Soured by a cash imbalance

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Fairer funding for schools may be on the cards but Richard Smith saw the extent of budget injustice when his son took up teaching. . .

After more than 30 years teaching (15 of them as a head) the past 12 months have been interesting - both personally and professionally. Throughout this time more than the usual aspects of education initiatives have impinged on my life. This is due in no small part to our son deciding he would like to be a teacher.

I had tried, I suppose, over the years to put him off, but given the opportunity to experience other things and reflect on his future, he wanted to undertake a more "worthwhile" career. To complete his year, he has returned home so we have experienced at close quarters the highs and lows of teaching practice and other experiences.

To be honest I was thrilled that he decided to try a career that has been very rewarding for me and it's been great hearing enthusiastic stories of science lessons, confrontations, meetings with parents, experiments that go wrong and all the other daily incidents that are so much a regular part of my routine that I might have taken them for granted.

It was also tense as he went for his interview for his first post and exhilarating to see him so pleased when he had accepted the offer of that post. There can be no greater thrill for a parent (or teacher) when your child has tried hard and then succeeds. It was no hardship listening to his excited account of the process, the school, his future lessons, the other staff and many other things that our new teachers respond to.

Unfortunately it was shortly afterwards that things turned a little sour - for me. In the account of his future school he described an 11 to 18 mixed comprehensive, set in a parkland site with a generally normal distribution of student ability. The description was surprisingly similar to my school: indeed we had, this year, almost identical budget allocations. There are however, two fundamental differences. First, his school is approximately 80 miles west of mine and second, it has 400 fewer students on roll.

It was hearing that comparison over our dining table that so forcibly brought home to me the unfair and unacceptable funding system that exists in our nation's schools. I have realised for some time that the funding per student comparison across schools of different sizes is questionable. I would always expect a school which has 1,750 students to benefit from economies of scale. And schools that have to cope with serious social problems and learning difficulties also rightly get more money. In my own authority the funding per student allocation varies to reflect these situations.

However, direct comparisons in our current "family' situation are difficult to resist. I appear to be teaching approximately 400 students for "nothing" compared with my son's school. If my school were funded at the same per student allocation as his then I could expect my budget to increase by approximately Pounds 800,000. I don't get much pleasure from the thought that while chief inspector Chris Woodhead must regard our school as highly efficient, he might also think that it doesn't need further resources. Needless to say he would be wrong.

We all know that the funding of schools across the country requires urgent attention. We might all accept that there should be funding differences between some schools in some parts of the country - but wouldn't we all expect that almost identical schools of the same size be funded similarly, wherever they are?

As the Government prepares to address the challenge of funding for schools, shouldn't we expect its efforts to lead to fairer funding of schools in different areas?

It could be that, in some authorities, the LEA provides different and more comprehensive services to schools which therefore willingly accept less direct funding. Wouldn't we therefore all benefit from an independent and thorough analysis of the cost of LEA-provided services across the country, alongside a similar analysis of the direct funding to schools. Perhaps only then can fair and direct comparisons be made.

As I present this argument, we have in this authority received a small increase in the original budget as a direct result of the government "allowing" the local authority to "slip quietly" though the cap. My school budget has therefore increased by a little more than Pounds 60,000; not a lot when you think by moving across the country it could increase by Pounds 800,000. As the Government develops ways of allocating differentiated funding to areas in greatest needs through action zones, perhaps it should first of all ensure that children in all areas of the country get a fair deal.

Increasingly what keeps me calm (indeed sane) in this situation is teaching our students. Each week, last year I spent some time with Robbie and his friends in Year 9, helping them to improve their reading. He is a grand lad, tries hard, is good company, tells a great story and had made fine progress last year.

As I enjoyed that time with him, I sometimes reflected on how Robbie might benefit from the extra Pounds 600 per student available in my son's school. He could get some further help, some extra books, more support and greater access to IT. How long will it be before Robbie gets his fair share of funding? How long will I be left to reflect that things - for Robbie -can only get better?

Richard Smith is head of Tupton Hall School, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

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