Funding reform – a power grab by ministers and academy chains – at the expense of heads and schools.

There can be little doubt that Humphrey Appelby would have described the proposals for a national funding formula as “courageous” – civil service code for potentially disastrous. With London likely to take a hammering, Ministers are taking care not to tell anyone what the effects on individual schools and localities will be until after the May elections.

Schools are already facing cuts of around 10% across this Parliament because budgets will be flat in cash terms while costs – including major hikes in pension contributions – rise. To restructure funding across the country at such a time will be, to put it mildly, an interesting and challenging exercise.

Coverage of these proposals have largely copied out the DfE press release and the summary of the key sections. Most commentators have swallowed the rhetoric of “funding going straight to schools” and have been remarkably uncritical of what is proposed. Almost no attention has been paid to two issues:

1. Through School Forums in every local authority, headteachers and governors control how the local funding formula works. Changing to one simple (simplistic?) national formula will mean heads have absolutely no say in how money is distributed. It will all be done by ministers and civil servants. Or to be precise by the Education Funding Agency which Chris Cook of Newsnight described as probably “the most incompetent body in government”.

2. The BBC summarised the funding consultation like this: “a proposed national funding formula for schools, which would be introduced next year, would see budgets going straight to schools, removing local authorities from being a channel for funding”.

This is simply not true if you’re in a multi-academy trust. Here, all the money goes to the trust and can be used for any purpose across the chain. Schools in trusts have no entitlement to any particular level of funding and chains can top slice funding for their own purposes in ways that would be illegal in local authorities. And as this is clearly the government’s preferred model of school governance, the rhetoric about money going directly to schools is clearly complete nonsense.

This may not be the best time for ministers to be making the case for academy chains. Michael Wilshaw has just launched a stinging critique of both their educational effectiveness and of their financial priorities.

Ofsted have looked at 7 trusts running hundreds of schools in all. They found:
• Poor progress and attainment
• Not enough being done to improve behaviour or attendance
• Insufficient scrutiny of teaching quality and its impact on upils’ progress
• Trusts not overseeing all their academies well
• A lack of urgency to tackle weak leadership
• Insufficient challenge from governors.

But the link between the Ofsted findings and the present funding debate lies in Wilshaw’s other comments. He claimed that senior executives were not worth their inflated salaries and that just these 7 chains were holding cash reserves of over £100 million.

Conveniently (or maybe not if you’re a minister) Schools Week has just produced data on Chief Executive salaries in academy trusts. They found some CEO’s pocketing a 10% pay rise since last year and all of them paid far more than their counterparts in the public sector.

This point here is that there is no control over how trusts use their money. There are no rules ensuring that schools can control how funding is distributed and how much goes into the bloated central management of chains.

And it is clear that this is how ministers see the future. Individual free standing academies are not what they want to see. This week has seen ministers seeking to push UTC’s into trusts as well. This means that all the rhetoric about giving power to schools is totally misleading. Schools will get the money their chain chooses to give them. They’ll teach how and what the chain tells them to with the staff that the chain allocates to them. And increasingly there isn’t even a governing body to stand up for the interests of the individual school.