Figuring out school funding

29 Aug 17

A national system would end the current postcode lottery that is school funding. School leaders now have the opportunity to tell the government what a fair system would look like, says Julia Harnden

For many of us involved in the negotiations over the national funding formula (NFF) for education, our reaction when the election was called was to slump over our calculators and whisper “Oh no”. More delays at best and, at worst, the risk that it would all slip back into the “too difficult” drawer.

The Association of School and College Leaders has been campaigning for a national formula for decades. The current system is flawed and investment varies wildly between areas.

A system based on historic spend combined with over 150 local distribution formulas makes it incredibly difficult to determine where equity and fairness lie. While this postcode lottery is not right, changing course will take time. This is about a journey.

In any redistribution exercise, some will gain and some will lose. Before the election, the emerging NFF was taking on a persona of its own, seemingly intent on dividing schools into winners and losers. There was a real risk that this was overshadowing the search for fairness.

Why did the NFF shift from an opportunity to achieve fairness into a potential threat of reduced funding to some schools? The answer, at least in part, concerns two issues – sufficiency and distribution.

Bringing in a national distribution formula cannot address insufficiency. In other words – you’ve got to have enough funding in the first place to make it work.

What a national distribution formula can do is help the Treasury understand what sufficient funding looks like. In a weird way, the pre-election campaign period acted as a catalyst for driving much-needed clarity on this. Parent power plus work by education professionals raised the profile of both issues – and clarified them for all concerned.

In July, education secretary Justine Greening made a statement on education funding that crossed the Rubicon. This confirms the NFF will be introduced in 2018. It promises a rise of 0.5% in cash per pupil for every school; underfunded schools will gain up to 3% per pupil over the next two years. This statement is welcome and a step in the right direction but nowhere near the end of the journey.

The minister has committed to finding £1.3bn efficiency savings from within the Department for Education – it is not new money. It is worth about 3% above the amount needed to meet rising pupil numbers so, by 2019-20, the core schools and high-needs budget will have risen to £43.5bn.

In return, “school leaders will strive to maximise the efficient use of their resources” and the DfE will “improve the transparency and usability of data”. Many school leaders have already reached the end of their efficiency-making tether. However, if greater usability of data means the DfE and Treasury can see things more clearly, we should applaud it.

ASCL analysis has raised questions that NFF proposals may undermine core curriculum delivery unless schools use cash meant for additional needs; pupils with such needs could lose out and schools with few such pupils may not be able to make ends meet.

Greening’s assurance that the NFF will provide a minimum of £4,800 per pupil for every secondary school is good news.

Most importantly, there will be a two-year transitional period when councils will continue to set the local formula and move gradually towards the NFF. This gives local school leaders a chance to get together and work with the local authority to consider what makes a good deal. For example, what criteria must a formula satisfy to meet agreed policy and professional practice decisions?

While the government says it is “determined to listen”, we – the profession – must keep talking. It’s an opportunity we may not have again.


  • Julia Harden
    Julia Harnden
    funding specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders

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