Future for schools '˜bleak' as plea for more cash ignored by government

Passionate appeals for more money for the county's schools have been ignored by the government.

Justine Greening
Justine Greening

For months, headteachers, parents, teachers, governors and MPs have been imploring the Department for Education (DfE) to provide extra cash to help schools make ends meet before the introduction of its new education funding system.

The DfE laid out details of the new system – known as the National Funding Formula – last week as it entered its second consultation phase.

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But it brought no Christmas cheer to West Sussex headteachers.

Worth Less? campaign

While there will ultimately be more money for their schools, no mention was made of any interim payments to help them balance the books before the new formula comes into play in April 2018.

While welcoming the news the NFF would be fully implemented by 2020, heads warned the extra cash lined up for West Sussex would be nowhere near enough to counter the pressure of rising costs.

The county has for years been one of the most poorly funded local authorities in the country, and schools have seen their reserves whittled away. Increases to pension contributions and national insurance, coupled with pay rises and grant losses have left many schools facing a financial deficit.

A spokesman for West Sussex County Council calculated the county would receive, on average, an additional £7.95million in 2018/19 and £14.5million when the new funding formula was implemented in full in 2020.

This equates to an average increase of £79.32 per pupil in 2018/19 and £144.62 per pupil in 2020. It would still see West Sussex funded below today’s average.

A council spokesman said: “Whilst we welcome the introduction of the new formula, we note that this will not be in place until 2018.

“This is too late for our schools, which are currently facing the very difficult task of identifying further cost saving options to stop the damaging effects of the financial pressures they are currently experiencing.

“We therefore await with interest confirmation from government as to whether schools will receive the transitional funding they so desperately need in advance of the introduce of this new funding formula.”

The lack of interim funding was the primary concern for headteachers who signed up to the Worth Less? campaign for fairer funding.

A statement said: “Our budgets are at breaking point now and we need support for basic provision for April 2017.

“We cannot wait another 18 months for appropriate transitional support whilst other schools in England enjoy much better settlements under the existing framework for the upcoming financial year.”

Over the past year, headteachers have made it abundantly clear to MPs that they needed money NOW and could not afford to wait for the new system to come into play.

Without the extra help, heads warned they would have to increase class sizes and might not be able to afford to keep their schools open full-time. Despite television appearances, a Parliamentary debate and a highly publicised trip to Downing Street to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister, it seems those warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

The Worth Less? campaigners added: “Perhaps more significantly, early indications suggest that in real terms our budgets will be undermined by the continued introduction of other ‘hidden’ costs which are independently estimated at between 8-10 per cent of our revenues.

“If this occurs then schools will be at best in the same position as today. This is extremely worrying as West Sussex children and their families will be continue to be disadvantaged.”

The figure of 8-10 per cent was published last week by the National Audit Office (NAO), which independently scrutinises public spending for Parliament.

In its report into nationwide education funding, the NAO found schools would have to make £3billion of “efficiency savings” within the next three years and said the government’s efforts to manage the financial fall-out brought about by those savings was not effective.

The NAO also reported that, between 2010 and 2015, the proportion of secondary schools spending more than their income rose from 34 per cent to 59 per cent.

Of those in the red, the average deficit rose from £246,000 to £326,000 during the same period.

Between 2012 and 2015, the proportion of secondary academies spending more than their income rose from 39 per cent to 61 per cent.

One headteacher described the future as “bleak” in a letter to Crawley MP Henry Smith.

Michael Ferry, head of St Wilfrid’s School, said the NFF figures estimated his school would receive an extra £108,000 in the first year and potentially an extra £280,000 once the system was fully implemented.

He said: “By my calculations, this increase would still not bring us up to a national average pupil unit and is £100,000 short of the current estimates regarding increased costs over this time period.”

He added: “Excuse my pessimism but it feels like the ‘fairer funding formula’ isn’t fair at all and, unless the government seriously invests in education – in real terms, not as a paper exercise – then the children of Crawley will continue to lose out both now and in the longer term.”

The government might argue that it has invested in education – the 2015 Spending Review saw the overall schools budget rise from £39.6billion in 2015-16 to £42.6billion in 2019-20 - up 7.7 per cent.

The NAO report, however, stated that this money didn’t allow for the estimated rise in pupil numbers, hence the need for schools to find such massive savings.

Sending the NFF into its second consultation, Education Secretary Justine Greening criticised the inconsistencies in the current funding system, which has seen some schools receive 50 per cent more from the government than others, simply because of where they are located.

She said: “Our proposed reforms will mean an end to historical unfairness and under-funding for certain schools.

“We need a system that funds schools according to the needs of their pupils rather than their postcode, levelling the playing field and giving parents the confidence that every child will have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.”

While the sentiment of fairer funding is sound, it could be argued that the NFF has been an exercise in futility, with Ms Greening attempting to give everyone a more equal and sustainable share of a rapidly shrinking pot of money.

The nation Union of Teachers was particularly disparaging of the NFF, calling on the government to pump more money into the system while saying funding “cannot be fair if it is not sufficient”.

The Worth Less? campaigners said they would be liaising with West Sussex MPs and the local authority to work out what to do next.

The county council spokesman added: “We are very grateful to our local MPs for continuing to raise the issue of fairer funding for our schools and we will be urging all schools and interested parties to take part in the government consultation, which runs until March 2017.”

To take part in the consultation, log on to consult.education.gov.uk and search for ‘Schools national funding formula - stage 2’.