The Department for Education has offered a concession on school funding after Conservative council leaders warned that its plans could force the closure of small rural schools.
It has offered to amend its school funding reforms, which last year sparked concerns that councils would be held responsible for significant cuts to the budgets of small schools despite having little or no control over the funding.
The department has suggested giving councils the option to direct more money to what it describes as “necessary small schools” in rural areas, using an optional “sparsity factor”.
Under the proposal, the department could calculate the average distance that pupils in rural areas would have to travel to their second-nearest suitable school if the closest is closed. In cases where this was high, it would allow the closer schools to be given extra funding.
In September, several Conservative council leaders and cabinet members raised concerns about the government’s changes, which will see authorities stripped of the flexibility to distribute funds between schools using up to 37 locally-set factors. Instead the funds will be distributed using new formulas set by the Department for Education, based on about 12 factors.
Many councils use a local factor to compensate small schools for the low levels of per-pupil funding they receive. Several had raised concerns that the government’s plans, which would not allow them to do this, could force smaller schools to close.
The department has also suggested allowing councils to give primary schools more lump-sum funding than secondary schools, to compensate for their lower levels of per-pupil funding.
Ian Parry (Con), cabinet member for education at Staffordshire CC, told LGC: “I am cautiously optimistic about the measures put forward in the Department for Education’s review of school funding reforms. This is something we have pushed hard for ever since the potential impact of the reforms became apparent, so I’m pleased it appears our concerns have been listened to especially those around small and rural schools.
“Any factor that allows more flexibility in our formula is welcome; however we would need to see much more detail about the proposals before we can confidently say that this represents a better deal for Staffordshire schools.”
A report by the DfE, which outlines its plans for a “sparsity factor”, acknowledged that the government’s reforms would see some schools lose funding.
It said: “There will be changes to schools budgets and some degree of re-allocation between schools. That is a necessary and not unintended consequence of reform.”
It said councils had warned that, under the government’s reforms, schools with high numbers of deprived pupils were losing funds. It urged councils to “change their formulae in a more radical way” to make sure this did not happen, warning: “It is not acceptable that deprived pupils are penalised as a consequence of local authorities seeking to maintain the status quo in their area”.