Quite understandably, given the vast morass of contradictory opinion and the diametrically opposed pronouncements of the Government and the Opposition, huge numbers of people are confused about school funding.
Some know that they're confused and don't know, but some, to invoke the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld, don't know that they don't know. Even checking 'Fact Check' websites shows varying details and several sites disagree with each other. One rather popular one even contradicts itself. At the election hustings this has come up of course, but it’s been near impossible to get the facts across, given just 90 seconds to speak and to correct a barrage of misapprehensions while also being heckled by well-meaning people who aren’t necessarily entirely aware of the whole picture.
So why is this? And what’s going on?
The problem is that there are three completely separate issues here - and they're almost always conflated, which creates confusion even amongst hardened journalists.
First, there's the matter of current funding for schools: how much they're getting right now, how that's comprised, whether those funds have changed recently or been constrained, and if so by what and by how much. Then there's the matter of planned and future funding: what proposals have been made, over which time period and where have any consultations or discussions taken us. And then finally there's each party’s manifesto commitments and how these alter any earlier plans or proposals.
Ok, so if you're still with me, let's look at the situation today. As any of the fact check websites will agree, there is no disputing the mathematical fact that a) funding has never been higher; b) funding has continued to rise in real terms; and c) if we use the term ‘cuts’ in its usual accepted English meaning of ‘reductions’, there have consequently been no cuts to funding.
But - and this is extremely important - both costs and pupil numbers have risen to such an extent that the resources at hand for many schools are not what it they were. For some schools, these pressures have led to significant problems. Rises in income have not sufficiently kept pace with rises in costs.
To take an analogy, imagine you receive an allowance of £1500 on which to live every month between now and 2022. During that time, you have two more children, move to a larger house and buy more clothes, food, and things of all types to support them. Although the £1500 would not stretch as far as before it would obviously not make sense to say that it had been ‘cut’ – particularly if it rose higher each year - simply that more was needed to provide the same standard of living. That’s the nature of the challenge we currently face.
The background is also important. The funding model for schools across England is complex and has, for decades, been slanted in favour of schools in urban areas. This has been accepted by both Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments, and each has sought to find a remedy. Schools in low funded rural areas have inevitably had to prioritise meeting their core costs and have struggled to improve outcomes for vulnerable pupils as a consequence. Fair funding would also enable schools to be judged fairly on the outcomes their pupils achieve.
So, given the fact that costs and pupil numbers have been rising, and given the fact that there is a vast historical imbalance in funding across the country, the Government announced before the last election that it would instigate a fair funding review and create a new National Funding Formula for schools. In the meantime, until the findings of that review could be put out for consultation in the country and then agreed on and implemented, the Government provided schools with an additional £390 million per annum, on top of the rising core budget, to be distributed from local government.
By the time the review finally published its initial proposals in December 2016, schools were beginning to feel the impact of the delays to a new Funding Formula. And, even though there had been no cuts to funding – in fact with funding overall having risen to £40 billion / annum in 2016/17 – rising pupil numbers and additional costs were having a significant impact.
An additional issue has been per pupil funding. This has been rising steadily since the 1990s. In England, allowing for the wide regional discrepancies I’ve described, £4,900 is currently spent on each primary school pupil and £6,300 per secondary pupil. In each case this is around double – in real terms, after inflation – the amount spent in the mid-1990s. But this trend, of rising per pupil funding, has begun, though, to reverse. Not because of a reduction in funding, but because of an increase of pupil numbers and inflation, which together represent a greater increase than the allotted fund increases.
So we’re back to the need for the National Funding Formula. The f40 group, of which I am a member, which has been campaigning for fairer funding for rural schools, hoped that a new formula would be in place this summer and begin a three-year implementation, thereby ending forever the historical problems for our rural schools.
The initial proposals were published in December 2016, with a view to being implemented in 2018/19 as a transitional year to 2019/20 when most schools will be funded through the new National Funding Formula. The Education Secretary invited responses to the formula and further ideas and input from MPs and the profession, with a 14 week consultation until the end of March 2017.
While many people – including me - looked at the proposals in detail and responded to the Government, either directly or through the f40 group or others, thewebsiteschoolcuts.co.uk took a rather different approach. Set up by the Unite Union, the GMB, ATL and NUT, it took the proposals and extrapolated them into future funding using increased costs, a ‘school specific’ inflation rate of more than 8%, the existing funding formula mixed with the initial proposals unchanged by the consultation and a dataset they say is gathered from the COLLECT system of the DoE, which the DoE do not recognise. In so doing, they have decided that schools funding is not just going to be cut, but that schools are facing huge and momentous cuts which would obviously be devastating in their impact.
They then wrote to all school heads and governors, warning them of these projected cuts, in exceptionally specific terms, and entirely as if they were imminent and firm proposals by the Government.
This is where things became still more conflated. Governors and heads, already facing the financial pressures I have described (and which the Funding Formula is intended to ameliorate) wrote to parents and the press, saying that, naturally, cuts meant that they could not continue to provide the service they would like. So, the effects of rising costs and inflation, combined with the increase in pupil numbers which had made the ever-increasing school budget exceptionally difficult to manage and which had prompted the record investment from the Government and the proposed introduction of a new Funding Formula, was added to the fears of the fictional Funding Formula created by pressure groups. This has prompted the confusion and the outlook today.
So what’s to be done now? The initial Funding Formula proposals were that only one single school in the Somerton and Frome constituency would see a fall in funding – of 0.7%. All the others would see an increase. But the consultation meant that many MPs across the country, along with pressure groups - some in possession of facts, some not so much – told the Government that more was needed. Certainly the f40 group and I said that we needed more work to be done and for clearer numbers to come forward. We also began an accountancy exercise to try and establish exactly how schools might be affected (not in the imaginary insane scare-story vein of schoolcuts.co.uk).
And then the election was announced. And as a result, I’m glad to say that in the manifesto the Government have committed to “no cuts in funding for any school” along with an additional £4 billion per annum increase in funding. We now need to look at the detail of this, how it might impact the next iteration of the new Funding Formula and what it will mean specifically for local schools here in Somerset. If I’m re-elected, of course this is something I will continue to work on, and I very much look forward to keeping on fighting in Parliament for the best deal for our rural schools.
So as you can see, it’s all a little complicated and there are several different issues here, but happily the election and the announcement of manifesto commitments make the situation far clearer. It will now be up to MPs and Parliament after the election to take all the feedback from the last proposals, add to that the new commitments and come forward with something that stands up to interrogation. And it needs to be quick. Because schools are not just suffering, they’re also confused, which only compounds the situation.
The confusion around funding needs to end and schools need to have assurance for the future. And quickly.
Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Somerton and Frome