Fighting ‘unfairness’ is no justification for this school funding disgrace | Deborah Orr

Deborah Orr
‘London’s inner-city schools had become particularly brilliant at boosting educational attainment for the most disadvantaged pupils.’ Photograph: David Jones/PA

When the full glory of “the London effect” became majestically obvious, back in 2013, people fell over themselves to explain how it had been achieved. London schools, which in the 80s and 90s had declined to a point where it seemed impossible for them to decline any more, had become the best in the country – even the world – on any measure one cared to apply.

Most strikingly, London’s inner-city schools – ethnically diverse, with a high proportion of pupils on free school meals – had become particularly brilliant at boosting educational attainment for the most disadvantaged pupils. What everyone wanted to know was how, exactly, it had been done and how, exactly, it could be replicated.

The answer wasn’t simple. Some of the things that contributed seemed obvious, like the London Challenge. Announced in 2002 by then education secretary Estelle Morris, and wound down in 2011 under the coalition government, this initiative focused on identifying strikingly successful headteachers, and mining their expertise to help with the running of other schools.

Assortative mating, said the sociologists, was probably part of the phenomenon. This is the behaviour whereby people partner with people like them. Because a lot of ambitious graduates wanted to be in London, as their own industries had centres there, a lot of other graduates lived in London with them. London schools recruiting teachers simply had a much bigger pool of graduates to draw on. Statistical analysis bore the supposition out. This was just one of a number of theories about the London effect. Everyone agreed on one thing: it was complex.

The government is flailing about in various quagmires at the moment. One of them is its plan to change the school funding formula, whereby the government allocates cash to local authorities for education. And one thing the current row has perhaps revealed is that the London effect might not have been as complex as all that.

The positive spin on the changes is that, according to the Department for Education, 10,000 schools will gain financially, making schools more equal. The changes will address the inequities of education’s “postcode lottery”. If the argument is accepted narrowly, there is logic there. Indeed, some of the disparities it is attempting to address have been shocking: average per pupil funding in inner London is £5,918, while in Blackpool it is £3,363. Sure enough, educational attainment in Blackpool is indeed far from excellent. Even given that costs in London are exceptionally high, I’d imagine it would take a pretty poor educator to fail to wring better results out of double the financial resources. Great, a sensible bystander might observe. This is pretty good evidence that money spent on education is well invested.

But something different is happening. The government is concentrating on unfairness and disparity, rather than underfunding. The argument is that the formula favours London and inner-city areas, and neglects places where there is widespread but less severe deprivation. To address this, it plans to take money away from inner-city schools and give it to, well, schools in Conservative-voting areas, on the whole.

Even so, a number of Tory MPs are upset, because schools in their constituencies are going to be clobbered. The results of a second stage of consultation on this matter are due next Wednesday. Since absolutely no one with the most cursory interest in education thinks the idea is any good, another spectacular U-turn from the government is widely expected.

If anything, the focus on educational spending has thrown into sharp focus the fact that whether the funding formula is changed or not, schools all over the country are beginning to run into trouble that is likely to get worse. A report this week from the Education Policy Institute predicts that, far from gains for 10,000 schools, the proposed new formula will contribute to a situation in which all schools in England will be facing real-terms funding cuts within a couple of years, with half of them facing cuts of up to 11% per pupil, which is simply horrific.

I’ll be surprised if these plans aren’t shelved. But the thing to note from the whole affair is the rhetoric that was invoked. Of course the vast gulf between funding for a pupil in one part of the country as compared to another part of the country is “unfair”. But that doesn’t provide a moral basis for doing wilful damage to crucially important achievements, such as the huge improvement in inner-city education.

The Conservatives believe that by saying they are addressing unfairness they frame their policies in a way that makes them sound like scrupulous meritocrats. Yet what seems fair is by no means always right. The Conservatives are proposing to divvy up educational funding like sweets are divvied up in a maths test. Unfortunately, that’s as close to an actual engagement with what does and should happen in schools as this exercise ever gets.

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