County Councillor John Howson argues in the Oxford Mail for better funding for Oxfordshire schools.
Funding for schools in Oxfordshire has been among the lowest in the country for many years. This lack of funding has been equally the case under both Labour and Conservative governments. Even though the basis for calculating the amount each individual school receives is no longer directly a matter for the County Council, but is decided by the Schools Forum, there is a feeling among heads and governors that Oxfordshire schools are being short-changed. However, I find it difficult to accept that the schools should focus their complaints on the two additional areas of funding that resulted from policy changes introduced by the Liberal Democrats when part of the coalition government.
Both the Pupil Premium and free meals for infant pupils were Lib Dem policies that actually ensured schools in Oxfordshire would receive more money per pupil than they would normally have seen if the policies had been delivered as a part of the basic budget formula. Under the present arrangements, funding for schools in Oxfordshire averages only £4,300 per pupil compared with more than £7,000 per pupil in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. That is too large a differential to be acceptable.
Both the universal free school meals for infant pupils, introduced last September and the Pupil Premium introduced some years ago, are funded at a flat rate per pupil regardless of where in the country the school is located. This benefits areas such as Oxfordshire where basic funding is low. The additional funding the many small schools in Oxfordshire received to help start free school meals policy was an added bonus. I am sure that this cash plus the capital fund provided by the government will have been welcomed by schools across the county that saw their meals service obliterated during the Thatcher era and its remnants then privatised with no concern over nutritional impact.
The Secretary of State has now said that improvements to the funding for schools that a national funding formula might bring will require at least another two years of planning. As officials worked on the idea throughout the coalition government one must assume this is an example of a Minister booting a difficult to implement policy into the long grass for someone else to deal with in the future?
There would, of course be more money for schools if the Conservatives weren't happy to waste money on two parallel sets of governance arrangements for schools; one for community schools and the other for academies. Personally, I would prefer to see schools, like public health, under local authority control, but it is wasteful of resources to have Regional Commissioners for Schools; local authorities; diocese and academy chains all administering schools yet with overlapping cost structures. In a time of straightened resources for local government the sight of a Conservative central government wasting money to meet a political end is unacceptable.
I find the local Conservative antagonism to free school meals for all infant pupils strange. They are prepared to continue with free bus passes and winter fuel payments to all pensioners, regardless of their income, but not to recognise that free school meals save parents around £420 of post-tax expenditure each year. With the growth of zero hours contracts it also ensures that parents who work different hours each week don't have to tangle with unnecessary bureaucracy and form filling but can still ensure their children receive a hot meal at lunchtime.
There is an issue about registration for the Pupil Premium that some schools have highlighted and it would indeed be very helpful if the government at Westminster allowed the number of pupils entitled to the Premium to be determined centrally without requiring parents to tell the school of their eligibility. The schools are rightly concerned that not all parents are telling them their children qualify despite being asked. However, with falling unemployment in Oxfordshire it was always likely that some schools would see the number of eligible pupils decrease with each new entry. Nevertheless, once granted the Pupil Premium schools can claim the extra income for six years without any requirement for additional registration.
Without the Pupil Premium schools across Oxfordshire would have had less income to support the development of pupil's learning. However, with some schools in danger of not meeting the threshold set for coasting schools under the new legislation, the case for better basic funding is probably well made. For as long as the Conservative government puts off creating a national funding formula there is probably a limit to how well schools in Oxfordshire will be able to perform despite the dedication of their teachers.
Cllr John Howson is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson education on Oxfordshire County Council