We need local solutions to achieve fairer funding

29th July 2016 at 00:00

As Jonathan Simons wrote here, introducing a new national funding formula for schools sounds fair, and is a good idea (“Left and Right must unite on ‘the right thing to do’ ”, 17 June). But the timing and detail of the principles underpinning it can lead to unintended consequences. Frankly, the way it is being tackled bids fair to be a disaster.

If you are a school suffering from the neglect created in mainly Conservative-controlled shire counties, the new formula probably can’t come soon enough: after all, you have suffered from comparatively low funding for 70 years. But you surely wouldn’t want to take funding from colleagues in cities such as London, Birmingham or Leeds?

When funding was locally determined between 1965 and 2006, I worked in both shires and big cities. The contrast of need and the response to need couldn’t have been greater. In the counties, it was an uphill and usually futile battle to get anything extra from politicians who sent their own children to independent schools. As one Oxfordshire councillor said in the 1970s: “A piece of chalk in the hands of a teacher with a blackboard in a Nissen hut” was all we needed.

In the cities, it was thankfully a different story: locally elected politicians needed less persuasion to vote for extra funds. Soon central grants were directed, more often than not, towards schools in urban areas. The result, through the efforts of more good teachers, is seen in pupil outcomes in London and Birmingham.

It is this set of historical accidents that the national funding formula is set to tackle. Clearly the best way of doing that, without damaging other areas, is to find extra funding and then apply it to the most seriously underfunded areas. Indeed, in 2013 the coalition did precisely that.

Over 10 years, it would be easy to find, say, an extra half-a-billion pounds per year to eliminate most of the differential. It certainly isn’t, as Simons suggests, fair to take existing funds from challenging areas where they have used extra resources to good effect and to do it at a time of cuts.

That would be a bit like cutting the higher rate of tax at the expense of those on benefits. It will reverse the success of London and Birmingham.

There is, however, a second problem that the government seeks to solve – namely the differences of weighting within the formulas chosen by the old local education authorities.

For example, take “mobility” – the phenomenon whereby some primary children attend up to 13 different schools and no child in Year 6 started key stage 1 in the school. It is a very particular kind of poverty. It requires more resources for children in urban schools where there is much social housing and, say, a women’s refuge nearby, but less for the poor child in a settled family in Cumbria.

The DfE consultation doesn’t make allowances for this mobility – though it is happy to pay premiums for services children, who suffer similar sorts of poverty. Maybe it’s a case of the undeserving poor?

There are countless other factors requiring similar local answers. Yet we are to have a national formula, which will create fierce local rows, as it will maximise the number of winners and losers among schools and academies in every local area.

There is a better answer. Add annual amounts from the national purse to level up – not down – those areas that have suffered in the past. Then ask regionally elected mayors to work out with local authorities the factors to put into a regional fair-funding formula. Start in London with the new mayor and the Greater London Authority. They are more likely to get it right than any nationally created “solution”, especially from a government that is so focused on austerity, you might well compare its competence to do the job with putting Herod in charge of childcare.

Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London

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