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Funding shake-up leaves small rural schools in a worse state

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 15, 2012

Old primary school buildings, such as this one at Berry Pomeroy in South Devon, cost more to run than new ones with energy-saving features

Comments (0) Devon County Council’s cabinet member for schools Andrea Davis says new funding arrangements are having unintended and unfortunate consequences in rural areas.

There are 150 councils across the country with a remit for education. For complex historical reasons, each one of them is funded differently and for years Devon has been at the bottom of the pile.

Currently every child in a Devon school is worth £311 less than the national average. We stand sixth from bottom of those 150 councils for school funding.

We've campaigned for years to change this system of funding. We've argued that the biggest element of a school's budget is staffing and both teachers and non-teaching staff are paid on national rates. Books and equipment cost pretty much the same whether you are in Devon or Durham, as do lighting and fuel costs.

Our campaigning against this postcode lottery fell on deaf ears during the last Labour Government, perhaps because councils in the north and in metropolitan areas generally did much better than the shires.

But when Michael Gove became Education Secretary he accepted almost immediately that the system was unfair and pledged to change it. Except that he won't do so until after the next General Election.

Instead, he's ordered the Department for Education to move towards a national funding system by seeking to introduce more clarity and transparency into the process of allocating education funds with as much cash as possible following the pupil.

I must pause here to give you a brief – very brief – lecture on education economics... Every year, the Government gives Devon and other authorities a lump sum based largely on the number of children in our schools. That cash is known as the Delegated Schools Grant, or DSG, and is divided up between schools in Devon on a formula which currently includes 26 factors, including small school protection.

These local agreements have evolved over the years as county councillors tried to ensure that schools across Devon are treated fairly, be they a 2,500-pupil comprehensive or a rural primary with 40 pupils.

The formula has included a minimum funding guarantee that ensures all primary schools – however small – are funded for 53 pupils and all secondaries for 650 students, giving them a base operating budget.

It has also included such factors as whether a school is new, with the latest energy-saving equipment, or in a draughty old Victorian building.

Under the Government's new rules, the school funding formula's local flexibilities have been reduced to 12 factors which are almost all related to the number and characteristics of the pupils rather than the running costs of the schools. This applies equally to Devon County Council schools and to academies.

We've worked incredibly closely with our schools on this new formula for Devon, which divides up exactly the same funding pot, but in a different way. More than 380 delegates, including headteachers and governors, attended seven consultation sessions last month and represented well over 200 schools – our highest consultation response for many years.

Our Schools Funding Issues Group debated the matter in detail and then presented its ideas to the Devon Education Forum. In effect, no school will lose more than 1.5 per cent per pupil compared to its 2012/13 baseline and most schools will be in the ratio of – 0.5 to + 0.5 per cent.

In primaries, 90% of funding is determined by pupil-based factors and in secondaries it's 96%. What's wrong with that you might ask? And, as the mother of three school-age boys, I most certainly want to see as much money as possible going directly to my children's education. But I live in rural North Devon and I know how essential our village schools are to the vitality and wellbeing of the communities they serve.

However, this new formula effectively prevents us giving as much financial support to small schools – be they village primaries or small secondaries – as we have done in the past under our small school protection factor because we have lost that flexibility.

If more money is being allocated to pupils then it follows that there is less available to cover other issues, even if we were allowed to spend it in that way. So in our rural areas, which are already suffering depopulation, the small school with declining pupil numbers will face greater financial challenges.

Lots of councils in rural areas similar to Devon have raised this with the Government. The official response is that it will all be sorted out for the 2014/15 financial year and that schools have the guarantee of not losing more than 1.5 per cent of their finance for 2013/14. But, like all of us, schools are under financial pressure now and jam tomorrow doesn't really satisfy me. I will continue to press for a better solution for Devon for this coming financial year.

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  • Thomasak001  |  October 18 2012, 9:08PM

    Funding may well follow the pupil, and as the fundamental principle, that's right, but teaching is delivered by the class. As you rightly say, the staff and education resource costs are broadly the same, so if your class sizes are less than the "optimal" 30 that larger schools adopt, then your budget per class is seriously reduced. The formula as applied in Worcestershire has some small rural schools set to lose up to 40% of their budget when in full force. This new formula will have a devastating effect on rural education once the minimum funding guarantees fall away. Fairer funding in 2015? Please! Rural education isn't broken, it doesn't need fixing, well not much anyway. If you can't come up with a better system then leave well alone until you can. We should embrace simplicity and transparency when spending large amounts of public money as education does. But the system needs to be sensible and the new system blatantly discriminates against rural schools and therefore rural communities - shelve it. The thinking behind the new formula was either thoughtless or it was thoughtful and therefore reckless and careless. Either way, the DfE boffins need to be told to back off and let the local professionals do their job. I thought Tories were supposed to be in favour of localism? Amongst the factors in the simpler system is "Deprivation", which mostly applies mainly to urban areas. If their was an equivalent "Rural Isolation" factor with appropriate weighting then a simpler, transparent system could broadly mimic what we do now so that we can study how really fair it is. We could then play with the factors gently over time to get a fairer result but without the risk of ill-considered, unintentional change. Done correctly this could be a valuable national debate. Left as it currently is, this will be as unpopular as the NHS reforms. The Tories need to get a grip.

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