The government faces a race against time to meet its promise to bring in a new “fairer” funding formula next year and prevent some schools “going to the wall”, it has emerged.
The timing is so tight that a headteachers’ union has called for the new formula to be delayed by a year, warning that school leaders will be “outraged and disgusted” if they are given just seven months’ notice for cuts to their budget – all that the current time frame is understood to allow for.
Some observers believe that ministers will lose the political will to cut money from some schools and will kick the formula into the long grass until after the next general election.
But others insist that the reforms must be introduced from next year because some schools in low-funded areas will “go to the wall financially” in 2017 without extra cash. Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that delay would cause some schools “significant difficulty”.
Sources close to Department for Education (DfE) talks on the funding formula, which is designed to iron out historic school funding inequalities, are anticipating a consultation on the basic principles to begin in the next few weeks. In December, the consultation was promised for “the new year”.
But the government is not expected to publish any details of the financial implications of its proposed reforms – which are likely to mean funding cuts for many London schools – until after the London mayoral election, on May 5.
The resulting full consultation on school funding would then be likely to run into Parliament’s summer recess.
One source close to discussions said that the timing was “very tight”. Another said that the government would “have to get on with it” in order to bring in the changes for April 2017, as announced by chancellor George Osborne in last year’s autumn statement.
There are now fears among headteachers that schools in low-funded areas will be “stuffed” next year if the deadline for the new formula is not met.
The disclosure comes as a new survey reveals that three-quarters of secondary leaders believe that education is being damaged by squeezed budgets. Allan Foulds, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, which carried out the research, will make a “heartfelt plea” for more school funding at the union’s annual conference in Birmingham today (see pages 8-9).
The situation has become so dire that one headteacher in Oxfordshire, which is among the country’s lowest funded areas, is considering an option to increase some class sizes to 50 (see box, below).
But Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, told TES: “The biggest mistake that we could make would be to rush the implementation of the funding formula. I think the clock is really ticking.”
He said it would be “unacceptable” to delay the process because of the London mayoral election; and suggested that waiting another full year would be the best option.
‘We can’t rush this’
Mr Hobby said heads of schools losing funding under the new formula would be “outraged and disgusted” if they were only told about significant cuts in September.
“We need a full year between the formula being decided and the start of the transition process,” he said. “[The formula] affects which GCSEs you offer and your class sizes. You need the maximum amount of time to prepare.”
Mr Hobby suggested that if there was a delay, schools in low-funded areas that are relying on the formula to help them balance the books could be given extra “transitional funding”.
However, Mr Trobe said that continuing with the current school funding system would “perpetuate unfairness”.
Some heads fear that delaying the new formula, taking implementation closer to the 2020 general election, would make it more likely that it would be called off because of political fallout over schools in higher-funded areas losing out.
London MPs are preparing to oppose any new formula that would means cuts for schools in the capital. Members of the allparty parliamentary group for London were due to meet as TES went to press. A statement released ahead of the meeting said that there were “concerns that these plans [for a new formula] do not fully recognise the needs of the more than 1 million children and young people at schools in the capital”.
One senior figure running schools in London said: “I’m not sure [ministers are] going to have the nerve to do this, because the screams of pain [from those that lose] will outweigh the small pleasure [of those that gain].”
Writing in this issue of TES, former Liberal Democrat MP and schools minister David Laws reveals that prime minister David Cameron privately referred to a new school funding formula as “Michael Gove’s plan to lose me the next general election”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This speculation is irresponsible and unfair to schools and parents, as the proposed funding formula has not yet been published.
“We are committed to making funding fairer to address the historic unfairness in the system – but the areas with the highest need will still attract the most funding.”
Turn to page 22 to read former schools minister David Laws’ thoughts on the coalition’s failure to implement a fairer funding system
‘Our funding is so bad we’re looking at classes of 50’
Catharine Darnton is considering running some classes of 50 pupils to cope with a funding situation that is getting to an “absolute crisis point”.
The headteacher of Gillotts School, a secondary in Oxfordshire – among the country’s worst-funded areas – has already left some teaching posts vacant to save money. Now Ms Darnton is concerned that she will have to do something that will “hurt the standard of education.”
“I am worried we will get to the point where we won’t be able to run the school properly, where we can’t afford to put a teacher in front of a class,” she tells TES.
Ms Darnton plans to start looking at using more unqualified teachers in classes, including English. Other possible ideas include putting a teaching assistant and a teacher in front of 50 children in the school hall; and having a silent reading period staffed by a cover supervisor.
“There are going to be some kids who come out with a worse education,” she says. “It is really dire and people are genuinely worried – 2017 does seem to be the date that headteachers will really struggle to balance the budget.” The academy for 11- to 16-year-olds still has some reserves left for 2016-17 but Ms Darnton describes them as a “tiny margin of comfort”.
The head has already had to make the following cost-saving measures:
Covering a drama teacher’s maternity leave with a music teacher.
Replacing the deputy headteacher with an assistant head, instead of employing a new deputy.
Taking media studies off the curriculum in September 2015.
Dropping business studies from September 2016 because the teacher is leaving and won’t be replaced.
Increasing class sizes in key stage 4.
Cutting the professional development budget for staff.
So far, Ms Darnton has avoided making redundancies, but this is partly because of the cost involved. “I cannot afford to make a teacher redundant so I have to keep looking for other opportunities to make savings,” she says.