A major issue before and after the general election campaign was of course the problem over the amount of funding that West Sussex schools receive compared with other parts of the country. As you will have seen from the special section on my website and numerous updates through my newsletter and articles in the press etc, this is an issue that I have been very closely involved with working with other West Sussex Parliamentary colleagues.
We lobbied government and the Education Secretary, took local head teachers to Parliament to challenge ministers and officials and raised the subject in numerous debates. I also visited numerous schools in my constituency speaking to teachers and governors and also attended a forum of Worthing school governors. In fact I accepted every such invitation extended.
The problem of course is that West Sussex has been the lowest funded shire authority in England for some years. A pupil in Shoreham for example will receive just under £4200 per annum which compares with a national average of around £4600 and over £7000 in some London Boroughs. There are good reasons for such differentials with particular challenges around deprivation and language diversity but the question is why so the gap so wide especially given the additional benefits of pupil premium on top where West Sussex is not a major beneficiary. To compound matters it is the cumulative effect of local schools operating on very constrained budgets over so many years which has meant that effectively the ‘tank is now running on empty’ with little scope for further savings.
Along with other local MPs therefore I absolutely understand the seriousness of the problem which is why I have devoted so much time to flagging it up and trying to get a solution. As a result the government agreed to honour its 2015 manifesto commitment to change the funding formula which no government has done before. Subsequently we have had 2 consultations putting forward various proposals and the results to the second consultation which ended in March have yet to be published after the general election intervened to delay things.
Our concern is that the consultations did not go far enough to change the formula and largely rejigged the various factors like deprivation, rural school sparsity and prior academic attainment. Whilst they are all important criteria it is the formula that is flawed and we have urged a more radical rethink whereby funding is provided for the basic amounts to run a school and then we can argue over the level of deprivation funding and so on on top of that. That is the case we will be pressing when the latest results are published.
The other major factor has of course been the national school budget overall. Whilst this has gone up in real terms under this Government so too has the number of pupils and additional unfunded cost pressures such as teacher pay rises, National Insurance increases and the Apprenticeship Levy. That has meant that schools will face real term cuts coming down the line and are already having to make difficult decisions about making budgets to balance. I in no way underestimate the level of the challenge heads are facing.
During the election the Prime Minister announced a further £4bn to be added to the schools budget which is welcome. On top of this a large capital budget is being made available to provide an additional 600,000 school places, build new schools and refurbish 500 existing ones. There has been criticism that some of this money was earmarked for new grammar school places though it is unlikely that will now happen. In any case I said that my support for expanding grammar schools was conditional on securing a decent settlement for existing local schools first and that has not changed.
So the situation has not changed and we keenly await the next move by the Government on the details of changing the funding formula. In order to provide me with as much ‘ammunition’ with which to lobby the Education Secretary as possible I have invited every head in the constituency to attend a round-table summit next month to tell me exactly what challenges they are facing and how their finances are looking.
I hope from this you will see that this is an issue I have been taking very seriously for some time and one where we will only achieve a solution if we can continue to work together in order to get the best settlement for our children.