Amid all the controversy about the government's new "academise all schools" White Paper, it might be easy to forget that there is another, equally important, education policy in the pipeline. Plans for a national funding formula were announced in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement and earlier this month the first of two consultations was published, setting out how this formula should be structured.
Why is this happening? In an article in the Guardian several months ago, I attempted to explain this issue. Schools funding in England has developed in a haphazard way over the last fifty years, leading to wide disparities between schools in different local authority areas. A complex array of local and national funding arrangements, developed over decades, can mean that schools barely miles apart but across borough or county boundaries receive vastly different revenue per pupil, even if that pupil comes with the similar needs and social profile.
In the past some local authorities chose to top up their school funding from their own budgets creating further variation between local authorities. When the Labour government introduced the current mechanism for funding schools, the Dedicated Schools Grant, in 2006, existing variations were "baked in" to the new system and been exacerbated by every subsequent percentage increase in school funding.
A vigorous campaign by the F40 Group ( the 40 most poorly funded local authorities) has finally persuaded the government to act. A new national formula will be in place by 2020, by passing local authorities so the money will go directly to schools. The first consultation sets out some broad principals on which that formula will be based, though no figures have yet been published.
The consultation points out that the DFE's fairer funding formula won't mean every school gets exactly the same amount of money because the new formula will have four "building blocks". These are:
The pupil premium will remain outside the funding formula for now. There will be a separate, though much reduced, grant for local authorities to carry out the few responsibilities - SEND, place planning, safeguarding and admissions - that will remain with them once the current onslaught on local government is complete . There will be a separate consultation and formula for high needs (SEND) pupils.
Nevertheless the consequences of these changes could be dramatic in some areas for the simple reason that there is no significant new money to smooth this transition. The process of moving from the current situation to the new formula will take place over two years and will effectively redistribute funding from the more highly funded areas to the least well funded.
Inner city areas like London are likely to be the most hard hit. I would be the first to admit that London schools have been very generously funded in the last twenty years. My own children benefitted from that, as did thousands of other young people from much more disadvantaged backgrounds. The consequence of that funding, combined with strong school leadership and collaborative working arrangements brokered through the London Challenge, is that London schools are a great success story and the envy of other capital cities around the world.
A few weeks ago I chaired a packed meeting at the House of Commons at which heads, governors, councillors, parents, teachers and pupils from across London came together to discuss how we should respond to this policy. There was widespread agreement that we want to spread the great advantages that London schools have had to other parts of the country, but not at the expense of our children. You can see a link to the Keep London Schools Great campaign here, sign our petition and see a model response to the (limited) questions in the consultation.
It is important that we respond to the consultation. We don't yet know how much weighting will be placed on each of the four building blocks but we need to remind the government of what the Sutton Trust calls "double disadvantage', the impact of being a disadvantaged pupil growing up in a poor area. Funding for many inner city schools should reflect that.
We want to see the new funding formula properly funded with new money to ensure that no school loses out, that real disadvantage is properly addressed and that success stories such as London are not undermined. Schools are facing an onslaught of funding cuts at the moment - that will translate into larger classes, higher teacher workload, possible redundancies and cuts to the curriculum and vital school enrichment programmes.
Of course those schools in the most poorly funded areas urgently need the extra money that the new formula with bring. But creating more winners and losers isn't the answer if we want to spread success equally across the country.