Is the DfE's free schools funding reckoner "complete balls"?!

Francis Gilbert's picture
On Thursday 27th January, I posted a blog pointing out that small schools are much more expensive to fund than bigger schools. It received a great deal of attention because it was one of the first articles to estimate how much free schools would cost based on last year's school budgets; in particular, it highlighted the fact that schools with fewer than 700 pupils become progressively more expensive to run. Being based on money that's actually been spent, it's hard to deny this fact. I used it to estimate free school costs for the coming year. Toby Young wasn't too happy about it because I suggested his free school would spend £7K more per pupil than your average state school; he called my estimates "complete balls" . But they had a solid evidential basis, I'd based my projections on a "linear regression" derived from the DfE's 2009-2010 spending data. It lead to me discussing the issue on BBC London News and BBC radio that evening among other things.

Coincidentally, it appears that the very next day, the DfE posted a newly updated funding page for Free Schools on the DfE website, which can be accessed here. It has a "reckoner" tool on it where you can input your pupil figures and generate how much revenue the free school will get for the year. Needless to say, having carried out some calculations on it, the funding per pupil looks pretty in line with the state averages. However, you only need to read "A Guide To Free School Revenue Funding" to realise that the "free school ready reckoner tool" is not a reliable indication of the revenue a school will get because it does not include two vital details:

"Capital funding, which will depend on the circumstances of individual Free Schools (and within this heading is included any ongoing annual costs of leasing premises).

Any initial funding which may be provided by DfE to help Free School proposers to develop their projects."

Capital funding will obviously be large because it will include the costs of building, procuring land and so forth. The second of these "initial funding" is very vague: this basically gives the DfE the discretion to fund the school how they want. They appear to have the power to do what they like here without anybody knowing about it.

The DfE needs to publish the capital funding and initial funding figures for each free school for us to know how much they cost per pupil. Without them the ready reckoner tool is not reliable.
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Gerry Newton's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 17:36

When you are doing these 'comparisons', do you include the BSF spend for any comprehensive that was built using that programme? If not, then why would you use the capital figures for Free Schools?

As for the timing coincidence, the recliner had been available for weeks - sorry to spoil the conspiracy theory. What's next - "Gove was on the grassy knoll!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 19:24

Thank you Gerry. My figures haven't included capital expenditure, but are part of a regression which simply includes yearly expenditure. I hadn't seen the reckoner there before and the FT seems to indicate that it's just gone up:, although the precise date of its emergence is hazy. The page was updated on 28th January. I certainly don't think it's a conspiracy at all. The main point I feel is that the whole free schools project just appears very haphazard: first the New Schools Network dealing with things, then the DfE and the NSN, now the School Commissioner taking overall charge plus the NSN and the DfE with no clear chain of command, and on the information side, vagueness and stonewalling about funding. They never reply to emails/letters/inquiries. This is different from the last govt who would always give you a response.

It feels like the people in charge have never run a large organisation before -- which, of course, is true. They're complete amateurs fumbling around for this and that, not having thought through the long-term consequences of what they are doing.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 20:54

Francis, everyone knows that the DFE's ready reckoners are 'complete balls' as some of our contributors might put it.
The figures for academy converters change all the time, which may be one reason why many schools are erring on the side of caution and sticking with their local authorities.
Any sensible governing body would want reliable information before making what is an irreversible decision.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 20:59

Yes Fiona, I feel you are right. Inputting figures into it suggest that free schools in inner-city London will not even get above the state average, which simply can't be right. It's the "initial funding" and capital funding, which are kept secret, which are the key figures to know.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 22:49

I thought this blog was good on the issues about free schools:

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 09:35

Interesting blog Francis, if a bit long to digest everything.

I think perhaps people who may have been broadly supportive of free schools may now view them as someting of a curates egg.

Interesting how elite "comprehensive" schools like the Oratory, patronised by the offspring of the Blairs and Harman/Dromey use sly ways to ensure their intake is anything but comprehensive.

Laura Brown's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 10:36

I am shocked by the suggestions about the hidden costs at the Oratory - £50 voluntary contribution a term; £400 for the uniform!!

A bit off topic but... Is there an issue about all the extras schools charge for generally? I was talking to a parent at a local primary school while petitioning about the free school this weekend. Her children are at a school that was previously unpopular with middle class parents but has a new head who has been really shaking things up, raising standards and it is starting to appeal to a broader range of parents.

However, this parent was unimpressed by the changes. She described to me how the new Head has introduced lots of activities and trips that cost a lot of money, especially if you don't have much to spare. As part of the fresh start for the school, she changed the colour of the school jumper - £10 for each child. Not compulsory but this parent said she felt she had to find the money somehow as she didn't want her kids to stand out/lose out. It is so difficult as I can completely understand that schools want to provide trips/activities/raise extra money but how do you do it in a way that doesn't cause problems for some parents who really can't afford it but don't want their kids to miss out?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 11:02

Free schools and Academies, I believe, will have the power to ask for extra money from pupils. I think maintained schools are not allowed to do this, although I will need to check.

Andy Smithers's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 13:56

Francis - your last comment is hardly helpful. Facts please - or no comment rather than misinformation.

Laura - the new head at the primary school you describe sounds excellent, refreshing and appears to be moving the school in the right direction. Somehow, though, you have managed to bring the negative out. Would you prefer the new head did nothing ? You also state that " it was previously unpopular with middle class parents" - and this is relevent how??

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 13:59

The DfE website lists info to Governors about such things as charging for school trips and uniform costs.

Uniforms: should be affordable and should not act as a barrier to parents when choosing a school.

Charging for activities: No charge for non-residential activities that take place entirely during school hours (including travelling).

Parents can only be charged for activities out-of-school hours when these activities are not a necessary part of the National Curriculum.

No charge for activities that are an essential part of an approved exam.

Charges can be made for optional extras outside school hours.

There are special rules for residential activities.

Charges can be made for musical/singing tuition which is not an essential part of the National Curriculum.

Parents can make "voluntary contributions".

I tried to find guidance on the DfE website re charging for activities in Academies. However, all I got was spin about the benefits of Academy status. Nothing about whether the Governors had to adhere to the above rules.

"Voluntary contributions" are a sticky area. Parents may feel coerced to pay. Another way of discouraging poor parents.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 14:53

Thanks for this Janet. Yes, the idea of "voluntary contributions" is a morally grey area. I think you're right, it does discourage poor parents. It would be interesting to see the way the whole issue is presented in communications with parents...

Alison's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 15:22

My children went to a school a few years ago where it was made very clear that if you didn't pay the voluntary contribution they couldn't go on the trip. Those letters really used to make me laugh!

Helen Flynn's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 16:29

I can help you out here with info from the model funding agreement for academies.

Under the "Charging" section it says that: Sections 402 (entering for public exams), 450-457 (charges), 459 (information about charges and school hours), 460 (voluntary contributions), 461, 462 (interpretation re: charges) of the Education Act 1996 shall be deemed to apply to the academy.

There are some modifications, the major one being: "the charging and remissions policies required to be determined under section 457, and any amendment thereto, shall require the approval of the Secretary of State", which would seem to indicate that if the Trust body does want to make changes, it can, but has to get permission from the DfE. Note the power is with the Academy Trust to do this--not the governors--as it with just about anything else to do with academies--all of whom are unelected.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 16:59

Thanks for this Helen. Absolutely classic! The Secretary of State can rule whether an Academy can demand a parent must pay for books etc. Both very unfair and completely inefficient that Whitehall should be dealing with that level of detail. Maybe also, it's going to pave the way for schools which are part state funded and partly paid for with fees, a bit like the old "Direct Grant" system which happened in the 1950s. An era Gove is very fond of.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 31/01/2011 - 17:59

The FT has published an interesting article about Free Schools needing to get poor pupils in order to get extra cash.
Personally, I think the reckoner isn't reliable because it's the initial costs and the capital costs that will be important to begin with.

Laura Brown's picture
Tue, 01/02/2011 - 08:23

On the subject of voluntary contributions, the secondary school where my friend is a teacher has an activity week in the summer term each year. There are numerous trips and activities with some based on the school site but many taking place in exciting offsite locations.

For any of the trips offsite (not residential), parents are sent a letter where the school requests a specific voluntary contribution of £11.50 (or whatever the cost) and says that if they do not get enough of these 'voluntary' contributions, the trip will have to be cancelled.

So, many of the kids with parents who can't afford to pay end up doing all the school-based activities while the others go on the trips. Apparently, people just don't believe that it is actually a voluntary contribution (partly due to the wording about cancelling the trip!) so very very very few parents send back the forms asking for their child to go on the trip but not providing the money - that just isn't seen as an option.

Even playing special sports at lunchtime involved a £2 voluntary contribution for charity (all well motivated, that is clear but just putting people in very difficult positions). One child with difficult family circumstances and behaviour problems said he just couldn't ask anyone for this money. His teacher said that he didn't have to pay as it was voluntary but he didn't want to be seen as the kid who wasn't paying so just opted out.

I find all of this shocking and disturbing. Surely those on free school meals should also be entitled to free school trips or something along those lines? Are they in some schools already? Will the pupil premium be used to cover this sort of thing?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/02/2011 - 08:54

That's the problem with "activity weeks". It's very difficult for the school to provide enough no-cost activities for every child for a whole week. Our school used to have to buy some off-site activities (eg horse riding) for which we then had to ask for a "voluntary contribution". In truth, it wasn't voluntary. If all the potential riders didn't pay up then there would not be enough money to pay for the trip.

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