Funding formula threatens small schools with extinction

17 Nov 2019, 5:00

As an election looms, funding promises abound, but Thomas Moore is pretty sure that small schools will continue to miss out

Earlier this month the Department for Education released a spreadsheet and simultaneously announced a funding boost for schools for 2020-21, following “the prime minister’s pledge to level up education funding and give all young people the same opportunities to succeed – regardless of where they grow up or go to school”.

That statement simply wasn’t true, and I have since met with Nick Gibb, the schools minister, who accepted that the national funding formula was unfair on small schools, and that its negative impact had been “an oversight”.

He then tasked civil servants to see if something could be done.

Unfortunately schools such as mine continue to face extinction as we await election results in the hope that whatever government gets in will take a different view of our plight.

Part of schools’ funding is the “lump sum”, a figure designed to recognise fixed costs. No matter the size of the setting, it needs a headteacher, caretaking, finance and admin staff, etc. to carry out its basic functions. The lump sum ensures that every school receives the same amount for this, regardless of size.

To a small school, this lump sum is a significant proportion of the overall budget. Yet, the spreadsheet includes it in the per-pupil (PP) section. Knowing every school needs the same figure, why include it there?

My own comparison of schools on the DfE spreadsheet with rolls ranging from 50 to 646 shows that small settings appear to receive more than £2,000 per child more than larger schools, up to as much as £6,095 PP.

But by including the lump sum in these calculations, it means that a small school can only receive the minimum possible uplift in funding of 1.84 per cent. Larger schools will get an increase of between 6 to 8.5 per cent.

NFF distributes the bulk of money to larger schools

And to compound the issue, the lump sum for each school in my authority has dropped from £150,000 in 2016-17 to £110,000 now. If we were still at 2016-17 levels with £150,000 removed from the PP figure, real PP funding for the same small school would be £3,095. A two-form entry school would receive £3,720.

Since my meeting with Mr Gibb, I have been told by the DfE that “decisions will be made by future governments”, but that “as officials we will continue to consider the impact of the NFF on small schools”.  It also said that as a result of the NFF my own school would now be in receipt of “mobility funding” amounting to £2,423.

Don’t get excited for us. We will never see that money.

Due to being on the funding floor level (above £4,000 PP and £40,000 down on the lump sum), we are in receipt of the minimum funding guarantee (MFG) to ensure we gain something. But the money the DfE believes we are gaining as a result of the NFF is simply absorbed into the MFG protection calculation.

This is happening for most small schools. Any local authority that previously had lump sums greater than £110,000 is already on the back foot, and their small schools will mostly be on the funding floor. They won’t receive a PP funding increase because, with the lump sum included, their PP funding appears over £4,000. Neither will they receive the 4 per cent increase in “per pupil factors” or any new funds such as “mobility factor”, as they don’t make up for the £40,000 reduction in lump sum.

In short, the current NFF distributes the bulk of money to larger schools. Despite the DfE’s assurances, I cannot help but question whether it truly was an “oversight” or a targeted cost-cutting exercise.

Small schools provide a distinctive education, a hub for communities and an important avenue for the expression of parent choice. If they value these qualities, whichever government is formed come Christmas will need to act quickly to ensure small schools are not consigned to history.

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