Will funding promote social justice?

Tory think tank's pupil premium has 'noble' aims. But the middle classes are unlikely to send children to deprived schools

Sir Peter Newsam

The authors of the Policy Exchange report on school funding and social justice, outlined on last week's TES front page, suggest incorporating the present clutter of government grants into a single, readily understandable national funding formula for all schools. Such a formula, which presumably would also apply to academies, would have three elements: an age-related amount for all pupils; a cost adjustment to take account of the special requirements of each local authority; and a graduated premium for each pupil from a disadvantaged background.

A national formula and an age-related amount for all pupils make good sense. In the past, the other proposals have proved contentious. In 1980, the then Department for Education developed a "weighted client group method". This estimated the size of the group of children for whom each local education authority might be expected to make special provision and then assigned weightings to that group. Both the size of the group and the weightings attached to it were hotly contested. The way to prevent that happening again would be to accept that nationally calculated figures of local needs can never be precise and should not try to be. So a local authority's wish to provide what individual schools want but cannot themselves ensure - such as free swimming lessons for all children - should be left for local decision-makers to argue about when setting the level of their council tax.

On the size of the client group, the Policy Exchange report improves on entitlement to free school meals as a measure of deprivation. As for the weighting for each level of deprivation, good sense again prevails. Broadly speaking, the sums involved in the proposed weightings could be found within the present schools budget, although there would be losers as well as winners. Politically and educationally, it would be unwise to try suddenly to withdraw money from schools (grammar schools, for example) that happen to be rather short of deprived pupils. As Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, has indicated, for a radical new funding scheme to be acceptable, there needs to be an initial commitment to "no detriment".

What of the report's approach to social justice? The authors assume that deprivation must be the starting point for a pupil premium. But that is not self-evidently so. What the report actually does is to relate GCSE scores to the degree of each child's earlier level of deprivation; but if GCSE results are the significant measure, why not simply relate the pupil premium to an earlier stage of that child's educational performance? Once at school, the group of lowest performers should presumably include all the children earlier identified as "deprived". In so far as it does not, that must be because the children so identified are doing comparatively well at school. In which case, why should a pupil premium be attached to them?

Second, how much of the funding premium for deprived children would actually be spent on those children? The report suggests schools would use most of the extra money for more and better paid teachers. But what if schools receiving this extra money decide to spend most of it on, say, reducing class contact time for over-stressed teachers? In public administration, it is not unknown for money given for one purpose to be spent on another. So it needs to be made clear whether the pupil premium money would take the form of a grant for clearly defined purposes or simply become part of a school's general budget.

Third, one commendable social justice aim of these funding proposals is to encourage schools that now admit few deprived children to admit more. Another commendable aim is to encourage middle-class parents to send their children to schools that are well-resourced because of the number of premium-attracting children they contain. The report suggests that the extra funding provided would cause both these aims to be achieved.

Yet the precedents are not altogether encouraging. In inner-London, between 1970 and 1990, an area-wide banding admissions system led to a number of low-performing children being admitted to schools that would otherwise not have been open to them. What banding never managed to do, other than marginally, was to cause middle-class parents to choose schools heavily weighted towards the socially and educationally disadvantaged. With rare exceptions, middle-class parents concentrated on sending children to schools where they believed they would be safe and which would improve their prospects of being admitted to an acceptable university.

The authors of the Policy Exchange report rightly seek to relate funding to social justice. It is a noble aim. Their funding proposals are well-researched and jargon-free. They believe that pupil premiums would succeed in persuading oversubscribed schools in relatively prosperous areas to turn away "good" local pupils in favour of "deprived" ones and that substantial numbers of middle-class parents would choose to send their children to schools full of poorly performing children because those schools would be particularly well-resourced.

They may be right about that, but I rather doubt it.

Sir Peter Newsam, Chief schools adjudicator, 1999-2002; chief education officer for the Inner London Education Authority, 1975-1981.

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