Guardian articles Apr 16 2014

Unequal funding may be the greatest injustice of all

In recent months I have started to think that I was becoming unshockable. The simmering anger triggered by the early days of the coalition has faded.

I even managed to spend 90 minutes in a studio with free school founder Toby Young recently only to emerge having found points of agreement.

What’s left is just a grim realization that many predictions have inevitably come to pass and an even grimmer determination to keep on making the case for alternatives in the absence of any realistic political alternative.

But that equanimity was rudely interrupted last week with a report that £45 million is being spent on a super selective post-16 free school catering to a few hundred students in central London.

This will be a sixth form that will admit pupils by entrance exam (no maths and English retakes for them) and will come into the world at a time when all schools have settlements based on flat cash, zero capital investment and nearly every other sixth form in the country is, according to the Association of School and College Leaders, facing swingeing cuts, axing courses and pumping up class sizes.

Meanwhile the recent David Laws announcement of extra cash for schools in poorly funded authorities is recognition of the critical situation developing in those areas. But it partially obscured the fact that the long trailed plan for a national funding formula has yet again been kicked into the long grass.

I should confess at this point that, along with many other London heads and governors, I am breathing a huge sigh of relief. Ever since the last government started to try and iron out inequalities in school funding, we have been waiting for the axe to fall.

The fact that even Michael Gove has now put his idea of a “simple and more transparent” formula on ice is an indication of what a mammoth task this is. Even though the coalition heartlands are the most likely winners, the electoral risks of so many losers are presumably too high to take.

But, even as one of the beneficiaries of a skewed system, it still seems profoundly wrong to me that every school should be subject to increasingly rigid national accountability measures yet be expected to deliver the same results when such huge regional funding disparities persist.

As Laws pointed out in his announcement, schools with 3% of children on free school meals in Birmingham receive higher funding per pupil than schools in some rural area with over 30% of pupils eligible for FSM.

The recent publication, “Transforming Education For All”, which charts the phenomenal success of Tower Hamlets, one the country’s poorest boroughs, tells an equally graphic story.

At the heart of the Tower Hamlets transformation lie exceptional leadership and high aspirations. But the £8000 per pupil funding that the borough’s children receive (the national average is just over £5000) can’t be ignored. As the report’s authors say “No account of the education transformation in Tower Hamlets can overlook resource”

In other words the money helped. And the differentials between London and the rest of the country, which are often rooted in historical political decisions, are simply unfair.

There is no doubt that putting this right is a challenge. A flat formula is probably too crude as there are infinitely subtle regional differences in costs and needs.

London weighting is inevitable but it might be more expensive to recruit subject specialists in remote rural or coastal areas. London children also have cultural opportunities, work experience and accessible role models close at hand. So a careful look at what, all things being equal, it would actually cost to bring the Tower Hamlets experience to deepest Norfolk, without damaging Tower Hamlets, is needed.

Can it be done at a time of austerity? With difficulty. Such massive changes are only really politically achievable when everyone’s funding is going up.

But I keep thinking of HS2, a huge grand public spending project with apparent immense economic benefits for the country. The money has been found. Making sure schools are fairly funded to do the job they are being asked for the next 20 years is just as important economically and socially and would probably be more popular.

The £45 million free school is an outrage but not as outrageous as the multi layered funding inequalities that riddle the rest of the country. Current cuts plus no change could prove catastrophic for some schools. But it shouldn’t take a crisis for this to be addressed. That would be really shocking.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on April 8 2014

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