news | Published in TES magazine on 30 March, 2012| By: Richard Vaughan
Michael Gove accused of ‘bottling it’ over plans to overhaul ‘unfair’ system
Local authorities representing the worst-funded schools in the country have accused education secretary Michael Gove of “bottling it” over plans to bring in a fairer funding system that would eliminate financial inequalities between schools.
Last year, the government launched a consultation to radically reform how schools were funded by 2013-14 in an attempt to deal with disparities that have led to similar schools being funded at drastically different levels.
Speaking at the time, schools minister Lord Hill was clear that it was a “priority”. “Headteachers tell us that the current funding system is unfair and illogical,” he said.“Having a fairer system is not just right in principle – it would enable parents to see more clearly how schools are doing with the funding they receive.”
But this week, Mr Gove admitted that he has been forced to drop any plans to rush through a new settlement within this Parliament. He said that, while there is a clear need to tackle the differences in funding between schools, the current economic climate means that“stability must be a priority”.
The sheer complexity of the current system and the size of the existing inequalities, Mr Gove said, mean that “we need to take care in how we proceed”. He added that the government has decided “to make gradual progress towards reform”.
His decision to kick the reforms into the long grass – certainly until after the next election in 2015 – has led to concerns among campaigners that the policy has been effectively shelved.
The move comes as a bitter blow for the country’s worst-funded schools, with the f40 group, an organisation that campaigns for fairer school funding in the country’s lowest-funded local authorities, stating that it was“devastated” by the news and that Mr Gove had“bottled it”.
The current funding system means that the funding per pupil in a primary school can vary by as much as £1,300 in different parts of the country, while the disparity between secondary schools can reach £1,800 per student. In a 1,000-pupil school, the funding system can mean a secondary receiving £1.8 million less – the equivalent of around 40 new teachers.
Schools in central London, for instance, receive far greater sums per pupil than schools in Somerset.
Ivan Ould, chair of the f40 group and a Leicestershire county councillor, added that the announcement to put off a fairer funding formula was “totally unacceptable”.
“Mr Gove and his government have made it clear that they accept that the present system is unfair, so to put off meaningful change for a further three years – but probably many more – is just plain wrong,” Mr Ould said.
The f40 group has been campaigning for a change to how schools are funded for nearly 20 years, and it added that it will be pushing for an increase in funding to its members’ schools over the remainder of this Parliament.
“Even if only 0.25% had been offered immediately and again in the next few years, that would have been a start to narrow the disparity gap,” Mr Ould added.
Kevin Bullock, head of Fordham Church of England Primary School in Cambridgeshire, said that he and his colleagues were“longing for the day” when schools were more equally funded.
“The council does the best it can with limited resources but, at the end of the day, it isn’t fair,” Mr Bullock said. “I am not sure that there is the political will to change the system. Call me cynical, but I’ve been head here for 16 years and we’ve always had less funding – I won’t be holding my breath that it will come any time soon.”
The government is keenly aware of the problems that beset the way the country’s schools are allocated money, but has been pegged back by the sheer complexity of the existing funding method.
But while the country’s worst-funded schools have expressed their disappointment, the decision to delay a new funding formula has been welcomed by heads’ and teachers’leaders.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has repeatedly warned that any new formula could produce new inequalities in the system.
Speaking at the ASCL’s annual conference last weekend, the education secretary pointed out the level of complexity in the existing funding formula, claiming that “even Malcolm Trobe”, the ASCL’s deputy general secretary for policy, could not say why schools end up with the amount of cash they do.
And Mr Trobe acknowledged that, while it was a disappointment for the worst-funded schools, the delay was a “sensible decision”. “Rushing into overly simplistic funding changes without proper testing would simply be rearranging the deckchairs,” Mr Trobe said. “Because it is so difficult to predict the knock-on effect of changing one part of the formula, the proposals must be thoroughly modelled at both local authority and school level before they are implemented.”
NUT general secretary Christine Blower added that changing a funding system at a time of budget constraints “was not fair”.
A report by the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) looking into a new, fairer funding formula said that it would lead to schools in inner-city areas suffering cuts of more than 10 per cent to their budgets.
In November last year, the IFS released a study that showed schools in areas such as Liverpool, Wigan, Wolverhampton and Coventry would see their budgets shrink by an average of 6 per cent, but in some cases more than 10 per cent.
“An explicit national formula offers significant advantages, including simplicity, transparency and responsiveness of school funding,” said Luke Sibieta, senior research economist at the IFS. “But change would also bring costs and disruption with large losses for some schools.”