6 May 2007

Why and how should we fund schools?

One of my moments of political revelation came back to me this week, some 30 years later, as we discussed the funding of schools in Kingston upon Thames at a meeting of the Kingston Schools Forum Deprivation Funding Working Group.

It started back in 1976 at Southampton University when, during a debate at a Union Meeting, Sunshine (his nickname which he preferred to be known by), a member of the Anarchist Workers Association, commented that we spend a substantial fraction of our GDP each year on Education yet we never debate what we want to get from this spending.

This week we hit the same problem. Put simply, if you are trying to work out how much money to give each school then, by implication, you need to decide what it is that you are funding so that you can assess each school's need.

Currently, the funding of schools is not that complicated but is still not very well understood by the people who are asked to comment on it each year, i.e. Headteachers and governors. Basically we address some specific costs that vary between schools, e.g. rates and insurance, and then allocate almost all of the rest of the money on a per pupil basis with some allowance made for children who have additional educational needs.

The funding formula has developed over the years in response to both national and local initiatives and it is now rather complex with 15 or more sub-formulae each of which is calculated according to a number of different factors so there are now something like 100 data points that drive the funding calculation.

And, more worryingly, the formula does not seem to be working as there are marked differences in pupils' outcomes that correlate a lot more to their social standing than to the effectiveness of schools. Our mission is to try and close this performance gap.

The problem comes as soon as you try to define what this gap is. If we look simply at the exam results, as published in the infamous League Tables, then we get the triage familiar to A&E doctors; there are those pupils that will succeed whatever you do, those that will fail whatever you do and those where your intervention can make a difference. Similarly, when an intervention is possible we start to get debates about cost effectiveness which in health tends to occur around very expensive drugs and in education concerns children with extreme learning difficulties who need 1:1 support from specialists.

The political issues impact all three groups in the triage. Leaving people for dead, or uneducatable, may be logical but society generally does not like abandoning people. Where people will recover or learn without much assistance there is still pressure to be seen to provide a service, even if it is unnecessary. Wanting more policemen on the beat is a symptom of the same problem. In education we are pressured to meet the needs of gifted and talented children, even though this means taking resources away from other children. In the middle group, where intervention makes a real difference, there is the issue of how best to allocate finite resources across the various need groups (e.g. cancer v cataracts or autism v absenteeism).

Our next step is a workshop with Heads on 12 June when we will ask them what the objectives of the schools' funding formulae should be, how we should change the formula to deliver this and how we could measure the success of this. I don't anticipate that we will get many of the answers but at least asking the questions will be a step in the right direction.

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