Donna Tandy: More must be done to solve school funding crisis

Amendments to the education system leave teachers constantly having to shift goalposts.
Amendments to the education system leave teachers constantly having to shift goalposts.
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It has recently been reported that as many as 2,000 schools will still be underfunded in seven years’ time and, with a backlash from teachers following Chancellor Philip Hammond’s comment that schools would receive just £400m for ‘‘little extras’’, it’s clear that, as a nation, more must be done to solve the school funding crisis.

The Pupil Premium, additional backing provided to publicly funded schools in England, is designed to support the learning and well-being of disadvantaged pupils, essentially allowing for the gap to be closed between them and their peers through accelerated progress. Unfortunately, however, the ongoing funding crisis has meant that many schools are being left with no other option than to use significant proportions of their pupil premium allowance to sustain their core provisions – preventing the funding being used for its intended purpose.

It should go without saying that the pupil premium should not be used as the only driver to improve outcomes for eligible pupils. Research shows that the strategies that make the most difference to learning do not require any additional funding but are features of quality first teaching. In times of financial strain in schools, it is important that these are exploited as much as possible before looking at specific spending strands. If these approaches are fully embedded in schools, then all children will benefit. This is important because some children identified by school leaders as being disadvantaged are not those who are in receipt of the funding.

Having seen first-hand the struggles schools go through to not only establish best use of any funding they are given but also to effectively evaluate its outcomes for ongoing improvements, we – as a trust – have implemented a strategy to ensure the money spent will benefit identified pupils, the school as a whole and, where possible, the wider trust.

Since its introduction in 2010, the pupil premium initiative has received its fair share of backlash and criticism, with confusion over spending allocation, even more confusion when navigating the ways in which each individual should benefit while maintaining a culture of ‘‘fairness’’ and, ultimately, whether or not any headway is actually being made towards decreasing the ‘‘gap’’. We have worked collectively to raise the profile of disadvantaged pupils and ensure the pupil premium funding is used effectively. Each academy has an identified Pupil Premium Champion, who has oversight of these children and supports all staff to ensure their deficit of learning or experience is closed.

The trust now has a Pupil Premium Charter which clearly outlines the trust-wide vision on disadvantaged pupils. A key feature of this is the development of excellent teachers and support staff to ensure all pupils have access to the most effective strands of research.

My role is to oversee this and support leaders in the evaluation of the impact of their spending. In essence, the benefit of a trust system is that resources or training developed by one school can be shared with all schools within the trust, meaning that the success of one school’s pupil premium funding can be felt throughout the constituent schools.

With a cohesive strategy, we ensure the high profile of a significant group of children in our care. Across our 15 schools, the percentage of eligible pupils ranges from 13 per cent to 41 per cent. As the context and needs of the disadvantaged children differ from school to school it is important that academies have the autonomy to interpret these to best fit the needs of their pupils.

However, with the current status of funding crisis amongst UK schools it’s understandable why any funding provided – pupil premium or otherwise – is quickly used in attempts to alleviate the crisis and its immediate effects, often without taking into consideration longer term issues that the pupil premium was introduced to tackle in the first place.

As part of the 2018 Autumn Budget, £400m in extra capital funding has been allocated to be spent on core provisions including equipment and maintenance and, although deemed ‘‘inadequate’’ and ‘‘a drop in the ocean’’ by many, the overall Department of Education budget has, for now, increased to £5.6bn. The question is, how can schools balance their ability to spend enough on running the school itself while safeguarding its pupils and staff, and how far will the current funding stretch to ensure that disadvantage is not a barrier to lifelong success?

Donna Tandy, is Academy Improvement Partner at Focus Trust, made up of schools from across West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.