Graham Stuart: Short-changing fo rural schools must stop

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THE premise of fair school funding – awarded in accordance with a rational formula assessed on the basis of pupil need – is a simple one and, one might think, uncontroversial.

That statement, however, falls a long way short of the reality in England. The Association of School and College Leaders has calculated that this year the 10 best-funded areas will receive an average schools block grant of £6,300 per pupil, compared with an average of only £4,200 per pupil in the 10 most poorly funded areas.

For a typical secondary school of 920 students, that equates to a budget of £5.8m in the best-funded areas and £3.9m in the least well-funded areas – a difference of £1.9m in a relatively small secondary school.

To bring to life this example, the £1.9m difference between two such schools in different areas is enough to pay the total costs – salaries and pension contributions – of 40 full-time teachers. That huge funding gap cannot be justified.

The gap is not explained by pupil deprivation. People might think that the system is designed to give more to areas of concentrated deprivation, whether urban or other. In 2011, Department for Education analysis showed that a school with 43 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals can receive £665 less funding per pupil than a school with less than 10 per cent eligible pupils.

Therefore, a school that serves the most deprived, as opposed to one that serves a remarkably affluent population, can receive hundreds of pounds less per pupil simply because of where it is rather than the nature and character of the children concerned, let alone their needs. Given the flat cash settlement for schools since that time, those figures will not have altered significantly.

I will give another example of the disparity that can exist between authorities. A secondary school pupil in York who receives the pupil premium, which is worth £935 this year, still has less spent on his or her education than an equivalent pupil in Birmingham who is not eligible for the pupil premium. Therefore, the child of the wealthy entrepreneur or lawyer in Birmingham receives more than the child from the poorest home in York.

We might think that if the disparity does not reflect deprivation, perhaps it reflects underlying performance in the system, such as the quality of education in the schools, with more money going to help those areas doing less well. However, that would be wrong. Some of the best performing areas, notably in London, continue to receive thousands of pounds more per child than areas that are really struggling. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea receives 39 per cent more funding per pupil under the schools block grant than my own area, the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The East Riding struggles with many of the challenges identified by Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw in rural and coastal areas of England, where it can be hard to recruit and retain high quality teachers, and partnerships between schools can founder because of the distance between them. We could take a coastal town and ask “Why can’t we replicate the London challenge in East Yorkshire?”

Anyone who drew a circle around Withernsea to find all the schools that might be able to provide mutual support would find that half the circle was in the sea and the other half took in a swathe of rural East Yorkshire. That does not create easy conditions in which to build the collaborative regimes that have made such a difference in London.

Contrary to any lazy misconceptions that areas such as the East Riding are rural idylls, Withernsea ranked in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas in England on both the income and employment indices of multiple deprivation in 2010. In a devastating speech in 2013, Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that many of the disadvantaged children performing least well in school can be found in leafy suburbs, market towns or seaside resorts.

The East Riding also faces the additional costs associated with small, rural schools because of its geography. There is a limit to how far we can expect children to be bused, so it needs to run small schools, which are necessarily more expensive.

That is why we need a whole new look at this and a national funding formula. Our call is not for perfection but for a significant move to close the gaps. I asked headteachers in Beverley and Holderness about the challenges they face. One said: “We reduced staffing by reducing the number of cover supervisors and downsizing a number of teaching subject areas.”

Another said: “Fewer sporting competitions – we can’t afford to pay for transport to away fixtures.” Another said: “Provision is stretched and children receive less intervention time.” Another said: “Resources are not being replaced or updated as we would like. The school guided reading scheme has been on the subject leaders’ development plan for the last two years and it is something that we cannot afford.”

That is the reality on the ground in schools in my constituency.

Graham Stuart is the Beverley and Holderness MP. He is the former chairman of Parliament’s education select committee and this is an edited version of a Commons speech on school funding.