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As the government spending review approaches, education secretary Estelle Morris is being pressed to win more money...
As the government spending review approaches, education secretary Estelle Morris is being pressed to win more money for student grants, lecturers' pay and classroom assistants.

But one demand is trickier. For years, councils like Staffordshire CC have complained they receive less money per pupil than other comparable authorities. The F40 campaign has argued that many rural education departments lose out with the standard spending assessment.

Some of its members served on the Department for Education & Skills' Education Funding Strategy Group. Made up of headteachers, civil servants and finance experts, it published its final report in May.

There was little argument that funds should divide into two blocks - one for schools and one for education departments. On average, they will split 90/10, but finding a funding formula to distribute the cash is harder.

Every pupil should have a basic entitlement to some minimum funding. There will be additional funds to cover the extra costs relating to high-cost pupils. Since additional educational needs are not just about poverty, there may be specific learning difficulties or higher staffing costs.

There is no problem with all this in principle. The real difficulty will be moving to the new fairer system.

Average education department spending per pupil was£2,944 last year (excluding direct grants). But the actual allocation varied from£2,621 in Staffordshire CC to£4,459 in Kensington & Chelsea LBC. Moreover, Birmingham City Council spent£3,293 compared to Sheffield City Council's£2,836.

Yet, where money has been spent on deprived areas, results are improving. The Times Educational Supplement has reported faster gains in literacy and numeracy in the most deprived wards than elsewhere.

But such targeted funds miss poorer pupils in richer areas. Addressing such disparities would cost a lot more. Not only that, but a report released by the Local Government Association last week rightly called for more money to be spent on low-cost accommodation for teachers to address staff shortages. (LGC, 28 June)

If that happens, it would widen the imbalance between councils, as would higher London living allowances.

At present London pupils cost£3,464 compared to£2,796 in the shires. Any attempt to iron out these differences would cause resentment if it meant less money went to schools in the south-east, which have found it hardest to recruit.

But if the government puts a lot more money into those schools currently losing out, this will reduce funds for crucial marginal constituencies in the south-west.

What is needed is a transitional system. Four years ago, the government started to phase out differential funding for 1,000 grant-maintained schools. But many of the differences remain, as schools were guaranteed their budgets would remain stable in real terms while others caught up.

It will surely prove even more difficult if such an exercise is applied to 20,000 schools, however good the scheme. That is not tosay it should not be done - the system urgently needs reform. But nobody should expect fairness overnight.

Conor Ryan

Special adviser (1997-2001) to former education secretary David Blunkett

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