Warning that Norfolk schools could face cash squeeze
09:39 08 October 2012
Keith Whitmore +44 (0)7785 354701
Education funding reforms by the government are unfair to counties like Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and could “cause lasting damage” to small schools and deprived areas, it has been claimed.
Politicians from parties across Norfolk have united to call on ministers to review their plans for changes to the way money is distributed to primaries and secondaries.
Last night they said the government’s School Funding Reform proposals, which are supposedly the “next steps towards a fairer system”, had been created with urban-only areas in mind and did not take into account the needs of counties like Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
In response to the concerns raised by headteachers, governors and local councillors, Alison Thomas, county council cabinet member for children’s services, has written to education secretary Michael Gove.
In it she tells him his department’s attempts to simplify funding formulas and make the process more transparent will not lead to a fairer system for Norfolk.
She adds: “The over-simplicity of the schools block formula means that our ability to shape local education funding arrangements to reflect the diverse nature of communities has been severely restricted.
“In particular, this seems to have a significant effect on our small secondary schools and on those primary and secondary schools that serve more deprived parts of Norfolk.”
The county council’s concerns focus on three particular parts of the new funding arrangements:
Plans to have a single lump sum for all primary and secondary schools to support those who cannot survive on per-pupil funding alone. It is likely to mean small high schools in particular – like those in Norfolk’s rural areas – will lose out.
The need to set a single figure for per-pupil funding across primary schools which it believes will adversely affect those serving the youngest children and make it “difficult to provide the early intervention that remains an important part of early years education”.
The requirement to use specific measures of deprivation and prior attainment that are not capable of recognising the needs of schools in semi-rural and coastal areas where there are “localised pockets” of deprivation.
Speaking to the EDP, Mrs Thomas, pictured right, said the government seemed to think “it’s one size fits all or one pot will suit all” but she believes counties like Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which have a mix of urban and rural communities, will be poorly served by the changes.
She said: “It’s early days but I think, if it goes ahead as it is proposed, it will put some schools under considerable financial pressure.”
Her letter adds: “I recognise that a minimum funding guarantee will apply in the short term but I hope that you will be able to support a review of the new funding arrangements before unintended consequences cause lasting damage.”
That call has been echoed by the county’s politicians in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties.
Mervyn Scutter, children’s services spokesman for the Lib Dems, said the plans seemed based on an assumption that parents could choose where to send their children and, if one school closed, an alternative would be readily available. “In rural Norfolk that’s not the case,” he said.
Sue Whitaker, Labour spokesman, said: “Rural counties with small schools often tend to struggle to all be viable. This is effectively saying ‘we don’t want you to be viable’.
“There doesn’t seem to be any recognition that schools operate in rural areas.”
Green party leader and children’s services spokesman Richard Bearman said he believed schools in deprived areas like Mile Cross in Norwich would lose out just as much as a rural community like Terrington St Clement.
He said: “The problem I have is the imposition by government of very dictatorial rules which don’t allow us to take account of our particular circumstances.”
The councillors agreed the government’s funding reform would serve to undo the work by Norfolk County Council to secure the future of its small schools by encouraging more formal link-ups and all-through schools.
In her letter, Mrs Thomas also raises concerns about the impact the funding reform would have on school swimming pools. The plans would mean schools with pools no longer received funds directly to help maintain them but would rely on primary schools in their cluster voluntarily contributing part of their budget.
The letter has been sent to Mr Gove, education minister David Laws, and all of Norfolk’s MPs.
Last night Elizabeth Truss, MP for South West Norfolk and newly-appointed minister for early years education, pictured left, said school funding reform plans had yet to be finalised.
She added: “Under the previous government, schools in different parts of the country were getting wildly different levels of funding and the system was very complicated. The department for education is working to make the system fair for everyone and as simple as possible for parents and teachers to understand.”