Is the writing on the wall for village schools?

by
10 February 2017

John Howson explains how the new National Funding Formula poses a threat
to rural education

Village children: pupils at Brize Norton Primary School, Oxfordshire, one of the schools under threat of a funding cut

Village children: pupils at Brize Norton Primary School, Oxfordshire, one of the schools under threat of a funding cut

BEFORE Christmas, the Department for Education announced the long-awaited second stage of the proposed new National Funding Formula for schools. After the consultation last spring on the aims of the formula, the proposals set out in detail how the revised rules would affect almost all primary and secondary schools in England — detail that is the subject of a further consultation that runs until mid-March. The proposals provided festive cheer for some schools and bad news for others.

If implemented, the new formula could reshape the education system, and would be of great importance to the education arm of the Church of England, the largest non-governmental provider of schools in England. A high proportion of church schools have fewer than 210 pupils, which is the official definition of small schools. This situation is a long-standing problem for the C of E, and for the local authorities concerned.

Many of these authorities, regarding them­selves as underfunded, formed a 40-strong association (known as the F40 group), which has consistently pressed for a fairer funding formula. Although the redistributive effect of the proposed new formula provides some relief, the distribution is a disappointment. Across the primary and secondary sectors as a whole, the proposed overall increase in funding is just one per cent — hardly the expected boost.

 

IN ONE F40 authority, Oxfordshire, there are as many losers in the primary sector as there are winners. Many of the losers in Oxford­shire are small rural C of E primaries in the less populated areas. Indeed, 17 of the 25 schools in Oxfordshire that lose most under the new formula are church schools.

The key question is whether these schools will be able to continue to function if their income is reduced, especially in view of the mounting costs that many face. Might this be the beginning of the end of the village primary school, and their replacement by larger hub schools? If small schools close for financial reasons, there is no guarantee that pupils will be able to transfer to another Church of England school. Even if free transport is provided, it is likely to be to the nearest school, not to another church school.

It is not too strong a statement to say that if the Oxfordshire situation is repeated across rural England, then the face of church schooling, largely unchanged for nearly 150 years, except for the conversion of elementary schools into primary schools after the 1944 Education Act, would undergo a revolution.

 

TO ADD to their woes, some of the schools that are scheduled for significant increases will not see the full effect in cash terms, because the Government has imposed a percentage ceiling on the extra amount that a school can receive. In effect, the Government is saying: “We know you need more cash, but there is an upper limit on what you will receive.” This approach will satisfy neither the threatened small schools, nor those larger urban schools outside London where the potential gains exceed the ceiling imposed by the Government.

So long as inflation remains low, and public-sector wages are held to an annual one-per-cent increase, the actual amounts that schools will lose are relatively small, but it does not take much to turn a surplus into a deficit in a small school. Since schools are funded on per capita, if one family moves out of a village this can be enough to tip the balance.

I am sure that the Government did not intend the new formula to threaten either small schools or church schools with closure, but governors would be well-advised to discover the position of their school under the proposals.

 

Professor John Howson chairs TeachVac.

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