National funding formula: ‘The debate should be a marathon not a sprint’

The publication of the national funding formula consultation yesterday has fired the starting pistol on the race to create a funding framework that is fit for purpose.

There is a palpable sense of relief that we are finally underway. After all, we have been waiting, lobbying and training for this debate for years. The argument that the current arrangements for school funding are fundamentally inequitable and irrational, is generally accepted.

So where will the course of the debate take us during this consultation?

Initially, there were the protagonists who raced out of the starting-gate; declaring doom and gloom for all or demanding instant answers in a burst of energy only.

They rushed to the microphone and the TV studio to ask about the implications for their school, their multi-academy trust, their constituency. In time, those answers will emerge. But the early entrants to the debate need to save their energy as they find they are in a marathon and not a sprint.

You see, the business of financing schools is complicated. It can’t be resolved via soundbites or in just 140 characters on Twitter. Each and every permutation needs careful consideration. We need to decide, as a country, what a transparent, sensible funding system looks like. Outcomes for our country’s pupils and the job security and career prospects of the schools’ workforce depend on the decisions we are making now.

Rather than sprint right to the finishing line of actual cash changes in individual school and academy budgets, we have all been invited to take a step back and look at the preliminary, first-principles of funding. Some of us who have been involved in lobbying and campaigning around school funding are well versed in the arguments. But the debate should not simply be restricted to technocrats and members of the F40 group of the lowest funded authorities.

The good news is the consultation paper published yesterday is effectively a briefing paper for those who want to get up to speed on school funding and to join the debate. It sets out what ministers and officials believe to be the most significant factors to be considered and explains why in clear terms.

I recommend reading it, alongside the National Association of Head Teachers’ January pamphlet for an accessible way into the issues. We need to develop our own views as education practitioners and we need to add them to the debate.

I say “we” quite deliberately. The way the Department for Education is going about the consultation means that they have effectively invited all interested parties to a national-sized school forum meeting. The meeting is now in session and it gives us all the opportunity to have our say.

I fully expect the debate to get heated at times. That is understandable with tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds of increases or decreases in school-level funding at stake. The positions taken in the discussion may well polarise into winners and losers – but through it all we must keep our eye on the outcome – what will the actual, tangible impact of spending decisions be on the pupils in our schools? Not on us or our colleagues, but on the children.

The word “fair” has been omitted from the agenda… for now. At present, this is the national formula consultation, not the “fair” funding consultation. Right now, in the first half of the marathon, we are jogging through the basic principles to establish what factors go into the formula. That removes the emotive issue of “fairness”; but that debate is coming.

In the second half of the race, the second consultation phase, the debate about what weighting should apply to each of the factors in the interests of funding this or that groups of pupils “fairly” will make many of us wish we had saved our energy!

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  1. Alistair Thomas

    Generally, I agree with the main thrust of this article, but I take issue with the opening statement. If only this consultation was about the principles of a funding framework for all of education funding (like we were promised). Sadly, after all the fine words, this is another narrow-minded schools block only consultation (OK with High Needs in parallel). It is about a funding formula for schools, not a funding framework for all education providers.

    The principles of basic entitlement, special factors (deprivation, Low-cost-High-Incidence SEN), Cost adjustment and occasional factors (like EAL, LAC etc – and High Needs too) are common to all phases of education, and if we did indeed look at the principles of providing a funding framework to deliver this it might enlighten us. It’s this extra layer of enlightenment that a framework provides that is denied us by the governments short-sighted, narrow-minded approach.

    The other item that a framework would show is that the real potential for education services is to serve all phases equally. This is particularly true if you consider that specialist factors like EAL, and LAC are best organised as a service distributed through service hubs (champion schools/nurseries/colleges) so that isolated instances of need have a chance of the same support as a cluster of need where intervention can be focused. It also means that development of these precious resources can be coordinated across an area, moving to meet the need, rather than at the whim of organisations that have the need one minute and then lose it the next. We were promised a consultation on services where such ideas could be developed and explored. Instead it is assumed that the wholescale removal of services is accepted and the questions are about whether or not the government could dismantle services even further. Such services they concede do have a future are to be assigned to a new “schools block”. This is so backward that it beggars belief.

    Unfortunately, there isn’t time for a marathon either. In an utterly cynical act based on political expediency (don’t let something trivial like the future of education interfere with something important like the London Mayoral election) we are given a mere six weeks to read up on all this stuff and engage all stakeholders; 6 very short weeks, 2 of which are over the Easter holidays. Are you really sure the government is interested in our views?