We really are a poor relation

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Does the funding fog really exist or is it a Welsh myth? For one headteacher, the evidence is now crystal clear
Does the funding fog really exist or is it a Welsh myth? For one headteacher, the evidence is now crystal clear

In Wales we believe that our education system is underfunded compared with our counterparts in England. We think we receive less money per pupil in our schools. We hear about the huge rebuilding programme for English schools and about the money that seems to come direct from central government, bypassing the clutches of the local education authorities.

However, it is all anecdotal, and when even eminent professors undertake research about how the two nations compare financially, all they tend to report is a "funding fog" in Wales that obscures the picture and makes comparisons difficult.

In our heart of hearts, we find it almost impossible to believe that the Assembly government could disadvantage the young people and the future of Wales by not investing in them - at least at a level similar to how the English invest in their young people.

After all, Wales receives a greater amount of public funding per head of population than England, precisely because our gross domestic product output is lower and there is relatively higher deprivation.

We might be expected to invest extra to ensure that the prosperity of Wales catches up with England. And we do not find it easy to believe what is sometimes said - that our local authorities receive generous funding from the Assembly government but divert it away into other priorities and waste it on its own inefficiencies, to the detriment of our schools.

Being frustrated by several years of poor budget settlements that leave no money for curriculum development, widening choice post-14 (as required by the Assembly government), improving our ICT capability and carrying out basic maintenance,

I decided to undertake a simple piece of research to obtain a clearer picture of whether our education system in Wales is cash poor.

I telephoned the head of the school in Somerset where I began my career more than 20 years ago. The school is similar to where I teach now, being both 11-16 and fully comprehensive, serving communities with a remarkably "average" range of pupils.

I hadn't realised just how similar we are, in fact, because when I rang I discovered that our pupil numbers are also virtually identical.

I explained who I was, and my tenuous connection with the school. I then asked the simple question: "Would you mind telling me what your budget settlement for 20089 was?"

The head said I needed to remember that Somerset came in the bottom half of authorities in England for the amount of money it gave to schools. She then put me on to her finance manager, who gave me the figure.

It took me a few seconds to be able to speak, and I asked her to repeat it in case I had misheard. I had been thinking that if the figure was higher for this similar school in England, then truly that would be scandalous.

Her budget settlement for the year was pound;3,974,865; mine was pound;3,590,058 - an actual difference of pound;384,807. That equates to pound;405.06 per pupil.

At present figures, that means her school will receive pound;1,154,421 more than mine over the next three years. It's a frighteningly enormous cumulative difference.

I thanked the finance manager and put the phone down. Once I had recovered from the shock and outrage, I began to salivate at the thought of all that extra money and what we could achieve if we had it.

At Penyrheol we have an all-weather pitch which is well past its sell-by date. We need to replace it with an artificial surface that would provide huge school and community benefits.

The cost of replacement is likely to be about pound;350,000-400,000. We can't even begin to consider such a cost under our present budget. But we could make the replacement in a single year if we had Somerset's funding.

Of course, we wouldn't simply use the extra money for big projects. We could look at ways of reducing class sizes and giving teachers additional non-contact time.

We could actually implement the workforce agreement properly. We could use the Excellent Teacher scheme to provide coaching for our staff. All these things would have an impact on raising standards.

We could also have a sustainable programme for ensuring that pupils in our school had access to the most up-to-date technology. The list of possibilities is almost endless.

It is no wonder that the pupils of Wales are falling behind their counterparts in England in terms of their achievement and attainment. It is quite clear from the most basic research that there is huge under-investment in our education system. It appears to have worsened since devolution. This is scandalous and needs to be addressed quickly and decisively.

Every year and every poor budget settlement that passes, the opportunities we are able to provide for our children and young people fall further behind those available over the border. Politicians, please do something.

Alan Tootill is headteacher of Penyrheol Comprehensive School in Swansea.

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