School Funding: Stumbling Towards A Fairer System? Or Just Stumbling?

“Next Steps Towards A Fairer System” could have been the title of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s old manifesto because that’s what I wanted then too. Gove’s document will probably be more widely read (although less widely red…) but this strange and convoluted comparison does raise the question “Fair to who?” or “In whose interest?”. As usual the devil is in the detail. (Just as he was in the old manifesto…).

One of the very first questions I was asked to address when I was studying politics at university was “Does the Common Good Exist?” This was an invitation to look beneath the surface of policies and “economic realities” to perceive the class interests that might be promoted by any given policy.

So, School Funding Reform then. No politics there…

Are the proposals any good? Aside from being suspected as an attempt to divide learners currently in the SEN community between those whose special needs might arise from social disadvantage, less effective parenting or poor teaching in overfull classes (“High incidence low needs” – currently those on School Action or School Action Plus, apparently the undeserving poor) from those with needs arising from very severe and complex or otherwise undeniable disabilities and conditions (Low incidence high needs – those currently  Statemented or seemingly the deserving poor)? The answer must be maybe, for some, if everything falls into place. And that’s a very big IF.

Will they bring fairness for children with special educational needs? Will they keep parents and local authorities out of the High Court? Will they promote the development of appropriate new local educational provision? Will it be easier to find Further Education provision for students with learning difficulties and disabilities? Will they bring an end to post-code lotteries? Are they the best way of achieving those ends? Are they enough?

As always Mr Gove wants: “a system where taxpayers’ money intended for education goes directly to those schools responsible for delivering it” (read removed from any local democratic control through those pesky – expensive – professionals in the local education authorities)… “a system where good, popular schools find it easier to expand in response to demand from parents” (read a system the cynic would say is quietly fixed so sparkly new Academies with all their sparkly new funding opportunities can expand). At the same time the proposals will “maintain and improve the arrangements for equivalent and consistent funding between maintained schools and Academies. Hmmm!

The BIG Thing with evolution is that those most fit for the environment survive and reproduce. It’s an untidy environment. Evolution works. Respect it. This Government of the inevitably inexperienced and inexpert took one big lesson from Tony Blair: His one regret was that he didn’t change more in the first two years. He was too cautious (and much else). The inexpert rush in and change an evolved system at their peril. Look what happened to Connexions. And youth unemployment. Once again they threaten to disrupt locally evolved systems – and this time with a sort of genetically engineered system they want to localise decision-making.

The new funding proposal as it is to apply in all sectors apart from public schools seem to be based upon a “place plus” structure. All providers (including special schools and independent specialist colleges) will get basic funding of so much a place. On top of this “Core Funding” (Element  1) there will be “Additional Support Funding” (Element 2), a budget allocated to providers to provide additional funding for high needs pupils. Both these budgets will be directly under the control of the Head. “Top-Up Funding” (Element 3) to meet the needs of an individual high needs learner, based on their “assessed needs”. Element 3 will be a notional budget distributed to local authorities so they can commission provision and provide top-up funding to providers. The “assessed need” are likely to be those recognised as a result of the combined Health and Education assessment proposed in the Sarah Tether’s SEN Green Paper. So, the theory is that the funding – especially the individually commissioned Element 3 – will follow the learner from the early years to age 25, with no stops on the way.

For the learners I work with – mainly those with low incidence high needs – this all sounds very good indeed. I can’t help wondering if Mr Gove has actually read the document he’s written a Foreword to.  Schools and colleges will know how much funding they’ve got to spend on the children with special needs they might usually expect to accommodate. Local authorities will know how much they can spend on special provision or with existing  mainstream providers to get them to accept high needs students they don’t usually expect to accommodate and how much they can use to encourage the creation of new provision. Simples. But then this stuff won’t be happening in a vacuum…

It’s the policies elsewhere – outside the book – that really worry me. The expectation that teachers can teach the undeserving poor – the large mixed ability classes with those high incidence low needs pupils – without adequately paid learning support assistants, the idea that offering parents £100 parenting vouchers in Boots will somehow encourage the “responsible”, skilled parenting previously supported in SureStart Centres, the mistaken belief that a terminally reorganised Health Service will have the capacity to co-operate with cut-to-the-bone – sorry, “efficient”, local authority SEN departments to produce the new assessments, the idea that the software and infrastructure exists to give accurate predictions of numbers of learners, the likelihood that the pressure on local authorities not to provide too many statements will become pressure not to produce too many assessments, the increasing tendency of FE colleges to cautiously refuse a place to a student with SEN in case they get sued under the Equality Act when a placement falls down, the stupidity of government in trashing the careers of so many careers advisers in April when they will be needed in September etc. etc., rant rant…

Even for those learners with high needs, it is the amount in that notional budget that worries me. That and how individual local authorities will manage their budget. Inner city boroughs can count all they like but children with special educational needs are not parcels. They don’t ride on conveyor belts and arrive at predicted times in quality-assured condition. Sometimes they are born in the borough, sometimes they arrive at 16 or – worse – 17, sometimes they improve, sometimes their condition degenerates, sometimes their parents speak English, sometimes they don’t. The local authority will plan the use of its notional budget as carefully as it can. It will keep some back for contingencies and thus risk underspending on someone and still get it wrong. The budget is notional but if they ask for more they’ll find its all gone to the bankers or the replacement for Trident. Damn those Iranian North Koreans…

Sometimes, however you draw the system, it is all about the money. And we’ll be able to judge our government and our society by how much there is for these children.

Here’s a wager for you. I bet you all three funding Elements combined for any child with SEN will always cost less than the fees at Eton . The devil is in the detail.

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