STRIPPING THE NATIONALIST ALTAR
2 March 2011
Two of the tenets of nationalism here are that Cornwall is especially poor and that we are singled out for unfair funding of our public services by central government; and thus the annual announcements of central government funding of public services in England are often met with dispraise from some Cornish nationalists (and some nationalist-lite Libdems). I think the beliefs are wrong and have regularly disputed them on the blog. I have recently given a positive reading of the latest healthcare funding for Cornwall; I added the relevant Cornwall figures for schools funding without comment to the regular Cornwall data post with, as usual, a link to the source data. I have also responded positively to local government settlements for Cornwall in previous years.
Now I am going to explain why I think the lamentations are misplaced, using the education funding for 2011/12 as a starting point.
Yes, the average per pupil funding for Cornwall is lower than for most education authorities in England – and a higher funding than others, as measured by the guaranteed unit of funding (GUF) data. Note here (the GUFS 2011-12 file) that in 2011/12 the average per pupil funding for Leicestershire will be less than for Cornwall; in fact it will be lower than for Cornwall in seventeen local education authorities. In the current financial year a patient in Buckinghamshire primary care trust area receives less than one in Cornwall. In some areas people receive less per capita funding for both education and healthcare than in Cornwall – Cornwall outgrievanced.
How are schools in England financed?
It might be useful to explain here very briefly and broadly how schools in England are financed. Briefly and broadly, because school funding is too complex to be explained fully here and governments tend to change the details. It can be seen as a two stage process. The vast majority of school funding comes through the dedicated schools grant (DSG), next financial year taking in various other grants. This grant comes from central government and is paid not to individual schools but to local education authorities like Cornwall council. How much DSG each authority gets is decided by a funding formula which I shall look at in the next sections. The local education authority retains some of the money for central services and distributes the rest to schools, applying local filters of priority such as need. Some money is assigned directly by central government to schools.
Different amounts for different needs
Why are some education authorities (and indeed schools and pupils) funded at a higher level than others? Because central government tries, imperfectly, to match circumstances and funding. Circumstances among education authorities and pupils differ; hence funding differs. The education department’s consultation document on the formula for deciding who gets what rightly says this “should reflect that different pupils need different levels of support and that different areas will have different cost pressures” (Executive summary in the 2010 Consultation on the future distribution of school funding).
I say ‘rightly’. I think that the notion of fair funding demands this; it is the core value underpinning the funding process. These differences in funding are intended to reflect differences in needs and costs. Recognising different levels of need matters: for example, there is an association between social deprivation and educational underachievement.
Does anyone seriously challenge the rightness of trying to match circumstances and funding, this core principle? It’s how we try to redistribute public money at present. I assume complaints about perceived unfair funding are not challenging match-the-circumstances as a principle for distributing public funds but rather are claiming that recipients collectively in Cornwall experience objectively unfair funding, the funding they receive not being matched with their comparative collective circumstances, their needs and the costs of providing the services. However, nationalist complaints largely focus on broad comparisons between the funded authorities and do not appear to critique the formulas on which the funding is based, their components and weightings for example, and do not deal with the difference in funding for individual schools. Such an analysis is necessary for any objective case to stand.
Some authorities who receive the lowest allocation of funding have formed a lobby, f40, against what they see as unfair funding and you can read here (Arguments for a fairer funding system for education, March 2009) a serious critique of the present allocation system. This is the sort of detailed approach Cornish nationalism should take if it wishes its case to be heard.
Fair funding is not simply a Cornwall matter as the above paragraph shows. It would be an odd, and I think unacceptable, view of fairness that focused only on a part and disregarded the rest, on Cornwall and disregarded the rest of England and Britain. I have indicated that other places in England are more deprived than anywhere in Cornwall – see the Index of multiple deprivation – and others receive less per capita revenue funding for education and health, for example, than Cornwall, and others claim they receive unfair funding: a full view of fair funding has to recognise that and see Cornwall in context.
Cornwall, free school meals, and school funding
We have data not only for local authorities but for individual schools; in January the Education department published the per pupil GUF funding for each maintained individual school in England for 2009/10. Read the details here – Cornwall’s reference number is 908 in the primary and secondary schools tables. Note the different levels of funding within Cornwall; how different schools in Cornwall get vastly different per pupil amounts. Comparisons between local authorities do not tell the whole story.
The primary and secondary data of per pupil funding by grant income that I have noted above divides schools in three groups, high, medium, or low, according to the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (high means the highest proportion of eligible pupils). Means-tested free school meals are a proxy for deprivation. In each group the median average per pupil funding for Cornwall primary schools collectively is greater than the England median for each of the three groups (excluding London schools which have additional funding to compensate for additional costs). All Cornwall secondary schools are in the low group and their collective median average funding exceeds the England median (excluding London) for secondary schools in the low group. It is detail like this that should caution against simplistic claims of unfair funding.
Free school meals are not the only component making up school funding of course but I think this data shows in relation to free school meals that funding is broadly matched to need.
What is fair funding?
I have explained above that I think fair funding is matching public funds to circumstances. The 2010 consultative document puts it admirably: we “must recognise that the concept of ‘fairness’ does not mean that everyone will get the same. Instead it must reflect that our economy and geography means that different areas have different cost pressures, and that different pupils need different levels of support in order to help them achieve” ( paragraph 1.11). Arguments recognises (paragraph 5.3) that there are higher staffing costs in London, for example.
Belief that one is unfairly treated and is special is common. As Matthew Taylor gently self-mocked in the education debate he initiated: “…there is no member of Parliament who does not believe their constituency is unfairly disadvantaged in comparison to others” (Hansard 2 February 2010 column 71WH). In a debate about local government funding in 2007 John Healey, the minister, ironically said of local lamentations: “…every council regards itself as uniquely disadvantaged by central government funding decisions, and every council has a special case unique to its circumstances” (Hansard 6 December 2007, column 990). I remarked recently in this post on the Parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill in the Lords that Chris Rennard had commented that there was virtually no limit to the number of places regarding themselves as special cases.
How are the funding amounts arrived at?
The distribution of public funding by central government among education authorities is not an arbitrary or random process but a thoughtful one and anyone can scrutinise and interrogate the various workings. The importance of circumstances has been mentioned in the previous section. The 2010 consultation document on school funding is an excellent account of the various criteria and in the recent consultation the government asked for comments on the components that make up the schools grant/funding.
Is the Cornish nationalist case that these departmental workings include elements that are wrongly included or assessed or omit elements that should be included? That the weightings are wrong? That – whatever. As I have said above, let us hear a robust case with a detailed critique.
Does more spending work?
Let me raise one difficult question. Does more general pupil spending improve educational achievement? It appears not though I think more research is required and need-targeted spending is a different issue. Look at the data for per pupil spending and GCSE results in individual schools. Read the analysis made February 2011 in A statistical analysis of secondary school spending which also provides an accessible table of per pupil spending and results.
If there is a lack of correlation of spending and results, what is the educational reason for the complaint about Cornwall’s share of spending? Where is the contrary evidence that pupils in Cornwall are achieving less because of perceived less general educational funding?
Fundamental error in approach to funding
I think nationalism makes a fundamental error in its criticism of the county’s public funding from central government for services like health and education.
Aggregate countywide or even districtwide data hides variety too much, though sometimes it is the only data available and thus we have to use it despite its limitations. Anyone who lives here is well aware that there are poor and prosperous places in Cornwall, even deprived and wealthy streets in the same town. As I have repeatedly said in posts on the blog, we can identify the locations in Cornwall, and in education the individual schools, where there is serious deprivation and poverty. For the schools the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals is a reasonable proxy for poverty, though paragraph 4.12 in Arguments offers caveats. We should be looking to focus help on these pupils and places, we should be pressing for more help for where it is needed most.
Although I have tended to stress social deprivation, it is of course not the only component of need. For example, there is a focus on pupils with special education needs to ensure the schools they are in get proper funding for them. To a very large extent meeting the varied needs is already done through the thoughtful national and local distribution formulas but the approach should be advanced much further. The Tory-Libdem pupil premium, with all its imperfections, is basically a right approach in looking to a pupil in need of additional support rather than seeing funding on the basis of only a county. Above a base for all schools, we should centre funds on the pupil and the school he attends.
Look at the range of results for different schools in Cornwall for GCSE examinations. Look at the range in the data from the health observatory for the old districts of Cornwall and the maps of the subwards in those districts. Of course, acknowledging sizable internal differences and seeking to focus on pupil need where it is greatest will diminish a sense that Cornwall is an undifferentiated and uniform county/duchy/crown dependency/kingdom/extraterritorial whatever and heighten a realisation that “Cornwall” is many places, there are many Cornwalls, and people’s experience of life here very much differs one from the other.
Recast the argument
Nationalism should abandon the nonsense of its grievance agenda and recognise the complex reality revealed by the various measures and comparators of deprivation and prosperity and costs and school spending – the comparative data on eligibility for free school meals, imperfect as it is, should be a mandatory primer; a brief comparative glance at the eligibility for free school meal percentages for schools in Durham and in Cornwall would be an instructive starting point. The narrow nationalist argument should be recast. Strip away from the nationalist altar the vessels full of notions that we are a county that is picked on, done down, unfairly funded, uniquely poor. Throw down those beliefs. See Cornwall in context; engage with all the evidence, especially the evidence of the correlation between deprivation and poor educational achievement; recognise the fine detail data and the limitations of a focus on the county; critique the funding formulas; and develop a case that identifies need and its location and ways of getting funds and other resources to support those needs wherever they are in England.
Rurality as a component in public funding is a legitimate concern for Cornwall. For health funding read the Report of the advisory committee on resource allocation (December 2008) which shows how seriously the task of the fair distribution of public funds is taken. Last year the former Libdem MP Matthew Taylor initiated an informed debate on the impact of rurality and small schools in education, focusing on Cornwall: Hansard 2 February 2010 columns 65WH-72WH. In 2010 of 272 maintained schools in Cornwall 196 were classed as rural: DEP 2010-2245 of 9 December 2010.
Rural needs in school funding are discussed in paragraphs 4.14, 4.19, and section here.
These show the factors in assessing education funding for the education authorities and pupils and healthcare
School finance (England) Regulations 2011. Part 3 sets out formulas for LEAS to use for school budgets.
Primary care trusts: funding and expenditure (House of Commons Library).
Read this interesting inselberg post: Is Cornwall really poor?