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School funding sees the inner city lose out to the just about managing

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The hipsters running the vintage homeware store on Clarence Road in Hackney won’t know it, but they are a symbol of why local schools will be losing money if the government’s national funding formula goes ahead. Gentrification and the ‘flat white economy’ has transformed areas like east London, where I live, and in turn has meant that they are, taken as a whole, richer.

The result? Less funding for local schools, as a reduction in deprivation means a reduction in cash. The schools most likely to lose out in the new system are those in inner London and other urban areas whose local economies have improved and where relative deprivation has decreased. If you spot a bearded bloke on a bicycle down your local high street then it’s likely that your local school is going to lose some cash.

The schools that will see funding go up most dramatically include those with lots of disadvantaged pupils who are not necessarily eligible for free school meals and schools with the highest proportion of pupils with low prior attainment but which are not in areas of high deprivation. You might say that these pupils are not suffering from extreme poverty but are, perhaps, just about managing.

Theresa May’s promise since becoming prime minister has been to help people who may not be at the forefront of society’s gravest problems, but are only just keeping their head above water. The redistribution of school funding, and that’s what this is, sings from that hymn sheet. If education (and most social) policy in the late 1990s and 2000s was about tackling the inner city’s problems, the next decade looks to be defined by a shift towards help for the less fashionable town and village, and their just-about-managing inhabitants. It’s become a bit of a cliché to say that we should look at everything through the prism of Brexit, but there is something in the idea that social policy’s gaze has been firmly on the city for a decade or two, and that we are in the beginning of a great realignment in favour of the non-urban because of the provincial revolt last June.

Unsurprisingly, when you take from Peter to pay Paul, Peter is unlikely to be happy about it. Councillor Peter John (Labour), London Councils’ executive member for children, skills and employment has argued that overall system funding needs to increase so that other areas of the country can ‘match London’s best performing schools.’ The Association of
Teachers Lecturers (ATL) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) have pointed out that the LAs losing the most are nearly all Labour, with only one Conservative. Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, has said that there is simply not enough money in the system.

It’s questionable whether pressure from Labour will make much headwind. The Westminster bubble is completely pre-occupied with the countdown to article 50 and will then be examining in minute detail the manner in which we leave the EU. Justine Greening’s appearance on Andrew Marr on Sunday was focussed solely on the PM’s ‘shared society’ agenda, itself a response to the Brexit vote. There wasn’t one question about school funding. Even grammar schools got only a passing mention.

When normal rules apply, and quite clearly at the moment they do not, Labour might be able to force the government into modifying their plans. But the u-turn on forced academisation came before the referendum, when there was more space for other issues to get a hearing. It was also very easy to argue that it didn’t really make sense: ‘so even good schools are going to have to convert? But why?’ School funding, however, is more complex and the government can justifiably say that more schools’ funding will go up than go down.

Campaigners for more NHS funding have managed to gather momentum and the education sector could learn from them, however. The sometimes terrifying stories about patients left on trolleys for hours, for example, means that the government will probably have to find new money from somewhere in the not too distant future. If the education sector wants to force the government to act on school funding they will probably have to crank up the stories about the effect that not enough money actually has on schools: stories about hungry pupils because breakfast clubs are closed, cold and damp school buildings that haven’t had the attention they need, reduced mental health services for vulnerable pupils or extra-curricular opportunities for the disadvantaged shut down, thereby pulling the ladder away from the ‘bright, poor’ pupils that so energise the public’s concerns over education.

In reality, if the DfE does change its plans, it’s more likely that it will happen due to pressure from the UK’s new unofficial opposition, Tory backbenchers, than because of campaigning from the left. Conservatives representing constituencies whose schools are set to lose money, including the influential chair of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, have expressed alarm and are calling for Justine Greening to look again.

Look closely, though, and they aren’t joining Labour councillors from London and calling for the inner city to retain its high funding. They hail from places like East Devon and wealthy parts of Cheshire. Any change on the funding formula will probably see extra funds given to disappointed Conservatives’ schools, rather than back to places like Hackney.

Policy can be a bit like a pendulum that slowly swings from one side to another. Consensus builds on the need to tackle a particular problem, or give attention to a certain section of the populous, and it can last for years. But then people realise that in looking one way, they’ve missed something in their peripheral vision. In housing we are only now, gradually seeing the possibility of a return to building powers for local authorities, after decades of restrictions. It takes time for perspectives to shift. Like the current attention on coastal schools, the national funding formula sees the pendulum in education policy swing towards the town, village, the just about managing and the not yet gentrified parts of town, as the inner city is marked ‘problem solved’.

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