School improvement funding has moved from allocation based on need to survival of the fittest, says Kiran Gill

As a policy rationalist I have to admit to being a New Labour (first term) education fangirl, starting with the infrastructure and funding for school improvement. Once upon a time, local authorities were expected to offer school improvement services according to the relative need of schools. Funds were top-sliced from all local schools at the same rate, meaning intervention for the weakest was effectively subsidised by the stronger schools, who could expect to get less support. (Caveat: some authorities were much better than others at this.)

Come Labour’s second term, the introduction of academies meant the creation of the (aptly named) “education services grant” (ESG). When a school became an academy, rather than their funding getting top-sliced for the authority, a chunk was given directly to the school. Although this was a departure from the principle of collective funding, New Labour academies were schools in deprived areas with historical underperformance so the neediest schools still got the funding boost.

Roll on the coalition: legislation changed so that good or outstanding schools could become academies. Across the parliament, numbers rocketed from 203 to 4,722 – affecting funding to local authorities across the country – and giving more funding to schools in a position to convert. Come the Conservatives’ first autumn statement, ESG was cut almost entirely – school support services were to be funded from what was left over, after schools’ core work was done.

Funding to extend the school day will go to those with the capacity to bid for it

This meant balancing services against other potential expenditure, support staff, say, or resources. It incentivised quick-fix professional development (a one-off session on exam board selection or teaching the new specification is cheaper than long-term coaching) and limited efficacy of school improvement (what good is advice on improving literacy if afterwards you can’t afford library books, or a teaching and learning responsibility to retain the literacy co-ordinator?).

Meanwhile, provision of services moved from local authorities to schools, within networks of teaching school alliances (TSAs) or multi-academy trusts (MATs). Teaching schools (previously outstanding schools, now to include schools with rapidly improving data) and leading schools in MATs sell services to others in their networks. Rather than the strong subsiding the weak, the better schools now profit from the struggles of the poorer.And the very poorest? According to the government’s latest TSA evaluation, they’re shut out of the market altogether.

Last month’s white paper has tinkered around the edges of the problem. TSA start-up funding was due to end, now the white paper alludes to “routing” more funding through TSAs (maybe the leftover scraps of the ESG?)There will be a new fund to buy services for schools in dire straits. But the pitch remains uneven.

To distract from other cuts to education, George Osborne announced funding for 25 per cent of schools to extend the school day. The white paper says “activities such as sport, arts and debating . . . should be available not just to those lucky enough”. So is this funding for the 25 per cent of schools with the poorest intake? No. It’s for those with capacity to bid for it. Schools that can spend time drafting applications, because their affluent intake get the grades anyway. Schools that are already system winners, using profits to subsidise an assistant-head-come-bid-writer. Or the hungriest schools that have read the small print and realised the money doesn’t have to be spent on enrichment. They can put on revision classes for year 11 instead: bump those grades up. Who knows, if they improve fast enough, they could get a turn at being a teaching school.