which has helped fund play equipment and a number of digital cameras for use in lessons.

"If teachers in my previous schools wanted digital cameras, I would have no hesitation buying them out of the budget. There's no way I can do that here so I have to ask for help," said Mr Evans. Yet his school does well and its pupils are high achievers.

The Dell gained a number of top grade 1s in its Estyn inspection last year, specifically for pupil achievement and care.

Mr Evans admits that more money doesn't necessarily mean improvement in standards, but he knows from his own experience that having the financial freedom to invest in extra resources and training can help deliver an enriched curriculum.

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