The Conservative leaders of several large councils have warned that government plans to simplify the school funding system will strip authorities of crucial local decision-making powers and could force the closure of small schools.
Under the reforms, councils will have to allocate the same amount of lump-sum funding to all schools. Local school funding formulas - which are based on up to 37 factors - would be abolished and replaced with new formulas based on 12 factors, set by the Department for Education.
Many councils use a local factor to compensate small schools for the low levels of per-pupil funding they receive, and would no longer be able to do this.
Philip Atkins (Con), leader of Staffordshire CC, told a County Councils Network meeting last week that the changes were “causing us difficulties in allocating funds”.
“If there are small rural schools, sometimes there isn’t any other option than having that school. And also, if we were to close the school then you’ve got transport costs to cover, and you’re just transferring money from one budget to another.”
Meanwhile, John Osman (Con), leader of Somerset CC, said at meeting of the LGA’s children and young people board also held last week: “I think we need to push for more flexibility on funding. The needs of the Isle of Wight, Somerset and Newcastle aren’t the same. Certainly in Somerset the funding of small schools is a big issue.”
Cllr Atkins has written to education secretary Michael Gove, calling for more local flexibility, but has not yet received a response.
A DfE document outlining the new arrangements says: “Small rural schools can play an important role in local communities. We remain firmly committed to supporting them wherever they represent an efficient use of a local area’s funding.”
A spokeswoman for the department said it was “not true” that setting just one lump sum could force some small schools to close. “The lump sum has been introduced so local authorities can keep small schools open by providing enough money to meet their fixed costs,” she said. She also said no school would have its budget reduced by more than 1.5% per pupil, per year over the next two years.
David Pugh (Con), leader of Isle of Wight Council which has pushed its schools to convert to academy status, told the LGA meeting that local opposition to reducing schools’ funding was likely to be directed at councils. “We will be held to account for things that aren’t our responsibility,” he said. “As much as we may have been divested of responsibility, the buck will still stop with us.”
The changes could also affect schools catering for the children of military personnel.
Susie Charles (Con), cabinet member for children and schools at Lancashire CC, raised concerns about losing the power to set a local factor for schools with service children on their rolls. “This has a huge impact on one primary school where the children are almost exclusively drawn from an army base. Under any of our models the reductions in its funding are up to 40%,” she said.
But the DfE spokeswoman said the reforms would not affect service children. “We have introduced an additional ‘mobility factor’ for councils to use when allocating money to schools with a high number of children from military families,” she said.
David Simmonds (Con), chair of the children and young people’s board and a Hillingdon LBC cabinet member, said: “Essentially what we argued for is local flexibility, whether it’s with very small schools or very large schools. I think the DfE came from a starting point that local flexibility should be minimised.”