In a break from the focus on possibly illegal parties which may or may not have happened in or around Downing Street, the government launched its long awaited “Levelling Up” whitepaper this week. Although the idea of ‘levelling up’ can seem a bit vague at times, it’s very clear that what used to be called the ‘north-south divide’ is as huge as ever. So we should be welcoming a Government whitepaper which sets out “to end geographical inequality”. As ‘levelling up’ has been such a key part of the government’s pledge to areas like Northumberland, I thought that I should look in detail at what this means for education.
I was surprised to see that the first reference to education was about the “new schools funding formula in England ending the previous postcode lottery” and reference to the additional funding over the next three years.
A National Funding Formula is hardly new
Firstly, the move to a National Funding Formula (NFF) is hardly new, as it was planned in 2016, launched in 2018 and has still not been fully implemented. There is no doubt that a gradual move to the NFF has reduced the uneven nature of funding. When I was a Headteacher, I found it difficult to believe that our nearest neighbouring secondary school received £3,000 more per pupil basic funding than the pupils in the school I led. This has now changed but the way that this has been achieved is through basing more of the funding solely on the number of pupils.
The outcome of this is that schools which serve more affluent communities have seen their budgets rise at a greater rate than schools which serve more disadvantaged communities, as proportionally less of the funding is now based on deprivation indicators such as free school meals. This is good news for schools in more affluent areas, which were no doubt underfunded in the past, but has not helped schools in disadvantaged areas to the same extent, as budgets have grown slowly by comparison.
Funding for this year is only a return to funding levels from a decade ago
Secondly, although any increase in school funding is always welcome, independent studies have shown that the increase in funding for next school year will only return per pupil funding to the levels from 2009-10 after more than a decade of real terms cuts. Unfortunately due to the cost pressures that all of us are feeling with increases in fuel bills, inflation, national insurance, etc. the impact of the additional funding will be limited.
Further educational outcomes will only be achieved with greater investment
The next reference in the whitepaper to education is that by 2030, 90% of primary children will reach the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. The government’s own statistics show that in 2019, the last year in which children in Year 6 had SAT exams, the equivalent figure was 65% of all pupils. To get from 65% to 90% by 2030 is a huge challenge for the nation’s primary schools. While on one hand I welcome the very high aspiration, on the other I question how this will be achieved without a huge level of additional investment in schools, of which there was no mention in the whitepaper. Schools are already working flat out to get the best outcomes for their pupils and further improvements will be largely achieved only with greater investment.
The other educational area from the whitepaper which received a lot of headlines is the suggestion that there will be some new ‘elite’ Sixth Forms set up and run by sponsors such as Eton College, the famous boarding school.
Eton has an unparalleled record in producing British Prime Ministers and I’m sure that it offers an amazing education. However it charges fees of almost £15,000 per term, so close to £45,000 per year on top of a £3,000 fee for pupils just to join the school and ‘extras’ of up to £2,000 per year. If we take out the part of the costs related to boarding (£10,000) that’s still around £35,000 per year to spend on education.
This year the minimum per pupils funding levels in Northumberland are £5,415 for secondary and £4,180 for primary.
If we contrast that with per pupil funding at Eton then maybe providing schools with the funds to close that gap would really help us to ‘level up?’
Alan Hardie, Chief Executive at Northumberland Church of England Academy Trust (NCEAT)
NCEAT is a multi-academy Trust based in the North East of England. The only Diocesan Trust in Newcastle and County Durham, the Trust currently presides over 8 schools – 6 primary, 1 secondary and 1 specialist academy for pupils with PMLD.